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 November, 2012

Organizing for School Sanity

Every time I have the chance to talk with a group of parents about what the testing mania is doing to their children, the question quickly turns to, “What can we do about it?” It happened last night at a showing and discussion of the film Race to Nowhere co-sponsored by our union and the Plainview-Old Bethpage PTA Audiences immediately identify with the stories of the children and parents in the film. And every audience wants a way out of a school model that they know produces unhealthy stress on children and families but which they reluctantly accept lest their children lose some competitive advantage by a parent demanding something like an end to all home work by 9 P.M. They seem to know in their bones we no longer have age appropriate education and that their children are missing out on important things that they remember fondly from their own school days. Their openness to working collectively to demand of our lawmakers that they end the war on childhood and return us to a time when schools were more joyful and children had time to be curious encourages me to believe that sanity can ultimately prevail.

I’m off to Seattle to the fall meeting of the National Council of Urban Education Associations. I’ll be back here on Monday.

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New AFT Anti-Testing Website Launched

I was please to learn of the launch by the AFT of a new website in support of our effort to ameliorate the terrible effects high stakes testing is having on our public schools. Entitled Learning is More Than a Test Score, the website asks viewers to sign an anti-testing petition. There are also testimonials by parents, teachers and students highlighting the impact high stakes testing is having as well as resources for viewers to read and perhaps use in their efforts to organize others against the testing mania. This AFT effort should be very popular with our members. Imagine if each of them shared this website on their Facebook pages.

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Higher Ed and the Economy of Scale

Front page of the Times this morning introduces readers to a new acronym, MOOCs. Now to this somewhat rusty speaker of Brooklyn, this sounds vaguely like an epithet my friends and I used to use for some poor nebbish kid we held in contempt. But no, this homonym has a substantially elevated meaning, at least to some – massive open online course. What it refers to are online courses offered to anyone in the world by star professors from elite universities, courses which are increasingly being granted college credit by institutions of the likes of Princeton. These courses lend new meaning to the concept of the economy of scale. For example one professor, perhaps chosen through an online competition, say Learning from a Star, could teach a freshman English course to the entire world, thereby obviating the need for thousands of young Ph.D.s and graduate assistants. Putting aside for today what the substitution of virtual education for what we have historically understood higher education to be, if this is the future, what does it mean for scholarship? Who will undertake six to ten years of study in any of the humanities when an already tight job market shrinks even further to where a handful of super-stars from Harvard, Yale, Stanford and such “teach” thousand, maybe hundreds of thousands of students at a time? And what then would a university be? We could conceivable have departments of a handful of professors? And finally, while many of these courses are at the moment free, does anyone seriously think that they will remain so in the future? I strongly suspect that n more and more professor and entrepreneur are fusing to form something extremely toxic compound.

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Newark One More Time

In my previous post, I talked about the recent contract settlement in the Newark Schools which included a merit pay provision. I speculated that AFT President Weingarten would be touting the settlement as a great union victory. It sure didn’t take long for the touting to begin, although I was surprised by the incoherence of its expression. See if you think I exaggerate. Of the agreement Weingarten says, “This agreement ensures that teacher voice, quality and experience are aligned with increased professionalism and better compensation. The contract integrates what teachers do, where they teach, and the experience they’ve gained in the classroom.” To which the only response is, huh? There’s a whole lot of aligning going on in public education these days.

Now I know in my bones that unions are sometimes forced to accept defeats on issues. I’ve accepted my share. But why so many of my brothers and sisters attempt to recast defeat as victory, I will never understand. How does doing so help us to better organize to win the next time around?

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Reformers Win in Newark

One of the central ironies of the so-called education reformers is their rhetorical emphasis on research and data while coterminously often rejecting the same when it gets in the way of their ideology. Yesterday we read that Newark teachers ratified a contract that includes a merit pay provision. The belief, and it is just that, is that teachers have been underperforming, not giving their students their best, but that a few thousand dollars dangled in front of them will motivate them to do better. While there is some social science research that shows performance pay incentives work to increase output in routinized production work, there is no evidence that what are called extrinsic rewards like merit pay increase the performance for people doing more sophisticated, professional work. On the contrary, some evidence suggests that such incentives have a harmful effect on workers who are internally motivated and who take pride in their work and their accomplishments. But notch another victory for the reformers. Through some mystical process, merit pay will overcome the debilitating effects of poverty on the students of Newark. AFT President Randi Weingarten will no doubt tout this as a great union victory in that apparently teachers are to become involved in the evaluation of their peers.

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The Majority Knew

If we need any further evidence of just how lucky our country is that Mitt Romney was defeated, the story of his phone conversation with fundraisers and donors to his campaign yesterday should end the discussion. Explaining why he believed he lost the race for President, Romney blamed his loss on the “gifts” that President Obama bestowed upon the constituencies that supported him in great numbers. What gifts did he give and to whom?

To the young, he gave forgiveness of college loan interest, apparently referring to an Obama program that stopped private banks from reaping huge profits on college loans and passing the savings on to students and their families. To the Mittster, that’s a gift. By the way, he also gave the young an additionally gift of the Affordable Care Act, so-called Obama Care, that allowed young people to stay on their parents health insurance until age 26. Only a plutocrat, removed by his millions from the vicissitudes of working people and completely unmindful of the benefit to the country of more affordable higher education and medical insurance for all would see sound social policy as a gift of the President given solely for political gain.

But the Mittster accused the President of other gift giving. College age women got free contraceptives (meaning they have to be covered by insurance); Black and Hispanics got health insurance. The Times quotes the Mittster as saying, “You can imagine for somebody making $25,000 or $30,000 or $35,000 a year, being told you’re now going to get free health care, particularly if you don’t have it, getting free health care worth, what, $10,000 per family, in perpetuity — I mean, this is huge.” Your damn right it’s huge, you complete and total empty jackass! The majority was right about you. They knew you are unconcerned for their welfare.

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No Austerity, Please

I marvel at how the economic situation of Europe appears not to inform our discussion at home. Despite a stunning electoral defeat, the right continues to argue for austerity as the cure for our economic ills, stressing the need to reform (read kill) entitlements. Even many democrats, including the President, argue for a “balance” approach which seems to mean some tax increases but more budget cuts to social programs. Why aren’t our leaders looking at what is happening in Europe where austerity has plunged the continent into what many understand to be a depression? A foreclosure crisis in Spain with unemployment rates of 25 percent in some places, an upsurge of neofascist activity, all are warning sing of the folly of intentionally constricting an economy when it is already depressed.

The time to attack our deficit is when most of the 20 million unemployed are back to work and paying taxes. As Keynes observed, “The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity…”. President Obama must use his political capital to keep the economy moving forward. We just had an election, and the majority rejected Romney/Ryan austerity program. The lunatic right in Congress cannot be allowed to nullify the will of the people.

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A New Trend From California?

Other than to sigh with relief that President Obama was re-elected and the U.S. Senate will remain in control of the Dems and even tilt a bit to the left, I’ll leave the analysis of results to others for a while. My interest this morning, as I take up post-Sandi blogging, is on the California story of Proposition 30, a proposal to raise sales and income taxes to fund the public schools, and what it may mean for the rest of the country.

In a very real way, the tax revolt, like so many trends in modern America, began in California with the passage of Prop 13. This initiative was passed at a time when California had the undisputed number one systems of public k-12 education and public colleges and universities. It wasn’t long after the passage of Prop 13 that the schools of California began to decline, a descent that continues to this day. Proposition 30 was designed to begin to turn that dismal situation around. It calls for a half cent increase in the state sales tax and an income tax increase for those earning over $250,000, all of the revenue to be dedicated to the public schools. Had it not past, districts were facing massive program and staff cuts.

That California voters were willing to increase their taxes in support of their public schools is heartening. The other good news from California was the defeat of Proposition 32 that would have severely curtailed the rights of unions to put money into elections. Had it passed, the work that the California Education Association did in support of the tax increase legislation would never have been possible. With a little luck this good news will begin to move eastwards.

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