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 February, 2015

It’s Testing Season

Today’s post is addressed specifically to readers in my community of Plainview-Old Bethpage. It’s part of our effort to end the scourge of high stakes testing in New York by citizens clearly know where we stand on parents refusing to let their children take the state’s assessments. Here’s where we stand.

The members of the Plainview-Old Bethpage Congress of Teachers have been at the forefront in the battle to end the destructive consequences of high stakes testing in New York State. We have opted our own children out of the state assessments and vigorously defended the rights of all parents to do the same. We were instrumental in ending our district’s “sit and stare” policy, having gotten our board of education to provide students not taking the exams a comfortable alternative school setting. We deeply believe that the growing number of parents refusing to submit their children to testing exploitation is our most powerful weapon in the battle with powerful economic and political forces that are bent destroying public education as we have known it and making huge profits in the process.

We want the parents of our community to know that whether they opt their children out of the state tests or not, we will treat their decision respectfully, seeing to it that their children are comfortable during the examination periods in either the testing or alternative setting.

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Keepers of the Magic

I was reminded last evening of how I used to be asked to talk to our newly hired teachers each year about how to get along with politically savvy parents in our upper middle class school district. I took the new teachers through the demographics of our district, stressing with the growing mistrust of public institutions and the skill of many in our community to negotiate their way through bureaucracies. I tried to get these newbies to understand the need to provide information that they themselves would want as parents. I always ended my remarks however with an injunction to be careful to be keepers of their professional magic.

By that I meant for them to maintain a professional distance, to have confidence that they were in possession of a body of knowledge and art that made them the experts in education and that allowing themselves to be engaged by parents as though the parents’ knowledge of educating children is as good as their own would render them essentially powerless to practice their profession with any degree of satisfaction. Some facets of our magic are not easily explained to lay people. There shouldn’t be any surprise about that. But last evening as I tried to explain the view of teachers on mid-term examinations to our board of education (Our middle school teachers think they are inappropriate and waste a tremendous amount of teaching time.), it was clear once again that their thoughts don’t matter – that these lay people think their judgment superior to our own. Sadly, our central office administrators who should understand the importance of being keepers of the magic clearly lost theirs a long time ago. I was told we need more transparency, one of today’s more politically correct terms. It seems to me that we can become so completely transparent that no one sees us, and magic once revealed and dissected isn’t magic anymore.

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The Tenure Trap

One of Governor Cuomo’s lines of attack against public school teachers and their unions is his call for increasing the teacher probationary period from the current three years to five. New York teachers currently serve a three year probation during which they are closely scrutinized by their supervisors. During this period, they are at will employees requiring only thirty days’ notice should their employer wish to terminate them. Teachers who make it through their probationary period receive professional status or tenure which simply means that they can no longer be summarily fired with only thirty days’ notice but must be found guilty in an independent hearing.

This Cuomo tenure proposal, like much of what our governor has to say about public education, has been designed to deceive and confuse rather than enlighten or improve. The fact is that under the current rules, most school districts make the decision as to whether a teacher is to receive tenure after two years. Most teachers who are hired know the subject matter they are supposed to be able to teach. Where they have difficulty largely centers on what we call classroom management issues. Where these issues exist, they are immediately apparent to supervisors and usually to the teachers who work in adjacent rooms. In good schools, there are resources available to help struggling teachers with these problems. Where there aren’t, most teachers figure the problems out themselves or find that they are asked to leave by the end of two years. So what will a five year probationary period accomplish? Absolutely nothing, except perhaps get a few teachers arbitrarily fired for a lack of due process rights. To a lay public who do not understand tenure, however, Cuomo’s tough tenure talk sounds like a serious idea.

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Cuomo Spurs Teacher Activism

One of the heartening aspects of Governor Cuomo’s war on teachers and public education has been to see the revival of union member activism in this struggle. Sometimes with the direct involvement of our state union, sometimes through local initiatives, our members have held legislative breakfasts, community forums, demonstrations and events of all manner. They have exploited the power of social media as never before, visited and written to their elected representatives and sought to build coalitions around the idea of maintaining local control of public schools. I especially like one that came my way sent by the staff of PS321 in New York City to the parents of their children. In a very controlled, modulated teacher voice it carefully explains to parents what they have to fear from Governor Cuomo’s proposed changes to the system for evaluating teachers in New York State. I’m going to ask our teachers to send one like it to the parents of in Plainview-Old Bethpage, adding opting out of the state tests to the possible actions parents may want to take to foil the Governor’s attack

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It’s Not Union Power That Should Be Feared

Fix our schools or our nation will be unable to compete in the increasingly globalized economy. We see this inevitability in the thousands of job openings that exist for high skilled workers that go begging for the lack of qualified people to take them. That’s the false idea that under-girds the corporate driven school reform movement. My readers are aware of my contempt for this argument, my belief being that if it were true we would see the wages of people in these high skilled areas being bid up which they certainly have not been.

Writing in this morning’s New York Times, Paul Krugman clearly agrees with me. His argument is that even right wing Republicans know that wage stagnation is a volatile political issue, but rather than deal with the kinds of policy changes that are necessary to address this issue that plagues the lives of most Americans, our attention is diverted to believing that if we just fix our schools, get everyone college and career ready, our problems will be resolved. It’s not too many steps from that to declaring war on America’s teachers and their unions as unscrupulous politicians like Andrew Cuomo has done. Completely unwilling to address the growing economic inequality in our state, Cuomo would have us believe that the all-powerful teachers union is the enemy of the state’s children and the economic progress of our community. The issue is power, but it’s the power that Cuomo’s financial supporters have, not the state’s teachers union. Read Krugman’s piece. He has a keen nose for bullshit.

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More on Loyalty

I’ve written before about how in any institution, loyalty has to flow down before it flows up. To a very significant degree the welfare of an institution depends on its leaders understanding that iron law. In places where teamwork is the norm, where from the highest authority to the lowest person on the table of organization people feel a connection to the institution and its welfare, you can be sure leaders operate with and understanding that their success is inextricably linked to the bonds of loyalty that exist between them and their subordinates. Workplaces where there is reciprocal loyalty are not to be mistaken for laissez faire environments where anything goes. Often, they are very tightly run, but workers buy into the system because they have learned that it works in their interest.

I think I first learned about loyalty in the workplace on those occasions when I would visit my father in his office. He was a career federal civil servant who held a very responsible executive position. I remember watching him engage the people who worked for him. Even as a kid, it was clear to me that he could get very scary to a subordinate who hadn’t done what he was directed to do. He demanded the same perfection that he expected of himself. But once a person was accepted as a part of his team, he was there for you. Make an error, and he might scare the hell out of you, but he would defend you to his superiors or to those outside the agency. Have a brush with bad fortune – his people knew that they could call him at any hour for help and advice. I find myself remembering answering our telephone to find a man incoherently, my father’s name the only words I could completely understand. One of his men was blind drunk, but, even in his drunken stupor, he knew that he could count on my father to rescue him. He did do that, leaving our family after a long day at work to find the man and get him to a hospital and treatment. He covered for him at work too while he addressed his alcoholism, all this at a time when people were not as sensitive to the problems of addiction as they are today.

That man became one of my father’s fishing buddies. Some of my fondest memories are the fishing trips my dad took me on, sometimes taking me out of school for a very special trip. Joe was often with us, and I now remember that he would often find a private moment with me to tell me how important my father was to him and how lucky I was to have him as a father.

I’ve been thinking about the bonds of loyalty in the workplace lately. I’m sure it’s because I’ve been called upon more often than ever to represent members before bosses who it seems to me are clueless about how to build those bonds with those whom they have been charged to lead and who, I’m very sorry to say, appear to be obtuse to the need to develop them. More than ever before I find managers who decry the lack of respect my members give them, as though respect automatically comes to one upon assuming a leadership position. I never thought to have to try to teach adults that respect is not a birthright but must be earned and that it is earned in part by letting people know you are there for them. What are we becoming when it feels “old fashioned” to be talking about loyalty?

Our schools are on February break next week. Unless there is an eduquake, I’ll be taking the days off from blogging. See you again on February 23rd.

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Hey, Hillary

When Hillary Clinton speaks at this year’s NEA Convention as I am almost positive she will, I expect to hear he speak about an education agenda in sharp contrast to that of President Obama. I hope our national leaders are telling her that although she gets very substantial financial support from Wall Street Democrats who bankroll the so-called education reform movement, she will have to stake out positions aimed at ending the tyranny of high stakes testing, stopping the public funding of corporate run charter schools, promoting teaching and educating over training, correcting the serious flaws in the Common Core State Standards and addressing in meaningful ways the scourge of child poverty that afflicts so many of our nation’s children, robbing them of any real chance at a decent life. We should not be in a position wherein the inevitability of her nomination permits her to waffle on what are essentially existential issues for teachers and others are employed in public education. If we are to enthusiastically support her candidacy, she must above all else convey a sincere appreciation of the work of our members and the contribution of public schools to the welfare of our country. Public schools and all who work in them need a candidate who offers hope that we can foil the unrelenting attacks on us with the help of a friendly administration in Washington. Absent some pledge to this effect, people in public education will not be the boots on the ground of a successful campaign.

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The Corporate Stooge is Catching It Now From School Superintendents

It’s not every day that a New York superintendent of schools publically refers to our Governor, Andrew Cuomo, as a corporate stooge. But that’s what Fairport Interim Superintendent and former Rochester Superintendent William Cala did. Cala joins a growing number of superintendents of school who have finally had enough of Governor Cuomo education reform plans. Unable to do their budgets without knowing how much income from the state they can expect, and knowing full wee that making changes to the tenure law and teacher evaluation law can only have a negative effect on teachers and the students they teach, the normally timid, authority bound superintendents are starting to get cranky. When superintendents begin to rebel, watch out.

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Rolling Through Your Town

It’s been clear to me from the inception of the test and punish Race to the Top initiative that one of the most effective ways to end the deleterious effects of high stakes testing on even our best school districts was to have massive non-compliance with the state’s testing regime. I’ve been attempting for years to get my union colleagues to embrace the Opt-Out movement, both by making sure that teachers withhold their own children from the tests and encourage the parents of their students to do the same. I have tried to move our state and national unions to full-throated support. This growing movement of parents and educators willing to challenge the authority of the state and federal governments has been the most potent force that has raised the profile of the testing issue to the point where those of us opposed to the misuse of standardized testing are an emerging majority. The ranks of opt-outers will have to grow if we are to defeat the powerful commercial forces and their political allies who are determined to destroy public education as we have known it, substituting a taxpayer subsided private model instead.

In New York we have the New York State Allies for Public Education, a clearinghouse of sorts for the local opt-out groups spawned throughout the state. Not content with their success last year in getting over 60,000 student opt-outs, the Allies know that it is imperative to grow their numbers if they are to continue to influence the course of public education in New York. They have a new idea for a campaign leading up to this year’s testing period – mobile billboard traversing the stress of our communities spreading the opt-out message – helping citizens to understand their right to protect our children from the pernicious effects of a testing school culture. Imagine a billboard on the most populated routes in your community announcing something like, GOVERNOR CUOMO IS DETERMINED TO HAVE YOUR CHILDREN AND THEIR SCHOOLS FAIL. SUPPORT EDUCATION –NOT TESTING. KEEP YOUR KIDS HOME ON TEST DAYS. JOIN THE OPT-OUT MOVEMENT. Think about it. Eight hours a day, every day for a couple of months. Think about the free media it would probably generate. It’s a great idea that costs little to implement if widely organized. Here in Nassau County we have a number of locals taht are already signed up, and I suspect most if not all will be on board in short order. Who knows? I set the goal of doubling the number of opt-outs this year. However, if locals throughout Long Island participate in this campaign, maybe we could triple or quadruple the over 20 thousand opt-outs we had on the Island last year. Good ideas like this one have a way of leading to others too.

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Forums Won’t Be Enough

Plainview-Old Bethpage, Syosset and Jericho held a joint legislative breakfast on Saturday, sponsored by the PTAs, administrative unions and teacher union locals from each district. Congressman Steve Israel, Assemblyman Chuck Lavine, Regent Roger Tilles and a representative from Senator Marcellino’s office were in attendance as was County Legislator Judy Jacobs… There was a good turnout of community residents and education professionals, our representatives mostly said the right things on issues from testing to teacher tenure, but, in the end, I don’t believe forums like this are going to be enough.

Yes, Congressman Israel is sponsoring legislation to cut the number of tests in half. But his bill is not going anywhere in a Republican controlled House, and, even if it did, it does nothing to break the toxic nexus between testing and teacher evaluations. Ironically, the Republican controlled Congress is more likely to return the testing and accountability piece to the states, which if they do still leaves us to do battle with Andrew Cuomo and his hedge fund friends seeking to make a killing on education. Regent Tilles was the most knowledgeable about the evils of the Cuomo plan, but he has been more or less a lone voice on the Regents, most being careful about taking Chancellor Tisch on. There is simply not the sense of urgency yet in our elected leaders to motivate the kind of action we need to end the destructive tyranny of high stakes testing and deliver a political body blow to our governor and would be President of the United States.

The economic elites who are sponsoring the so-called reform movement are essentially immune to public opinion. Our politicians sustained by the contributions of the wealthy are usually unmoved until public anger on an issue is made so clearly manifest that it must be addressed. If we are to defeat Andrew Cuomo’s doubling down on testing and his attack on teacher tenure, there must be more than lobbying and forums. There must be massive non-compliance with the current testing regime. Last year some 60 thousand kids were withheld from the tests. We must at least double that this year. Those who have been trouble by breaking the Albany’s rules, who anguish over the ends justifying the means need to be reminded of Saul Alinsky’s view of this question. Alinsky maintained that those who perseverate in response to required action and who anguish over whether the ends justify the means tend to wind up on their ends without any means.

It’s high time that education professionals stop believing that if we just fashion the right argument justice will prevail. In America and elsewhere justice has often been achieved through civil disobedience. It shouldn’t be too difficult to close down the State Ed department from time to time. We ought to be a presence at every public event the Governor holds, protesting his policies in ways that get us the press attention that amplifies our message and which embarrasses him. We need teachers, principals, board of education members and superintendents of schools to refuse to follow Albany rules that get in the way of providing the education our professional consciences demand. We need to find ways to grind the system to a halt.

I’m not suggesting that conventional political activities are pointless. I do maintain that those efforts are enhanced when through acts of civil disobedience we create a sense of urgency in our elected leaders making them fearful not to act on our behalf.

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Andrew Cuomo’s Party Is Not Mine

The more I think about Governor Cuomo’s war on teachers and their union, the more my thoughts turn towards what has happened to the Democratic Party when its governor of the Empire State decides to take on the state largest labor union. The experience of recent years causes me to worry that he will get much of his program to eviscerate NYSUT and the teachers we represent. I’m finding it hard to imagine an Assembly absent Sheldon Silver as Speaker withstanding the pressure Cuomo is exerting, up to and including promising them no pay increase if they don’t work with him. I hope I’m wrong, but increasingly the Democratic Party does not represent my views or the views or the needs of working people. Today’s Democrats are nowhere near as progressive as the New York Republicans of my youth. Senator Jacob Javitts, one of New York’s senators in my youth, would be seen as a flaming liberal today, so liberal that he would probably have a hard time getting the nomination of the Democratic Party. Nelson Rockefeller, the builder of the State University of New York from a collection of mediocre state colleges to a major state university system, would also be seen as a big spending liberal today.

We need a party in which progressives can organize to put our state and nation back on a footing that once had our country as the envy of the world, a country that cares about its children and does not tolerate a quarter of them living in poverty, sees protecting the environment as an economically sound thing to do, values labor unions as great equalizers of economic and political power, taxes itself equitably to provide the best schools, roads, bridges, transportation network, medical care and other economic and social essentials to a decent society – a party that works to strengthen the bonds that bind us and that values our duties to each other over our rights to self-absorption. Yea, I’ve been thinking Green more and more. If Andrew Cuomo is a Democrat, I’m no longer sure there is room for me in his party.

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How We Got to College and Career Ready

From time to time I’ve talk about my fear that public education is becoming more and more about training for future employment and less about educating young people intellectually richer lives and greater engagement with our society. I hadn’t given much thought to the history of this change in the goal of education until I read Dan Berrett’s piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education. From the founding of our nation, there has been a tension between the liberal arts and more practical studies. Berrett quotes Ben Franklin poking fun at Harvard, the center of liberal education in his day. Students he said “learn little more than how to carry themselves handsomely and enter a room genteely… After their education, they remained “great blockheads as ever, only more proud and self-conceited.” According to Berrett, the shift from liberal education to training for jobs occurred in 1967 when the new Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, taking office amidst the Free Speech Movement on the Berkeley campus of the University of California announced that taxpayers shouldn’t be “subsidizing intellectual curiosity.” From that time to today’s mantra “college and career, there has been a steady erosion of the liberal arts with business now being the subject that college students major in most. If you still believe that education should still be about cultivating intellectual curiosity, read this brief history and let it motivate you fight the monetizing education.

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Freedom or Selfishness

An outbreak of measles in Disney Land in California and now spreading across the country reminds us of the substantial pockets of ignorance that exist in our nation, ignorance that militates against the welfare of us all. Here it is 2015 and there are would be candidates for the presidency of the United States who do not believe in evolution, who think human impact on climate change is a hoax, who think the earth is some six thousand years old and many who for various reasons refuse to have their children vaccinated against diseases that we have the ability to prevent.

I like to believe that I value freedom of thought and belief as much as anyone, but the freedom I cherish can only be fully enjoyed when it does not come at the expense of my fellow citizen. A belief that climate change is a hoax in and of itself poses no danger to anyone but when it motivates opposition to measures to halt its progression, it endangers literally the entire human race. An ignorantly held belief that vaccination causes autism or other maladies not only jeopardizes one’s own children and abridges their right to be as free from disease as possible but also threatens children too young to be inoculated and those who as a result of various medical conditions have compromised immune systems.

It seems to me sometimes that those who claim freedom from knowledge confuse freedom with selfishness. I’m thinking this morning about the inability of many of us to reconcile our political and religious beliefs with science watching presidential contender Chris Christie try to finesse his position on vaccination so as not to alienate those within his party who see required vaccinations as big government intrusion.

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Paid Maternity Leave

Hardly a week goes by that a woman member of our union (roughly 75 percent of the membership is female) doesn’t call to ask me questions about her contractual and legal rights for maternity or childcare leave. These days, the mother to be is often the higher earning parent and always the one with the better health insurance and other welfare benefits. All too frequently these conversations are deeply upsetting for the member, particularly when she learns that she will not be able to remain on payroll for as long as she wished and that leaving the payroll obligates her to pick up the cost of all of her benefits after 12 weeks. The coup de gras is learning that time off the payroll stops the accrual of seniority, increasing the possibility of layoff at some point in her career. In a recent questionnaire our union put out seeking the members’ thoughts on the upcoming contractual negotiations, a very high number indicated their wish for paid maternity leave.

Our members are not the only ones thinking about this subject. The United States is way behind most of the other industrial democracies in providing the wherewithal for mothers (or fathers) to stay home with their newborns. New mothers in France, for example, receive 16 weeks at full pay for the first child (26 weeks for the third child). In the U.K. the maternity benefit is 6 weeks at average weekly earnings before taxes and 138 pounds per week for the next 38 weeks. European countries recognize what we Americans fail to – that there is a social benefit to seeing to it that children are properly cared for and parents are spared what is often the agony of being torn between the need for income and one’s sense of responsibility to give one’s children a good start in life.

Talk about such benefits in the United States, and you are met with the unexamined belief that such policies are ruinous for both business and government. A piece in the New York Times this morning suggests otherwise, however. Studies have shown that paid maternity leave is enormously beneficial to women, making them more likely to return to their jobs and leading to increased earning over the course of their careers. The long range costs to business appear to be neutral, workplace turnover being a significant expense.

Passage of the Family and Medical Leave ACT was a big step forward for the United States. Many have benefited from the 12 weeks of unpaid leave with paid benefits. It’s not enough, however. If we are serious about the welfare of children and committed to equal economic rights for women, we must take the next step and provide paid maternity leave. President Obama has moved the nation forward by ordering that federal workers be given up to 6 weeks of paid maternity leave. More importantly, his State of the Union speech combined with his action on behalf of federal workers has thrust the issue before us for what will hopefully be a national discussion in the upcoming presidential election cycle. The time has come for action.

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