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 August, 2014

Regents Double Down on State Tests

If you thought the New York State regents were a ridiculous pack of imbeciles, think again. You may well have denigrated the cognitive powers of the world’s imbeciles.

As parents and teachers grow increasingly aware of the damaging effects of high stakes testing and the linkage of that testing to the evaluation of the state’s teachers, what do our Regents do? The attempt to meet the mounting pressure on them to reduce the amount of testing by asking districts to base 20% more of teachers’ evaluation on the state examinations. Just as we are learning from experience that, as we expected, there is essentially no relationship between the growth scores teachers receive and their ability to teach, our Regents move to double down on.

This is clearly beyond imbecilic. It speaks to their complete incompetence to oversee education policy. If these people had to stand for election, as I increasingly believe they should, they would be gone at the first election.

Last year over 60,000 children were withheld by their parents from taking the state examinations. Let’s hope this year that number doubles. Let’s also hope that New York’s voters send Governor Cuomo a message through the Democratic primary and the general election, a message that he and Speaker Silver take to heart and one which causes them to end the ignorance that is being palmed off as education policy.

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Time for Teachers to Teach Andrew Cuomo a Lesson

The turnout will probably be very light on September 9, primary day in New York. With the pools showing Andrew Cuomo with a sizeable lead, even angry Democrats will be tempted to stay home. If they do, Cuomo will be even more full of himself than usual, and the process of rolling back the so-called education reform movement in New York will be that much more difficult.

I’m encouraged to believe that we will be able to suppress his numbers, however, if the union teachers in the state, a great many of whom are registered Democrats, practice what they teach and come out to vote. There may be a New York teacher supporting Cuomo, I’ve neither met not heard of him. Teachers know the damage Cuomo has done to public education in our state. They’ve heard him repeatedly lie about the quality of our schools, repeatedly telling the public that we are 38th in the nation, a number he made up and repeats like a mantra. They know he is totally responsible for the property tax cap that if not lifted will destroy quality public education in our state. They know his sanctimony well, having watched him inveigh against Albany corruption until some of his pals began to come under scrutiny. They know him for the empty windbag he is, a windbag with an eye on the Whitehouse. I suspect they will relish teaching him a lesson. If their public sector union colleagues are motivated by their anger to vote, Mr. Cuomo could get taken down a peg.

Between now and September 9, I will be talking to the teacher I know, asking them to support Zephyr Teachout for governor.

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Research Tells Us

Few things in life lack my confidence as much as the reliability of education research. So much of it reminds me of the story of the scientist who sought to find out what happened as he serially cut off the legs of a centipede. He cut off two legs and said, Jump centipede jump.” And the centipede jumped. He continued doing this without limiting the ability of the centipede to jump. Finally he cuts off all of the legs of the centipede, and, at the command to jump, nothing happened. The scientist ran to his notebook and recorded the following: When you cut off all of the legs of a centipede, it renders the animal deaf.

Thanks to Valerie Strauss for pointing to a study of the reliability of ed research. It turns out that the vast majority of this stuff is never checked to see if it is replicable. How many of the stupidities inflicted on our public schools in the last years owe their origins to researched based nonsense? I wonder, however, if anyone has attempted to replicate this study.

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NYSUT Leadership – No New Direction

Too much of what is left of the labor movement has devolved into a pathetic insider game in which leadership puts more time, effort and thought into their relationships with state and national political figures than developing an agenda and strategy for the mobilization of its membership. My latest experience with that reality was the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) Presidents Endorsement Conference held yesterday in Albany.

I wrote on Monday that this conference posed the first big challenge to the new leadership of our state union. Could they chart a new political course away from the accommodationist policies of the past and begin to shape a new political strategy of supporting candidates that pay more than lip-service to our union positions, candidates with unequivocal records and positions in support of working people, public education, economic and social justice. Sadly, the new leaders approach to the endorsement of candidates for state office was indistinguishable from that taken by past leaders. To be fair, as I write, the NYSUT Board of Directors is in the process of making the final decision on endorsements, but while they may change a few things at the margins, it appears almost certain that NYSUT will take no position in the race for Governor of New York.

I and some others tried to advance the position that we support Zypher Teachout in the Democratic primary, and, should she be unsuccessful, Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins in November. We did so because we and, more importantly the members we serve, view Andrew Cuomo as the worst governor on the issue of public education in our memory. He has hobbled our schools with a property tax cap that has cut programs to children and led to the layoff of thousands of our members. At the bidding of his hedge fund and real estate mogul bankrollers in New York City, he has promoted charter schools. He has been a leader in the mindlessly stupid tying of teacher evaluations to student scores on standardized tests. He has done near to nothing to stop the totally incompetent implementation of the Common Core State Standards, claiming that he has no control over education in our state. On education issues alone, he has done our members such harm that to take no position on his re-election bid as to make no sense to our membership. Worse this failure to support candidates whose positions on education issues literally mirror our own poses the very real risk of weakening the membership’s will to be politically active. Still worse, the coalitions we have been building with parents to end the standardized testing mania will not understand our fearful reluctance to take King Andrew on.

Our leaders are not without reasons for their recommendation of no endorsement. Their reasons, however, are what reveal that lack of new thinking and direction. A deal has been negotiated with some of the other unions in the state to have the New York AFL-CIO take the same position of no endorsement of Cuomo. I’m absolutely sure that a great deal of thought and effort went into these negotiations for what I also agree is a desirable outcome. But here’s the problem for our own organization, and it’s a very serious one. All of this insider negotiation by state union leaders left the members out. No one in NYSUT had any thought to see if this strategy had the support of the locals that make up NYSUT. It seems clear that few if any members of the NYSUT Board of Directors knew about this plan. If they did, they certainly kept it a secret.

I would bet that at every general membership meeting of my local, I have found a way to remind our members that by myself, I have no power – that whatever power I have comes from management’s understanding that our members are behind what I say. NYSUT leadership has not understood that for some time. They clearly still don’t.

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First Big Challenge for New NYSUT Leadership

Tomorrow is the long awaited New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) endorsement conference, a gathering of local union presidents who will be making recommendations for endorsements for state offices to be elected in November.

While few but the most cynical expect the body to endorse Andrew Cuomo for re-election (There would be a rebellion if they did.), there is a strong body of opinion that believes that the intention of the officers and the powerful United Federation of Teachers, the powerful New York City local, is to do the next best thing and make no endorsement thereby hoping to avid his legendary wrath.

The New NYSUT leadership will face its first serious challenge at this conference. Will it chart a political course away from the accommodationist policies of the past administration, or will it boldly chart a new direction, putting its political efforts into supporting candidates whose positions align with NYSUT policy, progressive candidates committed to ending the reign of the testocracy and those who wish to privatize our public schools.

If they have the courage to chart a new course, they will support the Green Party ticket of Hawkins and Jones whose education positions are almost congruent with NYSUT policy. They will ask members who are registered Democrats to support Zypher Teachout in the Democratic Primary, so as not to alienate those who cling to the fantasy that she will somehow defeat Cuomo. After Teachout loses, they will have no trouble supporting the Greens.

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Look North for Desirable Ed Outcomes

I wrote yesterday about the very serious disconnect between what we know about the growth and development of children and what the education reform agenda expects children to be able to do. More specifically, I focused as I often do on the importance of play to their physical, emotional and intellectual growth and the erosion of our understanding of its centrality to our early childhood education programs. Those thought led me to see how our Canadian neighbors educate their young children. I haven’t looked at all of the provinces yet, but I was impressed and amazed at what I found in the Province of Saskatchewan.

The curriculum guide for kindergarten is a document clearly written by educators and informed by what we know about children. The importance of play is everywhere in the guide, as is the recognition that the goal is to link the natural curiosity of children with more formal education. Nowhere that I could see was there any talk about making 5 year-olds college and career ready. No asinine statements about making children internationally competitive. When one reads the document, one is struck with the concern for the welfare of children to be found on every page.

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To Be Human is to Play

If you didn’t hear this morning’s NPR piece on the importance of free-play to the development of the brains of young children, spend four minutes and listen now. After you do, think about what the early grades of our best public schools look like today, with less and less time for play and more and more stultifyingly stupid exercises in what we pretend to be higher order thinking but which are at best age inappropriate, at worst child abuse. Need a little motivation to listen? The brain researcher interviewed in the piece suggests that it is from free play that our brains are prepared for “life, love and even school work.”

I’ve come to believe that we will look back at this era of so-called ed reform as a self-inflicted wound, a time during which we allowed corporate scam artists and the craven politicians in their employ to victimize our nation’s children, literally robbing them of a portion of their humanity by stunting that portion of their growth and development that appears to be genetically programed to require free play to be activated. Increasingly, science is validating what my parents and teachers intuitively knew but which we have been hoodwinked into forgetting – children are biologically designed to play. If we are serious about making them college, career and life ready, we had better make time for them to do it.

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Campbell Brown

Last Thursday, Campbell Brown appeared on the Stephen Colbert show to tout her support for a law suit challenging the teacher tenure laws of New York State. While many of my union colleagues appear from their social media comments to think that Colbert exposed her as an enemy of public education, and while at moments in her appearance I felt like throttling her for the patent inaccuracies of her comments, the fact of the matter is I believe her skills as a TV personality were clearly in evidence. To Colbert’s satiric challenges to her ideas about tenure, she responded with gracious laughter. When explaining why she was supporting this law suit, her facial expressions and body language conveyed a sincere empathy for the plight of disadvantaged children and a deeply felt moral commitment to help them. In short, to viewers opposed to due process for teachers, she puts an attractive, sympathetic face on their radical, right-wing ideas. To those who haven’t really thought about teacher tenure, I suspect she inoculated herself from those who will try to portray her as a flaming, right-wing radical. If we are going to beat her in the arena of public opinion, step one is to recognize that she is a skilled opponent.

Step two is to recognize that logic and facts may sadly not be the best tools against her. Her message is not aimed at our higher faculties. She appeals to our reflexive response to children in jeopardy. Why aren’t we doing something to help these kids who are not learning the things they will need to be productive adults. It’s the teacher union and their tenure laws that prevent us from helping these defenseless children.

So far about the best responses to that appeal to defend children in jeopardy are things like Diane Ravitch offered today, where she tells the story of the attempt to discharge a tenured New Jersey teacher for drawing attention to a sweetheart contract between his board of education and a relative of a board member. Responses like this (and I think that we have many like it), appeal to people’s sense of fairness. A video with this teacher telling his story and what it did to him and his family would be even better. Teachers intuitively believe that facts and figures win arguments. In politics, it’s often which side connects with the public’s emotions. Progressives tend to not want to believe that, but they do so to their disadvantage.

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