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 January, 2013

Reform or Profit?

Ever so slowly, the fraud that goes by the name school reform is being exposed for what it is, a propaganda attack by corporate interests who wish to make our public schools into privatized profit centers. News today of that great reformer Jeb Bush and the links between the heavily corporately funded Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE, if you can believe it) and Bush’s Chiefs for Change. What does it all boil down to? Education Reform=Profits, big profits. Their common agenda, to make their brand of school reform the law of as many states as possible.

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More On State Mandated Child Abuse

In my January 22nd post, I talked about our district’s kindergarten program and how it has devolved into what I referred to as state mandated child abuse. Implementation of the Common Core Standards has accelerated the disappearance of an age appropriate curriculum for our five year old students, one anchored in educational play and socialization activities. It turns out that the standards were written without any input from experts in early childhood education. That fact wouldn’t surprise a little five year old I know who reported to her mother the other night that she hates kindergarten, especially math. To the teachers I spoke to last week, this is not at all surprising. More and more kids are saying that. Posting on the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss’ blog, Edward Miller has a must read piece on the Common Core Standards and early childhood education. Read it and weep at what we are allowing to happen to our children.

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At last night’s meeting of the Plainview Board of Education, a report was given highlighting Governor Cuomo’s proposed budget and its impact on school aid for our district. If all one knew about Cuomo’s budget is the propaganda in the ads for it financed by his rich friends, one would think that Cuomo’s budget significantly raised school aid while holding to no tax increase. The report citizens heard last night made it clear that the fact is that Cuomo’s proposed budget cuts Plainview’s ( and other districts like it)state aid by approximately $400,000, a not insignificant sum of money.

The report prompted comments from our Board of Education which were frustratingly typical of politicians in the wealthier suburbs of our state. All rail against state aid cuts and stoke the resentment of constituents with comments like, “We send so much more to Albany than we get back. Only twelve percent of our budget is covered by state aid.”

While all of that is true, that sort of intemperate rhetoric hides the fact that areas like ours are richer than other area of the state. Median household income for Nassau County is $95,823, whereas Albany County’s is $57,715, and Albany is not the poorest county in New York State. So, in our system of school finance heavily dependent as it is on the regressive property tax for revenue, there is a certain fairness for wealthier school districts to get less state aid than poorer one.

But if fairness is the discussion, we need to confront the need to junk the property tax as the revenue source for public education. It is totally unfair for two citizens living in homes that are equally assessed but who have widely disparate incomes to contribute the same amount to finance their community’s schools. Fairness, demands the financing of education through the more progressive income tax. Create a system where each student in the public schools of the state has equal state financial backing. The zip code a child is born in should not, as it too often is, be the determinant of his academic and financial future. That’s the kind of fairness we all ought to be fighting for. Just demanding more state aid under the current system of public school finance has almost nothing to do with fairness.

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I’m in the middle of reading Paul Krugman’s End This Depression Now, a book that I recommend as a guide to understand the economic issues before our nation and as an example of great teaching in that Krugman has a remarkable ability to take concepts that most people would find opaque and make them easy to understand. He also has an uncanny knack for confronting his readers with an occasional statistic that just rivets one’s attention, causing one to stop in initial disbelief and reflect on its meaning. Talking about the growing disparity in wealth and income over the last thirty years, we read on page 60 of the e-edition, “In 2006 the twenty-five highest paid hedge fund managers made $14 billion, three times the combined salaries of New York City’s eighty thousand teachers.” Think about what that number says about our country.

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The New York Times this morning features an article on the property tax short fall in communities devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Damaged property is being reassessed downward with the result that shore communities in New York and New Jersey are projecting revenue shortfalls of as much as ten percent.

Wouldn’t this be an appropriate time to finally recognize the absurdity of raising revenue for vital public services like schools off the regressive property tax? The storm has given us yet another reason to link the funding of essential services to the taxation of income rather than property value.

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NEA Gets Behind Seattle Teachers

It took a little while, but it was encouraging to learn that National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel issues a strong statement of support for the Garfield High teacher in Seattle who have refused to administer a require high stakes, standardized test.
The leaders of both national union have now gotten behind a grassroots action that has captured the imagination of teachers who have longed for the creation of a movement to counteract the debilitating effect standardized testing is having on our public schools, even the best one.

Here’s Van Roekel’s statement:

Today is a defining moment within the education profession as educators at Seattle’s Garfield High School take a heroic stand against using the MAP test as a basis for measuring academic performance and teacher effectiveness. I, along with 3 million educators across the country, proudly support their efforts in saying ‘no’ to giving their students a flawed test that takes away from learning and is not aligned with the curriculum. Garfield High School educators are receiving support from the parents of Garfield students. They have joined an ever-growing chorus committed to one of our nation’s most critical responsibilities—educating students in a manner that best serves the realization of their fullest potential.

Educators across the country know what’s best for their students, and it’s no different for our members in Seattle. We know that having well-designed assessment tools can help students evaluate their own strengths and needs, and help teachers improve. This type of assessment isn’t done in one day or three times a year. It’s done daily, and educators need the flexibility to collaborate with their colleagues and the time to evaluate on-going data to make informed decisions about what’s best for students.

If we want a system that is designed to help all students, we must allow educators, parents, students and communities to be a part of the process and have a stronger voice in this conversation as they demand high-quality assessments that support student learning. Off-the-shelf assessments that are not aligned with the curriculum or goals of the school are not the answer.

Van Roekel hits all the right themes. In referring to the refusal of the Garfield High teachers to give what to their professional judgment is a pointless exam as “a defining moment,” Van Roekel appears to understand that these brave teachers have pointed us in a better direction to confront and defeat the testocracy’s dominance over our public schools.

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State Mandated Child Abuse

I attended a lunch period today with half of the faculty of our kindergarten school – 17 classes of kindergarten. I sat for forty minutes listening to impassioned women telling me how they firmly believe that in carrying out the New York State mandates for instruction, they are doing their students serious harm. To a person, they reported how increasingly their students complain of stomach aches, headaches and other psychosomatic symptoms. Several told of children telling them that they hate school. I was left to wonder why we are permitting the infliction of completely age inappropriate tasks on little children, some of whom come to us before they are five years old. As one of the teachers said, “We’re creating problems. We’re not helping kids. We’re creating school problems for many of these kids.” I came away wondering how to fight back against state mandated child abuse.

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The Inauguration on M. L. King Day

On April 5, 1968, I was at my school in Old Tafo, Ghana, a little village outside of Kumasi, the capital of the Asante Region, finishing out my tour as a member of the Unites States Peace Corps. The day began as usual but was soon rendered unforgettable by the news on Voice of America. Martin Luther King had been killed.
I admired King especially as the breath of his moral vision evolved to include challenging the war in Viet Nam and the economic inequality that would keep America separate and unequal even if we all had the right to eat in any restaurant and stay in any hotel. As he began to say more and more,

What does it profit a man to be able to eat at the swankest integrated restaurant when he doesn’t even earn enough money to take his wife out to dine? What does it profit one to have access to the hotels of our cities, and the hotels of our highways, when we don’t earn enough money to take our family on a vacation? What does it profit one to be able to attend an integrated school, when he doesn’t earn enough money to buy his children school clothes?

I was taken with the great dignity of the man who though only twelve or so years older than I rallied the conscience of a nation to confront its original sin. Hearing of his assassination while overseas was doubly disturbing. What the hell was going on in the United States? First Kennedy and now King?
Later that day, as I sat on the veranda of my house, looking at the African sunset and still reflecting on the day, I became aware of a group of people marching on to the school grounds, marching in silence, seeming to have an important mission. It soon became clear that they were coming my way. What could these people want with me? I went outside to meet them.

Their spokesperson quickly informed me that they came to visit the young American to find out, “Why did you kill King?”

Stunned for the moment by the accusation that I took personally, I stared uneasily at my unexpected guests, until I gradually realized that they were speaking to me as the representative of America. How to be responsible for explaining the killing of this man whose vision of liberation was deeply moving to these Ghanaians who had but a few years before escaped British colonialism.

I don’t trust the memory of what I said to them. More than my words, I remember their accusatorial tone changing to one of condolence for our mutual loss. They would come again in June when Robert Kennedy was sacrificed to the gods of hatred.

I was reminded of this story while watching the inauguration this morning, with its many references to Dr. King’s words and thoughts. It was goosebumpingly moving to hear that “the torch had once again been passed to a new generation of Americans” to continue the long, inevitable march to social and economic justice for all of America’s children.

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Support Our Profession – Support Seattle Teachers

I am increasingly interested in the efforts of the teachers in Seattle who are resisting administering standardized tests which they deeply believe have no educational value. I believe every teacher suffering professionally under a standardized testing regime needs to support their effort. To begin, send them a message letting them know how much you appreciate their efforts. Maybe even more importantly, discuss their efforts with anyone who will listen to you. Help build support for efforts like theirs to end the tyranny of testing on our schools.

Send message of support to: jesse_hagopian@yahoo.com.

I have sent the following message of support. I hope my readers, both teachers and lay people, will join me in letting these brave souls know that we admire their courage to stand up for their students and their profession.


The members of the Plainview-Old Bethpage Congress of Teachers, NEA, AFT are awed by your determination to oppose a testing regime that contributes nothing to the education of children and cheapens the teaching profession. We are watching events in Seattle and are prepared to support you in any way we can. We hope, too, that your brave effort will spark a movement across the United States to roll back the malignant influence of the testocracy on our public schools. Bravo!

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Not that I expected it, but we still haven’t seen our nation’s teachers unions say a word about the rebellion of the Seattle teachers who have refused to administer their city’s high states test.

On the home front, I asked a group of union leaders what we could do to demonstrate our outrage at what New York’s tests are to our schools. I into dusced the question with a reference to the courage of the teachers in Seattle. No one had a suggestion. Being a reasonably good teacher who wasn’t getting a response from the class, I offered an example of the kind of thing I had in mind. “Suppose on the day when we administer the math and ELA tests, suppose we organize a demonstration by teachers and parents at each of our schools on Long Island with the theme – wasting the public’s money without educating a single child today.” In a group of some 40 leaders, I got two suggestions, only one of which was germane. The other, however may be even better than my own.

A young woman piped up and said, “My 5th grade child goes to school on the test days and writes on her paper, ‘My mother doesn’t allow me to take tests like this.’” Wow! What a great idea. It works on so many levels in a place like Long Island where we have thousands of teachers with kids in school.

Sadly, I was the only one interested. The meeting quickly moved on to the next item on the agenda.

Something very curious is happening in what we like to call the teacher labor movement. Both NEA and AFT appear to recognize that for some time they have neglected the art of member mobilization around issues important to people working in public education. Yet, they seem completely incapable of selecting an issue and developing a plan for organizing around it Their ineptitude is almost comical. At a recent meeting of the National Council of Urban Education Associations, a powerful caucus within the NEA, most of the very good workshops were about various facets of organizing. The only problem with the workshops was participants left without any direction about who to organize around what.

If there is one thing I’ve learned in over 30 years of union work. Never hold a union meeting where the participants get to leave without being give some union work to do. I try to teach that to union building reps. Sadly, too many meeting I attend these days don’t end this way. There is a huge, angry membership waiting to be organized around the issue of testing.

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The AP Fetish

The magic words uttered at Plainview’s Board of Education meeting Monday night were, “Rockville Center is having all their students take AP.” Clear evidence to support doing away with 11th grade Honors English. The AP fetish continues to attract adherents. Not one member of our Board of Education questioned the wisdom of such a move, the only hesitation coming from the Board President who felt that we needed a year to make the transition. No one asked if pushing everyone into AP is the best way to educate adolescent kids. No one asked why if kids are taking more and more so-called college level courses, why don’t they just go to college? As one parent in the audience was heard to say, “When did high school become community college?” Amid all the clichés – greater rigor, stretching our students and other metaphors more appropriate to discussions of torture than education, the AP god was propitiated in the hope that the greater our offering to her the more she will grace our children with college admission. Other than a passport to college, high school education holds no purpose. Increasingly our school district exists to have our students win competitions, take as many AP classes as they can and get into the very best colleges.

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The Unions and Seattle

This morning, as I reviewed the Facebook posts of people and organizations I’m connected to, my eye alighted on one from Occupy NEA, a Facebook community whose members appear to be dissatisfied with the timidity of both the NEA and AFT in fighting back against corporatist education reform movement. The link they shared today is Why AFT and NEA Abandoned Seattle Teachers, a reference to the teachers in a Seattle high school who have announced that they will take no part in the administration of the district mandated high states test, an exam that they believe is flawed.

While I’m not sure abandoned is the correct word to describe the response of the NEA and AFT to the civil disobedience of these Seattle teachers, a look at the websites of the national AFT and NEA, their state affiliates and the NEA affiliated local union reveals that none of these unions has uttered a peep about the brave stand by these union teachers. It’s as though these teachers don’t exist, wide media coverage not withstanding. Are the leaders of these unions embarrassed that a group of their members has taken an essentially moral stand and at considerable risk stood up for their profession? If so, what does their silence say about them? Why do unions who claim to be seeking to return to their organizing roots ignore members who clearly know how to organize?

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Will Seattle Be the Spark?

I’ve written many times that the only way many of the so-called education reforms that are destroying our good schools are going to be defeated is through the civil disobedience of educators and parents. Parents have been in the vanguard of fighting the plague of high stakes testing. Growing numbers of them are keeping their kids home on the days that the tests are administered. Today the first teachers joined the battle. The teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle have announced their refusal to administer the state tests that are used to evaluate instructors. Their press release is contained in this blog post I found. The writer calls upon teachers and their unions to support these courageous teachers. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve written the following to them:

The members of the Plainview-Old Bethpage Congress of Teachers support your efforts to end the scourge of high stakes testing that is destroying public education in the United States. We hope that your courage sparks teachers and their unions throughout the country to defend their profession from the data driven drones who seek to measure us out of existence.

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Worse Than I Imagined

My post for January 7 expressed my outrage at the press attention give to Michelle Rhee’s report card on the education reform efforts of the various states. I didn’t realize when I wrote that piece that Frontline on PBS was doing a program, the promo for the show referring to her as “one of the most admired and reviled school reformers.”

Those who thought my characterization of her too harsh should invest 57 minutes and watch this program. I think you will find that when I said, “Her career is a case study of self-promotion aided and abetted by corporate media who more than willingly supply their megaphone those who wish to destroy the public’s confidence in our schools,” I was guilty of understatement.

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Losing the Good Will of Teachers

Yesterday, I chaired a routine meeting of our union’s Executive Board, a body composed of the elected officers and building representatives of our organization. Far from routine, the meeting left me depressed and frustrated. During that portion of the meeting devoted to new business, a board member from one of our elementary schools began to talk about how hostile her workplace has become. Getting more animated and impassioned the longer she spoke, she talked about teachers finding things in their letterboxes in the morning from unidentified sources calling upon them to do things that they half-understand at best. Her comments led others to discuss implementation of the Common Core Standards where teachers are being asked to do things without anyone in authority deigning to explain why they are being asked to do them. Yet others added comments about the disruption of their teaching days by progress monitoring, one of the many euphemisms for the testing plague the education gods have inflicted upon us.

As they spoke, and I didn’t dare stop their venting, I searched for what I would say to them when they were finished. Clearly their ranting was meant to say, “The union needs to help us.” Every impulse I had was prompting me to lead them to simply refuse to do what is being asked of them. But I know that battle can’t be won in one small school district. Perhaps if all of us on Long Island refused to cooperate with state mandates that are inimical to good education, perhaps then we could get somewhere. But then I remembered that when I suggest such things at meetings of union leaders I’m too often met with looks that suggest, “There’s the 60’s radical again.”

On thing this unrepentant radical knows for sure. School districts run on the good will of the teaching staff. Almost no teachers read a district’s policy book. It used to be that teachers would put up with bad pay, high-handed, ill-informed management, infantilizing rules and regulations, all the crap that came with the job. They could bare all of that for the intrinsic rewards of the work. They could close the door to their classrooms and enter a world that made sense to them. They could get high on the special intimacy that bonds a class of kids and their teacher. I believe I see that good will evaporating, with anger and bitterness rushing in to fill the void.

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Rhee’s Report Card

The front page of the New York Times this morning has a story that doesn’t strike me as fit to print. There we find Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst outfit issuing its report card on the various reform agendas of the states. The story is a testament to a very unfortunate truth. The weight of one’s opinions has become directly proportional to one’s personal wealth or the wealth of those who support one. Why anyone would objectively care what grade Michelle Rhee assigned to a state educational program is beyond me. With little evidence that her so-call reforms accomplished anything in Washington DC where her efforts were repudiated by school staff public alike, rather than being consigned to the dustbin of educational reform, she emerges with right-wing financial backing to found an organization that appears dedicated to the destruction of public education. Her career is a case study of self-promotion aided and abetted by corporate media who more than willingly supply their megaphone those who wish to destroy the public’s confidence in our schools.

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Longer School Days?

Why the hell we are so anxious to inflict longer school days on the young, I will never understand. To the young, school days are already endless. Don’t you remember how long afternoons in school seemed? Remember how often you found yourself looking at the classroom clock only to find that only five minutes had passed since your last furtive look? Remember how your muscles ached for physical activity, how just sitting at you ass breaking desk required an act of supreme will?

I know the world has changed since I was a kid. I know that many parents are not home at the end of the school day and that some of the drive for longer school days comes from the very real need for safe, inexpensive childcare. But the drive to fill all of a child’s waking hours with school, lessons of one kind or another and homework completely ignores the enormous benefits of unstructured time for play and socialization on a child’s development.

Not so long ago, children we treated like little adults. They dressed like adults, and, to the extent they were physically able, they worked like adults. Childhood is a fairly modern invention that appears to be becoming obsolete.

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Cuomo’s Education Reform Commission

When New York Governor Cuomo appointed an Education Reform Commission some time ago and appointed his plutocrat pals whose ignorance about public education is outshone only by their wealth and power, few working in the trenches expected anything good to come of it. They will not be surprised.

While few would object to the call for free pre-k for students living in poverty and using schools as the hub for health care delivery in our impoverished neighborhoods, the chances of the state having the money to finance these worthy goals are about zero. Interestingly, the commission didn’t make any recommendations on how to finance their proposals. I suppose we should not have expected people like Commission Chair Richard Parsons, former chair of Citigroup, to call for increased personal and corporate taxes to finance these reforms.

Among the other so-called reforms, there is Cuomo’s familiar call for the consolidation of schools districts. Popular thought says that this would save big dollars if it could be politically accomplished. However, the one example we’ve had on Long Island yielded higher costs, as salaries and other costs were leveled up to those of the higher paying district. One way or another, I’m betting the instinct for local control trumps even the illusion of saving money. There is also a call for longer school days and an extended school year, again without any thought for the cost. I guess they’re assuming that teachers will simply volunteer or be forced to work the extra time. It’s interesting that in the press report there is no mention of what the extra time is for.

Finally, my favorite recommendation, made by none other than our president of the American Federation of Teachers – a bar type exam for teachers. There’s a reform we can all get behind. It costs next to nothing, will accomplish even less, but boy does it make for a good sound bite.

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Educational Intervention vs. Economic Integration

From time to time over a thirty-five year teaching career in an affluent Long Island suburb, I would meet a transfer student from New York City with a history of poverty and school under-achievement and even trouble with the law. Working with such kids, seeing them gradually behave just like their peers raised in the burbs, convinced me that the we could save lives if we could see to it that all kids attended schools in which a majority of the population came from the middle and upper classes. Well it turns out that there is a whole body of research validating that view, research brought together by Richard Kahlenberg in a recent article “From All Walks of Life.” The evidence is overwhelming that poor kids who attend schools in which the majority are not poor do better than kids who remain in schools with high poverty rates, even schools at which there have been major educational interventions. If poor kids additionally live in mixed socio-economic neighborhoods, they do even better. All of this is known beyond any reasonable doubt. Yet we continue to have education and housing policies that increase economic segregation.

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