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 March, 2017

Opt-Out Thrives on Long Island

The opt-out movement is still strong here on Long Island. If fact, it seems to be clear that a majority of Long island parents are no longer anguishing about the decision to opt-out or not. Withholding their children from the tests has become routine. School districts where upwards of 80 percent of students opted out of this year’s English exam seems to have unceremoniously adjusted to this boycott. While opt-out numbers are yet to come in from New York City and upstate, Long Island results point to a little crow eating by Commissioner Elia who predicted an increase in the number of students taking the exams this year.

The opt-out movement has been one of the very few high points in the recent history of public education. The growth of the coalition of parents and educators who nurture it encourages us to believe that there is hope for the renewal of public education and that out schools can eventually be freed of the testing tyranny that has increasingly robbed a generation of children of an age appropriate, humanistic education, one that prepares them for life, not just employment

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Leadership Failure

More and more, the issue of our time is waning leadership. I’ve read a ton of stuff today on the failure of Republican leadership to deliver their seven years in the making repeal and replacement of the affordable care act. In my field of education, we increasingly see people who have not taught long enough to have gained command of their profession skipping through the classroom door to become administrators, leaders of teachers. In New York State, we have an election coming up for the officers of our state teachers union, a campaign that has been essentially idea free. There certainly hasn’t been anyone to inspire the rank and file to think that there is a way out of the daily deterioration of teaching conditions in our state. Nowhere in the democratic world does there seem to be leadership that inspires us to reach beyond our current grasp for a world better than our own. Frighteningly, the longing of people for leadership has them increasingly embracing the Trumps, Putins and LePens of this world.

I’m thinking about leadership today in that I’m infuriated by the lack of an immediate substantive policy response by the Democratic leadership in Congress to the failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Seconds after the bill to repeal was pulled, a Democrat plan to fix the obvious problems with the ACA should have been offered. Where Republicans have been pounding away at the fact that the many counties have only one company offering insurance under the act, Democrats should be explaining how a public insurance option would be a simple fix for that problem. The republicans having failed for the moment to substantially cut Medicaid, Democrats should have offered mandating that all state participate in the Medicaid expansion provided by the ACA. I would have had Bernie Sanders make the announcement of the Democrat series of improvements to the ACA.

The republicans failed in their endeavor to kill the ACA because all they have had for seven years is rhetoric. They were never united around a plan. Senator Rand Paul has been correct when he said that they had unanimity on repealing the ACA but no such broad agreement on what to replace it with. Democrat need to get out with a plan, a plan that allows American to plainly see how it would improve the quality of their coverage and care.

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Rosenfeld’s Law

Forty years or so working in education led me to the formulation of Rosenfeld’s Law, Never discount stupidity as the cause of a problem you are facing. I had occasion to see some of the leaders of my local union the other day. It wasn’t long after meeting them that I found myself and listening to them talk about an issue they are confronting that I had the opportunity to say to them, “Remember, never discount stupidity as the cause of your problem.”

Their problem at the moment is our school district’s decision to change our heretofore common understanding of the clause in our contract covering staff development. From out of the blue they have decided that there is no longer any make up for missed”mandatory” staff development. Even though the word mandatory appears nowhere in the contract clause in question, and even though there is a whole paragraph that describes how missed staff development is to be made up, district leadership has advanced the following stupidity: The district owns all twelve of the staff development hours. Mandatory staff development sessions are so important that they cannot be missed, and if missed, they can’t be made up. Those who fail to attend these sessions are threatened with discipline.

The district believes it has vital information to pass on to teachers in these mandatory staff development session, but if for some reason a teacher can’t make a session, like having to pick up a child from school, feeling ill at the end of the work day etc., they won’t work with her to see to it that she gets this vital knowledge. Instead, teacher will be punished. In some unexplained way, management clearly believes this approach will benefit students.

While I’m now in a position to laugh at this latest example of Rosenfeld’s Law, the fact is it is not a laughing matter to the teachers involved. The issue is especially galling in that in the last round of contract negotiations our union presented a detailed plan for the incorporation of staff development into the regular work day where it belongs. Had our plan been agreed to it would have obviated most staff development issues and ended once and for all the perception of most teachers that staff development is tantamount to detention and in its present iteration serves a very limited purpose at best.

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Our Own Inequality Issue

Labor unions are notoriously poor at dealing with their own employees, employees who are usually organized into union bargaining units. This has certainly been true of the national and state affiliates of the AFT and NEA. While our organizations have railed against the growing economic inequality in our nation, they have conspicuously failed to observe the same phenomenon in their own organizations where many elected officers and staff make salaries many times those of the average members they represent. Their pension and welfare benefits also tend to significantly outpace those of the members they serve. In my experience, they come to look and sound more like our adversaries than they do the members. The first time I walked into the headquarters of NYSUT, my state organization, I was struck by the corporate feel of the place. I would come to feel the same way about much of the staff. They neither look nor talk like union people by and large. At the risk of sounding naïve, too many of them are just working jobs. Too many are without any noticeable visceral commitment to the labor movement.

Our state and national union need an approach to the remuneration of staff and officers that ties salaries and benefits in some meaningful and transparent way to the compensation of the people they represent. When I was on the board of directors of NEA/New York, I argued for paying our president at the rate of the highest paid teacher we represented, adjusting for the fact that the job was for twelve months, not ten. I was met with a very sincere, albeit ignorant, response from the overwhelming majority of our board. All I was suggesting was that everyone rise with the ranks, not have officers and staff rise above the membership. One fellow, whom I genuinely liked and respected, said, “I want my CEO paid like a CEO,” obtuse to the irony of referring to the head of a labor union as a CEO.

There is about to be an officer election in my state organization. In nothing that I have seen is there any serious plan for how to go about addressing this issue. I don’t mean to suggest that this is an easy task. Years of growing the bureaucracy have yielded it more power in many ways than the elected officers and board of directors. Speaking of the board of directors, perhaps step one would be to end the substantial stipends members receive. I came to call those stipends hush money, in that to my perception fear of losing them determined how many of the directors voted on controversial issues. A board of members who are there because they wish to renew our movement would be a significant improvement. Candidates with an agenda to address the misallocation of members’ dues to salaries and benefits would take a significant step towards our waning solidarity.

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Infectious Ignorance

Freed from the tyranny of work schedules, Judi and I start most days with some exercise at our local gym. To the extent that either of us engages in social exchanges with the other patrons, we talk about trips, the weather and such. We are careful to avoid the subject of politics lest we accidentally engage a Trump supporter and thus completely negate any cardiovascular benefit to come from our workouts.

On Saturday, I was at my regular elliptical machine earnestly trying to work off 700 calories when I notice Judi in what seems an animated discussion with a woman on the treadmill beside her. My earphones on and listening to Tina Turner, I had no idea what they were talking about except that Judi’s body language suggested that something was amiss.

On our way out, Judi explained that this woman, a working professional, was chatting about their mutual interest in dogs when they both looked up at the TV in front of them in response to seeing President Trump. Seeing Trump, Judi, who would prefer to clean up cat vomit to seeing or hearing Donald Trump, found herself talking about the President’s boastful ignorance and his seeming disinterest in learning. Her abandonment of her political reticence was countered by the woman with, “Well the other candidate is crazy, and I don’t want to wind up wearing a burka.” Judi was shocked back to reticence.

If I see this woman again, I will be sorely tempted to ask her how it came to be that she perceived Hillary as determined to usher in Sharia Law if she were elected. How does it come to be that a professional person, living in an upper middle class community, one in which Democrats hold a significant lead in party registrations, how does it happen that such a person comes to believe such a blatant absurdity? With what other disinformation has she been infected? How much has she passed on to her children? We once though facts were the antidote, but people like her seem to have become immune to them.

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Growing Opt-Out

The New York State math and English assessments for grades 3 through 8 will soon be upon us again. While there have been some changes in the exams around the margins, they remain an insidious inhibitor of quality education in our state. Educators with the best of intentions and a deep appreciation of what children should be taught are nevertheless teaching to these tests, they being judged, like the children they teach, on the basis of their students’ scores.

To a generation of political leaders who can only understand learning by measuring it, a generation that has reified accountability thereby reducing it to a number, talk of authentic assessment not only has no meaning but is too often seen as seeking to evade accountability. It doesn’t seem to matter to worshipers of math and English scores that over a decade of test score driven accountability has yielded no significant improvements. Some educators like me believe that it has reduced some of our best schools to shadows of their former selves. In my home district, while district leaders utter pious platitudes about test driven accountability, leadership still makes programmatic decision based on essentially useless scores.

The only option open to people who are serious about ending the tyranny of these tests is for parents to opt their children out of taking them. Each of the past few years has seen the opt-out rate in New York grow. This trend must continue to the point where it becomes absurd to spend huge sums of money on assessments that almost no one is taking. Only then can we expect to have a serious conversation about what a sane accountability system would look like.

Teachers have a duel role in accelerating opt-outs. They need to set an example in their home districts by opting their own children out of the assessments and demanding that meaningful educational experiences be offered in their stead. Through their unions, they must also encourage the parents of their students to follow their lead and opt their children out. There are thousands of public school teachers here on Long Island. Imagine if each of them convinced one new parent to opt her children out.

One of the few good things to happen in the realm of public education in New York has been the advent of the opt-out movement that has grown from a small group of dedicated parents, many of whom like Jeanette Deutermann exerted enviable leadership, to a coalition of parents, educators and citizens determined to save quality public education in our state and nation. We must grow this movement.

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Sucking the Meaning Out of Freedom

The independent Congressional Budget Office has told us what we already knew, that the Donald trump/Paul Ryan Republican healthcare plan is a massive tax break for those who have everything at the expense of the poor, middleclass and our pre-Medicare population. Supporters of the proposed legislation falsely claim we should not be interested in the number of people insured under the Affordable Care Act as many of the people who have purchased insurance through the exchanges set up by the act have a useless certificate of insurance that doesn’t get them actual care because of high deductibles and physicians who do not accept Medicaid coverage. Their plan they claim gives people the right to buy the coverage they want or to go without health insurance. Their plan is about freedom.

It infuriates me to hear them sucking the meaning out of the word freedom in this way. What does their concept of freedom mean to a person whose health is deteriorating from a curable or controllable illness? Is the homeless person who hasn’t eaten all day free in any meaningful sense of the word?

We were once a nation whose leaders called us to expand our understanding of freedom. I’m reminded of Franklin Roosevelt’s famous speech given in 1944, an address to the American people that looked forward to military victories in Europe and Asia and the opportunities that victory would bring to advance the quality of life in America. Watch an obviously weary President Roosevelt as he talks about expanding the rights of all Americans, rights that many still do not enjoy. Contrast his call to that of Donald trump and Paul Ryan and consider what we have to do if we wish to make America an even greater nation than it has been.

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What’s the Plan?

I spent some time this morning looking at the webpages of each of the slates running to lead New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), our state union, affiliated with both the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Both the Unity and Stronger Together slates are clear on what they oppose. Both are also clear on wanting a stronger, more united, more effective and democratic union. Both are abysmally short on how they propose to accomplish these noble aims. Unity does have a plan to more precisely define the responsibilities of each of NYSUT’s officers which it claims will bring greater efficiency. They way they talk about it, the president will be in charge of representing us with the governor and legislature, while the other vice-presidents will each take responsibility for other aspects of the operation. If they really intend to operate in the way they describe, I suspect we will have a compounding of a problem that has existed for a long time – officer turf battles that are not resolved because the president lacks the political clout to be the final arbiter. I don’t know for certain, but I suspect that at least part of Karen Magee’s downfall came from trying to have too much of a say about NYSUT’s political operation, Executive Vice-President Andy Pallotta’s turf. It certainly was part of Dick Iannuzzi’s fall.

Neither slate offers any detailed plan for what should be the central concerns of anyone looking to lead NYSUT – the ever increasing irrelevancy of the organization to the rank and file members it exists to serve and the failure of the NYSUT service model to build power from the ground up. Stronger Together knows this, but they have yet to offer anything but platitudes about more democracy, educating the membership and organizing. Frankly, some of their positions are hopelessly naive. They appear to believe that we can build an organization in which New York City’s United Federation of Teachers (about 200,000, members) and the Plainview-Old Bethpage Congress (700 members) can have the same clout in NYSUT because power should come from ideas not membership numbers. Good luck with that.

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Where’s the Strategy?

There is within our state union, NYSUT, a desire for change, change that would allow teachers to come out from under the largely false chare of the corporate reform movement that our public schools are failing. Three years ago, some of us voted for Karen Magee hoping that she embodied a new direction from the policies of her predecessor who took a more accommodationist approach to the reformers. While I believe that any fair assessment would conclude that under her leadership NYSUT has done better for the state’s teachers, a membership that continues to feel themselves denigrated and debased doesn’t see things that way. Mike Lillis, a candidate for NYSUT president from the Stronger Together Caucus is a manifestation of that yearning for dignity and respect teachers see as their due. He gives expression to that in this interview. Unfortunately, he is essentially silent about a strategy to bring about the desire for change he represents. He even allows the interviewer to get him to admit that he is probably going to lose. Where are the new teacher union leaders who have a credible, coherent strategy to halt the downward spiral of in the respect for teacher and public education in our state and nation?

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Demonstrating Weakness

This past Saturday saw planned demonstrations for education justice in communities throughout New York State. Judging from the very sparse coverage of the one in New York City and the one I attended in Wyandanch, Long Island, and these demonstrations were an exercise in how not to plan and mount demonstrations. In the City, one thousand teachers and parents showed up. In Wyandanch about 100 braved the extreme cold.

Effective demonstrations get under the skin of your political opponents. No one is going to be perturbed by the demonstration in Wyandanch. In fact, but for the very brief coverage in our Long Island excuse for a newspaper, I doubt that as many Long Island residents saw the assemblage of teachers and parents as the scant one hundred demonstrators that showed up. I suspect the foes of public education were amused by our pathetic turnout.

The cardinal rule for demonstrations is to never call for one unless you can be sure of mass participation. To do otherwise is to demonstrate your weakness. I fear that‘s what supporters of public education showed on Saturday. I think there are about 60,000 NYSUT members on Long Island. No serious effort was made to turn them out. Sad to say, I didn’t see too many local union leaders there either. Feeling lonely, Judi and I endured the cold for about twenty minutes and left.

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Political Turmoil in NYSUT

After only one term, Karen Magee is “stepping down” as President of NYSUT. We are to believe that she has been lured from the presidency of the largest state teachers union by the offer of a post with the AFT/New York State AFL-CIO. If you believe that, you believe that the Trump campaign had nothing to do with Russian intelligence officers. Quite simply, Magee has been pushed out, largely by the efforts of the United Federation of Teachers, the New York City NYSUT affiliate and the largest local by far in the state union.

It’s no secret that Magee has had her problems working with the current slate of officers. She took over a divided union and, from where I sit, made almost no attempt to heal that divide but instead alienated herself from the people who put her in office. The elevation of Andy Pallotta to the head of the Unity Caucus slate to replace Magee suggests that Michael Mulgrew, President of the UFT and a local leader long frustrated with the management of NYSUT, has had enough and has boldly decided to try and install his own person as NYSUT president. Working with AFT President Randi Weingarten, the union allies were able to use their influence with the state AFL/CIO to create a soft landing for Magee.

I came to the view a long time ago that NYSUT, like much of the American 7 labor bureaucracy, is organized to accomplish little or nothing. It has offered its constituent locasl a model of service unionism that has too many members looking to Albany for the solution to all problems rather than promoting local capacity and militancy as the way to build a truly powerful organization.To try to meet the demand for services, it has hired staff upon staff, providing them with salary and benefits beyond the wildest dreams of the average member paying the freight.

Now would be a good time for a slate of candidates who had a thought-out an organizing model to reform NYSUT to come to the fore. The Stronger Together Caucus will make the claim that they are that slate. But, reading their materials thus far, one is hardly encouraged. Their candidates offer educating the membership as their approach to governance. Thus far, I’ve seen nothing to suggest that they have a clue how to devolve much of the Albany NYSUT operation to the local level where the real potential power lies. There hasn’t been a word that I can find about how they would deal with the scary structural deficit threatening NYSUT. Neither am I aware of any plan they have for how to manage the very real threat of the loss of agency shop.

I’m sorry about Magee’s departure. When she ran for office, my local supported her, hoping that she would rebuild NYSUT into a membership powered organization. Having served with her on the NYSUT board, she certainly had some good ideas for doing that. What was unknown was did she know how to get those idea circulating through the sclerotic bureaucracy. It’s clear now that she didn’t, much to the misfortune of the state’s school personnel.

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