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 January, 2016


While people tend to think more positively about squirrels than rats, both are destructive rodents that can seriously damage one’s home. So it is that John King was beyond any doubt the worst New York education commissioner over the course of my teaching and union career. His incompetence was matched only by his arrogance. His successor, Mary Ellen Elia, while a smoother operator, has no intentions of grounding New York’s education policy in our understanding of how children develop and learn but is clearly bent on making the major planks of the corporate reform movement more palatable to the gullible masses.

That she knows nothing about young learners was most recently made clear by her announcement that this year’s grades three through eight English and math tests will be untimed. So, children who have already been overburdened with too many hours of testing will now feel obliged to sit and struggle with questions which in many cases are developmentally inappropriate, feeling dumber and more frustrated by the minute. What would possess any educator to think this is a good thing to do to children? What’s the point?

The only point to be taken that while Elia may have a more appealing personality than her predecessor, it is becoming clear that those of us seeking real change in the management of the education bureaucracy will not be seeing it from Mary Ellen Elia who may in the end be even more destructive than John King. While she is spending considerable time trying to tame the opt-out movement, I doubt she is fooling anyone with moves like this. Any parent who has a child who struggles with high stakes tests would be foolish not to opt his child out from an untimed one.

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How Did Idealism Become a Bad Thing?

I realize that having decided to endorse Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary, NEA and AFT leadership need to try to organize membership support for their endorsed candidate. Being a practical man, I’m prepared to work my ass off for Hillary should she become the party’s candidate for the presidency, even though I’m a strong supporter of Bernie Sanders and the program he advocates. What I don’t get, is their line of attack against Sanders.

For labor leaders, for union leaders who represent hard working, underpaid people, people who find themselves being squeezed out of the middle class and robbed of their profession by a corporate led school reform movement to attack Sanders for being idealistic, an unelectable socialist is to ironically betray what real leaders do – offer those they would lead a vision of a better world than the one they inhabit. Bernie is attacked for unrealistically believing it possible for our public colleges and universities to educate for free the children of the taxpayers who fund these institutions as is done by most of the world’s industrial democracies. Bernie is attacked and ridiculed for not wanting to settle for the Affordable Care Act but wanting to continue to work for the day when quality healthcare is no longer a commodity but a human right. Paid family leave, absolutely essential to the people I represent, is yet another example of Bernie’s hopeless idealism and evidence for his not being qualified to be president. It’s just weirdly unsettling to have the national leadership of our teacher unions attacking a life-long defender of working people, a man with the temerity to attack the corporate elites of our nation, the very elites who have financed the attack on public education.

In a deeply troubling way, the manner in which our national union leaders, and to be fair many other liberal elites, are treating Bernie Sanders is a manifestation our union movement’s lack of motivating idealism. Our leaders would do well to learn from Bernie, particularly his appeal to the young. They might gain some insight, stimulate what’s left of their imaginations, to come up with an agenda for re-inventing the education labor movement for a new generation of members. A little idealism would go a long way in the battle against the forces arrayed against us.

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Faith in Our Schools

Perhaps the most corrosive effect of the corporate school reform movement has been its frightening success at discrediting the institution of public education, often even in our nation’s best school districts. In Plainview-Old Bethpage, an upper middleclass community with schools that much of the nation would envy, I meet more and more citizens who are increasingly mistrustful that our schools have the best interests of their children in mind. Their mistrust includes the school administration and the teachers. On one hand they appear to believe the false reformer rhetoric that has their children locked in a dire economic competition with the rest of the world whose educationally advanced students are preparing to sink our children into penury, while on the other, they are coming to realize that we are driving our children to undertake a volume of academic work that leaves them little to no time or space required for their psycho-social development.

At our board of ed meeting last night, the issue was how to deal with Common Core Algebra 2, a revamped state course of study that appears to omit certain trigonometric functions necessary for the study of advanced mathematics and physics and which are tested on the ACT college entrance examination. A group of citizens came to petition the board to exercise its option under New York regulation to switch gears and return to the old curriculum that covered the trig topics in question, something which a number of districts in our area are doing in the name of giving their students a competitive advantage. Speaker after speaker spoke to how the current curriculum and the Regents examination it is geared to disadvantage their children who will compete with students from the districts who will be doing the easier and trig inclusive curriculum and exam. Seeking to assuage these patents’ concerns, the superintendent suggested that the district offer after-school and weekend classes on the missing trigonometry topics while changing the pre-calculus course next year to include trig. That proposal was met with an intense anger, with parents voicing how their children could not possibly fit one more thing into their already precisely scheduled, over stressed lives. With the board vote against the motion, the parents left talking about the injury the school district has inflicted on their children, their respect for and belief in the institution diminished – diminished ultimately by a school reform effort that our local leaders feel powerless to change.

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Long Island Opt-Out is calling for a boycott of Newsday, our local newspaper, because of their promotion of the U.S. department of Education’s threat to withhold federal education aid to district who don’t meet the 95 percent participation rate on federally mandated high stakes tests. Not a problem for me to support this Opt-Out call. I haven’t subscribed to Newsday for a good ten years. Their anti-public education, anti-union, anti-public service bias caused me to quit them.

Opt-out leader Jeanette Deutermann appears to be particularly angered by education editor John Hildabrand whom she has learned has a one-edged anti-public education ax that he has been grinding for years. I long ago stopped taking his phone calls, having repeatedly experienced his distortion of the things I said to him. He has burned so many people in public education that I don’t understand why anyone talks to him. If every education union leader ignored him, if every superintendent refused his calls, if every school board member avoided the temptation to see his name in print, we could marginalize his malevolent influence on public education on Long Island.

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A Hopeful Sign of Change

One of my least favorite expressions has become “college and career ready,” an expression almost invariably sliding thoughtlessly off the tongue of some puffed-up buffoon who is clueless as to what education is or ought to be about. These words are repeatedly invoked to justify what has become nothing short of child abuse, an approach to high school education that encourages children to take as many Advanced Placement courses as they can fit in their schedules, sign up for extra-curricular activities that often extend into the evening and spend weekends attending tutoring sessions and doing volunteer work, all to provide them with data to fill the spaces on the applications to the elite colleges And universities to which their parents aspire to have them attend. Where we should be promoting serious intellectual engagement, discussing what it means to be a citizen of a democratic society, exploring what it means to live an ethical life, providing time and space for young people to figure out who they are and begin to sense a direction for their lives, we impose academic drudgery, keep them doing school work for almost unimaginable hours, inculcate that they are only as good as their grades and force them to compromise their sense of right and wrong as we oblige them to cut ethical corners to get an undoable amount of school work done. There is hope, however, that we may be coming to our senses.

A project begun by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and supported by many other colleges and universities seeks to end the gaming of the college admissions system that has encouraged applicants to view a resume documenting a twenty-four hour a day commitment to academics and school related activities as the ticket to success. These schools are beginning to adjust their admissions practices, seeking ways to identify real intellectual curiosity, serious though and reflection on one’s relationship to the members of one’s family and one’s community and what it means to be an ethical human being. On one level, what these schools seem to be after in their applicants is evidence of an understanding that education is not a commodity but a process of enriching our humanity. I like to hope we may yet be able to redeem the promise of educating the young.

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Debasing Data

A series of nose bleeds took me to an ENT doctor that I have seen off and on for almost twenty years. When I first saw him, it was at a university hospital center where he was a full-time physician in a premier ENT department. I had arranged to see him because of an unexplained bout of dizziness that had stumped my family doctor. Between the doctors and his assistants, I spent almost an hour, answering questions, and taking tests that were all carefully explained. I felt I had the team’s undivided attention.

I was contrasting that visit this morning to my recent one to where my ENT now practices in a high tech private practice office. I was drawn to do so while reading a very insightful article by a physician on how the practice of medicine and teaching are being negatively altered by the collection and frivolous use of data. After a brief greeting, the doctor sat down at his computer, typing away furiously – more time typing than examining me. In fact, after a brief treatment, I left him in the exam room, entering more data from my visit than I would have thought could have been generated in our brief encounter.

I’ve been carefully watching the subordination of teaching and learning to testing and pointless data collection for some time. To borrow a phrase from Wordsworth, it has been a “fretful stir unprofitable,” with little if anything to show for the effort but anxious, upset children and dispirited teachers. It was interesting to read a physician draw parallels between the condition of his profession and mine.

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The Lesson of Flint

How many Flint Michigan children will be permanently intellectually damaged as a result of the misfortune of being born poor? Added to the myriad effects of poverty on the education outcomes of children, the criminal failure of the state of Michigan which had effectively taken over the finances of the city and is directly responsible for shifting the city’s water source from the Detroit system to the Flint River has surely permanently damaged an as yet unknown number of children, all in the name of saving money. For fifteen months, Governor Snyder ignored the obvious threat to the citizens of Flint. Many have called on him to resign. Somehow that seems too good an option for him. One has to wonder if he would have waited fifteen months to declare an emergency if this tragedy had occurred in an upper class white community.

Beyond the criminal indifference of Snyder, however, Flint is but the latest outrageous example of what is happening all over the United States, as our infrastructure crumbles while our elected leaders talk about cutting taxes. Water supplies, bridges, dams, power grids and more decay while few of our politicians say a word about the failing infrastructure threats to our people. In 2015, the American Society of Civil Engineers New York Council issued its report card on New York’s infrastructure. Here’s what it had to say about our drinking water infrastructure. “In New York State, 10,147 regulated water systems provide clean water to 20 million of New York’s citizens. Nearly 95% of New York’s population receives water from the state’s public water supply systems. Unfortunately, 95% of the submitted improvement projects to the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund program remain unfunded due to the overwhelming demand. The latest estimate of repairing, replacing, and updating New York State’s drinking water infrastructure is $38.7 billion over 20 years. With almost half of New York City’s pipes put in place prior to 1941, it would take 100 years or more to upgrade its aging pipes at current replacement rates. From frequent pipe breaks to large system upgrades to rebuilding from storm damages, New York State’s aging drinking water network has no shortage of challenges.” A little scary, don’t you think?

Look at what the engineers have to say about the rest of our infrastructure. Think about the problems they identify when next some politician promises to lower our taxes. That person is promising to not take any action to fix the many threats to the public’s safety. He is also ignoring the extent to which our roads, bridges, water supplies, school buildings etc. are the foundation of our economy. How many Flints must we have before we wake up to the infrastructure challenges before us?

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Paid Family Leave

Could it be that the stars are aligning toward the passage of paid family leave legislation in New York?

A few weeks ago, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio granted twelve weeks of paid family to over 20,000 City employees by executive order and with the further promise to negotiate with the unions for the remainder of the City’s workforce. Not to be out done by his rival for supremacy in New York’s Democratic Party, Governor Cuomo featured a proposal for paid family leave in his State of the State speech the other day.

People in public education need many fixes to the state’s laws, but paid family leave would be a real boon to the people I represent, people who can’t currently afford to settle in their new born children, deal with the unexpected illness of a family member, often a parent who lives in retirement thousands of miles away. A week doesn’t go by that I don’t receive a phone call from a desperate member seeking help with maintaining her income while meeting her obligations to a member of her family. Too often, management is indifferent, sometimes even hostile to the member’s need. It would relieve so many to know that in such time of need, the law of New York was there to support with up to twelve weeks of paid family leave.

II intend to make passage of paid family leave a major focus of my local’s lobbying efforts this year. I hope and trust that my NYSUT brothers and sisters will do the same. Both the NEA and AFT need to get very publically behind legislation introduced by New York’s Senator Kirsten Gillibrand that would make paid family leave a national entitlement. It’s surely time for the United States to join the rest of the civilized world and take the welfare of families seriously.

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Making Our Own Justice

I’ve always found it curious that most people recoil at the statement that the law is often made in the streets. Social unrest, or the threat of it, has historically been a powerful motivator of justice. The Brown Decision, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the 60’s came to be thousands and thousands of citizens, united beyond race and social class by their belief in equality, demonstrated in the streets of our nation, demanding justice and an end to the oppression of people on the basis of their race.

I read a piece by Shamus Cooke this morning of this lesson that I learned long ago. Cooke reminds our union brothers and sisters that we don’t have sit back and let the reactionary majority of the Supreme Court use the Friedrichs Case to eviscerate public sector unions, the only part of the American labor movement that has been growing in recent times. He calls on us to do what those who engineered all social justice movements have done. Get organized and take to the streets. I fear it’s a challenge we won’t accept to our everlasting shame. We may have forgotten how to make our own justice.

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Our Kick in the Ass

One can almost hear the teeth gnashing of public sector union leadership following the reports of the argument at the Supreme Court yesterday in the Fredrichs case. Simply stated, Friedrichs and ten other California public school teachers are challenging the right of the California Teachers Association and its affiliates to collect an agency fee from individuals who choose not to belong to the union, an agency fee currently legal and paid in recognition that whether or not a person belongs to a union, he profits from their work in negotiations and contract enforcement. All reports indicate that the argument did not go well for the unions. Want to know more about the case and argument? The best coverage I’ve read is in the SCOTUSBLOG.
What I don’t hear from the national or state unions is a coherent plan in the event that agency fee is completely struck down by the high court, a likely event given what the media coverage seems to indicate. My local, currently at 100% membership, will shortly be asking members to sign membership renewal cards authorizing dues deductions for the 2016-17 school year. We want to know who is with us and who’s a freeloader seeking to profit from our work. Then, if the Supreme Court wants to be the agent of the right wing that seeks the destruction of organized labor, we will be prepared to resist. I can’t understand why the national unions are not promoting a similar plan. Enough moaning and groaning. Both the NEA and AFT talk about organizing. Let’s actually do it now in anticipation of the worst possible outcome of the Fredrichs case. Let our fear of what the court will do be our kick in the ass.

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The more I think about the moratorium on the consequences of high stakes testing for teacher and students in New York State, the more I’m sure that what we’re witnessing is simply a more sophisticated, more media savvy campaign to make the standards, the high stakes test aligned to them and the connection of both to teacher evaluation permanent. None of our leaders in Albany are talking about permanently ending the absurdity of judging teachers on the basis of student tests. What we are hearing is the continuing belief that appropriate tests can be developed for this purpose. What’s also curious is that while there is a moratorium in place for the time being, the state tests will still be given and the results for teacher evaluation will be reported on an advisory basis. In other words, we’ve put a halt on the consequences of these exams because we have no confidence that they measure what they claim to, but we are going to report the results anyway thereby potentially embarrassing some teachers, although that embarrassment is not to be construed as a consequence.

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The King Narrative

I’m a firm believer that we are what we do, not what we say. I’m reminded of that this morning having just read a Politico piece on our new Acting Secretary of Education John King, a man whose lack of leadership skills is outweighed only by his arrogance. Just as he did when he came to New York, King is trying to ingratiate himself with the Washington media, using his personal narrative of triumph over extreme adversity to position himself as on the side of the angels. New Yorkers have heard it all before, how King, orphaned as a very young child, was save by his New York City teachers. So grateful was he for their sustaining help in his time of need, that, when without any qualifying experience, he was elevated in his thirties by Chancellor Tisch to be New York’s Commissioner of Education, he immediately declared himself the enemy of the state’s teachers and a growing number of parents.

Now he gets to oversee the writing of the implementing regulations of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the successor to No Child Left Behind. Watch him try to undermine the intent of the law which is essentially to limit the powers of his department. His elevation to national leadership of public education is but the latest sign that the battle of citizens to take back control of their schools from the corporate reform movement is still a long way from victory.

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An Ivy Prof’s Take on the Race to Nowhere

School districts like mine have lost their way. They are increasingly about helping students build resumes for college admission rather than preparing them for life as citizens of a democratic society. A colleague sent me this article by an Ivy League professor who has spent years teaching the kind of students we are aiming to train these days. His conclusions about the worth of what we are doing both for individual students and for our society should be read and pondered. He has a very interesting take on the race to nowhere we have organized for our children.

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Our Unplanned Lessons

If we encourage high school students to take more coursework than they are able to complete the assignments for, and, if in so doing we encourage them to divide up the work with their classmates, what are the lessons we are teaching them about how to conduct their adult lives? Teachers, administrators and any parent who chooses to knows that our current push to fill the high school programs of children with as many Advanced Placement courses as possible has put many of them in the position of cheating to survive. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to do all of the homework these courses require and have time for what have come to be understood as the obligatory cluster of extra-curricular activities which together create the cover of a well-educated, well- balanced student hiding a driven, over-worked, over-stressed young person who is being encouraged by the adults in his life to cut ethical corners in order to get an edge.

We cover our eyes to this corruption of education at our peril and the peril of our children. We are beginning to hear more and more about the psychological damage we are doing to children in the name of competitive grit and higher standards. We need to add to that discussion some sober thought on the ethical norms we are promoting by creating an environment where children feel themselves in an almost Darwinian struggle to get ahead. Doesn’t our self-interest and theirs demand something better?

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Education Swindle

Corporate exploitation of parental insecurities about the education of their children and their future economic well-being is everywhere. On the recent holiday, I found myself walking down Front Street in Hamilton, Bermuda, when my eyes alighted on shop window poster with an arresting picture of a young, attractive child. A closer look brought me to the door Oxford Learning, a tutoring outfit looking to convince the parents of 3 to 5 year old “Little Readers” of their need for instruction in reading, phonics, math, listening and fine motor skills. I found myself thinking of my mother, a person infinitely more cynical than I, who if she had seen the poster would have responded with this oft repeated advice to her son. “The world,” she was fond of saying, “is composed of the sky above and the earth beneath our feet. Much of what is in the middle is a swindle.”

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