A Teachable Moment

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

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San Francisco’s Homerun

I saw yesterday where my friends in the United Educators of San Francisco (UESF) scored an outstanding new contract for the times. With salary schedule increases of 12 percent over 3 years and improvements in prep time and other working conditions, their deal is some of the best news we have had in public sector collective bargaining in a long time.

For months prior to their settlement, UESF President Dennis Kelly and his leadership team focused the public’s attention on an inarguable fact. The salaries of USEF members don’t allow them to live in the city of San Francisco, one of the most expensive real estate markets in the United States. In raising the issue of their members’ inability to find affordable housing, their message had appeal to the broader middle class whose stagnating wages are squeezing them out of the housing market as well.

There are many places in this country where teachers don’t earn enough to live in the communities in which they teach. We once had many more of our members living in my upper middle class suburban town than we have today. While it might be hard to document, there are to my mind enormous benefits in the social interactions that take place between children and their teachers outside of school. I can’t tell you how many times my showing up in places in Plainview-Old Bethpage where kids hang out immediately changed their behavior keeping them in better control. How many of my lawn boy’s school problems was I able to address when he came each week to cut the grass. To this day, I run into former students who still live and work in town. The warm greetings I get when I meet them is a reminder of a life well spent working with them.

I gather from some of the Facebook comments of some UESF members that 12 percent over three years is a disappointment to them. I smiled when I read their blustering comments demanding 21 percent. I never negotiated a contract when I wasn’t met with such remarks. After every negotiations, there is a little disappointment in all at not getting everything we wanted. But my sense of what’s possible in public sector negotiations these days tells me that this is a homerun of a deal that deserves serious celebration.

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What Are Our Unions For?

I wrote yesterday of my growing frustration with an education labor movement that’s not moving. The National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers and here in New York the New York State United Teachers all profess a deep commitment to organizing both their members and community coalitions but at best are of certain what big idea to organize around. One searches in vain through their communications for themes that incite members or anyone else to action, for the hope and promise of some power to control their work-lives.

This morning, I came across this piece which that explores the same problem from a slightly different perspective. P.L. Thomas asks why our teacher unions and professional organizations appear more willing to accommodate the education reform movement than to take it on. That’s a question some of my union colleagues and I have been asking for some time.

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Organizing What?

Once A week or so, I browse the webpages of New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA). Each of these organizations I belong to claims to have rededicated itself to organizing in an effort to regain the initiative in the battle to protect its members and public education from the assault taking place in the name of reform. At almost every meeting of these organizations that I attend, the talk is about organizing, although, as I’m fond of pointing out, the talk almost never specifies exactly what we are to organize around. One would think that if we had a coherent organizing strategy, it would be discernible from their webpages.

On the NYSUT webpage this morning are pieces about newly Board Certified teachers, a buy America campaign, disaster relief work the organization is doing and why tenure matters. The AFT page features discussions of career and technical education, bullying prevention and expressions of teacher anger at the Time cover that evoked the impression that America’s classrooms are filled with rotten apple teachers. NEA is featuring holiday lessons and resources and a discussion of the sorry state of physical education. Some of these articles are even interesting, but none is directed at any big idea that any of these union are organizing around.

It seems to me sometimes that our education unions have forgotten that unions are about empowering their members, about striving to equalize the power relationships in the workplace. They’re about leading members in efforts to increase their power in the workplace. They’re about building their members’ political power, recognizing that gains at the collective bargaining table are easily wiped out by changes in the law. They’re about setting out lofty goals and organizing the collective action to attain them. One searches in vain for anything like that on the webpage of our education unions.

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Why Are King and Regents Welcome?

I grow progressively annoyed following the Regents and Commissioner King on Twitter as they tour schools throughout the state tweeting out the wonders they see as they observe the implementation of the Common Core Standards. With public education in our state in the saddest condition in my memory, with an Albany bureaucracy totally unresponsive to educators and parents, with Chancellor Tisch singing the praises of charter schools as a prelude to lifting the cap on their number, with state aid yet to return to pre-financial crisis levels, why are public schools welcoming to these pretenders? Why aren’t there organized protests wherever they go? Why don’t we find ways to manifest our contempt for their management of New York’s public schools? To welcome them is to pretend that all is well and to make us accomplices to the havoc they have wrought.

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Kids Evaluating Teachers?

News this week that New York’s education commissioner and maybe our governor are pushing for student questionnaires as part of the annual professional performance review procedures for teachers throughout the state. Cuomo has promised to revisit teacher evaluation in the coming year. Having created the current farcical evaluation process with the assistance of our state union, our brain trust in Albany appears determined to make the system even more nonsensical by placing teacher evaluation points in the hands of students and having their teachers ingratiate themselves to receive them. Adding such a measure to the mathematical stupidity of tying student performance on standardized tests to the evaluation will surely raise the bar for teacher performance and cause teachers to improve their instruction significantly. It can’t help but close the achievement gap and make more kids college and career ready. One has to suspect that Chancellor Tisch is on board with this latest foolishness, otherwise Commissioner King would never have mentioned it to the press.

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In Memoriam

On Monday night I learned of the death of the first superintendent I worked for in Plainview-Old Bethpage, Robert Savitt. I don’t often write anything approaching an obituary, especially for managers I have worked with over my long career. Yet, something about Dr. Savitt seems important to be commented upon in these dark days for public education.

I met Dr. Savitt for the first time when he interviewed me for a high school teaching job. I was told the interview was essentially pro forma in that both the head of personnel and the high school principal wanted me. That turned out to be poor preparation for the interview that ensued. After an exchange of greetings, Savitt, my application in hand, asked me about my recent Peace Corps. The more I talked about it, the more questions he had to the point that I almost forgot that I was there to interview for a job as I gradually drifted into an interesting conversation with a very interesting person I somehow happened to meet. Who expected to enjoy oneself at a job interview?

“Is there such a thing as African literature?” By this time I was already one hour into my pro forma interview. Before it was over, we agreed that I would work up an outline for an African literature senior elective, prepare a book order and get ready to teach the course that spring – all in a school I had not taught a day in as yet.

That’s the Dr. Savitt I remember – always looking for something new and interesting – something to build his stature to be sure. Teachers and administrators from other school districts were always visiting us to see what we were doing. I remember too the battles we fought against him. He never really happily accepted the existence of our union. There was a strike shortly before I came and one almost immediately thereafter, and he galled us by writing articles and giving speeches on how to tame the newly emergent teacher unions like ours. Paul Rubin, our president at the time, would purposely malaprop his name to Dr. Savage, and yet I could tell they had a grudging respect for one another.

Those who know me know that I’m not one for nostalgia. The contrast, however, to the school district Savitt presided over and today is depressingly stark. To be sure outside forces have contributed to its objective deterioration, but surely we all bear considerable responsibility. Where then we had a moratorium on standardized testing, literally an incitement to creativity, a celebration of differences between schools on the same level, an abhorrence of canned programs and, above all else, an appreciation of what it means to be educated, today we teach to tests that have become the curriculum at a pace dictated by a chart, using programs that almost don’t require the intellectual presence of the teacher to implement. We are data driven to the point of distraction from what we should be doing, helping children to become knowledgeable, ethical citizens of a democratic society. Robert Savitt understood that and conducted himself accordingly. Teachers and students were better for it.

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W.E.B. Du Bois and Education

I was driving home last night after attending a mind-numbing meeting of our board of education, listening to public radio to stay awake. I had tuned in to a show already in progress, an interview with a Yale professor talking about W.E.B. Du Bois. Having minutes before come from a meeting that left me despairing about the future of public education, I found the speaker, whose name I never caught, talking about W.E.B. du Bois and his thoughts on the need to educate African Americans only one generation removed from slavery. She read a quotation on education that so starkly contrasted with the educationist blather bandied about at the meeting I had just intended. I woke up this morning thinking about it, motivated by my recollection of it to try to locate it. If this wasn’t it, the thought is the same. In a society that is increasingly confused about what it means to be educated, it’s good to remind ourselves that people once knew better. Remember, he’s writing this in 1903; his prose is of the 19th century, and women have only recently begun to assert their rights. The language may be dated, but surely not the thought.

…Now the training of men is a difficult and intricate task. Its technique is a matter for educational experts, but its object is for the vision of seers. If we make money the object of man-training, we shall develop money-makers but not necessarily men; if we make technical skill the object of education, we may possess artisans but not, in nature, men. Men we shall have only as we make manhood the object of the work of the schools—intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of men to it—this is the curriculum of that Higher Education which must underlie true life. On this foundation we may build bread winning, skill of hand and quickness of brain, with never a fear lest the child and man mistake the means of living for the object of life…

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The Super Rich and Public Policy

My readers are more than familiar with my horror at the undue influence of what we used to refer to as the filthy rich on public education. Even if one believes that the contributions of people like Bill Gates are altruistically motivated (and I don’t), the fact of the matter is that because of their money they have an undue influence on public institutions like education, institutions that should be democratically responsive to the public on the basis of one person one vote. With regard to their pernicious influence on public education, a recent piece by Bob Herbert methodically lays out the disruptive influence of Gates and others.

This morning’s New York Times has an op-ed by David Callahan on the influence of the super-rich on the public spaces of New York City, specifically focusing on media mogul Barry Diller’s plan to build a park on the Hudson River just above the High Line. Callahan notes the rich have contributed mightily to public parks in the neighborhoods they inhabit while many of the city’s parks in less fashionable neighborhoods have fallen into disrepair. Startlingly, Callahan observes that Mayor de Blasio proposes to spend 130 million dollars, the amount Diller and his wife are contributing to the Hudson River park, to upgrade 35 of the city’s neediest public parks.

Whether we are talking about schools, parks or whatever public institution, why does a supposedly democratic society continue to allow an obscenely wealthy elite to dominate public policy decisions that should be publically decided? Why with the rare exception of Elizabeth warren and Bernie Sanders are so few of our politicians addressing issues that are tightly tied to the growing inequality of income and wealth in our country?

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I Had the Strangest Dream

I had the strangest dream last night. I dreamed that the leaders of our education unions met and developed a common set of objectives that they vowed to marshal their members to fight for until they are achieved. I dreamed they vowed to fight together to end the stagnation of their wages and to stop the erosion of their benefits. I thought I heard them resolve to actively support the movement to end high stakes testing aligned to the corporate core standards. I watched in amazement as they pledged to end their knee jerk support of political hacks in both major parties, deciding instead to support the growth of the Green Party and its call for a Green New deal for the people of New York. Shocking me awake was their solemn pledge to protect the craft of teaching from those who are trying to routinize it out of existence. It was indeed a very strange dream.

On a more realistic note, the world’s central bankers have decided that the international economy needs more inflation if it is to improve. If they succeed in reaching their target of two percent, the public sector wage settlements that are being made will cause some real suffering.

Wishing my readers a Happy Thanksgiving. I’ll be back on Monday.

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Missing a Teachable Moment

This is one of those days when I regret not still being in the classroom. The slightest spark of interest from my students about the grand jury decision not to indict Ferguson Missouri police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown would have diverted me from my planned lesson. There is so much important stuff to talk about this case that I suspect this conversation would have taken to the Thanksgiving holiday. The physical evidence the grand jury considered, the unusual way in which the grand jury was conducted, the history of police treatment of racial minorities in Ferguson and the rest of the country and more. Should prosecutors have pushed for an indictment know that there would be violence if they didn’t? Might it be that this particular officer’s innocence or any white policeman’s can’t be appreciated by those who have experienced unequal treatment at the hands of the police? How can a police force function in neighborhoods where they are not trusted to enforce the law fairly? How should our society deal with this lack of trust? So many interesting questions to explore.

I find myself wondering this morning how many of our teachers feel comfortable today discussing this or any issue that departs from planned lessons that are written to conform to a pacing chart. While I know that some will do what I know I would have, I’m equally sure that many will fear to do so, not wanting to have to answer for straying from the curriculum. I wonder how many will straight-jacket themselves into missing a profound teachable moment.

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It’s What We Can’t Measure

There’s been seemingly endless talk about the discovery by a New York principal that the district data the state tracks on college acceptance and completion turns out to be pretty inaccurate.  Carol Burris in the Saturday Washington Post says the state numbers for her district were off by ten percent.

I don’t claim to know who is ultimately responsible for this latest data screw-up, but I know the upset is part of the sick competition between schools and school districts for the highest scores on any measure some usually self-appointed education guru offers.  It’s gotten to the ridiculous point where the local real estate agents feel obliged to spout the school district’s statistics to potential home buyers who often already have an opinion of the district based on some data-based school district guide purchased from Amazon.com.  I wouldn’t be surprised if some enterprising computer coder has written an app that tells you where you may want to live in order to provide your children with a data confirmed quality education.

When I think about the schools I attended before college, PS 221 in Brooklyn stands out as the best.  We took some standardized tests in those days which neither we nor our parents ever learned about.  I don’t ever remember my mother, who thought I was the smartest and the best, ever bragging on my test scores the ways parents do today.  What I recall is a place where most of the kids I knew felt comfortable being, a place that allowed me to begin to learn about things like classical music and art, a place a teacher taught us union songs and the Negro National Anthem, a school that had a garden that we visited regularly and had frequent interesting assembly programs.  I still remember being fascinated by the glassblower who made these amazing creations before my eyes.  It was a school that believed that six hours of schooling a day was basically enough for young kids and didn’t plague us with our of homework.  After school was for play.  Evenings were mostly family time.  No one talked to us about college and careers.  The teachers and adults in our lives knew we were kids.  They had aspirations for us, but their respect and affection for us were not tied to our meeting some milestone on the road to success.  We were encouraged, not driven.

The contrast of my elementary school with to schools today is frighteningly stark.  We need a way to talk about indicators of quality that have no easy statistical expression.  Often, it’s what we can’t measure that counts.

 

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Democrats in a Party That Isn’t Democrat Anymore

For most of my adult life I’ve been a Democrat, believing that democratic socialists like me could be more politically effective advocating progressive ideas within the Democratic Party rather than trying to advance them from the outside. My political ideas were strongly influenced by Michael Harrington whose book The Other America led to the War on Poverty in the Johnson administration and whose works on the capitalist system continue to serve as a lens through which I see the current world.  I seemed clear in the 60s when I was coming of age that we could move the Democratic Party to the left to address the social ills of our nation and thereby create a more just and equitable society.  We could end poverty, racism and maybe even war, advancing socialist ideas which if branded socialist would be immediately rejected in a country which equated that term with the system in the Soviet Union.

 

I have for some time been rethinking my allegiance to the Democratic Party.  I’ve felt obliged to do that because while I still see some leaders in that party who share some of my goals for America, by and large the best Democrats of today behave like the Rockefeller Republicans of my youth.  I find it increasingly impossible to relate to a party that has no clear vision of how to end the stagnations of the American worker’s wages and the frightening maldistribution of wealth and income that threatens our existence as a democracy.  I’m ashamed to belong to a party in which Andrew Cuomo is a leader, a leader who sees public education as a monopoly and our teacher unions as essentially the enemy of the children they teach.  I want to participate in a political organization that’s guided by high ideals for a better society, one that attracts citizens to vote by offering them ideas that evoke hope and pride, a party, to borrow an expression from New York’s Green Party, which puts people and planet before profit.

 

The belief is growing in me that what is left of our labor movement has to cease allowing itself to be owned by a Democratic Party that no longer speaks to our needs and which in many respects is hostile to them.  Practicing the politics of the lesser of two evils, we find ourselves supporting hacks whose forget us the day after they are elected.  We need to build a political organization that will either push the Democrats back to being the party of working people, or one which will challenge Democrats and Republicans, thereby giving voice to a progressive agenda.  The Green Party in New York offers some real possibilities, especially for the education labor movement.  Teachers are an inherently idealistic lot.  They are passionately committed to public education, a more often than not deeply committed to protecting the environment and in general have been immune to the venomous stupid-talk about the evils of government. Additionally, a growing number of them are unaffiliated with either of the two major parties are therefore more open to political alternatives.  When I asked the members of my local to support Howie Hawkins and the Green Party call for a Green New Deal, I was pleasantly surprised to receive almost no push back.  Most of our members were comfortable with supporting free public education k-16, an end to fracking, a plan to make New York total free of dependence on fossil fuels by 2030 and most of the rest of the Green platform.  I’ve begun to talk to our local leaders about working to build the Green party on our state.

 

At a recent meeting of the teacher union leaders in my area, some were lamenting the fact that many of their members are not motivated to vote despite their best attempts to motivate them to do so.  Maybe, just maybe if we supported candidates from a party that unequivocally stood to things that would improve conditions for our members, maybe they would have a reason to vote.  Many of them are Democrats in a party that isn’t Democrat anymore.

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New Orleans Charters Ignore Student Needs

A very disturbing piece on Public Radio this morning on what is happening in New Orleans where the school system is almost completely composed of charter schools which are not meeting the needs of significant numbers of special education students who find themselves essentially educationally abandoned. Listen to the piece and see if you don’t agree that the people responsible for this situation should be held criminally liable for child abuse.

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Organize What?

Both national teacher unions and most of their state affiliates are focused on organizing. Suddenly, unions have discovered that they need to return to their organizing roots if they are to meet the challenges posed by a corporate school reform effort backed by almost limitless funding that allows for the almost complete saturation of their message in the media. I’ve sat through countless meetings at various levels of these organizations, never really catching what it is our unions are attempting to organize around. I’ve been amused at such meetings to invariably find that a meeting of leaders called to talk organizing end without the participants being asked to work on some specific organizing activity.

My latest reminder of this irony occurred yesterday at a meeting of local union leaders, many of whom have been engaged in a series of state union sponsored meetings aimed at building local organizing capacity. At one point in the meeting, I found myself listening to the all too usual lament about how the members of their local unions don’t want to do anything. I was particularly taken by a younger leader who talked about an organizing effort that was aimed at building better attendance at union meetings. She had clearly put considerable effort into getting a turnout that never materialized. Although it puzzled her, she drew the correct conclusion that members were clueless as to why they should bother going to her meeting. Somehow, despite her state and national unions encouraging her generation of leaders to organize, there is no clear understanding as to what it is we are organizing around.

When I began to teach in my district, my local that had already had a strike to win the right to bargain collectively for the teachers (its first organizing idea) was organizing around the central idea of a starting teaching salary of $10,000. Most of the salary schedules in the area began at half that. With a Master’s degree and two years of experience, I began at $8,300. The simple, straight forward demand for a starting salary of $10,000 was an idea that resonated with all of us who were struggling to make a living, many of us requiring second and third jobs to make ends meet.

Our unions are having trouble organizing for lots of reasons, but central to the problem has been our failure to establish a few clear goals to organize around and a strategy for achieving them. Deep down we know that the scourge of high states testing and its linkage to teacher evaluation is a natural, but somehow our efforts never get much beyond our state and national leaders talking about it. While some of our locals actively encourage the opt-out movement, we don’t robustly encourage our locals to participate. While union media cover rebellions against testing like the recent one in Seattle, no effort is made to promote such activities elsewhere. A generation of teachers is on the verge of losing the last vestiges of the freedom to practice their craft, they being increasingly straight-jacketed with programs aligned (how I have come to hate that word aligned) to the Common Core State Standards that their state and national organizations have helped to promote, and our members have no clearly articulated goal and strategy for saving their profession.

So by all means, let’s organize, but until our members clearly understand what it is we hope to accomplish, I fear we are just squandering our money and our credibility in the organizing efforts we are making.

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Moving Voting Out of School – Bigger Deal Than Expected

The Plainview-Old Bethpage Board of Education meeting was unusually well attended last evening. At first I thought parents turned out to listen to a presentation on an upcoming vote to bond over 50 million dollars in school improvements, but I was to learn that most were from our Old Bethpage School who had come to protest the way in which the district handled the presence of the voting public on Election Day.

Americans have been voting in public schools for generations. Public schools are ubiquitous, providing spacious rooms and parking facilities unavailable elsewhere in most communities. As public spaces, they don’t have to be rented and so provide an in expensive way for our society to provide the opportunity for its citizens to exercise one of their most sacred rights, the right to vote for those who represent us.

Listening to the anecdotes of the Old Bethpage parents, I could easily understand their concern. Their talk of people wandering around the schools, in some instances using student bath rooms is totally unacceptable. All of this in the still unsettled aftermath of Sandy Hook. Yet, I simply don’t understand why it is impossible to manage the flow of voters into and out of the school without them coming into unacceptable proximity to the students. Some security personnel and portable crowd barriers should enable us to alleviate the safety concerns of any reasonable person. While I’m sure that what I’m about to say will not be appreciated in some circles, I have always believed that an unrecognized benefit of school based voting is the opportunity it provides children with the first hand opportunity to see democracy in practice and to have their teachers talk about voting and its centrality to our society. Every year, in age appropriate ways, the wonderful elementary teachers I had talked to us about what was happening in a particular election, of giving us a sample ballot and allowing us to vote. From the time I got the vote to this day, I think I missed two opportunities to vote, both time during my Peace Corps service. I believe very deeply that the Election Day lessons my teachers taught and having two voting parents were responsible for my meeting my obligation as a citizen.

If that’s not enough to convince people of the importance of keeping voting in the schools, I learned something this morning about voting I never knew and I suspect most of my readers don’t know either. Where we vote can influence how we do it. In doing a little research before writing this post, I discovered a report of a Stanford study on the influence of location on how people vote. It turns out, that where people vote can have enough of an influence on the outcome of the election to decide close elections. As one of the researchers said, “Environmental cues, such as objects or places, can activate related constructs within individuals and influence the way they behave…” Thus, people are more likely to support a tax increase to support schools if they vote on the proposition in a well maintained school. Hold a referendum in a Catholic church on whether or not to permit stem cell research, and you are more likely to get a negative response. Although for me there always and continues to be broad educational benefit to holding elections in public schools, this research suggests that even more care is in order before we respond to the passionate demand of many parents to remove voting from our schools.

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Regents Keep Doubling Down on Testing

My readers know that I have long advocated doing away with the New York State Board of Regents as just one of the many layers of education bureaucracy that creates many problems for local school district and is essentially politically immune to the political influence of the public. This morning’s news is but the latest example of the total disregard by Merryl Tisch’s posse for the public’s sentiment on the issue of high stakes testing. Tomorrow the Regents are planning a vote on whether participation by school districts in field tests should be mandatory, or whether they should remain voluntary, with more and more districts choosing to opt out of them because of the growing burden of testing of their instructional programs. Field tests are examinations created by a testing company, in this case Pearson, to try out questions that may be used in later iterations of their high stakes tests.

No doubt The Regents are planning to make them mandatory, hoping thereby to push back against a rapidly rising opt out movement that threatens their Common Core test and punish approach to public education. If you are as determined as I am to end the tyranny of a Regents reform effort that is as divorced from the welfare of children and school districts as it could be, please consider sending our Regents a message about why requiring field testing is just their latest mistake. Here are their email addresses:

RegentTisch@mail.nysed.gov
RegentBottar@mail.nysed.gov
RegentBennett@mail.nysed.gov
RegentDawson@mail.nysed.gov
RegentChapey@mail.nysed.gov
RegentPhillips@mail.nysed.gov
RegentTallon@mail.nysed.gov
RegentTilles@mail.nysed.gov
RegentBendit@mail.nysed.gov
RegentRosa@mail.nysed.gov
RegentYoung@mail.nysed.gov
RegentCashin@mail.nysed.gov
RegentCottrell@mail.nysed.gov
RegentFinn@mail.nysed.gov

After you send your email, you may also wish to send a message to you elected representatives telling them that you support the abolition of the Regents, preferring that we have education policy makers responsive to the public.

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Absenteeism and Poverty

Those school reformers not motivated by the desire to privatize public schools for the profits to be made might want to look at and think about a new report released by New School scholars entitled “A Better Picture of Poverty” in which the effects of chronic absenteeism in New York City Schools is documented. The report located some 130 schools serving k-5 students in which a third of the school population has been chronically absent for 5 years in a row. Imagine the cumulative impact of missing significant amounts of instruction year after year. How do teachers cope with essentially itinerant students who are present one day and gone the next. The research shows that even the kids with better attendance suffer as teaching time is taken up by the desperate attempt to catch the chronically absent up. While the study was done in New York City, there is little doubt that the problem it documents is much the same in most of America’s blighted urban areas. On many occasions, I have heard my friend Phil Rumore, the head of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, talk about the centrality of chronic absenteeism to the problems of the Buffalo Schools. The reasons for the absenteeism vary from homelessness to not having clean clothes. How could anyone be stupid enough to believe that social pathology of this magnitude can be remedied better teachers?

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Leaders Who Won’t Lead

The other day, I posted an article on my Facebook page noting the criticism of some Hudson Valley school superintendents about the Common Core State Standards and the high stakes testing integral to this corporate sponsored school reform. My comment on the article was, “If New York’s superintendents got together, the Cuomo/Tisch/King attack on our public schools could come to an end. Imagine coordinated resistance by teachers, administrators and superintendents.” Last evening, at a forum on the Standards held in the South Huntington Public Library, four Long Island public school leaders, Superintendents Tom Rogers of Syosset and Lorna Lewis of Plainview-Old Bethpage and Assistant Superintendent Lydia Bellino of Cold Spring Harbor and Associate Superintendent Lydia Begley of Nassau County BOCES, displayed the kind of risk averse edutalk that passes for knowledge in some circles but which is ultimately a cover for a gross ethical failure to assume their appropriate role as defenders of our public schools and the children they serve.

Not a day goes by that several of our teacher members don’t contact me with some problem related to the Common Core State Standards. Most of the complaints stem from what teachers are convinced are the developmentally inappropriate expectations behind the Standards. I have a whole repertoire of stories of crying, puking children who are severely stressed and who talk about hating reading and or math. In our district, 20 percent of our students’ parents were so concerned about the negative effects of the state’s high stakes tests on their children that they opted them out of the entire testing process last year. Yet, these so-called school leaders on the panel last night had not a word to say about any of what they have to know is taking place daily in the schools they are paid to oversee. While the silver tongued Dr. Rogers warned the audience several times that the panel’s comments should not be construed as agreement with everything the state is asking schools to do , and while he and the others maintained that they express their disagreements with the state through vehicles comfortable to them, the fact of the matter is these highly paid leaders will not lead in the battle to protect their school districts because of fear as to what such public advocacy could bring by way of reprisal from Albany. “We’re doing what we can while we just follow Albany’s orders,” appears to be their flimsy defense.

The most informative part of the evening was the comments and questions of the parents in the audience. Not surprisingly, there were no questions or comments even remotely indicating support for the Standards or the testing baggage that comes with them. One comment from a teacher/parent stands out this morning as I replay the evening. She spoke as the parent of a child with severe learning disability who is unable to achieve anything higher than the lowest possible scores on the state examinations but who nevertheless is expected to meet the same standards as every other student. She spoke movingly about how no matter how hard her child works, she will fail and will never receive a high school diploma. How many thousands of kids like her daughter are in the same predicament? When they do fail, they will become nameless statistics used to demonstrate the failure of the public schools when in fact the real failure resides with the policy makers in Albany and the local school leaders who will not publically say what they know. Some of us are determined to see to it that that never happens.

It would be extraordinarily helpful to our cause if the leaders of our school districts joined us to save the institution of public education, an institution that has been personally very good to them. A few of them are publicly with us, and the rest have an open invitation to stand up and do the right thing at such time as the burden of conscience becomes more difficult to bear than the fears of damage to one’s career. With them or without them, whether we have the unbridled commitment of the state or national teacher unions or the local or state PTA’s, parents and teachers will win the battle to save our public schools and protect the children they were created to serve.

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Rich Child, Poor Child

The Obama administration announced today a new effort to attempt to get highly qualified, experienced teachers into the classrooms of our neediest schools. Once again, the administration appears to be saying the teachers are the problem rather than unaddressed festering social issues that are beyond the scope of public schools as they are currently configured. My colleague, PCT Treasurer Jane Weinkrantz, analyzes this latest attack from the President and Arne Duncan in this guest post. MR

The Obama administration’s July unveiling of the “Excellent Educators for All” initiative to place more “excellent” teachers in low- income schools has just been updated. However, the initiative still suggests that the President and his basketball buddy, Arne Duncan, still haven’t gotten a realistic grip on how the American education system works and why it succeeds where it succeeds and fails where it fails. The program demands that states create plans to distribute effective teachers more equitably among high and low income school districts. Here are the edu-vapor bullet points straight from Duncan’s press release:

• Comprehensive Educator Equity Plans
◦ The Department is asking states to analyze their data and consult with teachers, principals, districts, parents and community organizations to create new, comprehensive educator equity plans that put in place locally-developed solutions to ensure every student has effective educators.
◦ Chief State School Officers will receive a letter today from Secretary Duncan asking them to submit their new plans by April 2015. These plans were first created in 2006 and are required by Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
• Educator Equity Support Network
◦ The Department is investing $4.2 million to launch a new technical assistance network to support states and districts in developing and implementing their plans to ensure all students have access to great educators.
◦ The network will work to develop model plans, share promising practices, provide communities of practice for educators to discuss challenges and share lessons learned with each other, and create a network of support for educators working in high-need schools.
• Educator Equity Profiles
◦ To empower communities and help states enhance their equity plans, the Department will publish Educator Equity profiles this fall. The profiles will help states identify gaps in access to quality teaching for low-income and minority students, as well as shine a spotlight on places where high-need schools are beating the odds and successfully recruiting and retaining effective educators.
In addition to the profiles, the states will receive their complete data file from the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC). States will be able to conduct detailed analyses of the data to inform their discussions about local inequities and design strategies for improving those inequities.

Just to be clear, I want every child to have an excellent teacher. I don’t think income should be a factor in teacher quality. But, we all know it is. Look at any real estate advertisement. We may love the granite countertops, the central air or the “park like grounds,” but without the “EXCELLENT SCHOOLS!!!” part of the caption how eager are we to move in? When we purchase homes, American families buy the best schools we can afford. Think about the number of times someone you’ve met has said, “So what district are you in?” and commented “Very nice,” or sniffed with disdain, depending on your answer. We take pride in our zip codes because of our school districts. So what types of schools do the people who can’t afford homes and really can’t afford anything else get? They get schools with high teacher and administrative turnover, building code violations, crowded classrooms, outdated materials and failing standardized test scores.

A friend of mine teaches in a charter school in the South Bronx. She tells me stories of crowded classrooms, hungry children, violent children, kids who don’t speak English or have learning disabilities yet receive no services, a fractured discipline system, building safety conditions comparable to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, a sometimes scary walk from the subway to her school and, not surprisingly, an out-of-control teacher turnover rate. She is an intelligent woman and a dedicated teacher. In Plainview, she would be highly effective; at her school, most of her students failed the state assessments and we know test scores are the final and true arbiters of efficacy.

In Davonte’s Inferno: Ten Years in the New York Public School Gulag, Laurel M. Sturt, a New York City teacher who spent ten years working in an elementary school in the Bronx describes the revolving door of faculty as follows: “The want ads should read, ‘Seeking selfless, tireless, individuals with unbounded idealism, energy, stamina, and a capacity to be abused, maligned and underpaid.’ Indeed, the attrition rate is already huge, in urban districts about twenty percent a year, with about half of teachers nationwide leaving before the end of their fifth year. The instability from that high turnover, destructive to any learning community, but particularly to those in poverty (a change in teachers negatively affects learning outcome), costs in the billions of dollars annually from wasted teacher training, the expense of new training, and the loss of accumulated expertise from teachers who leave.”

Teacher burnout in low-income districts is much higher because the work is so much harder and the kids face so many more challenges just to get to school each day. Sturt chronicles children who came to school hungry, dirty, sick, sleepless, abused, homeless, with parents in prison and pretty much any other Dickensian condition you can imagine. There is a vast difference between that type of school and a school where, every August, teachers send out elaborate school supply lists that can total $50-$100 with the realistic expectation that everyone will have those items on the first day of school. The difference is money. Any child, but probably particularly a poor one, could tell you that. The middle class and wealthy can afford to give their children the support they need to thrive physically. I mention that before thriving academically because let’s face it—you can’t learn much when the loudest voice you hear belongs to the growl of your stomach and the heaviest thing you own is the weight of your own eyelids.

Yet, President Obama and Secretary Duncan think the difference is teachers. If they can just find the right teachers to teach in those poor schools, all will be well. Yet again, anything that’s wrong with education is something that is wrong with teachers. Poverty is not the problem. In fact, it’s OK to be hungry and homeless if you’re reading on grade level and passing your ELAs. If President Obama had announced a plan to make sure every low-income child has a full stomach, a bed to sleep in, a coat in the winter and a notebook to bring to class, I’d be thrilled. As it is, he’s announced a plan…well, not really a plan…if you look at those bullet points, there’s nothing there that could be called a plan. There are just some vague ideas: states will share “promising practices” which means that states will have to think of some promising practices—we’re not even feeling confident enough to call them “best practices” yet— because the Department of Education is flat out of suggestions. So, OK, President Obama and Secretary Duncan have issued a decree that states come up with plans, using guidelines that barely exist. Chad Aldeman, an associate partner at the nonprofit Bellwether Education Partners, told The Huffington Post. “The guidance released here — it’s honestly pretty fluffy, it’s just a non-binding plan.”

The non-existence of a plan isn’t even the real problem. Changing the players won’t change the schools, as long as the children remain deprived. The big change the President revealed today is painful in its naivete and commitment to delusion. He announced that states now have until June 2015 rather than April 2015 to submit their Educator Equity plans, giving states two more months to devise a solution to what is ultimately the problem of poverty. That should be plenty of time.

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Teachers Are the Last to Know In Plainview-Old Bethpage

New York’s Regents have apparently granted a waiver permitting high school students to take one or both the Common Core aligned English Regents Exam or the older examination based on the New York State standards. Should a student take both, he will be credited with the higher score of the two.

In what has become all too typical, a decision was taken at some level of our district’s governance to recommend to different sub-groups of eleventh graders that they take one or the other of these examinations in June. While one would think that the teachers in the high school English Department would have been consulted, and while the letters sent home to the parents of the sub-groups of eleventh graders imply teacher participation in the decision, the fact is the people teaching the children were never consulted. So, when these letters state that “…these decisions were based on discussions between various constituency groups…,” I guess the only conclusion to be drawn is that teachers are no longer considered one of the district’s constituencies. They need not be consulted before matters concerning their students are decided. This is but the latest administrative stunt that has eroded the confidence of the staff in the leadership of the district. Is there an award somewhere for the district that consults its teacher lease? I have this feeling that I’ll be hearing a board of education member brag about it at some upcoming meeting.

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