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 May, 2014

Common Core – The Abstraction and the Reality

It’s been interesting to see how supporters of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) with only an abstract understanding of them begin to shy away when the reality of their impact hits them. Just this morning, we find AFT President Randi Weingarten in the New York Times this morning giving carefully qualified support to the “promise and potential “of the Standards, a quite different message from the full-throated the national teachers union had originally. Weingarten has surely heard from me and many others about the flaws in the Standards and our need to have standards that are written by teachers, if we are to have national standards at all. She certainly is aware that the defeat of all of the New York State United Teachers officers this spring was in part the result of their initial unqualified support for the Standards and the testing that goes along with them.

Also this morning, Edweek has an opinion piece Carol Lloyd of GreatSchools, a CCSS enthusiast whose faith is beginning to shake as her own children begin to experience the frustration of being asked to do things most kids their age are not ready to do. Finally, today the Working Families Party begins the process of nominating its candidate for Governor of New York. The party, supported by many unions and labor activists, has been resisting Cuomo’s pressure to support him, unhappy with his policies which they see as inappropriate for the liberal he often claims to be. The state’s education unions are big players in the party. It seems more than doubtful to me that they would support a governor whose education policies, including his support for the Standards, have become anathema to teachers throughout the state.

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Maybe Some Problems Need Money Thrown at Them

The school achievement gap between economically deprived groups and more economically fortunate children is too often ascribed to group social factors and leads to the conclusion that throwing money at the problem will not make anything better. It’s people who have to change their behavior rather than the society that must provide the resources for them to succeed by overcoming the handicaps inflicted by a life of poverty. My thoughts on the subject were influenced in my early years by the socialist scholar Michael Harrington whose study, The Other America, influenced the creation of the Great Society legislation of the Lyndon Johnson period of our history. Harrington always preached that the solution to poverty was more money and resources for the poor.

It will be interesting to see if the data driven school reformers of today are influenced by a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research showing that states that were forced to substantially increase aid as a court ordered remedy for the unequal allocation of state resources had a very significant improvement in the educational outcomes of low-income children in terms of graduation rates, post high school education and most significantly the ability to extricate themselves from the cycle of poverty. I predict, however, to conservatives like House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan who sees the people trapped in poverty as characters in a morality play, these facts will make about as much difference as the growing body of scientific climate change studies makes to the science deniers in the U. S. Congress.

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Chris Christie’s Pension Scam

Difficult times have a tendency to encourage people to support measures that worsen conditions for everyone. These days as the private sector, increasingly free of union opposition, sheds its defined benefit pension systems for at best 401k style retirement plans, the public angered by their reduced retirement benefits and stagnating wages has increasingly come to resent paying taxes to support the pension systems of public employees. Unethical politicians fan this smoldering resentment hoping to win public support for pension system modifications that degrade workers’ benefits. In New Jersey, Chris Christie, seeking to bolster his conservative bona fides, very consciously and maliciously is refusing to make the necessary payments into the state’s retirement system hoping. What kind of person subordinates the needs of thousands of workers for retirement security to his own political future? My answer is scumbag.

On another note, the high stakes testing season has brought the latest incident of cheating on these exams. We’re teaching kids to take tests and the adults to cheat. What a great system of accountability.

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Learning How to Learn

Over the weekend I tuned into a Facebook conversation between several participants essentially over the relevance of the offerings of public schools to the future employment of the students it educates. The discussion was of interest to me on several levels.

Firstly, it reinforced for me the penetration of the pernicious idea that a k-12 education is about preparing students for employment. All participants to the discussion clearly viewed education through the lens of employment and competition. All appeared to buy into the notion that educators should first of all know what the labor market will be like in the future and train students to be marketable in it. Thus, one wants more attention paid to writing because the business world demands writing skills even at the lowest entry levels. One wants everyone taking calculus based on a curious notion that the ability to solve calculus problems is somehow related to problem solving in other fields of endeavor. Implicit in all of the comments was a belief that our schools are not doing enough to make their children marketable. Is it any wonder that with parents thinking these thoughts their children increasingly see middle and high schools as a resume building time?

This conversation was also an indicator of the success of the corporate campaign to discredit the public schools. To hear the captains of our industry tell it, it is almost impossible to find qualified people to fill the positions available because of the failure of public education. How these companies have managed to amass record profits amid their claimed critical labor shortage they never seem to explain. Their real agenda is to have the public schools take on the training that business once supplied.
When I think about all of the formal education I received, the downright silliness of all of this talk is clear to me. Boiled down to its essence, my education was all about teaching me how to learn. Like many of my generation, I had no idea of what I wanted to work at when I was in high school. College began the process of narrowing the possibilities. In my day the first two years of college consisted of essentially required courses in the arts and sciences. I took course in biology, psychology, economics, history, philosophy, English, math, foreign language and speech. No one talked to me about their relevance to my future employment.
After a master’s degree in English, I went into the Peace Corps to teach English in Ghana only to find when I got there that what my school needed me to do was to teach biology and function as a principal. I had no training to do either. All I had was a broad education in the arts and sciences. But it turned out that was all I needed. So I figured out how to schedule a secondary school with nothing but sheets of cardboard to work with. I went to the university in the capitol city and bought a couple of biology text xt books written using example of plants and animals with which West African students are familiar. Staying a night or two ahead of my students, I managed to teach a very reasonable biology course, even contacting the UN and getting equipment and materials to build a little laboratory. Without any formal training, I met the challenges I faced. I did so, not because I’m special, but because I came to those challenges equipped with the ability to learn what I needed to learn.
Later, while I earned my living as an English teacher, I began to take an interest in my local teacher union, accepting more and more responsibility as the years passed until I ran for and won the presidency. No one trained me to be a union leader. No one taught me how to run a welfare fund. Yet, though daunting at times, I managed to learn what I needed to learn to be effective. When management began using computers to manipulate important data in labor negotiations, armed with a broad education, I learned a couple of computer languages, even managing to write a compiled database program for our union.

Those who claim to know what the work world our students will meet in their lives speak with a certainty based more on ignorance than knowledge. My readers know my view is that our society will need fewer and fewer workers over time so that the real question is how will we politically divide the vast surplus we will able to produce with fewer workers and what will those without formal work do with their days? But, I’m prepared to be as wrong as I believe those who project a future of public schools and colleges as vocational institutions. What I know I’m not wrong about is the value of liberal education which to me is about learning how to learn. With that, not only is the world a more comprehensible place, but one is also as well equipped as he can be for the unforeseen challenges life will surely bring.

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PCT Proud and Standing Up for Themselves

I spent two hours this morning at our district’s Kindergarten Center. I try as much as I can to spend time with teachers over lunch, talking to them about things on their minds. I find I get a real sense of where our membership is on issues, much more so than at membership meetings where too often I get prepared speeches rather than exchanges of ideas.

The first lunch group I spoke to started our discussion with a question. Would I be a speaker at the 20th anniversary of the K-Center which they are already planning? I told them I’d be honored and that I was looking forward to it, having gotten the message from the question that despite their perception that the superintendent of schools wants to close their school, and despite the fact that a group of middle schools parents have taken the K-Center hostage to their demand to get our two middle schools on the same time schedule, these teachers were proud of their school and what they have done and are not about to surrender their school to those who neither know nor care about the extraordinary early childhood program they have created and run.

I found their pride in the school that their efforts created extraordinary and their determination to stand up for themselves inspiring, the people who would destroy their work without one jot of concern for their work reprehensible. Then again, they’re PCT members with a long history of standing up for what they believe, even against long odds. Their spirit is my latest reminder I why I continue to do union work.

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Testing and Standards

The Plainview Board of Education voted last night to not participate in the field testing of the state assessments for the elementary grades. Their action is the latest sign in our community of the growing disaffection with high stakes testing that has no demonstrable purpose other than to convince some people of the existence of accountability schemes for both students and teachers.

In the debate, several board members lamented what they saw as the confusion among many of the Common Core State Standards with the assessments, viewing the two as completely separate issues. While I agree that it is possible, in fact desirable, to talk about high academic standards without discussing high stakes testing, the fact is that the political process that brought us the two combined them from the get-go. Both come from a stream of corporate sponsored initiatives that have sought to propagate the myth that our schools are failing and that it is only through the imposition of national standards and constant assessment that there is any hope of rescuing America from its dramatic academic slide. The Common Core’s spiritual soul is the same testocracy that brought us No Child Left Behind. It’s a failed policy that seeks to punish rather than support – close schools – increase rigor -fire teachers – get tough on all on a system that’s grown slothful and uncompetitive. Its supporters seem to relish failure. It’s as though it provides an opportunity to root out sin.

The time will come when we can have a sensible discussion about standards, a discussion led by educators who bring their knowledge of teaching child development to the table. That can’t happen until we end the connection between standards and testing by getting a testing regime in our state that’s aimed at supporting instruction by pointing teachers to areas of student learning that require additional attention. Once we have ended the curriculum narrowing, culture choking effect of our current testing practices, once we have stifled the corporate raiders of our public institution, once we regain our senses and realize that education is about much more than college and career, once more of our politicians owe their allegiance to their communities rather than their one percent bankrollers, we may have the political space in which to tackle national standards seriously.

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An Immigrant Perspective on High Stakes Testing

Yesterday I had the pleasure to interview six of the best and brightest students to be graduated from our high school this year. I and two colleagues met them to pick this year’s winners of the two Berkowitz Scholarships that our union provides to graduating seniors.

While all the candidates were spectacular, and while what I’m about top say should in no way be taken as a sign of who our recipients will be, two of the kids I met were on my mind this morning. Both fairly recent immigrants to the United States, both from countries where the education system places great emphasis on career determining high stakes testing, I was interested to talk with them about their perceptions of the contrasts between their schooling in Plainview-Old Bethpage and in their home countries. Were I not a supporter of the use of standardized testing solely to teachers’ instruction and academic program evaluation, these two students would have converted me.

Both students talked about the exhilaration of being freer to pursue one’s interests in our schools, no test determining one’s career path. Both spoke animatedly about how our teachers are interested in what students think whereas at home students are simply told what to do, all in preparation for the all-important tests. Both spoke about relatives in their homelands whose lives are effectively circumscribed by the results of ultra-high stakes tests. Both thought America’s current fascination with high stakes testing is a huge mistake.

Why don’t our policy makers understand what these children seem to clearly get – that the more we talk about “college and career ready,” and the more this concept is defined in terms of scores on high stake tests, the more we will be emulating societies far less dynamic than our own, economically, politically and socially. Does it take being an immigrant to understand the value of what we have had?

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Standing Up For Supporters of Public Education

The Executive Board of our union has voted to support Ginger Lieberman and Debbie Bernstein in next Tuesday’s Board of Education election. As I have quite a few community readers, I’m making our statement of support my blog post for today.

On Tuesday, May 20, 2014 voters in Plainview-Old Bethpage will elect two (2) members of the Board of Education.

The members of the Plainview-Old Bethpage Congress of Teachers are supporting Ginger Lieberman and Debbie Bernstein.

While our members have not always agreed with their policy positions, we have come to respect Ginger and Debbie for their commitment to the welfare of the children of our district and their appreciation of the work our members perform. At some of our District’s worst moments, they have been voices of moderation and conciliation. They have always put the quality of our academic program first, helping us to avoid the massive cuts that neighboring districts have sustained while maintaining the District’s solid financial position.

Unlike their opponent, Ginger Lieberman and Debbie Bernstein are not single issue candidates. They, too, have worked with our union to end the scourge of high stakes testing in our state. They were instrumental in ending the superintendent’s regulation forcing students refusing to take the state assessments to “sit and stare” with nothing to do. They, too, oppose the field testing that the state wants to do in our district and are working to build Board support for sending the tests back.

But they have worked with us and the community on much more.
Next year, for example, in the toughest times for financing public education, we will begin an experimental program seeking to provide extra help to elementary students struggling with aspects of the Common Core State Standards. Proposed by the PTA, Ginger and Debbie were quick to realize the need and were essential to gaining the support of the entire Board of Education. They have always been supporters of trying to find better ways to help the community’s children.

We enthusiastically support Ginger Lieberman and Debbie Bernstein for POB Board of Education. In these challenging times for public education, experience and commitment to the institution of public schools is vital. Ginger and Debbie have demonstrated both. They deserve our support.

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Common Core Fresh Air

As the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) become increasingly controversial, the rhetoric pro and con has tended to grow more extreme. Amid all the hyperventilating surrounding the CCSS, one occasionally finds clearly stated, rationally argued criticism that just plain makes sense. A non-profit outfit called Defending Early Years has done that for the k-3 standards. See if you don’t agree with their eminently reasonable critique.

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LIFER Snake Oil

I attended a meeting of an organization call LIFER (Long Islanders for Educational Reform) last evening at which New York State Assemblyman Michael Fitzpatrick was a featured speaker. This is a group that seeks to further erode our public employee pension systems, end the requirement that increments be paid after a contract expires and a new one is not yet in place (Triborough Amendment), strengthen the property tax cap and end other programs that they call unfunded mandates but which are often programs that provide important services to children and create employment for our members.

Mr. Fitzpatrick has introduced legislation, part of which would end pensions as we have known them for people beginning their employment in school districts and other government agencies. Instead of a defined benefit pension, one where members can know exactly what they will receive upon retirement, Fitzpatrick wants to offer 401k style plans in which one’s retirement income is dependent on one’s financial acumen. What I found most disturbing about Fitzpatrick’s presence is what he was forced to disclose in response to a question from the audience.

A citizen asked him if in addition to being an assemblyman he worked for an investment bank. Flustered for a moment, he finally said that he worked for Morgan Stanley. But for that question, the audience would not have known that here was an elected representative arguing for a change in something as important as the retirement security of employees who works in an industry that would stand to profit from conversion from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan.

Hacks like Fitzpatrick and the others on the panel last evening simply invent facts to buttress their arguments. Fitzpatrick would have us understand that we are on the road to becoming another Detroit, a statement for which there is not a scintilla of evidence. A smooth talker from a thing called Empire Center ever so effortlessly spewed statistics many of which are patently ridiculous to any but the gullible or the dishonest. My favorite was his repeated statement that the average teacher increment on Long Island was 7 percent in the 2010-11 school year. One of my colleagues proved him wrong from the chart in his own report. But although there knowledgeable people in the audience to correct his more outrageous propaganda, this snake oil salesman still inflamed those in the audiences whose wages are stagnating and whose middleclass life is rapidly receding into believing that it is the devil teachers who are the cause of their economic stress. The more income inequality grows, the more we are going have public servants the scapegoats of an increasingly economically squeezed public.

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A Local Display of the Failure of Institutional Loyalty

On the agenda of Plainview’s Board of Education meeting last night was the subject of the field tests the state does for the Person Company to test questions for future state assessments in grades 3 through 8. The growing opt-out movement has emboldened some superintendents and boards to refuse to subject their children to yet more testing and in so doing make a statement to the inept people making and implementing education policy in Albany that we have hand ENOUGH. I suspect they are beginning to see that it will take non-compliance by parents and professionals to end the tyranny of testing in our state. But sadly, the leadership of Plainview-Old Bethpage hasn’t understood that yet. In fact, our superintendent appears to think that what teachers and parents want are better tests. Nothing could be further from reality.

In a long-winded, circuitous speech, Dr. Lewis offered her opinion of why we need to offer the field tests. Her remarks boiled down to this. The state says we have to give the tests. And, we have to give them because the Pearson Company doesn’t get enough money from its contract with the state to the reliability of its exams in other, less intrusive ways. So, we need to lobby our legislators to pony up more money for Pearson if we want our kids to be spared these tests.

As absurd as that sounds, that’s what she said. Keep in mind that in the era of property tax caps, public education is being starved of the ability to maintain its academic programs. Remember, the state assessments serve no instructional purpose whatsoever. Teachers don’t get to see where their students went wrong. Perhaps the most outrageous fact of the state’s testing regimen is the scoring. Commissioner John King essentially decides the cut scores determining where students fall on a completely arbitrary scale. Despite all of that, Dr. Lewis wants the taxpayers of the state to spend more money to get “better” tests that will still have no instructional value.

I wrote the other day about the general lack of institutional loyalty of the people making and implementing education policy in our state and nation. That was certainly on display last night. Rather than buck the powers that be in the simplest act of civil disobedience, we were counseled to accept what we know is wrong and harmful to the children we claim to serve. While several of our Board members raised objection to the field tests, not one made a motion to order Dr. Lewis to send the tests back to Albany like is being done in neighboring Jericho and Syosset. To be sure, parents can opt-their children out of these tests, but neither board nor superintendent are willing to stand up and be counted.

Dr. Lewis appears to believe that if we just talk reason to our elected representatives, they will respond rationally. Such a view ignores the money, power and influence of the people behind the use of high stakes testing to prove American schools to be failing (Watch Joshua Katz on this point.). The countervailing force to government policy that is essentially bought and paid for, therefore, has got to be a politically organized citizenry that is prepared to act in its own interest, participating in civil disobedience if necessary to draw attention to unjust law or policy. If public education is to be saved, that’s what is going to be necessary, as necessary as it was to stop the foolish war in Viet Nam or end the separate but equal doctrine of the United States Supreme Court. Such acts of civil disobedience are central to what it means to be American. Public education deserves leaders who are willing to take risks to preserve it. Sadly, our local school leaders can’t even return a completely meaningless test to help defend it. To me, that’s a failure of loyalty to the institution.

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Leaders and Institutional Loyalty

My school district is abuzz with talk that a number of administrators are seeking employment elsewhere. Some who are said to be actively engaged in job searches have barely been here long enough to learn their jobs, including the politics of being a school leader. Leaders have to inspire loyalty to the group, calling on their subordinates to act in the interest of something larger than themselves. The job market for teachers is such that once they get tenure in a good district, they stay for a career. We have a curious situation in too many of our public schools where the people with institutional loyalty are led by those with little to none. We’ve been accustomed for some time to superintendents coming and going. Where we once saw most of our school leaders come from the teaching ranks, now they rarely do. Many appear to know that they are just passing through, their eyes already on the next job as they begin the new one. How are such people to effectively lead teachers who spend a career in one place, often becoming parts of the fabric of the communities in which they serve? Why would a teacher with a career investment in a community take seriously a leader who odds are will be gone in 4 or 5 years.

I’ve tried unsuccessfully over my career to get people in my district and in our state and national unions to rethink the way schools are organized. I don’t claim to have all of the answers, but I do know that a system that pays people better as they grow increasingly removed from dealing directly with students is a stupid one. A system that has its most important workers, teachers, answering to people who often know less about the craft of teaching than they is one that is unable to tap the imagination and talents of its teachers and one in which teachers have little challenge to grow professionally. A system whose mission is to train citizens to be members of a democratic society but which itself is hierarchically managed is a system in conflict with itself. When Al Shanker latched on to the charter school idea, I’m sure he was thinking a similar thought. His charter vision, distinctly different from what the corporate reformers have made it, his vision was for groups of teachers with an idea for improving their schools to be given the opportunity and resources to do so, to take charge of their work. If their idea worked, it could be scaled up. He was looking for a different model of school management. His experiences in New York City told him that hierarchical bureaucracy was a failed model.

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Bringing Our Movement Back to Life

nullNew York State United Teachers (NYSUT) is getting back to its activist roots. On April 28, thousands of union teachers, parent and citizens concerned for the welfare of public education demonstrated against the education policies of Governor Cuomo outside a banquet hall where he was scheduled to speak to the Suffolk County Democratic Committee. Our presence caused him to have to sneak in a side door, while guests were forced to cross our picket lines to attend the gala, still not an easy thing for some Democrats to do. Sunday, upstate members had their turn in Lake Placid where Democrats for Education Reform, a pro-testing, pro-charter school, anti-union outfit financed largely by hedge fund and real estate money tied to Cuomo, was meeting.

In 40 degree temperature and a pelting rain, over 500 union teachers and parents picketed the facility at which the privatizers were meeting. Cuomo, scheduled to speak, apparently thought better of it because of our presence and took a powder. When I saw the weather Sunday morning, I thought our protest would fizzle. But such is the outrage of teachers at what this governor and his friends have been doing to public education that they drove from as far away as Buffalo to register their protest, vowing to not support Cuomo for re-election and to seek an alternative third party candidate who supports them and public schools. I made the trip expressly to see if our upstate brothers and sisters were as angry as our members are. I wrote after the Long Island rally that one senses a new energy in our movement and a motivation to organize to fight back. That spirit was certainly present in Lake Placid this weekend.

The Democrats are holding their state convention on Long Island later in the month. Work has already begun to demonstrate at that event as well. I’m starting to dare to hope that our teacher labor movement can be brought back to life.

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What Dark, Sadistic Urge?

A reader of my blog shared yesterday’s post on my view that the number of students taking AP courses is a fool’s measure of the worth of a public school. Another parent took issue with my thoughts, seeing me as somehow opposed to the “rigor” she believes comes with AP curricula. While I don’t believe that AP these days offers students anything remotely like a college experience, and while I’m not opposed to challenging students in age appropriate ways, I answered her in the following way.

Noting how I raised a different point than my critic responded to, I said: “I was raising the question of how we evaluate the quality of a school. Basing that evaluation on the number of students taking AP classes is to my mind stupid and springs from a misapprehension of what schools should be doing. The Rosenfeld Quality Index would not reward schools that have children doing homework until 2 in the morning, often sharing homework responsibilities with peers because there aren’t enough hours in the day to do all of the drudge work that schools feel obliged to ask them to do in the name of rigor. Schools that make kids fell guilty if they desire to eat dinner with their families every night have lost track of their responsibility to nurture the intellectual and emotional growth of children, substituting training for the rat race for real education.”

It has somehow come to pass that unless schools stress kids out to the max, unless we demand that every hour of their day be spent either in formal study or in resume building extra-curricular activities, unless we force them to sacrifice their ethics to the bitch goddess success, unless we literally rob them of their childhoods, we are guilty of preventing them gaining happy and productive adulthoods. What dark, sadistic urge drives this reformer foolishness?

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AP Madness

One of the more pernicious influences on public high school education in the United States has been Washington Post columnist Jay Matthews’ Challenge Index, a system for rating public high schools essentially on the basis of how many Advanced Placement (AP) classes students in a school take. To be seen as a good school these days is to enroll as many children in these courses as we can. It is rare that anyone in authority in our school districts even questions the appropriateness of 14 and 15 year-olds taking what are supposedly college level courses.

This push to get kids into AP classes has reached the point of absurdity in my own district, Plainview-Old Bethpage. Programming for next year was completed some weeks ago but apparently not in a way pleasing to the AP fanatics running our district. The order has apparently come down the chain of command to have our guidance counselors meet many of the children they have already counseled and programmed who have done well enough in honors classes or a previously taken AP to pressure them into enrolling in additional AP classes. Thus, kids who may well have selected a challenging program but who did not wish to have 5 hours of homework ever night and who wished to have a lunch period to relax and socialize are made to feel like slackers who may be prejudicing their chances for admission to the college of their choice. This is all done not because the leaders of our schools are interested in what children know but simply to be able to say that we are in the top whatever number of high schools in the United States. Of crap like this are the reputations of central office administrators made and more prestigious jobs gained.

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