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 April, 2016

Can Sanity Be Coming to Teacher Evaluation?

An extraordinary amount of time money and energy has been spent in the quest for some holy grail of teacher evaluation, all to absolutely no effect other than to severely damage the morale of the nation’s teaching force. Motivate by the empty slogan “a great teacher in front of every classroom, our political leaders, often with the assistance ed school professors, have taken us from evaluation system to evaluation system, all seeking to quantify the unquantifiable. Here in New York, school districts are supposed to have yet a new plain in place before the start of the new school year or face the loss of the recently enacted increase in state aid to education. Districts are in the process of doing this even though we all know that in a year or so we are going to have to do it again.

Here’s what I know about evaluating teachers. Judging their worth on the basis of student test score has been clearly demonstrated to be more about junk science than about judging worth. While it used to be the case that building administrators mostly knew how to judge good and bad teaching, in this day when they tend to come to their positions before they have mastered the craft of teaching, fewer and fewer of them have the foggiest idea of what they are looking at, focused as they are by rubrics that have them seek evidence for various parts of a lesson rather than the impact of the whole.

The best judges of teaching are teachers. In most schools, the experienced teachers know who the good teachers are. They know who should get tenure and whom we would be better off without. When one asks teachers whom they learned the most from about being a teacher, they will invariably tell you they learned from other teachers, more often than not in unplanned moments of interaction rather than any staff development at which some high paid consultant tells them what they ought to know. Yet, in most of our schools, we are indifferent to the thoughts of teachers about who should enter and stay in our profession. We schedule the teacher workday in such a way as to essentially preclude teachers having opportunities to talk to one another about their work. We isolate them for most of their day and have people less experienced and knowledgeable than they judge the quality of their work.

I had a little glimmer of optimism this morning as I read an article by Charlotte Danielson whose academic work has impelled many teacher accountability efforts. She now appears to be rethinking the subject more soberly. We share a belief in the importance of focusing on probationary teachers, making sure they are worthy of career status. We agree too on the importance of teachers engaging each other as a central feature of a system that promotes continuous teacher learning. Who knows? With big name scholars in the filed like Danielson thinking sanely about teacher evaluation, perhaps we can come up with a system that makes sense, even to our politicians.

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A Harbinger of Fall Possibilities

As I write this, the news media are reporting that Todd Kaminsky has won a very narrow victory over Chris McGrath, his Republican opponent. Kaminsky’s election is a victory for the coalition of parents and teacher union activists who have banded together to save public education from the corporate privatizers who seek to discredit our public schools to profit from owning them later on. This victory should be the harbinger of even greater victories in the fall. I have been arguing in union circles for some time that we need to look at districts with high rates of opting out of high stakes tests and union density. Our campaign to have our members be education voters needs the energy that comes from victories like Kaminsky’s. It’s my understanding that Ryan Cronin is running again against Kemp Hannon, a very beatable incumbent in the 6th Senate District who has done nothing to help us stop the testocracy from destroying our public schools. Cronin as a completely unknown made a very respectable showing when he ran against Hannon two cycles ago. In the current political environment we could elect him. But we need to make the kind of effort that was made in the 9th! We are already late.

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Not Again!

“This is a tremendous amount of work with no purpose. I think the people who wrote this don’t understand what it costs to renegotiate … and how now districts are being held hostage to this.” She was talking about the requirement in state law for school districts to negotiate new teacher evaluation systems tied to student test scores, even though there is a moratorium on the use of score to evaluate teachers and work is beginning at the direction of the Regent to come up with a new approach to teacher evaluation.

It’s satisfying to know that at least one Regent is thinking about the absurdity surrounding high stakes testing and teacher evaluation in New York State. We have a bunch of new Regents who have begun to distance themselves from the Tisch era of corporate led school reform, a new chancellor who almost from the moment of taking office announced that if she had a child, she would opt her out of the state exams, and we have by all accounts a growing state and national opt out movement of parents and teachers who are seeing to it that fewer children take high stakes tests each year. We had over 100,000 opt outs on Long Island alone this year. What is to be gained from spending countless professional hours working out annual professional performance review plans (APPR) that are bound to change in a very short time? This is the kind of stupidity for which Albany has become famous.

It’s time for the Governor and our legislators to act to remedy this costly, teacher morale destroying foolishness. Changing the system by which we evaluate teacher every couple of years does not inspire the confidence all should have in the accuracy and fairness of that system.

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I’m Voting for Bernie Tomorrow

This primary season has offered an opportunity to understand why the message of a large part of the labor movement fails resonates with the American people. It has become a movement that shuns idealism. In no segment of our movement is that clearer than in our public education unions who leaders have ridiculed Bernie Sanders for his call for tuition free college education at state supported schools, universal health coverage, breaking up too big to fail financial institutions and even more disturbing pooh-poohing the possibility of a political revolution to substantially change an economic system heavily rigged in favor of a kleptocratic elite. They are obtuse to the reality that there is no future for our unions in the current system. They have lost faith in the promise of America becoming a better society, one in which education, health care and economic security are the rights of all Americans.

I’ll vote for Bernie Sanders tomorrow because I continue to believe that it is possible to reverse the 30 year trend of stagnating wages of the American worker. I believe that all citizens should have an opportunity to receive as much free education as they are able to absorb. While I applaud the Affordable Care Act, there are still too many Americans who do not have access to quality health care. I don’t understand, and never will, why they can’t have the same Medicare that covers me. I will vote for Bernie because he is as outraged as I that so many American children are stunted by poverty in the richest nation the word has ever known. We have a system that is literally shortening the lives of millions of our citizens. The movement Bernie Sanders seeks to build wants to change that. How can I not be a part of that noble goal?

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We Must become the Movement We Claim to Be

In our NEA New York days, Judi Alexanderson, Mike Lynch and I used to do a workshop many summer for union officers on how to build stronger locals. The goal was to reduce the dependence of local on the state organization, with the even larger goal redirecting resources from Albany to the locals out of a strong belief that the best possible work for a local is by well- trained local leaders. While I believe we helped some locals to become more independent, the vast majority are as weak today as then. Being a part of NYSUT now for a dozen years or so, to many resources still flow towards Albany rendering locals weaker than they have to be. That reality is embedded in the structure of our state union rather than in the conscious efforts of our state leaders. To be sure, NYSUT too makes some efforts to empower locals, but the fact that a looming Supreme Court decision in Friendrichs terrified us is stark testimony to that fact that we are not any way near as organized and resourced on the local level as we should be.

My own local is not perfect, but we had no fear of Friedrichs nor do we fear the cases that are sure to follow it. Had the decision in Friedrich’s gone against, we were already insulated from it, having signed our members up for next year. The yearly sign up process will now become a part of our yearly routine. Our teacher labor movement has largely failed to organize its local unions to be able to easily accomplish things like this. The extreme political right has located this vulnerability and is exploiting it from every direction. Were we the movement we claim to be, and I believe we could be, they wouldn’t have a chance against us.

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Hillary

Without a calendar, I can tell we are getting close to the end of the school year as the pace of union work picks up. This year I’m especially harried in that I have announced my decision not to run for re-election as president of my local, and so I’m desperately trying to clean my plate before I turn things over to my successor. One of the things that has suffered as a result, is what has been daily postings to this blog, an activity that I hope to continue in retirement.

Last week I attended the NYSUT convention. I’ve been a NYSUT member since the merger of NEA/New York and NYSUT about a dozen years ago or so. Each year I’ve gone to its convention, only to wonder afterward why I bothered, so much of the time devoted to speeches from a predictable cast of political characters, characters who all love us, are behind us and have a deep and abiding respect for the invaluable work we do. This year at least, the monotony was broken by Hillary Clinton’s appearance. While I will vote for Bernie Sanders in next week’s primary, I have to say she made a moving speech focused on education issues that she knew were of interested to us. Should she be the democratic nominee, I will have no trouble working for her election. While she is not the system changer that Bernie would be, neither is she like the Republican contenders, clear enemies of working people, those who rely on government to protect them to some degree from the power of corporations and wealthy elites who rig our economic system in their favor.

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Knowledge vs. Ideology

The absurdity of tying teacher evaluations or the worth of a school’s academic program to student scores on standardized tests grows clearer and clearer to the point where only the ideologically bound to testing and punishing can unashamedly continue to advocate the practice. This morning NPR has a story about a study done in Sweden demonstrating that the mental health of a child’s parents can have a significant effect on student grades. The study conducted over a ten year period showed a strong connection between diagnosed depression in a parent and a student’s grades. The body of knowledge demonstrating that students, schools and teachers are more than a score continues to grow. What is growing more slowly is recognition by our political leaders that hitching their political career wagons to corporate sponsored test and punish school reform has been a major blunder. In November, New Yorkers will have an opportunity to make their error clearer to them.

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