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 July, 2014

NYSUT’S Endorsement for Governor

Each day brings me new reasons for opposing the re-election of Andrew Cuomo. I’ve written extensively about his vile education policy, his pandering to New York City’s financial and real estate interests – his anti-tax policies and in general his failure to support policies aimed at helping working people.

On August 11, our state union, NYSUT, will hold its endorsement conference. While I don’t believe the leadership will seek the endorsement of Cuomo (Their credibility with the rank and file would be shot if they did.), I am concerned about the possibility of a position of no endorsement.

At a time when the credibility of NYSUT is at its lowest, a position of no endorsement would be a disaster. Members want their union to stand for something. The previous leaders of NYSUT were deposed in large measure because of their accommodationist policies, policies that brought us an absurd teacher evaluation process and the abjectly stupid implementation of the Bill Gates bought and paid for Common Core State Standards. To not stand up against Cuomo, even though we know he will probably win, would be to seriously weaken the bonds between the membership and our leaders in Albany.

I will go to the conference to argue for the endorsement of the Green Party’s slate of Howie Hawking and Brian Jones. While I will vote for Zephyr Teachout in the Democratic primary, there is very little chance that she will be on the ballot in November. Hawkins and Jones just put out an open letter to teachers in advance of the NYSUT endorsement conference. I would ask my readers to consider it carefully. I believe if you do, you will see that the Hawkins/Jones ticket is right on education, right on the environment, right on the economy and right on making Albany work all the citizens of New York State. If you agree and are a member of a NYSUT local, see if you can encourage your president to endorse the Hawkins/Jones ticket. Let’s feel good about casting our ballots in November

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Hoboken Admits Ed Technology Failure

Kudos to the Hoboken, New Jersey school system for cooperating with WNYC on a story that documents that school district’s failed costly experiment with providing high school students with tablet computers. Most of what one tends to hear these days is a seemingly monotonous chorus chanting the largely assumed virtues of infusing technology into the academic programs of our schools. No one seems to want to recognize that we’ve had over ten years of this infusion without any demonstrable evidence of its efficacy except perhaps at the margins.

The Hoboken experiment was a disaster essentially because teenagers will be teenagers. Although the district did buy hardened tablets recognizing that the kids would be hard on them, they failed to consider the possibility that they would quickly be left with a pile of broken, useless computers that they would have to pay some outfit to cart away. They also failed to consider how enticing it would be for teenagers to be distracted from their lessons by the internet constantly in front of them.

How many other Hobokens are there out there who don’t have the guts to publicize their failure? Does anyone know how much we spend nationally on school hardware and computer programs, constantly updating them every time the tech companies come out with a new version? Have we thought seriously, beyond the clichés of individualized instruction, 21st century education and global competition and all of the other cant that shrouds the subject of educational technology, about the wisdom of pouring more and more increasingly scarce dollars into projects like this? Hoboken suggests that it would be worth our effort to do so.

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The Common Core Addiction

The two national teacher unions cling to their support for the Common Core State Standards like an addicted smoker to his butts. One of the most curious arguments in support of their position has been the claim that to drop our support for the Standards would be to leave us with nothing, exposing us to the charge that we aren’t for anything other than the status quo. This was the argument made by Karen Magee, the recently elected President of New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), in the debate at the AFT Convention pitting supporters of the Standards led by Michael Mulgrew and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and Karen Lewis and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) who vehemently oppose the Common Core. Why Magee who campaigned against the Common Core should make such a speech is a subject for a future post. How it strengthens us to support the Standards because we fear how we will look if we don’t is left unexplained. No one in high places in either of our two national unions seems to be questioning how we look as more and more of the public turns from support for the standards. A recent poll of New York State voters showed 49% want the implementation of the Standards stopped. If we look at union households, many of which are NYSUT members, the poll finds 57% against the Common Core. It’s time for the leaders of our national unions to do a Diane Ravitch, forthrightly announce that they have been wrong, although they had the best of intentions, and join the opposition.

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Forget the T-Word

Tenure has become a dirty word. The political right with the assistance of too many Democrats has masterfully succeeded in redefining tenure to mean lifetime employment for teachers without the possibility of being fired for cause. Thus, the narrative goes, there are hordes of incompetent, ineffective teachers standing in front of the nation’s public school classrooms effectively preventing the neediest students from achieving all that they are capable of becoming. So completely have the enemies of public education subverted the meaning of tenure that public discourse about the status of America’s schools is more focused on negative effects of tenure than on the real enemy of student achievement, poverty.

At the recent summer meeting of the National Council of Urban Education Associations (NCUEA), I listened to a legal update by NEA General Counsel Alice O’Brien. In talking about the about the recent Vergara decision that struck down California’s tenure law, O’Brien very conspicuously avoided the use of the word tenure, substituting “professional status” instead. That’s a much better, more positively charged expression than the current understanding of tenure.

A new teacher to a district serves a probationary period, in most place of three years duration. During that time they are carefully assessed and are essentially at will employees, meaning they can be fired in most places with as little as thirty days notice. After a three year period to prove their worthiness, they are awarded professional status. Having proven themselves worthy of professional status, they become entitled to due process before that professional status can be taken from them. Medical doctors accused of unprofessional conduct get a due process hearing as do most licensed professionals.

The battle for the public mind is often a linguistic challenge. O’Brien’s suggestion in this regard is a good one. Let’s start talking about professional status and forget the T-word.

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A Foolish Consistency?

When did it become the fashion to envy national systems of public education? When I began in this work, the joke was that in countries like France, every kid in the same grade was doing the exact same thing at any given moment of any give school day. We Americans thought that funny and far inferior to our locally controlled schools in which determined what was taught and when. I remember too my Peace Corps years working in Ghana with expats from the United Kingdom whose university studies, unlike our undergraduate education, were focused on one subject. How educationally stunted some of them seemed to me.

Central to the Common Core State Standards is an envy of this European homogeneity. Somehow the uniformity of the Standards is going to life the poor out of their poverty, make us more internationally competitive and probably cure cancer at the same time. Why is it then that the United States, with its locally controlled public schools, has been the world’s predominant economic power? Why is it that the dynamism of our economy is the envy of the world? Why is it that so many want to send their children to the U.S. for higher education? Are we really sure we desire homogenized mediocrity?

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NEA’s New President the Highlight of AFT Convention

For those of us who have watched the foolishness that has kept the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teacher (AFT) apart and often fighting one another, this morning’s session of the AFT convention was a truly unexpected and deeply appreciated experience.

Here was Randi Weingarten talking about seeking a new relationship with the NEA introducing Lily Eskelsen-Garcia, the newly elected President of the NEA, moving in and of itself. But then Lily, a gifted public speaker, starts talking about her life of doing what others never expected her to do, building on that theme to the climax of declaring that we ought to defy expectations – that we are NEA/AFT brothesr and sisters who are going to work together, arm in arm against our common enemies. In the tortured history of our two unions, that’s a very big deal.

If there is anyone in NEA leadership with the ability to move those in the NEA who have historically opposed cooperation with the AFT and who killed the last attempt at merger, it’s Lily. She takes office with the almost universal affection of the membership and an enviable ability to speak to their hearts. Should she begin to use the NEA presidency to move those who oppose the AFT and the AFL/CIO, should she undertake to target the NEA state affiliates who torpedoed the last attempt at merger, I’m betting she will succeed. Should she do so, her status as a heroine of our movement would be assured.

A convention that was otherwise notable for the timidity of the positions taken by the delegates, Weingarten’s decision to invite Eskelsen-Garcia to speak and Eskelsen Garcia’s call to work together “arm in arm” was enough for me to see this as the most successful union convention I’ve been to in a long time.

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AFT Opens Its Convention

Like the NEA, the AFT has as its convention theme organizing, organizing to regain the promise of America. Yet also like the NEA, it’s not exactly sure of what it wants to organize. There must be a couple of thousand delegates here in Los Angeles. One would think that an organizing union would send them all home with some specific organizing tasks. How powerful would it be if the Common Core Standards were divided up among the state organizations and each asked to put together a panel of experts to re-write? That’s right. Let’s create a rival set of national standards, developed by teachers and informed by the experiences of people who have actual classroom experience. Get teachers across the country to field test them and then offer them to the nation, free of charged and standardized test free.

Too bold? Let’s do something simple. Let’s work with the NEA and get every teacher in America’s public schools to sign a post card demanding the resignation of Arne Duncan. But don’t waste the opportunity of bringing thousands of union together to talk about organizing without some organizing project for them to do.

On a more positive note, AFT President Randi Weingarten in her address to the convention referenced the recent passage by the NEA Representative Assembly of a new business item calling for Duncan’s resignation. Even more surprising was her call for closer cooperation with the NEA and her announcement that incoming NEA President Lily Eskelsen-Garcia will speak to the AFT on Monday. Maybe the attacks on unions and public education are finally causing our national leaders to recognize how much more should unite us than separate us.

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NEA RA – Some Thoughts

Some thoughts on the recently concluded NEA Representative Assembly. They’re more first impressions rather than carefully thought out ideas, but I know that I will be thinking and writing more completely about them in the future.

I both understand and am angered by what I see as the blind support of African American NEA leaders for many of the administration’s ed policies. They appear to broadly accept the Obama/Duncan view that the Common Core State Standards are going to significantly lift minority children out of poverty. How that happens, no one seems to articulate beyond repeating incessantly that if we hold all children to high standards, they will meet them.

When the teachers in my upper middle class district tell me that about a third of our students are floundering with the CCSS, how can anyone believe that children who begin school with a documented achievement gap are going to thrive academically when highly advantaged children aren’t? Where in the CCSS is the magic that is going to raise up the children who until now have been largely forgotten by society. This time, I fear, African Americans will be had by one of their own, not that that makes this stupidity any less revolting.

The RA passed a resolution calling for the resignation of Arne Duncan, something some of us tried to pass three times before only to be defeated by NEA leadership fearful of offending the President and losing their seat at the table, albeit at their master’s feet. The mood has clearly changed. What’s needed is leadership to galvanize the growing anger of the membership into a movement. Incoming President Lily Eskelsen Garcia has all the skills to do that. Whether she has the brains and heart to do so is unknown. If she like too many leaders becomes the mouthpiece for NEA Executive Director John Stocks, nothing good will happen. Stocks talks about organizing at every NEA meeting I’ve been at. The more he talks about it and the more I get to talk to staff who are assigned to his “organizing” priorities, the more convinced I am that he is in way over his head. With all of the talk about organizing, once again the NEA assembled close to nine thousand union activists to a meeting and did nothing to send each one home with a task to do around a national organizing drive. It’s enough to make people like me crazy.

Finally, there were several new business items that sought to investigate the magnitude of the contributions of people like Bill Gates to the NEA. Those efforts were beaten back, but I sense the members’ desire for transparency in this regard is growing. They know their leaders have essentially been co-opted and seem to want to expose the extent to which they have been sold pernicious ideas about testing and teacher accountability by corporate elites with no legitimate interest in improving the nation’s schools. Were I Lily, I might open the books on this issue to signal an abrupt, clean break with the policies of the past.

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No One to Vote For

While there is an election for president of the NEA this week, the result is a forgone conclusion, Lily Eskelsen Garcia being the only candidate for the job. There is one contested office, secretary treasurer, where two candidates, Princess Moss and Greg Johnson are vying for the position. Try as one might, he can’t get any idea of what any of the candidates will do if elected, not one publishing anything like an agenda. Thus, close to three million members send nine thousand delegates to Denver to vote for officers and members of the union’s executive committee and none of the delegates has the slightest idea of what any of these people will do. History suggests that they will do nothing to ease the burdens of a membership that is being reformed to death by the corporate interests that want to destroy their unions and drive them into the private sector where the invisible hand of the market can slap them around, driving down their wages and benefits. There will be a lot of talk about organizing this week, but not one speaker will offer an organizing agenda that taps into the rage seething in the membership.

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Partial Public Employees?

The reasoning of Justice Alito in the Harris v. Quinn case should give Americans pause. Finding that the home health care workers, while paid by the state, are really the clients of the patients they serve, thereby making them only “partial” public employees. The union representing them, therefore, is not entitled to the agency fee for those who choose not to join the union but who enjoy all of the benefits. Partial public employees?

The home health care workers in question are paid by the state, work according to the terms and conditions of their union’s contract with the state. Yet Alito sees them as less than whole. His reasoning brings to mind the three fifths compromise written into the Constitution in 1787 which rendered slaves as three fifths human.

While most public sector unions are breathing a sigh of relief today, that relief will be short lived. Alito sees agency fee as having a “questionable” basis in law and appears to be looking for a case to shoot down agency fee altogether. For now, his opinion, joined by four other justices hostile to labor unions, will only impact the ability of the unions representing the home health care workers to extend the pay and benefits of these low wage workers. We shouldn’t be surprised that a court that sees corporations as having the same rights as human beings doesn’t give a damn about the needs of the working poor.

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