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 June, 2016

The Last Day

Today is my last posting as a local union president. So many people have said so many kind words about me, none more meaningful to me than those who thanked me for teaching them to stand up for themselves, to speak their minds rather than swallowing their thoughts along with a heavy swig of self-loathing for one’s timidity. That’s what I’ve tried to be about – teaching working people how to gain individual and collective power to better their lives. That’s what unions should be about. It always fascinates me when some management type complains to me about the rudeness of many of our members. What they term rudeness turns out very often to be people having the nerve to NO confidently and loudly to their bosses. I usually thank them for letting me know and making my day.

I’m happy to be leaving. The world of public education has grown ugly. Powerful forces seek the demise of public education. To them it is a potential profit center, not a vital social institution. These corporate forces have had major successes. Worst of all, they have undermined the confidence of the public in the institution to the point where it is becoming increasing difficult to get good people into the system. The so-called leaders of too many of our schools are driven not by and love and respect for the institution but by an ethic that has them eying their next job before they’ve mastered the one they just got. A little district like mine has turned over thirteen administrators in a little more than a year.

Part of me, however, would like to remain on the frontline to see if we can’t win the battle to save the institution. Yet, I know if our precious public schools are to be saved it will take a new generation of union leaders aligned with an aroused public to eventually win the day. I know that can happen. My time in public education witnessed the elevation of teaching from a low paid job for educated women with few other employment options to where at least in my part of the country we make a respectable living. A rebirth of the militancy that led to these achievements is all that it would take to protect public education. Can we bring it to life again? That’s the unanswered question. There are some good signs. I shall try to remain hopeful and do what I can from the sidelines to protect and defend our public schools that have been good to me and to this great nation.

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Hillary and the NEA RA

Getting ready to go to the NEA convention in D.C. next week. No doubt Hillary will be the featured speaker. While the hall will give her a thunderous reception, she has to speak to the many Bernie supporters, most of whom will be back home. She needs to tell them that she strongly opposes high stakes testing, that she has come to understand the damage it is doing to America’s public schools. She needs to make clear that that she believes the linkage of student test scores to teacher evaluations is without merit and destructive of teacher morale. She needs to make clear that her administration will seek an end to that connection. She needs to make clear that her administration will cancel the federal regulations that threaten school districts with loss of federal funds if 95 percent of their students fail to participate in the examinations. If she does most of that in clear unambiguous language, most Bernie’s supporters who cling to the belief that she is a supporter of the corporate school reform movement will rally to her support. They will be able to take some pride in claiming that their support for Bernie forced her to support their education positions. Hillary has everything to gain from a pronounced move in their direction and nothing to lose.

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The Last Day

The last day of the school year. As expected, teachers calling all morning to complain about the score in some box on the rubric used to evaluate their performance, even though their over-all rating is effective or in many cases highly effective. So much time and energy is put into this process. So little of any use comes out of it, either for the employer or the teacher. We would be hard pressed to show that that any of this administrative work has any effect whatsoever on the education of a single child. Yet, we spend fortunes of money on a huge bureaucracy to create the illusion of meaningful evaluation and the weeding out of incompetence. The truth is the truly incompetent usually demonstrate that trait in multiple ways within the first few weeks on the job. What if the real purpose of our evaluation systems is to keep teachers in their place, have them categorically accept all directions they are given, swallow the indignities directed at them from superiors who often know nothing about the art of teaching, what if the real purpose is control though the fear of a negative evaluation?

I’m going to continue to blog over the summer, although perhaps not as often as during the school year. Although I’ll be retiring next week, I plan on continuing this work. So, if you put education out of your mind for the summer, don’t forget to come back in the fall.

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We Dreamed of One World

The papers, radio and TV are all focused this morning on the vote in the United Kingdom, the so-call Brexit, to determine whether Britain will remain in the European Union or go it alone. Many have noted the parallels between what is happening politically in Britain and the United States as well as much of the western world. There’s a broad retreat into tribalism. Established political elites are challenged by growing numbers of citizens who long for a past marked by colonialism, ethnocentrism and racism that for centuries exploded periodically into violence.

I began my public schooling in 1947, just after the end of World War II. I was taught by teachers who watched the carnage of that human tragedy, some with spouses who had experienced it firsthand. Some had grown up during World War I and talked about relatives who died in that explosion of human ignorance. Having lived through these decades of political delusions, they very consciously tried to instill in us notions of a better world. They had us sing songs about “One world built on a firm foundation. One world no longer cursed by war.” We sang the Negro National Anthem and were asked to imagine how it might feel to be a Negro in America. We had lessons on the brand new United Nations and the hope it generated for the possibility for world peace. My teachers’ generations had known war and were clear in their conviction to influence us to strive for, “One great world at peace once more. One world, one world, With peace forevermore.”

That same idealism sparked the founders of what would go from a Common Market to the European Union to try to do what had never been done before, build a union of people with centuries of armed conflict separating them into an ever closer association so that a shared prosperity might bring them peace, burying once and for all the ancient hatreds and prejudice. That’s been threatened for some time, and dangerously so with the possible end of British participation in the European Union. Here at home similar forces lurk, calling upon citizens, many seriously disconnected from the world’s richest economy, to imagine an idealized past when white men ruled, women and minorities new their place, government was indifferent to the needs of its citizens and business were free to rape and pillage the landscape.

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A Sad Evening

I attended my last meeting of our board of education last night. I’ll miss many things about being the president of my local, but the board ceremonies conferring tenure on teachers and retirement “celebrations” like the one last evening have become so revolting to me that I’m quite sure they will continue to elevate my blood pressure for as long as they occasionally come to mind. Maybe it’s me, but having administrator speakers who in many instances haven’t been here long enough to know very much about the retirees is at the very least in bad taste, if not insulting. Hearing a person’s twenty-five or thirty years of service to a school district summarized in a minute or two trivializes their efforts and accomplishments. Most of the speeches sounded like the many vapid observation reports I’ve read over the years that are too often boilerplate educationese devoid of content and style and accomplishing nothing useful for anyone. Few, if any, speakers had a story or anecdote that might give the audience some slight sense of the human beings who stood in front of hundreds of children in whose memories many of them will be imprinted forever. I’ve gotten sadder at each of these events I’ve attended. Worse still, though, are the end of life evaluations at funeral services, where all that can be said about the deceased is how well planned his lessons always were and how he diversified instruction.

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Albany Fails Again

The New York State legislature has finished its yearly session without any significant progress on education issues. For most teachers, the failure to untie student performance on high stakes test from teacher evaluations is the bitterest pill left by the legislature for us to swallow. It’s more than time for parents, teachers and all citizens concerned with the corruption of New York’s schools by the corporate school reform movement to rise up and defeat those in the state senate who value heir political contributions from the reformers more than the children and educators of our state.

Unless and until we target and defeat at least a few supporters of the testing scourge, our public schools will continue to suffer. The same people who support the so-called reforms are by and large the supporters of the property tax cap, charter schools and using public money to support private and religious schools. They must pay a political penalty, or they will succeed in undermining a vital institution of our democracy. It’s time to vote to save public education.

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Ethically Challenged

My appreciation of the extent to which the corporate testing industry has perniciously infiltrated our schools distorting their purpose continues to expand. Yesterday, a parent in our district forwarded to me an email she received from our high school guidance department hawking the services of a test prep company offering summer courses aimed a cramming for the SAT and ACT examinations. It’s troubling enough that a school district would consciously contribute to inflating the importance of these exams, exams known to be poor predictors of college success, exams which more and more colleges and universities are considering optional. More troubling still was learning that the district has a contract with this company and another test prep outfit, granting them the use of our facilities in exchange for discounted prices for their courses. I’m frankly mad at myself for not knowing until now that this was happening.

Recently a teacher at Midwood High school in Brooklyn was removed from his classes for selling copies of Mary Shelly’s Gothic novel Frakenstein at his cost to students so that he could teach the book to his class. Here we have a school district (I’m sure one of many) selling test prep courses to an entire student body without the district’s leadership raising the obvious ethical questions.

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Freedom From Fear of Gun Violence

We don’t talk about AR-15 rifles as a weapon of mass destruction, but can anyone think about Sunday’s event in Orland and say that this military style weapon is not. It has become the weapon of choice of the crazy and zealot. Unless and until we choose to understand that the writers of our Constitution could not ever have imagined a single American armed with more fire power in an AR-15 than dozens of Minutemen with their muskets. Surely, the Founding Fathers were they to find themselves among us would recognize that the right to bear arms that they authored must be balanced against the advent of weapons so potent that they must be withheld from all but those defending our country. Surely, their voices would be raised against the Second Amendment zealotry responsible for a literal epidemic of gun violence in our nation. But, I suspect we will find gun sales up in the weeks ahead. When do we begin to talk seriously about the freedom from fear of gun violence?

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Thinking Regionally

I was recently at a meeting of local teacher union presidents, a meeting called to take stock of where we are in our efforts to return the emphasis of our work to organizing rather that providing services. My sense of things from the discussion is that we have made some progress. Many locals have done some excellent work organizing around opting out of high stakes testing and voter participation. Yet, it’s clear that we have much more to do.

I was pleasantly surprised to find one of my colleagues taking up a cause I have long advocated – the need of locals to band together around essential collectively bargaining issues. It has been clear for anyone who has cared to notice, that school boards and their attorneys have collaborated and evolved a coherent, common agenda. Yet we cling to the notion that collective bargaining is a local issue. To see it as such while your adversaries work in concert regionally is nothing short of delusional. More importantly, it is ultimately inimical to the welfare of the members we are responsible to serve. It has had disastrous consequences.

Take for example the concerted attack on the increment system of paying teachers on the basis of experience. Almost every collective bargaining agreement made in the last few years has been financed by stealing the increment money from those who make the lowest salaries to give pittances to those at the top of the pay scale. How does it help to build and strengthen our movement to take money from our newest and often youngest members to give it to those who earn in many cases twice as much? What kind of solidarity is that? Many haven’t even gotten the full value of the increment to divide among their members. These deals are dubbed “negative money” by the other side, an allusion to the Triborough Law that says that salary schedule increments be paid even after the expiration of a contract. Thus if a contract is settled for less than the cost of increment, it is settled for “negative money.”

NYSUT, our state union, deserves credit for putting significant effort into encouraging locals to focus on organizing. The current leadership has worked hard to steer the organization back to its organizing roots. It’s time, however, to organize around collective bargaining issues. It’s time for whole regions of our state to declare that they will stand together against common management demands. And it’s time for our state organization to encourage such efforts. To be sure, they can’t force locals to participate. We are, after all, a confederation of locals. But just as our state organization promotes and encourages a collectively determined political action agenda, they ought to and have the means to promote regional collective bargaining agendas. Every local that feels obliged to accept negative money makes it that much harder for other locals to escape the same fate.

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A Very Good Day

I’ve been an ardent supporter of Bernie Sanders. I’ve been literally thrilled to see a democratic socialist like me give voice to ideas that I have long cherished and to see millions of Americans throng to his call for economic justice. I’m not surprised that Bernie lost the battle to be the Democratic nominee for president; I’m still amazed and encouraged by the fact that he got as far as he did.

Many in our ranks of education unionism were divided this primary season. Many did not like the move by our national leaders to an early endorsement of Hillary. Some are still engaged in the magical thinking that says Bernie still has a path to victory at the convention. Feeling are still sore on all sides. That’s to be expected.

But let’s try to begin the healing process with some sober reflection on the fact that America took a giant leap forward last night. A woman is now the nominee of one of our major political parties. Hillary accomplished that, and that accomplishment is not to be sneered at. Public education unionists who have made women’s equality part of their social justice agenda for years can all take pride in this historic event. If they haven’t done do, they need to listen to Hillary’s pitch-perfect speech last night, magnanimously praising Bernie and his campaign, acknowledging his energizing of progressives everywhere, locating her victory in the historic context of an ever-improving America, an ever more just nation, a nation seeking an ever more perfect union.

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Shame on Us

Forty-seven percent of the student body of Public School 188 in New York City is homeless. Students come and go, innocent victims of the economic vicissitudes of their parents. Their teachers desperately try to ameliorate the crime of poverty society has inflicted on these kids, getting them necessities like shoes and toothbrushes. Read this article and tell me that America cares about all its children. Read this article and explain how it is that the teachers of these impoverished children are supposed to meet the demands of the ed reformers to raise test scores and make them college and career ready. Read this article and explain how such conditions can exist in the richest country on the face of the earth. Read this article and explain how we can possibly be over-taxed if such conditions exist. Read this article and see if you don’t feel that we are all shamed for allowing children to live this way.

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What Are We Teaching Kids?

Listening to Market Report on NPR this morning, I got the latest insight into what is really wrong with America’s education system. I was astounded to hear that Goldman Sachs received 250,0000 applications for employment this graduation season – 250,000. I shouldn’t be so surprised. In recent scholarship interviews I have participated in, when asked where they see themselves in ten years, several have said they hope to be hedge fund managers. What does it say about our education system that so many young people seem so motivated by greed? Does this trend parallel the decline of the liberal arts as central to our education system? I’m much more worried about numbers like this than I am about standardized test scores.

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John King Strikes Again

Did anybody expect good things from John King, when on the verge of being run out of New York, the Obama administration selected him to replace Arne Duncan, himself a beleaguered education policy maker on the national level? So, it’s no surprise that Kings draft of the regulations implementing the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) proposes that 95 percent of students in a public school district must participate in the state’s high stakes tests or the district may suffer a penalty in the form of a cut in Title I funding.

That these regulations violate the spirit of not the letter of the recent legislation is clear. The whole focus of the bi-partisan ESSA was to return authority to the states to determine issues of standards and testing. But that doesn’t seem to matter to John King. A tool of the corporate education reform movement, King looks at the country and sees a growing national opt out movement threatening that movement. He remembers the power and fury of the opt-out movement in New York and how it made his position there untenable. He appears determined to use his brief time in Washington to try to use the economic power of the federal government stifle the voices of parents and educators who with increasing militancy are demanding an end to corporate reform movement’s rape of our nation’s public schools.

Our national union leaders ought to be questioning Hillary very carefully about her thoughts on this move by King to defeat the opt-out movement. Here in New York we have a right to know what our would-be majority leader Chuck Schumer thinks about this issue. Wouldn’t it be hopeful if he had one of his almost daily media events to demand end to this threat to a parent’s right to determine whether her child will participate in the state’s regime of high stakes tests?

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New York Standards

New York’s Commissioner of Education Elia is raising expectations modifications to the Common Core State Standards, probably to be billed as New York Standards. Supposedly, the coming changes, vetted by classroom teachers, will be more age appropriate than the standards currently in place. I have my doubts, however.

Years of highly successful reformist propaganda have left too many Americans with a belief that their public schools, even our best ones, are failing. Demand for schools that make children college and career ready has been ginned up to the point of hysteria where children are encouraged in the earliest grades to begin building their resumes to ensure that they will get into the best colleges and get the best jobs, probably in some STEM field. It extraordinarily hard to imagine in this super-heated education environment that standards will be promulgated that realistically align with the developmental needs of children. Does anyone believe that we will see standards that reflect an understanding of the role of public education in developing citizens of a democratic society? Will play be returned to its centrality to the learning of young children? Will we get a set of standards that encourages teachers to pause at teachable moments and have the kind of conversations that while absent from teacher evaluation rubrics can be the most important things that students take from a class, or will the new standards continue the rush to the intellectual emptiness of state examinations?

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