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 October, 2016

The Ranking Mania

Many of us have come to believe that if one can attach a number to something, it is of a higher order reality. We see this in the growing mania to rank people and institutions, often in ways that mislead rather than educate. Public schools have suffered significantly by these mismeasurements, many very willingly supplying the data that is then used to undermine their legitimacy. It is absolutely foolhardy to rate a high school on the basis of how many AP courses it students are enrolled in. A school in which every child takes an AP class every period may be a good school. It’s just as likely, if not more so, to be a places of cut-throat competition where test scores are subordinated to learning and the goal of educating citizens has evaporated.

This mindless ranking having had my attention for some time, I was interested to read Frank Bruni’s column in Sunday’s Times about the spread of this insanity to colleges. Bruni reviews some of the rating indices, properly concluding that each makes its evaluations on completely different criteria. Read them all, and one may find what they are looking for in a college. Read just one, and you might just as well have picked a name out of a hat.

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The Latest Ed-Tech Innovation

My readers are well aware of my growing concerns about the infiltration of technological learning appliances and their debasement of what it has meant to be educated. Thus, I was not at all surprised to read that the latest “learning innovation” to be touted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a biosensor attached to students’ wrists and able to gauge their attentiveness to lesson before them. It won’t be long I suspect before some jackass of a superintendent of schools, spouting the empty rhetoric of 21st century learners and digital citizens, offers this up as the latest improvement in education. What it is in fact is the latest from a tech industry that has provided the tools of the surveillance society we have become. If we were interested in an educated citizenry we would be spending time at all levels of education discussing the increasing threat to our freedom these devices pose. We would also be wise to take seriously teaching students how to be intelligent consumers of media that are increasingly personalized to the point that we share less and less of a common reality and the concept of a fact appears to mean less and less with each passing day.

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Teachers for Trump?

Off and on this weekend, I found myself in a Facebook discussion with some Trump supporters, two of whom are members of the union I used to lead, one retired and one active. It didn’t take long for one of their friends to chime in to accuse me of being a communist. When I responded that although I have been long accustomed to being red-baited the fact is I’m not a communist but a democratic socialist, this chap’s angry response was that they are both the same thing and that his grandfather fought against both of them during World War II. It mattered not to him when I pointed out that his grandfather fought Nazis or national socialists.

The experience got me thinking about how many Trump supporters there might be in the ranks of teacher unions. How many are either unaware of the threat that Trumpism poses to public education and unionized workers in general or have soaked up the white nationalist poison he spews that they are willing to chance the consequences of electing a man who unequivocally supports charter schools, government vouchers for students to attend private and religious schools, home schooling and the dismantling of the U. S. Department of Education? There’s no way to know for sure. While the ones I engaged on Facebook are bold enough to be public about their support, most aren’t, knowing deep down I suspect that there is something fundamentally wrong about supporting a man whose campaign has attracted the Alt-right, the Klan and assorted other bigots. But, we know that about 25 percent of our membership is Republican and that about 80 percent of Republicans support Trump. Why would we believe that our members are different?

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Teaching About Elections

Despite there not being a shred of evidence to support Trumps allegation that attempts are being made to steal the election, he continues twist the intestines of his supporters with statements s about dead people voting, inner-city people (He means blacks and Latinos) poised to commit massive voter fraud and an alliance between the Clinton campaign and the news media.

We know that if a lie gets repeated often enough and is uncontested, it has the distinct potential to become the truth. Were this lie to become the truth of the American people, it could destroy our unique democratic experiment and effectively make our country ungovernable democratically. Every responsible politician of every party need to forthrightly assure their constituents that Donald Trump’s allegations are completely without evidence. As importantly, the teachers in the classrooms of our public schools must engage the nation’s children in discussions of the election, guiding them to factual information about allegations of voter fraud. Public schools are vital to our democracy. They must prepare children to become responsible participants of our democracy. To do that they must help children understand both the falsity of these allegations and the threat they pose to our society.

Were I still in the classroom, I would additionally talk about the real election fraud in the United States – the adoption in far too many states of laws that make voting more difficult and which impact disproportionately minorities. I would be talking about how the Republican Party has made a very determined effort to exclude constituencies which tend to support Democrats from the electoral process. I would be talking about the calamity of the Supreme Court’s striking down central planks of the Voting Rights Act. I would be explaining how these efforts are the modern face of Jim Crow.

Some will say, “You can’t do such things anymore, Morty.” If you can’t, then we’re not teachers anymore. Our students may get ever higher and higher test scores, but we will have failed both them and ourselves.

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Time For Progressives to Get Practical

I hope you missed me that last week or so. We had some server issues that prevented me from posting. I’m assured, however, that we are now back to normal.

Some of my readers live in states that Hillary Clinton will easily win. They therefore figure they have the luxury of casting a more purely motivated ballot for either Gary Johnson or Jill Stein. When pressed, most will acknowledge that they hope and believe Hillary will win, but they dislike her nevertheless and feel a compulsion to let her know it. In normal times, while I would still disagree with this approach to the president election, I might be able to accept it. But, Donald Trump poses such a palpable threat whether he wins or not. The fact is that he has the darkest strains of political thought in America to coalesce into a movement that threatens the very foundations of our democracy, with only a third of Republican voters believing that the election will be counted fairly.

This is no time for protest votes. Our only hope for a competent president, our only hope for any semblance of a progressive agenda is electing Hillary Clinton with a large enough mandate to allow her to govern. A Hillary presidency gives us a real shot making college more affordable, providing paid family leave, trying to complete the war on poverty, addressing the infrastructure need of the nation, ending the radical right hold on the Supreme Court, taking additional steps in the battle against climate change and taking the next step forward in the struggle to provide health care to all our people. The extent to which she can accomplish any of this is directly related to the margin of her victory. An overwhelming victory increases her leverage with the Congress, whether the Democrats control either house. Progressives have a real opportunity for the kind of change they have been seeking. Progressives have a shot at achieving much of Bernie’s agenda.

As a life-long democratic socialist, I naturally supported Bernie Sanders. But Bernie lost. I believe fairly. You may not. You may even think Hillary is corrupt. No matter. It’s time to get practical and recognize that the only chance to move a progressive agenda forward is by electing Hillary Clinton overwhelmingly. We simply have to demonstrate that there remains an overwhelming small d democratic majority that will not entertain the messianic call of the strong man who alone possesses the powers to cure all the nation’s ills, making it great again. Our nation has heard that call before. It has always rejected it. It must do so again.

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Real Patriots

With the presidential election looming, it’s been hard to think about public education, except for the fear of what the election of Donald Trump would mean for America’s public schools. What I can’t get out of my mind is the idea that the very possibility of his election is in and of itself an indictment of our schools. What kind of twisted patriotism is it that longs for an America in which minorities knew their place, gays were in the closet, women were subservient to men and America was the unrivaled super-power? If the purpose of public schools is the education of citizens to participate meaningfully in our democratic society, let’s acknowledge that we could be doing better.

On the bright side, however, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that here appears to be a growing movement among high school football players to emulate Colin Kaepernick and to take a knee during the playing of the National Anthem. A piece in the October 3rd New York Times reports that kids on a number of high school teams from coast to coast teams have followed Kaepernick’s lead. It’s encouraging to see young people standing up for their beliefs, expressing a finer patriotism that yearns for a country that lives up to its ideals and seeks an ever more perfect union. I’m encourages too that these kids appear to have the support of their coaches and school districts. It tells me that that they are leaning important lessons that are not reflected in the way we have come to evaluate schools. Bravo to the school leaders who have supported these kid’s efforts.

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