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 March, 2014

Creativity Revolution or Testing Tedium?

Special education teacher Debbie Riviezzo has become a popular guest blogger. In today’s piece, she turns her attention to the dichotomy between the aspirational statements of our school leadership and the daily reality of conditions in our schools. MR

On Monday my husband called me on my lunch hour to tell me that he bought me a Newsday, since the cover story was on opting out. In reading the article I discovered that our own Superintendent had indeed contributed to the story. The article states that Dr. Lewis is “critical of the exams,” but goes on to state (in the same sentence) that “they have served a useful purpose.” Yesterday I saw something in my district email from Dr. Lewis about a TED talk on education, stating that she would “love to know your thoughts after you watched this.” So here are my thoughts…
I found this TED talk to be very interesting and found myself shaking my head “yes” Sir Ken Robinson was speaking. Sir Ken addressed a variety of topics that pertinent to the issues of testing and Common Core, such as the emphasis on conformity in our educational system today and the de-professionalization of teaching in America. He talked about the culture of a school, and whether or not the individual needs of children are addressed. He spoke of curiosity and creativity. While we constantly find ourselves compared to other nations, Sir Ken noted that in Finland, which ranks very high in the international comparisons we hear so much about, there is very little standardized testing. He talked about the drop-out rate in America, and kids feeling disengaged from their educational experience. Towards the end of the talk, he mentioned a quote from Benjamin Franklin, which has to do with three types of people: immovable, moveable, and those who move. He eloquently explained that those who move can start a movement that can turn into a revolution. I couldn’t agree more. I would certainly consider the opt-out movement a step in the right direction.

This brings me back to the article in Newsday, in which Dr. Lewis is quoted as saying that “I think the movement will flatten as we respectfully address each concern,” and that “I want to believe that at some point SED has to get the message on this.” I must respectfully disagree. I do not think the movement will “flatten,” as evidenced by the same article citing Plainview Old-Bethpage as a district “where educators expect an increase in ‘opt-outs’.” I do not think SED is anywhere near getting the message that parents and educators are trying to get across to them, and I think SED has been anything but respectful in its treatment of the students, parents, and teachers of this state. My reaction to this TED talk is simple- I agree that we need a revolution in education today. My question is this- who will be brave enough to lead us? Parents? Teachers? Administrators? Who will advocate for bringing control of our schools back to a local level? Will we get rid of the pacing charts that strangle the ability of teachers to be creative or individualized in their instruction? Will we support a diversity of classes and curricula for all students and acknowledge that not everyone’s interest lies in AP or Research? Who will lead us in these endeavors? As a parent and teacher I am ready to be a part of the revolution. My union is with me. My question is- will the leaders of my school district join us?

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Segregated New York

We learned yesterday from a series of reports by the Civil Rights Project what many have been saying for some time – that the public schools of the United States are becoming increasingly segregated, thereby negatively impacting the education of our nation’s black and Latino children. What perhaps was not suspected by New Yorkers is that they have the most segregated schools by race and poverty.

In the years since the Brown Decision declaring separate education systems inherently unequal, we have learned a great deal about the debilitating effects of growing up apart from the mainstream of society and learning from one’s isolation of one’s inferiority. But if race and poverty data are not your thing, you might want to listen to a podcast of the NPR program On Being in which the moderator Krista Tippet interviews Desmond Tutu, the former Anglican Bishop of South Africa and a moral leaders in the struggle to end apartheid there.

During the interview, Tutu recalls a moment when he was struck by the extent to which even he had hidden notions of the inherent inferiority of blacks to white. He tells of boarding an airplane in Nigeria, gazing into the cockpit as he entered and noticing with a flush of pride that both pilot and copilot were black. He had never seen such a thing before.

A short time into his flight, the plane was struck by what he called “the father and mother of all turbulence.” Deeply frightened, he suddenly found himself thinking, “There are not white people in the cockpit. I wonder if the black officers know what they are doing.”

He recalled the incident at a more serene moment, shuddering to realize he harbored an unconscious suspicion that blacks might be inferior to the whites who had rules his society his entire life. Such are the psychic wounds that that are inflicted on people who are made to live apart. They often absorb with the very air they breathe the ideas of the oppressors who keep them in their worlds apart.

As our governor and legislature debate New York’s budget, in many ways a statement of the priorities of our elected leaders, we don’t hear them talking about remedying the shame of having the most segregated schools in this rich country of ours.

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You Can’t …

There is an old Yiddish expression that translates as, “You can’t sit on two horses with one ass” (Mit eyn hintn zitst men nit af tsvey ferd). That’s a wisdom that the leader of our school district doesn’t seem to understand. On one hand, our superintendent would like to be seen as a leader of the opposition to high stakes testing in our state. Yet, our district under her leadership has attempted to frustrate the efforts of parents and teachers who believe that the quickest and best way to end the scourge of high stakes testing is for parents to refuse to allow their children to take these tests. When parents and teachers demanded an end to our district’s “sit and stare” policy requiring children not taking the tests to mind-numbingly sit and stare into space for an hour and a half at a time, it took literally months to put a procedure in place to end this practice, even though the Board of Education had directed an end to it long ago. Today I learn from one of our union representatives and the POB Parents for Common Sense Education Facebook page that a representative of the district has been calling parents telling them that opting their children out of the tests may prejudice their placement in our gifted and talented program, leaving parents who believe deeply that the state’s testing program is harmful to their children feeling intimidated and fearful that the district will take their political activism out on their children. I’m a believer in the adage that you are what you do, not what you say. This attempt to bully parents into permitting their children to be tested betrays a conviction that standardized testing is a valid way to make important judgments about young children. If that is in fact what she believes, she ought to ride that one horse proudly.

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Competition Run Amok

It has taken us all year working with many parents in our community to get our district to drop its “sit and stare” policy for children whose parents choose to opt them out of the grades 3 through 8 New York State assessments. Yet, even in finally changing our ridiculous and cruel policy, we can’t seem to do so in a way befitting any serious conception of professional standards. Apparently judged to be a subversive act that would gain them an unfair advantage over students taking the exams, students are being told that they may read books unrelated to their school work, but under no circumstances will they be permitted to study school work of any kind. Before you ask why anyone would craft such a policy, I must remind you of my almost universal answer to questions like that. Never discount stupidity as the cause of your problem. Surely this is a masterpiece of stupidity and but the latest example of the competition ethic run amok.

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Smart Money Not ON Technology For Young Kids

I suspect that many of the professionals I engage in the education business cringe inwardly when I talk about how technology has very negative, unintended consequences for the children in our schools who increasingly staring at screens for a good portion of each school day. I’ve talked about how we know that people read differently on screens and not as well, how our children’s brains may be getting wired in heretofore unknown ways from their attraction to electronic devices and how the role of the public schools as the vehicle for the transmission of the norms and values of our society is frustrated by technology that has kids working in school in isolation. I’ve written too about how our newest teachers, having grown up in this environment, have become increasingly deskilled to the point where many report that a technology failure scraps their lessons for the day. While by no means a Luddite, I believe deeply that public schools have been scammed by profit seeking producers of technology to an unexamined faith digitized solutions to educational issues.

How refreshing them to read in our local Newsday about the approach of the Waldorf Schools in which technology plays no part in the instruction of children until middle school at the earliest, in some Waldorf schools not until high school. Parents of young children in these schools pay about $23,000 per year for a technology free “… education [that] is based on a profound understanding of human development that addresses the needs of the growing child. Waldorf teachers strive to transform education into an art that educates the whole child—the heart and the hands, as well as the head.” Very interestingly, this philosophy appears to motivate many Silicon Valley parents who while in the thick of technological innovation choose to send their kids to the local Waldorf schools. What do they know about the effects of technology on young minds that the leaders of our public schools don’t?

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Perspectives on Persevering

My colleague Debbie Reviezzo is a guest blogger today. Debbie brings the perspective of a special education teacher to what the so-called reform movement is doing to the children in our schools.

I was pleased to be asked to join the group of PCT members who recently met with the Board of Education, to provide our perspective on Common Core and its implementation. I am constantly looking at the issue of Common Core not only professionally, but personally as well. As a high school teacher, it was informative to hear from my colleagues in the younger grades. The Board, I felt, was interested in what we had to say, and asked thoughtful and pertinent questions. I was particularly affected, as I am sure many of us were, by the comments made by one of our colleagues from the elementary school. She commented that she felt that about 60% of her students were doing OK with the Common Core, and the change in standards, but asked one of the most salient questions of the evening- “what about the other 40%?”

For my part, I spoke to the Board about the changes to the upcoming English Regents, and what that may mean for our students. Check out the sample Regents that is available on Engage NY. Pay close attention to the SRI’s (reading levels) for each reading sample, and you will see that 4 of the passages have SRI’s above the 11th grade reading level. Keep in mind that these levels represent SRI’s aligned to the Common Core, which are higher than those we had been previously using. In my opinion, this is indicative of the utter failure on the part of the state to correctly implement Common Core. Raise levels and standards arbitrarily, with little to no preparation for teachers, and no consideration for the developmental levels of the students, and assume that this will magically make everyone “college and career ready!” Completely change expectations for children who are currently in 9th or 10th grade for a Regents they will take in 11th grade that is required to graduate. Makes perfect educational sense- right?

As the discussion progressed, and we addressed various issues, the idea of perseverance came up. I have to admit, this particular idea has been stuck in my head ever since. As an adult, I can certainly appreciate the fact that not everything in life can be fun or easy, and that children do need to learn that sometimes we have to work through things in order to succeed or advance. I cannot, however, shake my gut feeling that I cannot abide by turning education into something our children have to persevere through.

Merriam-Webster defines persevere as: “to persist in a state, enterprise, or undertaking in spite of counterinfluences, opposition, or discouragement.” How sad a day is this, that these are the words that should be associated with education in New York State? What happened to joy, or curiosity? What happened to learning about something, simply because you had to know “why,” or”how?” Instead, we find ourselves as teachers tied to a curriculum we had no part in developing, teaching to students who are trying to keep their heads above water. As a mother I have a very difficult time convincing my ten year old that she should read for 20 minutes, for enjoyment, after she has spent 2-3 hours persevering through her Common Core aligned homework. At this rate, I don’t know if she will ever learn to love reading the way I do.

This brings me back to “the other 40%” that our colleague spoke of. For a certain portion of our children, school has always been somewhat of a struggle. My question is- what about these children? When school becomes something you have to “persist” in, despite “discouragement,” how can you ever truly learn to love learning? How can you find time to be curious when all of your mental energy goes into merely trying to keep up? The state claims they are concerned about making our kids college ready. My question is, will this generation of kids want to go to college after the current system of over-testing and unrealistic and developmentally inappropriate “standards” teaches them to hate school? Rather than insisting that our children persevere, I would instead suggest that we do the persevering. Let us persist in illustrating to the State that their implementation of Common Core was flawed at best, and most likely destructive to the education and emotional health of an entire generation of children. Let us do so in the face of the State’s opposition to, and discouragement of, those who would disagree with them. Let us be brave, so that our students can get back to the business of being kids, and perhaps learn to love learning once again.

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Gaming the Tests

To preserve one’s professional ethics as a teacher today, it seems to me that one has to diligently study the format of the new Common Core aligned assessments and figure out a way to game the tests. By that I mean, reluctantly surrender a small portion of the school year to showing kids how to pass exams even though they may not understand exactly what they are doing in the process, and then devote the majority of the school year to professionally responsible education.

To some extent good teachers have done this before, even when the test results were not tied to their end of year evaluations and, therefore, tied to their continuing employment. I recall when the decision was taken in Albany that all high school students had to take state Regents examinations in order to graduate. At that time, I was teaching those students whom we used to refer to as “non-Regents.” Everyone was sure that mass numbers of them were going to fail and require five or six years to graduate. Yet, that never happened. It didn’t because we taught kids what those who had constructed the exam were looking for and developed a routine for them to follow to provide what the examiners were seeking, a student rubric, if you will. Experienced teachers know that while time consuming, this is rather easily done. Kids who essentially had little appreciation for what they were doing did well enough to pass, and I still had time to teach them an English course that most appreciated and, I believe, benefited from. While I’m sure this year’s new Regents will be more difficult to game, it will provide a challenge that talented teachers are sure to meet.

Sadly however, the testocracy in Albany will view this gaming of the system as proof positive that the Common Core has elevated student performance, and in a way it will. Students and teachers will achieve new standards of test gaming in their mutual battle to survive the profound ignorance of the education decision makers in Washington and Albany.

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Money Fights Back

By any measure, the movement against the Common Core State Standards and the high stakes tests aligned with them has increasing momentum. Essentially a grassroots movement begun by parents and belatedly joined by our two national unions, it has been a low budget affair, fueled by a deep concern for the welfare of children and the voluntary efforts of citizens of every political stripe who have come to the conclusion that corporate education reform is about profit not children and not the promotion of democratic citizenship.

The corporate reformers led by Bill Gates are clearly organizing to fight back. In a media environment in which dollars boost the decibels of one’s political voice big business sponsored pro-Common Core ad are appearing across the country. Gates himself is going around ostensibly “correcting misinformation” about the standards but spewing his corporate global competitiveness propaganda to a mass media that equates his billions with expertise on any subject he cares to speak on. Sunday morning found him on This Week with George Stephanopoulos where his assumed knowledge of American public education gave him the opportunity once again denigrate America’s public schools , propagating the myth that they are failing, without one challenging question from the host about his business motives for supporting the Common Core. Do you think he might have been asked a question about the recent deal between Microsoft and Pearson to create a digital Common Core curriculum? Instead he was given carte blanche to talk about how the Core is not a curriculum.

We can expect much more push back from the corporate world who working through the National Governors Association along with the warm embrace of the Obama administration thought they had the Common Core State Standards deal done. For those of us who are determined to end the scourge of high stakes testing and age inappropriate academic demands, our challenge is to match their dollars with greater militancy of our ever growing coalition. Can anyone seriously believe that corporate America is spending all of this ad money for the good of the nation?

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The Creation of Ignorance

If you’re like I am, it seems to you that the world is being overcome by ignorance. Almost half of Americans do not believe in evolution, believing instead that the earth is some 6000 years old. Climate change is seen by many as a left wing conspiracy to undermine the capitalist system. Scary numbers of parents are keeping their kids from being vaccinated against terrible, life threatening diseases. And a president like Barack Obama who once could have passed for a Rockefeller Republican is seen as a socialist bent on nationalizing the private property of Americans, not to mention taking away their guns. If there has been a failure of our public schools, it’s this kind of unbounded ignorance.

I’m thankful to Diane Ravitch for drawing my attention to an academic discipline I have been unfamiliar with – agnotology,the study of the cultural production if ignorance. As part of the WordSpy definition has it, “Ignorance is often not merely the absence of knowledge but an outcome of cultural and political struggle.” In her blog a few days ago, she draws upon scholarship in this area of study to help us understand the forces at work to discredit public education. I know some of my readers routinely read Ravitch, but if you haven’t read this post, it’s a must.

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Listening to the NYSUT Candidates

I attended the Long Island Presidents Council meet the NYSUT candidates’ forum last Wednesday evening. My local is supporting the ReviveNYSUT slate, but I have to say I was struck by the paucity of ideas from both sides. Perhaps it was the format which didn’t encourage real political engagement on issues, but the conversation never rose beyond union clichés about organizing and solidarity. The incumbents promised more of the same, while the insurgents promised more involvement of the membership but without any concrete proposals for how to make that happen. The incumbents said we’re strong; insurgents saw only weakness. Me, I saw and heard boring tiptoeing around serious issues unbefitting real leaders. I found it all disheartening.

That we are even having an election is the result of a very real disconnect between the current slate of NYSUT officers and local membership. As high stakes testing and then the Common Core State Standards were alienating the teacher members from their profession, rendering them test-prepers rather than educators, the leadership were extoling the virtues of both and condescendingly suggesting that those who opposed their stance were somehow unable to divine the brilliance of the leadership’s strategy. Just a couple of months ago, in response to a statement I made at a board of directors meeting about how our support for testing and its linkage to teacher evaluation were hindering our ability to form coalitions with parent groups, Dick Iannuzzi told me, “Parents don’t want fewer tests. They want better tests.” That’s how cut off from the world of our classrooms they have become. It was only when an opposition slate formed that we voted no confidence in the commissioner and his implementation of the Common Core.
Do we seriously want more local engagement of NYSUT? If we do, we need to come up with ideas to get NYSUT closer to the people we represent. That can’t be done through labor relations specialists and emails from Albany. That is not to denigrate the work these people do, but, at best, they are technicians called in to solve a particular problem not build a movement, and it’s a movement we should be attempting to revive.
Were I calling the shots at NYSUT, over time, I would seek to have a number of trained, experienced organizers in each of our regional offices, people who are continually briefed by leadership on our priority issues who can then work with local leaders on ways to engage local members on them. Unless we find ways to energize and organize the members at their workplaces, nothing much is going to change. Imagine if instead of a one-time demonstration in Albany focused on so many issues and staged on a Saturday that it received almost no press coverage, imagine if we had our locals organized so that on any given day we could mount a state-wide demonstration in each and every school district. That’s using the power of your numbers at very little cost. That would get us more press and should be easier to do than recruiting members to give up a Saturday to schlep on a long, uncomfortable ride to Albany. That’s showing the people in the trenches that they can have power. That teaches them how to organize to equalize the power in their workplaces.

To build that kind of capacity, we need to have local leaders in closer contact with state leadership. What if we held meetings of the NYSUT Board regionally, with the Saturday morning session open to local leaders and most of the agenda dedicated to an open forum at which ideas could be exchanged, gripes dealt with, misinformation corrected and relationships formed. In theory, the Board of Directors is supposed to supply this link between the state and our locals, but it doesn’t. Much of what board members bring back from their meetings could be more accurately conveyed to local leaders through detailed minutes of the meeting, or, better yet, a podcast. That outcome is embedded in the process. I have had the experience of going to a building union meeting in my own local and hearing a building rep report of our executive board meeting and barely recognizing the meeting that I chaired.

Regional meetings of the NYSUT board would also give board members a better perspective on problems and issues faced by union people in different areas of the state. It might well ameliorate some of the friction that currently exists between rural, suburban and urban locals. In my NEA/New York days, my service on that board and cabinet got me meeting teachers whose principal income came from growing string beans and a teacher who raised calves to supplement her meager teacher earnings in rural New York. I believe they learned something of what it’s like to represent teachers in a suburban environment beyond our salaries that they could only dream about.

Above all else, we need to organize around issues that resonate with the people who pay the dues, difficult though many of those issues are. We need a narrative that inspires the hope that through working and struggling together we can improve the conditions of our members, conditions that deteriorate on a daily basis. I think Randi Weingarten is on to this need with her “reclaiming the profession” idea. But we need more than words. What have we done today to reclaim the profession? Contrary to the current NYSUT leadership’s view, a vital part of leadership of any organization is making members feel proud of belonging, making them feel empowered by the strength of their leaders and their leaders’ ability to link them to the power that comes from collective action. Members could have still been proud of a NYSUT that stood up to the Governor and Regents on APPR and lost, but most of them resent that their leaders cooked this deal, never even asking them what they thought about it. Fighting the abject stupidity of tying teacher evaluations to student scores would have built local capacity. Capitulation weakened us, even locals like mine that are better organized than most.

Whether as a result of a format that encouraged short, clichéd answers, a desire by the candidates to avoid controversy, or a shortage of new ideas, neither side offered us a NYSUT that would attract the minds and hearts of our members. No one invited us to build a new movement of workers in public education. Maybe those who wish to lead us need to take a field trip to Chicago, where Karen Lewis and her leadership team clearly know how to build a movement and excite and engage their membership.

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Cuomo Vulnerable, But Where are the Fit Challengers

A new poll has Governor Andrew Cuomo’s poll numbers way down to below the 50 percent job approval rating for the first time. Teachers across the state will rejoice to think that a politician whose policies have been so antithetical to the welfare of public education and the people who work at it is finally politically vulnerable. I certainly share their joy, but am sobered by the realization that there appears to be little hope of a centrist Republican whom we might get behind.

Almost beyond question, Cuomo’s positions on high stakes testing and its connection to his notions of teacher accountability are contributing to his declining numbers. His recent TV commercial in which he sets himself up as the protector of the state’s children from tests tied to the Common Core State Standards signals his awareness that his positions on public education are costing him with the voters. The spot is also a tribute to his to effortless shift from a position in which he claimed to have nothing to do with education to taking charge of what he formerly claimed was the sole responsibility of the Regents and Commissioner.

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Thinking About the SAT

The more one looks into the abuse we have heaped on our nation’s children through high stakes testing, the more convinced he is that these tests are all about rapacious corporate profits and not about education. I’m amazed and embarrassed by the stock I once put in these exams and hope that I made most of my decisions about my students on sounder professional judgment.

Recently, because of an interest by our superintendent and some members of our board of education in provided a high school class in SAT Prep, I’ve done a good bit of reading to support my professional view that public schools should not be spending their time and resources prepping kids for this exam – that such course have nothing to do with educating young people. In that regard, I read this New Yorker piece by Elizabeth Kolbert that is both entertaining and informative, especially on the short history of the SAT it provides. Kolbert’s insights added to my growing belief that we need to end the tyranny of this test too.

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The Authority of Ignorance

The February 28 New York Times editorialized on what New York needs to do to remedy its almost farcical implementation of the Common Core State Standards. The Grey Lady maintains that what is needed is better professional development in the new techniques required for teaching to the new standards. The goal the Times opines, “…should be to end old-fashioned training sessions where teachers attend conferences at which they listen to lectures for a few days a year and move toward continuous instruction by master educators who observe teachers at work, providing help and feedback. “

Continuous instruction – there’s a nightmarish thought, developed by an editorial writer who clearly knows nothing about the workday of a public school teachers and probably cares less. Put aside how we are to select the master teachers to do the observing and provide the feedback, what’s the evidence to make anyone think continuous scrutiny and feedback will improve the investment of teachers in the Common Core, a set of standards that classroom teachers had no hand in developing and which most of the ones I know believe to be developmentally inappropriate? Where is the time for this feedback coming from when the current day of most teachers is filled with more tasks than the paid time allows them to accomplish, many working several hours a day at home? In my district, we had to collectively bargain a mechanism to ensure opportunities for elementary teachers to use the bathroom because some principals were making them feel that they were expected to grit their teeth and hold it in.

No New York Times, the problem is not bad staff development, although districts have wasted huge sums of money on it. The problem is that the Common Core Standards can’t be owned by teachers because they don’t come from teachers. They come from people who are by and large ignorant of child development and are being shoved down the throats of practitioners by fools like New York’s Commissioner King and Chancellor Tisch, people whose practical experience of public education is just about nil.

Everyone, including the New York Times, knows what public schools need to do except the people who work in those schools. We have developed an authority of ignorance.

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