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 March, 2015

Bargain With The Devil

Details in the Albany press this morning reveal a budget deal even worse than it originally appeared. Governor Cuomo sought to have the results of state assessments count fifty percent toward a teacher’s yearly evaluation. What the deal provides is that for some teachers the state tests will count one hundred percent.

Governor Cuomo’s office is saying that the deal establishes teacher evaluation criteria such that if student scores show a teacher to be “ineffective,” that teacher cannot be rated effective even if her observation results say she is highly effective. To my mind that’s one hundred percent of a teacher’s evaluation, and an unmitigated outrage. In the short time that we have had a system tying student score to teacher evaluations, I have seen some of our very best teachers get student test results that would have rated them ineffective or developing but for their outstanding performance as measured by observation and supervision. Although there is ample scientific evidence that the state assessments are unreliable indicators of teacher performance, with a high degree of likelihood that today’s highly effective teacher is next year’s ineffective one, the elected leaders of our state have apparently decided that science be damned, settling political scores with our state union is more important the professional lives of hard working teachers and their students.

If the deal as we understand it today is what is put into effect in November, teachers will be consumed by the need to have their students score high enough to get them rated effective. We will have taken a giant step towards the extinction of what we have known as teaching and education. What will remain for teachers to do will be to monitor student participation in digitized media test prep, which through engaging graphics and other facets of computer gaming will convince the ignorant that something called twenty-first century education has come at last. Those who are able to see through that digitized illusion will almost be like the book-people in Fahrenheit 451, keeping learning and education alive until such time as there is a period of enlightenment when the keepers of knowledge and learning are again respected and allowed to share their gifts with the young.

This bargain with the devil will apparently be voted on by the Legislature today. We need to study the vote and start the very next day to oppose those cowardly cretins who supported it. The Long Island delegation likes to think of itself as made up of strong supporters of public education. Those who vote for this deal have given up any right to that title.

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Legislators Flail About Looking for Political Solution

The teacher evaluation plan in place in Plainview-Old Bethpage took us about a year and a half to negotiate. While I would be the first to say that the time could have been much better spent, there is one sense in which our APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review) has been an improvement over the way evaluations were done prior to its advent, although that improvement has nothing to do with the student test score part of the plan.

The introduction of a rubric to guide the observation process has taken what had tended to be amorphous written observations, often simply an endless series of clichés, and introduced more concrete language about discernible aspects of a teacher’s performance. The observations that I get to read these days are much better focused and anchored specific references rather the generalized blather I used to read. Today I usually know immediately what the observer was talking about, something that heretofore was often difficult to know. There is now at least the potential that the process provided teachers with feedback that challenges them to think about what they are doing.

It’s ironic then that one of the few real gains from all the effort that went into negotiating these APPR plans is being challenged by Governor Cuomo who wants to put increased emphasis on student test results. As I write this, yet a new proposal is circulating in the legislature that would have the Regents come up with changes to the teacher evaluation process. To me, that’s one of the scariest ideas yet.

No one in authority is talking about any plan that will have any significant effect. If we were serious about teacher evaluation instead, of looking for excuses to not have to deal with the staggering number of New York’s children who live in impoverished families, we would be looking to an approach that had practicing teachers deeply involved in the process. We would look to organize schools in ways that would make teachers the most important people in the building, empowered to make professional decisions like who gets tenure. Can anyone imagine Merryl Tisch suggesting that to the Regents? It’s seriously disheartening to watch our elected officials flailing about in search of a political solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist.

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Tenure Envy

Tenure envy is at the heart over the ongoing debate about the due process rights of teachers. With the number of union workplaces in a steep decline for decades, the concept of not being subject to the whim of one’s employer is essentially foreign to a generation of American workers. They are therefore envious of one of the remaining groups to have protection from arbitrary dismissal. Disreputable politicians like Governor Cuomo play to this envy for cheap political gain.

Envy is a funny emotion. It can motivate people to seek to acquire the object of their desire, or it can curiously move people to seek satisfaction by trying to see to it that no one has it. The latter seems to explain the public view of tenure.

If we asked people who want tenure abolished if they believe that employers should be able to arbitrarily fire any of their employees, I strongly suspect most would say no. Most people have a native sense of fairness and know that it is all-together common for people to be fired for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of their work. Their vulnerability to the whim of their employers causes them to see it as unfair that other are protected against such arbitrariness. If they are unprotected, why should anyone else be? There must be something wrong. These teachers must have rigged the system in some way to provide them with what most others lack.

In a more unionized country, people would be more familiar with the due process rights in many labor contracts. More people would understand that all workers should be protected from arbitrary dismissal, that wrongly firing people can have a profound impact on their lives and the lives of their families. Taking away a person’s job should be based on evidence that is evaluated by an independent party. That’s all tenure is. It’s not a guarantee of lifetime employment. It’s simply a mechanism to make sure that people don’t lose their employment without good reason. In the end it is a mechanism to provide justice, something that all workers should be afforded.

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Hillary’s Dilemma

Back in February, I wrote about what educators would want to hear from Hillary Clinton about public education once she announces her candidacy for the presidency. Heavily dependent for political contributions on the Wall Street crowd that is funding much of the so-called education reform movement, I said then that both the NEA and AFT ought to start making it clear to her that “…she will have to stake out positions aimed at ending the tyranny of high stakes testing, stopping the public funding of corporately run charter schools, promoting teaching and education 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 the nation’s children, robbing them of a chance at a decent life.”

I was pleased, therefore, to see the New York Times take the issue up today in a front page article. Hillary has a real dilemma. If she is not strong in support of public education and the people who work in our schools, union leaders like me will have serious difficulty marshaling our members to provide the boots on the ground support she is going to need. If she solidly supports public schools and teachers, she runs the very real risk of abandonment by her bankrollers, especially if Jeb Bush is the nominee of the Republicans. Bush has been a leader of the corporate attack on public education.

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I Had Few Tests and Little Homework

I had little to no homework when I went to elementary school but managed to become a reasonably literate person able to earn a decent living at work that I thoroughly enjoyed. Before my parents forced me to attend religious instruction after school, I was free to spend from 3:00 to 6:00 P.M. each day playing with friends, either in the neighborhood school yards or in a wonderful after school center in my elementary school supervised by Mr. Kraft, a fifth grade teacher at our school who kept us all in line without almost never having to even raise his voice. Our respect for him was all that was necessary to keep our mischievous natures in check.

Evenings were spent over family dinners that began each evening with listening to the 6 o’clock news on the radio. After the news, family talk occupied 45 minutes or so of leisurely eating. With television, after dinner we all moved to the living room where the one TV set was installed which we watched together, engaging in conversation all the while.

School was seen by my parents as my job to be conducted largely during school hours. Today’s elementary students do more homework than I had in high school. They spend their afternoons at lessons of one kind or another and endure enough homework that it’s a wonder how any of them come to enjoy learning, their days being so over-loaded with academic tasks. Ironically, they are pushed by their parents into a rat race to build resumes to qualify for some elite college, a frenetic piling up of organized activities that supersedes the cultivation of the interests that make a college education worthwhile.

Somehow, my teachers used our school hours together to teach me to read efficiently, to do basic mathematics, some history and science, music, arts and crafts, phys ed and an appreciation of citizenship, even teaching us Roberts Rules of Order and arranging meetings for us to participate in that required them. For a few pennies a day, from second or third grade on, we bought the New York Times or Herald Tribune, and received lesson in how to read them, even on the subway. We discussed articles from those papers every day. When President Eisenhower was inaugurated, school work stopped as we listened to his first speech as president. While there were little quizzes from time to time, I recall no instance of being drilled for any test. There were standardized tests from time to time, but I never had the sense that they were determinative of anything important to me. I don’t recall a single kid being upset by them. We never knew when they were coming, never knew what was done with the results. No big deal. Looking back, it seems to me that much of my early school experiences were designed to help us explore our world and our place in it.

Somehow without being burdened by school, without everything being organized around some examination, I managed to get educated and to acquire the skills to enter and succeed in college, going on to a tour in the Peace Corps in Ghana, a career in education with a parallel one in public sector union work. I believe I received an education far superior to the one the children in our school district are getting. Somehow, with little researched based knowledge of child development, my teachers fashioned an infinitely more appropriate learning environment than our teacher’s today are able to provide, my colleagues increasingly being forced to do things they deem inappropriate and in many cases detrimental to the children in their charge. Tests and homework were not confused with rigor, and learning was respected for its own sake and not an economic instrument.

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Time to Increase the Pressure

Imagine if all of the school boards that have joined the battle against Governor Cuomo’s proposed doubling down on high stakes testing publically announced that they pledge not to implement the law if it should pass and that they will join with their teachers and cease administering the state examinations until such time as exams are created that can be used to help teachers teach. Imagine such an assertion of local control. Imagine it coupled with a pledge by NYSUT to recruit candidates for the legislature to oppose those who support the governor, whether it is in primaries or by supporting candidates who are neither Republican nor Democrats. The polls show growing support for the anti- testing movement. We need to exert even strong pressure on the pro-testing legislators.

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A Union Man’s Reason For Opting -Out

Union Brother Tom McMahon is a local union president who has elementary age children. He has movingly written publicly about the reasons he and his wife have chosen to opt their children out of the state assessments. One would have to be completely tone deaf not to appreciate the sincerity of his thoughts. Listen to the passionate voice of a teacher and father talking about the effects of high stakes testing on his two children with very different needs.

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On Asses and Seats

There’s an old Yiddish saying that translates as, “Your ass can’t sit in two places at the same time.” It is sometimes uttered in its literal meaning, and sometimes metaphorically to highlight the holding of two mutually exclusive ideas. It’s in its latter sense that it comes to mind this morning to highlight the administration of my school district and many others who some days wish to be seen as militants in the anti-testing struggle but at other times act to perpetuate the illusion that the malignant testing mandates are not drowning out serious education.

From the superintendent of schools to the lowly elementary teachers, there isn’t anyone who doesn’t know that high stakes tests are increasingly driving instruction. There also isn’t anyone without a concern for the test results. Teachers’ jobs depend on them to in part, and the superintendent and other administrators know that a poor district performance on the state assessments is difficult to explain, ironically even to those oppose to the testing regime. Teachers have been given books and materials meant to exercise kids in the kinds of questions they can expect in April. Yet, curiously and completely hypocritically, faced with growing opposition to the tests, the administration of my district ordered teachers not to send test prep material home, apparently not wanting parents to see what their children are doing in the name of education. The implication to teachers is to use the test prep material in school where parents won’t be able to observe just how much instructional time is dedicated to the tests. Everyone has an interest in good test results, objectively meaningless though they may be.

It’s the same with the district’s response to the opt-out movement. The administration knows that the growing numbers of parents who refuse to allow their children to be subjected to the state assessments is the most potent weapon that we have to end the misuse of testing. They even agreed with us last year to make opting-out a less stressful experience for children, working with us to create alternate settings for these kids so that they would not have to sit and stare as other children took the examinations. Yet, with testing season rapidly approaching, they have done nothing to apprize parents of the process for opting their children out, clearly seeking to avoid growing numbers, but, in so doing, aiding and abetting the continuation of the very testing regime they claim to abhor.

So here’s a gentle reminder Plainview-Old Bethpage administration and other like it. Your asses can’t sit in two places at the same time. If you don’t want test prep, let’s sit down and work out a plan to end our participation in the tests. Furthermore, let’s also see if we can’t agree on the developmentally inappropriate aspects of the Common Core State Standards and promulgate Plainview-Old Bethpage standards that are aligned with reasonable expectations for children and flexible enough to service the academic needs of all. Let’s all have the courage to sit with those who care about children and cease our participation with those who have no interest in public education or the children it serves but are motivated by abject avarice. That’s the comfortable place to sit.

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Time Is On Our Side

It may not be a popular view, but I’m beginning to hope that there is no budget deal by April 1. If there is one, I suspect the legislature will have significantly caved to the education demands of our megalomaniacal governor. Time appears to be on the side of those opposed to Cuomo’s plans. A recent Quinnipiac University poll shows strong support for the opposition of New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) to the Governor’s plan to tie teacher evaluations even further to the high stakes test scores of their students. Overwhelmingly, the public recognizes that this is a very bad idea, so bad that it is a big factor in substantially reducing Angry Andy’s favorability numbers. Cuomo has dug himself an education policy hole that the Assembly and Senate have to slowly fill in on his head. A late budget would also allow for this year’s opt-out numbers to amplify what polls have been showing, waning support for the test an punish approach to the improvement of public education in New York. Those numbers are bound to be much higher than the 60,000 children whose parents withheld them from the state assessments last year. Let the budget process grind to a crawl, as we watch Governor Arrogance try to slither away from the tough positions he staked out.

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A Tenure Deal?

I’m fearful that a deal will be made around Governor Cuomo’s teacher evaluation proposals that will center on extending the probationary period for tenure and in ways still not clear make it easier for management to terminate teachers adjudged ineffective. I saw yesterday where New York’s Council of School Superintendents weighed in on the issue supporting the concept of a five year probationary period for teachers. While they oppose Cuomo’s proposed requirement of five consecutive effective APPR ratings to be awarded tenure, they fully support the five year extension which would give them the power with thirty days’ notice to be rid of essentially any probationary teacher they want for almost any reason. Districts that are currently well managed usually know after two years whether or not a probationer fits in. What will people know after five years that they don’t know after three? Experienced teachers usually know if newcomers will make it after a few months. Or is it not a matter of knowing anything more but simply having unabridged power to command and control that motivates the superintendents’ support? Forcing people to invest four or five years before they know they have achieved professional status with the due process rights that come with that status is simply unfair. New York had a five year probationary period in the early 70s. It was wisely repealed, however. Bad ideas just never seem to die in the world of public education.

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Chancellor Tisch Tries to Buck Up Superintendents

Chancellor Tisch made the following remarks about opting out at the March 9 meeting of New York’s superintendents. Had she made these remarks to a group of teachers, she would have been hooted out of the room, so divorced are thoughts from the reality of what our teachers are facing in their classrooms daily. While on one hand I hate to spread her ill-informed message, I hope my readers will respond to them by redoubling their effort to encourage parents to opt their children out of assessments that tell us little to nothing useful.

So, let’s talk about opt out.

If you encourage test refusal, you have made a very powerful statement. We all want the tests to be even better – as short as possible and as closely matched to instruction as possible. That is a fair critique, and we continue to improve the tests over time.

However, some have a very different goal. They have said they want to bring down the whole system on which adult accountability is based – even if only a little bit – on evidence of student learning. I am much less cynical, and I see things very differently. I believe that test refusal is a terrible mistake because it eliminates important information about how our kids are doing.

Why on earth would you not want to know whether your child is on track for success in the fifth grade or success in college? Why would you not want to know how your child and your school are doing compared to other children in district, region, and State? Why would you not want to know the progress of our multi-billion dollar investment in education? Why would you not want to know whether all students are making progress, not just the lucky few?

I do not pretend that test results are the only way we know, but they are an important piece of information. They are the only common measure of progress we have.

We are not going to force kids to take tests. That’s not the New York way. But, we are going to continue to help students and parents understand that it is a terrible mistake to refuse the right to know.

We don’t refuse to go to the doctor for an annual check-up. Most of us don’t refuse to get a vaccination. We should not refuse to take the test.

I know that superintendents are on the front lines in this debate over the future of our schools. Day after day, you help your community understand the importance of high standards and the necessity for measures of student progress. We would be lost without your leadership.

It is true that many of us want to bring down an accountability system that few serious statisticians believe measures a teachers’ contribution to the education of children. To evaluate hard working teachers on a mathematically flawed testing regime to whatever degree is a fraud both on those teachers and the students in their charge.

The Chancellor’s comments say nothing about the absurdity of high stakes tests driving instruction rather than rich curriculum and the ingenuity of teachers to take children where they find them and advance them academically as far as they can go. She says nothing about the stupidity of standards that seriously conflict with what we know about child development. Standards like insisting that every kindergarten child read by first grade ignore that some are simply not neurologically prepared to do so and that forcing them to do so runs the risk of teaching them to hate reading at best or possibly ensuring they will never read as well as they might have. Tisch says not a word about the daily narrowing of the curriculum so that what is not tested is not taught, and the horrifying pressure to teach to the arbitrary rhythm of pacing charts that assume that every child can learn the same thing, in the same way and the same time.

The bottom line is that the education dilatant Chancellor has a faith in high stakes testing directly proportional to her lack of experience in education. A growing number of teachers and parents have faith in neither high stakes testing not the Chancellor and the Regents. By opting their children out, they cast a vote of no confidence in the education bureaucracy and their governor whose education agenda would make things unimaginably worse. The only thing encouraging about the Chancellor’s remarks to the superintendents is that she felt compelled to make them. They were clearly a response to the spate of public letters by superintendents calling the state’s testing regime and the governor’s doubling down on testing into serious question. So, the real message here is to do what we can to double the opt out numbers this year. Tisch sees the opt out movement for the threat to her agenda that it is. That she felt compelled to try to enlist the superintendents in pushing back should embolden us to keep the pressure up.

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Senate Republicans Support Cuomo’s Pseudo-education Reforms

It has been widely reported that the Republican Caucus in the New York State Senate is supportive of most of Governor Cuomo’s pseudo-education reforms. Our school district being represented by Senators Kemp Hannon and Carl Marcellino, two members of this caucus, I was prompted to write to them this morning. I’m sharing my letter with readers in the hope that they will send one of their own to Republicans who represent them. My letter follows:

Dear Senator Marcellino:
It has been widely reported that the Senate’s Republican Caucus is supporting much of Governor Cuomo’s so-called education reforms. I refer specifically to his proposal to increase the weight of student test scores on state assessments from twenty to fifty percent lengthening the teacher probationary period from three years to five and lifting the cap on charter schools. These proposals are yet another slap in the face of teachers, particularly Long Island’s outstanding teacher corps.

The link already established between teacher evaluations and student test scores has significantly undermined the educational experience of our students. I find it difficult to understand why our elected leaders do not understand that what is tested is what teachers are going to teach, especially when their jobs depend on their students’ results. The twenty percent in the current law has narrowed the curriculum and exposed children to countless boring hours of test preparation, both in school and home. This focus on high stakes testing has ratcheted up the pressure on children to the point where many of them become physicalyl ill during the examination periods when they have to sit for hours. Their results say more about the powers of endurance than they do about what these children have learned. We know for a fact that some kids simply blow the tests off rather than summon the energy and endurance necessary to overcome an exam designed for them to fail. More informed parents, recognizing the absurdity of the state’s testing regime, are opting their children out of the examinations in ever growing numbers rather than subject them to what they view as a stressful waste of valuable teaching and learning time. Increasing the percentage of teachers’ evaluations tied to student test results to fifty percent is to more than double down on a system that has not only not demonstrated any efficacy, but has also demonstrably negatively altered instruction. In the early grades especially, if it’s not English or math, its importance wanes the closer we get to the assessments.

As to the changes your caucus is seeking to the tenure law, reports indicate that you are pushing for an increase in the teacher probationary period of from three to five years. Advocates of this change never seem to be able to explain why such a long period of time is necessary to determine whether a teacher is deserving of professional status and the due process rights that come with it. The fact is that well managed districts observe teachers carefully for the first two years under the current system and discharge those that they deem unsuitable for professional status at the end of two years, waiting the additional third year in cases that are too close to call after two years. Extending the probationary period to five years will simply keep probationary teachers in an anxious state for a longer period of time and may contribute to the frightening turnover rate in some of our neediest districts. I suggest to you that where there are managements that feel they need five years to determine whether or not a teacher deserves professional status, there is a greater need to be concerned about that management than there is to extend the probationary period for teachers. While extending the teacher probationary to five years may sound like a significant reform, it will accomplish nothing other than to convince teachers of the legislatures disrespect for them and their contribution to the betterment of the children of our state.

To further encourage the growth in the number of charter schools without any body of evidence that they outperform the public schools from which they drain very significant financial and other resources is to perpetrate a fraud on the taxpayers of our state. The members of our union understand the charter school movement to be inextricably tied to a corporate led pseudo-education reform movement whose purpose is to engineer the demise of public schools in favor of a private model providing a very substantial return on their investment. For a Long Island representative whose district includes some of the finest public schools in the world to support a school model inimical to the welfare of those schools is highly inconsistent with your history of strong support for Long Island’s schools.

As a legislator who has been historically friendly to teachers and public education, our members urge you to stand with us against these phony reforms and work with us on the real problems facing the schools in our state. To support the Governor’s proposed “reforms” is to lend credence to his belief that New York’s schools are failing. Representing strong Long Island districts, you know that is a lie. We are counting on you to help us expose it.


Morton Rosenfeld

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Why Do Minorities Often Support Yearly Testing?

In the battle against high stakes testing and its deleterious effects on the education of children, leaders of our minority communities and civil rights organizations are often missing. Yet, it has always seemed clear to me that minority children stand to suffer the most from the culture of testing that narrows curricula and sends a not so subtle message children often victimized by poverty that they don’t measure up and that schools is not for them. I’m thankful to Diane Ravitch for pointing me to an article by Denisha Jones, a Indiana University professor, that suggests these minority groups support yearly testing in grade 3 through 8 in that it serves to shed a continuous light on the achievement gap between white and minority students and buttresses their demands for resources to counteract it. While Jones doesn’t develop a definitive strategy for winning civil rights groups to the anti-testing cause that she supports, understanding why people whose children stand to lose the most from the scourge of high stakes testing might support it nevertheless is hopefully the beginning of a process of winning them to the cause. This article deserves to be read widely.

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Can Merged States Be Appropriately Represented in NEA?

It’s not often thought about but 50 percent of the members of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) are also members of the National Education Association (NEA). That’s as a result of the state mergers that have taken place in recent times. They belong to the NEA, but most do not have the representation at the NEA’s convention that their numbers would entitle them to. My own local of over 700 members isn’t entitled to even one representative under the current apportionment of delegates. That’s because a condition of their mergers demanded by the NEA was that merged states would only get the representation that had in NEA prior to their coming together. Merged states with large memberships like New York get only a fraction of the representatives their membership of some 600,000 would normally entitle them to owing to the fact that there were only about 30,000 NEA members at the time of the merger.

The July NEA Representative Assembly will see the introduction of a proposed constitutional amendment that would give merged states the voting strength their numbers entitle them to in an electoral system honoring the principle of one person, one vote. The proposed amendment will require a two thirds secret ballot vote, a very high bar, but just the fact that it will be up for discussion suggests a change in sentiment and a realization that the NEA has nothing to fear from enlarging the representation of its membership to its highest policy making body.

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Last Night’s Tilles Center Forum

I attended the forum at the Tilles center last evening, sponsored by LIU and the Long Island Principals Association and featuring Diane Ravitch, by any measure the best known critic of the school reform movement in the nation. Here are my takeaways from this event attended by well over 1000 participants.

Ravitch has done more to energize teachers to fight to preserve their profession than most of the nation’s major teacher union leaders with the exception of Chicago’s Karen Lewis. She speaks not only with an academic’s authority on education issues, citing a host of facts and figures, but also with a keen sense of what moves teachers viscerally. She, better than most they come across during their work days, understands what’s happening to teaching, how a generation of teachers is having the profession robbed out from under them by a clique of corporate reformers for whom profits trump even the welfare of the nation’s children.

My friend Jeanette Deutermann was on the panel that followed Ravitch’s speech. People have been observing lately that Long Island is the epicenter of the opt-out movement. Deutermann’s relentless organizing around this issue has been primarily responsible for our area’s lead on the issues of the destructive effects of high stakes testing and the recognition that the most potent weapon we have in the battle to end the testing scourge is to refuse to permit out children to take the tests. As I listened to her exhort the audience to stand up and fight back, I marveled at how much she has accomplished, starting her quest with a good deal of nerve and a free Facebook page.

Superintendent Joe Rella emerged as a clear audience favorite and deservedly so. Unlike many in his position, he has clearly not forgotten what it’s like to be a teacher. He communicates a plain spoken understanding of the threats posed to our profession by politicians like Andrew Cuomo and his corporate supporters, an understanding that includes an appreciation of how teachers are being asked to effectively change who they are in the implementation of what is called school reform. Unlike many of the superintendents I have worked with, this guy knows how to lead. It’s no wonder that he and the union leader in his district, my colleague Beth Dimino, who shared the stage with him last evening have an obvious respect and affection for one another.

Finally, last night’s event is but the latest evidence of the growing push back against the corporate reform movement in our state and a governor who is doing its bidding. To my mind, if our union movement had not been so late in coming to understand the possibilities of challenging the reform movement, if our leaders had seen the foolishness of seeking to accommodate the reformers, we would have been much further along to what will be out ultimate victory. The palpable energy at last night’s forum was there to be tapped all along.

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Cuomo’s Chutzpah Sets Him Apart

Andrew Cuomo’s defense of his latest education reform proposals in his letter to the Long Island public in Sunday’s Newsday is interesting on a number of levels.

Clearly he is feeling the heat of an aroused public that is increasingly demanding an end to the scourge of high stakes testing and a re-working or abandonment of the Common Core State Standards. While Long Island has pockets of poverty and economic decay that have historically been associated with poorer performing students, the fact is that most Long Island communities have school systems that rival any in the country and the world. Citizens here pay very high property taxes to support those schools, take a keen interest in the school work of their children and know that by any measure their kids compete favorably with those from other parts of the country. They resent Cuomo’s suggestion that their schools are failing, seeing it for the lie it is, and experiencing it as almost a personal insult.

It fascinates me to see this governor, who challenges my capacity for contempt, endlessly trying to find a way to spin a series of education proposals that fewer and fewer see as offering any serious possibility of improving education in New York. He says his proposals are all about attracting and keeping and supporting good teachers. Sure they are. The reformers have made teaching such an attractive profession that enrollments in teacher education programs are down in New York and elsewhere. Intelligent people seeking a career love the idea of increasing the hurdles to be jumped over to get a highly stressful, low paying job at which one’s evaluation is based on student scores on state assessments that have been demonstrably shown to be unreliable measurements of teacher performance. Our best college graduates are aching to enter a field in which professional judgment and creativity are increasingly choked off by the demand to strictly follow corporate developed programs that mechanize teaching and the pressure to get high exam results to avoid the threat to one’s employment. They love the idea of being scrutinized for five years, for the most part by observers who know nothing about the culture of their schools, to earn the right to an abridged due process procedure. They are enthralled by the possibilities that through a test score based evaluation process that has been shown to rate teachers highly effective one year and ineffective the next they have a shot at a $20,000 bonus.

My favorite part of the Cuomo letter is where he states, “Virtually everyone also agrees that New York’s teacher evaluation system is not accurate and is skewed in its construction to provide favorable results for teachers.” Really? Here’s where Cuomo’s chutzpah sets him apart from lesser political scumbags. Left out of his remarks is the fact that this system that’s not working is the very system he negotiated with NYSUT And which he hailed at the time. Here are Cuomo’s words from the February 12, 2012 press release. “Today’s agreement puts in place a groundbreaking new statewide teacher evaluation system that will put students first and make New York a national leader in holding teachers accountable for student achievement,” This agreement is exactly what is needed to transform our state’s public education system, and I am pleased that by working together and putting the needs of students ahead of politics we were able to reach this agreement.” So the system that’s not working is Cuomo’s system which his current proposal simply double down on.

At the end of his letter, Cuomo tries to refocus the public’s attention from teacher evaluation to making it easier to takeover “failing schools,” reforming tenure and making it easier to get rid of what he maintains are the significant numbers of bad teachers in our schools. Here Cuomo is following the polls which show a lack of public interest in the tenure and school takeover issue. Cuomo senses that he will be able to peel the public away from organized teachers on these issues and get what he wants. Let’s hope we are not about to enter into another bad deal with Angry Andy.

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Shanker’s Charter Schools Seem More Impressive Today

The imposition of the Common Core State Standards has accelerated a trend that’s been with us for some time – the homogenization of instruction. More and more of our teachers are working to the rhythms of corporate made programs and pacing charts that seek to assure that everyone will be finished with the curriculum by the end of the school, whether the children know it or not. If the pacing chart says more on, teachers move on, not finishing the curriculum being a much higher order of pedagogical sin than finishing but having many students not completely understanding what you taught. This is just one of many serious problems facing public schools that essentially go unaddressed as we move forward with the corporate reform agenda which assumes that all children can learn the same things and that they can learn them in the same amount of time and in largely the same way. I don’t know a single teacher who thinks that’s a smart way of going about the work of educating children, but it is certainly the over-arching operative idea of most districts, certainly including ours.

I’ve been spending a great amount of time talking to anyone who will listen to me on this subject. Thinking this morning that it was time to try to reframe my discussions, I found myself recalling the speech Al Shanker made that contributed to the launching of the charter school movement. The former head of the AFT, never foresaw that the ideas expressed in his speech would be adopted by the enemies of the very public schools to which Shanker dedicated much of his adult life. Clearly frustrated by the one size fits all reform efforts of his day and the extent to which those movements more often than not were not informed by the voices of teachers, Shanker spoke of groups of teachers within schools coming up with new ideas that they would be given the autonomy to develop on their own. They would form schools within schools. In his vision, the creative talents of teachers would be loosed to explore reasonable possibilities for improvement, with parents enrolling their kids in the programs that seemed to fit their children the best. That’s what Shanker meant by charter schools. Were he with us to experience the mind-numbing stupidity that passes for reform today, I strongly suspect he would be redoubling his efforts to search for a model of reform that teachers hungering to practice their craft could embrace. His picture of charter schools looks pretty enticing to those struggling in today’s classrooms. The speech is still worth reading and thinking about. Find some time this weekend.

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No Serious Reform Without Teacher Voices

At Plainview’s Board of Education meeting this past Monday night, I was reminded of a disturbing irony that is often observable at these events. The opinions of those derived from the least firsthand experience and knowledge are valued the most. So we had members of our board most of whom know only what they have gathered from their children, their memories of being in school themselves and what they are told by a central office administration which itself manifests few signs that they understand what is happening in our classrooms responding to points made by parents most of whom are laypeople, together writing a narrative of our schools that is seen as a contrived fiction by the people actually in our classrooms.

That’s just a local version of what happens at the state and national level. Does anyone seriously think that Andrew Cuomo knows the first damn thing about education or that he is being advised by people who know or care about the welfare of our public schools? Had Merryl Tisch taught for more than a couple of years in a parochial school, perhaps logged seven or eight years in one of the schools she is quick to deem a failure, her thoughts on education would be completely different, less focused on standardized test scores, more sympathetic to the daily tragedy of children growing up in poverty. Have we not had ample evidence that Arne Duncan’s talents were better aligned with a career in basketball that with overseeing national education policy.

In a system of public education in which the voice of the people teaching the children is barely audible, why would anyone expect good outcomes? If we are to have serious reform of our public schools, and I certainly believe there are many things that need to change, those changes will have to be driven by teachers. Former New York Education Commissioner Tom Sobol had a line he often used to talk about the process of change in our schools. He spoke about, “Top down support for bottom up reform.” To my mind he was the last commissioner in our state to have a serious understanding of teaching and learning. Those who have followed have been at best pretenders – at worst the tools of economic and political elite bent on destroying public education for their [personal gain.

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Dignity and Status

I wrote yesterday of how Monday night’s meeting of our board of education demonstrated almost everything wrong with the public education scene today, focusing on how policy makers fail to address the really important questions difficult though they may be. The meeting was also noteworthy for the failure of school leadership to understand and appreciate the need of the people who do the actual work of teaching the children to have their thoughts and feelings respected. Wherever I go in our district, the first thing our members want to talk about is their deeply held belief that the management of the district does not appreciate their work, is disrespectful of their ideas and is essentially clueless about the what is really happening in our schools as a result of their policies that are choking the art and joy out of the practice of teaching. Our kindergarten teachers were there Monday night to raise questions about the district’s plan to close their school, a proposed closure that no one in authority every really bothered to talk to them about or to seek their ideas or cooperation. They went to the microphone to raise serious questions about how the district’s plan would work, questions that not only were not answered but were clearly unwelcomed. It reached a point where I just blurted out a demand that they be listened to respectfully. This evening was just a public display of what our members experience daily, a management that does believes it can do whatever it damn pleases with impunity.

Almost 60 years ago, our union was organized by a group of brave elementary teachers who wore a little button that demanded “Dignity and Status.” Monday made clear that this is a battle that our members are going to have to fight all over again. In a very real sense, it’s the battle our entire union movement is going to have to fight again.

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Avoiding the Real Questions

There is a year’s worth of blog posts to be generated from last night’s meeting of the Plainview-Old Bethpage Board of Education. Almost everything that’s skewed about the public education scene today was on display, not the least of which is the failure of policy makers to ask and address the important questions facing the institution.

Part of the meeting was devoted to the proposed budget for next year. The supervisors of various departments came to tell the board how wonderful everything is owing to their support and generosity with the taxpayers’ money, most of them implying in their presentations that but for their efforts none of this great stuff would happen. I was particularly taken by the budget presentation of the Director of Pupil Personnel Services in regard to her request for an additional psychologist for next year. When asked why we needed another psychologist, she talked about the demands being made of the existing staff by a large number of stressed and anxious students. No one on the Board thought to ask the obvious follow up of why it is that we shave so many over stressed anxious students. Might it be something we’re doing to them? Might it be that we have encouraged them to believe that their entire self-worth is tied to their grades? No one appeared to care. In fact when I referenced this during public participation adding, that several of the staff who work in the mental health field told me that they have never seen so many over-stressed anxious kids some of whom had to be hospitalized, I was excoriated by one Board member for raising the issue. A parent then got up and confidently explained the error in my remarks. While it is true that children like her daughter are anxious and stressed, they are suffering from the lack of a 9 period day which would allow them to take even more academic subjects. More course work would ease their anxiety. How come I didn’t know that?

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