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 December, 2014

The Governor’s Christmas Present to Teachers

Just when I thought it was impossible to think less of Governor Cuomo than I currently do, he expands my capacity for contempt. Seething with anger for the unions that failed to support him, he’s having a tantrum appropriate to his ego. First he lashed out at the Public Employees Federation (PEF) by sending letters to 1000 of their members announcing his intention to attempt to reclassify their jobs as management and therefore ineligible for union membership. Yesterday in was NYSUT’s turn, our state teachers union having taken no position in the race for governor, a position that I publically criticized in that I just knew he would come after us anyway.

Cuomo had his Director of State Operations write to Chancellor Tisch and Commissioner King, raising a number of questions on issues that he well knew would incite NYSUT members and their elected leaders. The letter ask Tisch and King how they would change the APPR process, assuming since only about 1 percent of teachers were found to be ineffective that change is required. How would the Chancellor and Commissioner make it easier to fire ineffective teachers? Should the teacher probationary be extended, and how financial incentives could be used to improve the teacher corps (merit pay). In all, 12 questions are posed, all carefully crafted to threaten NYSUT and its members.

While observing that the Governor has little direct influence on education issues, the letter makes clear that the budget process will be the vehicle that he will use to try to extract his revenge, all in the name of speaking for the children of the state. No one should be surprised by Cuomo’s move. His attack is his usual response to criticism of him. It is also the response expected of him by his Wall Street backers who have been financing the movement to privatize public education and convert it into a business profit center.

If NYSUT is serious about rededicating themselves to organizing, Cuomo has given them the perfect document to organize around. The Governor has openly declared himself to be our enemy. We need to respond accordingly.

I’m taking a break over the Holidays. I’ll resume blogging on January 5th. I wish all of you joyous Holidays and a very Happy New Year! See you again on the 5th.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Subsidizing the Wealthy

During his recent campaign for re-election, Governor Cuomo’s advertising featured the tax incentives to various businesses his administration had given to lure them to our state. I became aware of the aggressive tax abatement program of his administration in an unusual way. I was in Detroit a few years ago attending an AFT convention. At that time, Detroit was on the brink of bankruptcy. In almost every direction, the city was consumed by decay. Yet, on the local TV station were commercials by Governor Cuomo and New York State seeking to lure what business was left in Detroit to New York. Seeing them in a city economically on its knees enraged me. Detroit needed help not have what little economic strength it had left sucked out of it by another state’s offer of a tax-free ride.

I’ve always suspected that a state’s taxpayers end up losing when they offer businesses from elsewhere tax incentives to relocate. A piece I read the other day by the Center for Media and Democracy confirmed all of my suspicions. Huge state and local government subsidies are given to the wealthiest companies that often bring mostly low wage jobs. These tax breaks further enrich people in the top income brackets while increasing the income gap between them and the bottom. Why have state and local governments in this country given $161 million to Walmart, a known exploiter of its workforce? In so doing, we have helped the Walton family, already worth billions each, become even richer. An even bigger question that demands a serious national debate is how is America benefited by having states compete to offer the biggest tax subsidy?

Across this nation, schools are starved for resources, bridges are falling down, water systems are failing, much of our infrastructure dangerously in need of repair, and yet billions in tax subsidies are given to extremely profitable companies that often don’t pay wages high enough to keep their workers from engaging government assistance programs. And we wonder what Americans increasingly think that our system is rigged against them.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

On the Senseless Death of Pakistani Children

Over one hundred Pakistani students killed for no reason other than they were being educated; Nigerian girls taken captive from school and apparently traded as war booty; Turkish kids assigned to public religious schools against their parents’ wills; American kids taught that the that the earth is some five thousand years old. It sometimes seems to me that these happenings are best understood as points on a broadening universal spectrum of ignorance the world is unable to find the wherewithal to extinguish.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Teacher Pay

Most teachers are paid on a salary schedules that remunerate them for time on the job and college degrees and courses taken. On some schedules, it can take 30 to 35 years to get to the maximum pay obtainable, each year on the schedule bringing an increase or increment as it is called. These so-called single salary schedules evolved over the history of public education from its beginning when teachers essentially received room and board in exchange for their services to schedules that gradually reflected the increasing educational requirements of the profession. There was a phase when elementary teachers were paid less than secondary teachers, women less than men and minorities least of all. In many ways, the changes in teacher remuneration parallel the changes in our society from one that was once largely agrarian to the current industrial model. Many of the current ed-reformers argue the need for a post-industrial method of paying teachers. Maybe, but most tend to propose ideas that would have most teachers making less.

Little noted in the debate over teacher pay is the fact that the single salary schedule yields the peculiar situation in which two people doing exactly the same work receive widely disparate remuneration. In my own district, $65 thousand dollars separate the beginning teacher with a BA degree from the teacher with 15 years of experience and a MA plus 60 graduate school credits. Now I do believe in the value of experience and education, but surely it doesn’t take a teacher 15 to 30 years to reach the top of her game. Yet, many teachers reading this criticism of the increment system will strongly disagree with me. If we listen carefully to their criticism, what they are often saying is, “I came up through this system. Why should it be different for beginning teachers?” To them, it’s as though God decreed an immutable single salary schedule and to tamper with it is to violate the order of the universe. Yet, wedded to it though they are, the increment system has perpetuated a growing inequity of two people receiving hugely differ salaries for the same work.

But even more galling than teachers’ blind faith in the increment system is management’s current attack on it. Not content to stretch out the payment of salary to journeyman teachers to in some cases 35 years, almost all of the salary settlements in my area of New York State have been financed by stealing money from the teacher who make the least and giving it to those who make the most. This has taken many forms, all of an ethical piece. Delaying the payment of increments into the school year and freezing increments have become all too common. For several years now, I’ve attempted to move teacher union leaders on Long Island to see this attack on the increment system as one that must be resisted, sadly to no avail. At a recent meeting of local leaders, several presidents appeared to be of the view that the next generation of teachers will simply not have it as good as we did, a sentiment that was later ironically added to with, “The Young members don’t care. It’s impossible to get them to do anything.” There’s a view to build a strong union movement on.

I recognize the facts that state aid has yet to return to 2008 levels and that New York’s property tax cap is in the process of doing to our state what Prop 13 did to California. But the failure of our unions to counter the attack on the increment system is sparking a generational conflict in our memberships that will ultimately render us less capable to combat all attacks.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

No Time, No Time

One of the hardest ideas to introduce into any discussion of education reform in the United States is the notion that our teachers contrary to the stereotype work too much, often under the most trying conditions. Offer that idea in any discussion with non-educators and one is immediately met with vacation envy and looks of disbelief. Yet, while some international education comparisons are invidious, common sense tells us that the fact that teachers in the higher performing systems in the world often spend less than half the time in front of their students that American teachers do probably has something to do with their success.

Valerie Strauss offers a guest column this morning to Ellie Herman, a person who came to teach in the Los Angeles schools after a successful career in the entertainment industry. Herman recounts how while she loved teaching, the conditions under which she was expected to do it burned her out in a very few years. Her thoughts on how that happened to her are much more important to consider that most of the pseudo- intellectual, educationist horseshit that passes for serious discussion today. Add to her remarks the obvious fact that she was financially able to leave her teaching job, frankly admitting her burned-out status while most with similar feelings are not, and one begins to wonder how many others like her are ground into intellectual numbness by the achievable demands which they are then demeaned for not achieving..

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

John King’s Departure

I wish I could share the joy New York’s education world feels this morning at the news that Commissioner of Education John King will be gone by the New Year. While I’m glad to be freed from listening to his squeaky, whiney justifications for the unjustifiable, and while the state has had more than enough of his almost fatal combination of ignorance compounded by arrogance, his leaving to become a senior advisor to the U.S. Secretary of Education is an outrage, albeit he will fit in well with a department that has become the handmaiden of the increasingly discredited corporate sponsored education reform movement.

I could share the joy many take in his departure if I believed that he will be replaced by someone who would work to free us from the tyranny of the testocracy, someone who understands education as a social process that’s about much more than making children college and career ready, someone who gets the difference between education and training. I don’t believe it possible to get such a new commissioner so long as Regent Tisch is the chancellor. It was she who brought the completely unqualified King to New York and elevated him from running a charter school in Massachusetts to leading our state’s public schools. I’ve seen nothing in the intervening years to suggest that Tisch’s judgment has improved. Her recent pimping of charter schools is but the latest example of her contempt for the system she is charges with overseeing.

So, to my friends in the movement to save public education in our state, enjoy King’s departure if you will, but don’t take his leaving as a victory. The battle to reclaim our public schools is nowhere near over. John King was just a pawn of powerful forces who seek to discredit our schools in order to privatize them and ultimately profit from them.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

San Francisco’s Homerun

I saw yesterday where my friends in the United Educators of San Francisco (UESF) scored an outstanding new contract for the times. With salary schedule increases of 12 percent over 3 years and improvements in prep time and other working conditions, their deal is some of the best news we have had in public sector collective bargaining in a long time.

For months prior to their settlement, UESF President Dennis Kelly and his leadership team focused the public’s attention on an inarguable fact. The salaries of USEF members don’t allow them to live in the city of San Francisco, one of the most expensive real estate markets in the United States. In raising the issue of their members’ inability to find affordable housing, their message had appeal to the broader middle class whose stagnating wages are squeezing them out of the housing market as well.

There are many places in this country where teachers don’t earn enough to live in the communities in which they teach. We once had many more of our members living in my upper middle class suburban town than we have today. While it might be hard to document, there are to my mind enormous benefits in the social interactions that take place between children and their teachers outside of school. I can’t tell you how many times my showing up in places in Plainview-Old Bethpage where kids hang out immediately changed their behavior keeping them in better control. How many of my lawn boy’s school problems was I able to address when he came each week to cut the grass. To this day, I run into former students who still live and work in town. The warm greetings I get when I meet them is a reminder of a life well spent working with them.

I gather from some of the Facebook comments of some UESF members that 12 percent over three years is a disappointment to them. I smiled when I read their blustering comments demanding 21 percent. I never negotiated a contract when I wasn’t met with such remarks. After every negotiations, there is a little disappointment in all at not getting everything we wanted. But my sense of what’s possible in public sector negotiations these days tells me that this is a homerun of a deal that deserves serious celebration.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

What Are Our Unions For?

I wrote yesterday of my growing frustration with an education labor movement that’s not moving. The National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers and here in New York the New York State United Teachers all profess a deep commitment to organizing both their members and community coalitions but at best are of certain what big idea to organize around. One searches in vain through their communications for themes that incite members or anyone else to action, for the hope and promise of some power to control their work-lives.

This morning, I came across this piece which that explores the same problem from a slightly different perspective. P.L. Thomas asks why our teacher unions and professional organizations appear more willing to accommodate the education reform movement than to take it on. That’s a question some of my union colleagues and I have been asking for some time.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Organizing What?

Once A week or so, I browse the webpages of New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA). Each of these organizations I belong to claims to have rededicated itself to organizing in an effort to regain the initiative in the battle to protect its members and public education from the assault taking place in the name of reform. At almost every meeting of these organizations that I attend, the talk is about organizing, although, as I’m fond of pointing out, the talk almost never specifies exactly what we are to organize around. One would think that if we had a coherent organizing strategy, it would be discernible from their webpages.

On the NYSUT webpage this morning are pieces about newly Board Certified teachers, a buy America campaign, disaster relief work the organization is doing and why tenure matters. The AFT page features discussions of career and technical education, bullying prevention and expressions of teacher anger at the Time cover that evoked the impression that America’s classrooms are filled with rotten apple teachers. NEA is featuring holiday lessons and resources and a discussion of the sorry state of physical education. Some of these articles are even interesting, but none is directed at any big idea that any of these union are organizing around.

It seems to me sometimes that our education unions have forgotten that unions are about empowering their members, about striving to equalize the power relationships in the workplace. They’re about leading members in efforts to increase their power in the workplace. They’re about building their members’ political power, recognizing that gains at the collective bargaining table are easily wiped out by changes in the law. They’re about setting out lofty goals and organizing the collective action to attain them. One searches in vain for anything like that on the webpage of our education unions.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Why Are King and Regents Welcome?

I grow progressively annoyed following the Regents and Commissioner King on Twitter as they tour schools throughout the state tweeting out the wonders they see as they observe the implementation of the Common Core Standards. With public education in our state in the saddest condition in my memory, with an Albany bureaucracy totally unresponsive to educators and parents, with Chancellor Tisch singing the praises of charter schools as a prelude to lifting the cap on their number, with state aid yet to return to pre-financial crisis levels, why are public schools welcoming to these pretenders? Why aren’t there organized protests wherever they go? Why don’t we find ways to manifest our contempt for their management of New York’s public schools? To welcome them is to pretend that all is well and to make us accomplices to the havoc they have wrought.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Kids Evaluating Teachers?

News this week that New York’s education commissioner and maybe our governor are pushing for student questionnaires as part of the annual professional performance review procedures for teachers throughout the state. Cuomo has promised to revisit teacher evaluation in the coming year. Having created the current farcical evaluation process with the assistance of our state union, our brain trust in Albany appears determined to make the system even more nonsensical by placing teacher evaluation points in the hands of students and having their teachers ingratiate themselves to receive them. Adding such a measure to the mathematical stupidity of tying student performance on standardized tests to the evaluation will surely raise the bar for teacher performance and cause teachers to improve their instruction significantly. It can’t help but close the achievement gap and make more kids college and career ready. One has to suspect that Chancellor Tisch is on board with this latest foolishness, otherwise Commissioner King would never have mentioned it to the press.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

In Memoriam

On Monday night I learned of the death of the first superintendent I worked for in Plainview-Old Bethpage, Robert Savitt. I don’t often write anything approaching an obituary, especially for managers I have worked with over my long career. Yet, something about Dr. Savitt seems important to be commented upon in these dark days for public education.

I met Dr. Savitt for the first time when he interviewed me for a high school teaching job. I was told the interview was essentially pro forma in that both the head of personnel and the high school principal wanted me. That turned out to be poor preparation for the interview that ensued. After an exchange of greetings, Savitt, my application in hand, asked me about my recent Peace Corps. The more I talked about it, the more questions he had to the point that I almost forgot that I was there to interview for a job as I gradually drifted into an interesting conversation with a very interesting person I somehow happened to meet. Who expected to enjoy oneself at a job interview?

“Is there such a thing as African literature?” By this time I was already one hour into my pro forma interview. Before it was over, we agreed that I would work up an outline for an African literature senior elective, prepare a book order and get ready to teach the course that spring – all in a school I had not taught a day in as yet.

That’s the Dr. Savitt I remember – always looking for something new and interesting – something to build his stature to be sure. Teachers and administrators from other school districts were always visiting us to see what we were doing. I remember too the battles we fought against him. He never really happily accepted the existence of our union. There was a strike shortly before I came and one almost immediately thereafter, and he galled us by writing articles and giving speeches on how to tame the newly emergent teacher unions like ours. Paul Rubin, our president at the time, would purposely malaprop his name to Dr. Savage, and yet I could tell they had a grudging respect for one another.

Those who know me know that I’m not one for nostalgia. The contrast, however, to the school district Savitt presided over and today is depressingly stark. To be sure outside forces have contributed to its objective deterioration, but surely we all bear considerable responsibility. Where then we had a moratorium on standardized testing, literally an incitement to creativity, a celebration of differences between schools on the same level, an abhorrence of canned programs and, above all else, an appreciation of what it means to be educated, today we teach to tests that have become the curriculum at a pace dictated by a chart, using programs that almost don’t require the intellectual presence of the teacher to implement. We are data driven to the point of distraction from what we should be doing, helping children to become knowledgeable, ethical citizens of a democratic society. Robert Savitt understood that and conducted himself accordingly. Teachers and students were better for it.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

W.E.B. Du Bois and Education

I was driving home last night after attending a mind-numbing meeting of our board of education, listening to public radio to stay awake. I had tuned in to a show already in progress, an interview with a Yale professor talking about W.E.B. Du Bois. Having minutes before come from a meeting that left me despairing about the future of public education, I found the speaker, whose name I never caught, talking about W.E.B. du Bois and his thoughts on the need to educate African Americans only one generation removed from slavery. She read a quotation on education that so starkly contrasted with the educationist blather bandied about at the meeting I had just intended. I woke up this morning thinking about it, motivated by my recollection of it to try to locate it. If this wasn’t it, the thought is the same. In a society that is increasingly confused about what it means to be educated, it’s good to remind ourselves that people once knew better. Remember, he’s writing this in 1903; his prose is of the 19th century, and women have only recently begun to assert their rights. The language may be dated, but surely not the thought.

…Now the training of men is a difficult and intricate task. Its technique is a matter for educational experts, but its object is for the vision of seers. If we make money the object of man-training, we shall develop money-makers but not necessarily men; if we make technical skill the object of education, we may possess artisans but not, in nature, men. Men we shall have only as we make manhood the object of the work of the schools—intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of men to it—this is the curriculum of that Higher Education which must underlie true life. On this foundation we may build bread winning, skill of hand and quickness of brain, with never a fear lest the child and man mistake the means of living for the object of life…

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

The Super Rich and Public Policy

My readers are more than familiar with my horror at the undue influence of what we used to refer to as the filthy rich on public education. Even if one believes that the contributions of people like Bill Gates are altruistically motivated (and I don’t), the fact of the matter is that because of their money they have an undue influence on public institutions like education, institutions that should be democratically responsive to the public on the basis of one person one vote. With regard to their pernicious influence on public education, a recent piece by Bob Herbert methodically lays out the disruptive influence of Gates and others.

This morning’s New York Times has an op-ed by David Callahan on the influence of the super-rich on the public spaces of New York City, specifically focusing on media mogul Barry Diller’s plan to build a park on the Hudson River just above the High Line. Callahan notes the rich have contributed mightily to public parks in the neighborhoods they inhabit while many of the city’s parks in less fashionable neighborhoods have fallen into disrepair. Startlingly, Callahan observes that Mayor de Blasio proposes to spend 130 million dollars, the amount Diller and his wife are contributing to the Hudson River park, to upgrade 35 of the city’s neediest public parks.

Whether we are talking about schools, parks or whatever public institution, why does a supposedly democratic society continue to allow an obscenely wealthy elite to dominate public policy decisions that should be publically decided? Why with the rare exception of Elizabeth warren and Bernie Sanders are so few of our politicians addressing issues that are tightly tied to the growing inequality of income and wealth in our country?

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments