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 June, 2013

Unionize the Organized

I listened to a debate today at the summer meeting of the National Council of Urban Education Associations (NCUEA) on the subject of the representation of different job categories on committees of the National Education Association (NEA) whose convention follows this meeting. Currently NEA committees must have 75 percent teacher representation on them. The growing body of educational support professionals in our union has for several years sought to end this quota system, believing as I do that a member is a member regardless of job title.

While a majority of NCUEA voted to support doing away with the quota, some of the voices raised in opposition were deeply troubling, voices that come from the most progressive groups within our national union. While they don’t say it quite this way, the essence of their argument is that by allowing greater participation of educational support professionals in our union, we lose our focus on education and the most important people in education – teachers. As one speaker put it,” Like it or not, the focus of education is the classroom.” This from a union leader, a leader who for the past two days has listened to NEA staff and officers talk about almost nothing but organizing and building coalitions in support of public education.

How are union leaders who hold these elitist views ever to organize anything if they can’t understand that allowing equal participation of all members, teachers, drivers, secretaries, all those who contribute to this institution we call public education is essential to building the organizational strength to confront and defeat the enemies of public education?

We are going to have to unionize the organized if we are to build an organization capable of defending public education. The longing of too many of its members for a professional organization still haunts the NEA, keeping it often from becoming the force it could be.

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Under Attack, But Neutral?

In the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate in New Jersey, Newark Mayor Corey Booker is running in part against the New Jersey Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers affiliates. Both unions are remaining neutral in the race, despite the fact that there are other candidates more supportive of their agendas. Now I realize Booker is the odds on favorite, but how can these unions remain credible with their members as they sit back and watch Booker attack their them?

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The Day

The last day of the school year has finally arrived. While it is customary for teachers to long for its arrival, this year it is being greeted with special relish. For most teachers, this year was less joyful than last, and the perception is taking hold that it will be some time before things get better. I’ve been a local teacher union leader for a very long time. I have never found our membership in such a dark mood. Those who like to measure everything need to find a metric to quantify the impact of this gloom on the children we teach. My teacher’s intuition tells me it’s profound.

I’ll be blogging during the summer as events catch my interest. I’ll be at the NEA Convention in Atlanta next week and am bound to have some things to say about what happens there. I hope you will continue to follow me.

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Senseless, But Hurtful

An unforeseen consequence of New York’s new Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) for teachers and principals appears to be causing real anger within the ranks of teachers. Under the old system, teachers received an end of year evaluation in narrative form, a document that tended in most cases to remain private, people treating the documents as private, personal.

The new APPR reduces a teacher’s performance to a number which interestingly they seem more willing to share. “I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours.” “My score is higher than your score.”

Given the natural tendency for most people to evaluate themselves as the best at what they do, the knowledge that a colleague across the hall received one point more than they appears to be enough to send one’s self-esteem plummeting and arouse one’s anger to the boiling point. “That—that person who does one tenth of what I do, that person got a 59 and I only got a 58. What the hell is wrong with this system?”

Forgotten in all the wasted emotion over the APPR is what I told the staff when we completed our negotiations of our APPR plan. I began each building presentation I did with, “Before we get into the details of our APPR plan, you need to understand that what I am about to explain to you make no sense.”

The funny this is, when I remind a colleague of that caveat, they acknowledge that I said it, acknowledge that what I said is true, but still say something like, “I don’t care that it makes no sense. That I got a point less than Ms.Marmaduke still burns the hell out of me.”

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A Good News Day

Some good news this morning. The Manhasset and North Babylon school districts which held re-votes on the tax cap piercing budgets both passed with the necessary super majority. Had they not passed, the existing law would have required the districts to operate on their 2013-13 budget, an outcome that was sure to mean substantial budget cut to their academic programs. These budget victories are hopefully harbingers of a changed public sentiment, one that has people feeling that it is necessary to support their public schools.

On the testing front, it’s heartening to the City’s United Federation of Teachers using the issue of obsessive testing in sorting out their endorsement of a mayoral candidate. From what I can see, all the Democrats have found ways to distance themselves from the Bloomberg testing based reforms. Should a major city like New York begin a retreat from the current data driven lunacy, it will energize the anti-testing movement in the state and nation. UFT President Michael Mulgrew has clearly seen the potency of the testing issue and used it to the advantage of his members.

Also this morning, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, responding to the criticism of our national union leaders and others, notified states that they may delay the use of scores from the new student tests in the evaluation of teachers. The stupidity of judging teachers on the basis of how well their students did on tests that contained material they had not been taught apparently finally dawned on our Education Secretary. What if any impact Duncan’s action will have in New York is unclear, but it is interesting to see our political elites growing more and more uncomfortable with testing as we currently know it.

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Starving Public Schools – The Real Reform

This morning’s New York Times has a piece on the impact of budget cuts on the Philadelphia school system. Unless they somehow get millions of dollars in extra state aid, there will be schools in this great American city that have a principal and the barest number of teachers, no aides, no counselors, no security – nothing. And what alternatives exist if the state, as expected, does not come through with the needed extra aid? Of course, the city will seek a 5 to 13 percent pay cut for the remaining teachers and a wage freeze at the lowered salaries until 2017. That’s a plan for closing the achievement gap, a plan worthy of a third world nation.

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What Has Changed May be Different Than We Think

These days nothing outrages me more than people who overlook every infringement of liberty with the expression, “The world has changed. You have to accept that the times are different.”

It amazes me in how many different contexts this blatant stupidity is offered up. Complain about how we are becoming a surveillance state, and one is infuriatingly met with, “9/11 changed everything.” That simple sentence wipes out any concern for cameras following us everywhere we go, our phone records and emails fed into a giant government database, our government having the right to find out what we read and our children attending schools that are increasingly hardened against threats from without when the simple truth is that the greater threat lies within. The almost cavalier way freedom is subordinated to an illusory personal safety makes one wonder whether freedom has any meaning to most Americans anymore. Is there no one home in the land of the free?

Increasingly the public school workplace is becoming a fishbowl as well. I’m currently dealing with the outrageous disciplining of two of my members growing out of idiotic gossiping in a Facebook closed group that somehow got opened to the administration. In a discussion I had with the leaders of our district, I remarked on the chilling effect of this cyber-vigilantism and how impossible it is to teach in an environment in which one’s every word is open to being second guessed. I went on to explain how I sometimes purposely embarrassed misbehaving students to discourage future misbehavior, and how my occasional expressions of anger were more often than not interpreted as caring about my work and students. You have to care enough about something to get angry. “The world has changed, Morty. You can’t do those things anymore,” I was told. One even went so far as to suggest that I probably couldn’t exist as a teacher in today’s schools, just blithely accepting that as reality, without any sense of ethical responsibility to stand up and defend the right of teachers to be shielded from the thoughtless social media comments of yentas who have nothing better to do with their time and who, if they think something has gone wrong in their child’s class, lack the decency to phone the teacher to get her understanding of what happened.

The real change has less to do with world events and technological innovation than with our diminishing capacity to be outraged by the lame justification for the erosion of freedom and decency. There is nothing inevitable about surrendering our freedom and accepting constant surveillance. That is a choice we make. And that hasn’t changed.

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On The Passing Of Lou Ferrara

I learned yesterday, with a sadness that surprised me, of the death of Lou Ferrara, the former Superintendent of the Plainview-Old Bethpage Schools. Since I received the news, I’ve had a flood of memories, most of them of adversarial encounters with him, me the new union president, Lou the up-from-the-ranks superintendent who seemingly knew every detail of the operation of the district. He had been teacher, principal, assistant to the superintendent, and assistant superintendent. He knew the place inside and out. How enormously frustrating to a green union president, elected with a slate of young officers and committed to moving a bold agenda to be up “against” a man who embodied the institution.
We would have these phone conversations, he irritatingly telling me what I should do, how to manage the politics of the moment, advice that I perceived as gratuitous but which I came to understand was more often than not well intended, a sharing of lessons learned over a long career in one school district. The simple truth is that banging heads with Lou Ferrara made me a better union president, something I’m now glad I wrote to him upon his retirement.

The other simple truth is while there was an enormous philosophical gap between us, one thing was always clear. He had a deep loyalty to the school district and the people who worked for it. The fights we had been like family fights, with flashes of white hot anger that never got in the way of a phone call the next day. He understood what few who have followed him have. The loyalty of a leader has to flow down to his subordinates before it flows back up.

I remember a very cold day during one of our strikes. I was the Kennedy High School head rep and was on picket duty early, on guard to prevent scabs from getting into the school. I had stupidly forgotten my gloves and was growing progressively more uncomfortable. Feeling cold and miserable, I watched as a station wagon pulled up, the window rolled down, and I suddenly realized that it was Superintendent Ferrara. “Where are your gloves? It’s freezing. You’re not dressed for the job.”

Being on strike, the last thing I expected was sympathy from the head of the school district. He was a part of the district’s leadership that was depriving me of my ability to earn a living. “Here,” he said handing me his gloves. “You’ll send them back to me tomorrow.”
I’ve never forgotten that encounter. It’s part of why I shouldn’t have been so surprised by my sadness at his passing.

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A Serious Reform Agenda

My readers are familiar with my repeated call for a serious union agenda for public education. That agenda needed to take account of the strengths of our best public schools and address the shortcomings of our treatment of the one quarter of our nation’s children who live in poverty, with all of the debilitating effects such conditions have on the physical and emotional growth of these children.

The good news today is that a coalition of our national teacher unions, academics and elected officials has taken a giant step toward mapping out such an agenda. Read the Washington Post summary, and see if you don’t agree that this is an agenda that supporters of public education can easily get behind.

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Think Electoral Politics Offers Nothing to Interest You?

Those who fail to take school board elections seriously might want to consider what happened when a group of right wing zealots took control of the Douglas County, Colorado board of education. Believing that public schools be subject to the invisible hand of the free market, the board stopped recognizing the local union after contract negotiations reached impasse (apparently legal in Colorado) and instituted a system of paying teachers on a scale that purports to correspond to demand for their services in the teacher labor market. In this system most elementary teachers, a predominately female group, get substantially less money than the high school physics teachers.
I can only imagine what morale is like in this district. What I can’t really imagine is how the staff has simply accepted the imposition of this system and the evisceration of their union. Where is our so-called movement to organize them and help them fight this outrage?

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June 8 in Albany

PCT Members protesting obsessive testing

About ten thousand teachers, students, parents and school administrators gathered in Albany on Saturday to protest the state’s obsessive testing regime and inadequate funding of our public schools. One would think the New York City media would have covered the story. But then you think again and realize that the owners of the media are some of the very same corporate interests that denigrate our public schools 24/7 and the dedicated teachers who serve in them. Their editorials generally support the test based school “reforms” that are cleverly packaged as teacher accountability. It is not in their interest, therefore, to tell the people in the state of the growing rebellion against what the focus on high stakes testing is doing to the children and teachers in our schools. That rebellion will grow with or without their coverage. The politicians and the press ignore the movement at their peril. Their silence challenges us to stage an even bigger protest next time.

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Saturday in Albany

Tomorrow, thousands of union members, parents, public school administrators and supporters of public education will rally on the Capitol Mall in Albany to demonstrate that the movement to end obsessive high stakes testing and to secure adequate school funding will not be deterred. It’s hardly the right time for a demonstration by school people. By this time in the school year, nerves are frayed and work schedules are ramped up with end of year chores. But conditions in our best schools are deteriorating. Programs are being slashed, teachers excessed, while more and more of the remaining resources are put into a testing regime that is to education what pop tarts are to fine pastry. Teachers, parents, superintendents, principals, members of boards of education and parents increasingly recognize the threat one of the most venerable institutions in our society – our public schools. That’s why we will all be there on Saturday. That’s why the next time we have to come, there will be twice as many of us.

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A Regent on Our Side

Some of my fellow union presidents and I met with Regent Roger Tilles on Monday. The meeting offered further confirmation for what I have been saying for some time – there is a political groundswell developing to end New York’s preoccupation with high stakes testing and that parents are in the vanguard of this movement. Tilles, a Regent who clearly gets out to talk to the people he represents, has been meeting with parent groups on Long Island and is heartened by their growing determination to curtail the damaging effects of the state’s testing regime on their children. He even went so far as to praise the work of Jeanette Deutermann, the founder of the Long Island Opt-Out movement, although he was quick to point out that he wasn’t encouraging opting out. He pointed to her Facebook page which in a very short period of time has gotten almost 9000 people to join her group.

Though mindful that Governor is dug in on the Race to the Top reforms and is therefore a major barrier to testing reform, Tilles sees the need to pressure our state senators to end the testing obsession in our state. Long Island’s Senator John Flanagan, Chair of the Senate Education Committee, is a logical target for pressure. If Flanagan doesn’t see the need to change the state’s testing system, he can keep any bills that would improve things from coming to a vote.

There was only one point in Mr. Tilles’ presentation with which I take issue. Tilles counseled against attacking the Common Core initiative in the process of trying to fix New York’s testing problem, the Common Core being an approach that he believes has great promise if implemented correctly. Putting aside my problems with the age inappropriateness of much of the common core, what I believe Tilles fails to recognize is that building the political coalition necessary to end the testing nightmare will require the energy of the anti-Common Core folks, who for whatever reasons see testing and the Common Core as two aspects of an intrusive government trying to usurp local control of education. The question I didn’t get to ask Tilles is whether he hates what testing is doing to New York’s schools enough that he will risk losing the Common Core. I believe that is the direction of the political wind.

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The Issue Is Still Poverty

Some readers have taken issue with me when I have suggested over the years that the question none of the school reformers wants to address is the unflattering fact that a quarter of our nation’s children live in poverty, poverty that for many shrinks their opportunities, both academic and economic, forever. It’s ever so much easier for them to blame bad teachers and their unions for conditions in schools in impoverished neighborhoods than it is to lift the people in those areas out of the poverty sinkhole. There’s also money to be made.

Thanks to my colleague Jane Weinkrantz for bringing David Sirota’s excellent article on the reformers’ public school fantasy to my attention. The reformers want data. Well here it is.

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Enough Second-guessing

It is becoming increasingly impossible for teachers to be themselves, to respond spontaneously to their students in the give and take at the heart of every good educational setting. Humor is out of bounds, it may offend. Passion may be me misconstrued as anger. Anger seems to be always inappropriate, while students feeling uncomfortable is a sure sign of a teacher’s malign intent. In recent years I’ve seen more second guessing of seasoned teachers to the point where the administrative message is, “Be as bland as you can be. Measure every word. Someone is always waiting to second-guess you.” Before our teacher corps becomes a band of interchangeable ciphers, I propose that boards of education adopt anti-second-guessing policies like the one that follows.

The Board of Education recognizes that teachers engage students for many hours of their work day. Secondary teachers, for example, teach upwards of nine hundred forty-two minute periods per school year. During that time, it is inconceivable that they will not say something that will make one or more of their students feel bad. In fact, some of their comments, those meant to correct bad behavior, may be tailored to do precisely that – make the students feel bad so as to cause them to refrain from such behavior again. The Board of Education further recognizes, that some of these student/ teacher interactions may be jokes that aren’t perceived as funny, comments that are misconstrued, expressions of frustration with difficult teaching circumstances or just plain human mistakes. Recognizing, however, that the overwhelming number of teacher/student interactions is positive, it shall be the policy of the Board of Education not to second-guess the myriad teacher judgments that go into every minute of every teaching day.

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