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 November, 2015

Cuomo’s Strategic Retreat

The media and blogosphere are full of speculation about Governor Cuomo’s apparent turn-away from the connection of student test scores to teacher evaluations. On my way to work this morning, local public radio had a commentator talking about Cuomo’s retreat from the combined attack of the parents and teacher union activists in the opt-out movement. If indeed Cuomo is retreating on the issue, we have to figure it’s a strategic retreat, one most probably designed to get even with those who have had the temerity to disagree with him. That’s simply baked into the character of the governor we have come to know. Just look at his treatment of Mayor de Blasio, a leader in his own party but a rival for the public’s attention.

I implore my colleagues in the movement to end the scourge of high stakes testing to avoid declaring premature victory. I am increasingly convinced that Cuomo’s retreat is temporary, just long enough to dissipate the energy of the anti-testing movement many of whom are already celebrating victory and declaring value added teacher evaluations dead. To do so is to trust Andrew Cuomo. Is there anyone in our movement who does? Then let’s act accordingly and redouble our efforts to bring sanity back to the evaluation of students and teachers.

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Watch Out for a Moratorium

In my November 6 post, I warned about the distinct possibility of the Cuomo administration out maneuvering the parent/teacher movement to end the scourge of high stakes testing and the tying of that testing to the evaluation of teachers by having his Common Core Commission propose a moratorium of some kind.. Today, the august New York Times is reporting unidentified sources as saying that a moratorium is in the offing. If true, while many will see this as a victory, I’ll be increasingly convinced that Cuomo’s real goal will be to suck the wind out of the teacher/parent opposition to his test and punish approach to public education – lull his opponents into a false sense that they have won. Once the pressure is off of him, he will go right back to supporting the agenda of his Wall Street backers. The only strategic response to a moratorium is to redouble our efforts to end the corporate sponsored reform movement once and for all.

Taking the rest of the week off. Back on Monday. Happy Thanksgiving!

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Tax Cap Fiasco

The property tax cap in New York is set to deliver a body blow to public services in general and public schools in particular. Set by law at two percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is less, left unamended and without substantial additional state aid, school districts will be faced with close to zero budget increases. Some district like ours will survive for a time. Others will not. Some that have cut programs and staff will go through another round of amputations. A few districts in which leaders have the courage and communities the resources will put up realistic budgets and build political support for the sixty percent vote needed to override the tax cap. While school districts struggle with tax cap issues, as recently as the other day, Senate Majority Leader Flanagan was quoted as saying he didn’t expect any change to the cap in the upcoming session of the legislature.

For most of my career, I’ve written and spoken about the need to finance schools and other public services currently funded off the property tax differently. A highly progressive income tax is my preference, but a NYSUT proposal that has been circulating in Albany for some years would be a decent backup. Called a circuit breaker, it maintains the property tax but ties taxpayers’ liability to their income. While there are various versions of the concept, all bring tax relief to people like fixed income retirees who get squeezed by rising property tax rates. Those who can afford to pay more do, thereby introducing an element of fairness. It’s not a perfect solution but much better that the status quo which left unaddressed will destroy even our best school systems.

Most school districts have weathered the tax cap era as best they could by asking their employees to subsidize the enterprise. Wage freezes, delaying step increases that were themselves designed to suppress wages and other gimmicks that have been spun to be fair to all of the employees but which are seen by those they affect for what they are, an indifference to the needs of those who do the important work. That indifference is breeding anger in staff that I have not seen since the beginning of my career, when our union organized around the unrealistic goal of a starting teacher salary of ten thousand dollars. It’s an anger that expresses itself in much the same terms of the demand used by the pioneers of our union – dignity and respect. They were tired of being treated as children; they were fed up with being paid far less than those in fields requiring similar education and training; they were infuriated by the pedantry of tyrannical administrators. I heard it last night at a board of education meeting some of our staff were asked to attend –RESPECT! I hear it every day. RESPECT! Our members’ demand grows with the indifference shown them. Where it’s all headed, I have only dark premonitions.

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As Massachusetts Goes…

News that Massachusetts is abandoning the PARCC (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Career) exams aligned to the Common Core State Standards is big. At the forefront of test based assessment of higher standards, Massachusetts has been in the mind of many reformers an example of the validity of their cause. The abandonment of PARCC in favor of a new state examination that is pegged to state standards that are adjustable is a major step in the battle to save public education. Not all of the Common Core Standards are bad. Many are, however, developmentally inappropriate. Left to the state, the standards can be changed to reflect the experiences of classroom teacher who work with them.

This news combined with new ESEA legislation that will no longer contain the linkage of theses like PARCC to teacher evaluation are the latest signs that the so-called movement is beginning to crumble. We must not, however, be lulled into a false sense of accomplishment until the entire test and punish reform efforts has been defeated and sanity and teacher professionalism has been returned to America’s classrooms.

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Test and Punish Takes a Hit

Good news this morning about progress in the battle to end the scourge of high stakes testing. A Senate and House conference committee has apparently agreed on successor legislation to the No Child Left behind Act that introduced the test and punish approach to school improvement in the United States.

Although we are as yet unable to read the bill, press reports indicate that while the grade three through eight annual testing requirement remains, most of the federal consequences for schools and school districts for insufficient progress have been abandoned in favor of state authority to decide. Also said to be absent is any mandate for the Common Core State Standards or the linkage of student test results to the evaluation of teachers, again such issues being left up to the states to manage.

While this legislation that seems assured passage into law does not guarantee any relief to New York’s teachers and children, state education decision makes will be unable to say that test and punish is the law of the land that must be followed. We will now be able to focus laser-like on demanding sate changes to the Standards and a teacher evaluation process free of the linkage of to student test results. The defense that the fed are making us do it is about to lose some of its potency. The new ESEA will not resolve all of the issues we have with the corporate reform movement. We will need to continue the battle to end the federally mandated annual testing. But ending the mandates on the standards, test based teacher evaluation and federal remedies for students and schools that don’t satisfy arbitrary federal notions of growth is a major step forward. The NEA and AFT deserve big-time credit for helping to shape this legislation.

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No Time, No Time! Hurry up. Hurry Up

I’ve been spending considerable time lately in conversations about math instruction, particularly at the elementary level. The advent of the Common Core State Standards has been inextricably tied to a regime of high stakes tests that have literally corrupted good teaching practice by the unrelenting pressure they exert to finish the curriculum before the state examinations in the spring. In my own district, the effects of the state tests are magnified by three mandated periodic local tests designed to make sure that what we expect to be on the state examinations will be covered by the time of the exams. With management watching where teachers are in the curriculum, with the results of state tests factored into their end of year evaluations, teachers are pressured to move forward in the curriculum whether or not they believe their children are ready to do so. If I had had any doubts about the blunting influence of high stakes testing on learning, my recent conversation about elementary math instruction would have disabused me of them. The Common Core was said to usher in curricula that were shorter and deeper. That does now appear to have materialized as teachers race to complete what I’m told is almost a new topic a day. The appropriate pacing of instruction used to be a professional teacher skill developed with experience. Professional judgments are of almost no importance in the current reform environment we find more and more ways to race to nowhere.

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Political Progress

I and many others have been critical of the early endorsement by our two national teacher unions of Hilary Clinton before extracting from her some reasonable commitments to our political agenda. Recent days, however, have brought the pleasant surprise that through leadership efforts Hillary is laying out education positions that hold the promise of undoing the severe damage done to our schools by the Obama administration’s brainless test and punish approach to closing the achievement gap between the children of the poor and the more affluent. Brainless is really too mild an epithet for a Race to the Top scam that led cash strapped states in the midst of a financial crisis to embrace the untested Common Core State Standards and teacher evaluation plans tied to high stakes tests. Hillary seems to understand this and has pulled away from full-throated support for charter schools, recognizing that they do not educate all of the children public schools do. She has additionally, stated that she knows of no evidence to justify the tying of student test scores to teacher evaluations. I strongly suspect that our leaders have been telling Hillary that their endorsement wasn’t going to amount to much if her positions on education didn’t start to bend in our direction. One way or another, let’s recognize AFT and NEA progress when we see it.

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Our Tax Dollars Wasted

New York State has spent almost 700 million dollars on Race to the Top. 700 million dollars to implement a test and punish culture in our public schools. 700 million to enrage parents and encourage them to opt their children out of the tests on which we have spent millions. Here’s the state’s breakdown on what they spent our tax dollars on. November 2016 will be our opportunity to hold the people who let this happen accountable.

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Basics Before Deeper Understanding

I have long though that the goal those who seek the math magic bullet that will enable every child to think like a mathematician is illusory. While it’s worth striving for, the search for universal mathematical mastery has often had undesirable consequences that have made matters much worse.

Key to most of the magical approaches to math education is the notion that we need to get children thinking more deeply about mathematics, that such deep thinking is much more important than knowing how to do basic mathematical manipulations. Some years back, an assistant superintendent in our district confronted by an angry group of parents who claimed that the Investigations math program we were using had kids counting on their fingers and ignorant of basic mathematical facts said, “The children don’t need to add, subtract, multiply and divide. They have calculators for that.” It wasn’t long before she and the program were gone from our district.

I’ve been thinking about this subject as the math wars are again breaking out in my town, with numbers of parents calling into question the credibility of the Common Core math we are trying to teach. In my attempt to understand what is going on, I came across this article by Barry Garelick that posits that deeper mathematical understanding flows from mastery of the basics. By all means search for deeper understanding, but at least attempt to leave those who may not get there the basics they will need.

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Teach Strong

The other day, a colleague drew my attention to Teach Strong, a coalition of organizations interested in public education who want to work to make teaching a more attractive career. Both the AFT and NEA are participants in this venture, a venture premised on the belief that the quality of America’s teachers is poor and that changing the way we recruit, train, support and pay teachers is key to having a great teacher in every public school classroom.

Why the hell members are paying dues to the NEA and AFT to have their leadership run down their abilities is beyond me. Much of the bullshit that passes for serious discussion of teacher quality references SAT scores of ed-school students and draws conclusions about their intellect and teaching abilities on the basis of a standardized test that is increasingly coming to be understood to essentially be a fraud. Are there some dumb teachers? Sure! Just as there are some incredibly dumb physicians, dentists, lawyers etc. Here’s the interesting thing from my experience, however. I’ve met numbers of teachers over the years who are not intellectual giants, don’t see themselves as belonging to an intellectual elite, but who are, nevertheless, fantastic teachers, teachers who any sane person would want their children exposed to.

Even the name Teach Strong is offensive, the implication being that we have been teaching weakly. Why is it that we can’t face the fact that talent in any field is unequally distributed so that to expect there to be a “great teacher” in every classroom (whatever that means) is ludicrous. Beyond any reasonable doubt, we could staff every classroom with honors Ivy League graduates, and we wouldn’t have a great teacher in every classroom. We might even be surprised to find that we had made matters worse. The real problems facing America’s public schools have little to nothing to do with the quality of the teacher workforce. We would gain much more from halting the denigration of America’s teachers than we will from raising the bar for entry into the job.

America’s teachers are teaching strong. Many work in places where salaries are so low they must work multiple jobs to maintain themselves and their families. Even in our best schools, places where teachers make considerably more than the median American salary, teachers meet the challenges of working in an hostile environment, one in which they are essentially isolated from other teachers, asked to individualize instruction to over 120 students, evaluated in part on the test results of student scores on high stakes tests, required to respond to the most outrageous complaints with complete equanimity, infantilized by administrators who increasingly have had little teaching experience and where they talk increasingly about career change. Hardly a week goes by that one of our members doesn’t tell me about a conversation she has had with her child who has express interest in becoming a teacher. With guilty looks on their faces, these members tell me how they discouraged their kids from following them into teaching. Like all good parents, they want better than they have for their kids.

We’re already teaching strong. What we need is for people to notice, especially our national union leaders.

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Preparing for the Challenge of the Taskforce

In Friday’s post, I suggested that it is entirely likely that that in creating his Common Core Taskforce, Governor Cuomo may be cleverly creating the illusion of meaningful change his position of Common Core and the high stakes tests integrally aligned to the standards only to lure the building coalition of parents and teacher who oppose his policies into letting up on their pressure for change.

Having suggested that we must act as though we know for a fact that the intention behind the taskforce is the disarming of our movement for a return to sane education policies, what shall we do to defeat Andrew Cuomo?

To begin, we must work tirelessly to increase the opt-out rate in our state significantly. We had approximately 240,000 this year. 500,000 is a reasonable target for this year. And we need to promote the need for parents to get their opt-out letters in early, certainly before the legislature reconvenes in January.

We need to organize a lobby effort of our assembly representatives and state senators that demand to know what each individual intends to do to stop the scourge of high stake testing, the debilitating effects of the Common Core and the statistically foolhardy linkage of test results with the evaluations of our teachers. We need tom make it clear that we will be casting our votes next year looking at their performance through this lens.

There are already some statewide efforts underway to recruit candidates from both parties who are schooled in our issues and prepared to air them out in both primaries and the general election. There are clearly some opportunities to take some supporters of the status quo out, thereby speaking to the political class in the only language they are sometimes capable of understanding. We demand that you fix these outrageously stupid laws that are ruining our schools.
We need to start now to organize to turn out our votes next November. We need to talk to our friends and neighbors about the threat to our public schools and try to convince others to join us. Our unions must undertake publicity campaigns to both build the opt-out movement and tie it to the political process. We need some videos of highly respected teachers talking about the effects of current education policy on their student and their profession. We need children talking about their perceptions. A few viral videos of children talking candidly about their frustrations are infinitely more evaluable to furthering the cause than reams of data.

We need to make it clear that we are not interested in a moratorium on testing and a rebooting of the implementation of the Common Core. We demand real change and won’t be lured from that goal by some facsimile.

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In Search of Mathematics Nirvana

All my life, educators have been in search of the perfect way to make mathematics more accessible and meaningful to students. From “new math” to Common Core math, with a dogleg towards constructivist math, we can never seem to come to terms what a public school k-12 education should provide students. My impression is that despite the methodology in vogue at any moment, there has been a spectrum of math achievement that hasn’t varied very much. Some kids are drawn to mathematical thinking and thrive on ever increasing levels of abstraction. Most do satisfactorily, although they don’t often “see” the same things that the gifted math kids do. Then there are those who mechanically learn to solve problem and who are never comfortable with what they are doing, relying on formulaic problem solving approaches rather than deep understanding. Lastly, there are those who at best never get beyond the ability to do simple arithmetic, which they do haltingly. The search for the method to mathematics nirvana is fraught, analogized by many to warfare. At this very moment, my own district is on the verge of reigniting the math wars, as kids, parents and teachers struggle with what’s dubbed Common Core math.

That said, I think we could do better at math, a least around the margins. Rather than searching for new instructional methodologies or curriculum adjustments, we would be much better off improving the mathematics knowledge base of the people teaching math in our elementary schools. It’s not that elementary teachers are stupid. They are anything but. It’s not that they are lazy. They are the hardest working people in the k-12 system. It’s simply that they have been historically trained to be generalists, with little required course work in mathematics. Most of them dread the idea of being observed teaching math, feeling much more comfortable in language arts or social studies. Were we serious about deepening the mathematical knowledge of our students, we would do a couple of things. We would offer serious continuing education in mathematics to existing staff, perhaps even offering cash incentives to entice those who worry that might not be up to it. We would additionally, require aspiring elementary teachers to have substantially more college math than they currently get. Over time, I think we would see some improvement, but the goal of having our graduates capable of deep mathematical thinking will remain largely elusive.

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Behind The Common Core Taskforce

Talking to an long-time colleague the other day about the Governor Cuomo’s Common Core Taskforce and what to expect from it. While it’s clear that the Governor created the taskforce in response to the mounting criticism of the implementation of the Common Core in New York and the high stakes tests aligned with the standards, what is not so apparent is what Cuomo is looking to achieve. My friend and I agreed that it would be totally unlike him to retreat, having very publically and stridently paced himself on the side of the school reformers and their demands for data driven student and teacher accountability. So, what’s he up to with the taskforce?

My friend advanced the thesis that the task force will probably recommend some sort of do-over in the implementation of the Common Core. During that reboot, a term Cuomo has used, there would be a moratorium on counting the results of the grade three through eight tests for both students and teachers, a moratorium that will last at least through the legislative elections next year. NYSUT can be expected to declare the moratorium a big union victory. More importantly, leadership in the opt-out movement while they will be more wary of Cuomo’s ultimate intentions, will nevertheless find it more difficult to grow their movement in an environment of a moratorium that leads the public to expect a significant roll-back of the testing regime. With the public’s focus off testing and the Common Core, Cuomo advances a new iteration of test driven accountability, claiming it corrects the deficiencies of the original roll-out of the Common Core and the testing regime but which really entails cosmetic changes. In this way, the thesis goes, the opposition to Cuomo’s reforms is weakened and our politically savvy governor gets what he always wanted, the test driven accountability systems demanded by his corporate reformer friends.

While we can’t know for sure that this is Cuomo’s plan, we must act as though it is. Once the movement of parents and teachers stops growing, it will inevitably lose its drive and intensity. Once that happens, it’s much harder to re-energize it than it was to begin it. We need a strategy to prevent our wily governor from out-foxing us again.

More on this next time.

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No Doubt Left About Elia

If we had any doubts about who Commissioner Elia is and where she stands on the scourge of high stakes testing and the incalculable damage it is doing to even our very best public schools, her release of a tool kit for superintendents makes it clear to teachers and parents that she wants New York’s students taking the 3 through 8 ELA and math tests and expects her superintendents get both groups to toe her line. Were I a superintendent, I would be outraged by the insult of thinking that I was too lazy and or stupid to write my own letters to parents and teachers if I wanted to, requiring Dr. Elia to give me a form letter into which I simply have to fill in the name of my district. What chutzpah! But what a jerk. The superintendents’ organization should blast her for this outrage, but I bet they don’t. If she had not smelled their fear, she never would have had the nerve to put this demeaning crap out to them in the first place.

Before most superintendents have even examined the tool kit, its publication has further inflamed those parents and teachers who have come together to defend our public schools from a testing regime that has been designed to discredit the institution of public education so that it may be privatized into an even bigger profit center than it already is. Jeanette Deutermann, founder of Long Island Opt Out, immediately took to social media to warn superintendents that our movement is watching them and is poised to pounce should they turn their backs on the their communities. My guess is that Elia has given our movement a gift, one that will help us achieve our goal of doubling our opt-out numbers this year.

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Driving Our Kid Nuts

Vicki Abeles is the maker of the film Race to Nowhere, a powerful documentary on the psychic toll America has been inflicting on its children in the name of competition and achievement. In the years since my union showed the film to several audiences in my community, hoping to wake it up to the realities of what we were doing to their children, the situation it graphically depicts has only gotten worse with the adoption of the developmentally inappropriate Common Core State Standards and the high stakes testing aligned to the Standards with the testing connected ever more tightly to the evaluation of teachers. Going to our schools today is more like having a job than being educated. In fact, the working conditions at most work place are superior. Little children are spending hours at home after a seven hour school day doing homework and studying for tests. High school kids are taking more college classes than many will take in college without the unscheduled time to do the work associated with them. Whatever time school work does not absorb is often scheduled into resume building activities in a fretful drive for conspicuous achievement that just might give one an edge on a college application. You have to look good to the colleges, the good ones at least. Forget about who you are. Abeles has written an essay that explores the hollowing out of childhood from the perspective of a parent who has the fortitude to honestly look at what she has allowed to happen to her children. Everyone with a child in school needs to read it and think deeply about it. If they do, they will hopefully immunize themselves against the almost virulent belief that our children are all underachievers if they do not have all As in Advanced Placement courses and are no guaranteed admission to Harvard.

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The Dystopian Paradigm Shift

We’re making significant progress in the battle to save public education from those who have fostered a culture of test and punish with the aim of discrediting public schools with the goal of enticing the public to embrace private and semi-private education models. The corporate sponsors of this pseudo-scientific data driven school reform must be apoplectic as they watch the politicians they bought and paid for retreat from their agenda as the elections near. Where we haven’t been as successful is in exposing the myth that technology is about usher in a golden age, one in which equipped with tablets students will receive an individualized, technology mediated education, free at last from the limitations of a single teacher attempting to educate a group of students with differing needs and abilities.

I’m drawn to this topic this morning by a post on the Long Island Opt Out Facebook page that invites our attention to a piece on the Questar website, Questar being the company that recently got the testing contract for New York State. There we are asked to abandon the “one –to- many teaching approach” in favor of a tablet with links to software in the cloud that will free students to have a customized education, one that provides learning and assessment all in one package. Like many 21st century snake-oil salespeople, this pitch seeks to distract our attention away from the reality that at best such systems are designed to inculcate skills and information rather than offering what we used to recognize as education. It does so by employing a favorite device of the 21st century snake-oil salesperson. It invites us to engage in a paradigm shift. Have you noticed how all paradigm shifts are presumed good and how those who oppose them are mired in the past? Have you noticed too that after a decade or more of huge expenditures on school related technology few, if any of the promises of wired education have been achieved? Maybe we need to shift a different paradigm.

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