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 March, 2013

The Reformers Are Winning

I haven’t had much time for blogging the last few days. The failure of the State of New York to properly fund public education, a property tax cap that makes it extraordinarily difficult for localities to make up for the state’s indifference and the ignorance of those running local school districts all create a perfect storm that is beginning to swamp the best school districts we have, my own included.
So, there has been little time for blogging, my day spent counseling those who face layoff due to ill-conceived budget cuts and doing the political work that will hopefully change the priorities of our district so that people and their contribution to the education of children are valued more that more than technological toys, field trips, conferences, door to door school bus service and a bloated administration that does more to frustrate quality education than facilitate it. The school reformers are winning. They have used their political clout to destroy our best school districts. It will take some time to accomplish this, but absent the public rising to the defense of their local schools, the future is very dim.

Those who still think the institution worth saving, my union along with our sister local in Syosset and the PTAs of both school district is sponsoring a legislative breakfast on Saturday morning, April 6, 2013 at 10 A.M. in the cafeteria of Kennedy High school in Plainview. I encourage all my reader to attend. You can R.S.V.P. to meetyourrepresentative@gmail.com.
I’m taking next week off. I’ll be back on April 1, some would say a good day for a return.

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Education Reform – The Last Refuge…

I came across the following quotation in Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic, the story of the assassination of President James Garfield. Although spoken by New York Senator Roscoe Conkling, a defender of the spoils system in American politics around 1880, his words have stayed with me all weekend as an apt description of what has happened to the word reform in the sphere of public education today. Conkling said, “When Dr. Johnson defined patriotism as the last refuge of a scoundrel, he was unconscious of the then undeveloped capabilities of the word ‘Reform.’” Today’s world of public education is peopled by countless scoundrels who cloak their mendacity in robes of reform.

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Been There…

School districts throughout New York are dealing with the tightest budgets in years. Thousands of teachers have been excessed. Thousands more wait with ever-growing anxiety for the ax to fall on them. I spent much of my day yesterday talking to young teachers who are fearful of losing their positions to budget cuts. Those conversations took me back to a the 70s and 80s when declining enrollments shrunk my school district to about 5000 students from the 14,000 when I was hired. Those days are seared in memory.
I remember the constant worry about what I would do if my time to be excessed came. There were hardly any teaching jobs in the area. I had just bought a house to be closer to my work, with mortgage payments, taxes and upkeep expenses that left me with almost no discretionary income, let alone savings. Panic is not too strong a word to describe what I and so many others my age were feeling, all the while still needing to put on our five shows a day in the classroom, hiding the fact that our minds were on economic survival not on teaching – hiding the anger we felt for a system that seed totally indifferent to our needs.

My conversations with our young members yesterday brought that all back, including the anger, although of a different sort. My experience was conditioned by the fact that there were many fewer kids to teach. There was not too much to be done about that. Today’s young teachers and support staff are in the same position owing to a political failure. We live in a society that wants the best of everything that only government can provide; we just don’t want to pay the taxes necessary to pay the bill. The other night at a school board meeting, a citizen, apparently alarmed at what some of the proposed budget cuts would do to the education of his children, got up and suggested that maybe if we fired ten more teachers, the programs for his children could be preserved. Too many of our politicians, from school board to the governor are catering to that selfishness.

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The Changed Meaning Of Educate

“Ed”u*cate (?), v. t. [imp. & p. p. Educated (?); p. pr. & vb. n. Educating (?).] [L. educatus, p. p. of educare to bring up a child physically or mentally, to educate, fr. educere to ed forth, bring up (a child). See Educe.] To bring or guide the powers of, as a child; to develop and cultivate, whether physically, mentally, or morally, but more commonly limited to the mental activities or senses; to expand, strengthen, and discipline, as the mind, a faculty, etc.,; to form and regulate the principles and character of…”

The above definition of the verb to educate comes from the 1913 edition of Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. We would be wise to take it as our public school reform agenda, offering it as a humanistic, sensible alternative the current “reform” model which is the stuffing of age inappropriate curriculum down the throats of our children, testing the endlessly to make sure they’re “growing” to the satisfaction of the corporate world – more like the making of foie gras than rearing children to be healthy, thoughtful ethical citizens of our society.

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Grand Bargain?

Watching the Sunday talk shows, one would come away with one indisputable fact. Social Security and Medicare are unsustainable entitlement programs that must be curtailed if the United States is to have any economic future. Other than Paul Krugman on This Week, that’s what all of the talking head were saying. What also became clear is that President Obama is back to trying to get a deal in which he will exchange cuts to these programs in exchange for tax loophole reforms that will net the federal government much needed revenue.

Little noticed in the mainstream media was the introduction of legislation by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, co-sponsored by Senate majority Leader Harry Reid, to remove the 6.2% cap on the payroll tax on wages above $250,000 thereby making Social security taxes more progressive. If we just simply lifted the cap altogether, Social security would be fully funded for the foreseeable future. That’s how easy it is to fix that system.

Those who cry that Medicare is unsustainable appear to have as their focus increasing the age of eligibility to 67 or more from the current 65, although none of them explains why we would want to keep people out of a system that delivers health coverage at a substantially lower cost than private insurance does. Yes, it’s true. Medicare is a great bargain. We ought to cover more people with it, not fewer. If readers want to understand how America is getting ripped off by the health industry, read Steven Brill’s brilliant article in Time. If the “grand bargain” the President is looking for includes significant changes to Social security and Medicare, he will have been snookered once again in his dealings with the Republicans in the House and Senate.

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Education – The Tools to Know

Yesterday a friend sent me a link to a promotion for a talk by a Dr. Yong Zhao a reputed education expert who is going to be talking in my area about education that fosters “creative and entrepreneurial learners.” If those words are in fact Dr. Zhao’s, the he is the latest in a long line of ignorant people who keep yapping at me about what we must do to fix our schools.

While my friend sent me the promo because the good doctor appears to be with me on the issue of the over use of standardized test, I wrote back the following: The last thing I want to do is educate entrepreneurial students. What bull! I want innovators who are socially committed to the improvement of their fellow human beings – people who can find ways to temper the evils of our economic system and the political system it creates that produces great wealth and extreme poverty.

I’m fed up with ignorant people telling me what education should be about. Here’s the thing. If we could raise Thomas Jefferson from the dead, there would be much about the modern world that he wouldn’t immediately understand. However, I believe as an educated person, he would possess all of the tools to find out anything he wanted to know. That’s what a good education is about.

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The Equity and Excellence Commission Reports

“…America has become an outlier nation in the way we fund, govern and administer K-12 schools, and also in terms of performance. No other developed nation has inequities nearly as deep or systemic; no other developed nation has, despite some efforts to the contrary, so thoroughly stacked the odds against so many of its children. Sadly, what feels so very un-American turns out to be distinctly American.” This is but one of the strikingly frank conclusions of the Equity and Excellence Commission, a federally created group of 27 people from the world of education (including the Presidents of the NEA and AFT) appointed to look at our nation’s public schools and their accomplishments. The report deserves a wide and deep public discussion for what it has to say about the inequitable funding of public education which creates a system in which a young person’s success is in too many instances determined by the zip code in which she is born. To quote the report again, “Our education system, legally desegregated more than a half century ago, is ever more segregated by wealth and income, and often again by race. Ten million students in America’s poorest communities … are having their lives unjustly and irredeemably blighted by a system that consigns them to the lowest-performing teachers, the most run-down facilities, and academic expectations and opportunities considerably lower than what we expect of other students,” Sadly, I suspect, the focus of the report on the impact of poverty and the maldistribution of wealth, income and resources in our country will receive very little media play while the documentation of where are schools are failing will be the big story.

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Don’t It Always Seem to Go…

Three pieces in the New York Times this morning should send shivers down the spines of anyone interested in education, education as something more than preparing students for some mindless job in the corporate world. “The Country That Stopped Reading Books,” while ostensibly written about Mexico, forces an immediate comparison to conditions in the United States where the Common Core Standards appear to promise workplace literacy in place of liberal arts education. Thomas Friedman, never less than enthralled by technological fixes to serious problems touts mega online courses taught by media star professors as part of the solution for the rising costs of higher education in our country. Friedman would have us embrace a future in which it doesn’t matter what you know because everything can be searched on Google. To complete the dystopian vision of education this morning, there is an article about News Corp’s Joel Klein and his company’s new venture into tablet computers for school children that deliver the company’s curriculum materials and monitor student attention to the screen. Wandering eyes are brought back to the screen by a pop-up that reminds them of the task before them. How comforting to know that we will soon be sending our children off to school with Big brother in their back packs. Pretty soon, no one will even know that he’s there. School reform will have driven him from cultural memory.

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I’ve written frequently about the corrosive influence of the rich on public education and the unexamined assumption in the mainstream media that because people like Bill Gates have billions of dollars they possess special knowledge about the ills of public education and how to fix them.
This morning’s New York Times started my day off with a rush of anger as I read about billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg, himself locked in a war with the United Federation of Teachers over teacher evaluation, and his million dollar contribution to an organization created to support candidates for the Los Angeles school board who are pledged to the kinds of business oriented reforms championed by Bloomberg. They mayor has been joined by Michele Rhee whose organization is a bundler of high roller contributors who are bent on destroying public education.

Most galling is the equation in the article of the Bloomberg contribution and others like it with the funds raised by the United Teachers of Los Angeles, the union representing the teachers in the nation’s second largest school district. It takes a somewhat slanted perspective to see the million dollar contribution of one billionaire as the equivalent of the contribution of 35,000 union members who actually do the work of the district.

Money is speech in the United States, and as wealth and income continue to be disproportionately distributed to the top one percent, the speech of the rest of us matters less and less.

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