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 July, 2013

Stop Segregating the Poor

For some time, I have been convinced that the most potent thing we could do to end the cycle of child poverty is to end the social class segregation in our schools (See blog postings for January 2, 2013 and May 16, 2013.). Put rich, poor and middle class kids in the same classes of the same schools and the predominant values of these kids will tend to be those of the middle class.

A new study of the relationship of geography to social mobility lends support to my view. One of the key conclusions of the study – “All else being equal, upward mobility tended to be higher in metropolitan areas where poor families were more dispersed among mixed-income neighborhoods.”

We need to stop segregating the poor and then blaming them for being mired in poverty from generation to generation.

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Mindlessness as Standards

Way before it became popular in education circles, I talked about the need to raise academic standards, having noted a palpable decline in the quality of work that we had come to expect from the children we taught. I frequently cited my experiences with an 11th grade English honors class in which I attempted to use the same curriculum I had last used fifteen years before and the four months of hell I went through before the children began to realize that they were capable of much more than they had realized.

To me raising standards meant more challenging readings of great literary works and more complex writing assignments done with greater precision. Raising standards was a battle I chose to fight in the context of an upper middle class school district in which English literature had essentially been abandoned because as the English Chair told me at the time, “It’s just too hard for these kids.”

Nothing I wrote about this thing called the Common Core Standards and the abject stupidity with which it is being implemented with the stated purpose of making our students internationally competitive but which at best will accomplish nothing, at worst lead to the biggest dumbing down of our curriculum ever. Mind you, I have no strong objection to the concept of national standards of what children should know upon graduating from a public high school, but I take strong exception to the routinizing of instruction that is rapidly becoming systemic in the mindless embrace of the Common Core Standards. It has yet to dawn on the politicians pushing the Common Core, and the administrators and, I’m sorry to say the national union leaders, that when we get all of the curriculum and assessments aligned, when the questioning in every classroom is straight-jacketed by a proscribed rubric of what numbskull educationists consider higher order thinking queries, what we will have accomplished is dystopian system in which children are forced to “learn” developmentally inappropriate material, teachers have lost their skills and become completely dependent on canned programs and children learn that learning is tedious and boring.

At the recent NEA Convention, one of the exhibitors was hawking a Common Core Wheel. Remember the irregular verb wheels we used to get in foreign language class to help us memorize the various verb conjugations. Well this wheel claims helps teachers, TEACHERS, know what “engagement prompts” to use with their students. When the hawker stopped me to ask what I thought of the wheel, I told her it nauseated me to think that there are teachers standing in front of kids in our schools using this wheel to know what to ask the children next. “How else are they going to master the Common Core?” was her reply.

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The Testing Mania

For those who doubt that the movement to curtail high stakes testing in our public schools is gaining momentum, check out today’s editorial in the august New York Times. While the Times ironically clings to the bias that the United States is educationally behind many other nations as measured by high stakes tests, a notion repeatedly debunked by many serious scholars (See Alfie Kohn’s recent piece in the Washington Post.), that fact that an establishment paper like the Times is distancing itself from the testocracy must be sending at least a bit of a shiver down the spines of those who wish to test our schools out of existence. The Grey Lady says there ‘s a “testing mania,” making those of us opposed to what testing is doing to our schools the sane people in our national conversation about public education.

Slowly, but inevitably, mainstream opinion is moving away from testing. I suspect when the Times gets a better understanding of the stupidity animating implementation of the Common Core Standards, they will put some distance between it and this movement as well. I’ll have more to say about Common Core in a later post.

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The Hope For an NEA/AFT Merger Still Alive

One of the more interesting items up for debate at the NEA convention was a motion that read as follows: “The NEA Executive Committee revisit (sic) and investigate the advantages and disadvantages of an NEA/AFT merger. The Executive Committee will report their findings back to the 2014 Representative Assembly.”

This item is the first formal attempt to get the highest governing body of the NEA to put the merger issue back on the table. The failure in 1998 of the NEA convention to ratify a merger agreement with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has been a political third rail that none of the NEA officers since Bob Chase have been willing to touch. While states like New York, Minnesota, Florida and North Dakota have merged statewide, not even the national assault on public education has moved the leaders of the two great national teacher unions to consider reinvigorating the argument for a merger.

While this motion moved by delegates from Nevada, a state with almost no AFT membership, failed, the margin by which it was defeated was significant and encouraging to those of us who still cling to the goal of one great union of all people working in public education. While decided on a standing vote, the outcome was close, and it was very encouraging to see most of states other than those already merged voting in favor of looking at merger again. It was heartening to see the vast majority of the California delegation voting in favor.

If a motion like this comes back again ( as I’m sure it will), it can’t be more than a convention or two away from passage. By that time, the will be one or more additional state mergers propelling the idea of a single union forward. My sources tell me that Wisconsin may be then next. Nothing like a political drubbing to focus the mind on what’s important.

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The Opt-Out Movement Gets a Boost

I’m just back from the annual meeting of the National education Association, a national union representing over 3,000,000 members across the United States, mostly in the sub-urban and rural areas of the country. Each year close to 10,000 delegates come together to discuss and debate policy for the organization. If one listens carefully to the hours of earnest debate that takes place, I have always found that one gets a very good feel for political and cultural trends in the United States. This year was no different, and over the next few posts, I will talk about a few of what I believe to be the most clearly discernible.

The first is the growing movement to end the strangle-hold high stakes testing has on teaching across the country. Much to the chagrin of the NEA officers who have preached an accommodation with some high stakes testing and its tie-in with teacher evaluation, the delegates, usually prone to following their leaders, instead voted to promote parents opting their children out of these tests, calling upon the NEA to “…encourage its state and local affiliates to work alongside student and parent leadership groups in promoting opt out options wherever possible.”
I have been writing and speaking for some time about the necessity of our education unions to stand with the growing number of parents who are deeply disturbed by what testing is doing to the education of their children. Just talk is not going to end the catastrophic impact high stakes testing is having on our academic programs. It is going to take direct actions like the opt-out movement. It was heartening to see that this cross section of America’s teachers and support personnel understands our need to stand up on this issue better than their leaders do.

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