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 December, 2012

An Unaddressed Question

In all of the proposals I’ve seen thus far to combat gun violence, no one seems to be talking about doing anything about all of the guns, including assault rifles, that are already out there, most I suspect in easy reach of numbers of people with fragile grips on sanity. There is probably at least one gun for each American in our nation’s homes, available to curious children and those whose emotions boil over in response to life’s vicissitudes. The other day I found myself remembering an afternoon when I was in 7th grade. A group of us were at our friend David’s house. His parents not being home provided David with the opportunity to show us the Japanese rifle and ammunition his father had brought home from the war. There we were. Four young teenagers playing with a weapon and live ammunition, fascinated to be doing so. How many times a day does a scene like that take place in America’s homes? Don’t you think that’s a question that ought to be discussed?

Allow me to take this opportunity to wish my readers a very Happy Holidays. I’ll be back blogging on January 2nd.

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Let’s Really Be True to the Second Amendment

I’m prepared to accept that the Second Amendment to the Constitution entitles Americans to own a gun. I believe that’s what the Founding Fathers intended. I’m also prepared to read the amendment from an originalist perspective and am therefore in favor of banning the ownership of all guns except 18th century muskets. Those are the guns the founding fathers had in mind when they wrote and ratified the amendment. Let’s give, yes give, every American a musket and make it a federal felony to have in one’s possession any other gun . Let’s even have a musket in every school to satisfy those morons who are proposing arming teachers to prevent the next Newtown. We will then be true to the Constitution as it was understood by its framers. We will also be very much safer.

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Does it take a Tragedy?

The following is a statement by National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel:

“We join the Newtown community and our entire nation in mourning the deaths of innocent children and educators due to violence. As members of the education community, we extend our deepest sympathies to members of the AFTCT who have lost friends and colleagues. We are deeply concerned for everyone in the Newtown community and will work with the AFTCT and the Connecticut Education Association in the hours and days ahead to help them in any way we can to cope with this tragedy.”

Statement from CEA President Sheila Cohen on the school shooting in Newtown:

“CEA is deeply saddened by the horrific tragedy that took the lives of so many children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Our hearts and thoughts go out to the parents, teachers, family members, our AFTCT colleagues, and the entire Newtown community. We are committed to helping AFT Connecticut, which represents the teachers in Newtown, as well as the students, teachers, administrators, and families as they recover from this unimaginable tragedy.”

Why does it take a tragedy for the NEA and AFT to realize that their common purpose could be infinitely more potent than the petty differences that keep them apart?

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We Need Some Clear Thinking

I sat at our district’s Board of Education meeting last night, growing progressively more agitated as a number of speakers came to the microphone to demand tighter security in our community’s schools. I know they were responding to the Newtown tragedy. A moment’s sober reflection, however, would make it clear that nothing short of turning Sandy Hook Elementary School into an armed bunker would have prevented the massacre there. What I heard last night is a heightened form of what has been growing like a cancer on our society – the desire of more and more Americans to accept the erosion of their freedom in exchange for the illusion of safety. So, wherever we go, we are increasingly monitored by surveillance cameras. With cell phones in our pockets, our every movement can be traced. Our electronic communications essentially open to government review. Our bodies x-rayed each time we fly. Because some sexually distorted personalities molest little children, we teach our young people to fear strangers, particularly strangers who don’t look like them. Instead of assuring them that our schools are the safest places for young people to be, we have schools that require kids to carry identity cards with GPS chips in them. Can it belong before we insist that these chips be implanted?

As I walk the streets of my community, yes I walk regularly, I almost never see children playing on their own, their parents organizing their very move, in part to make sure they’re safe. Several speakers last night offered the solution that we increasingly reach for when faced with some difficulty – a technological fix. Kids not safe in schools – the right technology will fix that. More cameras, more panic buttons, more silent alarms. More essentially useless stuff in the face of madmen armed with weapons of mass destruction.

One, only one person rose to speak about our societal need to look squarely at the issue of our failure to treat mental health seriously. Interestingly, he was a graduate of our schools. I felt proud of that.

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Thinking About Connecticut

America’s public schools have spent millions of dollars on security measures all of which are useless against a crazy person with a semi-automatic assault rifle. Yet, our schools will undoubtedly spend more in an illusory quest of absolute safety. In so doing, they will play into the public’s fears which were magnified many fold by an incessant media exploitation of the tragic events in Connecticut. Doubtless, many small children with TV sets in their rooms watched as children like them were interviewed about the horrors they experienced. I fear, too, that many children whose parents intelligently spared them this media barrage will find themselves discussing it today, well meaning schools feeling obliged to raise the subject. Some communities will senselessly have police stationed outside their schools, while mental health professionals conduct sessions to make the children feel safe. I hope I’m wrong, but experience suggests that we will do nothing to prevent further incidents crazy people with ready access to guns doing crazy things except increase our fears.

The Sunday talk shows had lots of people saying the right things. We have to do something about guns and mental health. Our broken healthcare system offers the parents of disturbed young people like Adam Lanza, even those with financial resources, little help in dealing with the issues of raising a mentally ill child. If you want some insight into what raising such a child entails, read Liza Long’s courageous article on what’s it’s like to be terrorized by one’s own child. My experience teaching troubled teenagers and working with their parents suggests that her story is much more common than we would like to believe.

Many of Sunday’s talking heads claimed to have also found renewed political courage to confront the issue of the easy access to guns Americans enjoy. Even if we do have the temerity to take on the NRA, over 40 million homes in the United State Have guns in them. Check out these facts and you can see how even if we banned the sale of all guns, and no one thinks that’s doable in light of Supreme Court rulings, we would still probably have as many guns as we have people. What shall we do about this? In China the other day, a knife wielding lunatic forced his way into a school. While some of the children were wounded, all of them lived. Compare that outcome to Connecticut where a mentally ill boy killed his mother, a slew of little children and school personnel, all with guns his mother kept in their home.

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What Are We Doing?

At a showing of Race to Nowhere our PTA and my local union sponsored today, a very emotional woman spoke eloquently about what the testing mania has done to the education of her special education child. Hesitant at first, her confidence built as she talked about how the state requirement that her child pass five Regents examinations and the extra services required to give he a shot at passing them were crowing out all opportunities for things he might enjoy, things which were once readily available in our schools and which have been squeezed out by the completely stupid notion that every child has to have essentially the same college preparatory education. As I engaged her, I found myself remembering all of the practical arts we used to teach – auto repair, auto body repair, woodworking, cosmetology – subjects that prepared students who were not inclined to got to college for jobs that to this day pay good wages. Students for whom academic classes were a confrontation with weaknesses and disabilities had a couple of hours in their day when they could participate in something that allowed them to shine. We strove then to be what we called a comprehensive high school with something for everyone to enjoy. No one seems to think much about enjoyment anymore. What are we doing to young people in the name of reform?

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Are the Grassroots Thinking Unity?

It has galled me for almost as long as I can remember that the two national education unions don’t have a common agenda. Some would argue that they don’t have a coherent agenda at all. Whenever I talk about this subject at state and national union meetings, the conversation invariably degenerates into the same old blame game, with NEA loyalists ripping the AFT and AFTnicks looking down their noses at an NEA, not convinced NEA is a real union. Such has been the bad blood between the two organizations. The top down failed attempt to merge the two groups in the 90s was a disaster with consequences that have debilitated both organizations.

To my mind, the only way the two unions were going to get together was with the gradual merger of state affiliates eventually reaching the point where the vast majority of the membership resided in merged organizations making a national merger imperative. While I still think that’s the way a national merger has to happen, the recent meeting of the National Council of Urban Education Associations, the most politically savvy and powerful caucus in the NEA, gave me a burst of hope that the plight of public education is so threatening that maybe, just maybe, grassroots leaders are finally willing to put aside their differences and confront the enemies of public education in unity.

My friend Phil Rumore of the Buffalo union, historically an ardent opponent of a national merger, introduced a new business item calling upon the NEA to reach out to the AFT “…seeking to develop a unified action plan to address the educationally destructive, divisive and punitive initiatives that are undermining teaching and learning…”. When some in the audience looked in disbelief at Phil as he talked about the need for unity he said, “Sometimes you have to recognize that the time has come.” When this new business item came to a vote, it passed overwhelmingly. If the NEA doesn’t act on it, it will come up for a vote at the NEA convention in July.

The time has come for us to put away the stupid differences that have kept us apart. The experiences of the merged state organizations and the unified locals like Los Angeles and San Francisco show us how the differences that have kept us apart melt away with the experience of unity.

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Unintended Consequences

I had a troubling conversation with several high school teachers last week that highlighted one of the many unintended consequences of the new teacher evaluation system.

Before this new system was foisted upon us, it was the custom of most supervisors to inform a teacher that she was to be observed at a particular time. In most schools, this practice was seen as polite, the alternative being for a supervisor to be thought of as swooping down on a teacher, hoping to catch her doing something wrong. Under the new law, however, at least one of the observations of a teacher’s performance must be unannounced, with the result that many teachers, I’m told, are holding off trying new approaches to the material they teach until they have had their unannounced observation. It’s too risky to try new things. You stand the potential to lose too many points on your annual professional performance review. Save the creative, risky stuff for a later, less risky time.

So a system that was designed to avoid supervisors seeing canned lessons is ironically promoting canned lessons rather than the experimentation that improves teachers’ skills, makes for exciting classes and prevents the burn-out that come from teaching the same thing, in the same way, year after year.

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In Michigan?

The Republican governor of Michigan and the Republican controlled legislature are about to finalize legislation that in the name of Right-to-Work will ultimately rob the 670,000 union members in Michigan of their ability maintain or improve their working conditions. The euphemism Right-to Work cloaks from the general public’s view what such laws really do, weaken unions by not requiring workers in a union workplaces to pay dues to the union. So although the union won the right to represent all of the workers by a democratic vote of a majority of the workers, such laws free individual workers to decide that they will collect all of the benefits of the union negotiated contract while contributing nothing to the costs of maintaining the union. In time, the union is weakened. With dwindling resources, it’s unable to protect its members. Wages, benefits and pensions deteriorate, causing more and more workers to wonder why they belong to the union. The supporters of this legislation in Michigan know all of this. This is but the latest battle in the war against the middle class.

Organize labor has a proud history in Michigan. In the 30’s and until 1955, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), with the United Auto Workers, based in Michigan, a key part, created industrial unionism and brought union militancy behind a socially progressive political program to the battle for workers’ rights. The leaders of the CIO generated many of the ideas that ultimately became known as the New Deal during the Roosevelt administrations. The social safety net begun in the New Deal is still sticking in the throats of American reactionaries. It’s no coincidence that the drive to extend Right-to Work laws is occurring at the same time that the Right is seeking a roll-back of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Labor will have to get back to its militant roots and defeat the reactionary enemies of working people. If they don’t, there is no hope for the middle class of our country.

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Reason is Alive

Following up on yesterday’s post, a member pointed me to an article about February vacation and the Sachem School District. It seems realism is alive and well there. Faced with the legal requirement to add days to their calendar to make up for those lost to the hurricane, like Plainview-Old Bethpage, they announced that school would be open for four of the days normally part of the February recess. But, unlike our and too many other districts, they have decided to do the best they can under circumstances they had no hand in shaping. Their pragmatism was expressed by their superintendent who said about the changes to the calendar, “I fully understand that both employees and students may already have vacation plans and that there is the possibility of absenteeism, but I believe this is the most proactive win/win scenario possible at this time.”

How refreshing! No pious platitudes! No sanctimony about the loss of precious instructional time. Just a practical decision to problem for which there is no perfect answer. Bravo!

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Irony! Irony! Irony! Irony, that I a person with a life-long distaste for vacations, a person who throughout his years in the classroom reached periods of bone-weariness when I longed for vacation only to be seized two days into each break by a disturbing lack of purpose and a sense of guilt about the time being wasted, that I should be spending the last few weeks talking about almost nothing but what the recent hurricane has done to our school vacation schedule. I’ve been doing so because contrary to my perspective that things happen to disturb our best laid plans and that we cope with them by making reasonable accommodations, much of the rest of the world doesn’t share my point of view.

So, the fact that some teachers and parents have non-refundable reservations for the upcoming February vacation and there is a state requirement that we add back days that were lost due to the storm, while regrettable, should be manageable. After all, reasonable people should be able agree that teachers and citizens should not be obligated to lose thousands of dollars to either send their kids to school or come to work. You might think so, but that’s not the position we find ourselves in. Parents and teachers are told that the February vacation is gone, that those days will be regular instructional days when both students and staff are expected to attend.

No person with any experience of public schools in this area believes that these will be regular days of instruction. In normal years, they aren’t, as parents pull kids out to get a head start on the vacation or a lower airline rate. Parents with non-refundable reservations will go. From my point of view, they would be crazy not to. After all, the district is not about to refer parents who take their kids out of school to the authorities and for many of these families this will be precious time together that they have planned as much as a year in advance.

Teachers, however, are in a different position, as they must wonder whether their employer will be thoughtless enough to bring charges against them if they take personal days or call in sick. From the phone calls I’ve had since the Board’s decision, teachers are anguishing and angry. I know of several who have over $6000 in non-refundable tickets. I had an email this morning from a young member who had planned to celebrate his child’s birthday in Disneyland, with grandparents coming too, all on non-refundable tickets. His child has been talking about the trip since its early planning stages. My member writes, “Besides losing out on thousands of dollars, I have no intention of breaking my son’s heart.”

Our district has taken some significant steps at improving school climate this year. Issues which heretofore have been intractable have been getting effortlessly worked out. The final irony for me will be if the reaction of our Board of Education to the effects of a storm on a vacation period washes all of that away.

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