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 April, 2014

University of the Future?

My readers are long familiar with my concerns with the effects of the technological mediation of education. I am continually horrified by the cliché-ridden blather of those who talk about 21st century learners, the infusion of technology into instruction, multi-tasking, presentation skills and assorted jargon out of the mouths of people who always seem a tad ill-educated themselves. To me a kid spending his time in middle school learning to make PowerPoint presentations is a facet of the real impoverishment of our educational systems unnoticed by the so-called reformers. I have come to believe that many of the reformers, often coming from the business world, many from our high tech industries, have a business plan rather than and education vision. While much of the reform effort appears focused on k-12 education, less conspicuously, higher education, particularly public higher education is clearly threatened by the digital revolution. Sebastian Thrun, the creator of MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses) predicts that within 50 years, there will be only 10 universities offering higher education exclusively through the internet.

The BBC did a radio documentary of the MOOC phenomenon the other day. It struck me as a balanced and thoughtful presentation of the issues surrounding these courses through the thoughts of many of the people who were their pioneers. I urge you to find 20 quiet minutes to listen. I would further urge you to spend a good deal more time thinking about what these courses mean for the future of higher education.

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The Beginning of A Movement?

Thousand Protest Governor CuomoWho would have imagined as little as a few months ago that as strange an assemblage of people as the thousands that descended on Holbrook, Long Island yesterday would come together to chant, ” Cuomo has got to go.” Cuomo was there to speak to the Suffolk County democratic Committee.
There were union teachers, parents, anti-fracking advocates, members of the gun lobby, anti-Common Core citizens – all united for the moment by their disappointment in a governor who but a few weeks ago had poll numbers that had people talking about his potentially challenging Hillary for the Democratic nomination for president. I’ve been to a few demonstrations in my time. This one had a bit of the feel of the beginning of a movement to dump a governor whose arrogance seems to have motivated people of every political stripe to say ENOUGH! Parking for the event at a local catering hall was such that some Democrat office holders and leaders had to cross picket lines to gain entrance. Little did they suspect when they accepted the invitation to honor their governor who was about to lead them into the November elections that they would be put in this politically embarrassing position.

The next few weeks will tell if this protest has legs. Cuomo is speaking to his hedge fund supporters of charter schools on Sunday in Lake Placid. The New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) is organizing a demonstration there. Let’s see what develops in a rural, upstate, resort community. I’m interested enough to take the ride to see for myself.

While I don’t think for a moment that there is any chance for the Democratic Party to dump Cuomo from its ticket, I do believe a growing, state-wide protest of Cuomo policies could enable say the Working Families Party to be able to recruit a credible candidate who could advance a progressive agenda appealing to those concerned for the corporate threat to public education, the environment and the growing inequality between the financial backers of Andrew Cuomo and the rest of us.

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The Data Drones Take Another Hit

The education reform machine, aided by the policies of the Obama administration, pumps out endless propaganda seeking to demonize those who challenge teacher evaluations based on student test scores. Completely deaf to the socio-economic factors known to heavily influence student test performance, the reformers promote the belief that inspired teaching can somehow overcome poverty, mental illness, disability, homelessness and countless other things that influence a person’s ability and willingness to learn. Those who object to test based teacher evaluations, those who know it for the junk science it is, are seen to be simply against accountability and defenders the status quo.

This morning, New York Times carried a story with a wonderful irony for a test-based accountability denier like me. Among the lesser known features of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is a provision that ties Medicare payments to physicians, hospitals and other healthcare providers to their performance. For example, doctors and hospitals whose patients who are re-hospitalized for the same illness suffer payment penalties as such occurrences are viewed as evidence of sub-standard performance. The standards do not take into account the many factors that can cause two patients with the exact same illness to have two very different medical outcomes.

An expert panel put together to study the pay for performance feature of the ACA came up with what will surely be disturbing conclusions for the Obama administration. Their conclusion, “Factors far outside the control of a doctor or hospital — patients’ income, housing, education, even race — can significantly affect patient health, health care and providers’ performance scores.” It turns out that paying hospital and doctors by metrics that don’t account for the variable know to affect outcomes makes as much sense at judging teachers on the basis of their students’ test results.

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Cuomo Inspires Union Activism

Governor Andrew Cuomo has done for the teacher labor movement in New York what we have been unable to do for ourselves. He has motivated us to fight back against the enemies of working people and the public services they rely on for a decent existence. His teacher accountability scheme tied to student test scores that he negotiated with former NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi was a key factor in Iannuzzi’s defeat and is helping to depress his own poll numbers down to the low 40’s.

Arrogant Andrew has pissed the people in public schools off to the point where they are organizing to dog him at many of his events. On Monday the 28th, he is scheduled to be at the Villa Lombardi’s restaurant in Holbrook, Long Island to receive an honor from the Suffolk County Democratic Committee. An honor is not what he will receive from the thousands of teachers and parents who will be picketing him outside, protesting his education and tax policies.

Sunday, May 4, the Governor is the honored guest in Lake Placid of Education Reform Now, a union bashing, pro-charter school, high stakes testing group financed by many of the same hedge fund managers who have contributed to build Cuomo’s 33 million dollar political war chest. There, too, he will be met by NYSUT organized protestors who will demonstrate their displeasure with his education policies.

We are beginning to see the huge potential of our 600,000 members. It is entirely possible that with the coalition partners we have engaged in our efforts to end the scourge of high stakes testing in New York that we can teach this governor a lesson that will not be lost on our other elected leaders. We have always had the ability to be in his face wherever he goes. We seem to now have the will.

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A Different Perspective on Attendance

On during my spring break trip to London, I arrived just a bit before one of the national teacher unions was to take a strike vote over the issue of pensions and performance pay among other things. Suddenly, a trip that was to take my mind off public education provided an opportunity to think about the subject internationally instead. If I thought the United States had a monopoly on government education leaders who know little to nothing about teaching, simply learning that the national government in the U.K. now expects all to work until age 68 would have disabused me of that idea immediately. The corporate public school reform effort is alive and well in the U.K. as it is here. Remember, Pearson is an English company.

In following the strike developments, however, I learned of a curious law the U.K. has to promote better attendance. Apparently, there came a time when many U.K. parents to take the benefit of off-peak rates at times other than traditional school holidays were in large numbers taking their kids out of school to go on holiday. The response was the amendment of the education law to permit the principals of schools to fine parents for keeping their children from attending school without the school’s permission. Permission is granted only for things like family illness or funerals.
Adjusting one’s child’s school attendance to accommodate vacation plans is hardly unknown in our schools. Can anyone imagine empowering our school officials to fine parents that do so?

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Tackling Poverty in Oklahoma

As a Northeasterner, I readily admit to falling into the bias of believing that most progressive social ideas have their genesis in the Washington to Boston corridor. Yeah, California shows some hopeful signs, but the Northeast is the homeland of the belief in collective action in service of the welfare of others.

Occasionally, travel has forced me to re-examine that belief. Earlier in the year, I attended a conference in Austin Texas. Now, Texas was the last place I expected to find a novel assistance program for people who are economically down on their luck. But, there it was, a non-profit program, in existence for some time that has a “chain” of gyms across the city providing free access to people who could never afford the luxury of fitness training. It took people in Texas to realize that one of the effects of poverty is poorer health and that a free fitness program could be of some help.

Today, Public Radio carried a story about a program in Tulsa Oklahoma, a city that it turns out has a very high quality pre-k program and a novel approach to the federally funded Head Start program. Called the Career Advance Program, it springs from the belief that the best way to deal with the many problems of poor children is to help their parents too. Parents enrolled in the program receive a stipend to attend career oriented education classes, many in the health care field, in addition to classes in the basic personal skills necessary to be successful at a job. What common sense emanating from a red state in the heartland! The war on poverty is still being waged in Oklahoma. There’s a thought to wrap one’s head around.

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It will clearly be some time before the political dust from the recent NYSUT elections settles. Some people are finding it hard not to reflexively respond to statements and events in campaign mode. My favorite campaign leftover is the charge that our new leaders have failed to find a candidate to run against Governor Cuomo, as though it is easy to find a Democrat or moderate Republican with name recognition to challenge an incumbent governor with 33 million dollars in his war chest and an army of Wall Street types ready and willing to raise even more if necessary – and in less than one week in office. We’re divided some of my brother and sisters continue to say. But does the fact that 61 percent of the membership wanted a change in the leadership of our state really mean we are divided in some fundamental way, or are some people just still disappointed that the leaders they supported were defeated? There’s a real difference between the two.

Let’s look at the issues of the day. Just about all of us are still determined opponents of the scourge of high stakes testing, its linkage to teacher evaluation and its devastating narrowing of the curriculum across the grades. We understand it to be destroying meaningful education and robbing our membership of the ability to practice their craft with any degree of autonomy and dignity.

Supporters of either slate of NYSUT candidates oppose the way in which the Common Core State Standards were shoved down our throats with a dose of federal money. We are outraged at the fact that we had no real say either in the creation of the standards or their implementation. Daily, we witness examples of children being forced to struggle with concepts they are developmentally not ready to cope with.

Most of the supporters of either Dick Iannuzzi or Karen Magee believe that there is a well- orchestrated, well financed attempt by segments of the corporate world to discredit the work of teachers and public schools with the ultimate goal of privatizing education in the United States (See this piece on the birth of Common Core). We know it is a bold-faced lie to say that America’s schools are failing and that here in New York we have some of the very best schools in the country. We generally agree, too, that the single most potent force militating against the success of all children is the fact that almost a quarter of our nation’s children live in poverty, poverty that debilitates them in body in spirit.

Most NYSUT members, whether they were for Stronger NYSUT or Revive NYSUT, believe that Governor Cuomo has aligned himself with the bankers and real estate interests, those interested in public school privatization and the expansion of charter schools. We passionately desire to deliver his comeuppance; we long for a candidate we could support to oppose him in November. I don’t know a teacher who will vote for Cuomo under any circumstances.

Unanimously, the 25000 delegates to our recent NYSUT convention voted a motion of no confidence in John King, New York’s Commissioner of Education. That same motion demanded his immediate ouster. While it was not included in our motion, I believe if Chancellor Tisch’s name had been added to it, the vote would have been unchanged. We know the Regents need to be changed.

I could go on pointing out broad issues where if there are differences between us, they can be measured in microns. Where we do have differences is in strategy and tactics to achieve our common goals. In fact, in many ways our recent election was about competing strategies to advance an essentially consensus agenda. That’s not to minimize their importance, but they are a much lesser order of difference than if some of us believed in collective bargaining, but many of us didn’t, or if we were divided over the issue of support for teacher tenure.

There’s one other thing I need to say to those who focus on our differences. There has been a whole lot of bashing of the United Federation of Teachers during this campaign. The UFT has more clout in NYSUT than any other local. What a surprise in that it makes up about a third of NYSUT’s membership. When my local was in NEA/New York, Buffalo was our largest local, and what do you know – Buffalo wielded more political clout in that organization than any other. In fact, but for Buffalo’s opposition to my candidacy, I would have been president of NEA/New York. Angered by defeat, it never dawned on me to think our union would have been better off without them or that we were fundamentally divided. Like many, I would prefer if the UFT’s agenda focused on the suburban schools where I work. But a moment’s reflection renders that desire absurd. That reflection also reminds one of how much dues money UFT contributes to the financing of NYSUT and how on core issues there is usually little daylight between us. Their political work with the New York City legislative delegation redounds to all of our benefit much more often than it conflicts with the agendas of smaller locals. Funny, when the UFT voted to make Dick Iannuzzi NYSUT President upon Tom Hobart’s retirement, no one talked about them hijacking the organization.

Just a little quiet reflection suggests that on matters that really count, there is little division among us. We have differences in how to go about achieving our agenda, but we’ve always had those. The representatives of over 600,000 of us have democratically decided to change direction. The very important work of saving public education and our profession is before us. That challenge demands that we remind ourselves of why we built this coalition called NYSUT, that we rally around our leaders, even though we may not have voted for them, and that we give them a decent interval to show what they can do, always reserving the right to change direction again when we believe it is called for.

I’m taking off for the spring school break. Look for me again on April 23.

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Testing Tests Relationships

I asked the members of our union to tell me about anything out of the ordinary surrounding the recent administration of New York’s grades 3 through 8 English language arts exam. Amid the usual repots of crying kids, I received the following from Dr. Michele Price, a psychologist in our Old Bethpage School. Its insight into the family stresses caused by high stakes testing is an under-reported consequence of current education policy. MR

We are all familiar with the scenario of the man or woman who comes home from work and takes the pressure of the day out on his or her spouse and children. The demands of the ELA have created marked stress in households because of children crying over tests and homework, feeling generally anxious and depressed, as well as fighting with their parents and siblings. Children who are normally centered and socially-skilled have been arguing with their peers and having meltdowns at lunch and rec as a result of the demands of the test. Our brightest students have been crumbling under the pressure and shutting down. Teachers, support staff, and administrators are working every spare minute to help compose crying, frustrated children during their own lunches and preps, and arrive at their own homes in the evening too exhausted to function. One middle school student spoke to me through a torrent of tears, “My teachers spend so much time testing me. They no longer have time to teach me. I can’t take it anymore.” In addition, there has been conflict in families, with the parent who witnesses the daily negative impact of demands of the Common Core on the children expressing a desire to opt the children out of the test, and the parent who is not home as much and is not involved with the homework process insisting that the children take the test. As educators, we are all invested in the success of our students and certainly not opposed to rigor, but not at the expense of the mental health of all involved.

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Without A Whimper

The Kansas legislature has just done away with teacher tenure, essentially rendering the state’s teachers at will employees who can be fired without any due process. From what I’m able to glean from the press this morning, Governor Brownback is going to sign the bill, although the Kansas education Association is waging a political action campaign to urge the governor’s veto.

One by one, due process rights for teachers are disappearing with barely a whimper. Should this trend continue without serious, militant opposition, it won’t be long before the enemies of public employee unions are emboldened to attack tenure in places like New York. It may soon be the case that a majority of the teachers in the United States are no longer guaranteed due process and therefore disinterested in the loss of it by others.

A look at the Kansas National Education Association webpage offers this response to the passage of the tenure robbing legislation. Today teachers are teaching and students are learning, because this IS what we do.” If that’s the public response of the union to the rip-off of teacher rights, a rip-off that will certainly have innocent teachers fired on baseless allegations and some let go because they have reached the top of the salary schedule, the anti-teacher union forces will have gained another victory without even a battle, and others will be emboldened by how easy it is to steal teacher rights. By the way, as of 11:15 A.M. this morning, there was nothing on the NEA webpage about the tragedy in

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NYSUT Elections – The First Step

Here’s the takeaway from last weekend’s NYSUT convention. NYSUT members are fed up with the measured, halting, accommodationist response of their state union’s leadership to the false charge of failing schools, the imposition and failed implementation of the Common Core State Standards, the maniacal substitution of testing for learning and the public pounding of teachers by corporate leaders bent on privatizing public education. The delegates elected Karen Magee and her entire slate including members of the board of directors, and in so doing clearly said that they want their organization to stand up for our members and energize them to use their to numbers to push back against the forces arrayed against them. With a little over 60 percent of the vote, Magee has a mandate to change NYSUT’s direction and the way it does business.
The challenge to her and her team is daunting. For too long NYSUT has existed on playing the Albany game, putting all its energies into political action, failing to recognize getting members to authorize political action fund deductions from their paychecks neither mobilizes them to vote nor collectively confront the workplace issues that plague them daily. We forgot about being a movement, and as we did the political world began to realize they no longer needed to pay attention to us. I’ve had several experiences where members of the legislature have told me straight out, “I’m not afraid of NYSUT anymore. Your members don’t vote.”

Can the Magee team rebuild NYSUT from the ground up, giving this generation of teachers the same hope that the founders of our union had that if they stood together they could command respectable wages and working conditions and a professional say about the important work they do? I know they will try. I also know that I intend to do everything I can to help them to save our movement.

The education union movement allowed me to make a decent, middleclass living, to practice my craft free of coercion and work with colleagues to better our local schools and public education generally. Though our local union always sought cooperation, when that was not possible, we always had the wherewithal to militantly advance our interests, up to and including striking. I always felt proud to be a teacher and a union member. Today’s teachers need to feel that way again. They will only be able to do so if we are able to revive our movement. Saturday’s NYSUT election was the first step. May there be many more.

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NYSUT Convention

At the NYSUT convention today at which the officers are attempting to rewrite the history of their dismal failures, not the least of which has been a complete and total failure to attempt to organize the potential power of 600,000 members into the potent force it could be. Name the issue, andthe Iannuzzi team has been behind the curve – APPR, the scourge of high stakes testing, the Common Core State Standards. What I listened to today at a forum with the officers was carefully scripted smoke blowing in the eyes of local presidents. Shameless is the only word for this desperate attempt to cover their errors.

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Our Movement Keeps Growing

As I write, it seems clear that well over 16,500 Long Island students refused to take the state English Language Arts (ELA) examinations yesterday. In Plainview-Old Bethpage, my own district, 412 students or roughly 17 percent of those eligible to take the tests refused them. While people like our superintendent would like to foolishly chalk the numbers off to peer pressure, the fact of the matter is that parent leaders like Long Island Opt-Out founder Jeanette Deutermann and teachers, some through their unions and some independently, and here and there a few brave administrators have grown a movement that is bound and determined to end the destructive influence of high stakes testing and the imbecilic implementation of the developmentally inappropriate Common Core State Standards. In a little over one year, this movement has grown and will continue to until those who are aligned with the corporate movement to discredit public education regardless of the welfare of our children are defeated. People like Lewis can pander to rags like Newsday, promoting fears of funding cuts and schools being declared “in need” because of our disobedience. It will make no difference. The public is becoming increasingly aware that our children and the schools that educate them are in jeopardy. It is becoming clearer to them that elected officials like Governor Cuomo and their state and federal legislators don’t have the guts to take on the moneyed interests who brought us this testing madness. They are organizing now to politically oppose leaders who offer them only cosmetic remedies like the ones contained in New York’s recently passed budget. Locally, they will push back against superintendents who have frustrated their efforts to protect their children and demand that boards of education reclaim their public schools from the bandits in Albany and Washington who have taken them hostage. They will be looking to link arms with educators like Jericho Superintendent Hank Grishman who told the same Newsday, “We have a good idea of how our kids are achieving individually and by group, and I really don’t need an external measure to help us determine the appropriate educational programs for our kids…”. He went on to say that he is unconcerned about any monetary loss as well, being “…more concerned about the social and emotional health of our kids…”. They will not be denied.

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Albany Knuckleheads Don’t Get It!

New York State passed its budget yesterday, a budget that offers plenty to criticize, from its giveaway of public funds to charter schools, a property tax freeze and my personal favorite a series of public presents to the banking industry and assorted multi-millionaires. I’m sure I have much to say about these facets of the budget in the days ahead, but this morning there is a glaring stupidity in it that has my blood pressure up.

Amid a series of cosmetic responses to the public’s demand that the state curb the scourge of high stakes testing is a demand on the commissioner of education to promulgate standards and regulation to ensure that the amount of time devoted to test preparation in grades 3 through 8 be limited to no more than 2 percent of the instructional time in the grade.

Put aside the complete unenforceability of such a regulation, the idea springs from a total lack of understanding of the essential flaw of the state’s testing scheme – you get what you test. And when the results of your testing are used to evaluate your teachers and their schools, you get more teaching to the test. No law, regulation or appeal to professional standards is going to change that. Just yesterday, I received an email from a middle school colleague who alerted me to a proposal circulating in our district that would curtail instruction in social studies and science in our middle schools in order to provide more time for math instruction. Why? Because it’s math and English that are tested.

Today over 10,000 students on Long Island will refuse to take the state ELA exam. There will be thousand more from across the state. Will that be a message the knuckleheads in Albany understand? I have my doubts. We need to target some of our elected officials in toss-up districts who brought us this illusory reform of the testing mania and give them an early retirement in November.

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