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 October, 2017


For years, I’ve counseled against using union war stories to attempt to acculturate new members to the union cause. Yet, that’s exactly what I found myself doing on Saturday. Along with my friend Ken Ulric, a former union president too, I met with three groups of Long Island union representatives to talk about the early days of teacher unionism on Long Island. These representatives had spent their morning listening to and questioning presenters on the problems related to an impending decision in the Janus Case, an expected Supreme Court decision that will abridge public sector unions’ right to collect agency fees and potentially requiring them to re-sign members up each year.

Ken and I had a very good time recalling the birth of our movement. Comments from the audience seemed to suggest that they found our remembrances of things past interesting. Yet in the end, I find myself depressed by the experience and left wondering how it is that a movement that was birthed by such creative spirit and energy could have decayed to the point where the threat of the loss of agency fee is seen to pose an existential threat to our organizations.

Clear to me from talking to some of the workshop participants is that union militancy today is wearing a tee shirt with a union message on it, turning out to a meeting of a board of education or filing a grievance. The idea of asserting our collective power to advance our union agenda appears to be unthinkable. I’m not even sure we have an agenda beyond organizational survival. When I expressed the belief that school principals serve at the pleasure of the staff in the building, workshop participants looked at me as though I were joking. When I went on to explain that I had organized numbers of successful campaigns to rid our district of administrators who treated us badly, I had the distinct impression that many in the audience thought I was fabricating a union tale. No wonder we have contracts that remain unsettled six, eight even ten years. No wonder that signing members up each year is seen as a herculean task, one doomed to significant failure.

I hope I’m wrong about the state of our movement. I hope the Janus Case will serve as a challenge to a new generation of public sector unionists who will meet the challenge head on and emerge from it with a renewed sense of their power to shape their work-life. I hope we can go from a talking union to one of direct action, one in which members are willing to struggle and fight not only to preserve what we have won but to reclaim their right to participate in determining the quality of their time at work.

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They Want to Wire the Students Now

The search for the magic bullet that will enable all students regardless of their genes, socio-economic background, parenting and physical and mental health to achieve equally is rapidly reaching the creepily absurd. News that the Edsurge Company is in talks with a Long Island school district to collect the brain waves of students in the hope of improving their education is but the latest attempt by the corporate to exploit public education. First they convinced us to wire our schools. Now they want to wire the children too.

I’d love to know which 21st century educator superintendent agreed to talk to Edsurge. If any of my readers know, please contact me at mrosenfeld@pobct.org.

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Undue Influence of the Rich

Rich people automatically seem to assume that their economic success is evidence that they possess superior knowledge on all subjects. A significant portion of the public unfortunately seems to agree. It’s the modern iteration of Calvinist elect theology in which God’s grace is evidenced by human success. Perhaps one of the few good things to come from the Trump presidency will be a broad appreciation that rich people can be complete idiots.

I’m prompted to think about the undue influence of the rich in affairs about which they know nothing after reading about Bill Gates’ keynote address to the Council of Great City Schools. After spending billions on one ill-informed so-called education reform after another, after these reforms seriously demoralized a generation of public school educators, after supporting endless propaganda convincing many parents that their children’s schools are failing, after all this unnecessary chaos, here’s what Bill Gates learned. ““Giving schools and districts more flexibility is more likely to lead to solutions that fit the needs of local communities and are potentially replicable elsewhere… If there is one thing I have learned, it is that no matter how enthusiastic we might be about one approach or another, the decision to go from pilot to wide-scale usage is ultimately and always something that has to be decided by you and others the field.”

Schmuck! We could have told you that when your launched your first reform.

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Union Communications

Last weekend, I answered a tweet by AFT President Randi Weingarten in which she expressed relief that Bill Gates was not abandoning his public education philanthropy. My response was to observe that Gates has had a profoundly pernicious influence on public education. In a tweet of my own, I further observed that the leadership of the NEA and AFT just don’t understand the negative impact Gates has had on the lives of teachers and students as they attempted to accommodate to a series of ill-fated reforms birth by his billions.

That experience reminded me that I had not looked at the webpages of either national education union in a long time. I monitor them from time to time hoping to find some evidence that either organization understands what is happening to the teaching profession. One would think that in an environment in which U.S. teachers are severely underpaid in so many areas that there would be some evidence of a campaign to improve those miserable salaries. One would think that national unions would be talking about the staggering workloads too many teachers bear. One would expect national teacher labor unions to be hammering away at the data driven teacher evaluation schemes that cheapen the work of teaching and rob students of a meaningful education. One would hope to find a consistent, focused critique of the poisonous effect testing is having on public education.

I could go on and on about the kind of content that might appeal to teachers. I can’t imagine that too many find anything of interest in the current offerings. It’s hard to imagine a young high school teacher, carrying a student load of 150 students, working two extra jobs to support his family finding any hope in these union communications for a brighter future. There is no discernible connection between the communications of our national unions and their leaders and what is happening day to day in the classrooms of America’s public schools.

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A Remnant of a Labor Movement

The President of the AFL/CIO used to be a presence in American households. When I was a kid, I knew who George Meany was from his frequent appearances on TV and frequent stories about his thoughts on world and domestic affairs in the newspapers. I strongly suspect that were we to ask today’s k-12 public school students who Richard Trumka is, few would have any idea who he is. Neither would most know anything about the AFL/CIO. How many Americans realize that Mr.Trumka was re-elected on Sunday to another four year term as President of the AFT/CIO. Judging from the very sparse news coverage, it no longer seems to matter to Americans who heads the remnant of the American labor movement.

This unhappy state of irrelevance is the result of the catastrophic failure of America’s unions to respond to the transformation of the American economy from one centered on manufacturing to one increasingly service oriented. When I was young, 35% of the American workforce was unionized. It is no exaggeration to suggest that what we think of as the middle class today was union made. Today, something like 5 or 6% of the private sector workforce is unionized. Public sector unions that were growing have come under right-wing assault. Should the Janus case before the Supreme Court wind up with the loss by public sector unions of agency fee, the best guess is that 30% of public sector union membership will be gone.

Surely part of the solution to the wage stagnation American workers have been suffering is the expansion of worker bargaining power. For that to happen will require the election of political leaders who understand the connection between the expansion of worker rights to organize and bargain collectively and closing the inequality gap in this country. Unfortunately, too many of our Democratic leaders are reluctant to challenge the corporate interests hell-bent on destroying our remnant of unionism. We have arrived at a point in our history at which many workers saw Donald Trump and an ultra-right-wing Republican Party as greater defenders of working people than the party of Franklin Roosevelt. Unless and until that changes, until there is a political movement in this country on behalf of all working people, a movement that seeks to balance the power between workers and the one percent who own almost everything, I fear the union movement will continue to sink into increasing irrelevance.

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A Lesson From Italy

I’ve been on somewhat of a crusade for the past ten years or so to try to awaken American education decision makers to the emergency need to weave instruction on media literacy throughout the k-12 curriculum. In my own school district, I almost got it done, when the assistant superintendent for instruction who was working with me on the project left to take another position, leaving behind her a series of successive school leaders too lost in the world of educationist mumbo-jumbo to appreciate the need to fill a widening real hole in the education of our youth.

The mounting evidence that the Russians were able to manipulate our media with stories contrived to sew division in our ranks and support the candidacy of Donald Trump has awakened some to the need to not only bring our government regulation in line with modern digital media, but also has sparked international interest in the need to educate citizens who to distinguish fact from fiction in the world of virtual reality. I was fascinated to read this morning that Italy has changed its high school curriculum to provide students with instruction in how to spot fake news from the real thing. Such changes are even more necessary in our own country where we now have a president who is hell-bent on delegitimizing responsible media that deign to publish criticism of him.

Over the last twenty-five years or so, media studies has become a respected academic discipline. We have numbers of scholars in this country who are more than able to design a strand of study for our public school children that begins in kindergarten to teach them the tools they need to survive in the media ecology we have developed. So many school leaders talk glibly about 21st century education without meaning anything more than teaching kids how to use the latest digital devices. A real 21st century education prepares students to cope with changes these digital tools have wrought.

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Appealing to Reflexive Republicans

Here on Long Island we have lots of registered Republicans who when you talk to them about politics appear to reject most of what today’s Republican party stands for. Their attachment to their party is more a matter of habit or reflex than ideological affinity. I’ve met many over the years who very openly expressed the view that since Republicans have historically dominated the politics of the Island, self-interest suggested supporting the party that might be helpful getting a summer job for one’s child or a variance for some construction project on one’s property. I’ve met Democrats who are more economically and socially conservative than many Long Island registered Republicans. To be sure, Republican like this can be found everywhere in the United States.

We need to develop a moral and ethical appeal to these Republicans. We need to connect voting for Republican candidates at whatever level of government with the economically, socially ethically regressive agenda of the national Republican Party and its leaders in the House, Senate and Whitehouse. Such a campaign can have two possible positive outcomes. Some can be won over to the Democratic Party, perhaps pausing at independent first. Some can be motivated to push back against the nihilist nuts who have taken control of today’s Republican Party. Many Republicans believe that healthcare is a human right. Many support reproductive freedom and economic equality for women. Many oppose granting huge tax cuts to the ultra-rich. Many know that successfully integrating wave after wave of immigrants is what has made the United States special. Many are passionate about protecting the environment. Many are believers in science and know that our response to climate change will determine our future as a nation and maybe even as a species. Many are not frightened by the fact that white people will soon be a minority in this country and are open to being citizens of a country that treats religion as a personal matter having nothing whatsoever to do with government. Many are good union members and understand the need to expand the rights of working people to join together in common cause.

Supporting the candidates of today’s Republican Party violates all of these beliefs

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Educating with Screens

My God! I just read a Jay Mathews column that didn’t elevate my blood pressure to life-threatening heights. Mathews is the guy who has probably done more to advance the spread of AP classes to high school classrooms than anyone else. Viewing the AP program as essentially an academic scam, I risk reading Mathews from time to time simply to see what mischief he is stirring up for public school educators. But I guess to show me that the possibilities of human redemption are infinite, his October 8 column had me open to the possibility that Mathews just might be able to do teachers some good.

Reviewing the book Screen Schooled: Two Veteran Teachers Expose How Technology Overuse Is Making Our Kids Dumber, by veteran Virginia teachers Joe Clement and Mat Miles, Mathews credits their argument that often the engagement of teachers and students is the best way of teaching, providing not only for the transmission of information but, even more importantly, an exchange of ideas and feelings necessary for the socialization of young people into responsible citizens. As someone who has come to see the infusion of technology into the public schools as one of corporate America’s great swindles and a threat to the very existence of public education, I’m looking forward to reading this book and to the next column Mathews has promised on what its authors propose. I dare to hope that people are beginning to catch on to the fact that education is essentially a social process that is not well mediated by technological means. I dare to hope that savvy parents will rebel against having their kids who spend endless hours at home staring at screens going to school to isolate themselves in various technological cocoons.

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The Fault is Ours

While our elected national leaders debate tax breaks for the rich, New York State data released yesterday indicates that 10% of New York City’s public school students were homeless at some point during last year. The figure for the entire state was 5%. Think about it! 148,000 kids in the state were expected to meet a set of academic standards when they lacked a place of their own to live. Homeless kids miss significant days of school, are often malnourished, lack proper medical and dental care and are motivated by more basic concerns than their grades on the English language arts assessment. Their lives are often a daily struggle, a struggle filled with the anxieties about meeting basic human needs. How can it be that in the richest nation in the world, in a nation that supposedly concerned for the welfare of children, how can it be that we tolerate this abuse of so many? How can it be that we continue to believe the stupid idea that the lack of academic achievement of these kids is attributable to a failing public school system? When do we face the fact that the real failure is ours as a society?

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Voting Republican

I can’t stop thinking about two stories on the front page of today’s New York Times. The first talks about the Trump administration attempting to kill the Obama administration’s clean energy standards – standards that were designed to move the United States away from fossil fuels and towards a world effort to curtail the man-made causes of climate change. In a speech in Kentucky the other day, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Scott Pruitt announced that the war on coal is over. The other article concerns China’s clear determination to be a leader in clean energy technologies, particularly in the manufacture of electric cars.

Where Republicans were once leaders in the protection of the environment, we now have a party owned and operated by the most rapacious business leaderships. It was Richard Nixon, after all, who created the EPA by executive order in 1970. There was a bi-partisan consensus then that our environment was threatened by the excesses of a capitalist economy which had put profit ahead of the purity of our air and water and the health of our citizens. Today the Vice-President of the United States is a creationist, the President a climate change denier their party committed to an energy policy that runs the very significant risk of severely reducing the economic clout of the United States in the not too distant future.

Most American don’t want this to happen, but they nevertheless continue to support Republicans for elected office at all levels of government, and in so doing support policies inimical to their welfare and their children’s future. Somehow we must convince reflexive Republicans that when they vote Republican at any level, they are supporting the degradation of the environment, the suppression of voting rights, the war on reproductive freedom, healthcare only as good as one can afford, the unfettered ownership of guns, the privatization of public schools, religion over science, white supremacy over democratic diversity and an America isolated from most of the democratic world.

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Staggering Ignorance

My partner Judi went to our local Korean greengrocer the other day to pick up some vegetables for dinner. She came home with much more – beautiful vegetables and an almost unbelievable story of the staggering ignorance that too many American adults suffer from.

While waiting to check out, Judi couldn’t help but overhear a conversation between an adult customer and the store’s proprietor. “Are eggs dairy?” the customer asked. “I mean are they made with milk?”

Think about this conversation for a minute. Think about how it is possible for an adult American to not know what an egg is. It’s good I wasn’t there, because I would have butted in, telling the woman of course eggs contain milk, it being impossible for cows to make them with out imparting some milk to them. I have to suspect that she would have accepted my explanation. I’m sure she would have thanked me for the information.

I find myself wondering what this woman thinks about the Russians tampering with our election. She probably thinks it’s a hoax perpetrated by Hillary Clinton.

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Bits and Pieces

Handmaidens of High Tech

Leaders of teacher organizations are often heard to say, “Ask teachers to organize a firing squad, and they form a circle.” I couldn’t help but notice the tweets from some of the administrators in my home school district. Almost every one has pictures of kids staring
at computer screens. Nowhere is a teacher to be seen. The message is clear to anyone who cares to think about it. Teachers are at best tangential to the education of children. How almost effortlessly the tech companies are getting teachers to become the means of their own destruction. How subtly they are defining education in their own business interest.


Yesterday, I spoke to a group of retirees from my home district, urging them to oppose the constitutional convention that is up for a vote in New York this November. It was heartening to see their understanding of the threats to public education and public employees from such a convention. As I spoke, many were taking notes, obviously getting ready for what they knew would be my final point – that they can have an important impact on the defeat of the referendum if each member sets a goal to motivate family and friends to vote NO in November.

Kids and Guns

Long term the way to dial down the passion for gun ownership in this country is the educate generations of children to the fact that their safety and the safety of their families is imperiled by the indiscriminate way in which the United States permits gun ownership. The gun lobby has been winning the propaganda war for decades in the absence of any serious and sustained countervailing argument. Public schools played a significant role in teaching children the dangers of smoking. The can and must do the same job on gun violence.

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Guns, Guns and More Guns

As I write this, fifty concert goers in Las Vegas are dead. Hundreds more are wounded. Thousands are traumatized. And absolutely nothing will be done even try to bring the epidemic of gun violence in our country under control. It’s more than likely that gun sales will be up today and in the weeks ahead.

We live in a country in which a person can walk into a resort hotel with ten – ten weapons in his luggage, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, and it’s all perfectly legal. It’s all perfectly legal. How crazy is that? How can anyone think that’s what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they drafted our constitution? One would have to take them for fools to believe that. But clearly we are governed by fools.

The airways and cyberspace are filled with condolences for the victims of what is not the biggest mass shooting in our history. I just saw the President telling Americans that the shootings were and act of pure evil and how he and Melania are praying for everyone involved. Many people will credit Trump for being presidential. Yet prayers are too often a substitute for action. If there is any action here it will probably be to make it easier for people – even crazy people, to purchase weapons of mass destruction. Before the Congress is a Republican bill to make gun silencers legal. I guess they want to make killing more discrete.

It’s been clear for some time that a majority of gun owners favor reasonable limitations on the right to own guns. Nevertheless, we continue to allow the gun lobby to jeopardize the safety of the American people. Isn’t it obvious that we need to balance the right to own guns with the responsibility of the government to protect the people? Isn’t it more than time to get weapons designed for war out of the hands of citizens? Isn’t it more than time that we hold our elected representatives who have sold out to the gun lobby responsible for their unwillingness to balance our right to safety with the right to gun ownership?

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