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 April, 2018

The Blending Of America

Have you noticed how commonplace it’s becoming to see mixed-race couple in TV ads? It’s so common, that I almost think that a conscious decision has been made in corporate circles to counter the flagrant racism of the current administration in Washington. More likely, I suppose, is that it is a good business decision. After all, it won’t be long before minorities become the majority in the United States. Those coffee and cream faces we increasingly see are our future, a future we should welcome, but a future that the racists among us see too.

For reasons I don’t completely understand, I saw this future as a little kid. I remember the day it occurred to me. I was sitting in Mrs. Goldberg’s 5th grade class. She was, I now understand, a New Deal liberal who bravely undertook to teach us about the struggle of African Americans for equality. I have no idea where it came from, but I suddenly blurted out that I thought that Americans would someday be a light brown people, and our race problem would be solved.

That thought was more than liberal Mrs. Goldberg could allow. While I can’t be sure of her motivation, I now suspect that although she was a committed integrationist, she was not immune to the miscegenation fears much more common then but still powerful. One way or another, flustered though she was by my outlandish comment, she proceeded to explain to the class how silly my comment was and how I said it simply to draw attention to myself.

I suspect that most young people watching the easy mixing of the races on TV don’t think twice about it. If that’s true, we’ve made more progress as a society than our current political nightmare allows us to believe.

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It’s the Paycheck…

So now the teacher uprising has spread to Colorado. Here as everywhere else the issue is salary and education funding. There is a bitter irony in all of this. Both the NEA and AFT have in recent years tried to regain a focus on organizing. The only trouble has been that have been clueless about resonating issues around which to organize. Both nationals unions have appeared to think that teachers wanted their unions to help them professionally, to provide them with instructional guidance and all sorts of professional dev elopement. Both have seriously neglected to consider the deplorable salaries and working conditions of much of the teacher workforce. Is it any wonder then that the uprisings appear to be generated in the ranks of teachers rather than inspired by union leadership?

We cultivate a myth that teachers are drawn to their profession because of their strong feelings for children. While liking to work with young people is an important qualification, the fact of the matter is that people teach to earn their living. As a group, they may be a bit less materialistic than most, but absent a pay check, most of us are not going to work every day no matter how emotionally rewarding work with children can be.

Our unions can thrive in a post Janus world if they can once again offer teachers a vision of a better economic life, a life in which one job is enough – a professional life in which they earn a good living and have a real say in shaping their work-life.

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Knowing to Comprehend

Imagine taking a reading test and confronting the following paragraph. That’s the way too many of our young students feel as they take the high stakes tests we require of them.

“Test cricket is a game that spans over two innings. This means that one team needs to bowl the other team out twice and score more runs than them to win the match. Another key difference between test cricket and other forms of cricket is the length of the innings. In test cricket there is no limit to the innings length. Whereas in one day cricket & Twenty20 cricket there are a certain amount of overs per innings [sic]. The only limits in test cricket is a 5 day length. Before the game begins an official will toss a coin. The captain who guesses the correct side of the coin will then choose if they want to bat or field first. One team will then bat while the other will bowl & field. The aim of the batting team is to score runs while the aim of the fielding team is to bowl ten people out and close the batting teams’ innings. Although there are eleven people in each team only ten people need to be bowled out as you cannot have one person batting alone. Batting is done in pairs.”

You no doubt were able to read every word in the paragraph above from cricketrules.com. Yet, unless you know the game, you can’t comprehend very much of what it says. It requires previous knowledge to make it completely intelligible. So it is with all reading. The reader is expected to have certain basic knowledge in order to be able to comprehend what is being said. While this appears to be self-evident and is confirmed by reams of education research, the fact is that most of our elementary schools focus on basic reading skills and neglect the knowledge base necessary for good comprehension. Every few years we seem to send our elementary teachers for staff development in the latest reading program or technique. Given that the state examinations are in reading and math, more and more of the elementary school day has been devoted to skills instruction. In so doing, we have ironically lessened our students’ capacity to be better readers, depriving them of the basic knowledge needed to be good readers.

A recent article on this subject in The Atlantic should be read by every person responsible for the education of young children. We need to begin the task of rebuilding a content based curriculum if we are ever to improve the reading ability of our children.

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Opt-Out Alive and Well in New York

It looks like it will be another good year for the rebellion against the testocracy in New York. The first part of the ELA Exam administered this week was skipped by over 50 percent of Long Island students. Long Island has been the epicenter of the Opt-Out Movement in our state. It’s encouraging to see the continuing commitment of parents to demand that their children not be subjected to test driven education. We can expect to see even higher the opt-out rates on the soon to be given math exams.

With Governor Cuomo up for re-election and challenged in his own party by Cynthia Nixon, NYSUT, our state teacher union, appears to be exerting maximum pressure on the Governor to change the law linking state test results to teacher evaluation. While Cuomo has been lining up union support throughout the state, he hasn’t yet gotten NYSUT’s which he is known to crave. Remember, it was Cuomo who in a different political environment gave us test based teacher evaluations in the first place. Challenged now from his left and with an eye on the 2020 presidential race, the endorsement of the state’s largest union has a luster to Cuomo that it didn’t have before, suggesting that the time is right for a deal ending test based teacher accountability once and for all. While most union members will not be thrilled with an endorsement of Cuomo, most will recognize their self-interest in making the deal.

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Homework Therapy?

Doesn’t it strike us that there is something wrong with our schools when we note that a tutoring industry worth $100 billion has sprung up to meet the needs of an overwhelmed generation of students who find it impossible to cope with the academic demands made of them without significant help? So overwhelmed are many of them that the New York Times reports the development of a new niche in the tutoring industry – homework therapy. That’s right – home work therapy sessions costing $200 to $600 for a 50 to 75 minute session.

It has seemed to me that we have confused piling work on to students as raising academic standards. We’ve created a climate in which students can never do enough. Take more courses! Only taking two AP classes? What’s wrong with you? School has become the sum total of too many adolescents’ existence. Rare are the students who find significant hours during week days to just relax, hang out with friends or play non-competitive sports for fun. Those that do carve out some space for themselves tend to be seen as lacking seriousness. You’ve got to build your resume. You’ve got to get into that top college, to get a top job and earn a top salary.

When will we realize that the existence of a burgeoning tutoring industry strongly suggests that we have unrealistic expectations of student performance? When will we see that the work we pile on young people has many of them expressing psychological symptoms that have brought into being coping strategies like homework therapy? When will we remind ourselves that children need unstructured time to play, to explore the things that bring them joy? When we do, we will put an end to the senseless hours of homework we expect of children who have already put in six or seven hours of academics in school.

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I’m Reminded

Some sixty years ago, my high school age friends and I went to a movie out of our immediate neighborhood in Brooklyn. As was our custom, we looked for a place to have something to eat after the show. Walking up Flatbush Avenue, the aromas of kosher deli wafted our way from a restaurant up the street, enticing us to the pleasures of corned beef and crinkle-cut French fries. We walked in, sat a a vacant table and began looking at the menu, when to the horror of my teenage, socially maladroit self who come to wait on us but Mr. G., one of my teachers. Objectively, I suppose, there was no reason for either of us to be embarrassed. Yet, both of us demonstrably were. I think I intuitively felt there was something wrong with a teacher working nights in a restaurant. There was certainly something wrong with him having to wait on me. It was left to Mr. G., the adult, to break the ice and try to make us both feel as comfortable as we could in our situation.

I now know that these were the times when the teacher labor movement was coming to life. There would soon be a teacher strike in New York, motivated by a generation of teachers who bravely demanded to be treated with respect, teachers who would no longer accept wages they couldn’t support their families on. They no longer wanted to work two and three jobs to eke out an existence. They were no longer accepting of having little or no say in how they did their work. Self-respect demanded that they break the law to obtain the justice they sought.

Ten years later, I would join their profession and their struggle. The organizing cry of my local union, a union that I would one day lead, was a starting teacher salary of $10,000. Shortly after I arrived, we struck to achieve our goal. Over the years, through our unions, we have been able to significantly improve the salaries and benefits of teachers. We were able to establish teaching as a solidly middle class job.

I’ve been thinking about those early days as I watch teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona, areas of the country where the union movement never took hold as it did in other parts of the country, awaken to the intolerable conditions under which they work and organize themselves to demand better treatment. They remind me of past battles and of the ongoing struggle of teachers for dignity and status in a country that ironically sees education as the driver of economic progress. Perhaps from their ranks, a new generation of union leadership will emerge, a leadership recommitted to direct action on behalf of its membership, a leadership able to unite the entire profession in one big union committed to economic justice for all Americans.

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