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 June, 2012

NEA Convention

I’m off to the National Education Association (NEA) convention in Washington D.C. I’ve been learning about pockets of discontent from around the nation over the failure of national education union leadership to articulate a strategy for confronting and overcoming the assault on public education from all corners of the political spectrum. I’ll be interested to see if the NEA leadership can leave the 9 to 10 thousand assembled union activists with any hope for the future, or whether, like too many union meetings I’ve attended lately, I’m left to feel like I want to shoot myself by the end, such is the feelings of hopelessness I been left with.

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Year’s End

A teacher union leader spends the last week of a school year limping to the finish line. By this time of the year everyone’s nerves are completely frayed to the point of short circuiting their ability to think straight. If we could somehow have the lay public experience the psychic stress of a year in the best of our public schools, we could no only end the attacks on us but also stifle the political hacks and their well-heeled cronies who are constantly ginning up the media carpet bombing we have been receiving.

This has been a year of unending attacks on teachers and other public employees. After passing a completely idiotic law linking student test scores to the evaluation of their teachers, the next part of the assault was to be the publication of the teachers’ evaluations in the press. Mayor Michael Bloomberg was salivating at the thought of shaming thousands of of New York City’s teachers. That attack has been blunted somewhat by passage of a new law limiting access to teachers’ annual performance review (APPR) scores to the parents of the children they teach. While this will relieve the anxiety that teachers have experienced at the thought of being publicly shamed in the mass media, the new law does nothing to control what parents do with this information.

In upper middle class communities like ours, teacher reputations have been the subject of conversation forever. The suburbs lend themselves to these high level, consequential discussions. Now, I fear, we can look forward to them being updated with seriously flawed data lending an authority to statements about teachers’ abilities. Children will hear these statements. Who knows what they will make of them. Children talk about school and their teachers to one another all the time. I can hear some of them now. “My teacher is a 91 and yours is just an 80. My dad’s car costs more than yours too.” Then there is Facebook….

Don’t tune me out for the summer. I’ll be posting, if somewhat less frequently, trying to make sense of the senseless world of public education.

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Some Positive Signs of Hope For Public Education

This has been a good week in the growing movement to demand changes to New York’s broken high stakes testing system. In Albany, the Senate Education Committee held hearings on state assessments with major groups like the superintendents association and NYSUT, the state teachers union, offering blistering testimony as to the fecklessness of the current assessment regime, a system which does little to nothing to improve instruction and which focuses the work of too many classrooms on test preparation rather than learning. Of special interest to us in Plainview-Old Bethpage is that fact that the superintendents position was presented by our incoming superintendent, Dr. Lorna Lewis.

Locally, my union hosted a newly formed school district group made up of representatives of our union, members of our Board of Education, the administrators union and central office who all agreed to work cooperatively to create the kind of political pressure necessary to get the state to change what it is doing. Our group agreed to a joint lobbying day in the fall when our coalition will meet with our state representatives to demand their help in rescuing the children of this state from the menacing testocracy that has gradually usurped our power to educate children appropriately.

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A Damage Report on the Public Schools

While most of my waking hours are spent dealing with public education issues, I remind myself from time to time that responsible citizenship requires that I look at what is happening in my country from a lens other than public education. That’s why I will both vote for President Obama and do whatever I can to influence others to do the same. That said, like too many people who call themselves Democrats, I’m faced with the fact that he hasn’t been a friend of public education. His administration has contributed mightily to the movement to privatize public education. David Sirota has written a tour de force on what both our intellectually bankrupt political parties have done to public schools and the society they serve. While I was aware of every point Sirota makes, the cumulative impact of his article had me breathing fire. I hope it does the same for you.

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A parent who has become interested in our union’s efforts to reform the testing system in New York pointed me to Diane Ravitch’s blog with the email subject line of Brave New World. Expecting to read about the latest high stakes testing travesty, I was stunned to find Ravitch claiming that the Gates Foundation had supported research at Clemson University that seeks to measure student engagement and thereby teacher effectiveness by the galvanic skin responses of students who wear electronic bracelets during their classes. In short, the ultimate professional performance review, a molecular analysis of a professional’s teaching ability. The teacher too will wear a bracelet to measure how engaged she is in providing instruction. Ravitch call this “research” madness. I find a Yiddish expression coming to mind to describe both Gates and the “scholars” conducting these experiments. It translates as ugly souls.

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Common Core Standards: The Latest Reformist Scam?

As frequently happens, a problem I’m having as the president of my local teacher union leads me to try to find out more about a subject than I otherwise would have known. That’s how I came upon this article by Christopher Tienken on the Common Core Standards.

When they were first promulgated, I was mildly optimistic that they could have some salutary effect on districts like mine where expectations for students have declined in direct proportion to statements by management about how they want teachers to have high expectations for their students. I started to get suspicious about the Standards when Commissioner King decided that teachers should do two lessons around the Standards this year in preparation for implementation in September. How the hell would doing two lessons somehow connected to the Standards lead to implementation next year? But I have come to expect senselessness from Commissioner King.

Then when our administration through a process unknown to me decided on having teachers write lessons for five day units that they wanted archived in a data bank, it started to become clear that the Standards were to become the latest foolishness inflicted on teachers and students in the name of reform, a inimical foolishness that promotes the homogenization of instruction both in content and design.

Now that I’ve read Tienken’s article, I am amazed at my naiveté for thinking that the Common Core Standards stand any serious chance of improving education in our state or nation. It turns out that almost all of the claims made for the Standards are based on pure junk, while a vast body of evidence exists to suggest that approaches like the Standards are very likely to have no positive effect and may even do damage. This article deserves a wide audience.

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Solidarity Forever?

Like many of my readers, I’ve been enraged by the funding of Andrew Cuomo’s perpetual campaign by the Committee to Save New York. It makes my blood boil, to hear Cuomo fart and have the Committee almost instantaneously have an infomercial on the air praising a governor for some “unprecedented” act, a governor who is neck and neck with Mitt Romney for the award for the most unctuous politician of the day. My fury is unbounded, however, with the news this morning in the New York Times that some of the building trade unions have been heavy supporters of the Cuomo committee’s efforts. This governor, who likes to see himself as a progressive, has cleverly driven a wedge between private and public sector labor thereby weakening a progressive force in New York. With union leaders like these, the right doesn’t need creatures like Governor Walker to destroy the labor movement. They can just sit back and watch these times of scarcity motivate what is left of labor to tear itself apart.

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The Post-Wisconsin World Dawns

If you need a preview of what is to come from the Wisconsin recall vote, follow this link and recognize that a form of this ad ran, full page, in this morning’s New York Times.

The ERA used to be the equal rights amendment to the Constitution, something we have still not ratified. Now ERA has come to stand for an attack on organized labor in the name of employee rights. Clearly the war on the middle class is set to intensify with unions crazily depicted as the enemy of working people. The organizations that played a very significant role in the creation of the middle class have been transmuted by the one percent well-heeled media barrage into its enemy. If they succeed, you will know that we have become a nation of fools, a people who have lost track of their own self-interest.

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A First Step Toward Fixing A Broken Testing System

Over one hundred teacher union leaders met in Centereach yesterday to talk about developing a strategy for changing the broken high stakes testing system in New York. Middle Country Teachers Association President Nadia Resnikov and I talked to the group about the recently passed New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) resolution opposing the current testing system in our state. Our message was simple. The current testing system is broken. It must be changed. Resolutions, however, are just words. People have to organize to breathe life into them. As part of our program, we showed excerpts of the film Race to Nowhere, a moving documentary that argues the thesis that our approach to education is robbing our students of their childhood.

Following our presentation, we broke down into county-wide groups to brainstorm things that local unions can do build the coalitions of teachers administrators, parents and grandparents to end the destructive impact New York’s testing is having on the education of its children. It was clear from the tables I visited that our local leaders got the message and were thinking creatively about what they were going to begin to do in their home districts. That we could get a hundred teacher union leaders to a meeting at the end of the school year says volumes about what testing is doing to the work teachers do, I’m heartened to believe that we have taken a first significant step in the political process of kicking the testocracy in the ass.

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Louisiana Did What?

For those who cling to the belief that much of the education reform movement is well intended and not motivated by the profit motive to seek privatization of the public schools, take a look at this Huffington Post article on what the state of Louisiana has done at the prodding of their right-wing governor. Can anyone seriously doubt that the Louisiana plan is a ticket to rip-off profits for private and parochial interests and mass ignorance for the children of the state. The arrogance behind this giveaway leaves even this jaded critic breathless.

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Could Newsday Be Catching On?

The now infamous “pineapple question” on the recent eighth grade New York State English Language Arts assessment has awakened the mainstream, press to the damage being done to our public schools by the ever-expanding state testing system. When anti-teacher, anti-public employee papers like Newsday feature op-ed pieces like Liza Featherstone’s slice and dice of the Pearson Company’s use of New York’s students and teachers to field test their tests, tests which produced questions like the pineapple one, the time is at hand to build the political movement necessary to change our state’s education policies that are increasingly tied to a corporate developed, corporate pushed testing regime.

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P.S.

Following up on my post of this morning, I’ve been doing some reading on the substitution of job training for education. I came across this excellent article. The fear it expresses has grown even more real since it was written.

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Digital Schools?

A week ago I had the pleasure of having dinner with Kris Alexanderson, a recent history Ph.D. and an assistant professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia. At some point in our dinner conversation, I found myself talking about how it seemed to me that the focus of much of the contemporary discussion of education is on training for employment rather than what I understand to be education. Kris responded with a reflection on her undergraduate years at Bard College and how living in that learning community for four years changed her life, how she recognizes that she is a different person today for the engagement she had with professors and students there. Although not at all aimed at any specific employment, her education was to her infinitely more valuable in that it left her with the ability to learn essentially whatever she choose to learn in her life and world.

I foud myself thinking about that conversation this morning as I came across the term “digital school” in my daily attempt to keep up with the news in public education. Digital school? Digital education? To me a digital school is to education as masturbation is to love.

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