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

Could the Wave Be Flattening?

Those of us who have had more than enough of Donald trump and the complete control of our government by a Republican Party that no longer believes in the efficacy of government are anxiously awaiting the Democratic wave predicted for the congressional elections in November. Conventional wisdom appears to be that the Dems easily take the House, with the Senate likely to remain in Republican control.

A recent poll published in The Hill on the popularity of the recently enacted tax reduction legislation has me wondering. Up 9 percent since December and now at 46 percent, support for the tax law is growing and will probably continue to as more and more paychecks are calculated off the recently published IRS withholding tables. I fear the average American sees the decrease in withholding from his paycheck, pension or Social security as a raise, a raise delivered to him by the Republican controlled Congress and President Trump. Add to this “American pay increase” the wild growth in the stock market, a market in which about a third of Americans have tax sheltered retirement accounts of one kind or another, and the plight of the Republicans running for re-election may not be as dismal as conventional wisdom has it.

While I hope I’m wrong about this, I fear too many American will look to their pockets rather than their consciences and conclude that maybe Trump isn’t as bad as they had thought.

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Waking From the School Reform Nightmare

One of the recurring themes of this blog has been my conviction that the so-called education reform movement with its focus on test score accountability has severely narrowed the public school curriculum to subjects easily measured by standardized tests to the exclusion of learning activities designed to prepare students for daily living and citizenship. A corollary of this theme has been that the over-focus on easily measurable academic outcomes has over-burdened many students, robbing them of important aspects of childhood. As a student once told me, “Without my grades, I’m nobody.”

I’m back to that theme this morning for a couple of reasons. This morning’s New York Times has an article about a new course at Yale University, a psych course aimed at teaching the elite students of Yale how to enjoy life. Dr. Laurie Santos, the creator of the course, thinks it necessary because “…Yale students…in high school…had to deprioritize their happiness to gain admission to the school, adopting harmful life habits that have led to what she called ‘the mental health crises we’re seeing at places like Yale.’” DEPRIORITIZE THEIR HAPPINESS! What a great way to talk about the grade-grind that we pass off as education.

I’m also thinking about the painfully negative effects of what we have done to children in the name of education reform as a result of a conversation I had with several members of our local school board who appear interested in reviving an alternate education program for students at our high school for whom neither the academic program nor the social environment of our high school hold any attraction. We used to have a pretty good program, a program that beyond any doubt saved some lives. We abandoned it along with the children it served when the state increased its graduation requirements to the point where there were no longer any times in the school day to work with students on the psycho-social issues that barred their academic success. Now, their numbers have apparently increased, causing our school board to look for a program to hold on to these kids. “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”

I’m actually hopeful that we are waking up from the nightmare of the latest school reform movement. When an elite school like Yale publically recognizes a mental health crisis in its student body and one fourth of that student body signs up for a course about how to enjoy life, we may be witnessing the beginning of a trend to once again anchor our education of children on what we scientifically know about child development.

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Toting Guns to Feel Alive

Have you noticed how Tuesday’s school shooting in Kentucky has disappeared from our ever shortening news cycle? We are becoming increasingly inured to these events, politically anesthetized, as we continue to lose more Americans to gun violence than were killed in the Viet Nam War. We’ve reached the point where most incidents of gun violence don’t even get press attention, so routine have they become. Have you heard from any of our political leaders on the Kentucky shooting? Heard any suggestions of how we might get out from under the constitutional right to slaughter one another? The only thing I heard was some Kentucky Colonel mellifluously intoning the NRA’s mantra that the solution to our problem is arming the adults in our schools.

Quite coincidentally, I met two friends, each of whom with expressions of disbelief, told me of a mutual friend who retired and moved to Florida, a concealed carry state. While we worked with him here on Long Island, he was a very decent fellow, a school administrator who was appreciated by faculty and students alike. Imagining him toting a six-shooter around under his coat and spending hours practicing his shot is almost impossible for me to imagine this man whom I have known for thirty years doing. Yet, I’m told, finding himself in a gun friendly environment, he has taken to gun ownership with an unimaginable passion.

How does that happen? I’ve been wondering. I’ve been wondering too about our increasing fascination with guns and how in some bizarre way these senseless deaths we experience almost daily from gun violence cause us to buy more guns rather than taking steps to address our problem of a country literally saturated with guns. Is there something about gun-toting in anticipation of danger that makes people feel more alive – living on the edge?

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Useless Drivel

I was recently asked to review the observation file of a young teacher who is worried that he will not receive tenure. Reading through the inane drivel of a half dozen administrators charged with evaluating this teacher, I was reminded of the essential pointlessness of much of the written evaluation of teachers and the urgent need to figure out a better way of determining the fitness of the people in our classrooms. We have huge cadres of administrators spending a significant portion of their days working at a process that is more about coercion and control of teachers than it is about improving instruction.

The typical observation devotes one or two pages to a narrative of the observed lesson. It begins with things like the teacher’s welcoming of the students and proceeds to step by step record the details of the lesson. The often very poorly written narratives are interspersed with allusions to the latest faddish expectations. Nowadays, this usually means references to the state standards, the use of technology and one or more education theories. This is followed by a listing of what the observer deems commendable aspects of the lesson which in turn is followed by a listing of needed improvements. This latter list often takes the form of what the teacher might have done. As my partner Judi always says, “I might have decided to dance naked on my desk, but I chose not to on that occasion.”

Read carefully, most observations say more about the observer than they do about the teacher being observed. Good observations are experienced by teachers with relief. Bad ones tend to arouse more anger than reflection. In all my teaching years, rarely did I see anything worthwhile grow out of this process. Rather, the quirks of observers became universally known and lessons were developed to cater to them.

I’m not unaware of the need for some kind of record upon which to base employment decisions about teachers. I’m not sure I know what that record should be. What I do know is that the current model doesn’t do what is claimed for it. I’ve known terrible teachers with outstanding observation portfolios and very fine teachers who were unable to get tenure. I do know that part of a more valid system entails using universally recognized outstanding teachers. So many of the observations I’ve read over the years were written by people whose words reflected a lack of understanding of the art of teaching.

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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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