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 September, 2015

Wait for the Taskforce Report, But Get Opt-Out Letter In

Feeling the heat of the growing parent revolt against high stake testing and the evaluation of teachers based on student test scores, Governor Cuomo has once again reached for the creation of a taskforce on the Common Core State Standards, hoping to mollify those who hold him politically responsible for the chaos wrought in the name of higher academic standards.

Early responses to the naming of his taskforce are less than enthusiastic, with NYSUT welcoming the taskforce’s creation but suggesting that proof of its worth will await its recommendations for cleaning up the current education policy mess. Opt-out movement leaders have taken to social media this morning, most alleging the taskforce to be a fraud owing to its lack of parent and teacher members.

To the best of my knowledge, there are no informed opponents of the Common Core State Standards or high stakes testing on the panel. Those I know talk about the need to reduce the number of tests and a fairer system to evaluate teachers, but basically support the concept of national standards and the use of high stakes tests to measure student progress. The influence of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers is clearly present, with Randi Weingarten its former president, Catalina Fortino and a teacher from Brooklyn all owing allegiance to that powerful local union whose President, Michael Mulgrew, passionately defended an attempt to have the American Federation of Teacher oppose the Common Core at its last convention. It was on that occasion that he made his now infamous, intemperate threat to punch in the nose anyone who tried to take the standards away.

I will be pleasantly surprised if any change other than around the margins comes from this panel. Those of us who care about the extreme damage being inflicted on our best school districts in the name of standards and accountability must continue to build the parent movement to veto test and punish education by refusing to participate in it. Let’s wait for the panel’s report, but while we’re waiting, let’s encourage parents to get their opt-out letters in.

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Competition Run Amuck

In conversations I have with parents, in posts on social media that I follow and in comments made by citizens at public meeting of our local board of education, I see a disturbing trend. Parents are increasingly seeing the education of their children as an all-consuming competition, one in which a good parent must seek competitive advantages for his own children and guard against such advantages for others. To be sure there has always been some of this in upper middle-class suburbs like ours. One can’t have taught high school students without having experienced combustible challenges to one’s grading that are often about as little as one point. It strikes me, however, that the situation has grown much worse, to the point where it influences decisions the school district makes.

Take the day that is being given over to the administration of the PSAT. Put aside the outrage that a private company is effectively mandating what public schools will do on a given day. Put aside too that many school district s like mine will pay the fee for the exam to the company. While most of the children in our high school will not be taking the exam, the district decision makes felt obligated to come up with a special program for the day because we couldn’t allow instruction to go on as that might put PSAT takes at a competitive disadvantage. That’s right. As this was explained to the public, I watched numbers of parents in the audience shaking their heads in assent, as if such a decision were axiomatic. Similarly, when the 3-8 state exams are given, children whose parents opt them out are sent to alternative areas where they are admonished not to work on anything that would get them academically ahead of their peers so as not to disadvantage them. How objectively crazy is this? Is it not a serious subversion of the reasons we send children to public school?

When we conceptualize our education system as a competitive area, we structure many of the behavioral outcomes of our children. In such an environment, one’s peers are rivals whose success diminishes us. One self-worth becomes aligned with one’s academic rank and as a student once told me when I questioned him about why grade were so important to him, “Without my grades, I’m nobody.”

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NEA To Follow AFT IN Premature Endorsement

I gather that this weekend the NEA Board of Directors will endorse Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. Should they do so, they will be following the premature endorsement of the AFT and will have unnecessarily committed our membership to a candidate who as handled herself about as maladroitly as possible. Perhaps even more importantly, they will have further eroded the connection of the leaderships of both unions to the political activists in our ranks on whom they must depend to have their endorsement have any meaning.

By and large the union members likely to do the work to make our endorsement worthwhile are with Bernie Sanders. They have responded to his program for an economy that works for all of the people of our society, not just the one percent. They believe in his support for public education and trust that he stands up for what he says. The one’s I meet are both idealistic and practical. Their idealism embraces Bernie’s appeal to economic justice. Their pragmatism leaves them understanding him to be a longshot. Should he lose to Hillary, they are prepared to enthusiastically support her, but they believe, and so do I, that she will be a different Hillary as a result of their contest. Beyond any reasonable doubt, Bernie has pushed Hillary to the political left. Why not let that process continue? Why not make Hillary work for our endorsement? Where does Hillary stand on high stakes testing and its linkage by the reform movement to the evaluation of teachers? Where is Hillary on charter schools? What’s her program for addressing the achievement gap? Our premature support for her makes it much less likely that we will get definitive answers from her to any of these questions.

Once again the desire to cozy up to the powerful for the pleasure of the experience rather than as a part of a calculated political strategy appears to have overtaken both unions and thereby weakened them and the members they serve.

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New Yorkers Are On To The Common Core

A new Siena College poll finds 64 percent of New Yorkers think the Common Core State Standards have either had no effect on public education (24%) or have worsened it (40%). That then means that we have spent millions of dollars of scarce resources to fund the implementation of an approach that has diminished the public’s confidence in its schools. We have tied these standards to a regime of high stake tests of undetermined validity and in turn tied the student results to the evaluation of teachers, demoralizing our teacher corps as they have never been demoralized before.

We hired a new commissioner on the basis of her allegiance to the standards, the tests aligned with them and teacher accountability linked to student test scores. When does the absurdity of this policy dawn on our elected representatives? When do we collectively say, ENOUGH? When does it become clear to the policy makers that a few cosmetic changes will not suffice to convince the public of the merit of this policy? Must we wait for one hundred percent of New York’s students to opt out of the testing regime? Or have we reached the point where what the people of the state think no longer matters? Maybe the problem is even bigger than we think.

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The Seattle Strike

There were four education union strikes in the state of Washington this fall with the Seattle strike receiving the most attention. It remains to be seen whether this strike activity is a harbinger of increased union militancy or a phenomenon peculiar to special circumstances in the way schools in Washington State are funded.

One this is clear. The Seattle strike while about pay and benefits was also about professional conditions, the kind of conditions that have been demoralizing the people working in our nation’s public schools for some time. Already a leader in the anti-high stakes testing movement, the Seattle union representing teachers and support staff demanded and achieved two major concessions. Once and for all, they broke the ludicrous nexus between student test results and teacher evaluations, even winning some reduction in the number of tests required. Convinced that students were being subjected to more and more unrelenting academic pressures that were crowding out any time for students to relax and let off steam, the union bargained contractually mandated recess time for students. With some significant gains in special ed staffing and a financial package calling for a 9.5 percent wage increase over three years, an increase above a state funded increase of 4.8 percent over the next two years, the week-long strike certainly produced one of the best settlements we have seen in a long time.

The Seattle strike was clearly influenced by the recent teacher strike in Chicago, where a militant union mobilized the community to confront the test and punish policies of Democratic mayor Rahm Emmanuel. I want to believe that a trend is developing of a return to kind of militant education unionism that arose in the late 50’s and 60’s that ushered in an era of improving salaries, benefits and working conditions and which did so much to improve the lot of people working in our public schools and the children served in them. I want to believe that we can rebuild our movement from the bottom up and return it to a position where we sit at the table where education decisions are made as people who must be reckoned with because we are once again organized and organizing for ourselves and for economic justice in our nation.

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The Republicans and Education

Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate was notable for its almost complete lack of questioning or comments on education issues. Aside from a shot by Trump at Jeb Bush for his support of the Common Core State Standards, I don’t recall any other education remarks. Yet, it’s hard to find a state in our country where education issues aren’t hotly debated, particularly the issue of Common Core and high stakes testing. The candidates spent so much of the evening struggling with which of them is manlier and more bellicose than the others and President Obama that I suppose education was seen as a Low T topic.

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Regents Cling to the Wrong Approach

It wasn’t very surprising to learn yesterday the New York State Regents voted to make their teacher evaluation regulations permanent. While some seats on the Board of Regents were flipped last year, there are still not enough members committed to ending the test and punish approach to school improvement that is choking meaningful quality education from even our best public schools. The real disappointment came with the knowledge that Regent Tilles, a professed opponent of the test and punish policy, voted to support the regulations, claiming he had to because it is required by law. Frankly, I have always seen Tilles as wanting things all ways. He opposes the current policy but votes to support the regulations. He opposes the scourge of high stakes testing but played a vital part in hiring Commissioner Elia, a proponent of testing and its connection to teacher evaluation. I fear Tilles is more interested in becoming chancellor than he is in acting on his professed beliefs. One way or another, he has let the defenders of public education on Long Island down.

Today, parents and school personnel who oppose the direction of education policy in our state are wearing red to show support for their local public schools. The failure of the Regents to seriously revise the regulations promulgated last spring will undoubtedly serve to breathe new energy into the opt-0ut movement. It will also hopefully begin the process of targeting public education’s political enemies in Albany and devising a strategy for their defeat in November 2016. Despise Governor Cuomo as I do, the crafty devil senses that the political tide is turning against him and his education policy, causing him to suddenly favor changes to the teacher evaluation system in the direction of greater fairness. It’s going to take more than that Andy!

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Maybe Teacher Evaluation Is A waste of Time

I recently had a Facebook exchange with a citizen on the subject of the evaluation of teachers. He was responding to my view that connecting teacher evaluation to student results on high stakes tests is an absurd thing to do for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that the student tests were not designed to measure teacher performance. In the citizen’s most recent post, he asked me how I would evaluate teachers. I promised him this blog post as my response.

While much of the education community is hyper-focused on teacher evaluation, to me most of the discussion is directed at answering the wrong question, an all too familiar circumstance. Just as the No Child Left behind Act was premised on the mathematical absurdity that all children could through proper education become above average, the reality is that teaching talent is also distributed on a curve or spectrum. To think that it is possible to have a great teacher in every American classroom is equally absurd, assuming we could define the characteristics of that greatness, something I think is almost impossible to do. The almost fetishistic discussion of teacher evaluation and the policies that have emerged to weed out bad teachers from the profession have been an abject failure, having accomplished little more than the demoralization of countless teachers who put heart and soul into their work.

Were we serious about raising the caliber of members of the teaching profession, we would take steps to actually make teaching more of a true profession, where good practice is determined by those engaged in the practice rather than political people and administrative hacks. We would begin by developing a more clearly defined path to becoming a teacher. In the current model, young people invest at least four years of their lives qualifying to be a teacher before they have anything like a realistic experience of what it is like to actually do the job. Suppose we took young people interested in teaching and in their sophomore college year actually put them in the public schools several days per week, giving them increasing responsibilities as they advanced through their teacher training program. We might even employ them during their junior and senior years, giving them actual responsibilities for students. These years of “clinical experience” would be under the shared supervision of the university and the staff of the public school who would have joint responsibility for certifying them as qualified to teach. Young people completing this program would know if they liked the work and whether they were any good at it. They would also know that people who actually do the job day in and day out think them capable of doing it. How different from the current model where one takes some state examinations, does a few hours of teaching and is declared fit to teach.

A sensible teacher induction process could reduce the number small number of bad teachers we have. Yes we have some, but far fewer than conventional wisdom would have us believe. No one knows about them better than the teachers in the schools where they work. My union experience defending the rights of these people has taught me that most of them really hate the job and feel trapped in it. To be sure they offer elaborate rationales for why things are not going well for them, but when I listen carefully I almost always detect, “I really don’t want to do this job anymore. I never really wanted to. But I’m now trapped in it with no economic alternatives to staying until retirement.”

A system of teacher training like the one I propose would weed most of these people who should not be teachers out. Those who remain will still be of varied abilities and dedication, but they will have already passed muster with people who actually do the job who have observed them under progressively real conditions, unlike the current system where prospective teachers watch teaching for a semester and then do student teaching for another. Once they get a full-time teaching position, I would have them under the direct supervision of the tenured members of the department or school. Most of what I learned about teaching over the years I learned from the teachers with whom I worked. While the administrators who observed me from time to time said good things about my work, I learned almost nothing from those experiences. Like most teachers and performers, self-criticism was a more powerful motivator than that of any administrator. In a system of peer responsibility that very common quality of being self-critical combined with the pressure to conform to a departmental or school consensus on the work to be done is far more likely to influence teacher practice than the current system that confuses supervision with scrutiny.

So much time money and rhetoric expended about how to rank teachers. People are evaluated on every job, people will say. I suspect it’s largely a waste of time in most places.

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When Did the College Board Get to Run Our Schools?

Am I alone in thinking it an outrage that the College Board gets to decide that the PSAT will be administered on a school day this year? How does it come to be that a company gets to decide to rob the nation’s high schools of a day of instruction? If you check the College Board’s website, you’ll find my favorite my favorite they give for this rip-off; it will allow the exam to be given without it conflicting with extra-curricular activities. Shame on any school district including my own for acquiescing to this outrage.

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Mathematical Magic

Spectators of the Plainview Board of education meeting last evening got a first-hand view of the pernicious influence high stakes testing is having on the best of our public schools, even schools whose managements profess strong opposition to this testing. The tests and the scores they generate have an almost mesmerizing effect on many people causing them to lose track of their understanding of their objective meaninglessness and harmfulness. For almost one hour, members of our administration and board talked about the scores our students received and the import of those scores for our academic program. While they from time to time reminded themselves that over fifty percent of our students opted out of the exams, the magic of a meaningless number to establish the value of an instructional program was clear as areas where “we need work” were observed.

Such careless discussion can have profound consequences. At one point in the presentation of our scores, the high school’s results on the Common Core Algebra Regents exam were discussed. Over fifty percent of the students in our district take algebra in middle school. Thus, the students taking it at the high school are for the most part are kids who don’t like math, have a history of not doing well at it or have disabilities that make math difficult for them. The fact that fifteen percent of them scored at the mastery level (Whether that designation has any meaning I’ll leave for another day.) is probably a sign of the high quality of our program. Yet, to a parent in the audience listening to this discussion, the message was quite different. When she rose to speak during public participation she passionately expressed the view that a fifteen percent master rate was a sign of failure. For her at least, the presentation cast real doubt on the efficacy of our academic program.

The propagandists of the education reform movement have used mathematical magic to discredit public education. That magic is so powerful that even those who understand it and the corporate scam behind it, can find ourselves enthralled to the point losing track of the scam.

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It’s Not About Selfies

I’m absolutely sure it would be hard to refuse to take a picture with the President of the United States. But when you are the head of the nation’s second largest teacher union and the President of the United State is Barack Obama whose administration has done more to discredit and destroy public education than any in my long memory, one has the obligation to pause and consider the message such a picture sends. Weingarten’s tweet suggests she was well aware of my point, apologetically observing that she is “not beyond a selfie w/ this special guy.” To teachers smarting under the influence of Race to the Top and the scourge of high stakes testing it unleashed, including the value added evaluation of teachers, the closing of neighborhood schools and the almost complete lack of attention to the centrality of crippling poverty to the achievement gap that test data masks, coziness with the man responsible is not the message our national union should be sending. Our members have a right to expect their leaders to subordinate personal honors for the good of the organization.

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