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 May, 2012

Look Out Testocracy

Some of my colleagues have warned me that the high profile stance I’ve taken against the ways in which standardized are being used may well be tilting at windmills. They don’t see the possibility of defeating the politically powerful, moneyed interests behind the testing mania. I have countered that I have rarely seen a public education issue so uniting of parents, school administrators and teachers, an issue so clearly tied to the high moral ground of the welfare of children.

The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss, a very assertive critic of state standardized testing regimes, has done the cause of reining in the testocracy a great service with a blog- post summarizing the growing revolt against testing. Take a look at what is happening in this country as professionals and parents demand that policy makers come to their senses about testing.

To add to Strauss’ list, on June 5, teacher union leaders from across Long Island will be meeting to plan a fall strategy to oppose New York’s high stakes tests. Central to that strategy will be an outreach to parents and school administrators in Nassau and Suffolk counties in the hope of building a strong coalition to take on those who would measure authentic education our of existence. In undertaking this effort, these union leaders will be implementing a resolution of NYSUT, their state union, to bring about an end to New York’s current testing system.

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What’s Up With Commissioner King?

After listening to New York State Education Commissioner John King speak at our recent state union convention, I wrote about the story he told about his father insisting on teaching his students despite an order from his boss stay home until the cast on his injured arm was removed from his arm. The punch line of King’s story was his father shattering his cast on the school office counter and proceeding to his classroom. My response to his story was, “While I’m sure the Commissioner meant his story to convey a sense of his genetically determined will to see the policies of State Ed through, upon reflection, the story offered an insight into what in more appropriately dubbed fanaticism, a fanaticism in support of failed policies every bit as extreme in degree as his father’s breaking of his cast. Suddenly, his very smooth, articulate defense of the indefensible policies of State Ed made sense to me, scary though that sense may be.”

That fanaticism is again evident in a copy of a King letter I received to an official of the Buffalo NAACP. The Commissioner was responding to a letter from the NAACP essentially supporting the position of the Buffalo Teachers Federation to insist that students who are chronically absent from school should not be counted against the record of a teacher on the new Annual Professional Performance Review. While King’s letter draws a distinction between viewing student attendance as a factor in a teacher’s APPR and excluding a student completely from the evaluation, it’s the closing of his letter that grabbed my attention in the same unsettling way his speech to the convention did. His letter closes with, “For decades, Buffalo schools have offered discouragement instead of hope. I want to change that. Growing up in Brooklyn, there were countless times my teachers could have written me off because I was an urban African-American and Latino male or because my parents passed away and weren’t there to provide me with support. But my teachers didn’t write me off, and school became my refuge, a place that gave me the opportunity to grow and learn. I will not write off the students of Buffalo, even those struggling with chronic absenteeism. They deserve the same chances I had. The school district, administrators, teachers, families and the community must all take responsibility for working together to ensure that happens…”

This global indictment of the Buffalo school community is to say the least extreme. Knowing numerous members of the Buffalo Teacher Federation and their President Phil Rumore, I am shocked that the education leader of our state would write such a blatant falsehood. Does the commissioner know that there are schools in Buffalo that are by any measure as good as any in the state? How does he know that the teachers in Buffalo offer their student no hope? How could he know that? From test scores? Are they now to become the indicators of student hope? The fact is Commissioner King has no evidence whatsoever that the professionals in the Buffalo School are any less committed to the community’s children than his teachers were to him. If there are any people who do not write off the children of Buffalo, it is the dedicated professionals of the Buffalo schools who each day confront the brutally savage effects of the scourge of poverty on that city’s children. With very limited resources, they struggle to keep hope alive in these children, only to have their heroic endeavors crapped all over by an education commissioner whose answer to the problems of inner city public education is to blame teachers for social problems the society is unwilling to face. If he wants to talk about hope, Commissioner King ought to start thinking of offering some hope to the teachers of this state that the people in charge of public education in Albany have a clue.

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Teacher Still Waiting for Help From Albany

In the remaining days of the New York legislature’s session, nothing is of as great importance to the state’s teachers as a law to shield their Annual Professional Performance scores from the public and the press. Every legislator I spoke to claimed to understand the chaos to be caused by publication of the scores. Each talked about how crazy the whole new teacher evaluation system is. Yet, there is still not a sponsor in the senate of an assembly bill that would protect teachers from the public humiliation that is sure to occur absent the passage of legislation. What was clear from my talks is that if Governor Cuomo does not take the lead and demand that teachers be treated decently, no bill will pass. This is one of the many times in New York when the outcome is dependent of discussions between the Assembly Speaker, the Senate Majority Leader and our Governor. For the moment, Cuomo is positioned to have his will. My bet?. Teachers are unlikely to get the legislation they need. I’m beginning to believe that many in the legislature are looking forward to the chaos this new teacher evaluation system will cause. Then they will have an excuse to act. Right now, none of those cowards wants to touch the issue.

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Off to Albany to lobby for APPR privacy. Back on Wednesday.

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APPR – A Fool’s Crusade

This posting grows out of the frustration that attends every meeting I go to on Annual Professional Performance Reviews (APPR). My blood boils to think of the things that we could do with the money being spent on this idiotic attempt to reduce the art of teaching to a set of what are called performance indicators and test scores, all in the name of improving student performance. I submit that the millions being spent on this fool’s crusade would have greater impact on student learning if it went to making sure that all children have good nutrition, regular dental and medical visits, a permanent place to live, decent clothes, a chance to attend school with children of varied economic classes, the means to get to school daily, the opportunity to participate in wholesome after-school activities, and above all else, a belief that their world really cared about them. The time, money and effort being expended on this futile attempt at improving student performance is nothing short of scandalous.

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Study Finds the Obvious

It never ceases to amaze me how much education research confirms the obvious, at least what is obvious to teachers. Today we read in the New York Times that a new study shows that up to 15% of America’s school children are chronically absent and that this behavior correlates with poor school performance and failure to graduate from high school. That’s news to teachers. Both the study and the article on it do a public service, however, in drawing attention to how misleading school attendance statistics are that report average daily attendance. Such statistics can hide a small but significant number of children whose very poor school attendance is a threat to their future success. Having spent a significant portion of my teaching career working with chronically absent high school students in my district’s alternate education program, I know first hand the problems these children face and the power of school programs dedicated to helping them come to school more regularly. I hope Education Commission King reads the study and comes to his senses about counting the scores of chronically absent students against their teachers. As the director of the organization that funded this attendance study says, “There are so many efforts at school reform, but what people overlook is that none of them work if the kids don’t show up.”

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The Common Core Bore

I once had hope that the adoption of the Common Core Standards would elevate instruction, even in our upscale suburban schools which to my mind have been dumbed down appreciably in recent years. . I’m starting to believe, however, that the laudable goals expressed in the standards are very likely to be frustrated by school leaders from the state commissioner on down who appear to view them as a vehicle for the homogenization of instruction rather than the expression of what students are expected to know and be able to do. Although the evidence is just beginning to come in, it’s alarming to see a district like Plainview issuing lesson templates to teachers, asking them to plan their instruction by filling in the blanks. Why would anyone think that the promulgation of a set of subject specific standards would require that teachers be given a blueprint for the lessons they are going to teach to meet those standards? Sadly, such a thought can only spring from an almost total contempt for the intelligence and skill of the teaching force.

Reviewing some of these rigidly constructed lessons, I found myself trying to imagine what it would be like to be a student subjected to these formulaic scripts that appear to have students spend huge periods of time reading texts, having texts read to them, looking for YouTubes that are related to the texts and answering questions about the texts that are meant to be penetrating but most of which would bore me to death after a while, particularly when the lesson in each subject I take is going to be shaped the same way.. Of those I reviewed, my favorite was a plan for a four or five day unit on Brown vs. Board of Education for eighth graders which is essentially centered on a two and one half page text. Five days on one court case with eighth graders? If I even half-remember what I was like at that age, I’d would be acting out from boredom after day two, and maybe sooner than that. If this is what school leaders have in mind for the implementation of the Common Core Standards, it won’t be long before the teachers are acting out too.

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I was talking with my colleagues Nina Melzer and Judi Alexanderson Thursday morning about the impending school budget vote in New York and how our local media is so many ways appear to stir anti-school budget sentiments. Nina spoke of cable Channel 12 asking its viewers whether teachers should take pay cuts to help their communities during the current fiscally trouble times. That got us talking about how it’s only public employees who ever get asked to make sacrifices. Nina and Judi got on a roll of observations about how no one ever asks the Long Island Power Authority or National Grid to lower their prices to school districts in these difficult times. When was the last time the bus companies that transport our students were asked for a sacrifice? Has anyone gone to the Pearson Company and said, “We love your standardized tests. We can’t get enough of them, but could you help us out in these difficult times?” Why doesn’t Channel 12 ask the public if they favor sacrifices by these suppliers? Members of the public will support any sacrifice as long as it’s not their own.

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Testing Conditions

At a meeting yesterday with some teacher union leaders to discuss various facets of the new Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR), I was taken aback to find the discussion turn to the Commissioner of Education’s ruling that teacher may neither administer state exams to their own students nor mark them. Elementary teachers present spoke with some passion about their belief that students perform better when their teacher administers a test, they being used to taking directions from some one they have spent hours and hours listening to. To these teachers, this Albany edict is but the latest example of the ignorance of education policy makers about how children react to classroom situations. While I hadn’t thought about this issue before, it was immediately clear to me that my colleagues had a valid point. Simply put, isn’t it obvious that children will perform better in a familiar setting, receiving directions from someone they know and trust than from a stranger? It surely is obvious, or should be, except to those who make policy in a vacuum. If these tests are considered to be so important, shouldn’t children take them under optimal conditions?

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Board President Speaks Out Against Testing

Part of every POB Board of Education meeting agenda has Board members making announcements. They routinely talk about visits they have made to the schools, accomplishments of the district’s students and assorted other things that confirm their dedication to being Board members and celebrate the district’s accomplishments. It’s not a part of the meeting that I tend to pay attention to.

Last night, however, Board President Gary Bettan shocked me from my habitual reverie. Announcing that he was speaking only for himself, Bettan read a carefully prepared statement protesting the harmful effects of high stakes state testing. “It is so frustrating that politics and corporate profits are the driving force in NY State’s race to high stakes testing. I’m all for accountability, but if you can’t trust the standardized tests, how can you trust the results?” Bettan went on to say, “These tests are loaded with trick questions and ambiguous passages. I fear that we are testing our kids’ ability to take tests, not their knowledge of what they have learned.”

It was heartening to see a member of the Board of Education take a public stand on what is emerging as the central issue facing New York’s public schools. If we are ever to end the mindless testing that is being passed off as education reform, it is going to take the forming of a grand coalition of teachers, Board of Education members, administrators and parents all standing up for the children of our state and demanding that our political leaders put children ahead of corporate profits and learning ahead of testing. We all need to summon the courage Bettan did last evening.

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It’s Not Raining

One of my mother’s favorite expressions was,“You can’t pee on my head and make me think it’s raining.” Nabbed in some infraction of her rules, like all children and far too many adults, my brother and I would creatively try to explain why we really didn’t do what she had just caught us doing. Her response was always the same. “You……..”

Mom’s expression came to mind immediately I read the Pearson Company’s justification of the now infamous “pineapple question” on the recent eighth grade ELA exam. The leaders of the Pearson Company, the makers of the test, apparently didn’t benefit from my mother’s kind of parenting. Although the entire state appears to agree that the pineapple question was absurd and, more importantly misleading, Pearson, in a letter to the State Education Department, disagrees. Claiming that the correct answer could be derived from evidence in the text of the story, Pearson wrote, “The owl declares that ‘Pineapples don’t have sleeves,’ which is a factually accurate statement. This statement is presented as the moral of the story, allowing a careful reader to infer that the owl is the wisest animal.”

Chancellor Tisch’s response to the pineapple flap was at once more equivocal and scary. The Times reports that she maintains that the question makes sense in context but should have been discarded. Why? Because questions like this are used by the opponents of testing to discredit the process. Given the many problematical questions on the recent battery of ELA and math exams, don’t the opponents have a point, Dr. Tisch? Sorry Dr. Tisch and Pearson. It’s not raining.

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For those who believe Governor Cuomo’s bull about teacher unions dragging their heels at negotiating agreements on the new Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) legislation, follow this link to the latest in a seemingly endless series of guidance documents from the New York State Education Department. Can a procedure for the evaluation of teachers that takes 92 pages of opaque prose to explain possibly improve the education of a single child in our state? And what reason is there to believe that there won’t be other guidance documents forthcoming that will change what we think we understand about the rules today? As an administrator in my district quipped the other day, “We’re waiting for the guidance document on guidance documents.” Fortunes of money have and will be spent on this nonsense. Thousands and thousands of hours have been spent by teachers and administrators working on developing plans. Children will be increasingly subjected to more state tests, and not a single child will be helped by the process because it doesn’t address any of the problems faced by our public schools. It is we who should be providing guidance to the no-nothings in Albany. My suggestion? Leave now. The careers of the folks in Albany are bound to be ruined when these plans are fully implemented and the stupidity of this endeavor becomes broadly apparent.

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The War On Public Education Continues

Governor Cuomo is clearly not finished with his war on the people who work in public education in our state. The other day he made good on his inaugural promise to appoint an education commission to make recommendations on to how to improve the state’s schools. Here’s the list of appointees, with Dick Parsons, the former head of Citigroup as the chair:
Richard (Dick) Parsons, Retired Chairman, Citigroup, Chair of the New NY Education Reform Commission
Randi Weingarten, President, American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO
Geoffrey Canada, Founder & CEO, Harlem Children’s Zone
Irma Zardoya, President & CEO, NYC Leadership Academy
Elizabeth Dickey, President, Bank Street College of Education
Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey, President, Say Yes to Education
Lisa Belzberg, Founder & Chair Emeritus, PENCIL
Michael Rebell, Co-Founder & Executive Director, Campaign for Educational Equity
Karen Hawley Miles, President & Executive Director, Education Resource Strategies
José Luis Rodríguez, Founder & CEO, Hispanic Information and Telecommunications Network, Inc.
Sara Mead, Associate Partner, Bellwether Education Partners
Eduardo Martí, Vice Chancellor of Community Colleges, CUNY
Thomas Kane, Professor of Education & Economics, Harvard Graduate School of Education
Jean Desravines, CEO, New Leaders for New Schools
Michael Horn, Executive Director & Co-Founder, InnoSight Institute
Chancellor Nancy Zimpher, Chancellor, SUNY
Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, Chancellor, CUNY
John B. King, Jr., Commissioner, New York State Education Department
Senator John Flanagan, Chair, Senate Education Committee
Assembly Member Cathy Nolan, Chair, Assembly Education Committee

There isn’t even any pretense of the inclusion of the voices of teachers on this commission. If AFT President Randi Weingarten has any sense, she will decline the “opportunity” to be the token voice of teachers on the panel. We surely don’t need the appearance of her concurrance with some of the really bad stuff that’s bound to come from this group. There is not a soul there who has any real idea of what the teachers and students of this state are going through in the name of reform. Reform to them looks and is more like chaos. Doubt me? Google some of these people for yourself!

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Fanaticism In Defense of Failure

At last week’s New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) meeting, Education Commissioner King was an invited guest. At a time when teachers throughout the state are angrier than I have ever seen them, feeling themselves the scapegoats of disreputable politicians and corporate interests, I was, at first admiring of King’s willingness to stand before almost two thousand of the angry and take a pasting over the policies of the State Ed Department. That is, until, trying to warm the crowd to him, he told a story of his father, a career teacher and administrator.

King told a tale about his father having broken his arm and arriving at his school with a cast on it. His principal told him that he could not work with his arm in a cast and that he had to go home sick. King’s father protested and protested to no avail. His principal would not let him teach with a cast on his arm. At this point the elder King smashed his casted arm on the office counter, breaking the cast and announcing that he was going to his room to teach his class.

While I’m sure the Commissioner meant his story to convey a sense of his genetically determined will to see the policies of State Ed through, upon reflection, the story offered an insight into what in more appropriately dubbed fanaticism, a fanaticism in support of failed policies every bit as extreme in degree as his father’s breaking of his cast. Suddenly, his very smooth, articulate defense of the indefensible policies of State Ed made sense to me, scary though that sense may be.

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