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 December, 2013

Ending On A Hopeful Note

This will be my last post for 2013, a memorable year for public education in many ways. It has been the year that has witnessed the beginning of the public’s perception that they have been had by the corporate backed education reformers who had them convinced for a while that greedy union teachers who were accountable to no one were endangering their kids’ futures. This is the year in which there has been a rapidly growing perception that the reformers are not really interested in educating the nation’s youth but rather in the profits to be made by the selling of reformist flimflam. The more student failure there is to rise to test set standards, the more profit there will be to be made. One senses the awakening of our political class to the reality that parents are getting ready to vote on the issues of testing and the Common Core. Reformist retreat is in the air. Even our national teacher unions are catching up with the anger of their local members who have borne the brunt of the reformist attack, sometimes with NEA and AFT supporting the corporate agenda. I strongly suspect that we won’t see either accepting Gates Foundation money to promote reforms like the Common Core State Standards. For those of us longing for sanity in public education, the year end on a hopeful note. If, as I suspect, the opt-out movement significantly increases the number of children taking New York’s spring tests, our efforts to save public education will be enormously strengthened.

On that note, I’ll close out this year‘s blog, hoping I’ve challenged your thoughts on public education and moved you to be an activist in defending the institution I love dearly. I wish you all wonderful holiday season and a Happy New Year.

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What The PISA Scores May Really Be Saying

There is so much blither written about test scores that one is surprise when one reads a piece about them that is informative and thought provoking. The Huffington Post offered such a piece a couple of days ago that offers a platform on which it just might be possible for the testers and the anti-testers to reconcile their differences. The piece digs into the recently released PISA scores and come to some policy conclusions that have poverty as a central focus. Give it a serious read.

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Special Science Class

The Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957 triggered broad concern that there was a dangerous missile gap between our nations and a science education gap too. A 7th grader at the time, I recall coming to school one day to find that regular classes were cancelled, and the whole 7th grade was to be given a printed science test of some kind. It was a few weeks after that my parents received a letter telling them that I had been selected on the basis of that test to be placed in a Special Science class the following year. The competition with the Soviet commies was on, and we 8th graders were going to play our part in it. In 1960 John F. Kennedy would be elected President in part on a platform focused on the “missile gap.” That, however, would not be the last time a candidate for public office stretched the truth.

I’m reminded of those days as the STEM contingent of the so-called education reform movement plays to our contemporary fear that we are becoming globally uncompetitive due to the perceived poor performance in math and science on international tests like PISA. More and more this largely contrived education gap is being used to shift the focus of our public schools from education to training, training for employment in jobs that contemporary seers know will exist when today’s students reach adulthood. I hope this current misperception of our situation meets with the same success as our reaction to Sputnik. That’s not because I’m against the young learning science. I am strongly against trying to push them into careers at an early age.

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Let’s Be Rid of the Regents

I challenge anyone who has followed the public outcry at the implementation of the Common Core State Standards in New York and the completely incompetent job Commissioner King and Chancellor Tisch have done both in the development of policy and its implementation, I challenge them to watch the webcast of yesterday’s meeting of the Board of Regents and to not come to the conclusion that the Regents is a governing body whose time has come and gone. For those without the fortitude to watch the whole meeting, start at about minute 55.

Most of our illustrious Regents seem to think that the Commissioner did a great job at his recent forums correcting misinformation. After all, they have seen great Common Core lessons on their visits to the schools in their districts. If they have a problem, a better messaging strategy is all that’s necessary. I venture to say that not tooo many people who attended the forums would agree.

I have believed for years that we would be much better off with people directly elected by the people running education policy. In New York City, Michael Bloomberg is going, and the winning candidate to replace him made it clear that his vision of public education is quite different than Bloomberg’s corporate approach. Why do we need Regents shielding Governor Cuomo from taking responsibility for the education of our state’s children?

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The Swelling of a Small Idea

There is a Yiddish expression for making much of nothing. We say, sie ferkochen a kasha, they cook up a kasha, kasha being buckwheat groats, little grains too numerous to count which expand when they are cooked. That’s the expression that came to mind after spending little over an hour listening to Common Core guru David Coleman talk about the Common Core State Standards and how they should be implemented. The speech was made before anyone began the implementation process. For all of his high blown, clever rhetoric, his rendition of the Standards boils down to – do fewer topics in math, but do them in greater depth, and in English have children do 50 percent of their reading in informational texts of increasing complexity so that they gain background knowledge which in turn makes them able to read more sophisticated texts. Big, stinking deal! Is this the latest mystification of the obvious?

If you have been troubled as I have with how these little grains of thought have swollen into a kasha that has overflowed its pot as they have been cooked up by the numbskulls running education policy in Albany, listen to Coleman’s speech, and think about how easy it might have been to do national standards differently.
This is not to let Coleman off the hook. Listen too for his statement that so long as we have high stakes tests, teachers will teach to them. The challenge as he sees it is to make tests worthy of being taught to. I suppose that’s what he will be about as he sets about leading the effort to rewrite the SAT.

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This post is part of the series of posts seeking national standards classroom teachers and parents could proudly support. The introduction to the series can be found here.

Despite all of what is essentially propaganda to the contrary, classroom teachers were not hands-on participants in the drafting of the Common Core State Standards. If they had been, we wouldn’t have parents and teachers across the nation in an uproar, particularly those dealing with young children.

We know beyond a doubt that children develop at different rates. In an ideal world, not all children would start school at 5 years of age. We would observe their development carefully and begin to formally educate them when they were ready. In a system of public schools that must accommodate millions of children, that isn’t practical. We have begun them all in most places at five, but we provided some broad flexibility in at least the early grades so that kids with lags in aspects of their development were accounted for and hopefully caught up to their peers. That is, the expectations for the various grades were flexible enough that kids of a broad spectrum of abilities could still be considered to be doing satisfactorily.

With the Common Core Standards, at least as they are being implemented in New York, that is far from the case. We have what I call the compounded educational felony of age inappropriate standards promulgated nationally by people with, to be kind, very limited understanding of the cognitive development of children, passing them on to incompetents like we have in Albany to be interpreted and expressed in the so-called modules on the State Ed website. That leaves classroom teachers with little children who can barely hold a pencil properly coloring in bubbles on answer sheets to verbal math problems which they can’t read with any degree of precision. It leaves them shoving vocabulary words down the throats of children who may parrot the words back but who are not ready yet to store them in working memory.

Finally, no teacher I know would have just dumped the Common Core State Standards without first thinking through the learning gaps that need to be filled in the transition to this new approach. Just yesterday, I was talking to a colleague who teaches 6th grade math in a district serving a high percentage of children who live in poverty, kids who for a variety of reasons have gaping holes in their learning. She reminded me that math knowledge is acquired sequentially. Miss some basic concepts in first grade, and you’re probably going to have difficulties in grade 2. Unaddressed, the gaps grow exponentially. Try as a child to deal with math that is served up in non-traditional ways, ways in which many elementary teachers find it difficult to understand and the learning gaps are multiplied by at least several factors. Send these kids home with homework that their parents don’t recognize as math, and you have guaranteed that numbers of them will see themselves as bad at math for the remainder of their lives. Many will actually be. As bad, parental support for public schools is undermined as parents send their kids to schools that frustrate them and diminish their self-confidence.

Good, highly experienced teachers, teachers from inner city, rural and suburban schools writing national standards and planning for their implementation would have foreseen these problems and attempted to plan for them. The standards would have been informed by the essential skills of people with broad experience and knowledge of what children at a given age can be expected to do. We could still have such standards, if the Obama administration would come to its senses, shed itself of the influences outfits like the Gates Foundation and other corporate interests and work with our two national unions to recruit real teachers to rewrite the Common Core State Standards that in their current iteration will accomplish nothing.

Even then, however, we would still be faced with national disgrace that a quarter of our nation’s children live in poverty.

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Imagine! Teachers Do Better In Person

Only those who don’t understand education as a social process but absorption of information see champion online education. That good teacher always entails quantifiable factors seems to be something in the process of being forgotten. Hopefully the data driven drones will awaken to the developing body of information on feeble results of hyped panaceas. These results are with college age students. Image what high school results would be like.

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Searching for Standards Teachers Could Support

In response to a question I asked of NEA President Van Roekel about our union’s support of the Common Core State Standards, he raised the question of what are we for instead. Here’s the broad outline of standards I could wholeheartedly support. I plan to come back to this outline from time to time to flesh my standards out.

I’m open to k-12 standards that delineate minimum expectations across the grades. Those standards should be developed by classroom teachers and field tested and refined before they are nationally released. The standards I envision would leave teachers free to develop the curriculum they feel will best enable their students to meet the standards. The ultimate goal of the standards would be a broadly educated student equipped for responsible adulthood and citizenship, a student prepared for the next step is in whatever path he chooses, be it college, the world of work the military or whatever. My teacher developed standards would, I’m sure, guide students to social responsibility, respect for the environment and political participation. In short they would seek to inculcate that which would create citizens who wish to live in a decent society free of the scourges of ignorance, poverty and prejudice.

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New York is the Key

I’ve written about my differences with state and national union leaders on what I have termed their wholesale embrace of the Common Core State Standards. I had occasion last week to meet with a group of local union presidents from across the country and NEA President Dennis Van Roekel under the auspices of the National Council of Urban Education Associations (NCUEA), a powerful caucus with in the National Education Association (NEA). I used my opportunity to engage Van Roekel to address what is becoming clearer to me all the time: the difference between the Common Core Standards as they exist as originally promulgated and the Standards as they are being experienced in the school districts and classrooms of our nation.

Acknowledging that the implementation of the Standards in New York has been a disaster, Van Roekel went on to explain that the NEA’s support for them has been driven by internal polling of the membership indicating broad support for them, and, in fact, several of the presidents in attendance spoke to the support of their members. He did say that the members have some concerns about implementation but are generally supportive.

While I was reluctant to accept this report on NEA’s polling, a number of experiences at this conference caused me to change my view. Wherever I went, whatever discussion I participated in at this NCUEA conference, there was a sense in the leaders I met that Common Core Standards are here to stay so that we might as well make the best of them that we can. To be sure there are places in the nation where the Standards are being implemented better than in New York, but that doesn’t mean that they are being enthusiastically embraced by our members. In a world where their leaders offer them no alternatives, it’s sensible to try to make the best of things.

I returned home convinced that the battle against testing and the Common Core Standards increasingly linked to that testing will have to be won in New York first. Here I increasingly meet local leaders who see the lunacy the Standards have become, leaders whose members are fed up with the attempt by corporate interests to take over their profession, standardizing their work and neutering it of its creative challenges. Not only must the battle be won in New York, but the driving energy to victory is going to have to emanate from Long Island where parents are joining with teachers to defend what we all know are some of the best schools in our nation.

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Shame on Us

This is a very sad day for working people. Federal Judge Steven W. Rhodes has ruled that despite the fact that public employee pensions are guaranteed in the constitution of the state of Michigan, Detroit’s Chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy can go forward and the city’s retirees have no special protection. If it is not overturned on appeal, public employee pensions will be fair game in many places in the United States, and retirees who played by a set of rules that they had every reason to believe guaranteed them a worry free retirement will now struggle in their final years because of bad decisions made by their political leaders who allowed their pension systems to be dramatically underfunded. What kind of country allows this to happen to people who spent their working lives providing for the public good? Shame on us.

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PISA Schmeeza

The air waves and cyberspace will be cluttered today with “news” about the results of the PISA exam which showed American 15 year olds making “no progress” relative to the rest of the world. Reading about the scores this morning, I found myself remembering a student I had some years ago who had come to the U.S. from Shanghai, one of the top scorers on PISA. I remembered chatting with Eddie one as he recalled for me a very high stakes test he had to take for which his aunt with whom he lived “helped” him prepare. She would sit him down each day with a review book in front of her and begin asking him questions. Each time he made a mistake, he had to hold out his hand and be whacked with a stick that his aunt wielded without mercy. “I pass exam,” I remember Eddie telling me.

Immediately after recalling this teacher moment, I read Diane Ravitch quoting the University of Oregon’s Yong Zhao, himself educated in China, who says, “While the East Asian systems may enjoy being at the top of international tests, they are not happy at all with the outcomes of their education. They have recognized the damages of their education for a long time and have taken actions to reform their systems. Recently, the Chinese government again issued orders to lesson student academic burden by reducing standardized tests and written homework in primary schools. The Singaporeans have been working reforming its curriculum and examination systems. The Koreans are working on implementing a “free semester” for the secondary students. Eastern Asian parents are willing and working hard to spend their life’s savings finding spots outside these “best” education systems. Thus international schools, schools that follow the less successful Western education model, have been in high demand and continue to grow in East Asia. Tens of thousands of Chinese and Korean parents send their children to study in Australia, the U.K., Canada, and the U.S. It is no exaggeration to say that that the majority of the parents in China would send their children to an American school instead of keeping them in the “best performing” Chinese system, if they had the choice.”

When I remember, too the effects, of poverty on so many of America’s young people, I believe I have the PISA scores in proper perspective.

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With all of the reformist stupid talk about “college and career ready,” it was refreshing to read in Sunday’s Times about an idea that has some real possibilities to provide young people with skills to earn a middle class existence. The article talks about a German company in South Carolina that needed skilled help but was unable to find it. To fill their need, they resorted to re-creating a system that the Germans have used since the end of WWII in which industry working with educational institutions provides young people with apprenticeships that when successfully completed lead to jobs with decent wages and benefits. Scaling up programs like this might have a real chance to lift significant numbers of people out of poverty and provide them with the middle class jobs that have been vanishing. Such a program would also recognize that not every young person wants to go to college. It might also be an alternative to the trend of sizeable numbers of young college graduates for whom there is no work appropriate to their educations.

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