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 December, 2016

Are We Catching On to The Tech Fraud?

My readers are aware of my view that digital technology industry has pulled one of the greatest rip-offs of all time on America’s public schools. Through the cleverest of propaganda campaigns they have convinced gullible public school decision makers of the impossibility of educating children satisfactorily without exposing them in any ways possible to technology mediated education. 21st century learners need 21st century tools. If like me you believe that a hideously stupid concept, you tend to get branded a Luddite, particularly if you are a certain age. Yet the evidence mounts that sending kids to school to spend a significant number of their hours there staring at screens is not only pedagogically questionable but downright damaging to the healthy growth and development of children. The good news is that people are beginning to catch on to this scam. When a mass publication like Time runs an article labeling the infusion of technology in our public schools a fraud, we may be coming out of the coma that has made us oblivious to the waste of billions of dollars of taxpayer funds that might have been put to much better use.

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Criminal Justice Reform and Our Children

Too many of America’s children live stunted lives for reasons ranging from poverty, to poor housing, to inadequate medical care to underfunded public schools. A new study adds to our understanding of how the failure of our criminal justice system deprive massive numbers of our nation’s children with the crucial support they need to develop and mature into productive, useful citizens – their parents – often their fathers. Here’s a statistic from Leila Morsy and Richard Rothstein’s study to conjure with. By age 14, 25 percent of African American children have had the life disrupting experience of have a parent incarcerated. Think about that. Try to imagine being told that your father is going to prison, and then think about what it would be like to try to go to school the next day.

I have learned much from reading Richard Rothstein about how despite our protestations about loving children, American treats so many of them so badly. This study is a call to action on criminal justice reform as an approach to improving the lives of thousands of our children.

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Being Educated

Throughout my teaching career, I have too often been faced by students, supervisors, parents and colleagues who appeared to believe that the purpose of our public schools and the education they provide is to somehow prepare children for their life’s employment. How in hell we are supposed to know what employment will be open to them and what it is that they will choose to do in that economic environment is never made clear except to offer up some vague prognostication of what the economic future holds. When I have suggested that the best an education should offer children is to equip them to be able to read and teach themselves whatever it is that they wish to know throughout their lives and enablep them to be knowledgeable citizens of our democracy, I’ve been responded to with stares of disbelief or comments about my naiveté. Yet, the older I get, the more confirmed in my view I get.

Just the other day, as I finished Siddhartha’s Mukherjee’s tome The Gene, a history of the science of genetics, I was reminded of how thankful I am to have been educated and possess the ability to follow my interests wherever they take me. When I began college, I had no idea of how I would spend my economic life. Fortunately, I went to school in a day when the first two years of my studies were in required courses in the arts and sciences. Although I soon began to lean toward majoring in English, I continued to take subjects like comparative vertebrate anatomy, embryology and genetics. Now, some fifty years since my college days, I could read and thoroughly appreciate Mukherjee’s book because of Professor Norman Rothwell’s brilliant lectures. More importantly, I have an appreciation of the ethical issues genomic engineering causes us to confront.

Coincidentally, a day or two ago, as I was thinking about this subject, I got a message from a former member of my district’s board of education, pointing me to this article about Sir Ken Robinson and his thoughts about our unfortunate tendency to see the goal of education as employment and economic success. She sent me the link to the article because Robinson’s words reminded her of things that she had heard me say. Better late than never, I suppose, but the fact is that our public schools have gotten much more over-focused on job training since the time our board member remembered hearing me warn against confusing education with job training. Test scores and grades are what school is increasingly about. So much so that before our board of education has a proposed policy before it to only count student Regents exam scores in their final averages if those scores boost those averages. Do we seriously think that people who advance such a policy are concerned about education and its capacity to enrich the intellectual, cultural and spiritual life of human beings?

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Money for Schools Does Matter

Much of the rhetoric of the education reform movement has either stated directly or implied that more money is not the solution for the under-performance of poor children in our nation’s schools. Two new studies with two different methodologies now refute that counter-intuitive claim.

Where courts have interceded to challenge the underfunding of public schools in some communities, ordering those districts to spend more money, student scores on the NAEP test have significantly improved according to one study. The other research looked at time of school attendance in school and earnings after leaving school. Where greater financial resources were made available, students stayed in school longer and increased their earnings significantly.

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Economic Integration and Quality Schools

It has been clear for some time that one of the best ways to achieve racial integration is to create housing opportunities that promote economic integration. If people of different economic classes are visible to one another and must engage each other in everyday life, all lives are improved. It’s no secret that schools in middle and upper class neighborhoods tend to be better as are all social services in communities in which people have the wherewithal to demand quality. Take a minority child out of a segregated school, put him in a racially diverse classroom with middle and upper class children, and over time he will tend to share the aspirations and motivations of the group. I’ve seen it firsthand a number of times, when through some circumstance an inner-city minority child found his way to my upper middle class school district.

Federal housing policy under President Obama had begun to recognize this, regulations having been developed to use federal housing dollars to try to spur economic integration (See New York Times Article). That sadly will probably change now that Donald Trump has been elected and Dr. Ben Carson is slated to be the next secretary of Housing and Urban Development. To Carson, policies like this smack of social engineering which he categorically rejects. He apparently believes that the segregated poor have only themselves to blame for their plight. If he could escape the slums of Detroit and become a neurosurgeon, why can’t others develop triumphal will? Just when we were beginning to move in the right direction.

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From Wisconsin to the Nation

Wisconsin’s Act 10 was wormy Governor Scott Walker’s nuclear attack on the public sector unions in his state. It effectively ended public sector collective bargaining and, with its end to mandatory agency fees, crippled union memberships thereby severely limiting the political power of unions to lobby their elected representatives. A recent article in The Atlantic by Alana Semuels details the impact of Walker’s union cleansing on teachers in Wisconsin. This piece ought to be shared with every union member who supported Donald Trump. We will soon experience the fallout of Act 10 as it becomes a national model.

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Rediscovering Vocational Education

There appears to be growing agreement that our public schools need to offer more in the area of vocational education. While I completely agree, I admit to a rush of anger when I think about the subject, having been an educator that fought tenaciously to save the vocational programs my school district had from the ax of successive boards of education that like many turned up their noses at the thought of some of our community’s children earning a living with their hands.

My generation of educators was enthused about what were called comprehensive high schools, schools that attempted to offer both the academically inclined and those who are drawn to more physical work programs to meet their interests. The high school where I began my public school teaching career offered culinary arts, auto body repair, woodworking, ceramics, and metal working. Across town, our other high school offered cosmetology, auto repair, technical electricity, computer programming and I believe printing. The community’s students were free to take vocational courses in either school. Additionally, our students were completely free to register for vocational programs are regional high schools run by our state’s Bureau of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES). I recall numbers of my English students who took a BOCES program that focused on the repair and maintenance of airplanes. At the time aviation was a big industry on Long Island.

Our local facilities to teach these subjects are almost all gone, victims of shortsightedness and a bias for college education for all. For us to reintroduce vocational education will require significant capital expenditures. We will also have great difficulty recruiting teachers for these programs, particularly as a result to the staggering teacher certification hurdles that have been erected in recent times. How painfully ironic it is that now that vocational education has almost disappeared from America’s high schools, people are awakening to what we have lost. “Don’t it always seem to go…”

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The Retreat to Tribalism

The world appears to be receding into tribalism. Heightened nationalism in Europe presaged the election of Donald Trump in the United States. Post World War II, people, spurred by the historic horrors of that cataclysm, sought to rebuild the world, attempting to create social and economic bonds between the peoples of the world in the hope of a peaceful international order. Today, globalism has become an epithet on the tongues of many of the world’s leaders, as nations across the globe retreat to the cultivation of national identity. We wish to make America great again, conjuring up the days when we were a white, male dominated, largely economically self-sufficient, Christian country that talked tough and carried a big stick. We know from history that national vainglory leads to the vulgarization of patriotism and leads inevitably to conflict.

By rejecting what all humanity shares and focusing instead on our differences, we retreat into small-mindedness. Witness the recent upsurge in white initiated hate crimes in our country. The president-elect tweets the other day that Americans who burn the American flag in protest should lose their citizenship, he being seemingly unaware of the constitutional protection of free speech. The attack on public education is intensifying, the incoming Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, being given a mandate to undermine public schools through channeling public funds to parochial and private schools through government vouchers. The strides we have made in the extension women’s, LGBT and workers’ rights are all now threatened in the name of America regaining its greatness. In the name of challenging intellectual elites, I suspect we can look forward to increased pressure on our education institutions to teach a curriculum more aligned the mythical longed for America of years passed.

Educators during this period of retreat from the world will have a special obligation – to nurture the hope of a world that can transcend the tribal impulse, a world that continues the inevitable march to the unity of mankind and the tearing down of the political, economic and religious walls that have inflamed our belligerent impulses. Tribalism is a retreat to darker, more dangerous times.

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