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 July, 2015

Wasted Summer

It has bugged the hell out of me to have our union office in the same building that houses a test prep outfit. All during the school year, each afternoon brings a hoard of tired looking teenagers who come to cram for one test or another. Beyond doubt, most of these kids will go home after test prep to do hours of homework, work more and more aligned to some test that they will be taking. Where once the students were all of Asian ancestry, these days the population reflects that of our surrounding suburban public schools. It’s doubly disturbing to see the volume of students increase in the summer months and to recognize that there is no break for these kids from the pressures put on the to excel academically.

Why do these kids accept this mistreatment? How have they come to see schooling as a 365 day a year endeavor? I try to imagine my parents wanting to send me to such a place. The closest I ever came to such a thing was when my high school called my mother to inform her that they were starting an early morning program for underachievers like me. At the time, I was a solid B student, quite content to spend my afternoons and evenings in pursuits other than academic. If memory serves, the school wanted me to come at 7:30 in the morning ( an hour before the regular starting time) for some kind of enrichment classes. Mom was thrilled with the idea and sorely disappointed when I refused to go. “Why do I want to go to school an extra hour a day,” I asked her in disbelief that she would even suggest such an absurd thing to me. Had my parents forced me to go, I’m absolutely sure I would have spent that early morning in the luncheonette adjacent to my school, talking to Syd the owner about how unreasonable my parents were for making me get up so early.

My parents thought about the importance of going to college and having a good career as much if not more than parents today. Neither of them had the advantage of a higher education. From the time I was little, they would suggest careers to me, all of which required a college education. My mom had this thing about my being a chemical engineer, although I’m quite sure she could not speak more than one sentence about what such a person actually does. Yet, while communicating the importance of education, they basically left school to me. I don’t recall being asked about assignments due, homework to be done or anything else about school routines. I was ironically freer to be a kid than today’s children, while more engaged in developing the skills necessary to take care of myself and determine my own direction.

I strongly suspect that the things I learned playing sports and hanging out with my friends each summer taught me more valuable skills than any of the kids attending summer test prep sessions.

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Tax Cap=Capped Wages

In wealthier school districts in New York, the property tax cap has essentially been a cap on the wages of teachers and support personnel, the people who make the districts work. Districts like Plainview-Old Bethpage have seen no program cuts. We pour more and more dollars into the latest technology, are planning to increase the administrative staff and hire various consultants to do all sorts of things one would have thought we hired the administrators to do in the first place. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to curtail the services available to the children of our community.

Yet, it is quite clear that the wages of the district’s personnel have begun to stagnate, with miniscule raises and a salary freeze having been the history of the last few years. In a very real way, the quality of school districts like mine have been maintained by the essentially capped wages of the staff, the staff having in a very real sense subsidized through diminished salary demands the education of the community’s children. The capping of wages has coincided with a palpable decline in the working conditions of staff, with teachers work becoming more and more test driven and routinized and support staff being asked to do more and more with less and less. The anger of staff is rising. At building union meetings last school year, I had more pointed questions and angry comments about salary and working conditions than ever before. At our last general membership meetings, pay and benefits dominated the discussion, discussion that had a sharp edge to it.

Communities like mine are going to have to come to terms with the fact that their school employees are not going to accept their wages being essentially frozen. They are going to have to be smarter about building their budgets and are going to have to build political coalitions to pass larger budgets that require a super majority to pass. Those coalitions are also going to have to work to build a movement to fund public education off of a more progressive tax than the property tax.

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Pension Envy

Economic and political elites in the United States have been undermining what had once been a developing right in our nation – the right to retirement security. Fewer and fewer workers in the private sector having any employer sponsored pension benefits, the attacks began on public employee defined benefit plans. In an age when government came to be seen in Ronald Regan’s words as the problem rather than the solution to social problems, a public which saw its retirement prospects growing increasingly insecure has been more than willing to believe the charge that public employees are a privileged group whose defined benefit pensions are an undue strain on taxpayers who do not generally enjoy similar benefits. When I joined the New York State Teachers Retirement System there was only one level of benefits or tier. Today there are six, each substantially worse than the one that came before it.

The drive to destroy defined benefit public employee pensions seems to have reached a new low in California where a bipartisan group has put an initiative on the ballot that appears to have been cleverly designed to trick voters into approving lower pension benefits for future state employees but which has been duplicitously constructed to allow the reduction of retirement benefits of current employees going forward. In other words, should it pass, a state worker can be hired with the promise of one level of retirement benefits but halfway through his career, when his options for employment elsewhere are limited, those benefits could be changed by ballot initiative. I was alerted to this by a Facebook posting by a California union friend. Keeping in mind political trends have a way of starting in California and moving eastward, I recommend giving this somewhat wonky article a careful read.

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Join Us! Don’t Attack Our Leaders

My blog today is a response to a Facebook posting by the president of our local board of education. He expresses the facile view that the scourge of high stakes testing and its consequences could have been avoided by a union leadership more concerned with the interests of its membership. While my reads know of my disagreements with various levels of union leadership, it’s not fair to confuse mistakes with personal corruption as Mr. bettan and too many other do. Here’s the posting and my response.

As I’ve been saying for years: The sad reality is that this entire hi-stakes testing mess could have been avoided if AFT leadership hadn’t sold out their members. In NY Cuomo never gets test scores linked to APPR without the support of NYSUT. Race to the Top never happens without support from national teacher union leadership. Time to stop blaming billionaires like Bill Gates and companies like Pearson and start realizing that teacher unions have been taking money from their foundations all along the way. This is just another example of Weingarten putting her agenda ahead of her teachers. Note: my comments here have nothing to do with Clinton or the presidential election, but rather the disconnect between teachers and those they pay to represent them.
Gary Bettan

While I have been highly critical of the response of our unions to the corporate attack on public education, an attack spearheaded by Bill Gates for whom you apologize, to cavalierly state that high stakes testing and its consequences could have been avoided if the AFT and NEA had simply chosen not to go along is to simplify history to an absurdity.

A fairer analysis than yours would take account of the creation, through the corporate manipulation of the media, of an education crisis in the United States. As Diane Ravitch and other scholars have amply demonstrated, there is no crisis. In fact by almost any measure, America’s schools have been improving. This attack on public schools diverts the public’s attention from the real crisis – a growing number of America’s children are being permanently scarred by poverty. Such an analysis would also take account of corporate influence on our politics. No child left behind and Race to the Top didn’t just happen. They are a testament to the influence of money on politics and policy.

While I disagree with our state and national union leaders and have expressed that disagreement in person and in my writings, I have never suggested that they sold our members out. While they have made strategic and tactical errors, I believe them to be motivated by an abiding concern for the membership. Their challenge was and is how to push back against a corporate reform effort that is clearly aimed at the destruction of public education as we know it. They made a decision to engage the reformers and the politicians whom the reformers had bought and paid for, hoping through engagement to blunt the attack on our schools and members. That engagement has included taking money from places like the Gates Foundation to finance union education experiments. Let’s remember too that much of this testing escalation took place in the midst of the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression, one in which states had gaping holes in their budgets and the Feds were offering millions to climb on to the reform bandwagon, insisting on thing like tying teacher evaluations to test results.

In New York, this all took place at a time that I was on the NYSUT Board of Directors. The state was in a financial hole as were many local school districts. The Feds were offering close to a billion dollars if we would buy into the Race to the Top program with its Common Core Standards and testing regime tied to them. The challenge to NYSUT was how to get the federal money that many of its locals needed to save the jobs of their members while blunting the impact of the federal mandate to tie student test results to teacher evaluation. Their answer was to try to use collective bargaining to permit locals to participate in the creation of teacher evaluation plans, so-called APPRs.

While I and others spoke out against the APPR deal NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi made with Governor Cuomo and worked to try to get the NYSUT Board to vote it down, the fact is a majority of the NYSUT Board supported this approach, and the deal was done. Therefore, while it is fair to say that Iannuzzi made a mistake (It’s important to note that many in our ranks still do not believe he did.), it is completely unfair to suggest that he sold our members out. He made a decision that was backed by our board. It was in part that decision that ultimately cost him his job.

This year in New York we witnessed Governor Cuomo renounce the deal he made with Iannuzzi as achieve legislative changes that will make matters even worse. I was encourages to see NYSUT President Magee embrace the opt-out movement, thereby recognizing that it is only through the collective action of educators and parents that we are going to be able to overcome the power of the corporate reform movement. We had over 200,000 students opted out of the exams this year, more than triple the number of last year. We are at work to triple it again. Our members invite you and the other members of our Board of Education to fully embrace this movement. Such an effort will be infinitely more productive than hurling unfounded accusations against union leadership. Our unions are being attacked by the same corporate interests. Friends of public education like you need to join with us not attack our leaders.

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A Premature Endorsement

Over the weekend the Executive Council of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) voted to endorse Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. That endorsement coming out of the blue has upset many union activists who have found in Senator Bernie Sanders an authentic champion of working people who has rekindled their idealism – idealism that has been hard to come by in a world of declining private sector union membership and a corporate funded assault on organized workers in the public sector. Most union activists, I suspect, would have been completely open to supporting Hillary Clinton later on in the primary process, recognizing the longshot nature of the Sanders candidacy. Many of us hoped that the give and take between Sanders and Clinton would force Hillary to the left on economic, worker and education issues than she would naturally tend to be without serious opposition.

The AFT based its endorsement on the questionnaires completed by the candidates and a poll conducted of the membership during the last week in June indicating members support for Clinton. While some of my union colleagues mistrust the findings of the membership poll, I accept the results for what they are – a snap shot of the membership at the very beginning of the primary process when a good number of the members know very little about Bernie Sanders and the progressive policies he has supported over his distinguished career in Congress. If that poll were taken today after news reports of the crowds Sanders has been attracting in Iowa and New Hampshire, I suspect we would see a different picture.

In pushing this early endorsement, AFT Randi Weingarten has very unnecessarily poked her finger in the eye of many of the organization’s activists, the very people whose work on the ground is infinitely more important to a candidate than the money the union is able to provide. While the membership poll was clearly intended to make the endorsement appear to be membership driven, the timing of it was so ham-handed as to have generated the exact opposite effect.

If we look at the candidate questionnaires, it seems to me we find strong support for the thesis that the endorsement came too early. Were we to base our endorsement solely on the positions of the candidates, it seems to me Sanders would clearly get our nod. But don’t take my word for this; see what Sanders and Clinton had to say.

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The Offer of a Hand in Our Own Destruction

Word yesterday that the New York State Education department has dumped Pearson as its test maker for the grades 3 through 8 assessments in favor of Questar, a rival company. We are also told that the contract with the new company, worth some 44 million dollars, will oblige the test makers to increase the number of versions of the test that will permit the validity of trial questions to be tested while shortening the length of the test itself. We are led to understand that through a process yet to be made clear teachers will be involved in the crafting of these exams and the data derived from them shared in a more pedagogically useful manner that heretofore. This announcement, the first under new Commissioner Mary-Ellen Elia, is being hailed by some, including NYSUT leadership, as a victory in the battle against high stakes testing. Why a shift in companies is seen as some kind of victory is beyond me.

While the length of the 3 through 8 tests is a significant issue, it is of much less importance to educators and parents than the fact that students are tested yearly and that their academic progress in English and math is measured by one test, No competent teacher would evaluate a student’s performance on such a limited basis. Add to that absurdity the fact that such limited information is then used to evaluate teachers and we have a system that has predictably corrupted public education. By defining success for both students and teachers by high stakes test scores, we have created a system where the curriculum is increasingly devoid of anything not covered by the tests and the very pace of the instruction is determined by the need to cover the tested material by the time of the test, weeks before the actual end of the school year. We have made school less joyous for students and promoted dishonesty among too many teachers and administrators who have come to see themselves in a struggle for survival. None of these existential issues for public education are address by the state changing the test maker. The whole thing appears to be a public relations move to get out from under the bad press that has been heaped on a discredited Pearson.

Questar may be able to make tests that are more error free than some produced by Pearson, but that should not cool the passion of those of us who see high stake testing as a potent tool of those who seek to delegitimize public education so as to privatize it and profit from it. It will do nothing to boost the morale of teachers who see their profession being stolen out from under them. It won’t curb the pressure we are putting on young children as we narrow their education to the point where it is becoming training rather than preparation for informed adulthood and citizenship. Inviting teachers to participate is quite simply luring them into participating in their own destruction.

The answer to the scourge of high stakes testing is not a new test maker. The answer is to return testing to the hand of educators who know how to harness it to sound pedagogical practices. The best way to make that happen is for parents and teachers to reject and resist the current testing regime. Over 200,000 students refused the state tests this year, up from 60,000 last year. Our goal has to be to boost that number to at least 400,000 next spring by starting now!

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NEA and the Opt-Out movement

One of the more disheartening aspects of the recent NEA Representative Assembly was its failure to fully embrace the opt-out movement. While a number of new business items that nominally supported the opt-out movement passed, items that called for working with other organizations to promote the opt-out movement failed and failed badly.

To the extent that one could discern from the debate the reason for the failure to embrace the opt-out movement, it appeared to be a fear that failure to meet the federal threshold of 95 percent participation in the mandatory high stakes tests would result in a loss of Title I funding. Of perhaps even more importance were the comments of a number of speakers who expressed the concern that opting out would lead to negative consequences for the teachers whose evaluations are tied to these examinations.

The latter reason is of a piece with a general impression I took away from the convention. There is an almost unanimous belief among the assembled union leaders that public education is under attack and that a major weapon in that attack is high stakes testing. Yet, despite that perception, there is no common understanding that to beat back that attack is going to require direct actions like promoting the opt-out movement, even if such support puts our members at some risk. There is no broad understanding that the risks of doing nothing other than making speeches and dabbling in electoral politics is in the long run more risky.

Here’s where leadership could make a profound difference. NEA President Lily Eskelsen-Garcia is as gifted a communicator as we have ever had. She and the other NEA officers surely understand that the most potent weapon we have had in the battle against high stakes testing has been the opt-out movement. It’s as simple as, if no one takes the tests, we can then have a serious conversation about the place of testing in public education. Leadership’s failure to speak that truth to the assembled union leaders and their unwillingness to embolden the delegates to take a stand, risks and all, was deeply disturbing, to me and especially to many New York union leaders who have strongly embraced the opt-out movement and helped to drive our opt-out numbers to over 200,000 this spring.

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Brainless in Orlando

    KoThe NEA Representative Assembly was disappointing on a number of levels that I’ll be talking about going forward.

    Yesterday, if one can believe it, the body voted down a motion that would have prevented the NEA from taking money from outfits like the Gates Foundation and other organizations and corporations that do not support the pro-public education policies of the NEA. If there ever was a no brainer, it seems to me this was the one. No one has done more damage to public education than Bill Gates who for a time had co-opted the two national education unions into supporting the Common Core State Standards and worse still the tying of the results of Common Core aligned high stakes tests to the evaluation of teachers. That Gates money influenced our policies is beyond any reasonable question.

    Push back by activists in both organizations caused both national union presidents to state that they would no longer take Gates Foundation money. Ironically a motion that looked to make it policy not to take Gates money would up serving to create a policy of encouraging the taking of this corrupting funding. Wendell Steinhower, the President of the New Jersey Education Association gets my award for the most brainless speech of the convention. Rising to oppose the motion that would prevent the NEA from taking Gates money and money from similar sources, Steinhower called upon us to take the money so that people like Gates would have less of it to give to bigger enemies than Gates. For a leader one of the largest state education unions to be so almost cosmically ignorant of the corporate campaign to destroy public education and the centrality of Bill Gates to this campaign left this union leader wondering about the future of our union. NEA President Eskelsen-Garcia’s subtle but clear encouragement of the opposition to telling Gates and others to keep their money makes her passionate statements about high stakes testing and the damage it is causing ring completely hollow. We simply can’t accept money from people who propose and fund political movements inimical to the welfare of our members and build a viable movement to defeat those movements. To believe that we can is to believe that people like Gates are stupid and essentially suicidal.

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Lead to Power

Our national teacher unions are bending backwards trying to appeal to the new generation of public school teachers. Our leaders have been saying that within the next six years, two million new teachers will be added to our ranks. These newer teachers want help with their professional lives, and I’m sure they do, but not the kind of stuff our national unions are peddling.

I could be completely wrong, but I don’t think having canned lesson plans available to them is a vital concern. I doubt that they are as interested as our leaders would have us believe they are in staff development. If they are anything like the teachers of my generation, they want to go home at the end of their workday to take care of their own kids and do the preparation for the next day’s classes. They don’t want to sit and listen to the latest educationist twaddle.

I suspect they would like some help with the extraordinary amount of work we ask them to do. We spend so much time comparing our test score to those of other countries but very little comparing the number of hours teachers spend in the classroom. Our teachers are asked to do so much more than teachers in the countries we like to compare ourselves to. We ought to be putting our effort into the issue of class size. Some English teachers in my upper middleclass district have student loads of over 120 students. As an old English teacher, I know it is literally impossible to teach writing effectively with those kinds of student loads, but our national leaders say very about this.

In short, I believe that the goal of teacher unions always was and always should be power, the power to demand and get good pay and benefits; the power to demand and receive fair treatment; the power to practice our profession with the degree of autonomy necessary to do it well; the power to evaluate our students; and the power to shape the standards of good professional work. NEA leaders have begun talking about the empowered teacher, but somehow they don’t seem to want to empower teachers the way I do.

I wonder sometimes whether the public doesn’t view our advocacy for things like staff development and professional growth opportunities and National Board Certification and such as our admission that our members are not up to snuff because they require all of this assistance and improvement.

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