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 October, 2013


Can we have a discussion about education these days without hearing the acronym STEM, the shorthand for science, technology, engineering and math, the subjects we are being told that will determine the employability of our children in the years ahead? This belief is being sold to a gullible public by a corporate elite that seeks to substitute training for education – that wants people from their very childhoods prepared for their vision of the modern workplace. An article in this morning’s Times about the decline in the study of the humanities at America’s universities has me thinking about just how insidious this attack on learning has gotten and how those of us who cling to the ideal of a liberal arts education had better get an acronym of our own.

It’s in that frame of mind that I propose that we rally around our own acronym HEART, our shorthand for, ”Humanities Education Advances Reading and Thinking.” HEART is not about training, but rather about making sense of the world and the people in it. HEART is about envisioning a better world and having the knowhow to organize people to call it into being. HEART is the antithesis of training. It’s not about making a living but learning to live. It’s about having HEART.

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Forums in Any Format Doom King and Tisch

I watched about an hour of the forum Commissioner King and Chancellor Tisch had in Westchester yesterday and am amazed at the consistency of the criticism of State Ed’s efforts. Even more amazing has been the obvious inability of Dr. King or Tisch to get any superintendents or anybody of any stature to stand up and enthusiastically support the state’s reform efforts. Not only is their reform program intellectually impoverished, but these so-call leaders lack the most elementary political skills. I get the distinct impression that the more forums these pretenders hold, the more energized the public becomes to put a stop to the stupidity being passed off as sound education policy. More and more of the people I meet with young children in the public schools are giving serious consideration to opting their children out. More forums, please!

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Good News Weekend

The weekend brought good news for the movement to end the scourge of high states testing in New York. Slowly, but ever more surely, our political leaders are coming to realize that the over-testing of New York’s students has spawned a movement that is not going away but growing and becoming increasingly resolute.

In that regard, I was very pleased to read that my local assemblyman Chuck Lavine has decided to take a stand. Chuck partnered with Professor Arnold Dodge of C.W. Post to write a stinging indictment of the uses to which standardized tests are currently being put. It’s a gem of a piece, worthy of wide circulation.

There was also a new letter from New York’s Principals highlighting the damage being done to the learning of the children of our state. Both pieces will serve, I’m sure, as talking points for the forums Commissioner King will be having in Nassau County on November 13 and December 9.

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Scrap Salary Schedules Says Van Roekel

The sad truth is that both the National education Association and the American Federation of Teachers support the corporate sponsored drive for digital accountability for teachers and students and the Common Core Standards that are aligned with this testing epidemic. Both grow progressively more distant from the work of the people they represent to the point where their national presidents sound increasingly like Bill Gates and the other corporate reformers.

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel speaking to the Education Writers Association conference in Chicago earlier this month declared himself against conventional salary schedules that pay teachers on the basis of academic preparation and years of classroom experience and in favor of systems that at least in part measure and reward merit. At a time when the increment system is under attack at bargaining tables throughout the country, making speeches like this is tantamount to aiding and abetting the efforts of boards of education to control teacher wages – to have their wages stagnate like those of more and more Americans – to push back against the unions who have brought teachers into the middle class. In short it’s abjectly stupid and harmful. It brings kudos from the reformers who see the NEA’s support for corporate public school reform as evidence of our union being “forward thinking” to be sure, but it has caused members to wonder whose side their leaders are on.

If Van Roekel felt compelled to attack the so-called single salary schedule, he might have had the foresight to advance the idea of a pro- union, solidaristic schedule, one predicated on the concept that two people doing the same work should appropriately receive the same pay. He might have advanced the idea of a probationary period during which teachers are paid an apprenticeship wage, perhaps spending part of their day being mentored rather than actually teaching and advancing upon completion of a reasonable probationary period to the maximum salary on current schedules. Although this too would be controversial with the rank and file, he could at least show how such a system has members earning more dollars over the course of a career than the current system. But solidarity is just a word, I fear, to our national union leaders. They seem to find it easier to support ideas that pit member against member and undermine our ability to resist our enemies.

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Two Views

I sat at a meeting of union leaders from Nassau County yesterday who were engaging NYSUT Executive Vice-President Andy Pallotta in a spirited discussion of the high stakes testing epidemic and bungling surrounding the imposition of the Common Core Standards. There were teachers asking questions about opting their own kids out of the state tests, impassioned speeches about the age inappropriateness of much of the Common Core particularly by some of the very vocal math teachers in the audience, complaints about how much of what we do is currently test driven rather than educationally sound, the disastrous consequences on the tax cap and the need to repeal it and other expressions of the discontent members are feeling in the current environment. I questioned the NYSUT policy of calling for a moratorium on the consequences of high stakes testing and the roll out of the Common Core Standards. The members clearly wanted the message to back to Albany that they are not happy. I have to say, Pallotta handled himself graciously and straight forwardly, boldly asserting his personal belief that our state union needs to use the power of its size to more assertively take on the issues before us.

Contrast that to earlier in the day when our AFT President Randi Weingarten and Commissioner King met at the Harvard Club at the annual meeting of something called Teaching Matters. There, I gather, Randi and our commissioner found they agree on much but the quality of New York’s current tests which Weingarten considers “nor ready for prime time.” With the advent of better tests, I guess they will have a complete meeting of the mind. Will that day, a day that will surely come, end the tyranny of the tests? Will it stop the narrowing of the curriculum? Will it end the completely crazy stuff that is being inflicted on little kids in the name of rigor? Will it end the growing frustration of parents who must contend with the growing frustration their children experience in school? And finally will it end the ever-growing sense that our state and national unions do not represent the members they claim to serve?

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They Just Don’t Get It

I had a bit of a Twitter conversation about the Common Core Standards with Randi Weingarten yesterday. I had the temerity to suggest to her that our union has made a bad mistake in jumping on the Common Core bandwagon. While only a brief exchange, her comments were typical of the response one gets from many of the leaders of our state and national unions. “How can you be against the Common Core? Teachers and parents support it overwhelmingly.” They even cite polls that they claim support this belief.

While I meet teachers who support aspects of the Standards, I don’t know any strong supporters of the whole enterprise. I think it’s fair to say that most of the ones I meet would be hard pressed to coherently state what the standards say about instruction at their level. Just the other day, I had a conversation with a math teacher who had recently been through a two hour staff development session on the instructional shifts brought about by the Standards. “I don’t have the slightest idea of what they were talking about,” he said. His comment was one with which I am all too familiar.

A Phi delta Kappa/Gallup poll released in August reveals a public that knows little about the Common Core Standards. As I told Weingarten, I believe that as parents and teachers become more familiar with the changes the Common Core Standards are bringing to K-12 public education, whatever support there is for the Standards will wane to the point where they will be politically unsupportable.

Smart state and national union leaders would be wise to have a plan for retreat. The best approach would probably be calling for major revision of the Standards by panels of classroom teachers, panels that aren’t financed with Gates Foundation money. This would certainly be better than the three year moratorium of the consequences of the Standards and the tests aligned with them that is being called for in New York. Calling for legitimate teacher involvement in the development of high academic standards will probably lead nowhere, as I doubt anyone in power wants to have teachers decide on what constitutes good education. That would make us true professionals, a status we don’t have in most states.

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Van Roekel Rallies Troupes Around the Sinking Core

NEA Today is a periodical of the National Education Association which I have to admit I gave up reading a long time ago. It never spoke to my interests as a teacher or my efforts as a union officer. I don’t really know why I picked up the fall issue, but I did, only to find President Dennis Van Roekel exhorting the membership to “Stay on Course with Common Core.” Van Roekel’s column is so infuriating, so intellectually dishonest, so propaganda laden, so divorced from anything our members are facing in the classrooms in states that have adopted the Common Core Standards that he has forfeited even the illusion of representing the interests of our membership.

Van Roekel seems to believe that what America’s public schools need is better tests. “…We haven’t created assessments that provide an accurate picture of student learning.” In an environment in which the public is growing increasingly concerned about the over-testing of its children, the president of the largest teachers union is calling for better tests. A few months back I was talking to a union leader friend from North Carolina who was explaining how each Monday the teachers in his school meet to go over the test results from the previous week’s testing. I’m sure “better tests” is exactly what my friend was waiting to hear from our NEA president.

Van Roekel’s piece continues to spread the myth that teachers were meaningfully involved in the creation of the Standards. They were not. Yes, some, selected by a process unknown to most teachers, did get to comment on the draft of the Standards done by hired staff, but to give the impression that classroom teachers came up with what in far too many cases are completely age-inappropriate standards for children is to invite disbelief if not contempt. No, teachers didn’t write the Standards. If they had, they would have come out very differently. If teachers had developed national standards, they would have been aligned with the intellectual and psychological development of children rather than with the corporate world’s understanding of college and career ready.

“Most parents of K-12 students don’t know about the Common Core…”. Now that is probably true. But when they learn about them as when their children bring home work that neither they nor their parents can make heads or tails out of, parents start to ask the kinds of questions that are setting off an explosive rebellion. Here in New York our commissioner of education was forced to beat a hasty retreat from a forum called to explain the Common Core and the testing that come with it. He was apparently so shaken by the response of parents and teachers in the audience that he cancelled other scheduled forums. No, President Van Roekel, the more parents learn about the Common Core the less they like it and the more they see it as a threat to the well- being of their children. Keep preaching the Common Core gospel, and you will make them our enemies for a long time.
Absent from Van Roekel’s piece is what I become increasingly convinced is behind the support of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers for the Common Core Standards and the tests aligned with them – Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation. Van Roekel doesn’t tell us in his piece how the NEA received 3.8 million dollars to have a group of “master teachers” develop Common Core Math and English lessons. The substantially smaller AFT received 4.4 million for work on teacher development and Common Core. So, teacher unions get Race to the Top money and say almost nothing about the disastrous Obama education policy. Then they each dip into the bottomless pool of Gates resources and help him promote his signature public education reform effort. Didn’t we learn to follow the money?

Where are the young leaders in our teacher unions to say to their leaders ENOUGH!

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A Moratorium Is a Diversion

I have finally found something that Commissioner King and I agree on – NYSUT’s call for a three year moratorium on the impact of high stakes testing is as King suggested a “diversion.” The teachers I represent don’t want time to get used to ever increasing regimen of tests. They don’t want to continue to inflict age inappropriate education that destroys the desire to learn. They don’t want to grow accustomed to having everything they do aim at raising test scores. They don’t want their creativity and imagination stifled by programs that seek to routinize or “teacher-proof” instruction. They don’t want to have to deal with the rightful complaints of parents who must deal with their children’s frustrations doing assignments neither children not parents understand.

The teachers I represent and the parents of the children they serve want our schools back. They know that districts like ours have educated waves of kids who have been proven to be not only college and career ready, but educated with broad exposure to music, sports and the arts. They want their children in classes that are not driven by pacing charts and a neurotic concern for time. They want schools that welcome teachable moments that provide opportunities for children to engage their teachers on subjects sometimes not directly related to the curriculum but central to life.
A moratorium simply gives us time to adjust to conditions we should be resisting. People can be conditioned to get used to unimaginable conditions. The movement to end the epidemic of high stakes testing and the excesses of the Common Core Standards is gaining momentum daily. That movement won’t be bought off with a moratorium, no matter how much money the Gates foundation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and all the corporate interests dedicated to destroying public education put up. New Yorkers are going to vote on these issues, and woe unto the politicians who can’t see what coming at them. Teachers and parents united to defend children – an irresistible force.

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Inequality for All – A Must See

Want to understand how many of the problems our nation faces are linked inextricably to the stagnation of wages and the decline of the middle class? Find a theater showing Jacob Kornbluth’s film Inequality for All, featuring former Labor Secretary Robert Reich. See the film for its insights into the economic, political and social forces squeezing America’s middle class out of existence as wealth and income have been massively redistributed to fewer and fewer people. See the film also for Reich’s stunning powers to explain complicated ideas elegantly. While the movie clearly has a mission to mobilize Americans to demand a greater degree of economic justice, it is a pleasure to watch a great teacher at work.

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Fuzzy Was or Is?

The more I’m asked to think about the Common Core Standards, the more I find the proponents of them speaking a group speak patois that while I can decipher the individual words they utter, they don’t cohere into ideas intelligible to speakers of English like me. Last night’s meeting of our Board of Education is the latest case in point. The subject was math – so-called “common core math.”

One would think listening to the presenters that the Common Corers had invented a new mathematics – a modern common core geometry replacing the tired and worn Euclidian type. In response to Board Trustee Gary Bettan’s question of why many of our students have not memorized basic math facts, there was discussion of “fluency,” “automaticity,” “spiraling,” “pacing,” “deep thinking,” and assorted other essentially meaningless words and phrases designed to mask the fact that we have slipped back into the fuzzy math that we thought we had driven from our schools some years ago – only now we call it Common Core. Common Core, constructivist – whatever name we choose to call it will not obviate the fact that the answer to simple math questions often requires our young people to take off their shoes.

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Turn the Public’s Eye on Tisch

Commissioner King’s cancellation of the PTA sponsored forums around the state has solidified opposition to his leadership like almost nothing else could. The message of his opting-out of these meetings to teachers and parents is clear. He doesn’t want to listen to anything those who are experiencing the impact of the Common Core Standards and the epidemic of high stakes testing have to say. I think it’s time to start a pool on when King John will abdicate. I’m thinking the first of the year.

The public having become increasingly aware of King’s inadequacies for the commissionership, it’s time to focus the public’s attention on the dilatant chancellor. Exactly what qualifies her to preside over the entire system of public education in New York other than the fact that she comes from a very rich family?

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Putting a Face on the Enemy

From what I gather, Education Commissioner John King took a pounding at a PTA sponsored forum in Westchester County yesterday. I can’t wait to see what he gets when he comes to Garden City, Long Island next Tuesday. With a Long Island Opt-Out movement growing by leaps and bounds, he is sure to be for a rough ride, not that I think such events bother him very much. I intend to be there. I encourage my readers in the area to join me.

I’ve been at meetings at which King has been confronted. He meets such engagements with a cool detachment, an almost smug indifference to the opinions of others that tends to wind his audience up and at the very least dislike him. In fact, the publicity campaign circuit that the Regents have him on is probably the best thing opponents of the state’s reform efforts have. He puts a face on what we don’t like about the epidemic of high stakes tests and the Common Core Standards aligned with them. The more he and Chancellor Meryl Tisch go around selling their corporate education reform, the more our movement will grow and prosper. With each meeting they attend, more parents in the audience will have had Common Core homework and tests coming home, and more and more of them will have experienced the frustration of their children being asked to do age inappropriate academic assignments. As next year’s statewide elections near, political support for the Tisch/King reforms will evaporate. Watch!

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It’s Not a Moratorium We need

I’ve tried real hard to understand the policies of NYSUT and the AFT relative to the high stakes testing epidemic and the Common Core Standards with which it is increasingly aligned. The public message of both organizations calls for a three year moratorium on the impact of high stakes testing for both students and teachers. Their argument runs that this time is needed for teachers to familiarize themselves with the Common Core Standards and the lessons that flow from them just as students need a grace period to become more accustomed to the increased rigor the Standards impose.

The problem is this position on testing and the Common Core Standards doesn’t address the concerns of the teachers they represent. No teacher I know thinks that if we just get a few years to get used to the Common Core and the aligned tests, all will be well. On the contrary, as recently as this morning I addressed the staff of one of our elementary schools who to a person expressed their concern for how the number of tests was destroying our academic program and leaving them little time for anything other than test prep. In fact, they reported to me that they had received an edict from on high (I’ve not determined its origin yet.) that for the first time they will be giving an English mid-term – that’s right a mid-term in elementary school – to prepare for the state exams in the spring. Tests beget tests to prepare for the tests….

They talked too of the increased amount of homework they are obliged to give and how deeply aware they are of the stresses this puts on young children and their families – all to get their students “ready” for the high stakes tests. We talked about the stupidity of giving 1st graders, many of whom can’t yet read, verbal math problems with multiple choice answers.

What will a moratorium do the help my colleagues with these concerns? The impact on them is not their Annual Professional Performance Review. They’re all effective or highly effective. The impact they absorb on a daily basis is the usurpation of their role as educators and the substitution for it of instruction in how to game the state’s testing system. The impact on their students is clearly negative but immeasurable.
A little 1st grader I know told her mother a secret the other night. She told mom that she goes to the bathroom at the beginning of almost every math lesson. When asked why, she said, “By the time I get back the teacher has all of the answers on the board.” That’s what doing verbal problems teaches kids who can’t yet read well. This is the impact that no moratorium is going to fix.

If we are to save the noble profession of teaching and the public schools in which it once thrived, parents and their organizations, teachers and their unions, administrators and their organizations, superintendents of schools and their organizations, boards of education and their organizations and all who see our public schools as central to the health and welfare of our nation are going to have to speak up, difficult though that may be for some, and tell the Regents and Commissioner King – tell Governor Cuomo and the members of our legislature that we will no longer accept corporate school reform. We must tell them all that we demand that our children be educated not tested. We must demand that they have time and opportunities for art, music and physical education untethered to the “essential questions” of the Common Core. We must demand that our public schools once again be places in which children explore their potential and cultivate the habits of mind and heart that enable them to be participants in our democratic society.

This is what I want my state and national organizations to be about. More importantly, this is what I believe would make our membership proud. This is the message that would organize the members for action.

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Exxon-Mobil Educates?

If you needed another reason to be suspicious about the Common Core Standards and the people support them, you need to pick up the New York Times this morning where you will find in the from section two – two full page color ads by Exxon-Mobil touting the praises of the Common Core and STEM, suggesting that unless we embrace them wholeheartedly there will be a growing number of jobs in our country but no workers with the skills to fill them – this on the morning when 3 Americans won the Nobel Prize for physiology.

I grow increasingly alarmed at the trend of trying to push young people into career choices at too young and age. In my Peace Corps years, I had the opportunity to work with university graduates from many of the world’s best schools. It was amazing to me how narrowly educated they were. I recall a discussion with a friend who was an Oxford graduate in literature with an emphasis on the British metaphysical poets. Margaret knew more about the poetry and orations of George Herbert than I suspect any English major from an American university. Yet she and many of the young expatriate grads I worked with always marveled at how we Americans seemed to know so much more about many things than they, their educations having been focused and specialized at a very early age.

No, I pretty damn sure we don’t need to shove more science and math down the throats of our youth. We have an obligation to provide them with a broad spectrum of academic opportunities, knowing that they will not work at most of them, but knowing as well that they will have the tools to learn whatever they wish throughout their lives from such study. That’s been the genius of American education. It is now imperiled by those who would have us train young people rather than educate them.

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The Surveillance School

Last week, I watched a presentation on the safety measures our board of education has taken, much of it in light of events in Connecticut last year. The presentation nauseated me, as I believe it should anyone concerned with freedom. Swipe cards to get into our public schools, cameras surveilling almost every move of students and adults, cameras tied into some kind of systems that provides off site monitoring – by whom we don’t know, big brother watching everybody, everywhere, day and night.

To be sure these security measures mirror broad tendencies in our society. More and more Americans are submitting willingly to the surveillance state. So great is our fear of attack that freedom seems a small price to pay for an illusion of security. Why not start early teaching our kids to trade the illusion for their freedom. As the capacity to watch our every movement improves, as every communication is retrievable, as we more and more become virtual communicators, preferring security to human engagement and intimacy, we should not wonder why there is less and less that binds us together as a nation.

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Reading Fiction More Important Than Thought

Among the many facets of the Common Core Standards that frankly strike me as stupid and ironically anti-intellectual is the preoccupation with the reading by young students of non-fiction texts. English teachers throughout the country have adjusted their curricula to read significant amounts of the kinds of prose it is thought students will have to read in college and the workplace. Perhaps thought is not quite the correct word.

A sub-text of the Common Core Standards is that the reading of fiction is essentially entertainment, not the sort of rigorous, difficult, manly reading demanded for college readiness and career. How the business types who brought us the standards must feel this morning when they picked up their New York Times to find on the front page coverage of research showing the connection between reading quality fiction and the development of empathy and the greater ability to read the emotions of other human beings – qualities sometimes referred to as emotional intelligence.

Could it possibly be that the core of any good k-12 academic program is what we call the humanities? Could it be that to be adult-ready in a humane, democratic society requires skills developed through repeated exploration of great literature, music and art?

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I was waiting on line at a local deli yesterday, when I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation between the two senior citizens in front of me.

“I’ve always been a Republican,” one of them said. “But Republicans are not for the people anymore.”

“I know what you mean,” said the other. “Look at all the people going to be out of work with this shutdown. – thousands.”

“They’re against people having health insurance. They want to cut Social Security. They don’t care about people like me and you. I’m voting Democrat from now on.”

“I probably will too,” his friend responded, although the expression on his face conveyed his discomfort at saying these words to a friend. Having said it, he would now have to do something he had never done before – vote Democrat.

One brief encounter, but I sure hope that there are millions like these two guys who have thought about how voting for today’s Republicans is voting against one’s own interest, unless, of course, you belong to the top 1 percent.

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How Not to Lead

Monday night’s meeting of the Plainview-Old Bethpage Board of Education offered a lesson in how not to run a school district. Off and on for the past 30 years, parents have complained about differences in the music, sports and club programs of our two middle schools, differences that largely stem from the different starting times of each school, starting times determined busing costs.

Any plan to bring the programs of both schools closer together is going to require changes that will be unpopular to some stakeholders in the school community. Union teachers are especially sensitive to changes, especially those that they have had no hand in shaping. Ignorant of any knowledge of how to handle issues of this kind, a presentation was put together by the two middle school principals and the directors of music and physical education outlining schedule changes that might be made to ameliorate some of what are perceived to be inequities between the two schools. As an aside, I can’t resist noting that these four individuals were responsible for scheduling errors this year that caused our union to file more grievances than we have in the past ten years. Not one teacher or union representative was consulted. When I later took some of the parent leaders on this issue outside the meeting room, I learned that they had not been consulted either and were almost as angry as I about the presentation they had just witnessed.

Completely contrary to what I’m sure the Board of education asked its administration to do, now instead of angry parents, the we have angry teachers as well, thereby making it that much more difficult to build the necessary consensus around a plan to combat the view that the students in one schools receive preferential treatment to those in the other.

My teacher union readers in other districts will recognize the pattern, I’m sure. School boards almost never seem to hire administrators with leadership skills. They confuse tough talkers and spouters of educationist mumbo-jumbo with leaders, people with the ability to motivate others in directions they might not otherwise go. Leadership begins with respect for the people to be led – something unfortunately in very short supply in most of our public schools system. Is there a teacher in New York State who feels that she is respected by Education Commissioner King?

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