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 November, 2016

DeVos Was Second Choice

Valerie Strauss reports that what many of us think of as the worst possible pick to be Secretary of Education, billionaire Besty DeVos was really Donald Trump’s second choice. Jerry Falwell Jr., the son of Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell Sr., was apparently Trump’s first choice. This news deepens the conviction that the President-Elect plans a vigorous assault on the protections against tax dollars flowing to private and religious schools.

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Betsy Billionaire

Just what we needed, Mr. President- Elect, a billionaire champion of vouchers and charter schools. So, when I said the other day that advocates for public education were in for a rough ride, it begins with the nomination of Betsy DeVos, a thoroughly unqualified person, be the next Secretary of Education. In his comments about his pick to lead the Ed Department, Mr. Trump repeated the shot he consistently took at our teacher unions during his campaign. “I cannot think of a more effective and passionate change agent to press for a new education vision, one in which students, rather than adults and bureaucracies, become the priority in our nation’s classrooms,” Trump said. To Trump, and all those who seek to privatize our public schools, teacher union contracts that limit things like class size, the number of students a teacher may be responsible for and the number of hours a teacher may be worked are all impediments. In their great America, there are no teacher unions sticking up for their students and themselves. Tax dollars flow to private schools, even religious ones. Non-union teachers in these schools do what they’re told and work for a fraction of what union teachers make. The fact that there is not one country in the world with high performing schools that has such a privatized system means nothing to Trump and the privatizers of his class. Put their propaganda aside and what we have is yet another attempt driven by greed of corporate America to exploit us all. I suspect it won’t be long before some begin to long for the good old days of Arne Duncan and John King.

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Preparing For Vanishing Work

If we really saw schools as preparing students for the world they will live in, we would be discussing with them the growing technological capacity of human beings to replace people with machines. Clearly we will be able to produce more and more with fewer and fewer workers. The question then becomes who will buy the things the machines are able to produce. Perhaps the biggest lie of our recent presidential campaign was Trump’s assertion that he would see to it that manufacturing jobs come back to America. The fact is we produce more things today than ever before with a fraction of the workers it once took. Not only are these jobs not coming back to America, as labor costs rise in the rest of the world, these jobs will disappear internationally.

What does an economy driven by consumer spending do when it is able to produce more and more but there are fewer and fewer consumers with the money to buy the products? This is the central political question today’s young people will have to face. Yet, we do almost nothing to educate them and prepare them to deal with a world that will require work from fewer of them. How do we shape our economic and political institutions to meet this brave new world? Will we be able to build structures that equitable share our enormous productivity? Or will we continue to concentrate wealth and income to the point where ever greater numbers of citizens perceive themselves disconnected from their society to the point where they become open to ever more extreme political exploitation? Will we continue to tell our children that if they just get a college education their economic future will be assured?

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Public Schools and Gender Barriers

The teacher union I joined in 1969 was active in the social movements of the day. We were fiercely opposed to the Viet Nam war, aggressively supportive of the civil and women’s rights movements. We had a Title IX committee that diligently worked to address the disparate and often inferior treatment of girls in our schools. In the parlance of the day, we participated in a nation-wide movement to raise the consciousness of our members and students to the unequal opportunities and outcomes for American women. We developed courses for both members and students, brought in speakers, developed lessons, all aimed at tearing down the barriers to the full participation of our sisters in our society.

I’ve been thinking about this as I keep reading that a majority of white women voted for Donald Trump. Despite a document life of treating women as objects, despite a campaign that oozed with the slimiest sexist rhetoric, white women in significant numbers voted to defeat the first woman with a serious chance of being elected president, thereby meaningfully proscribing their lives and the lives of their daughters. In a very real way, the extent to which we continue to have to talk about a gender gap points to our failure.

Better public schools would have opened the minds of our children to the need of our country for the full participation of women in every aspect of our society. Back in the 60s and 70s, many of us expected that when the students were teaching then came into their majority, our goals for the political and economic liberation of women would be fulfilled. I fear that we and the teachers who entered the profession after us failed to see that we never finished the job, that there remains very difficult work to be done seeing to it that in the part teachers play in the acculturation of girls affirmatively strives to give them the tools to be agents of their own liberation.

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Trump and Agency Fee

Teacher unions first response to the election of Donald Trump had better be insulating themselves from the effects of a Trump Supreme Court reconsidering the Friedrichs case challenging the right of public sector unions to collect so-called agency fees from those in a union workplace who choose not to belong to the union. Justice Scalia’s death last year enabled us to escape from what was pretty sure to be a striking down of agency fee laws. It’s a sure bet that any Trump appointment will be hostile to public sector unions, especially teacher unions. Trump said very little during the campaign about education, but what little he did say was all about vouchers, charter schools and a deep hostility to our two great teacher unions, blaming them for what he sees as the failure of America’s schools.

When it seemed that we going to lose the Friedrichs case, I convinced my local union to have members sign union authorization cards for the following year. We successfully did so, and in so doing educated our members to the threat of Friedrichs. It also allowed us to identify those few in our midst who might be potential freeloaders and to plan for how to deal with them. By the time of Scalia’s death, we collected 99 percent of the cards and were effectively insulated from the most extreme Supreme Court decision.

It is not too early for local unions to plan for the loss of agency fee. To me, the above approach is relatively easy, especially in locals that currently have a high percentage of membership. It has the potential for other long term benefits too, as building level leaders must actively engage members to explain the threatening issues posed by the new administration and the harmful effects they could have on members if their solidarity is weakened by court decisions that encourage people to not pay union dues. Done enthusiastically and skillfully, we could free ourselves of the need for agency fee, a concept we fought for but which has made too many of us lazy and disconnected from the concerns of our members. The time to act is now!

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The Morning After

Where to begin to describe the feelings that disturb me this morning, deeply disturbing feelings, feelings of great loss. I find myself thinking of 1968, when in April of that year I was serving in the Peace Corps in Ghana. Thousands of miles from home, connected only by shortwave radio, air-letters, and weekly copies of Time and Newsweek, I tried to make sense of the assignation of Martin Luther King and the eruption of violence in America’s cities in response to his death. What was happening to my country? What kind of future would I shortly be going home to? Our cities burning, the Viet Nam War becoming more and more untenable, there comes an evening when I see from my balcony a group of some twenty people walking towards my house from the village up the road. It isn’t long before I realize they are coming to see me, the American living in their midst.

Their spokesperson gets right to the point. “Why did you kill Martin Luther King?” Speechless, I stand there for what seems endless minutes, when the question is repeated, shocking me out of my silence. They listen intently, with a young man translating for those with limited English, as I try to explain our ongoing struggle to come to terms with the legacy of slavery and how many in the U.S. are threatened by the demand of Negroes (That’s the term we used then.) for the full rights of citizenship. About the best I am able to do was to make clear that I didn’t personally have anything to do with King’s death, that I am as appalled as they. How could I make sense of what had happened for my Asante hosts when I had only the vaguest idea myself?

Once again I’m confused and unnerved by what is happening in my country. Of all the pundits I’ve read and watched these past months, Michael Moore, a Michigan native, was honed in better than most on the raging anger of white people in America’s rust belt and elsewhere who feel themselves losing the world they have known for one with no place for them in it. In an interview I saw with him, Moore analogized their inclination to vote for Trump to a Molotov cocktail, a powerfully destructive tool used by those without power.

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Anti-American Voter Suppression

Nothing has aroused my political passions more than the concerted effort of the Republican Party to suppress the vote of minorities. Whether it has been through voter ID laws predicated on a illusory problem of voter fraud, the reduction of polling places in minority communities, the abridgment of early voting in states that have it, the deliberate purging of voter lists from minority areas, pressuring the FBI to politicize the investigation of a candidate, or the outright attempt to encourage gun-toting civilians to intimidate voters in Democratic areas, the fact is the Republican Party has come associate its fate with making it as hard as possible for some people to exercise their franchise. It is a party that has been taken over by angry white nationalists who long to turn back the clock the progress we have made in becoming a more perfect union, one in which women and minorities are freer to enjoy the full benefits of citizenship. Nothing is more important for the future of our nation than repudiating them unequivocally. Does anyone seriously believe that those who would prevent millions from voting are going to become the champions of those they seek to disenfranchise?

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Reformers’ Nightmare

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is a conservative think-tank that has been in the forefront of the so-called education reform movement. While public education has been an issues casualty of this presidential campaign, it is interesting to see what Fordham’s leader sees as the education outcome of a Clinton victory and a democratic takeover of the Senate. The short version is less support for charter schools and national standards, test driven accountability and more power to teacher unions. So, while there hasn’t been much about education in the campaign of either candidate, the ed-deformers are nervous. It’s up to us to deliver their worst education nightmare.

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Weapons of Math Destruction?

Following up on yesterday’s post about the misuse of data in education, a friend emailed me to draw my attention to a Public Radio interview with mathematician Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction, a book that deals with the destructive ramifications of the misapplication of so-called big data. I haven’t read the book, but the interview prompts me to put it on my reading list. Listen, and see if you don’t agree.

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