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 April, 2015

The NYSUT Convention and Hope

It’s NYSUT convention time again. This will be the first convention organized by the team of officers elected last year. I’m hoping the meeting will be radically different, less oriented towards a seemingly endless series of speeches by the political leadership of the state and more towards using the time in Buffalo to organize and motivate the assembled activists to leave to implement a coherent action plan. Frankly, I don’t want to hear Chuck Schumer tell me how much he loves us, when I know full-well that he loves his Wall Street backers more. While I have always liked Tom DiNapoli very much going back to the days when I lobbied him for the old NEA-New York, his stories about the teachers who were important to his life have little meaning at a time when today’s teachers are increasingly wondering why they entered the profession.

Were I running the show, I would turn it into the launching of the Politician Accountability Plan. Our members are fed up with our political class finding ways to hold them accountable for things they have little control over. It’s time for us to use our numbers in coalition with the opt-out movement, the anti-Common Core Standards movement, the economic justice movement and other progressive groups to hold the political leaders responsible for the war on public education accountable to us. We need a plan to make every assembly person and senator who voted to double down on the link between student test scores and teacher evaluations answer for what they have done to the students and teachers in their communities. We need to bring the NYSUT counter attack on Governor Cuomo down to the local level in a tireless effort to depress his polling numbers to the point where he becomes the political has been he deserves to be. We should be issuing a challenge to Hillary Clinton to tell us exactly how a Hillary administration will undo the damage to our schools the Obama/Duncan crowd has wrought. We should be using this meeting to send a message that we will not be taken for granted any more.

There are surely other things our convention could organize to do. The important thing is that when our activists leave Buffalo, they do so committed to a plan that offers hope to the members back home that their profession can be saved and that sanity can be returned to their classrooms.

I’ll be back on Monday, May 4, unless something happens in Buffalo that can’t wait until then.

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Holding Our Leaders Accountable

I grow progressively concerned that too many in the public school community will simply sit back and accept what our elected leaders in Albany have done to teachers and public education. Last night I listened to a presentation by our superintendent to our board and the public as to what the new APPR law calls for, a presentation that presumed compliance with what she publicly stated was an absurd way to evaluate teachers. While our board president was happily enraged by what he heard and called upon the public to vote against our representatives who voted for it, there was not plan voiced to do anything about this betrayal. I also don’t hear from NYSUT, our state union, of a plan to get even with those who heretofore claimed to be our friends.

This morning I wrote to the leaders of our school community calling upon them to work with our union on the beginning of a plan for the accountability of Assemblyman Charles Lavine and Senators Kemp Hannon and Carl Marcellino, all of whom voted to double down on the tying of student scores to teacher evaluation. My email to school leaders follows. I encourage my readers in other schools districts to do the same.
POB Leaders,

After Dr. Lewis’ presentation on the New AAPR law, we all know that we have been betrayed by our elected leaders. It would almost be impossible to dream up a more stupid way of evaluating teachers than is provided for in this new law. Should this law be implemented, its impact on the teachers of our district will be profound. In my brief remarks last night, I doubt that I did justice to the deep anxiety and confusion I met when I attempted to address the concerns of the Parkway staff yesterday morning.

Assemblyman Lavine and Senators Hannon and Marcellino all voted for this law. I propose that the school community invite them to a community meeting to explain their vote to us. Invite is perhaps too weak a word. Maybe insist is better. While I doubt that any of those cowards will attend, if they don’t, we can then publicize their unwillingness to explain their votes.

Such a move by the leadership of the school community would accomplish three things. Firstly, it calls elected officials to account. Almost as importantly, however, it would suggest to the teachers who will bear the brunt of this law, that we are getting organized in their defense, that the entire school community understands the great unfairness that has been perpetrated against them. Finally, one way or another, the call for such a meeting will escalate the considerable pressure being exerted on our representatives to fix the problem they have created.

Let me know your thoughts.


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Anger Turning Within

I wish our elected leaders in Albany could have been with me this morning at a union meeting in one of our elementary schools. Had they been, they would have heard the deep anxiety and frustration of teachers who have come to believe that their ability to practice their profession and support their families are in serious jeopardy from a governor and legislature who appear to them to be bent on removing them from the classroom for some reason they are unable to fathom. They work their asses off day in and day out only to have their elected leaders denigrate their work, too many in their community resent their salaries and benefits and their supervisors fail to support their hard work. Truth be told, and certainly not a surprise to me, they don’t feel their union is doing enough to protect them from these threats, even though they know that much of the pressure they feel is coming from state and national sources. While they surely know that our local has done more than most in the fight against high stakes testing and its corrosive effects on the academic program and teaching, their anxiety about working in an environment seemingly hostile to their personal futures and their need for relief from these feelings is all consuming at this point, anger that is unaddressed often turning within.

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Bits and Pieces

A Different Perspective on the Opt Out Numbers

New York State Allies for Public Education is reporting that they believe over 90 percent of the school districts in the state will have less than 95 percent participation on the ELA exams. Are the Feds really going to sanction that many school districts? They couldn’t possibly be that stupid. That would ensure 100 percent next time, a result that may well happen any way if our leaders in Albany don’t take concrete steps to undo their teacher evaluation legislation passed earlier in the legislative session.

Tisch a Heroine?

From many quarters comes praise for Merryl Tisch for standing up to Governor Cuomo and saying that school district will have until September 2016 to get their new teacher/principal evaluation plans in place. Why anyone would praise Tisch is well beyond my powers of comprehension. We ought to be pressuring her to resign, she having worked hand in glove with the corporate school reform machine. What makes delaying the implementation of an even more stupid teacher evaluation system than we currently have worthy of heroine status? Why would the leaders of the AFT praise her?

Up The Pressure on Legislators

Instead of praising Tisch, our focus should be on the legislature whose members appear to be confused and upset by the backlash from their adoption of the new teacher/principal evaluation system. They also appropriately appear to be reading the astonishing opt-out numbers and as a clear sign that there may well be significant political ramifications for those who voted for that legislation. Our demand should be simple. End the connection between student scores on high stakes tests and limit the number of times students are tested in grades 3 through 8. Return to testing as a teaching too, not a punishment.

Meritocracy Gone Amuck
If you haven’t read David Brooks’ column today, it’s a must read. He addresses an issues that my readers have repeatedly heard me sound off about – sending children messages that their being loved and respected is tied to their academic success – that to continue to be loved is to continue to succeed in ever more challenging school endeavors. Brooks nails this one, hard though that is for me to say about a pretty right wing commentator.

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Jeanette Deutermann

Diane Ravitch’s blog today carries a thank you from Jeanette Deutermann, the indefatigable founder of the Long Island Opt –Out movement, its Norma Rae if you will. No one in the state of New York has done more to organize, and I mean organize, opposition to the scourge of high stakes testing. No one has even approached her commitment to protecting children from the demonstrable harmful effects testing has had on children and the educational program they receive. I’ve been proud to know her and work with her. At a time in our history when skillful leaders are hard to come by, Jeanette has kept the secret of leadership alive. She knows what so few of the so-called leaders I know do – that all people want power; they just don’t know how to get it. If you show them how to get some power and believe in their ability to achieve it, they will follow your lead and causes once thought hopeless become possible. So, as those of us who have been active in the Opt-Out movement enjoy our great victory, let’s pause and recognize our debt of gratitude to the person without whom this day might well not have arrived.

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A Modest Proposal

Our state math assessments begin today. As I write the opt out numbers are coming in predictably a bit ahead of the English numbers last week. This is also the week that the New York State legislature resumes it work. Legislators are going back to Albany having heard an earful from the people at home about their recent vote to double down on testing as part of the teacher evaluation process. They also go back knowing that an enraged public withheld their children from the tests at a rate of at least three times that of last year. Should this movement continue to grow, as it shows every sign of doing, within a year or so there won’t be any children taking the state examinations. Some of the legislators are openly talking of doing something to fix the problem they and the governor created. They are clearly beginning to see that the organizing skills of the people who invented and grew the opt out movement can clearly be put to use election time to hammer those who put obedience to Andrew Cuomo and the corporate backers of so-called education reform above the interests of the parents, children and teachers in their districts.

The easiest fix would be to go back to what we have been doing until a more sensible approach to teacher evaluation can be developed. Better yet would be to pass a law that breaks the unsupportable connection between student standardized tests results and teacher competence. Still better is a modified version of something I used to do at grading time for my students that just might be a simple approach to teacher evaluation. Before I gave out quarterly grades I made students write down for me what they thought they had eared for the quarter. Almost invariably, the students gave themselves lower grades that I did. I strongly suspect that given the same assignment to critique their performance for the school year, teachers would overwhelmingly point to more shortcomings than those paid to supervise them would have seen. In such a system, we would probably have fewer highly effective teachers, the governor would have accomplished his mission and nothing of any consequence would have changed for anybody. Why go through all of the political contortions, the endless educationist drivel, the countless hours of testing and test prep when deep down we all know that none of this nonsense makes the slightest difference to the education of a single child in our schools. We can count on the low self-esteem of teachers to underrate their performance and to always believe that they could have done better.

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Sorry NYT – It Is a Parent Led Movement

This morning’s New York Times offers the latest example of the pathetically poor coverage of the opt-out movement and the role of teacher unions in it. The current narrative has it that the unions are the principal motivators of the movement and the parents of the children opting out almost the dupes of the union bosses who have come to see opposition to testing as their weapon to defend from the bipartisan assault on public education. My experiences as a union leader at both the local and state levels in New York tell a different story and make wonder and confirm my suspicions that the mainstream media are at best handmaidens to the corporate education reform movement in our state.

Let’s be clear; while I and other local union leaders welcome NYSUT to the opt out cause they are newbies to the movement. In fact, they’re even pretty new to the anti-testing movement. As a former member of the NYSUT Board of Directors I recall with considerable chagrin the obdurate refusal of the union’s previous leadership under Dick Iannuzzi to embrace the anti-testing movement. I vividly remember an exchange between Dick Iannuzzi in which he answered my call to squarely oppose high stakes testing and the Common Core State Standards and join forces with the growing opt-out movement with, “We disagree. I don’t think parents want to do away with testing. What they want are better tests.” Let’s remember too that it was Iannuzzi’s team that negotiated the current APPR agreement with Governor Cuomo, an agreement which acknowledged that student scores on high stakes tests were an appropriate measure of student performance. By the time Iannuzzi realized the growing power of the anti-test/opt out movement and began to quietly cooperate with it, that movement was already launched with a dynamic leadership all its own. Here on Long Island, Long Island Opt Out led the way with a leader in Jeanette Deutermann who knows more about organizing than most of the union leaders I know. In part, his failure to read the political tea leaves on the testing/ opt –out issue would cost him the presidency of NYSUT.

Even in the early days of the Magee administration, while she and our national union affiliates gradually began to speak more critically of what testing was doing to public education and while some locals had upped their profiles and publically supported the opt-out movement, there still was not clear policy decision taken to frontally assault the testocracy by promoting refusal of the examinations. It was literally only weeks ago that Karen Magee in an interview said that if she had school age children, she would opt them out of the impending exams. That remark and stronger ones to follow came only after the governor and the leaders of both parties in the legislature conspired to screw that state’s teachers.

What early union support there was for the opt-out movement existed here and there at the local level. The fact is that most locals were even reluctant to tell their own members to opt their children out, repeatedly seeking guidance from NYSUT, only to get equivocation.

No, the opt out movement has been an essentially parent driven movement, aided in some places by local teacher unions, but completely independent of them, so much so that at times there was some friction between our supporting locals on Long Island at the parent leadership of the movement. While I’m very glad that NYSUT has come around to a full-throated support of opting-out, they are walking on a path that others have blazed before them. If I had had my way, the critique offered by the New York Times would have been true. It didn’t work out that way, however.

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Screens and Self-Esteem?

The educrats and Board of education members I engage think of me, I’m sure , as a 21st century Luddite for my often acerbic criticism of what I see as their thoughtless support for the infusion of technology into our schools. While I’m as fascinated by technology as most and have used it to good effect in my union work, I’m nevertheless aware of a growing concern among many serious scholars about the effects of screen viewing on the developing brains of children, a development that continues into a person’s twenties. I’m frankly appalled by the almost total lack of concern expressed by these leaders. I’ve sent many of them links to peer reviewed articles by neuro-scientists. I once even bought a copy of a well- received book on the effects of screen gazing on the academic skills of college students, only to find that only one out of the seven had the fortitude or the ability to read it. While I know techno-hucksters have won the battle, I still can’t give up, reminders constantly coming my way of why we need a more serious discussion of the role of technology in education than we have had to date.

I had dinner the other night with a young history professor who talked about how many of her colleagues have banned electronic devices in their classrooms. While she uses technology in what she is sure are beneficial ways, and while she is aware that some students find it more efficient to take their notes on the laptops they bring to class, she has had the experience of walking around the classroom as she is talking only to find students engrossed in social media and even less wholesome endeavors. She is sorely tempted to bar these distractions from her classes.

Sunday brought an article in the New York Times about research suggestions yet to be confirmed that substantial screen watching impairs children’s ability to read the body language of others and their development of self-esteem. While not dispositive, it somehow doesn’t surprise me that there may be a connection between a child being glued to her smart phone and a diminished capacity to make eye contact with others. More and more the technology infusers have almost a religious zeal about them that question asking doubters like me find deeply disturbing.

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We Won’t Be Divided And Conquered

With Long Island remaining the hub of the state’s opt-out movement (As of this writing 71,496 refusals have been reported.), it’s not surprising that one of our local politicians has nervously introduced legislation clearly aimed at mollifying the anti-testing electorate in in his district. Senator Jack Martins has introduced a bill that would exempt 20 percent of the state’s highest performing districts from the newly adopted Annual Professional Performance Review measures adopted by Albany.

While his legislation has a surface appeal to those who live and work in school districts that are some of the best in our nation and as good as most in the world, a little thought reveals the ethical absurdity of the proposal. We know beyond doubt that high test scores correlate with family income. Parents of rich kids can and do provide them with opportunities ranging from the obvious to the more subtle and immeasurable that get reflected on standardized tests from the third grade ELA test to the SAT. That said, are we then to increase the stakes on examinations for the economically and socially disadvantaged, judging their teachers by a dubious standard while those from more affluent and advantaged communities are exempt? Does such a move make any sense other than as an obvious attempt to quiet the opt-out movement by state politicians who grow increasingly fearful that their support for the new teacher evaluation system could seriously jeopardize their chances for re-election?

Suggestions like this one from Senator Martins should serve to heighten our determination to see to it that we are better represented in Albany by people whose motivations are deeper than political expediency. Senator Martins and those who voted with him to double down on testing had a chance to stand up for public education and the quality schools in his district. He muffed to opportunity to stand for something worthwhile. Our movement to end the scourge of high stake stesting has an ethical depth that people like him simply can’t understand. We won’t be divided and conquered.

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No Time To Be Nice

The opt out numbers look better and better. As of this writing, over 68,000 Long Island students refused to take the grade 3 through 8 examinations. That’s more refusals than there were in the entire state of New York last year. In no uncertain terms, these numbers are the response of a public who petitioned their elected representatives to do something to end the scourge of high stakes test in our state only to have to resort to civil disobedience when those representatives failed to do their job. I believe we need to keep the pressure on those who have been nothing less than duplicitous, telling us in various public forums that they supported our efforts to curb an out of control testing regime that was turning our best schools into essentially test prep institutions, only to in the end give the governor almost more than he asked for.

That being my view, it’s alarming to begin to hear NYSUT, our state education union, counseling being nice to these elected leaders who have betrayed us and the institution of public education. I don’t want to be nice to Assemblyman Charles Lavine. I want to support a candidate to primary him. If that fails, I want to run a Green Party candidate against him. Ditto with Senators Hannon and Marcellino who have grown far too comfortable and who seem to feel we will forgive them anything because that got us a little extra money for our schools. It is beyond question that by and large our elected leaders have no respect for us. Accepting bad treatment in my experience leads only to more bad treatment. I don’t understand why our union leaders in Albany don’t understand that. It’s really just that simple.

Many of us have worked very hard to build coalitions to oppose the attack on public education and the high stakes testing central to it. These groups are flush with our opt out victory and need to now be steered to politically removing the people who have shown themselves to be our enemies. This union leader is not going to be a party to letting people who openly screwed us off the hook.

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Don’t Confuse Talk With Action

Monday night’s meeting of the Plainview-Old Bethpage Board of Education was the first since the passage of the law which effectively made student results on state assessments the most important piece of teachers’ evaluations. Teachers whose students fail to reach an essentially arbitrary growth targets cannot be rated effective, even if those who supervise them on a daily basis rate understand them to be effective or better. What that does is to tie teachers’ continued employment to student test results. Does anyone doubt that teachers will be hyper-focused on preparing their students for the state tests? To not do so is to be irresponsible to themselves and their families. With that understanding of what New York had done to teachers and public education, I listened in amazement to Superintendent Lorna Lewis explain to the public how despite the action of the legislature and the governor, our schools would not yield and become focused on test preparation. What a canard!

First of all, we have already become a district that moves to the substance and rhythm of the state Common Core assessments, even though they have until now counted for only twenty percent of a teacher’s evaluation. With the new law wherein test results trump the observation of supervisors, one would have to be delusional not to understand that teachers will be driven to focus on preparing children for tests that are determinative teachers’ ability to continue to have their careers. Why, I wonder, would we lead the public to believe otherwise, a public half of whom opted their kids out of the assessments in protest against what they are doing to the academic program in our schools?

The leaders of our district like many seem to confuse talk with action. They are against testing, yet they don’t publically support the opt-out movement, have increasingly worked routinize instruction, focusing on the alignment of the educational program with the very assessment they claim to oppose. Just yesterday, I was told that teachers have been instructed to give final examinations in 5th and 6th grades, no one ever bothering to ask teacher whether that is an appropriate thing to do. More and more we’re preoccupied with making children college and career ready without ever understanding that we are squeezing out of the program many of the very things that actually contribute to that readiness. If the expression college and career ready means anything it implies the growth and development of a human child which surely includes much more than what is measured on an English or math test. Our leaders would have us understand that all is well in our schools. Nothing could be further from the truth. The parents who refused to let their kids take the state exams know this, and they are growing in numbers. They are the hope that we can bring real education back to our schools. If we double the number of children opting out again next year, there will be no one taking the tests. We could get to that happy day much faster if all our school leaders would act like the scourge of high stakes testing is the real threat that it is.

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Yesterday I posed the question of whether parents would opt their children out of the state exams or acquiesce to the demands of a corporate school reform movement bent on destroying public education in our nation. I’m heartened to report that almost half of the parents in my community (48.2%) have said enough. They don’t care what Governor Cuomo thinks. They will not allow Chancellor Tisch and the State Ed department poison the educational climate of their schools with more and more of their programs dictated by the demands of tests that do absolutely nothing to improve instruction anywhere in our state. I strongly suspect that those numbers will grow over this testing season, as parents who felt a little uncomfortable bucking the dictates of the state see that over one thousand others put their qualms behind them.

This has been a very hopeful day. The growing numbers of citizens who care about public education who deeply understand the threat posed to it encourages me to believe that we can win the battle in the end. We more than doubled our opt out numbers this year. If we have to, we will do that again next year which would bring us to the point where almost no students are taking the exams. At that point, the testocracy melts into an ugly puddle of slime.

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Tomorrow the New York State 3 through 8 assessments begin. While Governor Cuomo and the legislature effectively more than doubled down on high stakes testing, there is a good chance that, in the best American tradition, citizens will cast their own vote on the testing epidemic by opting their children out of the exams. Exams that children don’t take cannot be used against them and their teachers.

Last year, over sixty thousand New York children were withheld by their parents from the assessments, over twenty thousand on Long Island. This year the numbers are bound to be significantly higher. The only question is how much higher.

It is not hyperbole to suggest that either parents will rise up and voice a resounding NO to what the testocracy is doing to public education, or they will acquiesce to the corporate powers behind the testing movement and thereby move the process of dismantling public education forward significantly.

Coincidentally, I just sent in the second half of my school taxes for the year. For the first time in my adult, I felt a pang of resentment for having to pay to support what to my mind is the daily debasing of education in our schools, as testing drives more and more of the curriculum and the notion of what it means to be educated evaporates in favor of what at best is job training.

My generation took to civil disobedience to promote the rights of all Americans to participate in our democracy. We took to the streets to stop a stupid war in Viet Nam in which thousands of my peers died for no discernible reason. Those were moral crusades, and I believe the movement to prevent the corporate takeover of public education is every bit as much of a moral issue. If we care about educating our children to be thoughtful, analytical participants of our democracy, people with a broad understanding of all that makes us human, then it seems to me we will thwart this latest attack on public education by refusing to have our children participate in the main weapon intended to destroy it – high stakes testing.
Should the opt-out movement fail, it will signal to those who lust to turn our schools into profit centers that they are on the right course and that the public doesn’t care enough to protest its schools.

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Hard to Believe Tisch

Merryl Tisch is quoted this morning as saying that high performing districts (not defined) should be exempt from the new and as yet to be State Ed crafted annual professional performance review. I strongly suspect that the statement is intended to quell the growing opt out movement whose leaders tend to come from these very districts, Let’s remember that when the Governor’s Director of Operations wrote to Tisch seeing her input needed legislation, she responded with almost exactly what came out of the recently enacted legislation. Would such a move make sense? Sure it would, and that’s why I don’t expect it to happen. It would be hard to find a less sensible institution than our State Ed Department. Everything they turn out is at best opaque.

I’ll be taking this holiday season off, trying to recover from recent depressing events and restore my energy for the battles ahead. I’ll be back on April 13. Be sure to look for me.

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Opting-Out: More Important Than Ever

Parents who have been undecided about opting their children out of the New York State assessments have been given good reason to decide to refuse the tests. The distortion of teaching and learning of the current teacher evaluation system has now been magnified five- fold – by a change in the law that says that no teacher can be rated effective or highly effective if her student scores don’t meet some number to be determined by the State Ed Department. That effectively makes the test 100 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.

This betrayal by our elected leaders has got to be answered and answered immediately. The best means at had to do so is to drive the opt-out numbers through the roof. Teacher who have children in grades 3 through 8 who don’t opt them out are aiding and abetting the demise of their profession and prejudicing their employment. It’s just that simple.

Parents who want more from their schools than training in how to pass standardized tests must inform the schools their children attend that they refuse to permit their children to take the state tests. These tests have never had any educational value. They have now become a very significant impediment to anything enlightened people would deem an appropriate education. With these exams determining their future employment, teachers will have no choice but to teach to them. Thus, a curriculum already significantly narrowed by corporate sponsored reform will have more squeezed out of it leaving little but English and math. The bottom line is if no one takes the tests, they can’t be used negatively impact teachers and students.

The Governor and Legislature know full well that they have spit in the eyes of New Yorkers. They know what they have done is dreadfully unpopular. Two recent polls showed the public overwhelmingly supporting the teachers union over their elected leaders. Our leaders have calculated that we will forget what they have done to our schools. Opting out must be our immediate message that we will never forget. We must also begin immediately to work to challenge those who have represented other interests, not ours. Our local will be reaching out to our community searching for candidates to challenge Senators Hannon and Marcellino and our Assemblyman Charles Lavine, all of whom have claimed to be friends of public education but who abandoned us when we needed them most.

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