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 August, 2016

Stronger From the Ground Up

My last post addressed what I believe to be the confusion of many NYSUT local leaders over their support for PSA, the NYSUT staff union, in its current round of collective bargaining. I maintain that they appropriately owe their support not to PSA but to NYSUT leadership who are trying to address an existential, structural deficit.

Many local leaders are moved to answer staff calls for support and solidarity owing to their dependence on these employees for too much of the work of their locals. Over the years a service model has developed in which locals call upon their NYSUT labor relations specialist (LRS) to do what would be better done by the officers and members of the local. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t blame them for doing so. They have been encouraged by state leaders and staff to do so. If a problem arises, call your LRS, the implication being that you put yourself and your local at risk if you deal with the matter yourself. The problem, however, is we build no local capacity when we operate this way. Local leaders miss opportunities for hands-on learning. Dependence on “experts” yields only ever-increasing dependence. Powerful movements are not created this way. They are created by empowering people to use their own talents in furthering their cause. To the extent that they call upon experts, those calls are opportunities to learn new information and skills; they should obviate the need to make the same call in the future. Those calls build self-reliance and increase the respect of adversaries.

One of the major roles of a state union ought to be to provide the assistance necessary to make their member locals essentially self-reliant for day to day operations. Negotiations, grievances, personnel issues etc. are all thing that are ultimately more effectively done by local leaders who have been encouraged to build the reservoir of knowledge and skill necessary for these tasks. Not only would such a state union model yield better organized , significantly strengthened local unions, it would control the costs of the state union and allow more financial resources to remain locally where they could be used to further enhance local capacity. When I stepped down as the president of my local, we were sending in excess of $325,000 to NYSUT while we were prevented from implementing scores of ideas that would have enhanced our operation for lack of financial resources.

We surely need a state union, but we need one that believes and promotes the growing power and capacity of locals – one that understands that its own strength is best enhanced from the ground up. Even our smallest locals can be made more self-sufficient and thereby more effective. I don’t claim to have all of the answers as to how to bring this about, but I know that this is a discussion we should be having and aren’t. Over my years of service, I attended far too many meetings at which local leaders called for more state staff and resources. Where have those calls gotten us?

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Which Side Are We On?

Labor unions have a notoriously hard time bargaining with their own employees. New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) has been no exception. Don’t take my comment the wrong way. I believe unions have a responsibility to treat their employees as they would have their members treated in their workplaces – good salaries, good benefits and good working conditions. My local has always tied the salaries and benefits of its employees to the contract of the people we represent in similar work categories. That said, the fact of the matter is the conditions of many union staff are often much better than the people they represent. That’s certainly true in NYSUT.

Currently, the unions representing NYSUT staff are bargaining new contracts for ones expiring at the end of the month. For years, through several administrations, NYSUT leadership has been aware of a looming structural deficit that threatens the future financial health of the organization. Part of the reason for that deficit has been labor contracts beyond the capacity of the organization to finance. Both the current and past leadership of NYSUT have taken some steps to rectify this looming problem but nowhere near enough to ensure the health of the organization. The current leadership is apparently looking to tackle the underfunding of the pension system in its current round of negotiations, a thoroughly appropriate thing for them to do. The staff counters with a tried and true ploy – organize the local leaders against the demands of state leadership.

In recent days, as the expiration date of the NYSUT contracts approaches, some local leaders have spoken out in support of the staff – arguing that the pension issue should be dealt with outside of the negotiations process, when management’s ability to leverage change will be diminished… Rather than recognizing that as local leaders their interests and responsibilities lie in supporting the management bargaining team, they have allowed themselves to lose track of the interest of their membership in solving the long range financial problems of their state organization.

Although it is detrimental to the interests of their members, it is easy to understand how these things happen. The personal relationships of local leaders with the field staff are often strong ones. Much of the work of too many locals is basically done by the labor relations specialists, not the local leaders. It’s real hard to tell someone you’re close to and on whom you depend that you can’t support their demand in their negotiations. Yet, I suspect, these same local leaders will groan loudly about the ever increasing dues of the state union and the failure of the state leaders to control costs.

I have no idea as to whether the NUSUT’s leadership’s demands of the staff are real proposals required to solve what I know to be very real financial problems of our state organization. I do know that they understand the problem, and I’m pleased to know that they are seeking to fix it. I wish all of my union colleagues could locate their own self-interest and that of their local members in standing behind their management’s attempts to solve our existential, financial problems.

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Black Lives Matter and Public Education

In the racially charged Trump campaign, licensed surrogates like former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani and other like him have accused the Black Lives Matter movement as essentially racist. Very interestingly, even the more liberally oriented press has done a very poor job of elucidating what the movement stands for other than fair treatment by the police forces of our nation. It turns out they have interests other than the U. S. criminal injustice system They have ideas about public education, many of which are shared by the more progressive elements of our teacher unions and the Democratic Party. Their platform calls for increased and equitable funding of public schools, and end to charter schools, general opposition to the corporate school reform agenda, community control of schools, the removal of police from schools and an end to out of school suspensions which they see as contributing to the school to prison pipeline. While teacher unionists will have some differences with some planks in their platform, there is certainly a basis for a coalition around much of what we share with Black Lives Matter.

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Platforms Matter

My mind has been on the implosion of Donald Trump’s presidential aspirations, not on public education. It’s fascinating to read Republic stalwarts like David Brooks, Peggy Noonan and Charles Krauthammer all questioning the mental health of their party’s nominee. How wonderfully encouraging! But many of us knew that Nixon was crazy too. While more secretive about his psychic wounds, he managed to fool the nation, all the while appealing to many of the same dark emotions as Trump. Have we forgotten the Southern strategy, his code for the appeal to racism? Let’s not be too confident that this race is over.
There hasn’t been much talk in this campaign about public education. People committed to the centrality of public education to our democracy ought to take a look at the platform of the two parties in this regard. Let me not editorialize. Here are the two platforms. Bernie or Bust friends, think about which party is more clearly supportive of public education as you conceive of it?

Here is the Democratic education plank.

Democrats believe we must have the best-educated population and workforce in the world. That means making early childhood education and universal preschool a priority, especially in light of new research showing how much early learning can impact life-long success. Democrats will invest in early childhood programs like Early Head Start and provide every family in America with access to high-quality childcare and high-quality preschool programs. We support efforts to raise wages for childcare workers, and to ensure that early childhood educators are experienced and high-quality.

We will ensure there are great schools for every child no matter where they live. Democrats know the federal government must play a critical role in making sure every child has access to a world-class education. We believe that a strong public education system is an anchor of our democracy, a propeller of the economy, and the vehicle through which we help all children achieve their dreams. Public education must engage students to be critical thinkers and civic participants while addressing the wellbeing of the whole child.

We also support increased investments in afterschool and summer learning programs, which help working families, keep kids safe, and inspire learning at a time when many students are left unsupervised. We must find ways to encourage mentoring programs that support students in reaching their full potential. Mentoring is a strategy to ensure that children living in poverty have the encouragement and support to aim high and enter the middle class. We will focus on group mentoring, which is a low-cost, high-yield investment that offers the benefit of building a supportive network of peers who push one another towards success.

Democrats believe all students should be taught to high academic standards. Schools should have adequate resources to provide programs and support to help meet the needs of every child. We will hold schools, districts, communities, and states accountable for raising achievement levels for all students—particularly low-income students, students of color, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities.

We must fulfill our national commitment to provide a meaningful education to students with disabilities, and work towards full funding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act so that students with disabilities can receive the extra resources and services they need. With an 33 appropriate educational foundation, children with disabilities can thrive and become adults with greater opportunities and more meaningful life experiences.

We are also deeply committed to ensuring that we strike a better balance on testing so that it informs, but does not drive, instruction. To that end, we encourage states to develop a multiple measures approach to assessment, and we believe that standardized tests must be reliable and valid. We oppose high-stakes standardized tests that falsely and unfairly label students of color, students with disabilities and English Language Learners as failing; the use of standardized test scores as basis for refusing to fund schools or to close schools; and the use of student test scores in teacher and principal evaluations, a practice which has been repeatedly rejected by researchers. We support enabling parents to opt their children out of standardized tests without penalty for either the student or their school.

Democrats recognize and honor all the professionals who work in public schools to support students’ education—teachers, education support professionals, and specialized staff. We know that good teachers are essential to improving student learning and helping all students to meet high academic standards. Democrats will launch a national campaign to recruit and retain high quality teachers. We will ensure that teachers receive the tools and ongoing professional development they need to succeed in the classroom and provide our children with a world-class education. We also must lift up and trust our educators, continually build their capacity, and ensure that our schools are safe, welcoming, collaborative, and well-resourced places for our students, educators, and communities.

We will invest in high-quality STEAM classes, community schools, computer science education, arts education, and expand link learning models and career pathways. We will end the school-to-prison pipeline by opposing discipline policies which disproportionately affect African Americans and Latinos, Native Americans and Alaska Natives, students with disabilities, and youth who identify as LGBT. We will support the use of restorative justice practices that help students and staff resolve conflicts peacefully and respectfully while helping to improve the teaching and learning environment. And we will work to improve school culture and combat bullying of all kinds.

The Democratic Party is committed to eliminating opportunity gaps—particularly those that lead to students from low-income communities arriving on day one of kindergarten several years behind their peers. This means advocating for labor and public assistance laws that ensure poor parents can spend time with their children. This means raising household incomes in poor communities. It means ensuring children have health care, stable housing free of contaminants, and a community free of violence in order to minimize the likelihood of cognitive delays. It means enriching early childhood programming to prepare children in areas such as literacy, numeracy, civic engagement, and emotional intelligence. It means supporting equitable and adequate state funding for public education, and expanding Title I funding for schools that serve a large number or high concentration of children in poverty. It means ending curriculum gaps that maintain and exacerbate achievement gaps.

We support policies that motivate rather than demoralize our educators. We are committed to ensuring that schools that educate children in poverty are not treated unfairly, which is why we 34 will end the test-and-punish version of accountability that does no more than reveal the many opportunity gaps facing students from low-income communities.

Democrats are committed to providing parents with high-quality public school options and expanding these options for low-income youth. We support democratically governed, great neighborhood public schools and high-quality public charter schools, and we will help them disseminate best practices to other school leaders and educators. Democrats oppose for-profit charter schools focused on making a profit off of public resources. We believe that high-quality public charter schools should provide options for parents, but should not replace or destabilize traditional public schools. Charter schools must reflect their communities, and thus must accept and retain proportionate numbers of students of color, students with disabilities and English Language Learners in relation to their neighborhood public schools. We support increased transparency and accountability for all charter schools.


Contrast this conception of public education to that of the Republicans.

Education: A Chance for Every Child Education is much more than schooling. It is the whole range of activities by which families and communities transmit to a younger generation, not just knowledge and skills, but ethical and behavioral norms and traditions. It is the handing over of a cultural identity. That is why American education has, for the last several decades, been the focus of constant controversy, as centralizing forces from outside the family and community have sought to remake education in order to remake America. They have done immense damage. The federal government should not be a partner in that effort, as the Constitution gives it no role in education. At the heart of the American Experiment lies the greatest political expression of human dignity: The self-evident truth that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” That truth rejects the dark view of the individual as human capital — a possession for the creation of another’s wealth.

Parents are a child’s first and foremost educators, and have primary responsibility for the education of their children. Parents have a right to direct their children’s education, care, and upbringing. We support a constitutional amendment to protect that right from interference by states, the federal government, or international bodies such as the United Nations. We reject a onesize-fits-all approach to education and support a broad range of choices for parents and children at the state and local level. We likewise repeat our longstanding opposition to the imposition of national standards and assessments, encourage the parents and educators who are implementing alternatives to Common Core, and congratulate the states which have successfully repealed it. Their education reform movement calls for choice-based, parent-driven accountability at every stage of schooling. It affirms higher expectations for all students and rejects the crippling bigotry of low expectations. It recognizes the wisdom of local control of our schools and it wisely sees consumer rights in education — choice — as the most important driving force for renewing education. It rejects excessive testing and “teaching to the test” and supports the need for strong assessments to serve as a tool so teachers can tailor teaching to meet student needs.

We applaud America’s great teachers, who should be protected against frivolous lawsuits and should be able to take reasonable actions to maintain discipline and order in the classroom. Administrators need flexibility to innovate and to hold accountable all those responsible for student performance. A good understanding of the Bible being indispensable for the development of an educated citizenry, we encourage state legislatures to offer the Bible in a literature curriculum as an elective in America’s high schools. We urge school districts to make use of teaching talent in the business community, STEM fields, and the military, especially among our returning veterans. Rigid tenure systems should be replaced with a merit-based approach in order to attract the best talent to the classroom. All personnel who interact with school children should pass background checks and be held to the highest standards of personal conduct.

Academic Excellence for All Maintaining American preeminence requires a world-class system of education in which all students can reach their potential. Republicans are leading the effort to create it. Since 1965, the federal government, through more than 100 programs in 34 the Department of Education, has spent $2 trillion on elementary and secondary education with little substantial improvement in academic achievement or high school graduation rates. The United States spends an average of more than $12,000 per pupil per year in public schools, for a total of more than $620 billion. That represents more than 4 percent of GDP devoted to K-12 education in 2011-2012. Of that amount, federal spending amounted to more than $57 billion. Clearly, if money were the solution, our schools would be problem-free.

More money alone does not necessarily equal better performance. After years of trial and error, we know the policies and methods that have actually made a difference in student advancement: Choice in education; building on the basics; STEM subjects and phonics; career and technical education; ending social promotions; merit pay for good teachers; classroom discipline; parental involvement; and strong leadership by principals, superintendents, and locally elected school boards. Because technology has become an essential tool of learning, it must be a key element in our efforts to provide every child equal access and opportunity. We strongly encourage instruction in American history and civics by using the original documents of our founding fathers.

Choice in Education: We support options for learning, including home-schooling, career and technical education, private or parochial schools, magnet schools, charter schools, online learning, and early-college high schools. We especially support the innovative financing mechanisms that make options available to all children: education savings accounts (ESAs), vouchers, and tuition tax credits. Empowering families to access the learning environments that will best help their children to realize their full potential is one of the greatest civil rights challenges of our time. A young person’s ability to succeed in school must be based on his or her God-given talent and motivation, not an address, ZIP code, or economic status. We propose that the bulk of federal money through Title I for low-income children and through IDEA for children with special needs should follow the child to whatever school the family thinks will work best for them.

In sum, on the one hand enormous amounts of money are being spent for K-12 public education with overall results that do not justify that spending level. On the other hand, the common experience of families, teachers, and administrators forms the basis of what does work in education. In Congress and in the states, Republicans are bridging the gap between those two realities. Congressional Republicans are leading the way forward with major reform legislation advancing the concept of block grants and repealing numerous federal regulations which have interfered with state and local control of public schools. Their Workplace Innovation and Opportunity Act — modernizing workforce programs, repealing mandates, and advancing employment for persons with disabilities — is now law. Their legislation to require transparency in unfunded mandates imposed upon our schools is advancing. Their D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program should be expanded as a model for the rest of the country. We deplore the efforts of Congressional Democrats and the current President to eliminate this successful program for disadvantaged students in order to placate the leaders of the teachers’ unions.

To ensure that all students have access to the mainstream of American life, we support the English First approach and oppose divisive programs that limit students’ ability to advance in American society. We renew our call for replacing “family planning” programs for teens with sexual risk avoidance education that sets abstinence until marriage as the responsible and respected standard of behavior. That approach — the only one always effective against premarital pregnancy and sexually-transmitted disease — empowers teens to achieve optimal health outcomes. We oppose school-based clinics that provide referral or counseling for abortion and contraception and believe that federal funds should not be used in mandatory or universal mental health, psychiatric, or socio-emotional screening programs. The federal government has pushed states to collect and share vast amounts of personal student and family data, including the collection of social and emotional data. Much of this data is collected without parental consent or notice. This is wholly incompatible with the American Experiment and our inalienable rights.

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