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 February, 2014

What We Measure=What We Get

What we choose to measure and how we choose to measure them same a good deal about our values; albeit expressing things in numbers tend to provide a patina of objectivity to the results. Thus, the health of our economy is often expressed by the gross domestic product calculation – the value of all the goods and services produced by our society. When we stop and think about this supposed measure of the health our economy, we realize that it includes the diagnosis and treatment of every cancer, the repair of all the damage from every automobile accident and the funeral arrangements of those who didn’t survive them. Our interest is on growth regardless of what produces it.

Similarly, we measure the worth of our schools by student scores in reading and math, thereby ensuring that teachers will focus most of their teaching time and attention of those subjects, increasingly excluding almost everything else. We evaluate the worth of our teachers on those scores, even though we know these results are influenced by a host of variable totally beyond their control. Few stop to think if reading and math are all we want to provide our children. Yet, if we pause to think most people would say school should be about a whole lot more.

I’ve been thing about the measurement of human efforts on and off some time, probably ever since I read Stephen Gould’s Mismeasure of Man years ago. The other day, Diane Ravitch highlighted a recent paper by Richard Rothstein and Rebecca Jacobsen on the history of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often referred to as our schools’ report-card. It turns out the designers of the original NAEP sought collect data on the things that schools spent from 15 to 20 percent of their time on, including art, citizenship, foreign language, career and occupational development and physical fitness among others. The original goal was not to express the findings of the survey as a test score but rather to report data the way the census does, x percent of students are able to demonstrate this skill or behavior. The developers of the NAEP understood schools serve complex social functions for our society and looked to create instruments to provide information for education policy makers.

Today, as we have narrowed the focus of what we measure about our schools, we have narrowed the focus of what they attempt to inculcate in our youth. Test reading and math and tie teacher evaluations to the results – don’t be surprised that reading and math crowd out most everything else. From the wonderful Rothstein/Jacobsen paper I learned that there is a law that expresses this connection between the measurement of social phenomena and policy making. It’s called Campbell’s Law which states, “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social process it intended to monitor.” Distorted and corrupted – good words to describe what is happening to New York’s schools as a result of their mismeasure.

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Proud to Serve Them!

Being a local union leader, one often spends his days with endless workplace problems, from the trivial to the very serious. The work is tedious and often frustrating, particularly when one is called upon to defend the indefensible. Most of the people we represent do their jobs day in and out, coping with difficult circumstances on their own, giving their employer many times more effort than they are contractually obliged to provide. To meet this majority of the membership requires dropping in on their lunch periods and attending their building union meetings a few times a year. At other times, they are always working. Given one’s distance from most of the membership most of the time, one can easily forget just how wonderful they are and how proud we should be to represent them.

I was reminded of this last evening as I took some twenty of them to meet with our Board of Education. I wanted the Board to hear from the people, in the trenches the very serious problems they are experiencing with the implementation of the Common Core State Standards. My goal was to disabuse the Board of the idea they had been given by an administration arranged presentation that all is going swimmingly – that our students were enthusiastically responding to the demand of higher order work and increased rigor.

I’ll admit to being a little nervous before the meeting. By and large, I had no idea who was coming or what they were going to say, our building representatives having recruited the participants. I made no attempt to script them in that I wanted the Board to hear about things as they are in the lives of the people to do the essential work of the schools. I knew from meetings I had attended that the Common Core and the tests aligned with it were troubling their professional consciences – which many of them feel that they are inflicting undue pressure on children ill-equipped to cope with it. I knew too that they are feeling the joy of teaching ebbing away as less and less of what they do is in their personal control. But would they have the nerve to speak their minds to the Board and the central office administrators?

I need not have worried. They were eloquently upfront in presenting a picture for the Board of the profound changes that the epidemic of high stakes tests and the Common Core have wrought on their classrooms. With almost no prompting, they took turns talking, punctuating their remarks with anecdotes drawn from their daily work with their students. As one of them put it, “60 percent of the children are doing fine, responding very well to the higher demands we’re putting on them, but what about the other 40 percent? What are we doing to them? We are teaching children to hate school and learning.” I’m only sorry I don’t have a video of their presentation. I would love for the community to see the deep concern they have for the welfare of our town’s children. It’s been almost 24 hours since I left them, but I still thinking about how proud I am to represent them.

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Cutting to Competency

Unless they create utter chaos, all initiatives in public schools are doomed to success. I was reminded of this last evening at a meeting of the Plainview Board of Education at which the principals of our elementary schools were reporting in part on the impact of last year’s budget cuts on the academic program in their schools.

At the meeting before, despite every news medium carrying stories of the chaos caused by the implementation of the Common Core State Standards in New York, a panel asserted all was well in our schools our students were performing brilliantly in response to the rigorous demands of the Common Core. With the curriculum work we had done and the wonderful staff development supporting our teachers, our schools were somehow escaping the kinds of experiences that almost cased riots at Regents forums on the Standards

Last night we learned that the elimination over the past two years of our Extended Readiness program for kindergartners and first-graders who in many cases are developmentally delayed has improved the outcomes for these children. And this was not the only program cut that improved things. It turns out that cutting instruction by a certified health teacher and enrichment teacher who essentially brought more expert science instruction to these early grades has also miraculously brought about an improvement in the elementary program. By the time the principals were done with their presentation, the thought must have crossed the minds of many as to why we don’t try some further cuts this year in that cutting appears to have such ameliorative effect. Let’s cut our way to competency. That’s it! We’ve invented a new program. Cutting to Competency! What any eye-grabber on an administrative application.

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What Did NEA Do Now?

The National Education Association (NEA) is rapidly becoming a union in name only. It is rapidly morphing into the stereotype of it in American Federation of Teachers circles. Under a series of ineffectual presidents for whom leadership consisted of polls and focus groups, it has arrived at a point where its cannot seem to decide whether it wishes to be a participant in the corporate education reform movement or an advocate for three million of the nation’s public school workers whose jobs and work-life are threatened by it. It has no coherent strategy for confronting the corporate assault on public education and the havoc it is wreaking on our membership.

Just as it began a retreat from its ill-conceived blanket support for the Common Core State Standards, it announces a new relationship with Teach Plus a corporate sponsored reform group (The Gates Foundation is a major contributor.) that pushes the evaluation of teachers on the basis of student test results and an end to the seniority system. In their own words, “Effective teachers are key to student success, but schools have historically ignored differences in teacher quality. Our goal is to improve teaching and learning in every classroom by helping teachers continually access useful feedback on their practice and on their students’ growth. We also seek to help teaching transition from a seniority-driven job to a performance-driven profession that values excellence helping students above all else.”

What does our union hope to gain from a relationship with an organization that holds views so antithetical to the animating ideas of a labor union? That’s a question that has to be addressed to President Van Roekel and to incoming President Lily Eskelsen Garcia.

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NEA Changes Course

The NEA’s Dennis Van Roekel is but the latest teacher union leader trying to catch up to his members. This is so painfully ironic in that both the NEA and AFT have been desperately trying to change the culture of their organizations from one of service provider to organizing around issues. Yet, both Van Roekel and Weingarten have been slow to catch on the organizing potential of the Common Core State Standards and the high stakes tests that are an essential part of this corporate package. Both dug in deeply in support of the Standards, aided in their efforts by healthy contributions from the Gates Foundation to both national unions. Both have repeatedly pointed to polls showing as high as 75 percent of the membership supporting the Standards, a figure which always seemed to confuse enthusiasm with abject acceptance. Neither leader seems capable of boldly declaring that blanket union support for the Common Core has been a miscalculation, one which has significantly curtailed our ability to build the teacher/parent/public coalition that may just be powerful enough to defeat the corporate reformers.

Van Roekel’s term is up in July, and he is term-limited from running for re-election. While it may well be too much to hope for, his successor, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, is positioned to steer us further away from the reform movement and in the direction of a more militant defense of public education. As the new president of NEA, while she will feel the inertial pressure to hold course, there is broad affection for her throughout the organization. She is the most charismatic of our national union leaders, a very effective communicator and a perfect public persona to represent the teaching profession to the public. What I don’t know is whether she has the guts to galvanize the angry energy in our ranks to challenge the forces arrayed against us. If she does, we could accomplish some really great things for teachers and public education.

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Strategic Incoherence

In December, I reported on my attendance at an NCUEA meeting at which I got to question NEA President Dennis Van Roekel on that organization’s wholesale embrace of the Common Core State Standards. I came away from that meeting with the distinct impression that many union members across the country are inclined to make the best of the standards that they can, given that their state and national leaders will not lead a battle to oppose them. I concluded my report by observing that it seemed to me that the future of the Common Core and the tests aligned with it will largely be determined in New York where the overwhelming number of local union leaders I meet are vehemently against the Common Core that their members are meeting in their classrooms daily.

Well it now seems the NRA is attempting to annihilate that hope too. Yesterday, I learned that the NEA is ponying up 750 thousand dollars to help NYSUT implement the Common Core Standards in our state. The money, I must assume, comes from the special assessment of 10 dollars per member voted at last year’s NEA convention. The money comes at a time when the NYSUT Board of Directors has voted to withdraw its support for the Standards as they have been implemented. Thus, it appears that we will use 750 thousand of our scarce dues dollars to facilitate in some unspecified ways the implementation of the Standards that many of us have been working in coalition with parents to defeat and which or state organization opposes. Sound incoherent to you? Oh, nothing new, you say!

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Too Close For Comfort

To hear the Common Core religionists talk about close reading of texts is to get the idea that until now teachers did little or nothing to get kids to understand what they read. One would think that literary and rhetorical devices had just been discovered and that the utility of re-reading difficult material is some recent discovery. While I have no doubt that there are some teachers who don’t insist that children anchor their thoughts about a piece of writing in the text, most of the teachers I have known over the last 40 years have done precisely that, especially the English teachers I’ve worked with at the high school and college levels. Like in most matters, teacher treatment of readings occurs on a spectrum from those who believe in the importance of reading widely to those who would rather read fewer pieces intensely. I’m sure my own treatment of individual literary works varied from year to year with the one month Hamlet one year and the two week version another.

What the Core drones have invented is taking what was once a caricature of English teaching pedantry in which each word of each sentence is analyzed to the point where the whole text is rendered meaningless and elevated it to the standard of good teaching, like substituting Art Carney’s takeoff on Leonard Bernstein’s music explanations at his young people’s concerts for the real thing. Rather than promoting college and career readiness, this reading and re-reading and re-reading of texts that are often too difficult and inappropriate for the age of the students in the class can only serve to destroy any hope of helping children to become reading adults, such instruction wringing all pleasure out of learning. But what the hell is the utility of enjoying learning anyway? Keep those kids’ minds on getting college and career ready.

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Which Core Are We Talking About?

A colleague whom I believe has a somewhat different view of the Common Core State Standards than my own sent me a YouTube of Columbia’s Lucy Calkins expressing her view on the subject. Calkins is a strong supporter of the Standards, but like so many of the people who do, she is not talking about the standards as they are being implemented in the classrooms of our schools in Plainview-Old Bethpage and, I suspect, throughout the state and nation.

For Calkins the standards are a set of goals that if properly implemented would make the curricula in reading and writing distinct and coherent across the grades. She says, and I agree, that one often finds the same things being taught from grade to grades because of the lack of such standards. The standards, if implemented in what she calls learning communities, would solve this problem. For her, learning communities are schools where teachers have the opportunity to talk with one another and come to a consensus on what each grade should be doing and then working cohesively to teach what they have agreed is important. The standards as they are implanted in these learning communities would look different from school to school. While I would still have some issues with the Standards, I could probably accept them if the conditions she describes pertained any the schools I know. But they don’t and won’t.

The schools I know are staffed with teachers who are essentially isolated from one another. In this era of tax caps and tight budgets, there is no time or money for the kind of professional discussions Calkins sees as essential. In fact, curriculum modules put out by the education department are rapidly becoming the de facto curriculum even in places that claim to not be using them. So-called staff development is provided by fast-buck chasers who do most of their work in the late afternoon after teachers have been on their feet teaching all day and thinking about their obligations to their families when they get home. Most of the teacher I know struggle to find the time to read a book let alone become active participants in learning communities.

Given her academic interest in reading and writing, Calkins is attracted to the close reading idea central to the ELA Standards. I’ll have more to say about that subject next time.

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A Self-Inflicted Wound

An old joke goes, “How do teachers organize a firing squad? They form a circle.” The truth that spawned that joke was in evidence last night as a group of educators made a presentation to our board of education on our implementation of the Common Core State Standards.
One would have thought that with the Regents announcing some changes to their regulations on Common Core and the tests aligned with the standards, with the Governor making it clear that his appointed Common Core Panel to make recommendations for changes, with the state legislature making noises about changes too, we would have recognized the moment as inopportune for a presentation lauding our implementation of the Common Core. But being attuned to the political moment appears to be a capacity our education leaders have lost.

Thus, the audience was subjected to a litany of edubable, the language of people with nothing to say and a form of speech ironically antithetical to the deep thinking sought after by the Common Core. Somehow citing pseudo-inventions like the Hess Cognitive Rigor Matrix is supposed to cover for the frustrating age inappropriateness of many of the standards, the lack of a serious, coherent curriculum writing effort and a mind-numbing assault of canned programs that do little to improve instruction while robbing teachers of the development of real teaching skills and experiences that might truly make a difference. The audience was asked to draw the conclusion that unlike other places where people are unhappy with the implementation of the Common Core Standards, our students are thriving with them and achieving new levels of excellence.
After the presentation a citizen came to the microphone. He had come he said to talk about property tax abatement for community veterans but was taken with the Common Core presentation. “I don’t know about you,” he said to members of the Board of Education. “But wherever I go in town, I don’t hear anything good about the Common Core.”

I talk to the teachers of our district every day. They continually talk to me about the shortcomings of this approach to education. Many of them feel they are being forced to abuse the children in their charge and resent that deeply. Many are so upset by the Standards and the high stakes tests that are part of the Common Core package that they will opt their own children out of the tests. Many of them have contributed their dollars and their energies to the political work that is starting bring about the changes to a failed effort to raise standards. Many talk passionately about the erosion of their profession and their regret at finding themselves trapped in worsening professional conditions.

Last night, professionals who should know better gave a presentation that can only be described as a self-inflicted wound. No one I could see took that report seriously. I hope the glassed-over expressions of the board members during the presentation suggest that they weren’t taking it seriously either. What was seriously damaged last night was our credibility as educators.

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It’s an Election, Not a Coup

It’s curious to me that some of the voices here on Long Island supporting the Iannuzzi slate in the upcoming NYSUT elections have been heard demanding union action exactly like that being proposed by the Karen Magee slate, ReviveNYSUT. I have no doubt that some of their support grows out of a long experience with and friendship for Dick Iannuzzi. That’s to be expected. But, that seems to leave them with little to counter the challengers but fear mongering about the imagined takeover of NYSUT by the United Federation of Teachers, the New York City local union.

At roughly 40 percent of NYSUT membership, it should surprise only the completely uninformed that a local of this relative size would wield more influence than most. The fact is that the UFT has always had the highest profile in NYSUT, with its president often receiving more public and press attention than the President of NYSUT. It is equally true that some have pointlessly resented this fact from the inception of the state organization. Fortunately, a consensus has existed that the benefits of having the large and well-organized UFT in our state union out-weigh the reality that sometimes the interests of a large urban union and those of suburban and rural areas do not mesh smoothly.

One of the first things the ReviveNYSUT slate will have to do after their victory will be to assure those who believe that their election was the result of a UFT coup d’état that they have been mistaken, that while the UFT will still be our largest local, their demands for a stronger, more militant, proactive NYSUT will be heard and acted upon and that their leaders will be welcomed in the struggle to build a better state union.

I’ve been developing a following on Twitter having had some interesting conversations. Join me at @MortyRosenfeld1.

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Which Way A Moratorium?

It’s becoming clear that there will be a moratorium on the consequences of high stakes Common Core aligned state tests in New York. With the leadership of both houses of the legislature favoring such a pause, either the Regents make it happen or the legislature is poised to act. On one level, that will be a significant victory for the broad coalition of parents and teacher unions. On another, however, it could be a Pyrrhic victory.

If a moratorium whets our coalition’s appetite for what can be politically accomplished, we will have won a very significant skirmish in the battle to end the scourge of high stakes testing and the mindless pedantry attendant to the implementation of the Common Core State Standards. In that case, we will be spurred on to further victories. If, on the other hand, the moratorium cools our passion to turn back the corporate reform efforts in our state and nation, we will have wasted our efforts and abetted the very corporate reforms we set out to defeat.

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Shifting Political Winds

It is truly amazing the facility with which some people can change their positions on issues to adjust to the direction of the political winds. I was reminded of this on Saturday when my union in conjunction with our sister union in Syosset and the PTSs of our two districts held a legislative breakfast focused on high stakes testing, the Common Core State Standards, the property tax cap and state aid to public education. The panel of legislators included Congressman Steve Israel, state Senators Carl Marcellino and John Flanagan and Assemblyman Chuck Levine.
At the same event last year, our elected leaders while sympathizing with the concerns of the parents and teachers in the audience were generally of a mind to deflect any criticism of education policy on to the Regents and the Commissioner of Education who they were intent on pointing out are responsible for education policy. What a difference a year of political action by local teacher unions and parent groups has made. This year Congressman Israel was proud to say that if the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program were up for a vote today, he would vote against it. Senator Carl Marcellino angrily expressed his distrust of Commissioner King and the Regents, announcing that he plans to vote against the incumbent Regents whose terms are up this year, while Education Committee Chair John Flanagan voiced a commitment to fix the problems with testing and the roll-out of the Common Core Standards if the Regents and commissioner fail to do so. Assembly man Lavine came to the breakfast with a copy of Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error, her critique of failure our education policy.

Our union leaders in Albany have finally detected the shift in the political winds. Just yesterday, I received a bulletin from NYSUT informing me that NYSUT was lobbying the Regents to issue a directive to the school districts ending the practice of many who force children who refuse to take the state assessments to “sit and stare” while others take the tests. This shift in position comes on the heels of a pull-back from their unconditional support for the Common Core and parallels to some extent a similar shift by AFT President Randi Weingarten.

Our state union leaders face a contested election this spring. The U.S. House of representative and the entire state legislature are up for re-election in November. It is amazing to see how these upcoming events seem to help our elected representatives clarify their thinking.

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