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 June, 2017

The Influence of the Rich

Is there no end to the malignant influence of the repulsively rich on the education of America’s children? Now it’s Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla who have created the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to pour billions of dollars into some hypothetical personalized learning scheme. What do these two thirty-somethings know about education that warrants our paying attention to them? Next to nothing, Zuckerberg having no education experience and Chan having apparently taught very briefly. But today, ideas, no matter how ill conceived, are made serious and worthy of consideration because they are put forth by someone who has made millions of dollars in some field of endeavor, today mostly in high tech. Billions of Bill Gates’ dollars have been used to promote senseless ideas like small schools, Common Core and teacher evaluation based on student standardized tests scores. We just can’t seem to get it through our heads that just because techie Wunderkinder like Gates and Zuckerberg have made billions, it doesn’t mean they know anything about either what’s wrong with our schools or how to make them better.

We would be much better served as a nation if we had a tax structure that had these fabulously rich people paying a fair share to finance the public services we need. When I was a kid, the marginal tax rate for people like Zuckerberg was over 90 percent. We now look back at those times as a golden age, an age with a growing middleclass, high rates of employment and significantly less economic inequality. Public education would be much better off if all initiatives to improve it came from the government rather than from the charity of the rich. If you take the rich man’s money, you take his id

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Accelerating Towards What?

Long Island Opt-Out leader Jeanette Deutermann is one of the savviest parents I’ve met in the close to 50 years I’ve been in the business of educating children. Her understanding of the evils of high stakes testing has come from an extraordinary effort to learn about testing and what it can and should be used for. Her interest in testing, beginning with its effects on her own child, have gotten her to explore other aspects of contemporary public education to the point her knowledge of the workings of public schools exceeds that of most teacher I know.

Lately she has turned her attention to the subject of accelerating middle school students in math and science. She was apparently prompted to do so after learning that a Long Island school district strangely accelerated 7th graders in science, having encourages many of them to take the earth science Regents examination. As she wrote on her Long Island Opt-Out Information Facebook Page, We really need to start addressing the issue of “acceleration for all”, and pushing kids (yes even those that may choose to be pushed) beyond reasonable limits. Can a baby learn to read? Yes, we’ve all seen the ads of parents using flash cards and computer programs that when used repeatedly over months can produce little baby reading robots. The question isn’t “can they? It’s “should they?”.

This acceleration business has been with us for many years now, beginning with the State of New York encouraging it and taken to absurdity by school superintendents and boards of education more interested in pandering to a public increasingly more interested in seeking competitive advantages for their children than they are in their children learning how to think and be contributing citizens to our society. We have young children studying things like cell mitochondria and the different phases of mitosis who have absolutely no understanding of where their food comes from, how their government works or the responsibilities of citizenship. Some years ago, I taught a class of 11th grade honors students, not one of whom could tell me what the expression, “There but for the grace of God” means.

Real education is not about how fast children learn things. It’s not about competition between students or school districts. It’s not about the egos of superintendents. It’s not about teaching kids to get the edge on others. Education is ultimately about expanding the humanity of our children. Rushing kids through a curriculum that diverges further and further away from their intellectual, social and emotional development does nothing in the end to expand their humanity. It ultimately robs them of the ability to embrace the world and experience joy of understanding its infinite variety.

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The Real Failure of Public Education

If you have read this blog over a period of time, you are aware of my deep belief that the real failure of America’s schools has been essentially ignored. The real failure has nothing to do with graduation rates, test scores, Advanced Placement courses or any of the waves of reformist crap that have drowned out any serious discussion of the of the failure of American education to inform a citizenry so as to make them knowledgeable, critical thinking participants of a democratic society.

If I have interested you in my analysis, you must read “Manufactured Illiteracy and Miseducation” by McMaster University Professor Henry Giroux. Giroux sees the debasing of our public schools as central to an understanding of the politics that has brought us Donald Trump. If you are an educator and will read only one article about education this year, read this one.

On Saturday, I will be off to Boston to attend the National Education Association Representative Assembly. Some 9000 educators will gather ostensibly to talk about the condition of America’s public schools. It’s a safe bet that almost nothing that will be said there will either get as close to the heart of our problems as educators or suggest an activist strategy to remedy our plight as Giroux’s finer than fine analysis.

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Stop Diddling with American Lives

While I’m sure there are Americans who hate Medicare and would prefer some alternative, I have never met one. About the only criticisms I’ve ever heard from Medicare insured people are that some money hungry doctors refuse to take it and that it only cover 80 percent of most doctor bills. So, if we have a system that millions of Americans are satisfied to highly satisfied with, why on earth are we tolerating this charade going on in Washington where the Republicans are attempting to dismantle the Affordable Care Act in order to give the economic elite of this country a massive tax decrease. Why don’t we just repeal the Affordable Care Act and cover everyone under Medicare. All Americans covered under one great plan. That’s essentially what our Canadian neighbors do. Oh, you say they ration healthcare, there are long delays for service and their care is inferior to ours. Then why do over 80 percent of Canadians support their system, overwhelmingly rejecting a plan by the Canadian Medical Association to take Canadian medical care in the direction of the United States? It’s time to stop diddling with the lives of Americans and to declare once and for all that access to quality healthcare is a human right. That access is best provided by a single payer system like Medicare.

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Progressive Dallas?

I certainly wouldn’t associate Dallas, Texas with progressive school desegregation. Yet, that’s exactly what is being attempted there in what research suggests is the best way to bring about the improvement of educational outcome for underprivileged minority children – socio-economic integration. Rich kids, poor kids and middle income kids all thrive when they attend school together.

While conservative Dallas seeks to have all of its children living in the same social world, here in the more sophisticated, progressive East we have school districts like Roosevelt, Hempstead and Wyandanch, districts that exist to keep the children of the minority poor separated and unequal to the he white privileged students of places like Great Neck, Syosset and Plainview. Where are our political leaders to offer a plan for the kind of integration sought in Dallas? Where are the leaders who know that children raised apart will be strangers to each other their whole lives?

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Where’s the Light?

Several weeks ago, union colleagues from across Long Island participated in a demonstration in the Lawrence School District on behalf of the students and teachers. Afterwards I wrote, glowingly for me, about AFT President Randi Weingarten’s speech deploring the failure of the Lawrence Board of Education to care about the children in its schools, as they send their children to various parochial schools on the Island. Weingarten spoke from her background as a Jew, a Jew married to a Rabbi. Keepers of that faith are enjoined she said to care about all children, not just their own. She vowed to keep the spotlight on Lawrence. I’ve heard Randi make many speeches. To my ear, this was her best by far.

To the best of my knowledge, the situation in Lawrence has not changed. I have not seen any sun light beamed on the district to disinfect it of its bigoted indifference to the welfare of the children in its public schools and the teachers who serve them. One demonstration in support of a cause is almost never enough. Injustice is a potent germ. Its resistance requires the passionate efforts of those who would rid us of it.

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Some Pragmatism Please

I’ve been a democratic socialist my whole adult life. In college, I was forced to read Michael Harrington’s The Other America, and I was hooked. I read all of his books, went to see him speak several times, joined what then was called the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee. So, it should have surprised no one that I have a supporter of Bernie Sanders. Yet, I deeply believe that Bernie has gotten a little too full of himself and a little too self-righteous to boot. His criticism of the Democratic Party serves no useful purpose that I can discern.

If we have a hope of taking back the House of Representatives in 2018, Democrats are going to have to be competitive in some congressional districts that have historically voted Republican and some that have gone back and forth between the two parties. While I wish Bernie’s views could win in all those districts, the fact is they can’t. No amount of wishing will make that so. So, if we have to supports some candidates who are not for single payer healthcare at the moment, it is imperative that we do. There are probably a few districts where people will support a basically progressive agenda but will not support a pro-life candidate. We simply cannot be ideologically pure and expect to win the House.

Taking back the House is our best hope of disrupting the Republican/corporate agenda that seeks to end what has always been an insubstantial U.S. social safety net. To save that safety net, such as it is, and so much else of value demands that those of us on the left subordinate some of our more progressive ideas in the interest of protecting the least among us from the reign of economic terror the republicans have in store for them.

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Exposing the Techno-Hoax

Anyone reading my work over the years knows of my deep suspicion of the motives of the private sectors interest in public education. In recent times, I’ve been sounding the alarm about the unexamined influence of our nation’s high tech entrepreneurs and their companies and their influence on public schools and the employees charged with educating America’s youth. At best, education decision makers have allowed the voices of people like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg to be amplified by their billions, creating the illusion that they know more about public education than experienced professionals do. I have characterized their philanthropy as giving to get, in that our public schools have spent billions of dollars on their high tech products without any demonstrable improvement in educational outcomes. One would think that if the efficacy of tech assisted education were as claimed, our public schools would be paragons of academic excellence by now, having spent billions over the last twenty years infusing technology throughout our schools.

It was therefore very encouraging to read Natasha Singer’s article in this morning’s New York Times questioning the influence of our high tech billionaires on our schools. The very existence of such a piece on the front page of the Grey Lady suggests an awakening to the fleecing of the public’s schools. Perhaps the techno-hoax is at last being exposed.

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On the Passing of Thomas E. Syrett

I woke yesterday to the news that my friend and colleague Tom Syrett died over the weekend. Tom and I taught together for some years in an alternate education program our district used to have. We taught the kids who by their sophomore year in high school showed every sign of insufficient academic credits for graduation. More than teaching them English or social studies, Tom’s subject, it was our job to rescue them from the self-destructive behaviors that threatened not only their school careers but quite literally their lives.

For kids whose lives were out of control, Tom brought a daily stability. Kids who were truant for years ran to Syrett’s class, at first fearing the consequences of being late but gradually learning to expect it of themselves and not wanting to offend a man they had grown to love. Over the blackboard was a hand lettered sign that read, “Tough is not what you can dish out. Tough is what you can take. Thomas E. Syrett.” Find me a teacher today who would have the nerve to post such a sign.

I remember numbers of kids who at first had trouble making it to school in the morning. It only took a few morning visits from Mr. Syrett, having him grab them up out of their bed, to make coming to school on time easier. If we had a bullied kid, Tom taught him karate. He took phone calls at home from students and parents, often mediating family disputes. Many of his students remained his friends for years. Tom’s commitment to kids was unending. When one of his former students went afoul of the law and landed in prison, Tom periodically visited him on weekends, letting him know that at least one person hadn’t given up on him.

I know for a fact that Tom didn’t want to retire when he did. But for some quirks in the teacher pension system that penalize older members who die in service and a school district that grew increasingly less interested in students for whom AP and SAT are seen as acronyms associated with privileged students, Tom would have taught until he dropped. Retirement took away one of the very few pleasures he allowed himself, working with young people. He continued to coach track for a while after retirement from teaching, but it took only one politically incorrect comment to a student for the characterless leaders of our district to abandon him.

As she so often does, my friend Jane Weinkrantz raised a penetrating question in an exchange of texts we had yesterday. Lamenting how conditions in our schools have changed since Tom’s retirement, she asked, “Can you imagine one of today’s administrators coming to observe Tom with his laptop and Marshall Rubric?” Just about all that made Tom a great teacher and a great role model for kids is of little value in today’s schools. In a few more years, there won’t be anyone around who will even know what’s gone.
I could write a whole other piece on Tom’s commitment to our union and his service to it in various capacities. But it is as a teacher that Tom would wish to be remembered, and it is always as a teacher I will remember him. His memory will always remind me of the days when we were free to be teachers.

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Wake Up New York

Given the current state of our politics, can anyone imagine a New York constitutional convention broadening worker or union rights? Is it remotely possible that public employee pensions will remain a right or that our freedoms as citizens will be enlarged? At such a convention, the state’s economic elites will be disproportionately represented and will undoubtedly propose amendments tour constitution that privilege them further than they already are. That why I’m shocked to read of a recent poll showing a huge majority of New Yorkers favoring such a convention. That 60 percent of union members favor opening up our constitution to who knows what is but the latest indicatory of a defeated labor movement in what we like to think is a labor state.

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