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 April, 2012

NYSUT Delegates Say Enough is Enough!

I’ve just returned from the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) convention in Buffalo. While in recent years state conventions have served to depress me, for the first time in a long time, I’m encouraged by what happened at this union gathering.

First of all, the delegates unanimously supported a resolution demanding an end to the current state testing system, a system that is thwarting real education and evaluation and one embarrassingly prone to serious error, the recent pineapple fiasco simply a well publicized example of seriously flawed exams. Not only did we demand an end to testing as we know it, but we additionally called for the building of coalitions with other groups concerned with quality education to end the damage these flawed tests are inflicting on the students we serve. In short, we are poised to return to our organizing roots, using our numbers to advantage against our well heeled opposition. The delegates that I spoke to seemed excited at the prospects this effort could bring. They looked forward to beginning the organizing work at home, work which they hope will bring some hope to their dispirited teachers who increasingly are having their teaching turned to test prep. I could sense an energy that has been lacking for some time.

Tomorrow I’ll talk about the second encouraging thing to happen at the convention, the appearance of Commissioner John King and the reaction of the delegates to his presence.

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The Language of Reform

I’m increasingly perplexed by the language of the school reformers, finding it more and more difficult to understand what they are talking about. Here in New York, educators are engaged in discussions of “the dosage” students get of a particular subject by a particular teacher. This is said to be necessary to ascribe growth scores to teachers as part of their yearly evaluations. It seems to me that the words people choose give us some insight to the way in which their minds work. The State Ed bureaucrat who coined this term analogizes the act of receiving instruction to taking a dose of medicine when one is ill. Shouldn’t that cause us to wonder why such an obviously ignorant person is engaged in making education policy?

It may surprise some of my readers to learn that public school administrators are being trained at great expense to look for “artifacts” to the value teachers ad to their students. (Hum! Value added. There’s another peculiar term to talk about education.) I always thought I knew what artifact meant and was therefore nonplussed at what that term could possibly have to do with the evaluation of teachers. It can’t be that administrators will now be looking for creations of earlier peoples or civilizations. That wouldn’t make any sense. It can’t be that the reformers are talking about the accidental effect of something which causes incorrect results, as in, The results of the standardized test were skewed owing to an artifact in its administration. Or could it be? Probably not.

How about the state’s Office of Great Teachers and Leaders? Just what the hell might that be? It has something to do with The Race to the Top, yet another completely meaningless expression. The top of what? Why is education a race? My imagination conjures up a picture of a group of self-appointed jackasses who sit around a huge conference table in our august State Ed building in Albany telling each other what great teachers they were and lamenting how few, if any, measure up to their greatness. That’s probably not so though, but it can’t be that we have an office in Albany staffed with people who believe that they can make great teachers by issuing some rules or regulations. A more appropriate name for this outfit might better be be Office of Great Fools. Such an office in our State Ed department would be understood by every teacher in this state.

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Casting Pineapples

If as I believe the recent Pineapple and the Hare fiasco is representative of a state education department run amuck and a commissioner clueless about the needs of the schools in New York, what if every teacher in the state sent Dr. King a pineapple as an indicator of their contempt for his management of State Ed. That would be a protest worth of Saul Alinsky.

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You Can’t Make This….Up

So you’ve been thinking I’ve been going off the deep end with my criticism
of standardized testing and data driven teacher accountability. Yesterday’s 8th grade ELA exam subjected students to series of reading comprehension questions based on a thoroughly senseless story The Pineapple and the Hare. I ask you to take a few minutes and follow this link to the story. If I summarized it, you would think me guilty of rhetorical excess.

Teachers report that the following were two of the questions 8th graders were asked to answer:

Why did the animals eat the pineapple?
a. they were annoyed
b. they were amused
c. they were hungry
d. they wanted to

Who was the wisest animal?
a. the hare
b. the moose
c. The crow
d. The owl

This is but one example of the kind of stupidity being inflicted on our children in the name of raising academic standards and accountability. This year, the teachers of these children will be evaluated in part on the results of their students on exams like this. Both are being victimized by the enemies of public education and their corporate testmaker friends who are bent on destroying public education as we have known it.

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Moral Bankruptcy

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
Voltaire (1694-1778)

As I sat yesterday listening to three school central office administrators, I found my mind turning to this quotation. I was listening to them talk about the training they are receiving under the new Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) law which they claim will have administrators’ roles in supervision changing dramatically. Where once they watched teachers teach through the lens of a developed professional judgment, polished with considerable years of teaching experience, that judgment is to now be suspended, they maintained, in favor of the collection of evidence that the teacher being observed does all of the things called for in the performance rubric being used. So students may be thoroughly engaged in the lesson, there may be serious academic content present, but should there not be evidence of the use of technology, or a failure to differentiate instruction, or a perceived lack of participation by one or more students, or some other evidence of some irrelevant detail, it is altogether possible that the teacher will be seen as ineffective. When I suggested that given that observers no longer are required to exercise any professional judgment it would be only proper for their pay to be reduces since they will be performing a clerical chore, they looked at me astounded. When I inquired how they could possibly participate in such an absurdity, they claimed they had no choice. That’s what they are required to do. They were clearly angry when I suggest that they were employing the Nuremburg defense, where Nazi leaders maintained that they were simply following orders.

Experiences like the one I had yesterday increasingly lead me to the conclusion that most of our schools districts are led by morally bankrupt individuals who know what they are being asked to do is absurd and even harmful but do it nevertheless. They simply follow orders.

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Why Finnish Schools Won’t Work in America

In a column this week in the Washington Post, Pasi Sahlberg, author of Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn About Educational Change in Finland?, focuses on why we can’t simply copy the Finnish education model with any real hope of success. His idea is simple, but its political ramifications are profound. The Finnish educational system is a vital component of their welfare state that provides child care, preschool, medical care, dental care and public education, all free through the university level. The driving idea behind their system is equity. The same amount of public funding stands behind every Finnish student. In short the Finns have a whole social infrastructure supporting the efforts of their schools and teachers. Sadly, we have nothing even approaching that anywhere in our country. There is no discussion of building an enlightened welfare state here. Our political parties battle over the right amount of funding to cut from social programs. Give Sahlberg’s article a read. You won’t be disappointed.

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Death and Tests

No death is perhaps as unsettling as that of a young person. Like few events, the passing of the young makes us feel our fragility in the marrow of our bones. Such deaths are often doubly unsettling to the young themselves, causing them to face their own mortality for the first time. Bereavement is in the air of our Plainview-Old Bethpage school community. Spencer Reis, a student at our Kennedy High School and Joseph Sadowski a Mattlin Middle School student both succumbed to cancer last week after protracted medical battles. Our thoughts are with their families.

Although grieving for their friend, students at Mattlin will, nevertheless, be asked to begin taking their state examinations today. Beyond any question, many will not perform optimally. How could they? That won’t matter a jot to the data driven drones in Albany who will have their data on the Mattlin Middle school and its teachers. No one there will know or care about the story behind the data.

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The Teacher Union Straw Man

The Wall Street Journal reports that at a private fundraising event in Florida, Mitt Romney, the apparent Republican nominee for President, vowed to shrink the size of the U.S. Department of Education and stand up to the teachers unions, inventing, as he so often does, a straw man to be knocked down. “The unions will put in hundreds of millions of dollars,” Mr. Romney said. “There’s nothing like it on our side.”

First of all almost no one has any trouble standing up to the teacher unions these days. Across the country, at the state, local and national levels, all public sector unions are being rolled over by Democratic and Republican politicians who have found in them a convenient and docile blame-catchers for the nation’s economic problems. Then, the notion that our unions will be raising hundreds of millions of dollars for the Obama campaign is just typical of Romney’s ability to utter the most outrageous falsehoods. For the past week he’s been trying to convince women that Republicans would be better friends, falsely alleging that they have borne a disproportionate share of the job losses in our economic crisis. Now it’s the hundreds of millions of dollars teacher unions will arise against him. Would that we could raise those kinds of dollars to crush disreputable liars like Romney.

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Look at What the One Percenters Are Up To Now

If we needed further evidence of the drive of the one percent crowd to push their corporate style education reforms and diminish or destroy the teacher unions, a report in Tuesday’s New York Times gives us the latest example of what defenders of public education are up against. Frightened that the end of Michael Bloomberg’s term may give the UFT, the New York City teachers union, an opportunity to gain some political traction and reverse some of the lunacy that’s been inflicted on the city’s schools by Joel Klein and his successor, a New York City branch of Students First, Michelle Rhee’s cash cow, is being formed with the goal of raising 10 million dollars a year for the next five years to wage their warfare on public education and union teachers. We’ve seen first hand how cities like New York and Washington D.C. have served as the incubators of ideas that have weakened public education, robbed teaching of any semblance of professionalism and made the goal of education test passing rather than learning. We dare not think that this will be a problem only for City teachers. These people want us all gone. There is no working with them.

I will resume blogging on April 16. Happy holidays to all my readers.


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Nothing New

Some of my readers were disturbed by John Hildebrand’s distortion of my post on the appointment of Lorna Lewis as the new Superintendent of the Plainview-Old Bethpage Schools. Readers unfamiliar with my piece would rightfully think from Hildebrand’s reporting that, true to the “confrontational” style of our union’s leadership, my purpose was to challenge Dr. Lewis even before she was on the job. One would never know from Hildebrand’s article that the central thrust of my words was to lament the current condition of public education and to observe that many of the exuberant hopes that people in the school community seem to have for her leadership, will prove illusory in world in which teachers are branded public enemy number one by those who are bent on privatizing our schools.

I’ve come to expect nothing better from Hildebrand. I long ago stopped taking his calls, having learned that I could count on being misrepresented. I also no longer subscribe to his newspaper, a tabloid hostile to working people and their unions.

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Bullying Epidemic?

For some time, I been increasingly concerned about the disconnect between today’s parents’ fears for their children’s safety and the fact that children today are objectively safer than they have ever been. In my neighborhood, I watch parents drive their children to the bus stop, waiting with them for the bus to arrive. Our schools all have locked doors, even though in the forty years that I have worked in them, there has not been a single intrusion. Children’s live are increasingly scheduled, often with appointments with various service providers who take care of everything from English tutoring to karate lessons, the latter often chosen to provide self protection. In this era of over-protective parents, the so-called helicopter generation, it should not have been surprising that the perception grew that we are experiencing an epidemic of bullying among the young, bullying being defined as almost anything from name calling to physical violence or the threat thereof. I’ve watch uneasily as anti-bullying laws have been passed and as schools have adopted carelessly drawn anti-bullying policies that fail to distinguish normal misbehavior from menacing conduct, laws and policies that have significant enforcement costs in time and money but which to my mind offer little in return. Yes, there is what we would all agree is bullying. It’s our response to it that concerns me.

With these concerns in mind, I stumbled upon Nick Gillespie’s article on the subject in The Wall Street Journal. It’s a must read. You may not agree with all of his conclusions, but I think you will agree our society is not dealing with the issue of bullying rationally.

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Hope Springs…

Tonight our board of education will appoint a new superintendent of schools, Dr. Lorna Lewis, who will take office on July 1. As I have witnessed too many times, the laypeople on the board are filled with excitement, a new superintendent always offering the hope of great future things for the district. So much hope and emotion expended on the hiring of one person who is naively believed, through some arcane power, to be able to unlock the potential of our district for greatness. I suppose their hopes are not completely impossible to achieve, but, having seen such hopes dashed in much better economic times, times in which communities supported their teachers, I’m left to wonder how long this honeymoon will last. That’s not to say I’m not open to being surprised. It’s just that the challenges are so great, and the support to meet those challenges so wanting. We live in a time of the search for magical solutions to our education problems. If only we had a great teacher in front of every class. If we only get the right superintendent. If we only purchase the right program. If we only infuse the curriculum with technology. If we only had a merit pay system to reward the good teachers. If we only had more parental choice as to where we send our children to school. If we just used data to drive our instruction. If…if…if. Until these magician’s tricks are revealed as slights of hand, public education will continue its downward spiral.

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