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 September, 2014

A World of Their Own

I watched this Shanker Institute panel discussion on teacher accountability this afternoon. It’s remarkable in that the Shanker Institute is an AFT sponsored think tank set up in honor of our sainted Albert Shanker. The discussion is worth watching for the glimmers here and there of some interesting ideas, primarily from Pedro Noguera, an NYU professor. The video is astonishing in that it was made by a national teacher union but is completely free of the thoughts and insights of any teachers. So much of teacher leadership fails to speak in the voice of teachers. I think Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the new NEA President, is trying to break that pattern, but time will tell if she can. For some time, our national unions have been remote from our members.

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Hawkins Gets a Big Boost

No voice has been more powerful and effective in the battle to end the tyranny of corporate sponsored high stakes testing inextricably tied to the Common Core State Standards than Diane Ravitch. No voice has resonated with parents and teachers like hers. My guess is that were she to compete for the presidency of either of our national teacher unions, she would win in a heartbeat. Her stature in the movement to oppose the so-called education reformers will undoubtedly give a big boost to Howie Hawkins, the Green Party candidate for Governor in New York.

Though focused on education, Ravitch’s endorsement is based on much more. Ultimately, the values expressed by Hawkins and the Green Party align more closely with hers than do the business ethos of the Cuomo administration. But, read it for yourself. See if there is anything in it with which you disagree.

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Standing With Those Who Stand With Us

“Those candidates who have respected teachers, public education and organized labor will find that respect is a two-way street.

Candidates who take educators and public education for granted will learn about respect in a new way. As Aretha Franklin put it, they’ll find out what it means to me… and all 600,000 of NYSUT’s members and their families in every zip code of the state.”

These two paragraphs conclude an audio spot for Northeast Public Radio by NYSUT President Karen Magee. The piece speaks passionately to the indignities public educators experience every day as they absorb the attacks of craven politicians, leashed to their corporate donors, who propagate the myth that our public schools are failing due to the incompetence of many of the teacher in them. It’s a really good piece both substantively and rhetorically until it reaches what should be the climax where it withdraws into a flaccid generalized warning to our political enemies.

So here’s the way I believe the piece should have ended.

In the race for governor, there is only one candidate who respects teachers, public education and organized labor. That candidate is Howie Hawkins, the Green party candidate for governor. Howie opposes the Common Core State Standards, wants to end the tyranny of high stakes testing, understands and wishes to end the damage done by the property tax cap, supports teacher tenure and free public education pre-k-16. That’s clear un-nuanced respect and support for teachers and public education. Our members will be looking for similar views in the candidates they support for members of the legislature. We’re serving notice to the politicians of this state that we are organizing our members, parents and supporters of public schools to take our public schools back.

I’m taking a few days off. Back on Monday.

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Creative Insubordination

The superintendents of New York’s school district are in Albany for their annual fall meeting. Wouldn’t it be great if they got themselves together, stood up and demanded an end to the test and punish ideology that has become the central idea of state ed policy? Wouldn’t it be encouraging to see the real education leaders in our state telling regent Tisch and Commissioner King that as a matter of conscience they are unable to implement their education policies, that to do so would require them to compromise their duty to provide for the welfare of children.

It won’t happen, I know. Most will sit there, offering some suggestions around the margins of state policy and go home and do what they are told. These are the leaders of our school districts. They and too many of the board of education members who hire them make speeches about how the test and punish system is, but then they go and test and punish. So few of them seem capable of what I like to call creative insubordination. It’s a real shame! But, truth be told, we don’t see much creative insubordination from union leadership either.

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The People’s Climate March

climate_marchI’m so glad I let Judi Alexanderson talk me into marching in the People’s Climate March yesterday. Sunday is usually a day on which the most energy I’m willing to exert is cooking a good dinner and opening a bottle of wine.

The pictures of the event don’t do it justice. Upwards of 400,000 people of every occupation, from resident physicians to building janitors, from teachers to members of the building trades marched together. Various religious groups, people from different states and even countries, black brown white, unimaginable diversity, from rich to poor, the very young and the elderly – all coming together out of a deep concern for the planet. All united to say to the leaders of the governments of the world, DO SOMETHING!

We hear so much anti-government talk these days. It was moving to see hundreds of thousands of people, those who marched and the thousands on the sidelines that clearly supported the mobilization, clearly understanding that while it may be possible to make some progress in controlling the production of heat trapping gases, it is, in the end, only governments that can seriously confront the issue in a meaningful way.

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Turn Off Your Child’s Screen

I’m increasingly the odd man out in discussions with educationists and lay people about the downside of our increasing dependency on in our nation’s classrooms. I’ve been writing for some time about the dangers, suggesting that research increasingly shows us that people read screen differently than they do paper text. While it has been comforting to see more and more research supporting my view, that research hasn’t had much impact on the leadership of our public schools who continue to be enthralled by the corporate claims for the benefits of high tech classroom.

Consider the latest research insight that appears to show that we have an area of our brains that equips us to read things like our twitter feeds and a distinctly different area for doing deeper more serious, more academic reading. Even more to the point, the studies show that screen reading doesn’t activate the part that enables deeper reading. What is more, the ability to engage the portion of the brain needed for deeper reading atrophies with disuse.

If we are open to the validity of this research (If we are honest with ourselves we will admit that we all read screens differently than paper), we need to get more serious than we have been about some trends in education. More and more schools are introducing e-texts to our schools. Many school districts are buying tablets or asking kids to bring their own devices to school so that students are doing more and more of their reading on screens. The national exams tied to the Common Core State Standards are to be administered online, tests which are claimed to measure students’ ability to read harder, more academic material. Does any of this make any sense? Are we ironically undermining the ability of Americans to do the very kind of reading and thinking that we spend so much time talking about advancing? More and more evidence seems to point in that direction.

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The Extra Help Madness

How did I ever do it? How did I manage to go to 12 years of public school and six years of full-time graduate school with seeking out my teachers for extra help only 2 times that I can remember? I recall seeking out my college math prof for some help with a problem and my linguistics professor in graduate school who had assigned me a paper on the Anglic Spelling Reform Movement which when I went to begin my research I learned to my horror that the primary sources were almost all in Swedish, a language I neither speak not read. My parents never lobbied the officials of my schools for extra help. Neither did they hover over me as I did my homework. I was expected to be responsible for my school work.

How did it come to be that today no matter how much extra help (sometimes referred to as remedial), the demand for more increases exponentially? I have the impression that children today have become conditioned to expect that they will have to have things explained several times before they are under any obligation to know it. It also seems to me that the grade obsession sickness that pervades our schools sends the message that that one’s grade may increase a point or two from attendance at special help sessions, either from knowing the material better or by being seen by the teacher to be “really” interested. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for providing assistance to students who are trying to stretch their abilities and tackle subjects that in my day would not have been open to them. What I think we need to talk about, however, is why is it that even our brilliant students appear to believe that they need to attend remedial regularly. Are we on the road to what is done to children in many Asian countries where they are sent to cram schools after their regular schools day? Are these schools which Asian immigrants have brought with them to the United States going to become mainstream with all students expected to attend? We need to have an intelligent discussion about this. We can’t just continue to meet what has become a completely irrational demand.

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Deflating Enthusiasm at the Start of the New School Year

I’ve been going around to our school buildings, preaching a few union sermons and listening to our members’ concerns. There are the usual complaints, and then there are the heartfelt pleas to do something to end the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR), a demeaning process of teacher evaluation in our state.

It used to be that teachers got their evaluations at the end of the school year. These written documents were essentially summaries of the observations administrators had done during the course of the year. Imperfect as those evaluations were, in all but a few cases they were not controversial in the sense that they almost never surprised anyone. If deficiencies in one’s performance had been noted all year, one was not surprised to find them in the end of year evaluation. Even where such evaluations were seen by teachers as unfair, teachers got them before they left for the summer, and a little rest and relaxation had a way of letting them be seen in perspective.

Now, however, at least 20 percent of a teacher’s evaluation is tied to the high stakes test results of their students. Because the results of the tests are unavailable until mid-August, teachers are just now getting their APPRs for last year. Putting aside the foolishness of tying student scores to teacher evaluations, it would be hard to find anything more apt to deflate one’s enthusiasm for the start of a new school year than to receive an evaluation that one perceives to be substantially divorced from the quality of one’s work for a year that has already gone by. It’s clear to me that I can tell teachers from today till tomorrow that these scores don’t mean anything, there being a moratorium in place against their use to influence employment decisions. The fact it that professional teachers find the process degrading, and their anger about this issue is growing.

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Where We Do Fail

If America’s schools are failing, it’s not because they aren’t turning our college and career ready young people. Our failure has nothing to do with calculus, coding STEAM or bream for that matter. We are failing in any number of areas that will prejudice the current generation’s ability to cope with major political and social issues facing our nation. Were I given the task of writing a curriculum that would stimulate students to think deeply and develop problem solving strategies, I would focus on many areas currently virgin territory in most of our public schools. Here’s a beginning list. I’d be interested in what you might add.

We spend far too little time looking at and discussing the media environment in which our students are growing up. In a world awash in information, how does one know what is important – what is reliable? In a world in which people can individualize their sources of information and entertainment, what challenges does that pose to the bonds that link us as a people? In an environment in which information moves at the speed of light, a world in which we are bombarded by messages that change from second to second, what are the effects of that bombardment on human beings? What can they do to avoid some of the known dangers?

My curriculum would have children talking about freedom. What is political freedom? Does the right to vote mean the same thing to people of different social classes? Do I care about voting if I’m hungry? How does a society appropriately balance freedom and responsibility? Is that government best that governs least? Can we balance our desire for a free society with our technological ability to know almost everything about everybody at any moment?

What does it mean to be American? Are we an exceptional people? How did we get to be exceptional? What does it mean to call a work of art or music American? What does what we eat say about us? Why do we cling to being Italian Americans, Irish Americans, German Americans etc.? Is e pluribus unum a noble goal or a reality?

What are our duties to others as citizens of the nation, as fellow ethical human beings? What demands does a society appropriately make on its citizens? Are there alternative motivators to greed? If we could wipe our memories of who we are , our social status and how our society is organized, what kind of society would it be in our self-interest to make? What are a citizen’s responsibilities in a free society?

What are our responsibilities to our environment, to the life that comes after us? What can one person do to manage the threats to our planet? What’s the deal on climate change? Is it a hoax as some maintain? How can one know?
To be sure this is only a partial list. To be sure, it’s hard to demonstrate how the pursuit of any of these questions promotes one’s ability to earn a living. One can certainly get into college without thinking about most of them. Yet, it seems to me undeniable that their inclusion in a good public school curriculum would yield something far more important – a more enlightened, more engaged more cohesive, more democratic society – the goal of the originators of the public school.

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9/11 and Our Escape from Freedom

We will be reminded all day of the tragic events of what has been seared into American memory as 9/11. The focus of most commentary will be on the tragic loss of life. Yet, the lasting effect of that series of events, an effect that that seems to spread malignantly and which threatens the very nature of what it has meant to be American is the metastasizing erosion of our freedom. We will be told that the world has changed, but as I wrote some time ago, “The real change has less to do with world events and technological innovation than with our diminishing capacity to be outraged by the lame justification for the erosion of freedom and decency. There is nothing inevitable about surrendering our freedom and accepting constant surveillance. That is a choice we make. And that hasn’t changed.”

So, on this 9/11, let’s pause and consider the extent to which the terrorist attacks on that day accomplished their purpose way beyond the killing and property damage they caused. We are now almost constantly surveilled, our public places hardened to the point of being unwelcoming, our phone calls and emails are monitored, public library records open to scrutiny, we go almost nowhere without photo-ID. Last night President Obama talked about how Americans are for freedom in the world. I sadly have to disagree. The America I see is increasingly willing to sacrifice its freedom for the illusion of safety. It frightens the hell out of me. 9/11 contributed mightily to this willingness.

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Cuomo Rebuked

I suspect Andrew Cuomo is seething with anger this morning. His opponent Zephyr Teachout got a bit more than a third of the vote in election that the New York Times was calling “…an embarrassing rebuke to Mr. Cuomo, [which] … could put a dent in any national aspirations he may hold.” While the Nassau County results are not yet available, Teachout got 43% of the Suffolk County vote, suggesting that the teacher unions and the opt-out movement activists did a good job of turning their members out. We can only imagine what we might have been able to accomplish if NYSUT and some of the other public employee unions has had the guts to take Cuomo on.

Those of us who supported Teachout/Wu have a decision to make. Do we now support Cuomo, stay out of the governor’s race or support Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins. I intend to ask the executive board of my local union for an endorsement of the Hawkins/Jones ticket. While a life-long Democrat, I have for some time stopped voting for people who call themselves Democrats but whose policies are more closely aligned to those of Ronald Reagan than to Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Take a look at how the Hawkin campaign talks about public education.

Once upon a time, I would have had a Working Families Party candidate to vote for instead of Cuomo. That party, however, has betrayed its name and supported Cuomo. The only place for progressive Democrats to comfortably go in this election is with Hawkins and the Green Party whose positions on education, the economy and the environment sync beautifully the beliefs and values of most of the labor movement.

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A Senseless Error

Why the hell is the president of a national teachers union getting herself involved in a state election in which the state affiliate has taken no position? As preposterous as that sounds, that’s exactly what AFT President Randi Weingarten has done by making a robo-call yesterday on behalf of Kathy Hochul, Andrew Cuomo’s choice for lieutenant governor. In doing so, she has further inflamed many NYSUT members who were already embittered by what they see as their state organization’s cowardly failure to take on a governor whose policies have cheapened and degraded their profession. Did she think that calling on behalf of Hochul wouldn’t be seen as a tacit endorsement of Cuomo? Does she think the membership that stupid? Or did she simply fail to think, her mind clouded by her personal need to maintain her insider credentials among the political elite? Whatever her reason, that call was a whopping, flatfooted, tin-eared mistake. Looking on the bright side, the call will up the turn-out today for the Teachout/Wu ticket.

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Hillary and Cuomo

The endorsement of Andrew Cuomo by Hillary Clinton was not only disheartening but raises significant concerns as to where she stands on education issues. Throughout the Obama presidency, education unionists have suffered buyer’s remorse, wallowing in a state of what might have been if Hillary had won the nomination and become our president.

Beyond question, Hillary was aware that NYSUT had not endorsed Cuomo. It is also fairly certain that she was aware of a strong body of opinion within the NYSUT ranks that thinks NYSUT’s failure to endorse Teachout was a major blunder by a new cadre of leaders who can’t seems to define a new political agenda for our union. Hillary clearly calculated that we would not hold the Cuomo endorsement against her and that she could support and incumbent governor whose political operation is financed by the same investment, banking and real estate interests who have historically supported the Clintons, the same interests who have been bankrollers of the school reform agenda in New York.

We ought to be making it clear to Hillary that our support for her cannot be counted on. She needs to know that we remember Bill Clinton’s efforts at national standards in his Goals 2000 the prominence of standardized testing in his federally supported state based standards program. Perhaps the best way to start to pin her down on education issues is to begin a little flirtation with Elizabeth Warren , although it’s not entirely clear what Warren’s positions on public education are either, she having said some disturbing things on vouchers in the past.

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Exercise and Standards

I remember sitting in elementary school, trying to stretch my legs without drawing attention to myself, being careful not to let my feet protrude into the aisle lest Miss Truelsen came by and stepped on them saying, “Excuse me!” in a tone that made clear that this was no accident. I remember watching the clock, trying to telepathically move the hands to noon so I could get up and run home to lunch, longing more for the activity than the meal my mother was preparing. What torture it was to sit for so many hours. I suspect today’s kids see it pretty much the same. School still straight-jackets kids whose bodies instinctively rebel against restraint.

I was prompted to recall these days by an article in the Times reporting on a study that sought to see the relationship between physical activity and children’s ability to concentrate. What do you know; exercise improved the ability children’s powers of concentration. I could have told you that when I was in third grade. More interestingly, exercise improved the ability of kids diagnosed with ADHA significantly. How sad that schools across the country are cutting back on physical education. It seems that vigorous daily exercise should probably be a central part of sensible education standards. Have you heard any reformers talking about this/

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Time for Regents to Fade Away

Isn’t time for New York to do away with the Regents? Isn’t it time that citizens be able to hold their elected representatives accountable for education policies rather than having the un-elected Regents as a buffer between the citizenry and the people we elect? How different things would be if that were the case. With polls increasingly showing waning public support for New York’s education policies, we could conceivably change them as soon as January first. Instead, led by the imperious Ms. Tisch, the Regents are talking about doubling down on the abject stupidity of tying teacher evaluations to student results on high stakes tests that are increasingly divorced from any sane notions of the age appropriate education of children. It’s time for the Regents to fade into the history of education in our state.

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Career Ready?

In the days when we had what we called comprehensive high schools, there was a real sense in which we turned out students who were career ready. Every day on my way to work I pass a busy auto repair shop owned and operated by a graduate of our schools who spent a significant part of each of his school days in our auto shop program, receiving top-notch training in the care and repair of cars. I occasionally run into another student who when last we met owned three auto body shops, shops that he runs with skills learned in our auto-body program. I once knew kids who learned to be master woodworkers, hand making furniture and learning carpentry skills that they have since used to earn a better living than many of the teachers I represent. All that’s gone now, victim to what are misconstrued as higher standards. It’s a bitter that irony that the more we talk about our schools turning out career ready students, the less we offer anything that prepares students to earn a living right out of high school. I guess that’s why I get a rush of righteous anger every time I hear some dumbbell talks about how we have to prepare career ready students.

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Dems Need to Send a Message

I welcomed our staff back this morning, part of the opening day activities for the new school year. I welcomed them to pick up where we left off in the battle to save public education. I believe this will be a crucial year in that battle, and I believe next Tuesday’s Democratic Primary in New York is a very significant event in that fight. Democrats who want the pathological high stakes testing stopped, who want high academic standards that they have participated in creating and ratifying, who want to be able pass their school budgets with simple majorities – Democrats who simply want their community public schools back need to send a message by voting for Zephyr Teachout, the only progressive Democrat running in the primary.

I’m going to be doing all I can to encourage the registered Democrats in our local to get out and vote for the Teachout/Wu ticket. I am encouraged to see many of my local teacher union presidents doing the same. I strongly suspect that our governor is going to be in for a surprise on primary evening. He will probably win, but with nothing like the margin he once thought he would get to boost his presidential aspirations.

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