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 September, 2012

A Heroic Principal

Wantagh principal Don Sternberg’s letter to the parents of the students of his school is going viral, and its spread is the latest evidence of the broad concerns of teachers and parents about the increasing centrality of testing to the education of children in our public schools. In a foolhardy effort, to quantify teacher the effect teacher shave on student learning, we have ironically subordinated learning to the collection of essentially meaningless data. Kudos to Sternberg for having the guts to tell parent what their children are missing.

In my own district, I’ve begun to get some questions from parents about why children are being given tests at the beginning of the year that we all know they will not do well on. When I tell them that we are obliged by the state to do so in order to measure student growth at the end of the year against this baseline, they look at me incredulously. I’m sure one of them walked away the other day convinced that I was spouting union propaganda. If each of us in public education took it as a responsibility to do what Sternberg has done and let the people we serve know what is being done to our schools, this testing outrage would come to a grinding halt.

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How Absurd Can We Get?

Once we buy the idea that student scores on standardized tests tell us the value of their teachers, the possibility of exponentially expanding the absurdity of current thought on teacher evaluation is more likely to become reality. A friend pointed me to this article in the Atlantic that argues, cogently once you accept the initial premise, that student ratings of teachers can be as or more reliable than any other current measures. Actually, I think most teachers would prefer this absurdity to what they have now in New York.

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Thinking About Chicago

The focus of the media in the aftermath of the Chicago teacher strike appears to largely be on the new evaluation process partially tying teacher salaries to state examinations. While none of the mainstream press appears to have the details of the agreed to evaluation plan, and while some of it at least remains to be worked out, the public is told that this will bring some significant benefit to the students of the Chicago public schools. It will bring nothing to the students. It will bring anxiety and bitterness to the teachers. Fine teachers will have their reputations tarnished, while bad ones will be deemed highly effective. Politicians like Rahm Emanuel will smugly posture, spouting bloviated bull about how they had the balls to take on the teachers’ union. The kids in the Chicago schools will still be sitting in huge classes without the support services that just might help them overcome the handicaps poverty has imposed on many of them. When, as it surely will be, this teacher evaluation canard is exposed, those who long for the demise of public education will point to this evaluation fiasco as proof that nothing good can come from public schools.

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The Chicago teachers are back in their classrooms today. From available reports of the details of their new contract, they appear to have made substantial gains. With an Illinois law tying teacher evaluations to student test scores, their challenge was to prevent standardized tests from becoming an even greater burden than in the rest of the state. Although they didn’t completely accomplish this goal, the mayor didn’t completely get his way either. Significantly, the mayor’s demand for merit pay was defeated. The city did get a longer school day, but the teachers got what by today’s standards is a significant pay increase for their longer hours. More important than anything, the Chicago teachers bravely demonstrated that they will not sit back and absorb attack after attack. Mayor Imanuel is bound to be more careful in dealing with them in the future. It’s always that way. Punched in the nose, the bully usually finds someone else to pick on.

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Serious Flaws in Teacher Evaluations Begin to Appear

At a meeting of union leaders the other day, I listened to a local president of one of the highest performing school districts in the entire state talk passionately about the so-called growth scores his members received based on the grades 4 through 8 New York State assessments. From the advent of tying of student scores to teacher evaluation, teachers of high performing students have been suspicious of an opaque mathematical model by which the state claims to measure student growth in English and math. It turns out that their suspicions were apparently correct. Teachers in this district whose students overwhelmingly scored 3s and 4s on the assessments (4 indicating mastery on this 4 point scale) found themselves rated ineffective and developing, teachers with long distinguished careers in what no sane person doubts is one of the premier school districts in the state if not the country. How anguished and demoralized these teachers must be. What a way to start a new school year.

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Chicago Teachers and the Press

Have you noticed how the press coverage of the Chicago teachers strike has been framed as a personal struggle between CTU President Karen Lewis and Mayor Rahm Immanuel? In doing so, they denigrate the teachers of Chicago who by a vote of 90 percent chose to walk out. Are we to seriously believe that they would deprive their families of income to support a personal grudge match between Lewis and the Mayor? The press also diminishes the reasons why the teachers overwhelmingly voted to strike. Were they simply to absorb a rescinded pay raise? Were they supposed to be indifferent to a significant lengthening of their hours without additional compensation? Were they just supposed to quietly put up with class sizes that that make children who in many cases are already challenged by poverty guaranteed failures? Were they to surrender the only serious weapon working people have to defend their working conditions – the withdrawal of their labor? The press and too many Americans may think so, but the Chicago teachers proudly don’t.

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Embracing the Enemy

If we are serious about getting the testing mania under control, we are going to have to change some bad habits. Like it or not, the testocracy has created in too many of us a hunger, an obsessive hunger, for the results of the very tests many of claim to abhor. That obsession was manifest last night of our Board of Education.

While it is clear to me that our superintendent understands the corrosive effect over-testing is having on public education, and while the administrators reporting on our district’s test results from last year understand beyond question that the slight variation in year to year scores are of no statistical significance, and while most of the Board members are deeply concerned about what the state’s testing regime is doing to student learning in our district, there we were looking at mind-numbing slides of test results, all speakers expressing concern for a dip in the score here and another blip there, all inadvertently giving these tests an importance they all know they don’t deserve. That’s how poisonously powerful the testocracy has become.

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The eyes of every union member should be on the Chicago teachers who went out on strike today. Defying the contemporary wisdom that says workers have to make concessions these difficult economic times, the Chicago teachers have bravely decided to stand firm despite the bullying tactics of their mayor who appears to think that the best way to improve educational outcomes in Chicago is to roll over the teachers.

Every person working in public education should prepare to support the Chicago teachers in whatever way necessary. Hopefully, the AFT and NEA will understand that unless they vigorously defend our Chicago brothers and sisters, their claims to serve the interests of America’s teachers will prove empty words. If the Chicago teachers fail, all of us in public education will take a hit that we won’t soon recover from.

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Demanding Sane Testing

In my welcoming remarks to the staff of our school district yesterday, I asked the assembled teachers, administrators, clerical staff and board of education members to mark the date down on their calendars so as to remember the beginning of our district’s contribution to a growing movement to end the destructive influence of high stakes testing on the children we serve. Joining with New York State United Teachers locals throughout the state, the PCT has been reaching out to people who want a testing regime that supports learning rather than one which becomes the end itself of schooling – passing the test. Too many days of the instructional year are spent focused on test taking. With teacher evaluations now tied to the results of these tests, the time spent on test taking skills will increase. This year, teachers of classes that do not end with state assessments will be creating so-called student learning objectives, better known by the ironic acronym SLOs. These SLOs will entail more testing so that the educrats in Albany can be convinced that students have grown. In the name of teacher accountability, we are rapidly losing account of whether students are being educated or whether they are simply being trained. Currently in the planning stage is a Long Island-wide lobbying week, when parents, teachers and administrators will meet locally with their elected state representatives to demand an end to the substitution of test taking for learning. Readers will be hearing much more from me on this topic.

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This Cold November

There’s an old folk song that goes, “Ninety cents butter and ninety cents meat. How in the heck can a poor man eat?” Like many such songs, there’s a call to action. “We’re gonna give those boys something to remember, when we meet them at the polls some cold November.” That call to action is as important for working people today as it ever has been. For public workers, it is even more crucial.

The war on public workers by Democrats and Republicans will only be stopped, when we stop those who vote for anti-labor measures. We get to do that on Election Day, but only if we’re registered to vote and don’t allow anything to get in the way of voting. I’m launching this theme on the start of the new school year because we have some very disturbing evidence that people working in public education are not routinely voting. That’s an invitation to the politicians to walk over us, and, if you haven’t noticed, they’ve been doing just that – Tier VI, property tax cap, the subordination of education to standardized testing. Too many of our leaders of both parties are bent on privatizing public education. We can’t match their money, but they can’t match our voting power when we get organized. Our union’s building representatives will be conducting a voter registration survey almost immediately. Their goal will be to get every member registered and energized to vote. In the weeks ahead, I’ll be talking about supporting our friends and giving our enemies something to remember us by.

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