A Teachable Moment

Former local teacher union pesident Morty Rosenfeld periodically attempts to make sense of the increasingly senseless world of public education.

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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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Unions and Harassment

I’ve long been uneasy a with the word harassment. God, how many phone calls did I answer over the years from members accusing some administrator of having harassed them? How many claimed harassment by another member. Too often, what was angrily described to me as harassment turned out upon investigation to be a rebuke of some kind by an administrator for some perceived shortcoming like not getting to work on time or the failure to complete assigned work. Member complaints were frequently instances in which a member or members tried to get the caller to follow a union action that we had voted to do. “Morty, tell the building reps to stop harassing me. I don’t pay dues to be harassed.”

Imposing what I call democratic discipline is problematical for union leaders in the best of times. In the current environment in which we talk about things like micro-aggressions, a time when we appear to be unable to distinguish between the boorish behavior of Senator Fraken and the deviancy of a Roy Moore, the job of union leaders to maintain cohesion around union policies and actions is infinitely more difficult and fraught with increased possibility of those loosely bonded to the union perceiving attempts to bring them in line as harassment.

When I tongue-lashed a member who didn’t show up for picket duty during a strike, was I harassing them? When our union called for a demonstration and I told the members we would be taking attendance, was I harassing them? Did I help to create a hostile work environment by refusing to talk to teachers who scabbed during one of our strikes?

Good unions make decisions democratically and implement them in an organized, disciplined manner, sometimes reminding those who would prefer to go their own way of their obligation to the group, in some cases shaming them into doing the right thing. I fear that today the democratic demand for discipline will be perceived as harassment.

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Due Process and Proportionality

In my December 8th post, I expressed my discomfort at the inability of Democrats to distinguish between the misdeeds of Al Franken and Roy Moore. Zephyr Teachout has a piece in this morning’s New York Times that expresses the same concerns and which sketches out a mechanism for due process and proportional responses to inappropriate sexual conduct. She, too may not have all of the answers, she is attempting to lead Democrats to firmer ethical and political ground than our Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.
Teachout continues to be a sane political voice. It’s a pity she can’t seem to get elected to high public office. 2018 could be her year.

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Democrats’ Miscalculation

In their rush to gain the high moral ground, congressional Democrats appear to be staking out a zero tolerance policy for any sexual misbehavior. They, like too many of the TV talking heads do not seem to be capable of discriminating between the misdeeds of Al Franken and a Roy Moore. This calculated political move carries with it a huge political risk that does not seem to have informed their calculation. It is also a perversion of any meaningful concept of justice and proportional punishment.

For a long time, Democrats have had a very hard time with male voters. I fear that if the current stampede to purge all of our elected male officials perceived to have to have acted inappropriately with women continues, the potential gain of women voters will be more than balanced by the further loss of men who will increasingly see these events as a war on males. Such an outcome will neither permit the evolution of new standards of male behavior nor will it widen the possibilities of legal improvements in the status of women in our society. In the end, there is a real risk that it will simply bring about the elections of more people who are as angry about women’s drive for equality as they are about other planks of the progressive agenda. It also runs the real potential to stall the advance of women in the workplace.

I don’t claim to have all of the answers to the problem of male sexual aggression in the workplace and society. It has been my observation that these aggressive tendencies are distributed on a spectrum, that is, with men displaying various degrees of flirtatious aggressiveness. We ought to be able as a society to reasonably draw lines between the annoying, the threatening and degrading and the criminal manifestations of these tendencies. We ought to also be able to find ways to teach all of our children that no job is worth the sacrifice of one’s self-respect. Above all, we need to find ways to advance our society’s norms of sexual behavior without sacrificing our notions of due process and justice.

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Political Depravity

Political Depravity! Supporting someone credibly charged with molesting children to be a Unites States Senator is as depraved a political act as I can remember. There appears to be no end to what Republicans are willing to do to hold on to power. Yesterday, I wrote of how our expressed concern for children falls very short of our actual treatment of them. Now our governing party has publically supported Roy Moore for the Senate, a man banned from his local shopping mall for stalking young girls, a man who appears to have used a public office to exploit children. What’s left for Republicans to disqualify a person for public office? Is Mitt Romney the only national Republican leaders whose conscience remains intact? “Roy Moore in the US Senate would be a stain on the GOP and on the nation. Leigh Corfman and other victims are courageous heroes. No vote, no majority is worth losing our honor, our integrity.”

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The Tax Giveaway

I’ve always been struck by the cruel discrepancy between Americans’ stated reverence for children and the way we actually treat them. Throughout my life I’ve listened to pious platitudes from the left and right of the political spectrum about our obligation to care for our nation’s children, at their most extreme including those in utero. This sanctimony has cloaked the grim reality that almost a quarter of America’s children live in poverty and have very limited opportunities for escape. Add to this reality the fact that many of these children bear the additional burden of belonging to a racial minority and concern for the welfare of children is revealed as one of the lies we tell ourselves about our exceptionalism.

Senate passage of the tax giveaway to the rich has reminded me of our indifference to the welfare of our nation’s children. Forgetting for a moment that over 60 percent of the tax reductions will go to the top 1 percent of incomes, this bill has been designed to gradually financially cripple our government’s ability to provide for the neediest among us. For some of its supporters, the goal is to shrink the size of government by starving it. For most, however, the aim is to destroy America’s frayed social safety net to satisfy a deeply held belief that recipients of these programs are not worthy of receiving their benefits. We saw glimpses of the Republican plan during the debate on the Senate tax bill. Take Senator Grassley’s comments, for example, who asked to justify cutting the estate tax for the super rich found himself blurting out that the rich know what to do with the extra money whereas working people will only spend the money “…on booze, women and movies.” Or Senator Hatch’s exchange with Sherrod Brown, in which fatigue having weakened his internal censor, he talked about how liberals have taught many people to expect the government to take care of them and won’t do anything to help themselves.

Beyond doubt, while this giveaway to the rich will have profoundly negative effects on our country for years to come, potentially inflicting permanent damage to our society, its effects will fall disproportionately on neediest children who will have an even lesser chance at a better life than their parents than they have today.

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Creative Insubordination

I was reading the latest column of my local union’s president, a dirge to the decline in the satisfaction from their work that her members are getting from their work. While here in the East salaries are respectable compared to the rest of the nation, teaching that is done for a salary alone is like bread made without salt – flat. Most of my successor’s lament can be subsumed under the heading of micromanagement, that corrosive need of insecure management to interfere in the minutest aspects of the work at hand. It creates an environment in which worker morale is on an ever downward slope and conversations between workers incline towards retirement rather than professional issues.

In our best days as teacher unionists, we organized to resist the administrative impediments to enjoying our work, believing that we had a right to practice our craft in a manner that maximized our pleasure in the practice of it. When we saw that spending a period monitoring a lunchroom full of teenagers could literally ruin one’s day, we slowly and quietly stopped going, ignoring the accusatory notes we often found in our letterboxes. When summoned to meetings with building administrators to explain our absence from these duties, we took pride in explaining how we had used the time for better purposes. Warned to attend, we often did for a day or two, only to start the insubordination process all over again. The more of us who ignored the duty, the more we were positioned to have a serious conversation with management about a more appropriate use of our professional time. When I was a high school building rep, I had an honor roll bulletin board in the teachers’ cafeteria to which I pinned administrative letters of admonishment for breaking stupid rules.

Workplace problems don’t have to wait for grievances or contract negotiations. They are best soled at the most local level by organized resistance. Today’s union teachers have to learn this lesson again.

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Combating Sexual Abuse

Walk down the halls of any American high school and you can observe to a reasonable degree of certainty the boys who will grow into abusers of women. Over the years I taught, I took dozens of girls aside to let them know that the publically physical behavior of the boys they were attached to was not only not indicative of real affection but was also an ominous sign of a pattern of behavior that tends to grow worse over time. I would try to get girls to understand that physical abuse is not an appropriate price to pay for male attention and the social status that tends to accrue to high school girls who have it.

While our nation is focused on the sexual misbehavior of some of the powerful males in our society, it’s appropriate to think seriously about what we do in our schools to acculturate boys to constrain their impulses and respect the right of girls to be free from undesired, sexually aggressive male behavior. While the misbehavior of the famous and powerful is deeply troubling, it can tend to mask the broad prevalence of violence against women in our society and our failure to as yet come up with an approach to stem it. Surely, if we can observe the budding of this behavior in the boys in our public schools, we are ethically obliged to think through a program to combat it.

I know that some of my readers are fuming at my suggestion of adding one more job to the teaching day. That’s not what I’m about. I’m well aware that the expectations for what teachers are to accomplish in a workday far exceed what time will allow. Rather that suggesting an extra job, I believe the socialization of children central to the mission of public schools. Surely part of that socialization process needs to be the inculcation of appropriate norms of male/female interactions.

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Tax Bill a Shot at Public Education

I’ve seen little in the criticism of the Republican’s legislation to redistribute income to the wealthiest Americans about the threat it poses to the financing of public education. Limiting the deductibility of state and local taxes and mortgage interest payments will have a profoundly negative effect on the ability of school districts to raise the revenue necessary to maintain quality. Under the current federal tax law, there has been a growing reluctance of people to shoulder an ever growing property tax burden leading to support for property tax caps in states like New York and California.

The deductibility of state and local taxes and mortgage interest has been part of a conscious federal effort to encourage home ownership. Had these policies not been put in place, our suburbs would undoubtedly look very different than they do today. Removing these inducement to home ownership will not only make the already difficult job of financing public education in our suburbs more difficult, it will probably also slow or end the appreciation of real estate in suburban communities, further enraging homeowners as the equity in their houses fails to meet their expectations.

There is no doubt about it. This so-called tax reform redistributes income upwards while it takes a retributive shot at blue states that support public education and quality government services.

I’m off to California for a few says. I’ll be back here on the 27th.

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Diversity and School Calendars

For most of my career teaching in suburban Long Island, there was always a yearly struggle to build the school calendar for the following school year. This entailed balancing the demands of religious constituencies for their holidays off along with the overarching needs of parents and staff for the longest possible spring, winter and February breaks. Some of the hardest feelings were generated by the slightest adjustments to the school calendar that were perceived by one group or another as an intentional slight. Over the years, superintendents of schools and boards of education have bowed to political pressures and increased the number of school holidays, attempting to assuage bad feelings but making it increasingly difficult to construct a school calendar.

In recent years, our community has grown more diverse, with an influx of Asian immigrants of varying ethnicity and religion. It’s not surprising, therefore, that they have begun to exert political pressure for the inclusion of their holidays into the school calendar. Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists have holidays which in their home countries are days of celebration free from work and school. Their rights to their holidays are no less than the majority’s. How should a secular institution respond to the growing demands for religious days off?

Most people will accept a school calendar that is objectively fair. Most, in an arrangement that is fair, will accept the loss of some holidays they currently have, holidays that their religious leaders teach can be observed without refraining from work and school. It should be possible to bring the leaders of the various groups together and negotiate an understanding that gives every constituency what they must agree is a fair number of holidays when school is closed. Possible doesn’t mean that is will be easy. It surely won’t, but the alternative to building such a consensus is much worse. People who feel themselves aggrieved don’t go away. Their grievances are magnified the more reasonable accommodations of their needs are not met. This would be an excellent time for the leaders of the majority faiths in our community to come forward and lead the way to a solution that all community members may not like but have to admit is fair.

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The Party of Reactionaries

It’s disturbingly fascinating to watch the Republican Party become the home of white reactionaries, people for whom the pace of change of modern life threatens their very identity. Faced with the fact that white people will soon be a minority, challenged by the demands of women for political and economic equality, revolted by a world in which gender boundaries are adumbrated, aghast at a country that grows progressively more secular and terrified by an economy that technologically displaces workers faster than they can be retrained, today’s Republicans increasingly appear to embrace an authoritarianism predicated on blood and soil. They want to believe that they can wall off the United States from the modern world and its threats to their way of life, decadent though it may be. This retreat from modernity has been going on for some time. Donald Trump didn’t invent it. He just saw in it an opportunity to be exploited. In Alabama, Roy Moore’s supporters will vote for a child molester rather than chance the possibilities of progressive change.

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ConCon Gave Us an Organizing Success

The vote against holding a constitutional conventional in New York was over 80 percent – 80 percent! That massive outpouring of voters is largely attributable to the efforts of the state’s unions that both educated their memberships to the dangers posed by a convention and organized them to work against it. The work to defeat the convention was the best union organizing we’ve seen in a long time. It should serve as an example to a weakened labor movement of what can still be done when memberships are led to take on difficult issues that threaten them.

The kind of effort that went into the defeat of the constitutional convention can and must be replicated to insulate ourselves from the threat of the loss of agency fee and due s deduction. Why hasn’t every public sector union developed an organizing campaign against the worst possible outcomes of an adverse decision in the Janus Case currently before the Supreme Court? Why aren’t plans in place to protect our unions from the loss of dues deduction? Why do we appear to be accepting the conventional wisdom that says that public sector unions can expect to lose upwards of 30 percent of their membership from an adverse decision in Janus?

Before I left office in my local, I started a process of signing members up each year in anticipation the real possibility of losing agency fee. My local has continued that process. Should we lose agency fee tomorrow, 100 percent of our members are signed up for next year. The card signing process in addition to protecting the local has served to educate members to the ongoing threat from the so-called Right to Work Movement to eviscerate what remains of our labor movement so as to strip from American workers the rights and protections a century or more of union struggle has provided. It is additionally empowering to a membership to know that they have collectively worked to protect themselves. That membership success makes it easier to organize the next collective effort.

The constitutional convention issue awakened the organizing talents of our unions. Those talents must now be unleashed on the continuing existential threats before us.

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The High Tech Swindle

The November 3rd New York Times carried a front page article entitled “How Silicon Valley Plans to Conquer the Classroom.” The article, while focused on the Baltimore County schools, exposes the massive sales campaign of America’s high tech companies to infiltrate the public school market, using marketing ploys similar to those used by the drug companies on physicians on public school decision makers. Trips, meals and other ethically challenged ploys are used to convince school leaders of the necessity of massive investments in computers and software despite the fact that there is almost no hard evidence that these technology expenditures have any positive effect on student learning.

The publication of this article is a sign of the growing awareness of the abject stupidity of contemporary education policy that has witnessed massive expenditures of public funds on the fool’s errand of attempting to keep our schools equipped with the latest technological devices in the belief that we are preparing students for the jobs of the future. Once hooked on being technologically current, school districts effectively surrender significant portions of their tight budgets to high tech peddlers. Even more significantly and essentially unappreciated, they surrender control of what and how children are taught to corporate decision makers rather than knowledgeable and experienced educators.

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