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 January, 2018

One Racist Remark

The President’s most recent racist outburst expressing his view that we don’t need any more people from what he sees as shithole countries has me thinking about all of the Americans stationed overseas and how their days will now be filled with the need to explain to host country nationals that, unlike their president, they do not believe they are living in a shithole country. His abysmally ignorant comment has taken me back to my Peace Corps days in Ghana when my hosts often called upon me to explain the actions of America.

At twenty-six years old, I found myself called upon to explain the killing of Martin Luther King. The question put to me was, “Why did you kill Martin King?” In the minds of the villagers with whom I lived, I was clearly the spokesperson for the United States. It became my job to explain the inexplicable to people whose very positive image of America had been compromised by the death of an American who had become associated with their struggle for freedom from colonial rule. When, not to long thereafter, I was asked to explain the killing of Robert Kennedy, a symbol to Ghanaians of the best of America, it was harder than betraying family secrets to address the hatred and violence that has stained our history.

Across the world, Americans are working for the benefit of our country and, more often than not, for the people in their host country. In thousands of ways, they create a positive image of America and its people. One stupid, racist remark by the President of the United States has, I’m sure, called that image into question for many. You can be completely sure that unscrupulous people will exploit our leader’s ignorance.

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Ignoring Failure

By all means, let us continue the battle against high stakes testing, a battle that we are winning. But in the process of ending the mismeasurement of student accomplishment, let’s not slip into the belief that evaluation doesn’t really matter. I fear that’s the message we are unintentionally sending students when, as we are increasingly doing on Long Island, we craft grading policies that count the results of state Regents Examinations only if they raise student averages. I have no strong feelings about Regents exams one way or another. When I was teaching, I always pitched the level of my courses above that of the Regents. Yet, not all students had to take the Regents to graduate during my teaching days. What I do strongly object to is the growing ethically tenuous practice of counting the results for some and not for others. If we deeply believe that the exams are not true measures of student achievement, then we should not count the results no matter student scores. If, on the other hand, we believe them to be an accurate measure of student knowledge, then by what ethical principle do we exempt students from the results who receive low grades? If we are to ignore Regents failure, why count other failures?

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Look to Montana

I’ve been finding it hard to write about education in recent days. The deluge of dispiriting news from Washington most days makes the problems in our classrooms seem unimportant compared to the tangible daily across the board decline of our nation. I’m half way through Michael Wolff’s book, and, if even a quarter of it is accurate (and I think much more is), our country is in the deepest shit it’s been in for quite some time. I doubt that we have ever had an assemblage of self-seeking, bumbling nincompoops like we have now.

Yet, it was good to read this morning that rather than wallowing in despair, our union brothers and sisters in Montana are putting the final touches on a merger that will bring all public sector union members into one organization. Most people don’t tend to think of Montana as a hotbed of progressive unionism, but in many ways its history is a good deal more progressive than many places we think of as liberal leaders. The union teachers in Montana were one of the first to see the wisdom of merging the NEA and AFT organizations in their state. Now, facing attacks like the Janus Case before the U.S. Supreme Court, they are taking the next step and recognizing that what they have in common with their fellow public sector workers is infinitely greater than what separates them. Where are the leaders in places like New York and California with the imagination and will of the unionists in Montana? Bravo, Montana. May your merger inspire other state union leaders.

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Federal Tax Code and School Budgets

Most of New York State relies heavily on the property tax to support its local public schools. As a result, communities with a deep property base have generally had outstanding public schools, while property poor districts have been unable to provide the same level of quality. The inherent unfairness of tying the quality of a child’s education to the zip code of his residence is a problem that has had more than its share of lip service and much less serious political discussion than it deserves.

The recent changes in the tax code restricting the deductibility of state and local taxes and mortgage interest will make the discussion of how we finance our public schools even more vital. In communities like the Long Island suburb in which I live, it is almost impossible to have a conversation with a fellow citizen without the subject of ever-escalating property taxes coming up. While most communities have historically supported their local school budgets, they have done so grudgingly. Here in New York, the exasperation over ever-rising property taxes led our craven politicians to pass a property tax cap rather than reassess how we raise money to support our public institutions. While the property tax cap has and will continue to significantly damage our public schools, public pressure to reduce these taxes even further is a sure thing now that the federal government is reduced its subsidy of home ownership.

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