A Teachable Moment

Former local teacher union pesident Morty Rosenfeld periodically attempts to make sense of the increasingly senseless world of public education.

Archive for March, 2012

Two Tier Tuition?

Community college enrollments have increased dramatically during our recent economic difficulties, as more and more students seek cost effective ways to earn the first two years of college, while others disenchanted by the high unemployment rates of college graduates seek to develop technical skills in hope of earning a living. Long the higher education of last resort to the poor, these schools are coming under increasing pressure to meet the needs of all who demand their services.

How shocking, therefore, to read this morning that Santa Barbara Community College in California, faced with massive cuts to its state aid in recent years, has announced a two tier tuition system. Courses which are in high demand will carry higher tuition charges, thereby surely shutting out some students who can’t afford to pay and who will therefore not be able to meet their graduation requirements. Slowly but surely, just as happened with its public schools, the anti-tax environment is destroying one of the finest state college systems in our country. I find it difficult that Governor Jerry Brown will allow this outrage to happen. If this tuition plan succeeds, how long will it be before our New York community colleges, themselves under great pressure, feel themselves forced to try this revenue enhancing tuition plan?

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Never Discount Stupidity…..

If there is a statement or idea I’m know for, it is, “Never discount stupidity as the cause of your problem.” I have recourse to it on almost a daily basis, as I negotiate my way through the contemporary world of public education. In recent days, it has been particularly useful as an answer to the myriad questions I’m asked about the new APPR law, the law which now governs teacher evaluation in New York State. How is it fair to evaluate teachers on the basis of student tests that have not been designed to measure teacher performance? Never……… Why has the state said that it is impermissible to take student attendance into account when counting their scores against a teacher’s performance? Never……….

The question unnerving teachers since the passage of the law is, “Will my evaluation score be made public?” Unless and until the law in New York is changed, these scores will be available to the public, as stupid as that fact is. Think of the chaos to come absent a shield law. Objectively meaningless numbers will take on a life of their own as a new kind of grade grubbing comes into being, as parents try to get the teacher with the highest score for their children. Once one believes the scores have meaning, it is perfectly logical that parents will want to secure “the best” teachers for their kids. Who will want the effective 80% teacher when there are highly effective ones of 90% or better in a school? It’s truly hard to imagine a more elegantly insane idea for boosting the performance of public schools. But I have never discounted ……… For those who wish to help change the law, you can fax a letter to your legislators and the Governor by clicking here.

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Think You’ve Heard It All?

In my unending search to make sense of the contemporary American public education scene, I regularly check in with Valerie Strauss, whose Answer Sheet blog is usually interesting and thought provoking. Her guest blogger today, Sharon Higgins, not only immediately caught my interest, but I still can’t quite believe what I read. If I told you that a secretive Turkish religious sect has used the charter school laws of this country to build a network of 135 schools that promote Turkish culture and the teachings of Fethullah Gulen , a Turkish preacher, you would be convinced that I had absorbed some wildly stupid idea from the New York State Education Department and had finally succumbed, a sort of anaphylactic allergic response to educationist stupidity. But that’s exactly what Higgins says has happened. What other school networks are out there, financed with tax dollars? When you think you’ve heard it all….

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Occupy Dep’t of Ed

For those who think it’s impossible to build a coalition to oppose and defeat test driven education reform, look at what United Opt Out has planned for this coming weekend in Washington. Billed as a legal Occupy the Department of Education, it sounds more like the teach-ins of my day, at which people gather around an issue of concern and exchange ideas on what needs to be done. One way or another, it is the latest example of a growing dissatisfaction of teachers and parents with testing mania. Conspicuously absent from this teach-in are America’s two great teacher unions, AFT and NEA.

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Burnout or Demoralization?

A recent article in NEA Today, a publication that I confess to rarely reading, draws an important distinction between teacher burnout and demoralization. I suspect that much of what is uncharitably chalked off to burnout is upon closer examination better understood as demoralization. Burnout we learn is when one is overwhelmed by the demands of his teaching assignment, his psychic resources used up, when the job sucks the marrow out of one’s bones. Demoralization, while often carrying with it the same symptoms of fatigue, depression, anger etc., stems from an erosion of the pleasure one gets from his work, when what the article refers to as the “moral rewards” of the job are no longer attainable.

The remedy for burnout is a psycho-therapeutic regime of some kind. While this article in a union newspaper ironically doesn’t offer a remedy for demoralization, it seems to me the clear magic bullet is power, power to control one’s work, to collaboratively make decisions about what constitutes the good practice of teaching. That power is what unions have historically offered.

Either our teacher unions will stand up to those who are demoralizing our nation’s teachers by increasingly mechanizing their work with corporate developed programs and technology, or the moral rewards of a teaching career will continue to vanish. Just this morning, I have spoken to two more teachers who are seriously talking about packing in their distinguished careers because they don’t recognize themselves in their own classrooms anymore. “I don’t feel like a teacher any more.” And that’s happening in a school district with a union that continues to fight back. Imagine what’s happening in too many other places.

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Leadership and Hope

Yesterday, after a speech I gave at one of our schools, a member came up to me and thanked me for offering her some hope that the conditions of teachers could be improved. The hope I offered the group was that I was working with others in both labor, management and the parents of school age children to push back against the scourge of testing and the idiotic accountability schemes that have emerges both here and across the country that are tied to these so-called high-stakes tests. This is a hope that I’ve been planting and nurturing everywhere I go.

The members of our education unions are hungry for some hope. When it’s offered, you can see the surprised look in their eyes, so few of their leaders have offered them any in recent times.

I don’t know exactly how to understand what has happened to our teacher union movement that it’s leadership and staff seem incapable of offering our membership hope. Every meeting I attend makes me crave anti-depressant medication, as I listen to people tell me that the world has changed, how our newer members are not interested in fighting for their rights, how they find things like merit pay attractive, they support the property tax cap, negative, negative , negative. No one seems to know any more that a good union meeting ends with a call to action, an action pregnant with the hope that if we just get our ourselves organized around a noble idea, there is little that we can’t accomplish – that we don’t have to make concession after concession – that our members young and old will fight in a good cause if they’re given the hope that they can succeed.

Our movement took on, at great odds, the right to bargain collectively. We battled those who swore to fire us when we struck. We endured fines, imprisonment and the scorn of many in the public who objected to our demands to be treated with dignity. We were led by leaders who called us to undertake difficult things, leaders who gave us the confidence to think that we could do them. And we did them. From hope, we grew stronger.

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Nothing To Be Proud of Albany

I’m back from two days in Albany. While I never find the twice yearly lobbying trip uplifting, this year’s was particularly depressing.

As teacher unionists, we were all pumped with anger over the passage of a Tier VI to the public employee retirement systems, and each of the legislators who voted for the new tier in the meetings I attended was asked to justify his vote. The answers we received could only increase one’s contempt for those who represent us. Democrats and Republicans – the line was the same. “The public is demanding these kinds of changes because they are suffering. We all know when times are better we’ll begin to fix this tier just like we fixed Tiers III and IV so that nobody gets hurt in the end.” What was even more nauseating is that some of these rationalizations were made by elected representatives who themselves are in Tier I – leaders who do not have to have any fears about their own retirement security. Pared down to its essence, our leaders’ message is, “We know that the creation of Tier IV makes no sense. We know that it will cause real concern for the retirement security of future public employees. We know it will reduce their take-home wages and their ability to provide for their families, but we had to do it anyway. It is a popular thing to do.” What courageous leadership! When you consider that they did this as part of a deal to set the voting district boundaries to protect incumbents, their cowardice is even more revolting.

If there is any good news it is that Governor Cuomo’s plan to distribute some state aid through competitive grants seems to be headed for defeat. It’s an outrageously stupid idea that’s patterned of the Race to the Top program that also attempts to insert divisive competition into the delivery of a public service that depends on cooperation and collaboration. Let’s hope this defeat comes to pass and that it begins a long process of defeats for the most anti-labor governor we have had in my memory.

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Working People Take Another Hit

Yesterday was another sad day for working people in New York State. At the instigation an anti-labor Governor Cuomo, the legislature cut a craven deal to exchange the retirement security rights of future public employees for and agreement on the boundaries of assembly and state senate districts. Make no mistake about it. Those who voted for the so-called Tier VI legislation put their own interests ahead of the welfare of the future public employees of our state. Sad to say, only Assemblymen Dean Murray (3rdAD), Philip Ramos (6th AD), Andrew Raia (9th AD), Joseph Saladino (12th AD) and David McDonough (19th AD) had the backbone to vote against this completely unnecessary legislation. That 55% of the Democrats in the Assembly voted to support the Democratic Governor’s exploitation of anti-public worker sentiment in our nation is but the latest evidence of the faltering of the Democratic Party’s support for working people. At their best, the Democrat’s are like the liberal Republican’s of my youth. While many of us yearn for the days of Bill Clinton, we forget that he essentially governed like what we used to call a Rockefeller Republican. It is only in the existence of candidates Romney, Santorum, Gingrich and Paul who create the illusion that the Democrats are a pro-labor party. They aren’t, but they’re all we have at them moment.

Don’t look for me on the 19th and 20th. I’m off to Albany to give some of the jerks who passed this law a piece of my mind.

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Cuomo A Child Advocate?

While I try my best to capture the thoughts and feelings of people who work in public education in this blog, a letter to Governor Cuomo by Chris Ripley, a music teacher in Plainview-Old Bethpage, came my way. For me, it captures the anger and frustration I hear from our members daily. Here it is. I should note that it was written before the passage of the Governor’s Tier VI retirement legislation that will make the lives of public workers even worse.

Dear Governor Cuomo,
As a band teacher in the Plainview-Old Bethpage school district, I confess to being on the periphery of the classroom. Nonetheless, I do spend lunch with my classroom teacher colleagues and I wish to make a comment regarding your relatively recent statement that no one is advocating for children. I must say that I am insulted that the Governor of our State would make such a patently untrue and inflammatory comment so flippantly. These are words uttered by a man who obviously has no clue what prevails in the minds of the teachers that I come in contact with every day. I’m referring to people who would do anything for their students to enable them to succeed and the methods that they are attempting to use to reach those students is, more often than not, at the forefront of our conversations. I would also like to say that the “fixes” that you and your underlings have devised thus far are poorly thought out and are tantamount to trying to shoot a quail with a rocket-propelled grenade. Perhaps you and your ivory-tower comrades should come and have lunch with us someday too! Then, perhaps, we can get into a serious discussion of exactly what our students that you are allegedly advocating for really need!
Chris Ripley

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Maybe We Can Save Our Schools

For those who were skeptical about my proposal that the way to deal with the abject stupidity and unfairness of the APPR law, I offer the following anecdotal evidence to buttress my case that there exists the real potential to build a grand coalition to stop the testocracy from assessing our kids out of an authentic education.

Last evening, our local union showed the movie Race to Nowhere to an audience of parents. The movie is an increasingly popular documentary with a distinct point of view – that our schools foster a worship of grades, test scores and resume building among the young to the point where our children are being robbed of their childhoods and many are pressured to the point of physical and emotional illness. The movie was followed by a panel discussion among two teachers, three high school students and two parents, after which the audience engaged the panel.

I began the panel discussion by asking whether the movie held up a mirror to Plainview-Old Bethpage. That was all the motivation the panel and the audience needed to embrace the issues posed by the film. While no two speakers had identical points of view, there quickly emerged a consensus that the ever-growing testing regime in New York is antithetical to sound education and that people who understand this, from whichever constituency in education, must come together to work politically to force our leaders in Albany to change the laws and regulations that have brought this testing nightmare upon us. I’ve been asking everyone I know with an interest in education whether we are up to the challenge of saving our public schools. My confidence that we can do so grew a little bit after my experience last evening.

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Ravitch to Duncan – You’re Ineffective

In her latest piece in the New York Review of Books, Diane Ravitch turns the table on Arne Duncan, subjecting his tenure in office to assessment through the lens of her performance rubric. Duncan’s report card? Straight Fs.

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The Spring Madness Is Upon Us

I spoke at one of our district’s elementary schools this morning. While I was waiting for my time to speak, I listened as the staff talked about the upcoming state assessments, tests that have a greater significance since they were legally tied to the evaluation of teachers. “I’m logging all the times kids are pulled form my class for either math or ELA (English language arts),” one teacher says in a tense voice. “Why is the district giving the Acuity tests right before the state assessments? That’s two days of instruction missed,” another adds. “There are too many music programs,” I hear amidst the din that is nervously developing. Many teachers are publicly verbalizing their anxieties about the impending tests. They just blurt out their concerns. Once again, I’m a witness to the astringent effect the state testing regimen is having on our school program. This can only grow worse.

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Get the Testing Under Control

I attended a meeting of Long Island teacher union leaders the other day, a meeting focused on the recent deal on teacher evaluation (APPR) cut between the State Education Department, our state union (NYSUT) and the Governor. The agreement expressed in draft legislation attempts clarify ambiguities in a similar law passed in 2010.

All of the leaders expressed anger at the idea that teachers will now be evaluated in part on the basis of their students’ scores on state and local assessments. All appeared hungry to fight back against what they see is an inaccuracy-riddled, degrading evaluation process.

While I couldn’t agree more that we have to fight back, the question is how to go about doing so. I believe that a frontal assault on the APPR is difficult, unless we are willing to think about mass civil disobedience in supports of our push-back. The simple reality is that we are unfortunately not well organized enough to realistically think about such measures.

The way to attack the new evaluation process is to attack the testing mania that birthed it. There is a natural coalition to be formed to save our schools (SOS – I like that.) from the deadening, debilitating effect that so-called high stakes tests have had. In my district, they have even caused a perfectly fine school to be labeled a School in Need simply because all of our self-contained special education students are housed there, their scores triggering this designation.

Teachers hate these tests. Ditto building administrators and central office leaders. Parents are increasingly wondering why their children are going to school to do what is increasingly becoming test prep work, their kids coming home with hours of homework, given, I fear, by teachers to ensure that their students do very well on these tests. If my analysis is correct, there is a whole lot of righteous anger to be organized against these tests, and our unions are the logical organizations to form the coalition and lead the charge. When we get the testing under control, we can have a saner conversation about teacher evaluation.

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Teacher Job Satisfaction Declining Study Says

The yearly MetLife Survey of the American Teacher has been published, and surprise, surprise. American public school teachers are less satisfied with their careers. With budget cuts and tax caps leading to lay offs, wage stagnation, with the reformist testocracy measuring their performance on the test results of their students, with their class time increasingly taken up with preparation for the tests that will have more impact on their fate than on their students’, with bogus statistics about their performance published in local newspapers, with the mainstream media stoking the fires of envy of their pensions and benefits, it’s really shocking to find their job satisfaction declining. What the survey doesn’t show is the seething anger in their ranks. A member of my union’s executive board expressed it to me humorously, but seriously the other day as she asked me to get our members a bumper sticker that says, “The bears are safe. It’s teacher season.”

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Ravitch Continues to Shine

While I try to dedicate my blog to my own thoughts, whenever I read a new piece by Diane Ravitch, I feel obligated to draw it to the attention of my readers. Her latest piece in the New York Review of Books begins with a thought that I have found myself expressing in talks with teachers and administrators. If teachers are to be graded, or degraded, on the basis of the performance of their students, then they would have to be crazy not to teacher to the tests, given their livelihoods depend on the scores their students achieve. Her piece also introduces a term apparently coined by the Finnish education minister – Global Education Reform Movement – acronym GERM. What a useful expression for the spread of the foolishness that passes for education policy these days. Give this piece a thoughtful read. You won’t be disappointed.

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Putting Faces on the Evaluation Fiasco

When something in the mainstream press expresses the frustration and humiliation public school teachers are feeling these days, I feel obliged to bring it to my readers’ attention. Michael Winerip of the New York Times has been writing with increasing awareness of the absurdity of tying student scores on state assessments to teacher evaluations. His piece today about the negative ratings of a Brooklyn school’s outstanding teachers is but the latest. It’s the first piece I’ve seen that attempts to put faces on the teachers who get screwed by the thoroughly invalid value-added evaluation process.

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Are We Up to the Task of Saving Public Education?

In some off-line responses to yesterday’s post, I was challenged to suggest an alternative course of action for the teacher labor movement to the attack on public education by so-called reformers. That’s certainly a fair request, so here goes.

The various constituencies that exist in the world of public education are as divided as they can possibly be, even though most agree that public education is endangered and that children are being tested to distraction while their exposure to a rich curriculum is getting narrower and narrower. As I see it, the issue for all of us who believe deeply in public education and the kind of society that it enables is are we up to the challenge of putting aside the issues that divide us to focus our united attention on retaking the public education agenda from those who use the Trojan horse of reform to undermine the very institution they claim to be seeking to fix?

If we are, we will find a way to bring together, union leaders, superintendents, building administrators, parents and all believers in public education in a grand coalition to push back against reforms that seek to evaluate teachers by giving them a public number rating and imprison children in schools that test-prep into permanent boredom through corporate produced programs that regiment teaching and learning – reforms that do nothing to address rising childhood poverty or school funding formulas that deprive some children of adequate educational resources.

Some preliminary conversations I have had with leaders from these constituencies encourages me to believe that such a coalition is possible. I will be having much more to say about this in future posts. For now, if you can see yourself playing a part in such an endeavor, be in touch.

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