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 May, 2017

Research to Keep an Eye On

Read carefully, there is nothing astounding about the findings of a new study on the effects of introducing language and math concepts in pre-school. Yet, I suspect that much mischief will come of this study, as those who view childhood as a period of rat-race training use it to buttress their argument that to equip children for the 21st century economy we must intellectually assault them, demanding that they perform intellectual activities that their nervous systems are unprepared to do. Advocates of maintaining childhood as a special time of human development would be wise to read the actual study which offers almost no justification for some of the academic torture being inflicted on children. The researchers conclusions are what anyone versed in child development might have expected to find.

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Loraine Rubin

On Sunday, I joined with other NYSUT colleagues to say goodbye to Loraine Rubin, a pioneer in the teacher labor movement on Long Island who died the day before at almost 95. Lorraine was the wife of another pioneer, Paul Rubin, the local president I succeeded in Plainview-Old-Bethpage. Loraine was a leader of that brave group of teachers across Long Island who in the 1960s declared they had had enough of the lousy wages, working conditions and disrespect for their needs and decided to build unions to gain some power for themselves. Speaker after speaker at her memorial ceremony talked about how Loraine’s fortitude and courage inspired them to become union activists.

My relationship with Loraine was a strange one, but one that left me with profound respect for her knowledge, courage and commitment to the cause of unionism and progressive politics in general. It was at first awkward in that I ran for president of my local against Paul Rubin and won. When he passed away, our local set up a scholarship fund in his name and invited Loraine to join us in the process of selecting the recipients. It was at these meetings that I began to get to know her. It was also a time when a central focus of my union work was aimed at bringing about a merger of NEA/New York and NYSUT, a cause that Loraine shared with me. Without ever addressing the politics that caused me to run against her husband, without ever an unkind word, she began to call me from time to time to offer advice on what I was doing, suggesting contacts I might make with sympatric NYSUT people, questioning me about articles I had written.

I came to learn that her devotion to our mutual cause transcended any personal issues she might have had. There were important issues to be dealt with of much greater significance than the battles I had fought with her husband. After all, those battles were about competing visions of how to make our union stronger and more effective. I have always been attracted to union work’s call to something greater than oneself. Loraine heard that call until her last breath.

Our mutual friend Ken Ulric told a story about literally the last hours of her life. Moved to a hospice, Loraine knew her days were limited. Whatever time and energy she had left, it was still important to her that they counted for something. Knowing that there was a special election to fill a vacant assembly seat in her district, she summoned Ken to the hospital to get him to help her get an absentee ballot. After all, the Democrats had a NYSUT teacher running for the seat. Something important to our union was on the line. Loraine had to be there.

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Cut National Service?

Budgets are about what’s important to the budget makers. The trump budget is not an exception and should be a surprise to only the naive. Its overarching goal is to further the distribution of wealth and income upwards. Screw the poor, because, after all, poverty, our Secretary of Housing and Urban development tells us, is a state of mind. Screw the working class stiffs who voted for trump out of desperation, having seen their wages and working conditions capped or worsened over the past thirty years. Screw the old if they hadn’t the wisdom to save for their retirement. Screw everyone but the economic elite of our country, who no matter what they have always seem to need even more. Anyone with a modicum of political awareness fully expected nothing less from scam-artist Trump. Yet, there is one surprise to me in his budget proposal, his suggestion that we substantially cut support for volunteer, national service programs like Ameri-Corps, Vista and Peace Corps. It feels as though he proposed this one just for me, an old Peace Corps volunteer.

I strongly suspect that if you asked most of the volunteers to our national service programs to evaluate their experience, most would in one way or another say that the experience changed their lives for the better. That’s certainly the way I fell about my experience in Ghana in the 60s. Living for two years in a country where most subsisted on one dollar a day, teaching eight classes of English and biology a day in classrooms open to the air, with the occasional snake barging in gave me a visceral understanding how by the sheer accident of my birth in the U.S. I had a future so much better than the students I taught. I learned too to see my country from afar. It fell to me to explain to the people of the village I lived in the death of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. How fortunate for me to have had dinner of an evening at the Café Haiphong in Togo, with a group of Brits and French expats who wanted to engage me about the war in Viet Nam. Most of all, the Peace Corps began my experience of service to others. Without question my Peace Corps service made me a more aware, more resourceful, more engaged citizen of our country. Why would anyone want to deprive other young people of similar experiences?

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Public Wealth/Public Poverty

I’ve been so focused on the pretender occupying the office of President of the United States that I have temporarily forgotten hour homegrown faker. I was reminded of our bloviating bullshit artist governor when he spoke yesterday about the transportation infrastructure crisis in New York City. What chutzpah to suddenly recognize we have a problem and to offer a million dollar prize for creative ideas to resolve our problem. Our transportation system, like much of our infrastructure, has been crumbling for many years, years during which our political leaders of both political parties have conspicuously ducked what deep down we all know. To fix our infrastructure problems require higher taxes.

The creation of public wealth requires public investment. Yes, we need to understand that well maintained roads, high speed commuter rail service, accessible , modern airports, safe water and sewer systems, well equipped school buildings and so many other things that make our society possible are wealth that we share, wealth that enriches all of our lives, wealth that our leaders ought to encourage us to protect and grow. While it is true that government is not the solution to every societal problem, it is the only solution to provision of the infrastructure that undergirds our economy. We have not been building public wealth for some time. We have been sliding into public poverty instead, complaining all the while about being over-taxed.

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Union Pride

There have been few uplifting moments in labor union life in recent times. We have even lived to see some blue collar unions actively supporting President Trump in the vain hope that he will make good on his promise to provide job, high paying one at that. The picture is not much better in the ranks of teacher unions, as the anti-tax climate has translated into an assault on thee wages and benefits teachers have gained through union efforts. So when we see something good happening, when we experience a rush of pride in one of our leaders, it is a moment to be relished. I had such a moment on Wednesday, when my partner Judi and I attended a rally in Lawrence, New York in support of the teachers there who have been without a contract for seven years. Almost better yet, the moment in question was created by AFT President Randi Weingarten, someone with whom I’ve often taken issue.

Once the envy of most districts in the state, the Lawrence school district is a shadow of its former self. Where once it led the state in student achievement, where it supported its teachers with professional salaries and working conditions, today its student achievement has waned, its classrooms are filled with economically disadvantages students and its teacher are forced to fight to hold on to what they have, let alone gain some advancement. If all of the children who live in the district attended its schools, Lawrence would be more racially and economically integrated with the benefits of that integration enriching all of the community’s children. They don’t, however, as the district has been taken over by orthodox Jews who send their children to parochial schools, leaving the public schools to serve minorities and the economically disadvantaged.

Usually at these rallies, union leaders utter some boilerplate remarks. I myself have made such speeches too many times, the words streaming from the right side of my brain to the point where in a real sense I’m not really present. Randi Weingarten was different at Wednesday’s rally. She was viscerally angry. Disdaining her notes, she launched into a very personal expression of her contempt for what the Lawrence Board of Education is permitting to happen to the students in their public schools. Informing the crowd that she is an observant Jew, married to a Rabbi, she talked about the ethical obligations that come with the acceptance of the Jewish faith. Her face contorted, she reminded the leaders of the Lawrence schools that their faith obliges them to care and nurture children, their children and the children of others. We participated in our demonstration, she told us, to shine a light on Lawrence and the outrage that has been happening there, promising to continue to keep the spotlight on that community until such time as justice is done to the students and teachers of the community because Judaism is about justice.

It’s going to take Jewish leaders to stand up and challenge Jewish bigotry. No one else will have the nerve for fear of coming off as anti-Semitic. I admire Weingarten for having the balls to speak the truth. Unionism should be about justice. It was on Wednesday evening thanks to Randi Weingarten.

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A Trump Syndrome?

A few months ago, around the time of the election, my family doctor changed my blood pressure medication. Almost from the moment I took it, I didn’t feel right. There followed a series of different meds, all causing me to not feel not quite right. At my last visit to my doctor, he suggested a visit to a cardiologist to get a specialist’s take on the medicine I should be taking. While taking my history, the cardiologist asked me how long I haven’t been feeling well. I located the time for her as around the election of President Trump, and then took a shot at lightening the atmosphere with a little humor by saying, “Maybe Trump is the cause of my elevated blood pressure.” To my amazement, she smiles and says, “It’s not really so funny. I had a patient here a few weeks ago who while waiting for a test watched coverage of Trump on TV. By the time I saw him, his blood pressure was 200/100. He was not the first patient I’ve had whose condition seems to have worsened in response to the election. I’m thinking of writing a paper on the Trump Syndrome.”

So while the doctor and I may be guilty of faulty cause and effect thinking, then again what if there is a Trump Syndrome, a life threatening response to the politics of chaos. I’m already doing better after my visit to her. Was it the medicine she gave me or our discussion of the Trump Syndrome?

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Nitwits Embrace Academic Freedom

The nitwit right is doing its all to see to it that the function of our public schools is to spread ignorance. Their new approach is to clothe their anti-intellectual blather in academic freedom garb. After all, aren’t we all for academic freedom? But can academic freedom be defined down to the point where it covers demonstrable falsehood. Teaching children that the Judeo-Christian creation myth is as valid as evolutionary science is tantamount to yelling fire in a crowded theater. It’s dangerous. Ignorance is dangerous. People should be free to come to my door and give me little pamphlets claiming that the world was created six thousand years ago. I may even choose to humor them when they come. But no educated person would expand the definition of freedom to include teaching children to doubt scientific knowledge.

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Just Ask Google

If you haven’t read Natasha Singer’s front page, extended article in the New York Times on Google’s cornering the k-13 school technology market, it is a must read. While some of us have been sounding the warning about technology companies’ penetration of the public school market and their undue influence on what and how kids learn, the fact is that school leaders have accepted the marketing message of outfits like Google that traditional academic knowledge must give way to the skills needed by 21st century workplaces. Why bother to know how to solve quadratic equations, the causes of the American Civil War or the symbolism of the green light on Gatsby’s dock, when all one needs to do is ask Google or Alexa? Sadly, our school leaders and too many teachers themselves are seemingly incapable of answering that question. Singer exposes how Google cleverly and slowly but surely influenced teachers themselves to become de facto, unpaid sales representatives for Google hardware and apps. Perhaps even more concerning, she explores what may even be Google’s greater strategic interest, the collection of the personal data of people from kindergarten to death, the better to sell them all of the things that make people feel worthwhile.

I admit to extreme pessimism that articles like Singer’s will wake people up to the fact that powerful commercial forces are have a profound influence on what their children learn. Yet, I can’t help but have a germ of hope that when the subject reaches the front page of the New York Times, a least some people are waking up.

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Another Job for Teachers

We need to add yet another job to our teachers’ day. In today’s roiling political environment, when optimism for the future of our nation seems foolhardy, it’s important for educators to engage the thoughts of the young, seeking to instill in them the ability to imagine a government that promotes the general welfare. Russians compromising our elections, investigators of the matter fired, a president who insists that it is a fake issue all the while seeking to thwart a reckoning of the truth – what impression are our kids getting of their government and its relation to their lives. Recent generations have had their cynicism engendering moments – the Bay of Tonkin Resolution, the secret bombing of Laos and Cambodia, Watergate, “Government is not the solution to our problems; it is the cause of our problems,” oral sex in the Oval Office to recall but a few. If America’s teachers don’t attempt to counteract the growing contempt for government, how shall this generation of students develop the imagination to conceive of a government that provides for the common defense, promotes the general welfare, and, above all else, secures the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity? We have quite a challenge, one that many don’t want us to embrace. If we are teachers, however, we will.

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There But for The Grace of God…

Eighteen members of a Penn State fraternity have been charged with criminal offences including manslaughter in the death of a young pledge for the frat. To prove himself fit to join the brotherhood, Timothy had to consume round of vodka, beer and wine to the point that his blood alcohol level reached .40 where the legal limit for driving is .08. Members of the frat watched as Timothy repeatedly fell down stairs, his nervous system completely taken over by alcohol. While one frat boy apparently implored his brothers to get Timothy medical help, he was overruled until such time as the young man’s fate was sealed. Not one of these young people had the moral fortitude to buck the group and call for help until it was too late. Not one could imagine himself in Timothy’s position, in desperate need of help, surrounded by numbers of “friends” who could so easily provide the needed assistance.

It will seem a stretch to some, but I can’t help but see a connection of this event to a trend in our society that has concerned me for sometime – a seemingly growing number of people who believe that they have no responsibility to others in our society. We see this in so many ways – the staggering number of homeless people, many children; the attitude of many toward immigrants; the growing assault on social welfare programs to help the poor, the sick and disabled and very young; the waning support for public schools; in the dwindling respect for government. Wherever we turn, we find evidence of social neglect. Is this not, I wonder, the end product of a society that grows increasingly competitive – a society that send its kids to school to begin to hone their skills for the economic competition their lives will be rather than equipping them to understand their connections to others and their responsibilities to each other.

Some years ago, in an eleventh grade honors English class, I found myself using the expression, “there but for the grace of God go I,” I vividly remember too that when I asked what that expression meant, not a single kid could accurately tell me. I suspect the Penn State frat boys don’t know either.

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They Have Shamed Us

It has taken barely one hundred days for many of us to have become embarrassed to be American. We have and administration and Congress who are obsessed with the acceleration of the redistribution of wealth and income from the poorer classes to the rich that they are brazenly disinterested in the health and welfare of the people. In short order, they have begun to undo environmental regulations that been responsible for a steady improvement in the quality of our air and water and have begun to address the causes and consequences of climate change… They seek to open federal lands preserved for posterity to economic exploitation and a series of so-called tax reform proposals that are clearly intended gorge our economic plutocratic parasites at the expense of working people. With a disdain for the public welfare of criminal proportions, the House of Representatives just repealed significant parts of the Affordable Care Act, itself but a feeble step in the direction of providing citizens with what every other industrial democracy provides – universal healthcare. Should it become law, Trumpcare will cause upwards of 24 million people to lose coverage – 24,000,000 human beings! Some of these people will die for lack of access to quality care.

There appears to be broad consensus that the senate will not pass this bill. Regardless of what the Senate does, our mendacious representatives who callously voted yesterday to deprive 24 million men, woman and children the basic human right to healthcare must pay the political price for their indifference to the needs of their constituents. Here on Long Island, serious work must finally begin to defeat Congressmen Peter King and Lee Zeldin. By their vote on this despicable legislation they have revealed themselves undeserving of representing the working people of their districts. They have shamed our country.

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