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 July, 2017

The Opportunity of a Teacher Shortage

If it is true as many suggest that we are on the verge of a huge teacher shortage, why aren’t our unions preparing a bargaining agenda that attempts to capitalize on that eventuality? Enrollments in schools of education are down; teacher turnover in many places is high; and the job satisfaction of teachers is demonstrably at a low point. What sort of collective bargaining agenda might revive interest in the teaching profession and lure some of our brightest young people into the nation’s classrooms?

I don’t begin to have all of the answers, but here’s the start of my list of bargaining demands. In much of the country we need better starting salaries and compressed salary schedules that get teachers to maximum pay quicker. In too many places, it takes 30 to 40 years to get to the top end of the salary schedule. While I believe in pay for experience, salary schedules that provide experience increments after let’s say 7 to 10 years are ridiculous. They are simply a way to depress the wages of young teacher who after all are doing the same work as their much better paid seniors.

Unless and until we get universal childcare, bargaining may be the best way to address this crucial need of many of our union members, particularly our female members. Over my many years as a union officer, I found my conversations with members struggling with their need to work and take care of their own children some of the most difficult. Too often much of what they earn educating other people’s children is insufficient to take care of their own. Our union bargained a space in our district to start our own child care program only to find that the regulations for establishing a childcare center made it impossible for our local. We need to come up with a model for district based childcare.

When my local union was organized, the founders’ slogan was “Dignity and Status.” Much of whatever dignity and status we achieved (and for a time we had quite a bit) has been eroded. In most places, teachers today have less of a say in what happens in their schools than they did 25 years ago. Their every step (both literally and figuratively) is monitored, often by a cadre of managers whose ignorance of what constitutes good education frustrates the imagination of teachers and ensures that mediocrity becomes the standard of achievement. We had begun to take charge of our profession. We need to do that again if we are to attract the kind of young people we want in our schools.

With many states having diminished the retirement benefits of teachers, bargaining retirement benefits should be a central focus. In New York more and more superintendent’s contracts call for the school district to pay varying amounts into the superintendents’ 403b account. That has opened a door that we ought to be walking briskly through. In a private sector word of vanishing pension benefits, the certitude of a secure retirement will attract many.

Staff development is apparently here to stay. If that’s the case, teachers ought to decide on its content. It also should take place during the work day. If there is anything a teacher doesn’t want to do is teach all day and then have someone talk to him about teaching. In the last contract that I bargained, our union presented a plan to incorporate teacher driven staff development into the school day. Although we were not successful in getting that demand, experience suggests that repeated attempts at achieving a demand are often successful.

This is the start of my list. I invite my readers to add to or modify my list. The looming teacher shortage hold real potential for the teacher labor movement, but only if we plan seriously and share our thinking broadly.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Trumpcare Failure

My friends who cling to a Republican Party that vanished years ago – it is either time for you to get active and take your party back, or abandon it. I’m not asking you to join the Democrats. I’m a reluctant member of that crew myself. I know you to be people who subscribe to the ethical and cultural norms that allow our society to exist. I know for a fact that most of you believe we have a responsibility to each other – that there but for the grace of God go we. Believing as you do, you cannot have watched the heath care debate without seeing how your Republican leaders don’t share your beliefs. They sense no responsibility to others. They sense no responsibility to you. They were prepared to allow millions of people to lose their access to health care for no socially responsible reason whatsoever. Although their reasons I’m sure vary, many, I deeply believe, are motivated simply by a deep-seated hatred for President Obama who led the way to passage of the Affordable care Act. Remember, our president tried for years to convince us that Barack Obama was not an American.

Like most of the democratic world, most Americans have come to understand health care as a human right. Today’s congressional Republican Party does not share that understanding. While wrapping themselves in Christian pieties, they openly seek to return our society to a place where the fittest thrive and the weak support their luxury. Freedom to them includes the right to starve or die for lack of timely, effective medical care. To think that this political party was once the home of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower is, it seems to me, to be revolted by what passes for political leadership today. If ever a party turned its back on the public good, it is this pack of amoral hacks that have taken over our country and made us the embarrassment of the world. Republican leadership thinks you are with them. Your silence emboldens them. It’s time they heard from you.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Standing Up to Anti-Vaxers

While I’ve always been open and proud to be a democratic socialist, my socialism comes with a rather deep libertarian streak. Without compelling reasons, I don’t want the government intruding into the personal lives of people. Whether a reason is compelling or not is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. T he need to vaccinate children against life-threatening diseases is as close to absolutely compelling as it gets. When I was a kid, I listened with abject dread to the radio each summer day as the number of new polio cases was reported. When Susan, a girl from the other side of our apartment building was diagnosed with polio, we were all sure it was just a matter of time before we were all paralyzed and in iron lungs.

A sizable number of today’s parents, themselves immunized against childhood plagues, have gotten it into their heads that vaccinations cause autism and, as a result, are refusing to vaccinate their children, thereby putting other children at greater risk. The false connection between vaccination and autism is known to have been propagated by the fraudulent research work of Dr. Andrew Wakefield. However no amount of explaining that to anti-vaxers as they’ve come to be called, no seemingly endless studies demonstrating the safety of vaccines will free them of their belief, allowing them to get their kids protected. It has always amazed me to see educated people defy logic and science and succumb to magical thinking. I have been similarly amazed at school officials and our elected representatives’ failure to address this very serious problem. Because current law permits religious objection to having one’s children vaccinated, the welfare of the public has been subordinated to the political cowardness.

Hence my amazement to read this morning that faced with the same problem from a growing number of anti-vaxers, Australia has decided to do something about it, the Australian states all passing laws to prevent unvaccinated kids from coming to pre-school and withholding childcare benefits from parents who refuse to vaccinate their children. It’s heartening to see politicians willing to brave the cries of authoritarianism in the interest of protecting the vast majority of the nation’s children from becoming the victims of mass stupidity. One of the basic duties of all governments is to protect its citizens. Our failure to stem the tide of anti-vaccination is nothing short of an abdication of this responsibility.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Promise Money in Their Pockets

I’ve written many times about the irony that while the NEA has in recent years talked endlessly about organizing, it is completely unsure as to what to organize around. To the extent that they have an organizing message, it seems to be that the NEA exists to help teachers with their professional concerns, whatever that really means. Yet, I strongly suspect that regardless of what their market research consultants are telling NEA leadership, they would do much better organizing around the deplorable salaries and working conditions suffered by many of our members across the United States.

When I began my public school teaching career, the rallying cry of local unions on Long Island was a starting teacher salary of ten thousand dollars a year. It was impossible then for teachers in most places to earn enough to support a family. Extra jobs after school, weekends and summers were commonplace. Those conditions still exist in most places in the United States. Yet, at the recent NEA representative Assembly, I don’t recall hearing a word about salaries and working conditions. Imagine if the NEA undertook a highly public campaign promoting a living wage and professional working conditions for teachers in every town in America. What if as part of that campaign they advanced the notion that we under-value teaching in this country because it is a profession in which seventy-five percent of the practitioners are female.

To join a union requires a belief that one’s lot will be improved as a result. Staying a member requires a clear understanding that one’s economic security is tied to one’s colleagues and their solidarity. A union that doesn’t have this as a core organizing principle is not really a union at all. We need to stop selling professional assistance and get back to talking about putting money in members’ pockets, members whose wages have been stagnating like those of too many Americans.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

No, Mr. President

Every person who has ever run for anything should be telling our president that no one but an ethically bankrupt person would have met with the Russians in the hope of getting dirt on Hillary. Anyone saying otherwise is ethically disqualified from holding any office. Politicians who have had such offers and rejected them should be telling their stories to highlight the moral impoverishment of the leader of the free world. Here’s my little tale.

Back in the early 80’s when I ran for the presidency of my local union, I was an insurgent candidate seeking to knock off a nationally known union leader. I was the head of a slate of candidates with both limited experience and even more limited resources, all of us being young teachers living from paycheck to paycheck. What we lacked in experience and resources we more than made up for in passion and commitment.

About halfway through our campaign a friend came to me with a message from an official of a rival union in our school district, offering me assistance with printing and mailings and anything else they could provide. While the assistance offered would have been invaluable to our campaign, it didn’t take me but a minute to realize that that this offer wasn’t coming from a belief in democratic unionism or full-throated support for my slate’s platform. Even to a novice like me, it was clear that it was an effort to constrain our power should we win by holding over us their clandestine support for our campaign.

So when the President tells me that most politicians would have taken the meeting with the Russians and whatever information they were offering, it’s to be taken more as a revelation of his ethical impairment than a knowledgeable statement about the political people I have known most of whom have been more ethically intact.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Enough is Enough

I’ll get to the lessons to be learned from the NEA Representative Assembly another day. This morning, I’m saddened, no nauseated, by yet another revelation of the dishonesty, disloyalty and indecency of the President of the United States, his family who have joined him in dishonoring America and all those in our country’s leadership who continue to defend all of the vile cretins in this administration who would stoop so low to seek aid from agents of the Russian government to subvert our elections. Lies drip from their mouths like a Chinese water torture, each day it being increasingly embarrassing to be an American. The news this morning that contrary to what Trump Jr. said yesterday, which was contrary to what he said Saturday, a “former” Soviet counter intelligence agent also participated in a meeting with a Kremlin connected lawyer who dangled the possibility of incriminating material on Hillary Clinton before a drooling Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and campaign manager Paul Manafort is just one lie too many. The irony that these scumbag practitioners of fake news, without nearly as much evidence as exists to document their own treachery, successfully branded Hillary Clinton “crooked Hillary” and convinced enough Americans that she was a threat to the security of our nation should be lost on no American. How long will it be before we rise up and demand that our elected representatives cleanse our country of the political filth that has sullied us all? Had we a parliamentary system, we would have at hand the vote of no confidence that would rid us of these illegitimate imposters.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Likeability is not Leadership

Lesson two to be drawn from the recent NEA Representative Assembly is that NEA elections continue to have little to nothing to do with ideas. With only token opposition to the three executive officers, there was almost no activity around the officer elections. The only printed election materials I saw were from from the opposition slate of left radicals who clearly presented an agenda, albeit one that has no chance of being adopted by the right of center NEA delegates who tend to cringe at the thought organizing for direct union action. NEA elections throughout my participation in them have always been about popularity. Secondarily, they have been about the ability to make crowd-pleasing speeches that while tickling and charming are essentially devoid of thoughtful articulation of union policy objectives or strategy. One would like to think that the largest labor union in the country would produce contestants for its highest offices who had some ideas as to where they wished to take our union.

Historically, while NEA leaders have amply demonstrated the finely honed social skills to get others to like or even adore them, they have shown almost no skills to lead, to articulate a vision of how the world of the membership might be better and how that better world might be attained. Although likeability is an important component of leadership, it is not in any way a substitute for the ability to convince people to become active participants in improving their lot.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Lessons to be Learned

I’ve now been to my last NEA Representative Assembly. I’ve managed to get trough thirty some odd of them with little damage to my nervous system or cognitive capacity. While most of these yearly meetings are notable for accomplishing next to nothing, they do afford an opportunity to take the temperature of the organization and gain some insight into the state of its health and the health of public education in America. In the next series of posts, I’ll try highlight what I see as the lessons to be learned from this gathering of over seven thousand NEA activists.

Lesson one is that despite the fact that the NEA faces an existential threat from several Supreme Court cases that seem sure to ultimately wipe out agency fee arrangements and more importantly require public sector unions to sign members up each year, the convention was almost devoid of any discussion of this threat or any obvious plan to foil or mitigate this impending legal attack. Sure, here and there our national leaders worked in a line or two about our urgent need to organize, but with thousands of the members who will be vital to withstanding this attack in one place, absolutely nothing was done to organize them and provide them with a plan and tools to give us some hope of winning. In fact, the one substantive new business item designed to address this issue, an item calling for a substantial expenditure to hire numbers of professional organizers was referred, I believe, to the Executive Committee with the obvious intent of killing it.

If talking alone could repel the powerful attacks on our education union, the NEA would surely survive. It is a core belief of the NEA that if we talk about a problem we have taken action to solve it. Unfortunately talking about organizing and organizing are two fundamentally different things.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

No Surprises

I’m at the NEA Representative Assembly. In a post I wrote a few days ago, I predicted that little, if anything, of importance would be accomplished. So far, I was on the mark. As expected, the three officers were re-elected, no serious opposition having been mounted.

There is clearly a good deal of leftover anger from the Clinton/Trump election. A new. Business item that would have required the direct participation of the membership before the endorsement of a candidate while handily defeated exposed the extent to which our Bernie and Trump supporters are still angry over the early Hillary endorsement.

I’ve attended over thirty of these meetings. Not once has an NEA President used the opportunity of an assembly of over seven thousand activists organized them to go home and take direct action on an issue. Not once! Yet, there is always a great deal of blather about how we have to organize. This year will clearly be no exception.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments