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 August, 2017

We All See What’s Happening

I met an old friend for breakfast yesterday. During our catching-up conversation, he found himself talking about his grand-children, noting their lack of social skills and correctly connecting that problem to their incessant connection to their smart-phones. We all see this happening, are distressed by the thought of a generation of children whose human connections may be stunted for their entire lives and yet are fearful of doing anything about it lest we be seen as enemies of progress, 21st century Luddites.

Next week children will be at school bus stops weekday mornings, staring at their phones, completely disinterested in conversing with their assembled classmates. They will file into their schools and in many of their class sit for extended periods of time staring at a computer screen, their schools promoting digitized education as the way to personalize a child’s instruction, letting them learn their own way, at their own pace. Few parents will voice any concern as to why their children are spending so many of their waking hours engaging a computer screen. Some of their teachers know that important elements of an education are increasingly being displaced by gadgets of one kind or another. Too often, however, they keep that knowledge to themselves lest they be judged by their supervisors to be inferior teachers. Other teachers, trained in the era of test driven accountability, technologically mediated instruction, I fear don’t even realize that they have become agents of a meretricious corporatism deskilling children of the abilities necessary to be engaged citizens of a democratic society.

Wouldn’t it be great if this new school year we began to think about taking charge of our technology and at least mitigating its control of us and our children? Why don’t we declare technology free school days. In every classroom, teachers and students talking to one another for the entire period, finding time to talk about what is going on in our country and the world, sharing each other’s humanity, maybe even talking about what new technologies are doing to that humanity.

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It’s Free Work Time

If you drive by your local elementary school, you will no doubt see the teacher parking lot filled, teachers having once again felt compelled to provide hours of unremunerated work getting their classrooms ready for the start of school. Heaven forbid that children come to school and find their classrooms undecorated. Their psyches might be irreparably damaged by a decoration deficiency trauma. Where did we ever get the notion that decorations make for better learning. Isn’t it just as likely that they provide almost endless distractions? Especially today, what with children coming to school with web enabled phones luring their minds from the teacher to cyberspace, do we really need all the wall-bait for wandering minds? If we do, if these days of unpaid work that teachers put into room preparation are absolutely essential, if how one’s room looks is a factor in a teacher’s evaluation, shouldn’t teachers be paid for these workdays that they have historically given for free?

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Implicit Racism

Several time in the last few days I tactfully tried to point out to friends on Facebook how some of their posts are implicitly racist. Most of these people are not consciously racist. Some are union members with whom I’ve worked on anti-racist causes. Yet as members of a culture born in the original sin of race, we all have buried in our psyches often hidden prejudices that lurk waiting to be triggered by the right stimulus. Most of us don’t have any problem, except perhaps the President of the United States, recognizing KKK members Nazis and other self-identified racist haters. They wear their hatred on their sleeves. But how many of us recognize how in America the length of the prison sentences a person gets is directly related to the blackness of his skin? How many are willing to understand that the implicit bias of too many police causes them to assume black males to be an inherently greater threat to them than a white person observed manifesting the same behavior? How many will admit that they experience anxiety when a black male gets on an elevator in which they are the only other passenger? How many seeing a group of seemingly Hispanic men lined up on a corner seeking day work perceive them as a threat to their community? These are all examples of the implicit racism in our society that minorities live with every day of their lives and which are barriers to their full participation in our society.

I can think of no greater service to the future of our nation than if our public school teachers, especially those in predominately white communities, would find imaginative ways to have our school children confront their inchoate biases, biases sucked in with the air they breathe in a nation still struggling to come to terms with issues of race. Education remains the best tool we have to purge the racist poison from our society.

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Thank You, Opt-Out Movement

New York State is touting a miniscule decline in the number of children withheld from the state’s grades three through eight examinations in English and mathematics. The drop from twenty-one percent last year will probably embolden Commissioner Elia and the Ed Department bureaucrats to continue to pressure the parents of our state into submission to a testing regime that is destroying public education. The State is also spinning a nominal increase in the test scores as proof of the efficacy of its test and punish approach.

Frankly, I have no idea whether the decline in opt-outs is statistically significant. It strikes me that roughly twenty percent have consistently boycotted the examinations in recent years as part of one of the truly progressive public education movements of the years of my involvement with public education issues. Think about it for a minute. The movement loses most of its eighth grade parents each year requiring it to recruit significant numbers of new parents each school year. Maintaining twenty percent of parents willing to defy the authority of the state, with many school administrations attempting to strong-arm them into submission, is no mean feat.

The continued well being of the opt-out movement is one of the very few positive signs in a world of public education that is beset by enemies. At a time when we have a national administration that seeks to turn our public schools over to corporate interests; when we increasingly see school leaders confusing training with education; when so few of those chosen to lead our public schools are empty careerists who no abiding loyalty to the institution of public education; when significant numbers of students in our schools are coerced into measuring their self-worth by their math and ELA scores; when test preparation crowds out the socialization of children to be participating citizens of our democracy; it is a shot in the arm for people committed to liberal education to know the opt-out movement not only exists but continues to thrive.

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New York’s 1967 Constitutional Convention

Every twenty years, citizens of New York State are asked whether they think there should be a constitutional convention. I did a little work yesterday preparing for a talk I’m scheduled to give on the question in October. Constitutional conventions are opportunities for political mischief, mischief that can seriously erode the rights and opportunities of working people. We don’t need a constitutional convention to amend our state constitution. Amendments can be made through the regular process of being passed by two successive sessions of the legislature followed a vote by the people. Numerous such amendments have been made over the course of years.

The last New York constitutional convention I’ve learned was in 1967. Voters were convinced to support it out of the generally held belief that New York’s constitution had become antiquated and stood in the way of effective government. Although there was apparently intense party jousting from April to September, the convention did some up with a package of amendments that broadened the rights of New Yorkers. In the political give and take of shaping a package, in the log rolling that inevitably take place when politicians practice their craft, repeal of New York’s Blaine Amendment found its way into the mix. The Blain Amendment prevents the expenditure of state monies to support religious schools in any way other than providing transportation. Religious communities had been seeking its repeal for a long time. After spending about six months debating amendments and forty-six million 2015 dollars, the package of amendments was put to the voters of the state. In their wisdom, they rejected the package.

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Still Thinking About Charlottesville

There is no good reason to venerate Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee, Jefferson David and Stonewall Jackson. They, and so many others, betrayed our nation and were responsible for a national bloodletting of staggering proportions. They betrayed our nation for the most ignominious of reasons – the right to hold other human beings in bondage for their financial benefit. To the descendents of those kidnapped from Africa and brutally enslaved, and to all people offended by this mass inhumanity, monuments that glorify these traitors, statues of them in heroic poses, totems to the evil they propagated are an affront, and affront that perpetuates the great lie that continues to this day to eat at the soul of our country – that white, Protestant Christians by some sort of biological destiny were destined to rule this country. Those interested in the history of warfare may be interested the strategy and tactics of the battles of the Civil War. They may be fascinated by the military skills of soldiers like Lee and Jackson. However, they are no more to be venerated than we do Irwin Rommel or some of the other brilliant Nazi generals. Their names, like Benedict Arnold’s, should be synonymous traitor.

As school is about to open here in New York, I find myself wishing I had a class to teach this lesson to. Judging from some of the ignorant comments I’ve seen on Facebook concerning events in Charlottesville from people I know to be teachers, I wish I had an opportunity to engage them on the issues too. While I know that teachers have curricula to cover in what is never enough time, I surely hope they will not miss the opportunity these terrible days present to teach our nation’s children lessons that will last them a lifetime.

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Charlottesville

It gets harder and harder to think about public education in the era of Donald Trump. His failure this weekend to speak authentically and forcefully against the convention of bigots in Charlottesville is but the latest shame to befall our country since his inauguration. The images in the media of torch-bearing, race baiting, Jew baiting thugs juxtaposed to the President of the United States hesitantly reading a prepared statement laying the blame for the riots equally on the Nazis, KKK and other assorted haters and those who came to stand against bigotry and intolerance makes this American profoundly ashamed for my country.

The assembled haters were the “deplorables” that Hillary spoke out against. Many chastised her for her remarks and probably made her pay a political price for them. Yet, she was right to denounce them, to see the danger in this growing movement of haters whose notion of making America great again is restoring the hegemony of white Christian Americans. The president pandered to them in his campaign. They are his base. To expect this characterless man to disavow them in any significant way is to engage in wishful thinking. His statement today reeked of insincerity. Literally forced to make a statement condemning the Klan, white nationalists and the other vile creatures assembled in Charlottesville, he emotionlessly read the prepared statement somewhat like a guilty child forced by his parents to apologize for his misbehavior but whose words betray no contrition.

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Tax Reform and Public Education

Financing education off of a property tax is among the worst tax policies we live with in New York and elsewhere. Families living next door to each other in identical homes may have widely disparate incomes; yet, they pay the same amount to support their public schools. Property taxes are unfair on a number of levels. In communities with meager tax bases, local public schools tend to be resource starved, although they often are charged with educating the neediest students. While most of the politicians I’ve spoken to over my years as a teacher union leader recognize this, just about none of them was willing to attempt to lead the way towards a more progressive way of financing public education.

Dependent, therefore, on the property tax to finance our schools for the foreseeable future, the tax reform talk coming out of Washington should be of concern to supporters of public education. Among the proposals being discussed by the Trump administration is an end the deductibility of state and local taxes from federal tax returns. In high tax states like New York and California, such a move would throw gasoline on the ever smoldering fires of property tax rebellion and create irresistible pressures to hold the line on property taxes beyond the two percent tax cap we already have on such taxes in New York or Prop 13 mandates in California. While efforts to end these deductions have failed in the past, with Republicans in control of all branches of the federal government, and with the impact of repeal of these deductions falling disproportionately on higher tax blue states, repeal would seem to have a much better chance this time around.

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