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 March, 2016

The Frightening Future of Work

I don’t use Uber and try to discourage others from doing so. I can easily understand how convenient it is and how it can be cost effective as well. But Uber’s existence is part of a growing trend in international business to find ways around having to provide decent wages and benefits to working people. It is a popular example of companies who have workforces of private contractors to whom the companies owe nothing beyond the agreed upon wages in the contract. Neil Irwin, writing in this morning’s New York Times, talks about this frightening practice that is a significant tool in the corporate sponsored attack on the social safety net. Irwin reports that 15.8 percent of American workers are now individual contractors, workers without employer provided health insurance, workers compensation or other employer provider protections. They have no possibility of union representation. They are essentially powerless and completely without means to gain any leverage with their employers. They owe no loyalty to any institution, and no one owes them anything. They are simply on their own in a country without the expansive social insurance programs of some other industrial democracies. Corporate propaganda is saying to America’s young that they must be prepared for this brave new economic world – that they must change jobs and whole careers many times during their work lives. The one hopeful sign I see is that the young are flocking to democratic socialist Bernie Sanders’ campaign, suggesting that they demand a more just society than the one on the horizon.

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The Lesson of Friedrichs

As we in the labor movement celebrate our victory in the Friedrichs Case, it’s important to remind ourselves of our vulnerabilities that the sponsors of this case sought to exploit – the sad fact that we have as many agency fee payers as we have. If all of our local unions had had an ongoing commitment of time money and energy to internal organizing, there is no doubt that the number of non-members would have been be significantly reduced. Before agency fee laws came into existence, there was much more effort made on workplace organizing because local unions had an existential reason to do it. Once we were assured of getting their money anyway, interest in convincing non-members to join was no longer a priority. The backers of the Friedrichs Case understand this weakness of ours and will continue to attempt to legally exploit it. While we may be feeling flush with victory today, this is not a time to rest easy. There will undoubtedly be further attacks against us. Our goal has to be to internally organize so successfully as to be immune to attacks that seek to cut off our resources. I deeply believe we could do this. My own local has always functioned on an organizing model. We are almost finished with our membership renewal drive undertaken to protect ourselves from an adverse decision in Friedrichs. I’m very pleased to say that almost every member is already signed up. Had Friedrichs gone against us, that decision would have had no impact on our ability to run our union and protect our members. As importantly, the union reps who did the leg work to re-sign our members for next year learned organizing skills that are easily transferable to other issues. Friedrichs was a good reminder for us of what is important to the welfare of our union.

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Early Retirement Trend

Every year at this time, I do a retirement workshop for the teacher and clerical units of our union. Most who come to the workshop are not quite ready to retire but are starting to make the necessary preparations for a decision that is a year or two away. Normally, we get between twenty to thirty members attending. This year, with reservations still coming in for a date next week, we have fifty-one members attending – almost nine percent of the membership. It’s hard to draw any other conclusion from this unusually high number of members interested in retirement than that their satisfaction with their work- lives is deteriorating. When one looks at the ages of the attendees, one is struck by how young many of them are, with some not yet eligible to retire but obviously thinking about doing so at the first opportunity.

In recent years, many of the things I have written have focused on the trend towards the deprofessionalization of teaching , the extent to which the work is becoming increasingly routinized and more and more devoid of opportunities for creativity and professional judgment. I think we are beginning to see the effects of that trend on the retirement decisions of teachers. If that is true, and if we add to it the fact that enrollment in New York’s schools of education is dramatically down, the future of even our best public schools is in jeopardy from a severe teacher shortage. It may be a radical idea, but teachers have a right to enjoy their work. Most seekers of earliest possible retirement are not.

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Opting Out in Defense of Public Education

Last week, with New York’s high stakes tests upon us, I wrote to the parents of the children asked to endure these useless exams asking them to consider opting their children out. The response to my letter has been so positive that I’ve chosen to make it my blog post for today. Here it is.

Dear POB Parents,
Last year over 50 percent of the POB parents of children in grades 3 through 8 refused to allow their children to take the New York State assessments in English and math. In so doing, they joined a rapidly growing movement of citizens (over 200,000 last year) who are fed up with the state’s regimen of high stakes tests that have increasingly turned our schools towards test prep rather than authentic education, stressed children unnecessarily and dispirited teachers whose evaluations were inappropriately tied to student scores on these exams. The testing season is again upon us.

While our members are active in the Opt-Out movement and are convinced that it affords citizens the best opportunity to end the damage done to our schools by Albany’s education policies, we deeply believe in the right of parents to decide what is right for them and their children. I assure you that whatever your decision, your children will be treated appropriately.

Our leaders in Albany would like you to believe that there is no longer any good reason to oppose the state assessments. Nothing could be further from the truth. Your children are still asked to take these stress producing exams, their scores are still reported as are teacher’s evaluation scores. While our new Commissioner of Education talks about changes to the tests and the standards to which they are aligned, it is completely clear that she believes in measuring the worth of schools and teachers on the basis of standardized tests.

Should you decide to join us in ending the tyranny of high stakes testing in New York by opting your child out, our district requires that you send a hard copy letter to that effect to the principal of your child’s school. I have enclosed a sample letter for your convenience.

I trust the day is not too far off when instruction in our schools is once again driven by the judgment of educators trained to work with children rather than bureaucrats of education testing companies. Until that time, our members will do whatever they can to ameliorate the negative effects of these tests on the education of your children.

Morton Rosenfeld

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Hope is Alive in New York

It’s not very often that one gets to see meteoric change in the direction of an institution. However, that’s what we witnessed the other day after the installation of Chancellor Dr. Betty Rosa who asked by a reporter whether if she had school age children she would opt them out, she replied with a resounding YES. That monosyllabic sound bite said that the process of reversing the catastrophic corporate sponsored test and punish school reform movement championed by outgoing chancellor Merryl Tisch is beginning without pause. It will no doubt take time to undo the serious damage Tisch and her agent John King wrought, but we have gotten an immediate sense from our new leader that there is reason to hope that we can find more reasonable and meaningful ways to assess students and provide for teacher accountability.

Some school leaders were put off by Rosa’s remarks, the superintendent of my own district for one. These critics confuse standardized testing with high standards of academic achievement. They do not see them for what they are – essentially instruments that measure the ability to pass standardized tests and artificial sorters of students into categories from which they often find it impossible to escape and progress. These critics ignore what growing numbers of parents and teachers have seen – a test driven transformation from educating children for adult citizenship to training them to be docile cogs in the corporate workforce. They are on the wrong side of history, having seriously underestimated the public’s willingness to swallow the crap they have offered up in the name of reform.

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I attended my school district’s leadership forum on Saturday morning, a yearly gathering of the leaders of the administration, our union, the PTA and the building administrators union. Each organization suggests topics of importance to the district for discussion. The one I found most interesting this year was on stress.

To my surprise, there was broad consensus among the groups as to the existence of unhealthy levels of stress and the causes of it. High stakes testing, over scheduling, the introduction of Common Core State Standards, homework, the effects of technology, competition, and economic uncertainty – the group had no trouble agreeing on stress producing causes. One parent’s eloquent remarks stayed with me all weekend. She talked about how she and her husband decided that all family members would give up the use of digital devices for Lent. She went on to describe the positive changes in her children’s behavior and the effect of this moratorium on their communication with one another. To someone like me who though I had been preaching to the wind in my comments about the downside of technology in education, it was remarkable to see how broadly understood the dangers are of technological advances unmediated by human judgment.

Yet, I strongly suspect that nothing will change as a result of this meeting. We will continue to shove age inappropriate curriculum down the throats of children, continue to purchase the latest technology products because every other district has them, continue to encourage children to take as many advanced courses as there are periods in the school day, continue to push kids into numerous extra-curricular activities in the process of resume building and generally continue the process of robbing children of their childhoods by encouraging them to live lives of unending scheduled activities. More and more, the lives of children will look like those of adults. We believe ourselves powerless to change the disastrous course we are on

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Shame on Schumer

Shame on Senator Chuck Schumer for his vote to confirm John King as the U. S. Secretary of Education. Beyond any doubt, Schumer is more than familiar with King’s abysmal record as Commissioner of Education in New York where in conjunction with his patron Merryl Tisch , the devilish duo inflicted a test and punish approach to public education that has shifted the mission of the public schools from one of educating children to training them to be test takers. Their efforts have dispirited New York’s teaching corps and seriously diminished the interest of the state’s young people in becoming teachers. King’s condescending arrogance, a crude mask for overwhelming incompetence, kindled New York’s opt-out movement, a parent led effort to protect their children from the disastrous Tisch/King policies. Interesting how the publicity addicted Schumer didn’t have one of his news conferences to brag about his vote for King. His Wall Street buddies, many of whom are financial supporters of the so-call education reform movement, are sure to be pleased by his vote.

A big thanks to New York’s other Senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, for voting against King.

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Feeding the Portal

It seems as though each day brings some new insight as to the unintended consequences of the introduction of digital technologies to the operation of public schools.

In a discussion I was having with several colleagues about an increasing number of complaints from the parents of our community about the number of teacher made tests their children receive, one of person, somewhat angrily, blurted out, “I feed the portal all the time. The parents complain if we don’t have what they consider a sufficient number of scores on which to base our quarterly grades.” The portal she referred to is an online web based utility that permits parents to monitor everything from their children’s attendance to the completion of their homework assignments. So, because parents can now monitor their children’s grades 24/7, teachers feel compelled to give more tests and assignments to justify their grades leading to parents complaining about too many tests. A perfect system!

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We are living through a period in the history of public education when to be in the main stream the decisions of education need to be buttresses with data, or in what has become cliché – data driven. More and more teachers are asked to justify their practice by demands for evidence – numeric evidence. Yet amid all this data babble, huge, impactful decisions are made with little or no evidence at all. I have been dubious about the efficacy of technology in education to the point where some of my friends and colleagues accuse me of being a 21st century Luddite. I also haven’t bought the thesis that says that today’s students must all be trained in science, technology, engineering and math if they are to be gainfully employed and if the United States is to remain economically competitive. I’ve suspected that this meme was generated by business interests and gone viral before anyone stopped to actually see if there is any good evidence of its validity. In his new book, The Math Myth: And Other STEM Delusions, Andrew Hacker undertakes a scholarly search for the evidence to support the idea that all public schools students should take higher mathematics in order to be prepared for the economy of their future. His conclusions will astonish only those who have been caught up in the latest education fads.

His central conclusion is that subjects like advanced algebra and calculus are artificial barriers to college admission and graduation. There is no evidence that any but a very few occupations require this knowledge. Neither is there any support for the notion that the kind of thinking required by these subjects is transferable to other areas of study or work. That’s not to say math is not worth studying and appreciating. It is to say that that the reasoning behind the Common Core math standards is essentially absurd and intellectually unsupportable. So too is all of the hype about the STEM economy of the future. Hacker cites a 2014 National Science Board study showing that 19.5 million Americans had a scientific or engineering degree at that time. However, only 28 percent of them were working in fields requiring their scientific credentials. The employment statistics for degree holders in computer science and math are even worse. Yet we tell youth that their ticket to prosperity needs to be stamped STEM.

Hacker will enrage both those who have propagated these myths and those who have swallowed them. However, they will be hard pressed to overcome the evidence he provides for his positions. This is an important book for the policy questions it raises but also for what it says about how we’ve come make consequential judgments about people on the basis of their math scores, scores which tell us next to nothing about them and their potential.

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A New Approach to Fleecing Public Schools

The titans of the high tech companies many of whom have fleeced our nation’s public schools, promising that each new digital product would revolutionize education, are apparently coming up with a new game plan. Correctly sensing that the public is rapidly turning away from the kind of school reforms sponsored by public school predators like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, the new gig to keep those taxpayer dollars rolling into their companies appears to be personalized learning, tailoring the education of individual students through the use of technology. Seemingly oblivious to the fact that education is a social process with goals much more encompassing than the acquisition of skills, business people are correctly reading a market trend. More and more the public seems to expect its schools to treat their children individually. School leaders have responded to this unreasonable demand by defining good teaching as individualizing instruction. Now comes an emerging business model that promises it can overcome the inability of teachers to provide a unique education for each of their students. Cheaper, better and, better yet, more profitable for the hardware and software companies.

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Everyone An Expert

In recent days, on social media and at school district meetings, our schools are often subjected to unrelenting criticism, most of it expressions of selfishness in regard to the complainer’s children. If there are members of the public who can see beyond the perceived needs of their children to a more global view of the needs of a quality school district, we rarely get to meet them. In recent days, we’ve hears impassioned criticism about a union/management negotiated plan to provide the district with a nine period instructional day, something many people have claimed to have wanted for the past twenty years. What were they upset about, the amount of passing time between periods. PASSING TIME! Fully half the audience proposed taking time away from the extra help provided by teachers after classes to get more passing time.

There has also been a running debate on Facebook by a clack of parents who object to our twelfth grade health requirement. Over ninety percent of their children are about to go off to college, many we know from experience ignorant about issues of human sexuality, substance abuse, date rape and many life skills necessary for living on one’s own, but these parents in their preoccupation with academic achievement see health education as a waste of time.

This morning I answered a series of posts that got me so angry I could spit. It began with a board of education members post declaring that many of our teachers give far too much homework. No member of my union would object to being asked why they give the amount of homework they do. There are outraged by a layperson (Yes board members are laypeople even though may think themselves experts.) indicting many of them on nothing but his layman’s opinion. It isn’t long after his post that another parent voices concern that homework and the pacing of instruction should be the same across a grade in the district. I try to explain that very often two classes on a grade are the same in name only. I cite my own experience often teaching three high school English classes on the same grade and level and how I was very often not able to accomplish the exact same things with each of them, warning in my response that uniformity is inimical to quality education – appropriate to training.

Saddest of all to me is that some of the harshest criticism I’ve heard in recent days comes from teacher who work in neighboring districts. I think I know that they would be hurt and outrages if a parent in the school in which they work denigrated their work. I’m appalled, but not really surprised. I think it was former NEA president John Ryor who said, “If you ask teachers to make a firing squad, they form a circle.”

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No Surprise in the Emerging Teacher Shortage

It appears to be dawning on education leaders in New York that enrollment in teacher education programs is way down and that New York, like other states, is facing a teacher shortage. I suspect that if current conditions for teachers persist, this emerging problem will become critical sooner rather than later. Ironically, the ludicrous goal of a great teacher in front of every classroom may lead to no teachers in front some.

The so-called reform movement has for years flooded every media outlet with the false notion that America’s schools are failing. Bankrolled by America’s corporate elite, huge sums of money have been spent to create the illusion that failing public schools place the economic future of our nation in jeopardy, threatening our children with being the first generation of Americans to do less well economically than their parents. Why would young people raised in an anti-public school environment in which teachers are depicted as incompetent, uncaring feeders at the public trough want to undertake substantial financial indebtedness to go to college to prepare to work for a failing institution?

Probably as importantly, the current corps of teachers is probably having a negative effect on ed-school recruitment. The teachers I engage daily are disheartened by the constant barrage of public criticism of their efforts. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t get a call from a member reporting some outrageous posting on Facebook alleging some shortcoming of the work they do. If they have gotten salary raises in recent years, they have been miniscule, their stagnating wages helping to shape their attitude toward their work. Added to that are their perceptions that there work is increasingly cheapened by an imposed mindless routinizing of their teaching, giving them less and less control of their work. I’ve had numerous conversations with teachers who tell me that they discourage their students and their own children from seeking careers in education, albeit they are clearly discomforted to have been put in the position of denigrating their own work.

The writer William Faulkner worked briefly for the Post Office in his youth. He resigned shortly after taking the job, his resignation letter saying, as I recall, “I refuse to be at the beck and call of ever son-of-a-bitch with the price of a two cent stamp.” Today, everyone knows how to teach and what to teach better than our teachers do. That fewer young people aspire to be teachers in light of current conditions, I take as a sign of their intelligence and an indicator of the high quality education they have received.

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We’re Never Good Enough

A hundred people or so came to a meeting in Plainview-Old Bethpage to hear a presentation on a nine period instructional day planned for our high school for next year. This morning, I find myself unable to think of much else than the anger expressed over the facet of the plan that calls for a reduction of one minute from the time between classes. To hear some of the parents, one would think we will be requiring their children to run a marathon or climb a mountain. Some, desperately concerned about the health and safety of their children, proposed that the school cut the time provided by the plan for extra help, so-called remedial.

Here’s what many years of working with young people has taught me. If, in September, we make it clear to our high school students that we expect them to get from class to class in three minutes, while it may take a week or so, they will get there in three minutes. If, on the other hand, we let them think we are unsure of the reasonableness of this request and suggest to them that we are prepared to accept lateness to class, large numbers of them will be late.

A nine period instructional day has been a goal of some of our districts leaders for over twenty years. Through the cooperation of our union and the management of the district, we have been able to accomplish that goal at minimal expense and minimal disruption of the lives of both students and staff. Our plan meets every reasonable goal of a nine period. In addition to providing more opportunities for children, we preserve what I don’t believe any other high school on Long Island has – a full period of extra help Monday through Thursday. Yet, for many of those who came out last evening, our inability to craft a plan that satisfies their individual conception of what a plan must contain changes what might have been a celebratory moment into essentially an angry outburst. It’s just the latest example of the growing disrespect for the very fine work of our school district. Meeting like last evening seem to invite this kind of behavior.

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It’s Outreach Time for NEA and AFT

It’s certainly clearer this morning that while Bernie Sanders can and will stay in the race for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States, there won’t be enough voters feeling the Bern to put him over the top. It’s not too soon for the leaders of our two national education unions, full-throated supporters of Hillary Clinton from the very beginning, to begin the fence mending process with the many rank and file members who are passionate supporters of Sanders, support that for many got all twisted up with their alienation from and resentment of what they see as the policy failures of their unions and the coziness of their leaders with a Washington establishment that has supported education policies that have been detrimental to the work of teachers and the students they teach.

In her victory speech last evening, Clinton took care to embrace some of Sanders’ themes, a significant step to begin a uniting process and recognition of the extent to which Bernie has pushed Clinton leftward from her comfort zone to the right of center. Many of my colleagues in the education labor movement don’t feel that the NEA and AFT treated Sanders fairly, both in the process of their endorsements of Clinton and in some of the ridiculously thoughtless criticism of Sanders. If our leaders, like their preferred candidate, will take a few steps to the left, if will reach out to the Sanders supporters, maybe even finding subtle ways to admit that their early Clinton endorsement was heavy-handed, it should be possible to bring our membership together for the challenge posed by Donald Trump. Hillary is going to need the passion and energy of the Sanders members. The effort to bring them into the fold must start today.

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We Need More Than Bouquets

It’s school budget time, and last night our board of education held the second in a series of public presentations on their preliminary budget to be voted on in May. The budgets of several departments were presented, all of which we prefaced by a presenter talking about the points of pride of the department under discussion. Board members chimed in, to a person extolling the outstanding work of our members. Yet, if one talks to our members, almost to a person they will tell you how underappreciated they feel. In the parlance of the day, there is a major disconnect between what the leaders of the district say about the staff in public and what they communicate to them in their day to day interactions. When an administration constantly looks to routinize our work, it says they have no confidence in our knowledge and professional judgment. When our work is scrutinized rather than supervised, it tells us that we are not trusted to do the right thing. When we are paid thousands of dollars less than workers in neighboring districts, it says our work is not really that important after all. When in addition to underpaying us we see significant dollars budgeted for the latest educational fads, it says to us that those things are more important than the economic well-being of the people who do the essential work of the district –teaching. No amount of public flattery can overcome the day to day indifference to our economic and professional needs. It’s not bouquets we’re after.

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