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 September, 2016

Realism Time

I fear the next person who laments the fact that we have only Donald trump and Hillary Clinton to choose from better duck as I am likely to be overtaken by an irresistible urge to vomit. It’s surely time to face the fact that one of these two people is going to be the next President of the United States. It’s time to put all the bullshit aside and face the fact that it matters greatly which one wins. If you watched the debate last night with the slightest openness of mind, you saw one candidate who was articulate, poised, prepared and completely conversant with the issues of the day. You saw another who was often incapable of putting together two coherent sentences, opting instead for incessant bursts self-puffery and invective.

Going into the debate, the pundits speculated as to which Donald Trump would show up. How would Hillary deal with him? What crap! There is and always was only one Donald Trump, a self-aggrandizing con-artist who when his swindle is revealed unleashes bursts of lies, innuendo and insult like squid ink, hoping to scoot away in the darkened water. I never really doubted that a woman as smart as Hillary is would have any trouble baiting the Donald into revealing just how pathetically unfit he is.

I’m sorry friends. She’s not warm and fuzzy. She’s very precise and lawyerly in her answers to questions. She’s reluctant to wear her emotions on her sleeve. She’s all business. You may, like Donald, not like the way she looks. You may not feel an emotional connection to her. You may think it unseemly for a woman to manifest the drive and ambition she has. You may think that like many politicians she has played loose with the truth on occasion. You may resent that she chose to stay in a marriage with a philandering husband. But here’s the deal that is before you. You can either entrust your welfare and that of our nation to this brilliant, knowledgeable, experienced woman, or you can be overcome by things that rub you the wrong way about her and be conned into making a man who has no experience of governing, is ill-tempered and who years for a return to an America that was nowhere near as great as it is today. That’s the choice. It’s realism time.

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The Revised English Standards

The New York State Education Department has issues a draft of the revised English and mathematics standards, revisions that are said to have involved educators and parents. I spent an hour or so with the English standards, English being my field. I expected nothing from the revisions, and I am not in any way disappointed. As I read, I found myself imagining frustrated teachers trying to fathom exactly what some of this gibberish means. I imagined too how inherently boring for young students much pseudo-sophisticated baloney is.

I found myself remembering some of the Canadian provincial academic standards that I long ago suggested we could simply adopt, thereby saving ourselves money, time and teachers’ faith in our schools. I challenge my readers to look at the Ontario standards and then New York’s. Then ask yourself if you had a child and had the choice of which curriculum she should be exposed to, which one would you pick? I doubt that anyone would pick New York’s. A clear educational philosophy under-girds the Ontario standards, one that is anchored in an understanding of how children learn, one that respects children. New York’s is by and large words, words, words.

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The Neglect of Language Study

I’m just back from a week in Iceland. One of my lasting memories will be of the extraordinary nice people we met whose command of English is astonishing to Americans whose language proficiency is matched only by their inability to accept criticism of their country. When I asked a cab driver who had just explained the intricacies of the Icelandic health care system how it is that everyone speaks such fluent English, he explained how all Icelandic children begin their study of English in third grade and continue it throughout their schooling.

I’ve noted before how there are some places in the United States that take teaching foreign languages seriously and capitalize on the long established fact that childhood is the best time to learn languages. Yet so-call high performing school districts like mine essentially make a pretense of teaching other languages until our kids are in the latter years of middle school. While we have spent fortunes of money over the years on the latest educational fads, the leadership of our district has never expressed even the slightest interest in recognizing the centrality of language study to any reasonable concept of being educated. This is just one of the many weaknesses of our academic program that goes unrecognized by decision makers who are themselves often poorly educated and who fall victim to the latest education snake-oil.

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Not a Happy Day

Although retired, I went to my local’s contract ratification meeting yesterday. I wanted to be on hand to help our new president Nina Melzer, as I led our union during most of the negotiations that leading to the contracts that were before the membership. While I was please to see our contracts ratified, I was deeply disturbed b y some of what I heard from those who felt our negotiating committee did not do a good enough job.

In the context of a property tax cap that limited the increase in our district’s budget to a small fraction of one percent, in a bargaining environment in which almost every settlement on Long Island has been financed by modifying the increment structure of the salary schedule – taking from the newer staff to give to those who already make more, we were able to get raises compounding to 6.3 percent over a four year period and completely preserved our increments. We cut six hours from our staff development requirement, ended disruptive parent classroom visitations, improved our sick leave buy-out upon retirement, improved our leave and bereavement clauses and got $150 per member more over the course of the contract for our welfare fund. Yes, we will work two extra days, and we will introduce extra help in our elementary schools and increase extra help in our middle schools, all within the existing school hours. I am completely confident that there has not been a better contract negotiated on the Island in recent years.

For quite a few of our members, you would have thought the district rolled over us. Quite a few speakers spoke about the unfairness of the deal, unfairness being generally defined as being obligated to do some things differently, albeit in the identical amount of time. Others expressed their belief that the district doesn’t respect us, as if that had the slightest thing to do with negotiations essentially about time and money. The lack of understanding of the realities of bargaining in the current context left me concerned for the future and a little guilty that I had somehow failed to educate so many to the realities of public sector collective bargaining at the current time. I’m saddened too by what that lack of understanding means for my successor who begins her tenure with so much anger. There was so little appreciation for the extraordinary job she did at the meeting, explaining the contract, answering difficult emotionally charged questions with pin-point accurate answers and a self-control that I doubt I could have mustered. What should have been a unifying, happy day was anything but.

When we entered the tax cap era of collective bargaining, I predicted that memberships would turn in on themselves and ultimately blame their union for conditions no one local union can overcome. As the era has unfolded, I’ve seen local leaders defeated, successive leaderships of our state union challenged, all of which makes our position more difficult, makes putting the political coalitions necessary to improve our situation more problematical to create. I keep hoping locals in our area will finally get together and develop a common bargaining strategy, but I frankly see no signs that that will happen. Districts effectively continue to coordinate their bargaining through the work of the two major law firms that represent most of the Island’s districts. We continue at our peril to maintain that negotiations is a local matter. When will we learn?
I will be doing a little travelling for the next week. Please look for me again the week of the 19th.

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Great Happens Here?

Put aside the bad grammar, the Plainview superintendent’s welcoming message for the start of the new school year puts forward a theme – Great Happens Here. The message then goes on to report progress on construction projects financed by the recently enacted bond referendum. Greatness?

Then, ever so curiously, in the context of advancing the notion of the district’s greatness, we are told of a plethora of administrative changes due to the departures of numbers of administrative staff. While the message doesn’t say so, the fact is that administrative departures have been so common place that teachers joke about not bothering to learn the names of new ones, their tenure often lasting so briefly.

Of real concern is the lack of any public discussion of why it is that there is so little administrative continuity in our school district. One would think that at least some members of the Board of Education would demand an investigation of why it is that we appear to be unable to attract more leaders who form any loyalty to our district. Yet that doesn’t seem to happen here.

To be sure many great things happen in our schools, but I believe that happen despite an atmosphere that motivates staff with options to go elsewhere as soon as they can. Sustained greatness doesn’t happen in such an atmosphere.

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