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 December, 2015

Bravo, Bill De Blasio

Yesterday’s announcement by New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio that he will be granting non-union city workers up to six weeks paid family leave is an historic event . His additional invitation to the unionized city workforce to seek negotiations on the issue probably means that all city workers will enjoy this much needed benefit in the not too distant future.

As a local union leader of a seventy-five percent female membership, I’ve had an up-front view of the burdens placed on mothers who are unable to afford the luxury of spending some reasonable time with their new born children. I’ve observed the bitter irony of parents whose careers center around taking care of other people’s children bear the guilt of feeling themselves unable to give their own children a proper start in life. I listened to their anguish about leaving sick newborns with strangers because they have to be at work. I’ve represented them in disciplinary meeting at which their bosses reveal their cold indifference to the needs of their families, admonishing them about their responsibilities to other children. In America we talk a lot about our love of children, but we haven’t structured our society to enable all families to provide what all children need. To our everlasting shame, the richest country in the world allows so many thousands of its children to live in poverty while many of its politicians look to cut what little safety net exists. In other industrial democracies and even in some less developed places, paid family leave is a right and the welfare of children is paid more than lip service.

Bernie Sanders has brought the issue of the crying need for paid family leave to his campaign for the presidency. While I expect Hillary Clinton to be the Democratic nominee, she too will campaign on this issue. She will now be able to point to the great city of New York and its support of the families of its workforce as an example to the rest of the nation of what can happen when leaders show real concern for children and families. Bravo, Bill De Blasio.

I’m taking the holidays off. I wish all my readers a very happy holiday season and a very happy New Year. I’ll talk to you again on January 4th.

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Don’t Let the Moratorium Become a Trap

Federal law no longer mandates the use of student test data to evaluate teachers. While the 3 through 8 testing mandate remains, it is essentially left to the states as what is done with the test results. New York law, however, mandates a linkage of student test scores and teacher evaluation. While the Regents have adopted new regulations that establish a moratorium on the uses of state test scores in teacher evaluation, the information coming out of the State Education Department make sit absolutely clear that that in the 2019-20 school year, there is an expectation that teacher evaluations will make use of a revised growth model. Thus, if the stupidity of linking teacher evaluation to student scores on high stakes tests is to be consigned to the substantial history of idiotic education reform ideas where it so rightfully belongs, it is going take a change in the law. It becomes increasingly clear that the Cuomo’s Common Core Task-force is a diversion meant to confuse the public into thinking that there has been a meaningful retreat from the corporate driven education reform agenda. Clearly, the Regents have not given up their commitment to yearly testing and on the pseudo-science that claims the efficacy of judging teachers on the student results of that testing. If we fail to build politically on the moratorium, rather than a significant step forward, it will become a dangerous trap.

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It’s Not Tutoring Children Need

Some parents of elementary students in my community have been lobbying our board of education for a tutorial or extra help program for their children. We’ve been hearing this call for some time, its advent paralleling the era of high stakes tests and the narrowing the curriculum to the tested subjects of math and English. Last year, labor and management agreed to the piloting of a before school program staffed by volunteer teachers to attempt to address the perceived need. Much of the demand for these services seems to come from parents’ perception of the frustration of their children with the changes to mathematics instruction brought about by the introduction of the Common Core State Standards.

The question that too few raise is not why we don’t have an across the grades tutorial program. The real question is what is it about our program that makes parents and students feel the need for instruction beyond the regular school day? The easiest part of an answer is that some of what the Common Core asks of young children is developmentally inappropriate. The more complicated answers centers around what happens when we allow the results of high stakes tests to drive instruction.

The testing era has brought with it the pacing chart. The rhythm of elementary instruction is no longer dictated by the judgment of the classroom teacher as to when a class is ready to move forward to the next topic but by a timetable designed to ensure that all the tested topics will be covered by the time of the state examination. Again and again, teachers have told me that they knowingly feel obliged to move ahead even though they know for certain that numbers of the children in the class are not ready for the move. So while our teachers are constantly and skillfully informally assessing student responses to instruction, they too often feel compelled to subordinate their professional judgment because to “not finish” the curriculum is to risk the perception that one’s teaching skills are lacking.

The testing era and the “rigor movement” associated with it have brought a very significant increase in the amount of homework young children are doing. We ought to be concerned about this trend, recognizing that six or seven hours of sitting and receiving instruction is a hard day’s work for a young child. We need to be constantly reminded of their need for recreation and play as vital activities in their development. We should also try to appreciate that the homework students receive should be able to be completed by them and not require parents to try to decipher and explain it to their children. The interaction of parents and their children should not be extensions of the teacher/student relationship. Ideally, the home should support the school, not be an extension of it.

Finally, we are encouraging young children to have an unhealthy concern for school grades. We seem to have forgotten how easy it is for little kids to come to associate their self-worth with their grades at school. One of the best parts of the opt-out movement is their slogan that kids are more than a score. I recall talking to a friend’s child who had become hyper-focused on his grades and who when pressed by me to say why he felt his grades so important said, “Without my grades I’m nobody.” That child’s school surely failed him.

Our focus as adults should not be on finding ways for little kids to accommodate inappropriate demands on the time and stage of development. By and large, it’s not tutoring they need, but an education aligned with their stage of development, not some arbitrary standard of what they should know.

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A Techie Who Gets It

Readers know of my contempt for the notion that technology has an important role to play in the education of children. When I think of the million upon millions of dollars spent by public school districts on the latest electronic panacea only to have the gadgets be outdated by the time the incredibly slow purchasing process of school districts is completed, I get enraged at what could have been done with that money to make meaningful educational improvements. I will never understand why school leaders don’t get the fact that we have been infusing technology into public school program for over a decade. We have done so amidst an almost cultish belief in the efficacy of data to drive academic decisions. Yet, we have no evidence that our seduction by the purveyors of ed tech gadgetry has improved anything. Wouldn’t we have seen the results by now?

I came across this article by a higher ed techie, Joshua Kim, that has me hoping that we might begin to get a grip on our exuberance for high tech solutions to education issues. Here’s a tech guy who gets it. “The true value of education, the type of education that people will pay for, is only found at a scale where an educator can get to know a learner as an individual.”

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Aspirations of Adults vs. Welfare of Children

Most days, I check on the social media sites in my school district focused on our public schools. I try to correct misinformation that’s circulating as well as advancing the concerns of our union membership. I’m encourages by what appears to be a growing number of parents who understand that the quality of a school system is at best marginally related to how many college courses their high school students take. This morning, a parent on one of the social media sites I monitor asked why it is that our board of education seems headed in the direction of accelerating all of our students in 8th grade math in what has come to be called “algebra for all,” as though this were some kind of populist political movement. I responded to her post specifically with our school district in mind, but to varying degrees I believe most of our suburban school districts are similarly guilty of what I have come to see as the exploitation of children. Here’s my answer to why our leaders want algebra for all. See if it doesn’t fit your district as well.

We’ve become a district that is more interested in the building of student resumes than in their intellectual, social and emotional growth. Our programs are increasingly aimed at rising on the scorecards of the pop magazines that rate school districts on indices having almost nothing to do with real accomplishments. Our leaders believe that the more work we pile on children, the more we brainwash them to believe that if they just take another AP class their future will be ever so much better is the extent to which we are a quality school district. More and more, our programs are driven by the aspirations of adults rather than the welfare of children. We appear to aim for a meretricious facsimile of a real education. Sadly, that is what we are achieving. Algebra for all is but one symptom of what is increasingly wrong

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The Parade of Martinets

The best teachers I have known over my career spent almost no time talking about rules and regulations yet had the best classroom management. They communicated through their command of subject and seriousness of purpose that they were in control and worthy of the respect of their students. They rarely had to call parents, wrote few if any discipline referrals and usually seemed to know the next move they had to make to lead kids where they wanted them to go. They assumed cooperation and received it. They didn’t live in constant fear losing control.

Those that went on to try their hand at administration tended to use the same skills to lead the adults, setting good examples of cooperation and respect. They never forgot how difficult the work of teaching is and how the last thing teachers need are administrators making their work more difficult. It is these experiences with great teachers and administrators that inform my view of so many of the martinets I meet in our schools today, so-called leaders whose fears of losing control, springing from deep personal uncertainties, lead them to feel compelled to try to lead through fear and intimidation. At best, these would-be leaders get grudging obedience. They never command the respect integral to good leadership. They come and go from our school districts, to be laughed at if they are remembered at all.

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Enough Celebrating Already!

Just as I feared, there is much too much celebration of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and the report of the Cuomo task-force on Common Core. Even Michael Mulgrew, President of the United Federation of Teachers, and until recently a militant supporter of the Common Core State Standards, is hailing developments in Washington and Albany as a huge victory.

Let’s try to remember that he supporters of the test and punish approach to education reform are in retreat; they are not dead. Remember, there is still federally mandated testing in grades 3 through 8 and still a battle to be waged over how to make New York’s academic standards developmentally appropriate.

So long as the testing mandate continues in its current iteration, the focus of elementary education will continue to be rigidly on English and mathematics. What we test tends to be what we get. Surely the last few years should have taught us that. Neither Washington nor Albany has raised the issue of developing standards for what good schools should provide for the intellectual, emotional and social development of children. Only math and English seem to be important. Is there not considerably more to the nurturing of a human child than his English and math skills? How much more comfortable we could all be to see a call for early childhood standards that focused on the centrality of play.

Let’s be buoyed by recent developments. They have given us hope that we are beginning to turn away from the stupidities foisted upon us in the name of reform. Let’s, however, not stop the efforts that have brought us these happier days with the promise of even better ones to come.

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New York Standards and a Moratorium

Predictably, the Governor’s task-force on the Common Core is apparently about to recommend that the state develop its own tests and standards with the input of teachers and a four year moratorium on the impact of test data on either students or teacher evaluations. In that Governor Cuomo has a reputation for having the reports of his commissions written before they even convene for the first time, it appears reasonable to expect him to implement most, if not all, of the report. The moratorium appears designed to politically shield Cuomo through his re-election as governor and for seeking the presidency should the Democrats fail in 2016.
I want to keep reminding readers of Cuomo’s craftiness in disarming his opponents and clearing the way for his own agenda. The coalition of opt-out parents, anti- standardized testers and Common Core opponents will need to keep their alliances organized and dedicated to making sure the changes they have been working for become permanent.

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NCLB is Dead. Welcome ESSA!

The nation took a huge step forward today with the Senate’s passage of Every Student Succeeds Act, the successor to the failed No Child Left Behind Act that ushered in the test and punish approach to public school reform. This bipartisan measure is said to have the support of President Obama, although it must be seen a repudiation of his policies and the work of his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Credit is due for the efforts of our two national teacher unions for their very effective work in getting this legislation passed.

The downside of the measure is that it maintains the yearly testing of current law, but differs markedly in permitting the state significant latitude in what is done with the test scores. It also ends the federal mandate that the test scores be tied to the evaluation of teachers. More responsibility for education is returned to the states where issues of academic standards, teacher evaluation and what to do about failing schools will now be addressed without the financial coercion effectively dictating state policies. To be sure, there is still much work to be done to undo the harm done to our schools by the corporate driven test and punish reform movement. We can begin to see, however, movement toward a return to sanity.

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Dignity and Status

As I listened to our high school staff address our board of education last evening on their need for a raise, I found myself thinking of the parallels to many of the sentiments expressed by those who led the founding of our union. Back then, teachers were miserably paid, at the beck and call of the petty tyrants who ran the bureaucracy, and, while better educated than most of the members of the society, not treated with the respect afforded similarly educated professionals. Overwhelmingly female, at a time when equal pay for equal work was even more of a dream than it is today, communities counted on these people to educate their children. While they often loved their school teachers, that love carried with it no obligation to treat them as economically independent workers.

The founders of our local union, mostly a few brave elementary teachers, wore a little button on which appeared their essential goal for wanting to organize a union. Dignity and Status, it read, those two words capturing how they felt about their place in society and their determination to command the respect they felt they deserved. I hear echoes of that call for dignity and respect from today’s members, members whose creativity and professional judgment is increasingly proscribed by an almost mindless bureaucracy that shoves canned programs down their throats, creates pacing charts to determine the rhythm of their work and supports a testing regime that is choking any semblance of education out of the system in favor of what can only be considered training. Last evening I heard women explaining that as the principal wage earners in their families, their stagnating wages were beginning to prevent them from providing adequately for their families. I heard all our speakers demanding to be treated with dignity and respect.

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Behind the Headline

For the past few years, commentators on public education have focused their attention on Finland’s a model for high performing schools, Finland having consistently scored at the top of the PISA exam results that measure the performance of 65 of the world’s industrial countries. Finland’s success is often attributed to a teacher corps made up of the nation’s brightest who, free from the regimenting requirements of high stakes testing, are able to be professionally creative and attuned to the real needs of children. Yet, digging more deeply into the Finnish reading results, Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution has unearthed a shocking gender gap in the Finnish scores leading to the conclusion that it’s Finnish girls on whose shoulders the academic success of the country rests. While there is a significant gender gap in U.S. reading scores, it’s about half that of the Finnish. This story is but the latest evidence of the limited insights provided by simply raking schools systems on the basis of test scores. School systems are complicated social institutions that engage student populations who manifest a dizzying array of strengths and weaknesses that tend to be overlooked by conventional ranking measures. There is almost always more behind the education headline.

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The Technology Scam

Rajen Sheth is the director of product development for the Chrome and Android divisions of Google. He is known as the father of Google Apps. Trained as an electrical engineer and computer science person, he has no recognized qualification in the field of k-12 education. He designs and sells Google products, products which are capturing more and more of the public school market.

The current wave of “education reform” is driven in part by technology hucksters like him whose meteoric economic success appears to suggest to Americans that their opinions on subjects outside their professional domain are somehow more worthy than the average Joe. So Bill Gates knows how to evaluate teachers, and because of his billions, policy makers take him seriously. Sheth’s job is to sell Chrome Books, a tablet device that has captured over half of a very lucrative public school market. So he gets to blither away at what education should become, belittling the extraordinary work of all of the hard-working teachers in America’s classrooms. He know that the model of one teacher for 20 to 30 students doesn’t work anymore, that through Chrome Books and various apps, we can individualize instruction, perhaps even avoiding the need for teachers at some point in the future.

People like Sheth have been such successful marketers that few in leadership positions in education ever challenge the assumption that the massive introduction of technology has significantly improved the quality of public education in the United States. Why aren’t Americans more suspicious of education ideas promoted by people who want to sell us expensive things? This year, companies like Google and Microsoft have sold 13.3 million devices to schools. Can we reasonably expect them to be honest about the usefulness of their products in the teaching of the nation’s children? Why do we continue to allow their voices to be amplified in proportion to their wealth?

After putting this posting up, I read Diane Ravitch, writing today about the corporate money behind “personalized learning.”

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Vanishing Childhood

It becomes clearer and clearer to me that knowledge of child development no longer informs educational decisions. Very young children in our schools are having mathematical abstractions shoved down their throats in the name of rigor and high standards. High school age kids are made to feel themselves laggards if they do not fill their school days with Advanced Placement courses which are claimed to run at college level. More and more, a k-12 education is little more than years of resume building to make one appealing to a prestigious college or university. Lost is a conception of what is appropriate at the different stages of a child’s life. If so-called college level courses are to be pushed into lower and lower grades, why don’t we simply do away with those classes and send the kids off to college? We don’t do that because we have some residual understanding that they are not ready for college, that they have some growing up to do before they will be ready for college and college ready for them. Instead, to prove to ourselves that our children are smart we, spoon feed them facsimiles of college courses, more and more ignoring what used to be considerable attention to their physical, psychological and social transition to adulthood. We ignore too the insights of our psychologists and social workers who report an increasing number of troubled children. When do we remind ourselves of what we used to know – that not everything that we can get a kid to do is appropriate for kids to do?

Childhood is a fairly recent social construction. Not so long ago kids were dressed like little adults and worked like adults. Having kids sit in school all day and sending them home to hours of homework is a clear sign that that our construction of childhood is reverting back to a view of children as little adults who must from almost the beginning of their lives be trained for the rat race of life.

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When We Taught Without Data

Way back in 1969 when I began my career in Plainview-Old Bethpage, believe it or not, we had no standardized testing. It was the policy of the district to prohibit them, a policy sprung from the belief that these unreliable measures were too often used to pigeon-hole children into inappropriate classes thereby influencing their lives negatively. While some of the more experienced and older teachers complained about not having them available, most of the teachers of my generation simply went about the business of teaching, relying on our professional judgment to evaluate student achievement, not the snap shots the tests provided.

Without any data other than that generated by the teachers themselves, we managed to develop very successful students who studied under substantially higher academic standards than we have today. We sent kids off to some of the best colleges and universities. Our work as teachers was driven by what we perceived our students needed and done at a pace dictated by student comprehension rather than the need to cover what was to be on a state exam. My first day on the job, my boss told me, “Don’t let me find you teaching to the English Regents. We teach to a higher level. In June, you can familiarize your students with the exam.” Each grade was organized around a body of literature, with British literature in the eleventh grade. Towards the end of my classroom years, a complete dunce of a chairperson decided that British lit was too difficult for our students and relegated it to some bits and pieces.

I’m not nostalgic about most things. Those who know me can cite instances of my making fun of those who romanticize the past. Yet, when I talk to today’s teachers and listen to how their professional lives are run for them by clueless district leaders who seek from them a mindless uniformity, I am reminded of what teaching used to be and angered that today’s teachers so much less lucky then I.

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Cuomo Continues to Cheat Public Schools

The LOHUD (lower Hudson) Journal News has consistently had the best coverage of public education issues in New York State. An op-ed piece in yesterday’s edition on the so-called Gap Elimination Allowance scored a perfect ten for its pointed criticism Governor Cuomo’s short changing of our school districts through a mechanism designed to get the state through the recent financial crisis. The continuance of the GEA has prevented districts from receiving pre-financial crisis state aid, let alone real desperately needed increases. Check this article out and realize that there is more to dislike about Cuomo’s public education policy than his attitude towards the evaluation of teachers and testing.

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