A Teachable Moment

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

DeVos Was Second Choice

Valerie Strauss reports that what many of us think of as the worst possible pick to be Secretary of Education, billionaire Besty DeVos was really Donald Trump’s second choice. Jerry Falwell Jr., the son of Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell Sr., was apparently Trump’s first choice. This news deepens the conviction that the President-Elect plans a vigorous assault on the protections against tax dollars flowing to private and religious schools.

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Betsy Billionaire

Just what we needed, Mr. President- Elect, a billionaire champion of vouchers and charter schools. So, when I said the other day that advocates for public education were in for a rough ride, it begins with the nomination of Betsy DeVos, a thoroughly unqualified person, be the next Secretary of Education. In his comments about his pick to lead the Ed Department, Mr. Trump repeated the shot he consistently took at our teacher unions during his campaign. “I cannot think of a more effective and passionate change agent to press for a new education vision, one in which students, rather than adults and bureaucracies, become the priority in our nation’s classrooms,” Trump said. To Trump, and all those who seek to privatize our public schools, teacher union contracts that limit things like class size, the number of students a teacher may be responsible for and the number of hours a teacher may be worked are all impediments. In their great America, there are no teacher unions sticking up for their students and themselves. Tax dollars flow to private schools, even religious ones. Non-union teachers in these schools do what they’re told and work for a fraction of what union teachers make. The fact that there is not one country in the world with high performing schools that has such a privatized system means nothing to Trump and the privatizers of his class. Put their propaganda aside and what we have is yet another attempt driven by greed of corporate America to exploit us all. I suspect it won’t be long before some begin to long for the good old days of Arne Duncan and John King.

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Preparing For Vanishing Work

If we really saw schools as preparing students for the world they will live in, we would be discussing with them the growing technological capacity of human beings to replace people with machines. Clearly we will be able to produce more and more with fewer and fewer workers. The question then becomes who will buy the things the machines are able to produce. Perhaps the biggest lie of our recent presidential campaign was Trump’s assertion that he would see to it that manufacturing jobs come back to America. The fact is we produce more things today than ever before with a fraction of the workers it once took. Not only are these jobs not coming back to America, as labor costs rise in the rest of the world, these jobs will disappear internationally.

What does an economy driven by consumer spending do when it is able to produce more and more but there are fewer and fewer consumers with the money to buy the products? This is the central political question today’s young people will have to face. Yet, we do almost nothing to educate them and prepare them to deal with a world that will require work from fewer of them. How do we shape our economic and political institutions to meet this brave new world? Will we be able to build structures that equitable share our enormous productivity? Or will we continue to concentrate wealth and income to the point where ever greater numbers of citizens perceive themselves disconnected from their society to the point where they become open to ever more extreme political exploitation? Will we continue to tell our children that if they just get a college education their economic future will be assured?

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Public Schools and Gender Barriers

The teacher union I joined in 1969 was active in the social movements of the day. We were fiercely opposed to the Viet Nam war, aggressively supportive of the civil and women’s rights movements. We had a Title IX committee that diligently worked to address the disparate and often inferior treatment of girls in our schools. In the parlance of the day, we participated in a nation-wide movement to raise the consciousness of our members and students to the unequal opportunities and outcomes for American women. We developed courses for both members and students, brought in speakers, developed lessons, all aimed at tearing down the barriers to the full participation of our sisters in our society.

I’ve been thinking about this as I keep reading that a majority of white women voted for Donald Trump. Despite a document life of treating women as objects, despite a campaign that oozed with the slimiest sexist rhetoric, white women in significant numbers voted to defeat the first woman with a serious chance of being elected president, thereby meaningfully proscribing their lives and the lives of their daughters. In a very real way, the extent to which we continue to have to talk about a gender gap points to our failure.

Better public schools would have opened the minds of our children to the need of our country for the full participation of women in every aspect of our society. Back in the 60s and 70s, many of us expected that when the students were teaching then came into their majority, our goals for the political and economic liberation of women would be fulfilled. I fear that we and the teachers who entered the profession after us failed to see that we never finished the job, that there remains very difficult work to be done seeing to it that in the part teachers play in the acculturation of girls affirmatively strives to give them the tools to be agents of their own liberation.

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Trump and Agency Fee

Teacher unions first response to the election of Donald Trump had better be insulating themselves from the effects of a Trump Supreme Court reconsidering the Friedrichs case challenging the right of public sector unions to collect so-called agency fees from those in a union workplace who choose not to belong to the union. Justice Scalia’s death last year enabled us to escape from what was pretty sure to be a striking down of agency fee laws. It’s a sure bet that any Trump appointment will be hostile to public sector unions, especially teacher unions. Trump said very little during the campaign about education, but what little he did say was all about vouchers, charter schools and a deep hostility to our two great teacher unions, blaming them for what he sees as the failure of America’s schools.

When it seemed that we going to lose the Friedrichs case, I convinced my local union to have members sign union authorization cards for the following year. We successfully did so, and in so doing educated our members to the threat of Friedrichs. It also allowed us to identify those few in our midst who might be potential freeloaders and to plan for how to deal with them. By the time of Scalia’s death, we collected 99 percent of the cards and were effectively insulated from the most extreme Supreme Court decision.

It is not too early for local unions to plan for the loss of agency fee. To me, the above approach is relatively easy, especially in locals that currently have a high percentage of membership. It has the potential for other long term benefits too, as building level leaders must actively engage members to explain the threatening issues posed by the new administration and the harmful effects they could have on members if their solidarity is weakened by court decisions that encourage people to not pay union dues. Done enthusiastically and skillfully, we could free ourselves of the need for agency fee, a concept we fought for but which has made too many of us lazy and disconnected from the concerns of our members. The time to act is now!

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The Morning After

Where to begin to describe the feelings that disturb me this morning, deeply disturbing feelings, feelings of great loss. I find myself thinking of 1968, when in April of that year I was serving in the Peace Corps in Ghana. Thousands of miles from home, connected only by shortwave radio, air-letters, and weekly copies of Time and Newsweek, I tried to make sense of the assignation of Martin Luther King and the eruption of violence in America’s cities in response to his death. What was happening to my country? What kind of future would I shortly be going home to? Our cities burning, the Viet Nam War becoming more and more untenable, there comes an evening when I see from my balcony a group of some twenty people walking towards my house from the village up the road. It isn’t long before I realize they are coming to see me, the American living in their midst.

Their spokesperson gets right to the point. “Why did you kill Martin Luther King?” Speechless, I stand there for what seems endless minutes, when the question is repeated, shocking me out of my silence. They listen intently, with a young man translating for those with limited English, as I try to explain our ongoing struggle to come to terms with the legacy of slavery and how many in the U.S. are threatened by the demand of Negroes (That’s the term we used then.) for the full rights of citizenship. About the best I am able to do was to make clear that I didn’t personally have anything to do with King’s death, that I am as appalled as they. How could I make sense of what had happened for my Asante hosts when I had only the vaguest idea myself?

Once again I’m confused and unnerved by what is happening in my country. Of all the pundits I’ve read and watched these past months, Michael Moore, a Michigan native, was honed in better than most on the raging anger of white people in America’s rust belt and elsewhere who feel themselves losing the world they have known for one with no place for them in it. In an interview I saw with him, Moore analogized their inclination to vote for Trump to a Molotov cocktail, a powerfully destructive tool used by those without power.

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Anti-American Voter Suppression

Nothing has aroused my political passions more than the concerted effort of the Republican Party to suppress the vote of minorities. Whether it has been through voter ID laws predicated on a illusory problem of voter fraud, the reduction of polling places in minority communities, the abridgment of early voting in states that have it, the deliberate purging of voter lists from minority areas, pressuring the FBI to politicize the investigation of a candidate, or the outright attempt to encourage gun-toting civilians to intimidate voters in Democratic areas, the fact is the Republican Party has come associate its fate with making it as hard as possible for some people to exercise their franchise. It is a party that has been taken over by angry white nationalists who long to turn back the clock the progress we have made in becoming a more perfect union, one in which women and minorities are freer to enjoy the full benefits of citizenship. Nothing is more important for the future of our nation than repudiating them unequivocally. Does anyone seriously believe that those who would prevent millions from voting are going to become the champions of those they seek to disenfranchise?

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Reformers’ Nightmare

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is a conservative think-tank that has been in the forefront of the so-called education reform movement. While public education has been an issues casualty of this presidential campaign, it is interesting to see what Fordham’s leader sees as the education outcome of a Clinton victory and a democratic takeover of the Senate. The short version is less support for charter schools and national standards, test driven accountability and more power to teacher unions. So, while there hasn’t been much about education in the campaign of either candidate, the ed-deformers are nervous. It’s up to us to deliver their worst education nightmare.

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Weapons of Math Destruction?

Following up on yesterday’s post about the misuse of data in education, a friend emailed me to draw my attention to a Public Radio interview with mathematician Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction, a book that deals with the destructive ramifications of the misapplication of so-called big data. I haven’t read the book, but the interview prompts me to put it on my reading list. Listen, and see if you don’t agree.

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The Ranking Mania

Many of us have come to believe that if one can attach a number to something, it is of a higher order reality. We see this in the growing mania to rank people and institutions, often in ways that mislead rather than educate. Public schools have suffered significantly by these mismeasurements, many very willingly supplying the data that is then used to undermine their legitimacy. It is absolutely foolhardy to rate a high school on the basis of how many AP courses it students are enrolled in. A school in which every child takes an AP class every period may be a good school. It’s just as likely, if not more so, to be a places of cut-throat competition where test scores are subordinated to learning and the goal of educating citizens has evaporated.

This mindless ranking having had my attention for some time, I was interested to read Frank Bruni’s column in Sunday’s Times about the spread of this insanity to colleges. Bruni reviews some of the rating indices, properly concluding that each makes its evaluations on completely different criteria. Read them all, and one may find what they are looking for in a college. Read just one, and you might just as well have picked a name out of a hat.

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The Latest Ed-Tech Innovation

My readers are well aware of my growing concerns about the infiltration of technological learning appliances and their debasement of what it has meant to be educated. Thus, I was not at all surprised to read that the latest “learning innovation” to be touted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a biosensor attached to students’ wrists and able to gauge their attentiveness to lesson before them. It won’t be long I suspect before some jackass of a superintendent of schools, spouting the empty rhetoric of 21st century learners and digital citizens, offers this up as the latest improvement in education. What it is in fact is the latest from a tech industry that has provided the tools of the surveillance society we have become. If we were interested in an educated citizenry we would be spending time at all levels of education discussing the increasing threat to our freedom these devices pose. We would also be wise to take seriously teaching students how to be intelligent consumers of media that are increasingly personalized to the point that we share less and less of a common reality and the concept of a fact appears to mean less and less with each passing day.

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Teachers for Trump?

Off and on this weekend, I found myself in a Facebook discussion with some Trump supporters, two of whom are members of the union I used to lead, one retired and one active. It didn’t take long for one of their friends to chime in to accuse me of being a communist. When I responded that although I have been long accustomed to being red-baited the fact is I’m not a communist but a democratic socialist, this chap’s angry response was that they are both the same thing and that his grandfather fought against both of them during World War II. It mattered not to him when I pointed out that his grandfather fought Nazis or national socialists.

The experience got me thinking about how many Trump supporters there might be in the ranks of teacher unions. How many are either unaware of the threat that Trumpism poses to public education and unionized workers in general or have soaked up the white nationalist poison he spews that they are willing to chance the consequences of electing a man who unequivocally supports charter schools, government vouchers for students to attend private and religious schools, home schooling and the dismantling of the U. S. Department of Education? There’s no way to know for sure. While the ones I engaged on Facebook are bold enough to be public about their support, most aren’t, knowing deep down I suspect that there is something fundamentally wrong about supporting a man whose campaign has attracted the Alt-right, the Klan and assorted other bigots. But, we know that about 25 percent of our membership is Republican and that about 80 percent of Republicans support Trump. Why would we believe that our members are different?

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Teaching About Elections

Despite there not being a shred of evidence to support Trumps allegation that attempts are being made to steal the election, he continues twist the intestines of his supporters with statements s about dead people voting, inner-city people (He means blacks and Latinos) poised to commit massive voter fraud and an alliance between the Clinton campaign and the news media.

We know that if a lie gets repeated often enough and is uncontested, it has the distinct potential to become the truth. Were this lie to become the truth of the American people, it could destroy our unique democratic experiment and effectively make our country ungovernable democratically. Every responsible politician of every party need to forthrightly assure their constituents that Donald Trump’s allegations are completely without evidence. As importantly, the teachers in the classrooms of our public schools must engage the nation’s children in discussions of the election, guiding them to factual information about allegations of voter fraud. Public schools are vital to our democracy. They must prepare children to become responsible participants of our democracy. To do that they must help children understand both the falsity of these allegations and the threat they pose to our society.

Were I still in the classroom, I would additionally talk about the real election fraud in the United States – the adoption in far too many states of laws that make voting more difficult and which impact disproportionately minorities. I would be talking about how the Republican Party has made a very determined effort to exclude constituencies which tend to support Democrats from the electoral process. I would be talking about the calamity of the Supreme Court’s striking down central planks of the Voting Rights Act. I would be explaining how these efforts are the modern face of Jim Crow.

Some will say, “You can’t do such things anymore, Morty.” If you can’t, then we’re not teachers anymore. Our students may get ever higher and higher test scores, but we will have failed both them and ourselves.

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Time For Progressives to Get Practical

I hope you missed me that last week or so. We had some server issues that prevented me from posting. I’m assured, however, that we are now back to normal.

Some of my readers live in states that Hillary Clinton will easily win. They therefore figure they have the luxury of casting a more purely motivated ballot for either Gary Johnson or Jill Stein. When pressed, most will acknowledge that they hope and believe Hillary will win, but they dislike her nevertheless and feel a compulsion to let her know it. In normal times, while I would still disagree with this approach to the president election, I might be able to accept it. But, Donald Trump poses such a palpable threat whether he wins or not. The fact is that he has the darkest strains of political thought in America to coalesce into a movement that threatens the very foundations of our democracy, with only a third of Republican voters believing that the election will be counted fairly.

This is no time for protest votes. Our only hope for a competent president, our only hope for any semblance of a progressive agenda is electing Hillary Clinton with a large enough mandate to allow her to govern. A Hillary presidency gives us a real shot making college more affordable, providing paid family leave, trying to complete the war on poverty, addressing the infrastructure need of the nation, ending the radical right hold on the Supreme Court, taking additional steps in the battle against climate change and taking the next step forward in the struggle to provide health care to all our people. The extent to which she can accomplish any of this is directly related to the margin of her victory. An overwhelming victory increases her leverage with the Congress, whether the Democrats control either house. Progressives have a real opportunity for the kind of change they have been seeking. Progressives have a shot at achieving much of Bernie’s agenda.

As a life-long democratic socialist, I naturally supported Bernie Sanders. But Bernie lost. I believe fairly. You may not. You may even think Hillary is corrupt. No matter. It’s time to get practical and recognize that the only chance to move a progressive agenda forward is by electing Hillary Clinton overwhelmingly. We simply have to demonstrate that there remains an overwhelming small d democratic majority that will not entertain the messianic call of the strong man who alone possesses the powers to cure all the nation’s ills, making it great again. Our nation has heard that call before. It has always rejected it. It must do so again.

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Real Patriots

With the presidential election looming, it’s been hard to think about public education, except for the fear of what the election of Donald Trump would mean for America’s public schools. What I can’t get out of my mind is the idea that the very possibility of his election is in and of itself an indictment of our schools. What kind of twisted patriotism is it that longs for an America in which minorities knew their place, gays were in the closet, women were subservient to men and America was the unrivaled super-power? If the purpose of public schools is the education of citizens to participate meaningfully in our democratic society, let’s acknowledge that we could be doing better.

On the bright side, however, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that here appears to be a growing movement among high school football players to emulate Colin Kaepernick and to take a knee during the playing of the National Anthem. A piece in the October 3rd New York Times reports that kids on a number of high school teams from coast to coast teams have followed Kaepernick’s lead. It’s encouraging to see young people standing up for their beliefs, expressing a finer patriotism that yearns for a country that lives up to its ideals and seeks an ever more perfect union. I’m encourages too that these kids appear to have the support of their coaches and school districts. It tells me that that they are leaning important lessons that are not reflected in the way we have come to evaluate schools. Bravo to the school leaders who have supported these kid’s efforts.

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Realism Time

I fear the next person who laments the fact that we have only Donald trump and Hillary Clinton to choose from better duck as I am likely to be overtaken by an irresistible urge to vomit. It’s surely time to face the fact that one of these two people is going to be the next President of the United States. It’s time to put all the bullshit aside and face the fact that it matters greatly which one wins. If you watched the debate last night with the slightest openness of mind, you saw one candidate who was articulate, poised, prepared and completely conversant with the issues of the day. You saw another who was often incapable of putting together two coherent sentences, opting instead for incessant bursts self-puffery and invective.

Going into the debate, the pundits speculated as to which Donald Trump would show up. How would Hillary deal with him? What crap! There is and always was only one Donald Trump, a self-aggrandizing con-artist who when his swindle is revealed unleashes bursts of lies, innuendo and insult like squid ink, hoping to scoot away in the darkened water. I never really doubted that a woman as smart as Hillary is would have any trouble baiting the Donald into revealing just how pathetically unfit he is.

I’m sorry friends. She’s not warm and fuzzy. She’s very precise and lawyerly in her answers to questions. She’s reluctant to wear her emotions on her sleeve. She’s all business. You may, like Donald, not like the way she looks. You may not feel an emotional connection to her. You may think it unseemly for a woman to manifest the drive and ambition she has. You may think that like many politicians she has played loose with the truth on occasion. You may resent that she chose to stay in a marriage with a philandering husband. But here’s the deal that is before you. You can either entrust your welfare and that of our nation to this brilliant, knowledgeable, experienced woman, or you can be overcome by things that rub you the wrong way about her and be conned into making a man who has no experience of governing, is ill-tempered and who years for a return to an America that was nowhere near as great as it is today. That’s the choice. It’s realism time.

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The Revised English Standards

The New York State Education Department has issues a draft of the revised English and mathematics standards, revisions that are said to have involved educators and parents. I spent an hour or so with the English standards, English being my field. I expected nothing from the revisions, and I am not in any way disappointed. As I read, I found myself imagining frustrated teachers trying to fathom exactly what some of this gibberish means. I imagined too how inherently boring for young students much pseudo-sophisticated baloney is.

I found myself remembering some of the Canadian provincial academic standards that I long ago suggested we could simply adopt, thereby saving ourselves money, time and teachers’ faith in our schools. I challenge my readers to look at the Ontario standards and then New York’s. Then ask yourself if you had a child and had the choice of which curriculum she should be exposed to, which one would you pick? I doubt that anyone would pick New York’s. A clear educational philosophy under-girds the Ontario standards, one that is anchored in an understanding of how children learn, one that respects children. New York’s is by and large words, words, words.

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The Neglect of Language Study

I’m just back from a week in Iceland. One of my lasting memories will be of the extraordinary nice people we met whose command of English is astonishing to Americans whose language proficiency is matched only by their inability to accept criticism of their country. When I asked a cab driver who had just explained the intricacies of the Icelandic health care system how it is that everyone speaks such fluent English, he explained how all Icelandic children begin their study of English in third grade and continue it throughout their schooling.

I’ve noted before how there are some places in the United States that take teaching foreign languages seriously and capitalize on the long established fact that childhood is the best time to learn languages. Yet so-call high performing school districts like mine essentially make a pretense of teaching other languages until our kids are in the latter years of middle school. While we have spent fortunes of money over the years on the latest educational fads, the leadership of our district has never expressed even the slightest interest in recognizing the centrality of language study to any reasonable concept of being educated. This is just one of the many weaknesses of our academic program that goes unrecognized by decision makers who are themselves often poorly educated and who fall victim to the latest education snake-oil.

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Not a Happy Day

Although retired, I went to my local’s contract ratification meeting yesterday. I wanted to be on hand to help our new president Nina Melzer, as I led our union during most of the negotiations that leading to the contracts that were before the membership. While I was please to see our contracts ratified, I was deeply disturbed b y some of what I heard from those who felt our negotiating committee did not do a good enough job.

In the context of a property tax cap that limited the increase in our district’s budget to a small fraction of one percent, in a bargaining environment in which almost every settlement on Long Island has been financed by modifying the increment structure of the salary schedule – taking from the newer staff to give to those who already make more, we were able to get raises compounding to 6.3 percent over a four year period and completely preserved our increments. We cut six hours from our staff development requirement, ended disruptive parent classroom visitations, improved our sick leave buy-out upon retirement, improved our leave and bereavement clauses and got $150 per member more over the course of the contract for our welfare fund. Yes, we will work two extra days, and we will introduce extra help in our elementary schools and increase extra help in our middle schools, all within the existing school hours. I am completely confident that there has not been a better contract negotiated on the Island in recent years.

For quite a few of our members, you would have thought the district rolled over us. Quite a few speakers spoke about the unfairness of the deal, unfairness being generally defined as being obligated to do some things differently, albeit in the identical amount of time. Others expressed their belief that the district doesn’t respect us, as if that had the slightest thing to do with negotiations essentially about time and money. The lack of understanding of the realities of bargaining in the current context left me concerned for the future and a little guilty that I had somehow failed to educate so many to the realities of public sector collective bargaining at the current time. I’m saddened too by what that lack of understanding means for my successor who begins her tenure with so much anger. There was so little appreciation for the extraordinary job she did at the meeting, explaining the contract, answering difficult emotionally charged questions with pin-point accurate answers and a self-control that I doubt I could have mustered. What should have been a unifying, happy day was anything but.

When we entered the tax cap era of collective bargaining, I predicted that memberships would turn in on themselves and ultimately blame their union for conditions no one local union can overcome. As the era has unfolded, I’ve seen local leaders defeated, successive leaderships of our state union challenged, all of which makes our position more difficult, makes putting the political coalitions necessary to improve our situation more problematical to create. I keep hoping locals in our area will finally get together and develop a common bargaining strategy, but I frankly see no signs that that will happen. Districts effectively continue to coordinate their bargaining through the work of the two major law firms that represent most of the Island’s districts. We continue at our peril to maintain that negotiations is a local matter. When will we learn?
I will be doing a little travelling for the next week. Please look for me again the week of the 19th.

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Great Happens Here?

Put aside the bad grammar, the Plainview superintendent’s welcoming message for the start of the new school year puts forward a theme – Great Happens Here. The message then goes on to report progress on construction projects financed by the recently enacted bond referendum. Greatness?

Then, ever so curiously, in the context of advancing the notion of the district’s greatness, we are told of a plethora of administrative changes due to the departures of numbers of administrative staff. While the message doesn’t say so, the fact is that administrative departures have been so common place that teachers joke about not bothering to learn the names of new ones, their tenure often lasting so briefly.

Of real concern is the lack of any public discussion of why it is that there is so little administrative continuity in our school district. One would think that at least some members of the Board of Education would demand an investigation of why it is that we appear to be unable to attract more leaders who form any loyalty to our district. Yet that doesn’t seem to happen here.

To be sure many great things happen in our schools, but I believe that happen despite an atmosphere that motivates staff with options to go elsewhere as soon as they can. Sustained greatness doesn’t happen in such an atmosphere.

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