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 January, 2014

What’s In a Name?

Sensing that the Common Core State Standards are losing ground with the public daily, what are some states doing? Changing the name of the standards, of course, obviously believing a gullible public will but their repackaged snake oil. You say you don’t like Common Core. Tell you what I’m going to do. Tomorrow, I’m going to give you the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards. The next step, I suppose, is to quell the anti-testing rebellion by ceasing to refer to the state examinations as tests. What shall we call them? Annual State Scan? “That which we call a rose…”

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Respecting Teachers’ Judgment

This post belongs to a series I have been writing intermittently about standards teachers could support. Other posts are Searching For Standards Teachers Could Support, Teacher Written Standards would be Age Appropriate and Public Schools and Citizenship.

Teachers could respect standards that respected their professional judgment. Any set of standards presumes a predictable classroom environment in which they are to be applied. In any school, however, as social beings, children and teachers come to class usually prepared for the planned lesson but sometimes not. Sometimes, those are the best days of all. I was reminded of this the other day as I came across a tweet by a 5th grade teacher in a neighboring district who wrote, “Successfully tossed today’s plans aside and introduced my class to the works of Pete Seeger.. this beats CC any day.”

We call these things teachable moments, but that term doesn’t catch what’s going on here. For the 5th grade teacher quoted here, Pete Seeger’s death was a moving event – Seeger having been important to him in ways we can’t begin to calculate. His relationship with his 5th graders is clearly such that he “needed” to share his knowledge and feelings about this great musician who played crucial roles in most of the great social movement of the last sixty years. His love and respect for Seeger’s work was important to share with children he clearly cares about.

His lesson on Seeger was a success in this teacher’s eyes, but any teacher can tell from his tweet that he knows the education bureaucracy he works for with their assessments, pacing charts and progress monitoring wouldn’t appreciate his deviation from his Common Core lesson plan. I’ll go with tis teacher’s standards any day. If you want to hear the voice of what my standards point to as a highly effective teacher, check out his Twitter feed at @rrato.

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Obama Didn’t Disappoint Me

While many are increasingly disappointed with President Obama’s education policy, a policy predicated on testing and linking the student results to teacher evaluations, disappointment is not the right word to capture my thoughts and feelings. I’m more apt to respond with, “I knew it,”

When Obama was first campaigning in the primaries, he and most of the contenders at the time came to the National Education Association (NEA) Convention seeking our support. He was completely forthright in expressing his support for charter schools and testing. It was clear to anyone who cared to listen that he thought our nation’s schools were failing. Yet the NEA wound up supporting him anyway, even though Hillary Clinton was much better on our issues. From that time on, I’ve come to expect nothing good from Obama on education. Candidly, if Mitt Romney had presented himself as the moderately progressive governor of Massachusetts he actually was, I would have been very tempted to vote for a Republican for president for the first time in my life, knowing that Obama was going to be nothing but trouble. He hasn’t disappointed me.

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Our Technology Fetish

It’s not just in the areas of high stakes testing and the Common Core State Standards that the corporate designed and supported public education reform effort has been winning. The absolutely blind faith with which school leaders have embraced computer technology as central to what they increasingly call 21st century learners is a tribute business acumen of the leaders of our high tech companies who for some time have understood the enormous economic potential of educational institutions as profit centers. Convince school leaders, teachers and the public that a child who goes to a school without the latest technology will be unable to compete for the jobs of tomorrow and you have made your product essential for the welfare of our nation’s children. We seem to spend as much time and effort talking about the digital divide than we do about the appalling poverty of a quarter of our nation’s children.

I found myself thinking about this technology fetish while attending last night’s meeting of our board of education at which something called our Technology Visioning Committee presented its report. Granted I should have known that a report from a committee with such a title should have alerted me that it was time for a little extra high blood pressure medication. Sure enough, after watching a video of what were essentially advertisements for products soon to be marketed, the audience was introduced to this little twenty five thousand dollar robot that is programmed to perform intricate physical movements and to do a sales pitch for itself to the audience. It comes with the ability to be programmed in a number of computer languages so that children of all age can learn to make it work. The audience was mesmerized, and to be sure it was interesting to watch. But why in hell a school would want to spend twenty- five thousand dollars on such a thing in an environment in which academic programs throughout the state are being cut, teachers being excessed, teacher wages, like those of much of the middle class stagnating, is a question no one asked. There was a conspicuous lack of questioning about the report, the robot having answered them all.

When we are completely Wi-Fied, when every child has a personal device on her desk, when we can conference with any person in the world, when bio sensors inform virtual teachers on the moods of their students so that they might adjust the tone and substance of their instruction, do we really believe that children will think more logically, write more coherently, be better equipped to be citizens, understand the importance of freedom and privacy to human existence or more intensely experience and appreciate great music and art? Or will our technology fetish inexorably still the voice of our better nature.

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The Political Ground Shakes

The news this weekend was the board of directors of NYSUT, the state teachers union in New York, voting no confidence in Commissioner of Education John King and calling for his removal. This vote came shortly after the state senate’s education committee told King that he must either pause and fix the implementation of the Common Core State Standards or the legislature would. The political ground on which Chancellor Tisch and Commissioner King stand is starting to shake. Unless they are prepared to make major changes to the state’s testing regime, including uncoupling student test results from teacher evaluations, and the implementation of the Common Core, it can’t be long before they are swallowed up as state politicians running for election this fall scurry to avoid being devoured by a progressively angry public. The next rumble will come in a few weeks when numbers of parents refuse to let their children take the state assessments. That will be the parental vote of no confidence which our legislators will surely hear.

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Cuomo’s Merit Pay

While there is much to take issue with in Governor Cuomo’s budget, his proposal for teacher merit pay is the most revealing of his complete and total ignorance when it comes to education. Having brokered the devil’s deal on teacher annual professional performance reviews (APPR), he now proposes to double down on that fraudulent process by giving teachers rated “highly effective” a bonus. Talk about believing one’s own bull! Take an evaluation process that no responsible educator believes in and use is as the instrument for determining merit. Great for teacher morale! Great for encouraging teaching to the test. Great for wasting taxpayer money. Great for contributing toward the mockery education policy in New York has become.

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NEA – Going Nowhere

Snow has closed our schools on Long Island. I was all set for a relaxing day, my neighbor’s son having promised to plow the snow from my driveway. Unfortunately, I couldn’t resist the temptation to read my email, one of which was from EdWeek with a link to an article which announced the partnering of the NEA and a private company to provide Common Core lessons to our members – just what our members have been waiting for, insufficient corporate crap having been dumped on them by various putative education leaders.

The end of my relaxation. Our local’s members have been working so hard to organize opposition to the Common Core Standards and the high stake tests and dishonest teacher accountability schemes inextricably linked to them that a piece like this, clearly promoted by the NEA’s publicity department, is enough to make me want to subject the idiots responsible for it be locked up in a room with Arne Duncan and John King in which with ever increasing decibels the words “college and career ready” are repeated endlessly.

The impoverishment of NEA leadership is never ending. We will elect a new president in July. The vice-president will become president. So it always is. No one challenging. No ideas. Brain dead! Reflexively dancing to the tune of the Gates Foundation. It’s enough to make this union leader puke!

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On MLK Day

It’s 2014, but the NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement that he will try to get all workers 5 days of sick leave per year makes the front page of the New York Times which sees this move as a sharp turn to the left. In Congress, legislation to restore unemployment benefits to the long term unemployed appears hopelessly stalled by leaders like Rand Paul who stupidly believe that attempts to hell those ruined by the financial crisis are a disservice to these hapless people. This morning a PBS piece comes my way documenting the growth of poverty in the suburbs. While I’m pleased to see my former colleague and PCT officer Dick Koubek explaining the plight of the poor in Suffolk County, I am angered that such conditions can exist amidst the tax rebelling rich who populate our island. Throughout our country, the Republican Party is waging a battle to suppress the votes of the poor and minorities. Photo IDs have replaced poll taxes and literacy tests as the means to disenfranchise people who tend to vote for Democrats.

We celebrated Martin Luther King’s birthday yesterday. Most of the media focus was on how far we have come as a nation, to a very significant degree as a result of King’s courageous leadership. Yet I can’t help believing that were he were still among us, he would have us in the streets of America demanding justice for the largely forgotten millions of our countrymen who still lack the essentials of a decent life. Sure, there has been enormous progress, but lately we have taken some steps back when there is so much further to go.

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The Alignment of the Anti-Deformers

My, my how the direct action of parents and teachers against the Common Core State Standards and the high stakes tests aligned to them has shifted the positions of many of our teacher union leaders. The AFT ‘s Randi Weingarten no longer supports value added teacher evaluation models and while still supporting the Common Core Standards in the abstract is forced to admit that the implementation has been an abject disaster. Even the leadership of NYSUT, as aloof from the day to day realities of classroom teachers as they can be, is realizing they’ve been standing on policy quicksand and are seeking firmer ground. Where the last meeting of the NYSUT Board of Directors debated whether or not we should invite Commissioner King to our convention this spring, the upcoming meeting will entertain a motion of no confidence in the commissioner offered by President Dick Iannuzzi. Where Iannuzzi recently told me that parents were not interested in fewer tests but wanted better assessments, I suspect it won’t be long before his team retreats from absurd position as they are challenges by a slate of challengers running against them.

With many of our politicians beginning to move away from Common Core and the testing that comes with it, with our state and national union leaders beginning to hear the anger of their memberships, with a growing number of parents questioning what their children are experiencing in their classrooms, with a growing number of them opting their children out of all high stakes tests, there is developing and irresistible alignment of political forces to end the so-called reform movement that is deforming public education in America.

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More Testing Stupidity

Common Core is quickly coming to be the justification for metastasized stupidity. The leadership of my school district has announced mid-terms for the children in our kindergarten school – MID-TERMS! Granted they call them mid-year assessments, but flagrant ignorance of the abilities and needs of five year-olds is apparent no matter what we call it.

Where once we nurtured children by honing their dexterity with things like blocks, where we taught them songs that inculcated desirable behaviors and values, where naps and milk and cookies came at daily intervals, where music, arts and play were organized to teach youngsters whose bodies are often not ready to sit in one place to focus on abstract concepts, we now have pencil and paper tests on academic skills that we drum into their little heads. We spend gobs of time testing children who too often take from the experience the seeds of a sense of inadequacy. Neurotically fixated on a media manufactured myth of waning global competitiveness, we somehow think that if we just demand more of our children than was demanded of us, we will somehow succeed as a nation, mindless of the likely probably that nations that treat their children so poorly will and deserve to lose.

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Public Schools and Citizenship

Today’s post is part of a series I’ve been intermittently doing on standards teachers could support (Searching for Standards teachers Could Support) (Teacher Written Standards Would Be Age Appropriate).
Public schools that don’t inculcate the feeling of belonging to the public and having responsibilities to it are schools that significantly betray the welfare of the public who fund them. Schools that foster the belief that education is primarily to make students college and career ready are training institutions, not places designed to educate people to live in a democratic society. Children leaving public schools with high standards are connected to their communities, are thoroughly familiar with their local, state and national governments, know their elected representatives and their positions on the issues of the day and look forward to gaining their voice at the ballot box. They have benefited from being exposed to a diverse student body so that the unfamiliar is not threatening to them. While they love their country dearly, they respect the right of other cultures to order themselves differently and do not believe that all people in the world should govern themselves as they do. They have been taught the human costs of war and have developed a suspicion of the motives who want to engage in it. They have respect for the environment and have a strong sense of obligation to protect it.

The public schools I went to by and large met these standards. We were always encouraged to think of larger things than ourselves. Singing songs like “I am Special” would probably have landed us a punch in the nose. My teachers taught us the Negro National Anthem at a time when many African Americans lived under barbaric racist laws. They taught us union songs and about the rights of working people. We sang songs about the United Nations, newly establish after WWII – one of the lines, “One great world at peace once more.” We always had a sense that how we lived in our school community was preparation for engagement in the communities we would live in later on. We had current events almost every day, with the New York Times or Herald Tribune available to us each morning for pennies a day.

My public schools sought to make us good citizens. Today’s schools have fallen down on this job. If the reformers get their way, they will do worse with each passing year. They have no interest in educating children for citizenship. To them children are producers and consumers. There’s nothing about citizenship in the Common Core State Standards. Why?

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What Are We Doing?

A thread on a Plainview parents Facebook page came my way, begun by a parent whose child will enter our high school next year and who enquired of the group whether or not the child should have a lunch period programmed into his day or take an extra class instead. Now it’s in the interest of the members I represent to have students take as many classes as possible. More classes equal more teachers. More teachers equal more union members…..

Yet I can’t help but wonder how it is that we have arrived at the point where this parent’s question is seen as reasonable and where many of the responses from the group counsel no lunch. Six hours of classes without a break? The labor laws of New York require workers to receive a minimum of a thirty minute break after they have worked four and a half hours. Why would we provide less to children? Why have so many lost sight of the fact that gulping down a sandwich while trying to concentrate on a class is not the same thing as sitting with a group of peers and talking teen talk? Why is it that we encourage children to drive themselves in ways that we resent in our adult lives?

Childhood is a social construction. It didn’t always exist. In fact, it’s a fairly recent invention. No so long ago, children were treated as little adults – they dressed like adults and worked like adults. We seem to be living in a society that is increasingly moving backwards, a society that is slowly forgetting the concept of childhood, believing instead that we must heap as much pressure on them as we can for their chase of the bitch goddess Success.

A parent I know has demanded that her high school child take lunch. The child’s friends are amazed that her parents “allow” her to have a meal and some relaxation every school day. It’s no surprise that those unfortunate children tell their parents that they don’t want lunch. How could they possibly do otherwise?

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Sit and Stare Has Got to Go

We are rapidly approaching the spring high stakes tests in New York. My school district, like too many in the state, refuses to respond to the needs of a growing number of children whose parents are choosing to opt them out of these state examinations, believing that they are harmful and antithetical to quality education. The need is a simple one. We need to provide an alternative to the current policy of having opting out students sit and stare into space as their peers take these examinations. The current policy is not fair to opting out students. It isn’t fair to those taking the exams either.

The Plainview- Old Bethpage Board needs to provide an alternative educational experience for children to refuse to take the state exams. They need to do this to prevent opting out students from the painful experience of sitting in one place for extended periods of time without anything to do. They need to do it too to be fair to those students trying to concentrate on the examinations who have a right not to be distracted by squirming peers whose bodies are rebelling against adult imposed idleness.

The members of our union understand that there are some logistical problems related to providing an alternative experience for opting out students. To help the district avoid hiring substitute teachers to supervise those not taking the exams, we have offered to give up our contractual preparation periods on testing days to provide supervision at no additional cost to the district. We are willing to do any reasonable thing to end the cruel “sit and stare” policy.

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Leave It to Cuomo

Like in a tire ripped open by a New York pothole, the air is rapidly escaping from so-called education reform movement in New York. With parents and teachers becoming increasingly aroused to action against the Common Core State Standards and the tests aligned to them, with members of the legislature beginning to respond to the ire of their constituents, with New York City under its new mayor poised to undo the Bloomberg corporate reforms, this is the time our Governor, Andrew Cuomo, decides it would be wise to call for the demonstrably failed concept of teacher merit pay to be grafted on to the equally stupid annual professional performance review process that ties student test scores to teacher evaluations. Is there no end to Cuomo’s pandering to the corporate reformers? Probably not, as they are the ones who have filled his campaign fund with millions of dollars, probably enough to scare off any serious challenger.

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Stop! Please!!!!

Maybe it’s a consequence of the Homeland marathon I did over the recent holiday; maybe it’s a waning tolerance for mindlessness or the tendency of the eduworld to mystify the obvious, but I find myself thinking that if forced to watch videos like this one on Common Core math for kindergartners, I would give up my country and all I love. See how many seconds it takes you before you feel like bashing in the screen.

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Weingarten’s About-face

I congratulate AFT President Randi Weingarten for finally coming to the conclusion that value added measures of teacher performance are a sham – there being no research that establishes their validity. While I welcome her to my side in the battle against obsessive testing, as the elected leader of a union I belong to, it’s not that easy to forget the damage her support for the linkage of student performance on standardized tests to teacher evaluation has caused. It’s much easier to forgive Diane Ravitch who was never elected and paid to represent me. Despite serious opposition to her position from the rank and file, Weingarten persevered, sincerely believing that she was right – that she had insights many of the members lacked. She proved to be wrong.

Should the insurgent candidates in the upcoming NYSUT elections prevail, they will do so in large measure because of their perceived failure to handle the testing/teacher evaluation issue appropriately. As NYSUT makes up about half of the AFT membership, it will be interesting to see if Weingarten meets a similar fate.

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NYSUT Elections

What had been rumored for months became clear over the weekend. There is a slate of candidates running in opposition to the current New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) leadership team in an election to be held in April. My readers are familiar with my differences with NYSUT leadership who have in my view essentially acquiesced to the corporate sponsored public school reform agenda and as a result have progressively distanced themselves from the membership.

I look forward to what those who would replace them have to say about the future of our state union. I’m interested in their analysis of our current state of affairs and what they have in mind to do to improve things. I’m frankly troubled that this group emerges so close to the election with very little time to introduce themselves and develop their positions on the issues. I hope this election cycle will serve to open a broad discussion of where our movement is going, a discussion that includes the rank and file. If it doesn’t, it is unlikely that the kind of change we need will be forthcoming. For now, let’s listen to what the candidates have to offer.

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Skills Gap?

A central tenet of the corporate school reform movement is the belief that the failure of our public schools is making our nation less economically competitive in a world in which trade has become globalized. The offered “evidence” for this belief is the oft stated unchallenged “fact” that there are many good jobs available in the United States that go begging because employers cannot find workers with the 21st century skills these jobs require.

In a brilliantly eye-opening piece in the January edition of Labor Notes entitled ‘Skills Gap’ a Convenient Myth (Sorry no link available), labor historian Toni Gilpin challenges this conventional wisdom, leaving this reader, at least, convinced of its absurdity. When one stops to think, a lesson learned in high school economics gives us all we need to know to debunk this myth. If there is a skills gap, the wages of skilled workers would rise with the scarcity of their skills. It’s basic supply and demand economics. Yet, we know they haven’t risen. In fact they have stagnated or declined over the last 30 years causing what we are coming to see as the our age’s great social and political problem – rising economic inequality. Where one does see skilled jobs going unfilled, Gilpin says, “…it’s because employers seek high-value workers at discount rates.” Witness what Boeing is attempting to do to its highly skilled workforce. Boeing workers, some of the most highly skilled workers we have, are being threatened with having their jobs outsourced to other parts of the country if they do not agree to management’s demand for wage and pension concessions. How could this happen in an economy where there is a shortage of skilled workers?

So it’s not a failing public schools caused skills gap America is experiencing. It’s a jobs gap. It’s not training that is going to provide the jobs we need. It’s the existence of jobs that provides training. We’ve been encouraged to have this all backwards. Just as we have been encouraged to believe our schools are failing. Get a hold of Gilpin’s piece if you can. It’s a wonderful remedy for the corporate bull that clouds our thinking.

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Asking Parents To Be Teachers

One of the more interesting aspects of the implementation of the Common Core State Standards in New York has been to watch the leaders of our school districts inveigh against testing, the age inappropriateness of the early childhood standards and the evaluation of teacher tied to this entire corporate sponsored venture. Yet, the same school leaders, the front line recipients of the parent led rebellion against the Common Core Standards and the tests aligned with them feel obliged to try to offer palliative accommodations to the growing parent anger. Thus we have a growing number of districts offering parents training in how to help their children cope with challenges brought by the new standards. These school leaders want it all ways. They correctly sense the growing opposition of parents and teachers, but are fearful of bucking the Commissioner King and Regents Chancellor Tisch. They preach concern for children, but appear more interested in their careers than standing up for what’s right.

What remains to be seen is whether these parent Common Core classes allay parent concerns. Were I a parent paying the very high school taxes in suburban communities like mine, I would be livid over the notion that I required training to help my children to do their school work. What kind of schools am I sending my kids to if I have to teach them when they come home? To me it is absolutely clear that if we are asking children to do things that require their parents to constantly help them, we are demonstrably asking them to do tasks inappropriate to their age.

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