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 September, 2013

Don’t Complicate Parental Decision on Testing

I have spent some time and effort since the opening of school trying to coach our union members on how to handle parent questions about opting their children out of the state high stakes tests. While regular readers of my work know that I am convinced that the Opt-Out Movement is the powerful force that will ultimately force the state to curtail its obsessive testing of students, that doesn’t mean that I want to encourage our members to use their teaching position positions to promote that cause.

I recently posted on our union’s Facebook page, a message to our parent community that I believe strikes the right balance for teachers who are questioned about opting out. It reads:

The teachers in Plainview-Old Bethpage are working with parents and other supporters of public education to end the damage being done to our schools by state mandated obsessive high stakes testing. We invite all in the community to join the effort to end this scourge that is destroying education in New York.

We know that many parents either have or are considering opting their children out of these tests. The decision to keep children from taking these examinations is a personal one. We do not presume to tell parents what to do.

We wish to assure you, however, that should you choose to opt your children out, we will respect your decision and continue to teach and treat your children in the professional, respectful manner we always have. We will not allow these unnecessary examinations to come between us and your children.

A parent’s decision to opt a child out of the state testing regime is not an easy one. I believe we as teachers have to recognize this and ensure that our focus is on the academic and emotional welfare of their children.

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Marching In Carle Place

Along with several thousand others, I attended a rally in support of the Carle Place teachers who have been without a new contract for about two and a half years. Although apparently willing to take a pay freeze of some length in the context of a new multi-year agreement, the Board of Education in this small community seeks to impose a new salary schedule for new teachers which would cause them to earn less into the future than currently employed teachers earn now.

After the demonstration in the streets of Carle Place was finished, ending with rallying speeches by New York State United Teachers President Dick Iannuzzi and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, PCT Secretary Judi Alexanderson and I attended the regularly scheduled Board of Education meeting along with many members of the Carle Place teachers union. It was like entering a time warp.

The five member Board is all male, at least four of whom looked to be too old to have children in the school system. Beginning the meeting with what for me was an off-putting prayer, they went about their routine business, with the Board President making several condescending, patronizing remarks to the District Clerk, a female employee. The Board President read a letter sent to the community developing at some length the Board’s rationale for seeking to establish a two tiered salary schedule. In essence the Board argued that the average salary of the teachers is higher than that of many of the residents of the district – that the district had to have a “sustainable” salary schedule going into the future.

Yes, the Board is proud of the district which by any measure is one of the top districts in the state. Yes, they think the world of their teachers, but they simply can’t afford to continue to pay them at current rates. So, a new generation of teachers will have to subsidize the children of Carle Place. The words of the letter took me back to a time when a teaching job would not support a family – a time when teachers were obliged to work after school jobs and summer gigs to survive – maybe even a time when because most teachers were mostly women, it was assumed that they had men to take care of them so it wasn’t necessary to pay them a living wage.

The teacher unions, through enormous and often risky efforts, made teaching into a job with respectable rates of pay and good benefits. Some in middle class communities suffering from the mal-distribution of income and wealth in our country, having seen their wages stagnating, resent the salaries and benefits of unionized teachers. Rather than fight for their fair share of the American economic pie, they are led to believe that we are the cause of their economic anxiety – that somehow if we get less, their lives will be improved.

The evening reminded me once again of an experience I had as a young man of high school age. After a Friday night movie with some friends, we stopped at a favorite Flatbush Avenue deli to have a corned beef sandwich. When the waiter arrived to take our order, I looked up to find he was my English teacher, a bookish, scholarly man universally respected by the student body of my school. While I don’t mean to suggest that there is something undignified about the work of a waiter, work that I would later do myself while going to college, I knew even then there was something wrong that a great hardworking teacher like him had to still be working at ten in the evening because his family couldn’t survive on a teacher’s pay. The following year, the United Federation of Teachers led the first strike in New York State for the right to bargain collectively – a strike to change the deplorable economic conditions of teachers. That battle was won. The fruits of that victory must not be surrendered, whatever it takes – not to the Carle Place Board of education – not anywhere.

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Blind Support of Common Core Standards

How is it possible that so many members of the American Federation of Teacher, the National Education Association and their state affiliates have totally embraced the Common Core Standards, while their rank and file members are increasingly voicing their discomfort with standards they had no hand in shaping, standards that as teachers begin to incorporate them in their classrooms are being found to be age inappropriate in many cases and stifling of creative teaching practice in most? When terms like “essential questions” creep into discussions of physical education, when English language instruction increasingly consists of searching for textual evidence, when teacher lessons are judged solely on the basis of their alignment with the Common Core, when kids who have not yet mastered basic math fact are forced to confront ambiguously written verbal problems to create the illusion in the simple-minded of higher order thinking, it is disheartening to have one’s national unions and their state affiliates touting these corporate sponsored standards.

More than disheartening, the position of our national unions on the Common Core puts us at odds with a growing parent population that sees the Standards as inimical to the educational and emotional welfare of their children. Blanket support for the Standards also undermines the coalition building we are successfully doing against the scourge of high stakes testing. The Common Core Standards were brought to us by the same folks who see high stakes testing as the only vehicle for assuring that our public schools are accountable. Parents know this and are deeply suspicious of our blind support of the Standards they oppose.

Our national union and their affiliates were very late in supporting the fight against obsessive testing. They are perilously late in understanding the negative impact of the Common Core Standards on their teacher members and the children they serve.

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Does it trouble anyone that students of physical education, music and art are spending classroom time answering “essential questions” so that their teachers are in compliance with the Common Core Standards? The only essential that occurs to me is: Why are educated adults paying any attention to this blithering nonsense? Why aren’t today’s students entitled to play and exercise in physical education? Why aren’t students offered more opportunities for creative non-verbal expression in art and music classes? Why are they writing essays in these subjects? Is the goal to make school as lifeless and dull as the jobs many of our students will have? I’m prompted to think about these questions after participating in a discussion this morning in which a physical education teacher was being praised for asking “essential questions” in a gym lesson. Can it be long before we are talking about the Rotten Core Standards?

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Take Back Your Party Republicans

I’m writing this post for my Republican friends, seeking to understand how they can support a political party that is so callously hostile to the well-being of their fellow citizens. This past week, the Republican controlled House of Representatives voted to cut 40 billion dollars from the SNAP program, better known as the food stamp program. In addition to cutting the dollars, the legislation has a number of mechanisms designed to cut people off, including my favorite – allowing states to demand drug testing for recipients. The bill demonstrates a complete lack of understanding that something like two thirds of food stamp recipients are working people, children, elderly and disabled. It ignores repeated studies that show that there is about one percent fraud in the system, a rate substantially lower than among the members of the legislature of New York or the Congress for that matter.

I want to understand how my Republican friends, especially my Republican teacher friends, can support politicians who would take food out of the mouths of hungry children and give the money saved to corporate farming interests in the form of subsidies. That’s what they actually did.
Upwards of a quarter of America’s children live in poverty. More face food insecurity during some portion of the month with the existing food stamp program. Anyone who cares to face the facts has to admit that the biggest factor contributing to the under-performance of students in the schools of our inner cities and rural areas is poverty. Hungry kids can’t learn. Hungry kids begin school already behind their better fed peers, the so-called achievement gap starting long before many children pass through the schoolhouse door.

I’m not asking Republicans to become Democrats, although you would of course be welcome. But I do ask that you take back your party from the Social Darwinists, xenophobic racists,anti-union, anti-public education “reformers” and assorted other misanthropic loons who have stolen it away from you. Watching leaders like Eric Cantor gloat about increasing the hunger of the poor can’t possibly make you proud to be American.

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The Not So Good News From the Flanagan Hearing

At Tuesday’s hearing of the New York State Senate Committee on Education, chaired by Senator John Flanagan, every Long Island senator put in an appearance. As I observed yesterday, that these politicians felt they had to be there is a vivid sign of their concern that the public’s frustration with New York’s high stakes testing regime and the absolutely incompetent implementation of the Common Core Standards. There was, however, some not so good news, and that concerns the responses of Long Island’s senators to the testimony given to them.

Senator after senator appeared to diagnose the problem with the testing program and the Common Core as a communication problem. Somehow, they seemed to be saying if Commissioner King could just be clearer about what State Ed is doing, the senators might not be receiving all of the complaints they are getting from their constituents. That sentiment was given its clearest expression by Senator LaValle who several times State Ed to “get a hearing aid” and listen to the complaints of parents, teachers and administrators.

Were the problem one of bad communication, it would be difficult enough to fix, but it is not a communications screw up. It is pure and simple bad education policy being driven by corporate interests whose motives are clearly not to improve public schools but rather to privatize them. There is no sound educational reason for children to spend days of their school year taking tests, test that instructional purpose because teachers can’t keep the questions and receive no information on how their students did on each question. They get nothing but a so-called growth score, an unfathomable number that is claimed to indicate how much their students grew over the year. As for the Common Core Standards, some of it makes some sense, but so much of it is completely age inappropriate that claims for the active participation of classroom teachers in their development are believed only by the most gullible. How many kindergarten teachers, after all, would have thought to require their students to, “With prompting and support, use narrative language to describe characters, setting, things, events, actions, a scene, or facts from a fiction text that has been read independently (emphasis added).”

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The Good News on Testing and Common Core

Yesterday, I attended a legislative hearing on testing and the Common Core Standards conducted by New York State Senator John Flanagan, Chair of the Senate Committee on Education. Flanagan will be holding similar hearings in four or five different regions of the state over the coming weeks. Just the fact that the hearing was held at all is the latest sign that our politicians are starting to wake up to the educational disaster being perpetrated by the State Education Department on the children in our public schools. They are beginning to recognize that an angry public is likely to blame them for the scourge of high stakes testing and the absolutely foolhardy way in which the Common Core Standards and the tests aligned with them are being introduced.

Testifying before Flanagan and all of Long Island’s Senate delegation were representatives of NYSUT, the School Superintendents Association, the School Boards Association, Long Island Opt-Out, the Deputy Commissioner of Education and other stakeholders. All but Deputy Commissioner Ken Wagner severely criticized both Albany’s education policies and their implementation. Wagner’s testimony was interesting in that if one had any doubt that the state’s education policy is being developed and implemented by people who are hermetically sealed off from the thoughts and expertise people working in our public schools his remarks obliterated them. Asked why the Common Core aligned tests couldn’t wait until teachers actually had a Common Core based curriculum and some experience teaching it, he blithely opined that “…without the tests we have no measure of what schools are doing.” For me, the most insensitive and frankly stupid of his remarks was his observation that the test anxiety the children are experiencing from the barrage of testing they are being subjected to is largely induced by adults talking to children about the tests and not the tests themselves and the number of them. In short, while I recognize that his job is to defend what the department is doing, he came off as a believer of his own bullshit.

Commack Superintendent Dr. Donald James took a very interesting and entertaining approach to his testimony. He observed that Commack graduates almost all of its students on time, with almost all of them going on to college and completing their college programs. Yet, the results on the recent state tests indicate that 35 to 40 percent of Commack’s students are not college and career ready. Why would Commack or any high performing school district have any faith in the meaning of the state scores?

Founder of Long Island Opt-Out Jeanette Deutermann passionately expressed to the frustration many parents of young students are experiencing with testing and the implementation of the Common Core Standards. She eloquently spoke to the confusion and pain of young parents who find their kids coming home from school and expressing a desire never to return because of the discomfort they feel, many even manifesting physical symptoms. They know that young children who find school an inhospitable place too often never achieve their full academic potential and that such early experiences can have life-long consequences. She sternly warned the senators that the Opt-Out movement wasn’t going away – that it was growing daily because parents are catching onto what their schools are being forced to do to their children.

The over-arching message of the day was this – the coalition that many of us have been working to build is alive and well and growing. It is on the way to becoming the irresistible force that will end the scourge of high stakes testing in New York and bring us sane, age appropriate learning standards. The public is increasingly asking questions like the one posed yesterday by Senator Zeldin. “Why,” he wanted to know, “are my first graders getting homework on Mesopotamia and the Code of Hammurabi?” Parents know there are no sane answers to such questions.

That’s the very positive message to be taken away from yesterday’s hearing. I’ll have some thoughts on the reactions of many of the senators tomorrow.

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Watch and Lament

I’ve written some about the age inappropriateness of so much of the Common Core Standards. In general, I’ve expressed deep concern for what I know happens when we try to force children to learn something that they aren’t ready to learn. Force a children to read when they are not neurologically ready, and they will probably be poor readers forever.

At a recent conference on the Common Core at Notre Dame University, Dr. Megan Korchnick, a child psychologist, gave a talk on the age inappropriateness of the math Common Core Standards for young children. Take a few minutes and watch this video and think about whether you are comfortable with what we are asking little children to do. Watch and lament!

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21st Century Education?

At a board of education meeting I attended the other night, there was a good deal of silly talk about making our students 21st century learners, teaching them for the jobs they are going to hold. I say silly for a number of reasons.

Until recently, one of the great virtues of the American education system, unlike those of Europe for example, was its avoidance of forcing children to make career decisions at too early an age. K-12 education was understood to consist of the development of basic competencies in reading, writing and mathematics along with an introduction to the arts and sciences. As importantly, the public schools were society’s vehicle for the socialization of its children and the agency for preparing them for citizenship of the republic.

More and more, our best public schools today are bowing to corporate pressure and creating a generation of young, driven people, who at much too early an age begin the chase after the bitch goddess Success, kids who don’t get enough sleep, almost never eat a meal with their families, feel obliged to participate in so many after school activities that they don’t even begin their homework until late into the evening and who often feel fewer and fewer compunctions about cheating if it will bring them a competitive advantage. More and more we see the public schools as training places for future jobs, although none of us has any clear idea as to what future employment opportunities will look like.

Consider a recent Georgetown University study showing an unemployment rate for recent college grads of 7.9 percent. Consider further, half of the recent college grads who are employed are working at jobs that do not require a college degree. If the nexus between college education and employment is weakening, what possible sense does it make to think of k-12 education as employment related training, unless, of course, we want to go back to having comprehensive high schools offering craft training, which, because it makes good sense, no one is talking about.
When people talk of a 21st century education and 21st century learners it sounds as though they are talking about revolutionary ideas. Most, don’t have the slightest idea of what they’re talking about when they use these terms. The fact is that while they use some different tools, people learn very much the same way they always have. If what a 21st century education means is the recognition that human knowledge is constantly improving, this is not a radical idea either.

I fear there are some powerful people, however, who use such terms to discredit public education seeking to lure it further away from its historic socializing mission of preparing children for citizenship in a democratic republic. These people want public education to shift its focus from the tools of citizenship to the needs of industry and commerce. The goal is the creation of atomized, docile workers who are so self-focused that they are unaware they and 99 percent of their fellow citizens are being screwed by an all-powerful economic elite. They seek a society in which people accept that no one is punished for the behavior of Lehman Brothers or Citi Bank but are propagandized and made to feel outrage that human beings facing food insecurity are given food stamps, sensing no human bonds with the poor.

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Parents are receiving their children’s scores on the New York State examinations. Teachers now have their annual professional performance review ( APPR) scores which are tied to the student scores. So we have all of this data. So what?

So nothing. Calling this process of evaluating students and teachers an exercise in futility seriously over estimates what we have accomplished for the expenditure of countless hours creating these APPR plans, the huge expenditure of class time prepping students for the tests and administering them, the numerous hours of clerical work putting data together, the tedium experienced by principals checking the appropriate boxes on the multi-page rubrics used for teacher evaluation. What do we have to show for this herculean effort? Nothing but a bureaucratic monument to the arrogance and ignorance of the people making education policy in our state and nation. Nothing but fuel for the spreading opt-out movement. Nothing but young children learning to hate schools that have been forced to substitute test prep for education. Nothing but one not unimportant thing.
As the president of a local teacher union, I have been accused of opposing testing because the tying of student scores to teacher evaluations poses a serious threat to the employment of the people I represent. However, you accusers out there, I represent a faculty 77 percent of whom are highly effective with the remainder effective according our APPRs. Now when I talk about the scourge of high stakes testing in our state, I do so from highly effective moral ground.

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