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 April, 2013

Raising Standards?

From Atlanta to Long Island, the corrupting, corrosive influence of high stakes testing has expressed itself in outright cheating. As more and more states make student test results part of teachers’ annual performance reviews, the fear of being adjudged ineffective for things beyond one’s control is driving people cheat.

Students are feeling the challenge to their integrity too. The experience of one of our teachers during the recent math examinations in New York is illustrative of the impact of making testing the focus of education rather than learning.
While proctoring the math exam, our teacher was called over by one of her students who proceeded to engage her plaintively.
“Can’t you help me with this test?”

“No I can’t. Just do the best you can,” the teacher replied.

“But no one will know. Please help me.”

Why does a child think his result on test is important enough to move him to ask his teacher to help him cheat? Why have we allowed the degradation of elementary schooling to the point where a teacher writes to her union president about how the children in her class “…are so defeated that they are asking us to cheat for the”?

A colleague of mine has a kindergartener, a perceptive, verbal child who comes home from school to announce to her parent, “I hate school.” We call that raising standards?

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Rethinking Reflexive School Budget Support

I’m going to ask the executive board of my union to support our district’s school budget.

But it’s time to put the heat on boards of education to end the budget cutting and build coalitions to support piercing the property tax cap. It’s time to stop trying to fool the public into thinking that we can continue to have the same quality education as programs are cut.

Unless those of us who believe in public education take a stand against this cutting, it won’t be long before the cuts in many school districts will be so deep that they will never be replaced because to do so will require such a huge jump in the tax levy as to make restoration impossible. It‘s simple. Go three or four years with budgets that are two to three percent below what they should be to really maintain the status quo, and you are suddenly looking at nine or ten percent increases to put back what has been lost. That’s almost impossible to do!

Pro-public education citizens reflexively support school budget, even regressive ones. They do so out of a loyalty to an institution for which they have an abiding respect. Yet it is objectively not respectful of the institution to support budgets that starve it and limit its ability to fulfill its mission. We’ve got to rethink reflexive budget support. To do otherwise is to suggest that we are satisfied with the status quo.

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Gates Is At It Again

In a show soon to air on PBS, Bill Gates is said to be going to air his latest teacher improvement plan. Taking a step back from student test scores as a measure of teacher quality, he is now proposing that the country spend 5 billion dollars to put a camera in every classroom so that God knows who can watch and evaluate teachers’ performance. It can’t be long before some data driven dunce comes up with a scale that gives principals 25% of the teacher score, parents 25%, students 25% and taxpayers in the community another 25%.

There are literally countless people working in America’s public schools who know infinitely more about educating children and judging the quality of teaching than Bill Gates. We almost never get to hear them. In America today, the value of an idea is directly proportional to the money behind it.

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The Surveilled Society

Today’s post seeks to find words to express my bewilderment at a Board of Education meeting I attended last evening – bewilderment that rapidly turned to anger as I considered the consequences of what I saw and heard.

The district’s administration had on the agenda a report on their proposed three year security improvement plan. While the presentation began with the factual statement that public schools are the safest places for kids to be, the remainder of the program distanced itself from that fact. Rather than comforting parents in attendance with the facts about public school safety, they were regaled with a video of a simulated response to an armed perpetrator to our high school. Although the sound wasn’t working, we were assured that if it were we would hear the sounds of gun fire and the barking of instructions by the first responders. What must the impact of this video have been on anyone in the audience with children in our schools? The real message of the evening is that our students are imperiled and only an advanced district-wide surveillance system can assure their safety from the evil doers who are poised to attack. How could any sane person say no to a spending whatever sum to make our children safe?

It was not at all surprising, therefore, that the discussion by the Board of Education that followed was not about whether the proposed plan is a rational response to a measurable threat. Rather the focus was on whether we had considered even harder security measures. The more cameras we have, the more electronic door locks, the more people watching the inhabitants of the school on video screen across the county, the more our children will be safe. Like so many Americans these days, not a sole raised any concerns about privacy and freedom. No one expressed a fear that a public education should not be a preparation for being a citizen of a surveilled society.

While we don’t like to think about it, violence in school in much more likely to come from within than without. Ironically, waking as I did still thinking angrily about the meeting last evening, I was calmed down by a bit of sanity on the op-ed page of this morning’s New York Times. There, two researchers have a piece entitled “Immigrant Kids, Adrift” that documents a real problem of poorly assimilated, alienated immigrant children in our schools. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the recent tragedy in Boston is instructive in this regard. Walk through the cafeteria or library in the high school in my town and odds are you will see different ethnic groups congregating together, often speaking their mother tongue. We don’t talk about how we might better make these children feel a part of our society. We don’t express much empathy for how difficult life in a strange country is cut off from everything familiar, having to think carefully about things that natives perform intuitively.

Neither do we think enough about our home grown alienated kids. What anger seethes in the minds of homeless kids, hungry kids, abused kids, kids who live amid unimaginable riches but who have nothing? No one seems to be looking to spend money on these kids, and they know it.

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Teaching Justice

It is days like today that have me wishing I were still teaching. What an opportunity teachers have to close the doors to their classrooms, forget about state tests and Common Core and talk about constitutional rights and justice. To the extent that their students watched TV or engaged social media like Facebook, they were bombarded as I was with cries for vengeance against the surviving Boston Marathon bomber. “Try him as an enemy combatant,” even though he’s an American citizen. “If we treat him as an enemy combatant, we can question him better,” better a euphemism for torture him. “Forget about Miranda rights,” even though he’s an American citizen with hopefully the same right to justice as you and I.

Were I in class this morning, I’m sure the majority sentiment would be that the perpetrator of this dastardly act is not deserving of the protections of the Constitution. My challenge would be to get my students to understand that their rights as Americans are inextricably tied to the extent to which while our emotions lead us to want to rend the perpetrator literally limb from limb we must provide him with the justice provided for by the Constitution. To do otherwise is to threaten our own freedom. We don’t suspend a person’s right to justice because his crimes are heinous.

Teachers! This is your teachable moment. Grab it!

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Common Core Debate Provides Opportunity For Strange Alliances

A report in the Washington Times highlights the growing debate within the Republican Party over the Common Core Standards. Generally backed by Republican governors who played a significant role in their creation, the standards are increasingly seen national Republican Party officials as a threat to America’s tradition of local control of public schools.

For those of us who are increasingly concerned about the appropriateness of the Common Core Standards and their implementation (Here in New York that implementation has been nothing short of stupid.), this rift within the party is a hopeful sign. Linking their opposition as they do to the Obama administration’s Race to the Top which they see as a usurpation of local control of education, there is the real possibility of an emerging consensus to do away with this most ill-conceived policy objective of Obama’s presidency and the obsession with high stakes testing that it has intensified.

The Republicans may be going after Common Core for the wrong reasons – if Obama is for it, they’re against it, but that shouldn’t stop better intentioned critics from joining forces with them on this issue. As Saul Alinisky was fond of saying, “Those who worry about whether the ends justify the means often wind up on their ends without any means.”

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On the Duty to Disobey

More and more, professional conversations on the deficiencies of high stakes testing turn on the analogy to child abuse. I have been with teachers who spontaneously begin to cry when they talk about the reaction of their students to testing and activities related to it. My union colleague Nina Melzer often finds herself talking of the response of her kindergarten students who at the sight of her taking out a timer from her desk like Pavlovian subjects begin to cry and demonstrate their test anxieties in numerous unhealthy ways.

Certainly a growing number of parents see the obsessive testing required by the state as abusive and are withholding their children from it in increasing numbers. But what of the professionals, the teachers, principals and superintendents? They know best what testing is doing to destroy public education. Educational leaders, in the labor movement and without, are fiercely opposed to what they are being forced to do with children but reluctant to take a stand, fearing retribution from the authorities in Albany. At best they voice opposition to the tests but then go and play their assigned part in the testing process which they have said is abusive.

But if we believe that we are being ordered to be the agents of child abuse, do we not have a duty to disobey? If we don’t refuse orders which we deem violative of good professional practice and conscience, are we not objectively guilty participants in a process harmful to children? Do we not bear moral guilt that cannot be relieved by the defense that we are just following orders of our superiors in Albany – the Nuremberg defense? I have to give the testocracy boys credit. They have built a system in which we are coerced into discrediting ourselves.

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These days in the world of public education the Holy Grail is evidence. What is the evidence that your care about and respect the children you teach? What is the evidence that the children in your class understand at a deep level the concept you taught in your last class.

Well, I’m looking for evidence too. What evidence do we have that people like Chancellor Tisch and Commissioner King have the slightest idea of what they are doing? Do the tests that we have begun to inflict on the children of this state – tests which they both admit children have not been prepared for – is that the evidence of their competence?

Are we to feel secure with them at the helm of the state education department because they put out a memo stating that they know that students are not going to do as well on the current round of state examinations as they have on past one? Is their total indifference to what goes on in the mind of a child who is confronted with age inappropriate material – I mean things that the test makers didn’t learn until they were in college – does that comfort us that they understand children and can fashion an education appropriate to their age and ability?

Where’s the data to show us that this Common Core has been field tested and produces the results claimed for it? Where’s the statistical support for the contention that these standards and the testing regime that goes with them can help children overcome the multiple debilitating effects of living in poverty? Isn’t it entirely more likely that we would be much better off as a nation if we could lift the 20 percent of the nation’s children living below the federal poverty standard into the middle class? Failing that, don’t we have more and better data to show that if we sent poor kids to school with middle class kids their academic performance improves, their dropout rate declines and their college participation rate increases?

What evidence is there that Tisch and King should be entrusted with the education of our state’s children? I suggest there is none.

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Politically Obtuse

Last night, the members of my union attended a Board of Education meeting to explain to the Board how the budget cuts they were proposing would seriously prejudice their ability to provide the same quality academic program. Their argument now is moot in that the only budget restorations the Board could muster were six tenths of a nurse for the Jewish parochial school in town and a half of a teacher to continue student attendance issues at our high school. Why anyone would even suggest cutting services to the parochial school thereby inviting the parents of those students to vote against the District’s budget is beyond me. Why the restoration awaited the final meeting before the adoption of the budget defies imagination, it was such a politically obtuse proposal.

Obtuse is actually a good word to describe the reaction of the Board to the audience of teachers and parents. There was not an open mind on the dais. That was compounded by the condescension of Superintendent Lewis who repeatedly invoked a slight of hand to suggest that somehow cutting some 15 teaching positions was going to improve the instruction of our students. There were references to data all evening, as Board members smirked or weakly feigned interest in what the teachers and parents had to say.

In the end when the nasty deed was done and the budget adopted, Board members who had paid not the slightest attend to what the parents and teachers had to say, wrung their hands over what a difficult budget process this had been. It hurt them terribly to make these cuts, but sometimes you just have to do unpleasant things. That there had been no serious public questioning of the Superintendent’s budget, that no one Board member offered one serious alternative to some of the completely senseless cuts the budget contained, it had been a very difficult process nevertheless. It was left to Board Member Rothman to jam a needle in the eye of every teacher who had the wherewithal to remain to the bitter end. Rothman complemented Dr. Lewis and Assistant Superintendents Gierasch, Eagen and Ruf for their fine work. I’ll bet none of these people has the slightest idea of why the staff was in a rage this morning. Then again, if they could understand that, they would have proposed a different budget, a budget that values people over things.

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A Movement Matures

Saturday, April 6 was a great day in my community of Plainview-Old Bethpage (POB). Co-hosting a legislative breakfast were the PTAs of POB and neighboring Syosset as well as the teacher unions in both districts. Two issues brought these organization together – issues that threaten the future of public education in our state – the 2 percent property tax cap and the state’s obsession with high stakes testing.

For two hours Congressman Israel, State Senator Marcellino, Assemblyman Charles Levine, a representative from Senator Kemp Hannon’s office, County Councilwoman Judi Jacobs and Town Board member Alesia listened as over 200 teachers and parents told stories about the impact high stakes testing is having on the children in our schools. Passion for relief from the State’s regime of high state tests was so strong that the dialogue between legislators and constituents never really got to the tax cap issue. At one point, in response to a question from a parent about the legality of parents opting their children out of the tests, the audience broke into a rhythmic chant of, “Opt out! Opt out! Opt out!”
All of the assembled legislators agreed that New York’s testing program has gotten out of control. All agreed that it is having a very negative impact on our schools – some of the best in the entire state. Senator Marcellino said it best when he observed that the Regents and Education Commissioner King are treating failing schools and highly successful schools the same. He urged the State Education Department to recognize that Long Island has some of the best schools in the nation. He further urged them to focus on what could be done for the failing schools in the state and to leave our most successful ones free to do what they always have – provide an excellent education.

I’ve been a witness to education politics for 40 years. The politicians ignore the testing issue at their peril. In communities throughout the nation, teachers and parents are working together to protect children from the excesses of high stakes testing. They demand and will ultimately get a balanced testing system that recognizes the needs of children, their parents and their teachers. Here in New York, the testocracy will soon launch its new state tests, a launch that will surely provoke even greater fury from parents and teachers as students get the results of exams that have been designed to produce lowered scores. Give everyone a sense of failure. That will motivate them. It certainly will, but not in the way Chancellor Tisch and Commissioner King imagine.

I’m off tomorrow to the NYSUT Representative Assembly, the annual convention of my state union. My posts this week may therefore be intermittent.

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Have A Look

If I link to other sources in my blog, it is usually to written documents, preferring words to pictures most of the time. However, if you follow this link, you will see in a very cleverly done video on the essential challenge facing public schools – the attack of the corporate raiders, their weapon testing. Have a look. Back to words on Monday.

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Opting Into the Fight Against Obsessive Testing

On a union presidents bulletin board I belong to, a colleague posted a very serious question. Should we as education unionists join the movement to encourage parents to keep their children from taking the state’s high stakes tests? She went on, should we additionally withhold our own children from these tests? Here is the answer I gave her.

“If we are serious about building union/ community coalitions to defend public education, we will do everything we can to support the growing national movement against the obsession with high stakes testing. If our concern for the children we teach is sincere and deeply felt, we will do whatever it takes to stop the corporate testocracy’s attack on public education. How can we who know better than anyone what testing is doing to narrow educational possibilities for students while demeaning the teaching profession – how can we sit on the sidelines , sending our kids to take these tests, leaving it to braver others to fight our battle? I think we know that the time to waver is over. We will never beat the enemies of public education with our money. They have more than we can ever dream of raising. Our salvation must come from the strength of our numbers and our ability to organize ourselves and others in common cause. It’s time for us to opt into the fight. “

By the way, here’s one of the more eloquent parent pieces on why opting kids out of high stakes tests makes sense.

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Learning Is Over – The State Tests Are Here

Learning Is Over – The State Tests Are Here
Here in New York, the state tests are upon us. Literally days will be spent administering exams that are increasingly divorced from anything that an educated person would recognize as learning. In fact, a recent article on the webpage of our local public radio station drew attention to the pointlessness and ambiguity of some of the questions on the English test by recounting a discussion by a group of college professors as to the answers to several questions. These Ph.D.s often couldn’t agree on the correct answer. Imagine the consternation of young students attempting to grapple with such questions.

What must the parents of the children taking these exams think about them when as happened in my district the assistant superintendent for instructions wrote to them announcing the testing season and sharing with them several paragraphs from the state’s advisory memorandum on the new brad of tests to be rolled out this spring. Written in the inimitable opaque language of our State Education Department, funereal in tone, a parent would have to wonder whether or not it was safe to send her kids to take the exam. In case you think I exaggerate, wrap your mind around the following:

1. “In 2013, New York State, for the first time, will be reporting 3rd through 8th grade student grade-level expectations against a trajectory of college- and career-readiness as measured by tests fully reflective of the Common Core. As a result, the number of students who score at or above grade level expectations will likely decrease.”

2. “As mentioned above, we expect the assessment scores will decline. But we also expect that decline will have little or no impact on principals’ and teachers’ State-provided growth scores. Based on New York’s approach to measuring growth relative to demographically similar students, similar proportions of educators will earn each rating category (Highly Effective, Effective, Developing, and Ineffective) in 2012-13 compared to 2011-12.”

3. Throughout the year and on these exams, students have and will be expected to read more challenging texts, to better support their arguments with evidence drawn from text, to write from sources, to achieve deep conceptual understanding of the most important math concepts of each grade, and to apply their math skill to real world problems.

My kid is going to be measured against”… a trajectory of college…”? But my kid is only ten years old. I have trouble getting him to have a deep conceptual understanding of the importance of brushing his teeth. Is it any wonder more and more parents across the country are opting their kids out of these tests, one way or another –even though the letter home to our district’s parents said they can’t do that. It’s encouraging to see parents refusing to put up with this crap.

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A Dirty Little Secret

The dirty little secret in the debate about the role of testing in our public schools is that the more we rely on tests to evaluate teachers, the more truly ineffective teachers we will have in our nation’s classrooms. That’s because the easiest teaching there is to do is teaching to a test. It requires very limited knowledge and even less imagination. Get the students convinced that the “must” pass the test, and by and large they will accept the drill and kill that is becoming increasingly standard fare. It’s probably even true that we could get very similar test results with high tech devices and a security guard watch over the students as they follow endless links on the road to mastery scores on their tests.

In the old Soviet Union there was a joke among workers that went, “The government pretends to pay us, and we pretend to work.” In the education world of the testocracy, we will increasingly pretend to teach, and our students will pretend to learn. After a brief period, nobody will even know we are pretending.

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Yesterday’s New York Times featured an article with the suspicion provoking title “Curious Grade for Teachers: Nearly All Pass.”

For reporter Jenny Anderson it appears to be a settled question that there must be something wrong with state teacher evaluation systems if more teachers have not been found to be ineffective. After all these systems were set up by so-called reformers to generate data to support what “everybody” knows, that our public schools are failing and the failure is largely due to the many ineffective teachers who staff them. There is something “curious” about most of the teachers in Florida, Tennessee and Michigan being found to be effective or highly effective.

So I guess if the new systems don’t fined numbers of ineffective teachers, we have to develop a new one. We will keep doing that until we find one that gives us a number of ineffective teachers that we feel appropriate. Then we will have the proof we demand for the failure of our schools.

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