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 April, 2017

Worth Reading and Thinking About

Two articles in today’s New York Times are worthy of note for what they say about the increasing absurdity of contemporary education, both here and abroad. The first is about the broad usage of webcams in Chinese schools that enable parents, or anyone else for that matter, to observe the goings on in classrooms and to comment on what they see. While some schools in the U.S. have experimented with this technology, no place has used it to the extent that the Chinese appear to have, although there will undoubtedly be increasing pressures to do so in our schools. That pressure is generated by the unexamined notion that because we have the technical means to do something, it is probably a good idea to do so. The notorious tiger parents, for whom their children’s success in school is of paramount importance, now have the means to scrutinize their children’s performance minute by minute, all the while keeping an eye on their teachers as well. In a surveillance society, the camera sees everything. No one seems to care that that the presence of the camera profoundly changes what it records.

The other article worth thinking about is one on homework. Some elementary schools in New York City that are experimenting with no homework policies are being hit with a backlash from some parents who are demanding that worksheets and such continue to be sent home. Some less well-off parents that they cannot afford to fill the time previously taken up with homework with enriching activities for their children. Curiously, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to them to simply let their kids relax, go out in the street to play or watch a movie on TV. Fact – There is no evidence that doing homework in elementary school leads to greater achievement. Fact – There is ample evidence that play is an important factor in human development and that American children have less and less time for it. So, by all means, let’s do away with elementary homework, but let’s not do it in the name of some snooty concept of enrichment. The enrichment our children need is play time and down time.

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Otherness and Inequality

The election of Donald Trump has breathed new life into the movement to legitimize the spending of public dollars on parochial education. Our new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has been touring the country preaching her private school voucher gospel, doing what she can to gin up the public’s lack of confidence in its public schools. While I believe in the right of parents to send their children to parochial school, I strongly reject that citizens like me have an obligation to pay for it. Furthermore, I believe leaders in our society have an obligation to promote the importance of public schools to the health of our society. Our public school should be places where children from varying religions, economic backgrounds, races and ethnicities come together each school day to cross the barriers of otherness fostered by parochialism.

Here on Long island we have an example of the danger of parochialism to the welfare of children in our public schools. In Lawrence, Long Island, the public schools have been effectively taken over by religious people who send their children to parochial schools. For some years now, a once prestigious public school system has been in decline as there has been a reciprocal decline in the support for public education by citizens whose children do not attend the public schools. The children of Lawrence while they live in the same town effectively live in two different worlds, focusing on their differences rather than on their shared nationality and humanity.

Again, while I don’t like it, I support the rights of the religious people of Lawrence to keep their kids apart. What I don’t support, and what I don’t believe truly religious people can condone, is providing lesser educational support to the minority children of the town. At best, that amounts to indifference to those who do not belong to one’s religious group. At worst, it’s plain old fashioned bigotry.

On May 17th, the public school teachers of Lawrence, working through their union, will be holding a demonstration to protest conditions in the under resourced Lawrence schools. These hard working public servants have been trying for years to bargain a new contract without any progress in that direction. Indifferent to the educational needs of the district’s students, the board of education is equally indifferent to the needs of their employees as well. The board of education is going down the same path as East Ramapo, a district which but for the cowardliness of our elected officials would be taken over and a mechanism developed to put the district into the hands of the people who actually have their children in the public schools.

I will be in Lawrence on the evening of May 17 to lend my support to the educators and children in the public schools. I urge my local readers to be there as well.

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Economic Inequality

I’ve been reading Ganesh Sitaraman’s recent book The Crisis of Our Middle Class Constitution which explores the history of economic inequality in the United States from the relative equality of the Founders’ generation through to our time. It’s a long history, the issue having been front and center in the debates leading to the formulation of our Constitution.

From time to time in our history, as economic inequality grew, movements arose to push back against the growing political power that always accompanies when the differences in wealth and income between classes grows too large. We are clearly in such a period now, a period of inequality made worse by the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United. For those who think our time are so different from the past, I offer for reflection the constitution of the Knights of Labor, the largest labor organization in the United States during the 1860 and 70s. If we modernize the English, the cry of the Knights is not too different from that of the vanishing middle class. Take a look at the preamble.

“The recent alarming development and aggression of aggregated wealth, which, unless checked, will invariably lead to the pauperization and hopeless degradation of the toiling masses, render it imperative, if we desire to enjoy the blessings of life, that a check should be placed upon its power and upon unjust accumulation, and a system adopted which will secure to the laborer the fruits of his toil; and as this much-desired object can only be accomplished by the thorough unification of labor, and the united efforts of those who obey the divine injunction that “In the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread,” we have formed the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor With a view of securing the organization and direction, by cooperative effort, of the power of the industrial classes; and we submit to the world the object sought to be accomplished by our organization, calling upon all who believe in securing “the greatest good to the greatest number” to aid and assist us…”

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Commodifying Education

The hawkers of school choice frame their propaganda in terms of freedom. Freedom to choose – who could be against that. Why can’t citizens of a free country pick the school their children? It sounds so good, so in tune with the principles the founders of the republic, so American. It’s the same basic argument that being used to try to undo the Affordable Care Act (We need to stop calling it Obama Care.). Yet, do we not pervert any meaningful concept of freedom when we treat the necessities of human existence in the same way that we deal with toilet paper or deodorant, subjecting them to market forces with the rather sizable risk that the poorest among us will wind up with none.

Jason Blakely, in a concise, brilliantly clear analysis, gets to the heart of the school choice argument – commodifying education and subjecting it to market forces threatens universal access to education in America. If you are open to thinking about where the choice movement is taking us, read this very important article.

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Getting Serious About Mandatory School Attendance

Most teachers I know are angered when parents take their children out of school unnecessarily. Some parents often think nothing of asking teachers to facilitate their bad behavior by requesting assignments and materials for their children to work on while they are away. Often these illegal absences are to partake of lower airfares and hotel rates that exist during school vacations when premium rates are charged. Sadly, not only do the administrations in most school districts turn a blind eye to this behavior, they often insist that teacher due the extra work of providing assignments and materials for kids to take along. The teachers of these students have extra work up front and after the child returns when they are obliged to catch the child up on all that she has missed. Thus, parents and school cooperate in flouting the mandatory attendance law and in so doing set a really poor example for children.

With this background, I was interested to read that the United Kingdom has the same problem, but their Supreme Court has decided to send a message to the parents who illegally pull their kids from school. Fined $180 for taking his child out of school for a trip to Disney Land having been denied permission to do so, a father appealed his fine. While the lower courts sided with him, school authorities took the case to the Supreme Court where the fine was reinstated. Interestingly, that court noted the unnecessary imposition on teachers this parent sanctioned truancy caused and the bad example it set for children.

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Depression in Our Schools

A few days ago, a high school student in our district committed suicide. I don’t know anything about her personal circumstances, but in all likelihood depression contributed to her demise.

I’ve been thinking about clinical depression and our public schools for over twenty years. I’ve tried to use my union advocacy skills to encourage school district leaders to understand that clinical depression is more common in our schools than conventional wisdom suggests and that knowledge throughout a school community about depression can spare members of that community unnecessary suffering and even death. I learned that it’s easy to get a school community to think about drug and alcohol use, the dangers to children of unsupervised internet use and universal bus transportation to school. Depression, however, is another matter. We are still discomforted by talk of mental illness.

Some twenty years ago, I was teaching English to a class of students who on the basis of their academic records were likely not to graduate. M y class with them was part of an alternate education program of small classes with teachers who had an interest in working with children who had been dubbed failures. Until I met that group of kids, I had never taught a class in which it was almost impossible for me to get anything accomplished. In this setting, I was the failure. I needed to know why.
During that school year, a union colleague of mine fell ill to depression. Suddenly, this enormously accomplished teacher and union leader began to refer to herself as “pond scum,” often wondering aloud why anyone would befriend the likes of her. To be frank, her behavior frightened me. My lack of knowledge about depression left me without an understanding of what my colleague was suffering and how I was to behave with a person with whom I need to work closely.

I began to read about depression. As I read, I slowly came to recognize some of the symptoms of depression in the students of my alternate ed class. At some point, I came across a screening questionnaire for clinical depression which I decided to administer to my class, telling them that it was part of an assignment for a graduate class I was taking (Today, I would probably be fired for this activity.) After I scored the questionnaire, I was no longer in doubt as to why I was having so much trouble teaching these students. Almost 60 percent of them appeared to be clinically depressed. These kids weren’t failures. We, the adults in their lives, were failing them.

Over the ensuing years of my teaching career, I met numbers of high school students who suffered from depression, many of them undiagnosed. I’m not talking about the intense sadness that adolescents often experience. We know why we are sad. Something has happened to make us feel this way. The depression sufferer doesn’t know why he is profoundly sad, why life has ceased to please, why he is deeply disgusted with himself. In any school you wish to talk about, there are depressed students who are too often talked about as academic problems when their real issue is mental health.
I’m not for a minute suggesting that it is primarily the job of the school to treat these depressed children. No public school I know of is equipped to do so. But we can take intelligent steps to train a staff to recognize the signs of clinical depression. We can also teach students to be aware and to instill in them the need to make contact with responsible adults when they recognize those symptoms in themselves or their friends.

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Anti-Union Bastards

The number of low-life scum who spend their days seeking to abridge the rights of teachers to have a voice on public policy by working together with colleagues in a labor union continues to grow. The Indiana legislature just passed a law that would require the state labor relations board to inform teacher of their rights to choose not to be represented by the unions in their districts. It further seeks to publicize the number of union members in each local union with the aim of promoting votes on decertification in districts where less than fifty percent of the teachers are union members. I wish I were a believer so I could tell myself that there is a special place in Hell for those who seek to destroy unions. I wish I could believe that some union leadership will come along that will create a Hell on earth for these bastards. I keep hope alive, but believe? That’s another matter.

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Scott Walker’s War on Wisconsin’s Public Schools

Most teachers are at least vaguely aware of what Governor Scott Walker did to the public employee unions in Wisconsin. Ending collective bargaining, ending agency fee and requiring local unions to be recertified each year by a majority in the unit are generally understood to be inimical to the welfare of teachers and public employees. There is also a general sense in our ranks that the Trump administration has very similar goals nationally. What hasn’t received much attention is what Walker’s war on public employee unions has actually done to public education in Wisconsin and what his approach could mean for school districts throughout the United State in the era of Trumpism. Patrick Caldwell, writing in Mother Jones, gives us an unvarnished view of the consequences of Walker’s assault on Wisconsin’s schools. Thos who value public schools and appreciate their centrality to a democratic society would be wise to think about Caldwell’s analysis.

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