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 June, 2014

A Sign of Hope?

I’ve been attending the summer meeting of the National Council of Urban Education Associations (NCUEA), a caucus within the National Education Association (NEA). The support of NCUEA for a new business item or resolution is often a harbinger of its success at the NEA Representative Assembly. Among the new business items discussed was a pair of new business items which taken together call for the resignation of Arne Duncan, partnership with the American Federation of Teachers and other organizations to end the scourge of high stakes testing and the organizing of a national day of protest against testing and the conditions that it furthers.

Much the same item failed at past meetings, union leaders uncomfortable attacking the Obama administration, an administration it helped to elect. This time, however, it passed by a substantial, suggesting that NEA leaders have had enough and are willing to buck their national leadership and organize to fight back. It will be interesting to see if the NEA Representative Assembly feels the same. That vote comes later this week.

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Duncan’s Ignorance

“It’s not enough for a state to be compliant if students can’t read or do math. We must have a system that will do more than just measure compliance.” So said our illustrious Secretary of Education on announcing a move by the federal government to force states to demonstrate that their special education students are making progress towards becoming proficient in reading and math.

Let’s recognize that there are places where special education students are not held to reasonable expectations and that minorities bear a special burden in this area. Realistic efforts to correct this problem are laudable. But let’s also recognize that Duncan’s belief that if we just have high enough expectations and “a robust curriculum,” special education students will excel is a distortion of reality. Put more bluntly, it’s just plain stupidity raised to national policy by a man whose ignorance in these matters has become a cruel joke.

I spent half my teaching career in an affluent school district known for the richness of its special education program teaching spec ed kids in the mainstream. I taught basically the same language and literature curriculum to these children as the regular education kids received, but I taught it differently, very differently and with different expectations. Contrary to Duncan’s belief, and despite my best effort, they didn’t excel in the sense that Duncan uses that word, most of them passing the state English examination, but just passing, many of them having had to make a herculean effort to do so.

Once again, data driven dunces like Duncan set schools up for failure. I saw progress almost every day I taught, but it often was not the kind of progress that shows up on standardized tests. To people like Duncan and the crowd that spends its days talking college and career ready gibberish, that progress has no meaning.

I’m off to the NEA and AFT conventions. I’m told there will be a No Confidence vote in Duncan at NEA. Such a motion failed once before. It will be interesting to see if the delegates have finally had enough. I’ll be blogging periodically during these meetings. Stay tuned.

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From California to New York

We knew it wouldn’t be long before the Vergara decision declaring California’s tenure law unconstitutional would prompt law suits in other states, particularly in ones with high profile unions. With the “reformers” notching a victory in California, the obvious next place to achieve a dramatic impact was New York, and, sure enough, it’s in the works.

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal announced that former news anchor turned education reformer Campbell Brown has found some plaintiffs to bring a challenge to the tenure and seniority laws of New York. The big lie impelling these suits is that but for tenure and seniority statutes, school managements would be free to fire the hordes of incompetent teachers standing in front of our nation’s classrooms preventing our youth from succeeding academically. These law cases are just one prong in a carefully designed strategy to attack and cripple teacher unions which have been the frontline defense against the privatizing profiteers who are hell-bent on turning our public schools into profit centers.

Curb collective bargaining, challenge public sector agency shop laws, attack tenure and seniority, spread the big lie that teacher unions exist only to defend mediocrity and encourage the belief in exploited minorities that their children can only be saved by a privatized system in which they are empowered to choose where and how their children are educated. Spread this anti-public education venom through a multi-media bombardment of the public financed by billionaire bankrollers engaged in what amounts to predatory giving, or as my friend Dave Linton calls it “giving to get.” That’s what we’re up against. I wish I saw our strategy as clearly.

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I’m getting Greener Every Day

Sunday, I attended a house party for Howie Hawkins, the Green Party candidate for Governor of New York. I voted for Hawkins last time, unable to pull the lever for Andrew Cuomo even before he had a chance to damage public education in our state. I’m going to vote for him again, this time with more enthusiasm.

I’m tired of voting for Democrats who aren’t members of the party I grew up in, one that represented working people. The party I grew up in believed in the ideals expressed by Franklin Roosevelt in his 1944 State of the Union speech in which he argued for a second Bill of Rights for Americans. Roosevelt asked Americans to believe it possible for people to be guaranteed a job at living wages, decent housing, medical care, education and enough income to provide adequate food clothing and recreation. He looked forward to a system in which farmers would be able to earn a living from their crops and business people were free of predatory monopolies. Mind you, he talked about all of this amid World War II. Successive generations of Democrats would champion civil right and respect for the environment. I used to be proud to be a Democrat. The party stood on high the moral ground of trying to make our economic and political systems work for the betterment of its citizens. The party that used to believe in these ideals helped to create and grow the middle class.

As Hawkins says it, Democrats today appear to want to repeal the New Deal, not extend it. In most elections we are given a choice between them and today’s Republicans who seems to want to repeal The Enlightenment. Some choice for working people.

I don’t think for a minute that Hawkins is going to be elected governor of New York, but what I know is his ideas are more like mine than any other candidate’s. He believes in a living wage for workers and supports a $15 per hour minimum wage indexed to the productivity of the American worker. He believes in progressive taxation – you make more, you pay more. He supports single payer health care for all. He believes that the unemployed who wish to work should be able to do so, if need be in a state funded WPA-style jobs program. Hawkins and the Green Part support the idea of our being 100% clean energy by 2030. Finally, and most importantly for an education union leader like me, he stands for an end to high stakes testing, the Common Core State Standards and the full-funding of public education, K through college.

Political positions are one thing, character another. What I like most about Howie Hawkins is that he works for a living. He’s a good union member working for UPS. He lives in the heart of Syracuse. When you listen to him talk, you realize that here is a man who has spent his life working for progressive causes, not building a political resume. The battles of working people for justice punctuate his almost every sentence. I love the idea that he has to take an unpaid leave of absence from his UPS job to run for another that he knows odds are he can’t win. It’s important to him to keep progressive ideas alive.

While Howie Hawkins may not win the governorship of New York, if I and progressive people like me who think it is possible to build a better more just society cast our vote for him, we just might breathe some life into the Democratic Party and turn it back towards its roots. My union colleagues who were so disappointed at the Working Families Party endorsement of Cuomo have a logical and comfortable place to go. There is nothing of significance in the platform of the Green Party and Howie Hawkins that doesn’t match up well with the principles and policies of our unions. It’s time to put our money, resources and votes behind the things we believe in instead of behind people we know will betray us after Election Day.

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A Small Step Forward

So New York now has a moratorium on the consequences of the Common Core high stakes tests for both students and teachers where student scores cause a teacher to be judged “developing” or “ineffective.” That’s not a small thing to the teachers in some districts who were clobbered last year.

However, it is, as NYSUT President Karen Magee suggested, a first step in what has to be a process of finding a teacher evaluation system that hold teachers accountable for what they can be reasonably expected to do. This legislation does nothing to stop the absurdity of forcing all children to meet a set of standards that take no account of what children are able to do at various stages of their development. Neither does it give us a sane testing policy, one aimed at informing instruction rather than disciplining and punishing.

I’m sure Governor Cuomo thinks NYSUT now owes him an endorsement for his generous easing of the consequences of high stake testing on our members. I hope we’ll be smarter than that. I hope we’ll put time, money and effort behind a candidate who will offer a vision of a real, developmentally appropriate education for every child in our state, an education that prepares our children to learn, not to qualify for the next school or job, one that enables them to be engaged citizens of a society in which the quality of life improves with each generation.

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Mired in Stupidity

Teachers in New York are anxiously waiting to see if their elected representatives in Albany can find their way out of a gross stupidity of their own making. In their budget agreement this year, they lifted the consequences of the state’s high stakes tests said to be aligned with the Common Core State Standards, while leaving teachers to be evaluated in part on the basis of student results on those same examinations. Reports for days have talked about intense negotiations over this issue. Reportedly, our friend Arne Duncan is sending the message that if we untie student test results from teacher evaluations even for a year or two, our Race to the Top money could be in jeopardy. So there we are. Mired in stupidity and hoping that by the wee hours of the morning, one of our elected clowns will have an idea.

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Been There- Done That

When I was in 8th grade, someone in the leadership of New York City’s schools decided that it would be a good idea to combine the instruction of English and social studies, calling it Core. While I remember a great deal about 7th grade English and social studies, I remember nothing about 8th grade except for the fact that I was stuck in an excruciatingly boring class for what seemed an eternity each day.

About 15 years later, after I’m an established English teacher, I’m asked by a respected colleague in the social studies department to consider teaching a parallel course in American literature to her honors American history section. Although skeptical about blending the two disciplines, such was my respect for Pat that I decided to give it a try. In those days, we required no approval by the superintendent of schools or the board of education. If we could convince the principal to give us the same kids for one period each day, we were free to try something new. Imagine being able to do that today. That’s a whole other post.

Pat and I gave it our best shot, working many extra hours to coordinate our lessons. From my perspective, I hated having teach the curriculum as a chronological survey course, it being more important to me with young students of English to teach them how to read literature critically than it is to demonstrate how it emerges from a particular moment in intellectual and artistic history, or a writer’s imaginings of that time. The pace of the class was determined by a historical timeline rather than my perception of what my students needed at the moment. Pat seemed to like it more than I, but it turned our she was just more reluctant to voice her concerns.

At the end, we talked about the year among ourselves and our students. Neither of us thought it was worth doing again. Neither of us felt we had done as good a job with our subject as we could have independently. Both of us felt that an interdisciplinary approach had more meaning with students who already had enough knowledge to draw the kinds of connections the course was designed to elicit. Unlike most experiments in k-12 education, ours was not doomed to success.

I found myself thinking about my experiences with interdisciplinary education as I listened to a presentation to our board of education by our middle school principals who want to do some block scheduling in 6th grade to combine the teaching of English and social studies and math and science. This decision appears to have been prompted by the desire of some teachers for additional time for math, time made necessary by the implementation of the Common Core State Standards. Somehow, a perceived need on the part of some teachers for some additional math time got morphed into the Core I experienced as a kid.

I hope to be around when the next innovators suggest that we go back to traditional 6th grade class in which one teacher taught most everything in her own way, in her own rhythm.

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New York’s Superintendents Wimp Out

I’ve repeatedly said that if New York’s superintendents of schools were to speak out at the chaos that is passing for education policy in New York State, the positions of the Chancellor and Commissioner would be unsustainable. If through their association they would, as NYSUT has done, issue a carefully argued critique of what the botched implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the high stakes testing regime integrally connected to them are doing to public education in our state, their collective voice combined with that of the teacher and parents opponents of the Tisch/King corporate agenda would leave our education leaders no choice but to resign, no group having any confidence in their leadership.

What we now have instead is a so-called vision statement by the superintendents association that amounts to little more than a nauseating compilation of pusillanimous platitudes about what education should be in our state. Here’s a taste what passes for criticism of current education policy. “Although the goal has been embraced by many educators, the rushed and problematic implementation of the reform has contributed significantly to the emotional tide of discontent sweeping New York State. “ Their statement appears to argue that if we just went about the corporate reform agenda in a more “systematic” way, all would be well. They have to know that’s not true. I wonder how many meetings it took for the “Visioning Committee” that wrote the document to come up with this intellectual gruel.

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The Tenure Wakeup Call

The billionaire financed law suit nullifying California’s teacher tenure law will obviously have ramifications for the rest of the nation. The outfit that brought the suit is already looking to the East. Good and bad things have a way of starting in California and working their way eastward. Where once the California public education system was the envy of the nation, Proposition 13 began the process of its decay to the point where it is now among the worst. The Prop 13 tax cap idea has now reached New York and has begun to destroy some of the best schools in our nation.

I and others have written on how abolishing teacher tenure will do little, if anything, to improve the education of the nation’s children, but we’ve seen little to nothing from the teacher unionist other than lamenting the court’s decision. What shall teacher unionists to in response to the legal attack on teacher tenure?

To be sure, we will seek to overturn decisions like Vergara v. California. What is also clear is that our political elites and the courts believe they can do as we please with us, our “movement” having absorbed attack after attack without any consequences for our enemies. To the extent that we have had a strategy is has been one of appeasement. Give the enemies of public education and teachers a little of what they want and maybe they will let us alone. The “reformers” want to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores, let’s argue about the percentage the tests will count towards. We’ll get the number as low as we can and declare victory. We enthusiastically embrace the Common Core State Standards and accept huge amounts of cash from the billionaire behind that endeavor, knowing full-well that the teachers we represent had almost nothing to do with their development.

Politicians we have supported have literally spit in our faces, but we support them for re-election anyway. Last year at the NEA Representative Assembly, my friend Phil Rumore introduced a new business item calling for a vote of no confidence in Education Secretary Arne Duncan and demanding his resignation. Do we have a clearer enemy than Arne Duncan or Bill Gates? NEA leadership literally implored the convention to vote the motion down for fear of offending an administration that has made war on us and is clearly in bed with those who wish to privatize public education. A couple of years ago, Bill Gates gets invited to be a featured speaker at the American federation of Teachers convention to talk to us about test based teacher accountability. Most sat respectfully and listened to this outrage.

Both national have recently rediscovered the value of organizing, albeit they have some difficulty defining the issues around which to organize. Organize around the preservation or the demand for due process rights is a natural. No one who has ever worked in a public school is unaware of the extent to which absent due process rights, teachers are just a parent complaint away from being terminated. It doesn’t take much for the average teacher to realize that as they climb the salary schedule, it’s in management’s interest to be rid of them. A teacher in most districts on maximum salary makes twice what a beginner makes. We need to take this decision as a wakeup call to organize around due process rights. We ought to encourage locals to have plans to bargain due process clauses into their contracts. We need to stop supporting politicians of whatever party who do not have clear positions in support of public education. We need to demonstrate that we care about our work and the students we teach. The laws that gave us the right to collective bargaining were made in the streets. The Brown decision and the civil rights laws that followed were not a gift of enlightened political elites. They were demands of organized people that those elites could not deny.

Update: A few hours after writing this post, I received a copy of a letter AFT President Randi Weingarten wrote responding to Arne Duncan’s praise of the Vergara decision in California. It is the latest example my point about union appeasement of the ‘school reformers.” In her letter, Weingarten invites negotiations that would diminish our current due process rights in New York.

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The Latest Hit on Public Education

Judge Rolf M. Treu wrote in his ruling declaring California’s tenure law unconstitutional, “The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.” What is compelling is the big lie perpetuated in this outrageous decision – the lie that it is the inability of school districts to fire incompetent teachers that is responsible for the poor academic performance of minority students in urban school districts, a lie that the mainstream press repeats to the point where it obliterates other possibilities.

Tenure laws provides that before a teacher may be dismissed, there has to be a good reason, a good reason for which there is a preponderance of the evidence. What sort of legal mind finds it appropriate to sever an individual from his employment, from his ability to earn a living and feed his family, without a preponderance of evidence to support that decision? It shouldn’t be easy in any workplace for the boss to simply fire someone without cause. In my years as a union officer, I’ve handled a handful of cases in which non-tenured teachers who have no due-process rights in New York were slated for dismissal without a jot of evidence to support their firing. One was motivated by racial hatred on the part of an influential member of the board of education another by the union activities of the teacher and the others by factors I never could determine, but demonstrated incompetence was clearly not the issue. We were able to save these individuals, but most teacher unions wouldn’t even try. It’s simply so hard to do without due process rights. The fact it that employment decisions are sometimes made with bad intentions by bad people, and only a mechanism based on establishing a factual basis for a decision to terminate an individual prevents these life-altering decisions from happening.

The notion that the reason minority students suffer a very significant achievement gap is ineffective teachers is untrue. It’s really shocking to learn that none of the plaintiffs in this case attend schools that have ineffective teachers. Some even go to charter schools in which teachers are not apparently covered by the tenure laws. We know that too many poor students begin school already behind their more well-off peers, although we haven’t as yet found a way to blame public school teachers for this fact yet. We know too that poverty is much more than not having money. It often blights people’s souls, tightly circumscribing their hopes and dreams, leaving them with a sense that no matter what they do, they can’t better themselves.

On NPR’s Leonard Lopate show the other day was an African American businessman and author John Hope Bryant who while talking about his book made the following statement about poverty that I’ll paraphrase. He suggested that if one went into an impoverished community and administered a clinical depression survey, 60 percent of the population would turn up clinically depressed. If Bryant is right, and my experience teaching in an alternate education program suggests he is, then the almost religious belief of some of our leaders that if we only had more effective teachers the devastating effects which express themselves as an achievement gap in our public schools is like the ignorance of the religious fundamentalists who despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary insist that dinosaurs and human beings co-existed on the earth a few thousand years ag0.

More on the ramifications of this decision for teacher unions tomorrow.

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Polls Not a Substitute for Leadership

Why is it that both the NEA and AFT have membership polls that claim a large majority of the membership supports the Common Core State Standards, yet I hardly ever meet a teacher that does? I met a few at a meeting of the National Council of Urban Education Associations this fall who when I spoke to them said, “Yeah, I support the Standards because we’re going to have to follow them anyway.” I listened to another at a NYSUT demonstration in Lake Placid who as she defended the Standards to the 500 or so members in attendance was literally hooted down. What questions are these polls asking? Is it support they are picking up or resignation at the powerlessness of their unions to do anything to stop the train? Every time Randi Weingarten or Dennis Van Roekel how the membership favors the Standards, the members serve wonder how that can be.

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Geen Now Is Better Than Green later

Some of our friends in the opt-out movement to end high stakes testing in New York are pushing for Zyphyr Teachout, the defeated candidate for the Working Families Party’s nomination for governor, to challenge Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic primary. She stands no chance of winning, and, when she loses, progressives and pro-public education forces will be left with Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins as the only place they can. Our goal is to depress Cuomo’s numbers. We have a better chance of doing that by putting our resources into the Green candidate now rather than in September when we are literally weeks from the election.

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Meeting Anger and Frustration

Yesterday, I met with a group of union members who had summoned me to talk to them about how some aspects of their work were being changed without any serious consultation with them. While I think that by the end of the day a process was in place to solve the problem I was called to address, I’ve been absorbed by the views about their jobs that were expressed during our meeting.

One way or another, they all expressed feelings of being harried, of not having any control of their work, of working to rhythms imposed from above rather that what come naturally from the work of teaching. The expression used so often that my mind became riveted on it was, “They want,” their expression of faceless forces making demands on them that can’t be engaged or confronted. The group conveyed a palpable sense of being distracted from what they considered to be important for the children they teach by the dictates of people who are oblivious to what children need. Discernible to anyone who cares to listen to them is an anger and frustration at the perceived need to suppress one’s professional judgment because to publicly disagree is to be marked as not a team player.

I don’t believe for a moment that there is anything unusual about this group of teachers. In fact, when feelings like this exist in a staff whose union is known for its militant defense of its members’ rights and conditions, it’s clear to me that it is probably even worse elsewhere where unions don’t take on the issues my local does. My challenge as their leader is really the challenge of all unions, to organize that anger into a potent force to save public education and our rights to our profession from those who wish to extinguish public education and our union movement.

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Questioning the Belief in State Standards

In meetings with educator advocates for the Common Core State Standards, I’m often looked at in amazement when I state my belief that I can’t see how the Standards are going to close the achievement gap let alone ensure that children will be college and career ready. The whole thing has a too good to be believed, magical quality and barnyard stink about it.

I thank Diane Ravitch who this morning pointed readers to a 2012 report in Edweek on a study of the effects of state standards, good and bad, as measured by NAEP results. It turns out that states with objectively poor standards achieved very similar gains on the NAEP to those of states with standards judged to be superior. With the billions being spent on the implementation of CCSS, that’s an idea that deserves wider consideration than it has gotten. It lends further credence to my belief that the CCSS are a business plan, not and education plan.

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Performance Pay

The nicest thing a student ever said to me was, “I know why we love this class. You have very few rules, but you mean them.” What that kid was saying to me was that I had succeeded in making his own desire to learn his internal motivator. It wasn’t my rules and regulations that made him enjoy the learning available in the class. I had created the conditions in which he brought as much to the class as I did. He had become intrinsically motivated.

I found myself thinking of him this morning in connection with the Veterans Administration scandal in which apparently some employees were motivated to “cook the books” on the wait-times to see a physician by their desire to qualify for performance bonuses tied to cutting those wait-times. It seems to me that such motivators often lead to cheating rather than better performance. Tie teacher evaluations to student performance on high stakes tests too often produce cheating rather than learning. When employees are paid fair wages, respected for the work they do and led by people who show the way to the fulfillment that comes from doing work well, they achieve in my experience much more than they do in response to the dangling of a few dollars before their eyes. The only performance pay worth talking about is a fair wage for the work to be done.

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Think Green

How could an organization called the Working Families Party endorse a self-absorbed, darling of the hedge fund and real estate interests like Andrew Cuomo? How could Bill de Blasio who rode to victory in the race for Mayor of New York City on a platform addressing issues of income and wealth inequality become an essential agent for securing the WFP nomination for the governor? That many of the delegates to the WFP nominating convention are union leaders is not only enough to make one puke, but is also the latest reminder of the failure of the labor union message to resonate with the majority of America’s workers. If the press reports are to be believed, what the pro-Cuomo forces got in exchange for their nomination is a promise from the governor to work to return control of the New York State Senate to the Democrats. What that will get the working people of New York no one seems to want to spell out in any detail. Will that end the give-away to corporate interests? Will it put an end to the property tax cap that is destroying public education? Will it end the support for charter schools? Will it lead to steps to end the embarrassing reality that New York’s schools are the most racially segregated in the nation? Will it lead to policies aimed at revitalizing the middle class in our state? Will it lead to affordable housing? Non one seriously thinks it will lead to any of these things.

With the major parties offering us Cuomo of Astorino, and with the WFP surrendering any claim it may have had on the allegiance of working people, I’m of the view that pro-public education, pro-environment protection, pro-labor voters have to stop supporting politicians who clearly don’t stand for the values and principles that undergird a decent society. At the moment, the candidate with the views closest to my own is Howie Hawkins of New York’s Green Party. Here’s a brief video of his Green Party nomination acceptance speech. See if there is anything that he says that you’re uncomfortable with. Contrast it to what we’re getting from Cuomo and Astorino.

I know, you say, Howie Hawkins stands no chance of winning. Agreed! He probably doesn’t. But if progressive voters vote their values and principles, we will push the Democratic Party back to its historic position as a defender of the rights and needs of working people. The WFP has failed to accomplish this.

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