A Teachable Moment

PCT President Morty Rosenfeld periodically attempts to make sense of the increasingly senseless world of public education.

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Can Merged States Be Appropriately Represented in NEA?

It’s not often thought about but 50 percent of the members of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) are also members of the National Education Association (NEA). That’s as a result of the state mergers that have taken place in recent times. They belong to the NEA, but most do not have the representation at the NEA’s convention that their numbers would entitle them to. My own local of over 700 members isn’t entitled to even one representative under the current apportionment of delegates. That’s because a condition of their mergers demanded by the NEA was that merged states would only get the representation that had in NEA prior to their coming together. Merged states with large memberships like New York get only a fraction of the representatives their membership of some 600,000 would normally entitle them to owing to the fact that there were only about 30,000 NEA members at the time of the merger.

The July NEA Representative Assembly will see the introduction of a proposed constitutional amendment that would give merged states the voting strength their numbers entitle them to in an electoral system honoring the principle of one person, one vote. The proposed amendment will require a two thirds secret ballot vote, a very high bar, but just the fact that it will be up for discussion suggests a change in sentiment and a realization that the NEA has nothing to fear from enlarging the representation of its membership to its highest policy making body.

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Last Night’s Tilles Center Forum

I attended the forum at the Tilles center last evening, sponsored by LIU and the Long Island Principals Association and featuring Diane Ravitch, by any measure the best known critic of the school reform movement in the nation. Here are my takeaways from this event attended by well over 1000 participants.

Ravitch has done more to energize teachers to fight to preserve their profession than most of the nation’s major teacher union leaders with the exception of Chicago’s Karen Lewis. She speaks not only with an academic’s authority on education issues, citing a host of facts and figures, but also with a keen sense of what moves teachers viscerally. She, better than most they come across during their work days, understands what’s happening to teaching, how a generation of teachers is having the profession robbed out from under them by a clique of corporate reformers for whom profits trump even the welfare of the nation’s children.

My friend Jeanette Deutermann was on the panel that followed Ravitch’s speech. People have been observing lately that Long Island is the epicenter of the opt-out movement. Deutermann’s relentless organizing around this issue has been primarily responsible for our area’s lead on the issues of the destructive effects of high stakes testing and the recognition that the most potent weapon we have in the battle to end the testing scourge is to refuse to permit out children to take the tests. As I listened to her exhort the audience to stand up and fight back, I marveled at how much she has accomplished, starting her quest with a good deal of nerve and a free Facebook page.

Superintendent Joe Rella emerged as a clear audience favorite and deservedly so. Unlike many in his position, he has clearly not forgotten what it’s like to be a teacher. He communicates a plain spoken understanding of the threats posed to our profession by politicians like Andrew Cuomo and his corporate supporters, an understanding that includes an appreciation of how teachers are being asked to effectively change who they are in the implementation of what is called school reform. Unlike many of the superintendents I have worked with, this guy knows how to lead. It’s no wonder that he and the union leader in his district, my colleague Beth Dimino, who shared the stage with him last evening have an obvious respect and affection for one another.

Finally, last night’s event is but the latest evidence of the growing push back against the corporate reform movement in our state and a governor who is doing its bidding. To my mind, if our union movement had not been so late in coming to understand the possibilities of challenging the reform movement, if our leaders had seen the foolishness of seeking to accommodate the reformers, we would have been much further along to what will be out ultimate victory. The palpable energy at last night’s forum was there to be tapped all along.

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Cuomo’s Chutzpah Sets Him Apart

Andrew Cuomo’s defense of his latest education reform proposals in his letter to the Long Island public in Sunday’s Newsday is interesting on a number of levels.

Clearly he is feeling the heat of an aroused public that is increasingly demanding an end to the scourge of high stakes testing and a re-working or abandonment of the Common Core State Standards. While Long Island has pockets of poverty and economic decay that have historically been associated with poorer performing students, the fact is that most Long Island communities have school systems that rival any in the country and the world. Citizens here pay very high property taxes to support those schools, take a keen interest in the school work of their children and know that by any measure their kids compete favorably with those from other parts of the country. They resent Cuomo’s suggestion that their schools are failing, seeing it for the lie it is, and experiencing it as almost a personal insult.

It fascinates me to see this governor, who challenges my capacity for contempt, endlessly trying to find a way to spin a series of education proposals that fewer and fewer see as offering any serious possibility of improving education in New York. He says his proposals are all about attracting and keeping and supporting good teachers. Sure they are. The reformers have made teaching such an attractive profession that enrollments in teacher education programs are down in New York and elsewhere. Intelligent people seeking a career love the idea of increasing the hurdles to be jumped over to get a highly stressful, low paying job at which one’s evaluation is based on student scores on state assessments that have been demonstrably shown to be unreliable measurements of teacher performance. Our best college graduates are aching to enter a field in which professional judgment and creativity are increasingly choked off by the demand to strictly follow corporate developed programs that mechanize teaching and the pressure to get high exam results to avoid the threat to one’s employment. They love the idea of being scrutinized for five years, for the most part by observers who know nothing about the culture of their schools, to earn the right to an abridged due process procedure. They are enthralled by the possibilities that through a test score based evaluation process that has been shown to rate teachers highly effective one year and ineffective the next they have a shot at a $20,000 bonus.

My favorite part of the Cuomo letter is where he states, “Virtually everyone also agrees that New York’s teacher evaluation system is not accurate and is skewed in its construction to provide favorable results for teachers.” Really? Here’s where Cuomo’s chutzpah sets him apart from lesser political scumbags. Left out of his remarks is the fact that this system that’s not working is the very system he negotiated with NYSUT And which he hailed at the time. Here are Cuomo’s words from the February 12, 2012 press release. “Today’s agreement puts in place a groundbreaking new statewide teacher evaluation system that will put students first and make New York a national leader in holding teachers accountable for student achievement,” This agreement is exactly what is needed to transform our state’s public education system, and I am pleased that by working together and putting the needs of students ahead of politics we were able to reach this agreement.” So the system that’s not working is Cuomo’s system which his current proposal simply double down on.

At the end of his letter, Cuomo tries to refocus the public’s attention from teacher evaluation to making it easier to takeover “failing schools,” reforming tenure and making it easier to get rid of what he maintains are the significant numbers of bad teachers in our schools. Here Cuomo is following the polls which show a lack of public interest in the tenure and school takeover issue. Cuomo senses that he will be able to peel the public away from organized teachers on these issues and get what he wants. Let’s hope we are not about to enter into another bad deal with Angry Andy.

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Shanker’s Charter Schools Seem More Impressive Today

The imposition of the Common Core State Standards has accelerated a trend that’s been with us for some time – the homogenization of instruction. More and more of our teachers are working to the rhythms of corporate made programs and pacing charts that seek to assure that everyone will be finished with the curriculum by the end of the school, whether the children know it or not. If the pacing chart says more on, teachers move on, not finishing the curriculum being a much higher order of pedagogical sin than finishing but having many students not completely understanding what you taught. This is just one of many serious problems facing public schools that essentially go unaddressed as we move forward with the corporate reform agenda which assumes that all children can learn the same things and that they can learn them in the same amount of time and in largely the same way. I don’t know a single teacher who thinks that’s a smart way of going about the work of educating children, but it is certainly the over-arching operative idea of most districts, certainly including ours.

I’ve been spending a great amount of time talking to anyone who will listen to me on this subject. Thinking this morning that it was time to try to reframe my discussions, I found myself recalling the speech Al Shanker made that contributed to the launching of the charter school movement. The former head of the AFT, never foresaw that the ideas expressed in his speech would be adopted by the enemies of the very public schools to which Shanker dedicated much of his adult life. Clearly frustrated by the one size fits all reform efforts of his day and the extent to which those movements more often than not were not informed by the voices of teachers, Shanker spoke of groups of teachers within schools coming up with new ideas that they would be given the autonomy to develop on their own. They would form schools within schools. In his vision, the creative talents of teachers would be loosed to explore reasonable possibilities for improvement, with parents enrolling their kids in the programs that seemed to fit their children the best. That’s what Shanker meant by charter schools. Were he with us to experience the mind-numbing stupidity that passes for reform today, I strongly suspect he would be redoubling his efforts to search for a model of reform that teachers hungering to practice their craft could embrace. His picture of charter schools looks pretty enticing to those struggling in today’s classrooms. The speech is still worth reading and thinking about. Find some time this weekend.

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No Serious Reform Without Teacher Voices

At Plainview’s Board of Education meeting this past Monday night, I was reminded of a disturbing irony that is often observable at these events. The opinions of those derived from the least firsthand experience and knowledge are valued the most. So we had members of our board most of whom know only what they have gathered from their children, their memories of being in school themselves and what they are told by a central office administration which itself manifests few signs that they understand what is happening in our classrooms responding to points made by parents most of whom are laypeople, together writing a narrative of our schools that is seen as a contrived fiction by the people actually in our classrooms.

That’s just a local version of what happens at the state and national level. Does anyone seriously think that Andrew Cuomo knows the first damn thing about education or that he is being advised by people who know or care about the welfare of our public schools? Had Merryl Tisch taught for more than a couple of years in a parochial school, perhaps logged seven or eight years in one of the schools she is quick to deem a failure, her thoughts on education would be completely different, less focused on standardized test scores, more sympathetic to the daily tragedy of children growing up in poverty. Have we not had ample evidence that Arne Duncan’s talents were better aligned with a career in basketball that with overseeing national education policy.

In a system of public education in which the voice of the people teaching the children is barely audible, why would anyone expect good outcomes? If we are to have serious reform of our public schools, and I certainly believe there are many things that need to change, those changes will have to be driven by teachers. Former New York Education Commissioner Tom Sobol had a line he often used to talk about the process of change in our schools. He spoke about, “Top down support for bottom up reform.” To my mind he was the last commissioner in our state to have a serious understanding of teaching and learning. Those who have followed have been at best pretenders – at worst the tools of economic and political elite bent on destroying public education for their [personal gain.

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Dignity and Status

I wrote yesterday of how Monday night’s meeting of our board of education demonstrated almost everything wrong with the public education scene today, focusing on how policy makers fail to address the really important questions difficult though they may be. The meeting was also noteworthy for the failure of school leadership to understand and appreciate the need of the people who do the actual work of teaching the children to have their thoughts and feelings respected. Wherever I go in our district, the first thing our members want to talk about is their deeply held belief that the management of the district does not appreciate their work, is disrespectful of their ideas and is essentially clueless about the what is really happening in our schools as a result of their policies that are choking the art and joy out of the practice of teaching. Our kindergarten teachers were there Monday night to raise questions about the district’s plan to close their school, a proposed closure that no one in authority every really bothered to talk to them about or to seek their ideas or cooperation. They went to the microphone to raise serious questions about how the district’s plan would work, questions that not only were not answered but were clearly unwelcomed. It reached a point where I just blurted out a demand that they be listened to respectfully. This evening was just a public display of what our members experience daily, a management that does believes it can do whatever it damn pleases with impunity.

Almost 60 years ago, our union was organized by a group of brave elementary teachers who wore a little button that demanded “Dignity and Status.” Monday made clear that this is a battle that our members are going to have to fight all over again. In a very real sense, it’s the battle our entire union movement is going to have to fight again.

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Avoiding the Real Questions

There is a year’s worth of blog posts to be generated from last night’s meeting of the Plainview-Old Bethpage Board of Education. Almost everything that’s skewed about the public education scene today was on display, not the least of which is the failure of policy makers to ask and address the important questions facing the institution.

Part of the meeting was devoted to the proposed budget for next year. The supervisors of various departments came to tell the board how wonderful everything is owing to their support and generosity with the taxpayers’ money, most of them implying in their presentations that but for their efforts none of this great stuff would happen. I was particularly taken by the budget presentation of the Director of Pupil Personnel Services in regard to her request for an additional psychologist for next year. When asked why we needed another psychologist, she talked about the demands being made of the existing staff by a large number of stressed and anxious students. No one on the Board thought to ask the obvious follow up of why it is that we shave so many over stressed anxious students. Might it be something we’re doing to them? Might it be that we have encouraged them to believe that their entire self-worth is tied to their grades? No one appeared to care. In fact when I referenced this during public participation adding, that several of the staff who work in the mental health field told me that they have never seen so many over-stressed anxious kids some of whom had to be hospitalized, I was excoriated by one Board member for raising the issue. A parent then got up and confidently explained the error in my remarks. While it is true that children like her daughter are anxious and stressed, they are suffering from the lack of a 9 period day which would allow them to take even more academic subjects. More course work would ease their anxiety. How come I didn’t know that?

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Cuomo Re-Energizes The Opt-Out Movement

In all my efforts this year to promote the anti-testing cause, I’ve tried to encourage union colleagues and parents to aim for doubling the number of students in their communities whose parents refuse to let them take the state assessments. My readers are well aware of my belief that building the opt-out movement is the most power single action we can take to bring about an end to the pernicious influence of high stakes testing on public education. Never did I imagine, however, Andrew Cuomo would so lose control of his senses at NYSUT’s failure to support his bid for re-election that he would propose increasing the weight of student scores in teacher evaluations to 50 percent thereby leaving parents with no other realistic alternative but to opt their children out of the tests. I sense a new energy to the opt-out movement. Even the waitress in the diner where I stop for breakfast this morning was talking about her perception that almost everyone she know is opting their children out this year. The public pushback against the Cuomo proposals to double down on testing, create a whole new bureaucracy of outside teacher evaluators to do classroom observations have clearly backfired on the Governor. Where once it was difficult to find people interested in running for our board of education, I’ve been contacted by no less than three in the past two weeks, all of whom are clearly motivated by a passion to end the harmful effects of the state’s testing regime on our outstanding schools.

Last year over sixty thousand kids were withheld from the state tests by their parents. With the help of Governor Angry Andy do we dare to think about one hundred and fifty thousand? I’m thinking it could happen.

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It’s Testing Season

Today’s post is addressed specifically to readers in my community of Plainview-Old Bethpage. It’s part of our effort to end the scourge of high stakes testing in New York by citizens clearly know where we stand on parents refusing to let their children take the state’s assessments. Here’s where we stand.

The members of the Plainview-Old Bethpage Congress of Teachers have been at the forefront in the battle to end the destructive consequences of high stakes testing in New York State. We have opted our own children out of the state assessments and vigorously defended the rights of all parents to do the same. We were instrumental in ending our district’s “sit and stare” policy, having gotten our board of education to provide students not taking the exams a comfortable alternative school setting. We deeply believe that the growing number of parents refusing to submit their children to testing exploitation is our most powerful weapon in the battle with powerful economic and political forces that are bent destroying public education as we have known it and making huge profits in the process.

We want the parents of our community to know that whether they opt their children out of the state tests or not, we will treat their decision respectfully, seeing to it that their children are comfortable during the examination periods in either the testing or alternative setting.

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Keepers of the Magic

I was reminded last evening of how I used to be asked to talk to our newly hired teachers each year about how to get along with politically savvy parents in our upper middle class school district. I took the new teachers through the demographics of our district, stressing with the growing mistrust of public institutions and the skill of many in our community to negotiate their way through bureaucracies. I tried to get these newbies to understand the need to provide information that they themselves would want as parents. I always ended my remarks however with an injunction to be careful to be keepers of their professional magic.

By that I meant for them to maintain a professional distance, to have confidence that they were in possession of a body of knowledge and art that made them the experts in education and that allowing themselves to be engaged by parents as though the parents’ knowledge of educating children is as good as their own would render them essentially powerless to practice their profession with any degree of satisfaction. Some facets of our magic are not easily explained to lay people. There shouldn’t be any surprise about that. But last evening as I tried to explain the view of teachers on mid-term examinations to our board of education (Our middle school teachers think they are inappropriate and waste a tremendous amount of teaching time.), it was clear once again that their thoughts don’t matter – that these lay people think their judgment superior to our own. Sadly, our central office administrators who should understand the importance of being keepers of the magic clearly lost theirs a long time ago. I was told we need more transparency, one of today’s more politically correct terms. It seems to me that we can become so completely transparent that no one sees us, and magic once revealed and dissected isn’t magic anymore.

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The Tenure Trap

One of Governor Cuomo’s lines of attack against public school teachers and their unions is his call for increasing the teacher probationary period from the current three years to five. New York teachers currently serve a three year probation during which they are closely scrutinized by their supervisors. During this period, they are at will employees requiring only thirty days’ notice should their employer wish to terminate them. Teachers who make it through their probationary period receive professional status or tenure which simply means that they can no longer be summarily fired with only thirty days’ notice but must be found guilty in an independent hearing.

This Cuomo tenure proposal, like much of what our governor has to say about public education, has been designed to deceive and confuse rather than enlighten or improve. The fact is that under the current rules, most school districts make the decision as to whether a teacher is to receive tenure after two years. Most teachers who are hired know the subject matter they are supposed to be able to teach. Where they have difficulty largely centers on what we call classroom management issues. Where these issues exist, they are immediately apparent to supervisors and usually to the teachers who work in adjacent rooms. In good schools, there are resources available to help struggling teachers with these problems. Where there aren’t, most teachers figure the problems out themselves or find that they are asked to leave by the end of two years. So what will a five year probationary period accomplish? Absolutely nothing, except perhaps get a few teachers arbitrarily fired for a lack of due process rights. To a lay public who do not understand tenure, however, Cuomo’s tough tenure talk sounds like a serious idea.

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Cuomo Spurs Teacher Activism

One of the heartening aspects of Governor Cuomo’s war on teachers and public education has been to see the revival of union member activism in this struggle. Sometimes with the direct involvement of our state union, sometimes through local initiatives, our members have held legislative breakfasts, community forums, demonstrations and events of all manner. They have exploited the power of social media as never before, visited and written to their elected representatives and sought to build coalitions around the idea of maintaining local control of public schools. I especially like one that came my way sent by the staff of PS321 in New York City to the parents of their children. In a very controlled, modulated teacher voice it carefully explains to parents what they have to fear from Governor Cuomo’s proposed changes to the system for evaluating teachers in New York State. I’m going to ask our teachers to send one like it to the parents of in Plainview-Old Bethpage, adding opting out of the state tests to the possible actions parents may want to take to foil the Governor’s attack

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It’s Not Union Power That Should Be Feared

Fix our schools or our nation will be unable to compete in the increasingly globalized economy. We see this inevitability in the thousands of job openings that exist for high skilled workers that go begging for the lack of qualified people to take them. That’s the false idea that under-girds the corporate driven school reform movement. My readers are aware of my contempt for this argument, my belief being that if it were true we would see the wages of people in these high skilled areas being bid up which they certainly have not been.

Writing in this morning’s New York Times, Paul Krugman clearly agrees with me. His argument is that even right wing Republicans know that wage stagnation is a volatile political issue, but rather than deal with the kinds of policy changes that are necessary to address this issue that plagues the lives of most Americans, our attention is diverted to believing that if we just fix our schools, get everyone college and career ready, our problems will be resolved. It’s not too many steps from that to declaring war on America’s teachers and their unions as unscrupulous politicians like Andrew Cuomo has done. Completely unwilling to address the growing economic inequality in our state, Cuomo would have us believe that the all-powerful teachers union is the enemy of the state’s children and the economic progress of our community. The issue is power, but it’s the power that Cuomo’s financial supporters have, not the state’s teachers union. Read Krugman’s piece. He has a keen nose for bullshit.

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More on Loyalty

I’ve written before about how in any institution, loyalty has to flow down before it flows up. To a very significant degree the welfare of an institution depends on its leaders understanding that iron law. In places where teamwork is the norm, where from the highest authority to the lowest person on the table of organization people feel a connection to the institution and its welfare, you can be sure leaders operate with and understanding that their success is inextricably linked to the bonds of loyalty that exist between them and their subordinates. Workplaces where there is reciprocal loyalty are not to be mistaken for laissez faire environments where anything goes. Often, they are very tightly run, but workers buy into the system because they have learned that it works in their interest.

I think I first learned about loyalty in the workplace on those occasions when I would visit my father in his office. He was a career federal civil servant who held a very responsible executive position. I remember watching him engage the people who worked for him. Even as a kid, it was clear to me that he could get very scary to a subordinate who hadn’t done what he was directed to do. He demanded the same perfection that he expected of himself. But once a person was accepted as a part of his team, he was there for you. Make an error, and he might scare the hell out of you, but he would defend you to his superiors or to those outside the agency. Have a brush with bad fortune – his people knew that they could call him at any hour for help and advice. I find myself remembering answering our telephone to find a man incoherently, my father’s name the only words I could completely understand. One of his men was blind drunk, but, even in his drunken stupor, he knew that he could count on my father to rescue him. He did do that, leaving our family after a long day at work to find the man and get him to a hospital and treatment. He covered for him at work too while he addressed his alcoholism, all this at a time when people were not as sensitive to the problems of addiction as they are today.

That man became one of my father’s fishing buddies. Some of my fondest memories are the fishing trips my dad took me on, sometimes taking me out of school for a very special trip. Joe was often with us, and I now remember that he would often find a private moment with me to tell me how important my father was to him and how lucky I was to have him as a father.

I’ve been thinking about the bonds of loyalty in the workplace lately. I’m sure it’s because I’ve been called upon more often than ever to represent members before bosses who it seems to me are clueless about how to build those bonds with those whom they have been charged to lead and who, I’m very sorry to say, appear to be obtuse to the need to develop them. More than ever before I find managers who decry the lack of respect my members give them, as though respect automatically comes to one upon assuming a leadership position. I never thought to have to try to teach adults that respect is not a birthright but must be earned and that it is earned in part by letting people know you are there for them. What are we becoming when it feels “old fashioned” to be talking about loyalty?

Our schools are on February break next week. Unless there is an eduquake, I’ll be taking the days off from blogging. See you again on February 23rd.

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Hey, Hillary

When Hillary Clinton speaks at this year’s NEA Convention as I am almost positive she will, I expect to hear he speak about an education agenda in sharp contrast to that of President Obama. I hope our national leaders are telling her that although she gets very substantial financial support from Wall Street Democrats who bankroll the so-called education reform movement, she will have to stake out positions aimed at ending the tyranny of high stakes testing, stopping the public funding of corporate run charter schools, promoting teaching and educating over training, correcting the serious flaws in the Common Core State Standards and addressing in meaningful ways the scourge of child poverty that afflicts so many of our nation’s children, robbing them of any real chance at a decent life. We should not be in a position wherein the inevitability of her nomination permits her to waffle on what are essentially existential issues for teachers and others are employed in public education. If we are to enthusiastically support her candidacy, she must above all else convey a sincere appreciation of the work of our members and the contribution of public schools to the welfare of our country. Public schools and all who work in them need a candidate who offers hope that we can foil the unrelenting attacks on us with the help of a friendly administration in Washington. Absent some pledge to this effect, people in public education will not be the boots on the ground of a successful campaign.

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The Corporate Stooge is Catching It Now From School Superintendents

It’s not every day that a New York superintendent of schools publically refers to our Governor, Andrew Cuomo, as a corporate stooge. But that’s what Fairport Interim Superintendent and former Rochester Superintendent William Cala did. Cala joins a growing number of superintendents of school who have finally had enough of Governor Cuomo education reform plans. Unable to do their budgets without knowing how much income from the state they can expect, and knowing full wee that making changes to the tenure law and teacher evaluation law can only have a negative effect on teachers and the students they teach, the normally timid, authority bound superintendents are starting to get cranky. When superintendents begin to rebel, watch out.

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Rolling Through Your Town

It’s been clear to me from the inception of the test and punish Race to the Top initiative that one of the most effective ways to end the deleterious effects of high stakes testing on even our best school districts was to have massive non-compliance with the state’s testing regime. I’ve been attempting for years to get my union colleagues to embrace the Opt-Out movement, both by making sure that teachers withhold their own children from the tests and encourage the parents of their students to do the same. I have tried to move our state and national unions to full-throated support. This growing movement of parents and educators willing to challenge the authority of the state and federal governments has been the most potent force that has raised the profile of the testing issue to the point where those of us opposed to the misuse of standardized testing are an emerging majority. The ranks of opt-outers will have to grow if we are to defeat the powerful commercial forces and their political allies who are determined to destroy public education as we have known it, substituting a taxpayer subsided private model instead.

In New York we have the New York State Allies for Public Education, a clearinghouse of sorts for the local opt-out groups spawned throughout the state. Not content with their success last year in getting over 60,000 student opt-outs, the Allies know that it is imperative to grow their numbers if they are to continue to influence the course of public education in New York. They have a new idea for a campaign leading up to this year’s testing period – mobile billboard traversing the stress of our communities spreading the opt-out message – helping citizens to understand their right to protect our children from the pernicious effects of a testing school culture. Imagine a billboard on the most populated routes in your community announcing something like, GOVERNOR CUOMO IS DETERMINED TO HAVE YOUR CHILDREN AND THEIR SCHOOLS FAIL. SUPPORT EDUCATION –NOT TESTING. KEEP YOUR KIDS HOME ON TEST DAYS. JOIN THE OPT-OUT MOVEMENT. Think about it. Eight hours a day, every day for a couple of months. Think about the free media it would probably generate. It’s a great idea that costs little to implement if widely organized. Here in Nassau County we have a number of locals taht are already signed up, and I suspect most if not all will be on board in short order. Who knows? I set the goal of doubling the number of opt-outs this year. However, if locals throughout Long Island participate in this campaign, maybe we could triple or quadruple the over 20 thousand opt-outs we had on the Island last year. Good ideas like this one have a way of leading to others too.

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Forums Won’t Be Enough

Plainview-Old Bethpage, Syosset and Jericho held a joint legislative breakfast on Saturday, sponsored by the PTAs, administrative unions and teacher union locals from each district. Congressman Steve Israel, Assemblyman Chuck Lavine, Regent Roger Tilles and a representative from Senator Marcellino’s office were in attendance as was County Legislator Judy Jacobs… There was a good turnout of community residents and education professionals, our representatives mostly said the right things on issues from testing to teacher tenure, but, in the end, I don’t believe forums like this are going to be enough.

Yes, Congressman Israel is sponsoring legislation to cut the number of tests in half. But his bill is not going anywhere in a Republican controlled House, and, even if it did, it does nothing to break the toxic nexus between testing and teacher evaluations. Ironically, the Republican controlled Congress is more likely to return the testing and accountability piece to the states, which if they do still leaves us to do battle with Andrew Cuomo and his hedge fund friends seeking to make a killing on education. Regent Tilles was the most knowledgeable about the evils of the Cuomo plan, but he has been more or less a lone voice on the Regents, most being careful about taking Chancellor Tisch on. There is simply not the sense of urgency yet in our elected leaders to motivate the kind of action we need to end the destructive tyranny of high stakes testing and deliver a political body blow to our governor and would be President of the United States.

The economic elites who are sponsoring the so-called reform movement are essentially immune to public opinion. Our politicians sustained by the contributions of the wealthy are usually unmoved until public anger on an issue is made so clearly manifest that it must be addressed. If we are to defeat Andrew Cuomo’s doubling down on testing and his attack on teacher tenure, there must be more than lobbying and forums. There must be massive non-compliance with the current testing regime. Last year some 60 thousand kids were withheld from the tests. We must at least double that this year. Those who have been trouble by breaking the Albany’s rules, who anguish over the ends justifying the means need to be reminded of Saul Alinsky’s view of this question. Alinsky maintained that those who perseverate in response to required action and who anguish over whether the ends justify the means tend to wind up on their ends without any means.

It’s high time that education professionals stop believing that if we just fashion the right argument justice will prevail. In America and elsewhere justice has often been achieved through civil disobedience. It shouldn’t be too difficult to close down the State Ed department from time to time. We ought to be a presence at every public event the Governor holds, protesting his policies in ways that get us the press attention that amplifies our message and which embarrasses him. We need teachers, principals, board of education members and superintendents of schools to refuse to follow Albany rules that get in the way of providing the education our professional consciences demand. We need to find ways to grind the system to a halt.

I’m not suggesting that conventional political activities are pointless. I do maintain that those efforts are enhanced when through acts of civil disobedience we create a sense of urgency in our elected leaders making them fearful not to act on our behalf.

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Andrew Cuomo’s Party Is Not Mine

The more I think about Governor Cuomo’s war on teachers and their union, the more my thoughts turn towards what has happened to the Democratic Party when its governor of the Empire State decides to take on the state largest labor union. The experience of recent years causes me to worry that he will get much of his program to eviscerate NYSUT and the teachers we represent. I’m finding it hard to imagine an Assembly absent Sheldon Silver as Speaker withstanding the pressure Cuomo is exerting, up to and including promising them no pay increase if they don’t work with him. I hope I’m wrong, but increasingly the Democratic Party does not represent my views or the views or the needs of working people. Today’s Democrats are nowhere near as progressive as the New York Republicans of my youth. Senator Jacob Javitts, one of New York’s senators in my youth, would be seen as a flaming liberal today, so liberal that he would probably have a hard time getting the nomination of the Democratic Party. Nelson Rockefeller, the builder of the State University of New York from a collection of mediocre state colleges to a major state university system, would also be seen as a big spending liberal today.

We need a party in which progressives can organize to put our state and nation back on a footing that once had our country as the envy of the world, a country that cares about its children and does not tolerate a quarter of them living in poverty, sees protecting the environment as an economically sound thing to do, values labor unions as great equalizers of economic and political power, taxes itself equitably to provide the best schools, roads, bridges, transportation network, medical care and other economic and social essentials to a decent society – a party that works to strengthen the bonds that bind us and that values our duties to each other over our rights to self-absorption. Yea, I’ve been thinking Green more and more. If Andrew Cuomo is a Democrat, I’m no longer sure there is room for me in his party.

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How We Got to College and Career Ready

From time to time I’ve talk about my fear that public education is becoming more and more about training for future employment and less about educating young people intellectually richer lives and greater engagement with our society. I hadn’t given much thought to the history of this change in the goal of education until I read Dan Berrett’s piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education. From the founding of our nation, there has been a tension between the liberal arts and more practical studies. Berrett quotes Ben Franklin poking fun at Harvard, the center of liberal education in his day. Students he said “learn little more than how to carry themselves handsomely and enter a room genteely… After their education, they remained “great blockheads as ever, only more proud and self-conceited.” According to Berrett, the shift from liberal education to training for jobs occurred in 1967 when the new Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, taking office amidst the Free Speech Movement on the Berkeley campus of the University of California announced that taxpayers shouldn’t be “subsidizing intellectual curiosity.” From that time to today’s mantra “college and career, there has been a steady erosion of the liberal arts with business now being the subject that college students major in most. If you still believe that education should still be about cultivating intellectual curiosity, read this brief history and let it motivate you fight the monetizing education.

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