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 February, 2013

Budget Madness

The yearly school budget madness is upon us, this year madder than usual owing to the bite the recently enacted property tax cap is beginning to take out of the academic program of school districts throughout the state. A school district like Plainview-Old Bethpage which has been in a really good financial position for some years finds itself seeking to close a 2 million dollar budget hole, and that number was arrived at only after other significant cuts to the budget. Leaders of the district comfort themselves in the knowledge that many Long Island districts are in a much worse position, some slashing entire academic programs and closing neighborhood schools.

Of course budgets can be uncapped by a vote of 60 percent for a higher one, but few boards of education appear to have the political courage to try that route. While NYSUT, our state teachers union, has filed suit against the tax cap law, in part because the super majority provision to pierce the caps violates the one person one vote rule, a decision in that case which is sure to wind up in the appeals courts is months, if not years, off.

Our political leaders in Albany appear to offer us no relief. While to a person I think they know that the property tax is an unfair way to fund public education, few have the will to express alternatives. Governor Cuomo, drooling at the thought of a run for the White House, goes around the state telling voters that school boards are crying wolf and are very often sitting on huge surpluses. He leaves out, what he surely knows, that where there are surplus funds they are largely locked up in restricted accounts that exist to fund known future liabilities. They can’t be spent to offset the property tax rate.

What we have in New York is the equivalent of the warped political process in Washington. We have a public that wants the best public services but refuses to pay the taxes necessary to fund them and an elected leadership that encourages them to think that a credible position. When good schools like ours are starved into failure, as they will be on our current course, our leaders will encourage the public to see that failure as inherent in government run programs and not their failure to provide responsible leadership.

I‘ll have more to say about Plainview-Old Bethpage’s school budget in future posts.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Essential Questions

What does it say about us that we allow teenagers to attend school for seven hours straight without a break? If students came under the state’s labor law, they would have to be given a break after four and a half hours. What does it say that we encourage young people to take as many Advanced Placement courses, supposedly college level courses, as they can? If they are ready for college, why don’t we send them for the real thing? Why are our community’s children talking to their teachers and counselors about how they have no time to sleep – how they are “stressed out”? Why are we giving kids more and more homework to do after a long school day? Surely we know that increasingly the work they submit is a group enterprise. Why does allowing children to have free time, free of school work, free of sports teams, free of clubs, free of lessons, free of tutoring seem to us inimical to their future academic and business endeavors? Why do the streets of our community not ring with the joy and laughter of children as the streets I played on did? Why does the bitch goddess SUCCESS lure young, fragile children, urging them to work harder and harder, never happy until the marrow is sucked out of their bones? Why? Oh why?

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Standing Against Stupidity

The anger and frustration with the New York State Education Department was on display at yesterday’s meeting of our Board of Education which began its discussion of next year’s school budget. Crimped from the get-go with a projected loss of state and federal school aid, compounded by the imposition of a property tax cap, this budget cycle begins in an atmosphere of foreboding as school districts throughout the state set about the task of budgeting for the least damage to their programs possible. Amid these economic circumstances, the state ed department issued an edict that by 2015 all school districts must be prepared to have their students take the state assessments on computers of some kind. How school districts that are cutting programs and laying off teachers and support staff are supposed to find the money for these devices never seems to have concerned the brain trust in Albany. The fact of the matter is that to comply most districts would have to cut even more deeply than they already are into the meat of their academic programs for no discernible reason other than to have their students take a newer generation of high stakes tests of very doubtful worth to anyone.

Fortunately, our Board of Education had the wisdom and courage to recognize the state’s plan as the hair-brained scheme that it is and to declare that our district would not budget the money to comply. It was great to see our Board standing against this blatant stupidity.

One can only hope that determined defiance evident in our Board last night is contagious and that neighboring boards will take up the challenge. If boards of education refuse to provide the infrastructure for high stakes testing, if parents increasingly keep their kids from the tests and work politically to demand better from their elected representatives, if teachers continue to engage in pro-education coalition building around the issue of high stakes testing and its deleterious effect on student learning, the day will surely come when teachers can once again return to what they do best – teaching.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

The Greed is Good Crowd

Why is it that in the richest country in the world a person working for minimum wage still lives in poverty after a week of often grueling, mind-numbing labor? Why is it that every time a national leader has the guts to suggest that the minimum wage be increased because it has been eroded by inflation, the political right conjures up how such a move will cost jobs and weakens the economy? Why is it that proposed legislation requiring all business to give their employees some paid sick leave is seen as evidence that our nation is clearly on the road to a socialist dictatorship? What kind of human beings are against such things? The same kind of people who opposed the 40 hour week, Social Security, workers’ compensation, Medicare, Medicaid and every piece of legislation aimed at improving the human condition. They don’t believe people are entitled to eat, to have a decent place in which to live, to have medical care for their families and a right to gainful employment. They are the greed is good crowd who care only for themselves. They profess love of country, but it’s difficult to know what it is about the country that they love¬ – certainly not its people.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Common Crud

I just spent a half hour looking over sample “Common Core” questions for the coming New York State English Language Arts assessments. If, in fact, the samples given are representative of what’s to come, this will be but the latest stupidity to come from our state education department.
To begin, the major challenge to students will be to concentrate on the boring things they are given to read. Trying to imagine pubescent middle schoolers jumping into an excerpt from Little Women and sustaining their concentration over a page and a half on an exam that they know does not count towards their grade had me laughing out loud. Looking at the questions and realizing that many of them could be answered without having read the passage turned my laughter to anger, remembering that the standards are meant to improve education.
The sample questions are followed by a host of mumbo jumbo about how the questions align with the Standards. The truth of the matter is they don’t align with much of anything that is related to quality education. When I was a kid, I would have looked at those passages and closed the book. Clear to me is the fact that te writers of these questions know next to nothing about middle school kids.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

NYSUT Strikes at the Property Tax Cap

In a bold legal move, New York State United Teachers announced the filing of a law suit this morning seeking to overturn the recently enacted property tax cap on constitutional grounds. School districts on Long Island, like many in the state, are dealing with a perfect storm of school finance problems. Many, like Plainview-Old Bethpage, are faced with increasing expenses while state aid is cut and the ability to offset those cuts with property tax increases are proscribed by the cap. Changing the law through political action has thus far failed. As so often happens, it may take a legal move like this to wake our legislators and governor up to the damage being done to some of our best school systems.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

The Latest Buffoonery

We seem increasingly determined to teach children to hate school and learning. In the name of higher standards we encourage some of our brightest high school kids to take forgo lunch for the opportunity to take yet another course and build a better resume. At the other end of the system, kindergarten kids are being forced to take endless tests, some requiring them to bubble in boxes which their level of physical dexterity makes extraordinarily difficult for them. Now this morning’s New York Times reports the latest buffoonery posing as education reform. New from Florida and elsewhere that gym class is now becoming an arena in which to drill kids in math and English. No longer are kids to play sports in physical education class for the pleasure of moving their bodies and blowing off some of the tension from an increasingly competitive academic environment. Now they’re to be drilled in math and vocabulary and asked to write papers to earn their credit. The physed people interviewed for the article seem to be with the new program, sensing that that in the world of shrinking school budgets and things like Common Core Standards, they had better find an academic rationale for what they do lest they be deemed expendable by the reformers. What’s next, I wonder – screens in student toilets that offer mini-math lessons so that no time is wasted. The labor law of New York State requires that adults have at least a thirty minute break after they have worked four and one half hours. Perhaps we ought to apply that standard to the students in our schools.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Technology Dependence

As I’ve gone around our district with Dr. Lewis, our superintendent, to listen to the staff, we always hear numerous comments about the sad state of the district’s technology. While my readers are well aware of my view that the value of educational technology has been grossly oversold to the point of being a corporate scam, the fact is that teachers of more recent vintage are lost when the equipment malfunctions. Their situation is roughly analogous to my generation of teachers being without books or paper. If all of your lesson plans and materials are stored on your computer for use on you smartboard, the system going down effectively cripples your instruction until it is fixed, which in our district can often take days, if not weeks.

We take attendance, record our grades, communicate with parents, store lesson plans and bookmarked websites for class use – all on the district’s computer network Teachers are evaluated at least in part on how they use educational technology. Yet in every school I’ve been in over the last couple of weeks, teachers spoke of their frustrations of being encouraged to be increasingly dependent on a totally unreliable system. The fact of the matter is we have neither the hardware nor human resources necessary to support instruction as it is done today.

In good economic times, it would be easier to remedy the technology fix we’re in. But in this era of state aid cuts and property tax caps, where is the money to come from? Are we to cut staff and increase class size in exchange for new machines and support staff? Schools have become addicted to technology, and it remains to be seen in what destructive ways they will respond to their dependence.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Assessment vs. Motivation

In yesterday’s post, I talked about the relationship of motivation and confidence to student academic success. This morning, I received the following from a parent. I don’t know whether my piece motivated these thoughts or not, but I do know they are the thoughts of more and more parents in our over tested country. Here’s what the writer had to say.

It was refreshing and wonderful to watch my son play on the volleyball team this afternoon. It was their first game, away in Merrick. The team lost all 5 games, but they played with heart. They were continually being positively coached during their game on every play, by someone with a huge smile who enjoyed every moment. It was truly a learning experience for the players.

I can’t help but contrast this to the environment school has become, testing and quizzing kids to death, where every pencil mark on a piece of paper counts against them since every error is accounted for on the portal.

My son is reading a short story in school and has a test on it on Thursday, and is working on an essay to be graded on it as well. The previous short story somehow had 3 assessments on the very same day – a pop quiz, a RAFT paragraph for homework AND a take home quiz. And there was still more that was assessed for that story!

When I read short stories in school, we answered a few questions, discussed some major points. We moved on and read another story. My teachers were not compelled to assess us on every word that came out of their mouths. We read many stories, discussed and learned many things and lost little instructional time to testing.

Every week my son has 4-5 assessments of some sort in school and several that come home. I question why everything is summative with no formative scores beyond reading levels being kept.

Tonight my son applied a skill learned in ELA to his math homework. He read a complicated question and announced he could ignore what was actually crucial information needed to get the answer because it was a “distractor.”

It’s sad that the educational environment has become a place where kids are being trained to look for tricks when they should be focusing on learning. I’m unsure why almost every day must include at least one test. It’s become an anomaly for a day to not have a test or something due that “counts.”

I look forward to the next volleyball game on Thursday. I enjoyed seeing teaching staff teaching and kids learning, with no portal involved. Most of the kids on the team had no previous experience, background or knowledge of the sport, but I guarantee that they can repeat everything their coach has taught them about the rules of the game, strategies, scoring, etc. No need to assess them to make sure they “got” it. I doubt the coach would give up precious, limited practice time to give a quiz on everything she’s ever told them.

Perhaps academic subjects should take a lesson from sports teams. Motivation, positive encouragement, continual feedback, guidance and instruction lead to success. Non-stop assessing and filling in boxes on the portal does not.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Thinking Makes It So

I was once asked to tutor a group of high school kids for the SAT, a task I was very reluctant to perform. First of all, if the SAT is as claimed an aptitude test, why are we encouraging kids to study for it, and, secondly, it’s hard to imagine a more boring thing to do. Yet, the person asking me to undertake it had done me several good turns so that pleading boredom was simply not an option.

So I got the students a review book and spent some time drilling them on how to approach answering each kind of question. In the analogy question, find the relationship between the two given words first etc., etc. I think I was asked to spend 3 periods a week with them for one quarter doing this mindlessness.

They and I quickly learned that neither of us could tolerate the test prep routine for an entire period. Our sessions gradually turned into my reminding them in any way I could that I was absolutely sure that would minimally get at least 50 points higher than their last SAT score. Motivational coaching gradually replaced mindless drilling until the kids seemed quite relaxed in the knowledge that their scores would definitely improve.

Their scores did improve, each by at least 75 points and one by as much as 125. I have always been convinced that their improvement was due more to their belief that they would improve than any instructional gimmick that I taught them. Such is the power of reasonable, high expectations for children.

I was prompted to think of this experience on hearing one of the endless number of talking heads on TV pontificate about how bad our education system is and how our kids will not be able to compete in the global marketplace. I wonder what the impact of this stupid talk is on the current generation of students. I know one thing for sure. If they come to believe that they can’t compete, they won’t.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Feeling Disrespected

I’ve been spending some teacher lunch periods going around our district with the Superintendent listening to our teachers talk about their work. Yesterday was such a day. After an hour and a half spent with teachers, I ended my day presiding over a meeting of our clerical unit, listening to our members react to the details of a recently negotiated contract. Reflecting on my day, I was struck by how underlying everything said by the union members of both groups was a feeling of being disrespected. Give an elementary teacher a five year old computer that’s been pounded on by high school students and tell her that you demand that she infuse her teaching with technology, tell her also that your evaluation of her is going to be in part based on the extent to which she does that, and you have told that teacher that you don’t take her work seriously. Offer clerical employees a pitifully small raise, and even though the economic times are difficult, the undertone of every comment they make is, “No one appreciates me.” Layoff teachers and clericals, as districts all around us are doing, while doing nothing to prune bloated managements, and you not only disrespect the work of teachers and clericals, you have really said that you don’t care about the education of children either.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

The Latest NEA/AFT Merger

On February 2nd, the North Dakota Education Association, a National Education Association state affiliate, and the North Dakota Public Employees Association, an American Federation of Teachers state affiliate, became a united, merged union

Slowly, but surely, we are building a national merger from the bottom up. Well over fifty percent of AFT members are now part of the NEA. Over a third of the NEA membership is connected to the AFL-CIO. More and more, the members of both national organizations are realizing that they have much more in common than that which divides them. The attacks on teachers and all public employees have highlighted as never before the need for a united effort to push back. Somehow, whether we have officer term limits, vote by secret ballot for union officials and all of the issues that have prevented a merger in the past have shrunk in importance relative to massive layoffs, salary freezes, diminished health benefits and eroding working conditions.

Heartiest congratulations to the leaders of these to state unions and to their memberships who have recognized their solidarity with one another. Could Wisconsin be the next state affiliate to merge? When will the leaders of NEA and AFT make merger their priority? Will they wake up one morning and find that we have all merged without them? If there ever was a time for bold leadership, surely this is the moment.

Tags: , ,
posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Searching for Magic

From time to time, I review the statistics from our union’s webpage to try to get an understanding of what readers are drawn to. I also look at the search terms that have drawn readers to specific content on our page. Alarmingly, to a very significant degree, expressions like “the effects of divorce on children,” “impact of divorce” and similar phrases are consistently the most frequent search terms bringing people to our website. Reviewing these statistics, I always conjure up this eerie picture of desperate parents in disintegrating relationships searching the ether late at night for some magic to protect their kids from the inevitable issues surrounding the dissolution of a family. I wish our page contained the magic they desire.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Sunday Morning Talk

he Sunday morning talk shows are a highlight of my week. A pile of fresh bagels, an assortment of smoked fish, lots of coffee and politics. What could be better? Watch a few. Record a few. The whole day accounted for, especially when there is no baseball to watch.

But on ABC’s This Week, Michelle Rhee hawking her new book disturbed my morning as not even war reports can. Here was this media-made expert again being given attention as though she accomplished something important and actually knows something about public schools. It’s maddening to see the deference she receives, even though there is a growing body of evidence that her accomplishments as head of the D.C. schools is also a largely media concocted story. Confronted by George Stephanopoulos with the fact that there is growing public opposition to the standardized testing that she has championed, this master media manipulator began to back away from her staunch advocacy of testing, sensing that that her economic future may depend on public popularity. Sounding very much like national union leadership, Rhee thinks that we need a balanced testing regime, although exactly what balanced means to people like her she has yet to say. The most infuriating part of the interview was when Stephanopoulos as her what she had learned from her D.C. experience, and Rhee, a wide toothy smile on her face, said that she probably shouldn’t have fired a fired a D.C. principal on TV. I guess for her that passes for moral growth.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments