A Teachable Moment

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

No Trust

I usually try to address this blog to issues of interest to people beyond the Plainview-Old Bethpage community. But at last night’s Board of Ed meeting, our superintendent reported that we opened schools with fewer scheduling problems than we had last year. Dr. Lewis expressed the hope that my union would publically recognize how well the district had done. Happy to oblige.

Last year we didn’t have scheduling issues. What we had were willful violations of our contract. They were such egregious attempts to rip us off that we settled all of them in our favor with the board’s attorney, a gentleman not known to be a pushover. So I wish to use my blog today to recognize publically that management chose to not violate the same sections of our contract this year. If congratulations were what Dr. Lewis was looking for, I’m afraid that’s not realistic.

In fact, this year the superintendent has chosen to violate a different section of our contract. After having spent two full years painstakingly negotiating an Annual Professional Performance Review plan and having appropriately implemented it last year, the district decided to violate the portion of it that addresses the observation of teachers. Sadly, the staff she neither knows nor trusts has totally lost whatever residual trust they had in her leadership. Good leaders know that trust, like loyalty, has to flow down before it flows up.

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Don’t Elect the Regents! Get Rid of Them!

A campaign has been developing to elect the Regents who oversee New York’s public education system. It parallels a growing dissatisfaction with an out of control testing regime tied to an ever growing negative reaction to the Common Core State Standards. While public disgust with New York’s education policy grows, the makers of that policy are insulated from the public’s anger, owing their appointments to the legislature, really to Assembly Speaker Silver and the Democrats who control the assembly.

The Regents exist as a shield for our elected representatives who meet the public’s displeasure with education policy with the cop-out that it is the Regents who make that policy. They just appropriate the money. Do away with the Regents and an election like the one we are about to have has the potential to become a clearer referendum on education policy. Look at New York City where in recent years the mayor has been given control of the public schools. Michael Bloomberg came in with a mandate that he used to bring his school reforms forward. Over time, citizens came to realize that his reforms were an abject failure causing them to elect a new mayor with a completely different philosophy of education.

We don’t need more elected representatives. We need the one’s we have to take responsibility for the education policy of the state. If the Regents ever had a good purpose, it has long since disappeared from view. There is no reason to set up another layer of politics in Alban

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The Degraded Language of Ed Talk

As a teacher I tried as best I could to avoid teaching the same thing the same way over and over again. I tried each time I taught a work of literature to approach it differently, even though by the time I reached the twentieth Hamlet, it required some serious imagination to think of a different way. For whatever I was teaching, I tried to think of an approach that that would work with the group of students in front of me. I never had any idea that there was a best way to teach something. I always understood each class as an experiment. I tried different assignments each year and wrote different examination questions, avoiding filling my file cabinet (later computer folders) with stuff from lessons past -all this in an effort to keep my teaching fresh and myself free from mind-numbing boredom. Sure, some things worked better than others, but what I experienced as the best ever in a particular year was eclipsed in another. I think that’s why when people today want to talk to me about best practices in teaching, my adrenaline starts to flow, urging me to flee to some place safe from the stupid talk headed my way if I remain.

I have much the same almost allergic reaction to the terms “individualized instruction,” “data driven”, “21st century learner” “college and career ready” and so much of the degraded language that permeates the discussion of public education. I never know what people who use these terms are talking about. More importantly, neither do they.

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Social Capital and Student Achievement

One of oft repeated stupidities of the education reformers, most notably Arne Duncan, is the goal of having a great teacher in front of every classroom. There are about 3 million public school teachers in the United States. Assuming we could all agree on what qualities constitute a great teacher, what are the odds we could find 3 million of them? To paraphrase newly elected National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia, there are people who seriously believe that it is possible for 100 percent of any population to be above average. They believe such things because all things are possible to people who don’t know anything about the subject they’re talking about.

So, if we agree that the goal of a great or even above average teachers in every classroom is a self-contradictory objective, is there another approach to school improvement that offers real possibility of success? A recent article in the Shanker Blog by two University of Pittsburgh researchers summarizing their studies in public schools suggests an approach that will ring completely true to teachers but will not be easily swallowed by our education bureaucrats who believe that all wisdom flows down from them. Professors Leana and Pil argue that “…organizational success rarely stems from the latest technology or a few exemplary individuals. Rather, it is derived from: systematic practices aimed at enhancing trust among employees; sharing and openness about both problems and opportunities for improvement and a collective sense of purpose.”

These researchers show that what they call social capital is essential to school improvement. Social capital consists of the “…relationships among teachers, between teachers and principals, and even between teachers, parents and other key actors in the community.” In schools with rich social capital, teachers have time and the inclination to talk to each other about their work. They feel confident confiding in others about gaps in their knowledge or know-how. They have a sense of working in common cause. Studies conducted by these investigators show strikingly significant gains in student achievement when teachers have a robust social capital support system.

If Leana and Pil are correct, and my experience says they are, then the function of school leaders is to promote the development of social capital in our schools. Yet, current trends are moving in the exact opposite direction, with evaluation systems that single out individuals rather than promoting cooperation and what union guys like me refer to as solidarity. School leaders seeking to promote the development of social capital spend much less time scrutinizing teachers, putting their time and effort into creating a climate of trust and information sharing. Does that sound like the leadership of your district?

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Israel Offers No Solution

For a couple of years now my union along with our PTA and their sister organizations next door in Syosset have been holding an annual legislative breakfast, bringing our elected leaders together with the public around the issues of the Common Core State Standards and the high stakes testing linked to them.

At last year’s event, Steve Israel, our local congressman, announced that he was going to be meeting with the superintendents on Long Island to see what needed to be done to deal with the problems caused by the testing mania. When the event was concluded, I spoke to Mr. Israel, warning him of the dangers of relying on the superintendents to shape a legislative solution to the problem and suggesting the he seek broader sources of information before fashioning a legislative remedy, particularly the voice of classroom teachers.

Israel has met with the superintendents and is talking about legislation that will do next to nothing to prevent the damage being done to our schools. From what I understand he is proposing a reduction in the number of required tests 3 through 8, preferring a biennial regime, and some kind of mechanism to exempt high performing districts.

Why Israel and the superintendents who advised him would believe that there would be less teaching to the tests if they are given in alternative years is hard to discern. While such a plan would require changes to the Annual professional Performance Review Plans (APPR) that have been negotiated in New York, his proposal would do nothing to break the ridiculous connection between teacher evaluations and student performance on these tests. At best, such legislation would simply provide more time to teach to the curricular shrinking tests. At worst it will deceive the public into believing that the proposed law significantly improves the situation for children thereby lessening their parents’ inclination to opt them out of the tests.

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Most of Us Know We Are Headed in the Wrong Direction

To me the most interesting question in the recently released survey of New York’s school superintendents is the one that reads, “Given all that has gone on in education in the last four years, would you say that the efforts to improve the quality of education in New York State have moved New York schools in the right direction, wrong direction or have had little impact at all?” An astonishing 53% of the leaders of our state’s school districts believe our schools have moved in the wrong direction (39%) or have experienced little impact at all (14%). If we look at the responses of Long island superintendents we find 44% think our schools are going in the wrong direction and 22% think that all of the turmoil we have experiences has produced little impact. 66% of Long Island superintendents, the leaders of some of the best schools in the state have essentially said we have wasted the past four years.

If this is an accurate measure of their opinion, them why are will still implementing all of these so-called reforms. Parent confidence in them is weak at best, teachers believe we are destroying what used to be enviable schools and now most of our superintendents think we are going in the wrong direction, why are we then stupidly doing so if there is clear agreement by all constituencies that what we are doing is ill advised. Imagine if all of Long island’s districts spoke in one voice and said we refuse to be participants in the substitution of training for education. We insist on educating our children. We will not have corporate reformers telling us what’s best for our children.

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Improving Instruction Through Demoralization

I spoke to the teachers in one of our schools yesterday. I make the rounds of the buildings, trying to keep members informed, but more importantly listening to their concerns and how they think our union can address them. While I planned to spend most of my remarks on our political action efforts and a our deepening problem with the leadership of our district, I found when the members wanting to talk about the recently concluded teacher evaluation process for last school year, the process that we call Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR).

I hadn’t anticipated this discussion in that I knew that every teacher in that building had been rated either effective or highly effective, so that no one’s employment was in any way threatened by their evaluation scores. I began to become the absorber of the deep anger of everyone in the room with the first question about whether something could be done for fourth grade teachers who see themselves as particularly burdened by the tying of 20 percent of their score to the test that purports to measure the growth of their students from third grade. There were spirited questions and comments on the impact on their scores of kids whose parents had opted them out of the state tests and impassioned comments on how it feels to have a whole year of one’s professional work evaluated in this way.

I went back to the office to be interrupted from time to time by thoughts of my experience that morning. I found myself more convinced than ever that the only way the tyranny of high stakes testing and the debilitating effect it is having on teachers and students is going to end is through the continued growth of the opt-out movement and the growing number of teachers who are refusing to administer these tests. When almost no children are taking these tests, the whole system that has been built around them will collapse as I hope will the careers of those who have aided and abetted it . That belief was strengthened towards the end of the day when I read a press release by the Council of School Superintendents on a survey they did of their membership which showed that 50% percent of the leaders of our school districts think this evaluation system has had a positive impact on improving teaching. We can’t expect much help from that kind of brain power. Can demoralizing teachers really have a positive effect on their instruction? I’ll have more to say about the disturbing results of this survey in future posts.

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It’s Time for Candidates Who Support Working People

I have become increasingly convinced that teacher unions will never get the committed participation of their members in political action if they continue to endorse candidates who only pay lip service to the needs of their members. I believe it’s time to stop backing the lesser of the two evils offered up by the main parties and time to support candidate who speak convincingly to our issues, even when we know those candidates can’t win.

Yesterday the officers of our union asked our executive board to endorse Howie Hawkins for Governor of New York. The vote was unanimous to do so. Speaking for the officers, I outlined why we believed it was impossible for us to support Andrew Cuomo who has done more to harm public education than any governor in my long memory. Property tax cap, teacher evaluations tied to student test scores, increased support for charter schools, tax breaks for the rich, preservation of the gap elimination, creation of a tier 6 in the retirement systems and a complete and total misrepresentation and denigration of the fine work of the people who do the work in our public schools.

Rob Astorino in many ways would be worse. He doesn’t seem to think Cuomo has cut taxes enough. He adds to Cuomo bag of tricks strong support for vouchers that would allow tax dollars to flow to private and parochial schools.

Neither Cuomo nor Astorino is running a campaign on issues. Much of what they have to say to the public comes under the heading of trading insults. Voting for either of these people would be personally demeaning.

In contrast, when one looks at the platform of the Green Party and Howie Hawkins one finds ideas, progressive ideas which if implemented would move our state forward. Don’t believe me? Spend a few minutes looking at the Hawkins platform. See for yourself.

Supporting a candidate who discusses these ideas broadens the public discussion of them. Should Hawkins do well enough as I believe he can, Democrats will take notice and start to distinguish themselves from Republicans and developing an agenda that benefits the ninety-nine percent of New Yorkers and not the one percent they have been serving.

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The Homework Habit

Demanding as I was seen by my students at whatever level I taught, I never believed in giving routine homework. To be sure I gave reading assignments and longer papers to write, but I never had a belief that giving students something to do every night was of any real benefit. Were I teaching today, I would give even less homework, knowing as I do that what a teacher receives as high school homework today is very often not the product of the person turning it in.

In today’s version of being demanding, kids are made to feel guilty if they have a lunch period each day. Many pack their schedules with Advanced Placement (AP) classes, seeking what they believe to be a competitive advantage in the college entrance process. Each of these classes, unlike to the actual college course it’s remotely related to, demands almost daily homework assignments that if my colleagues thought for a moment they would realize the most highly motivated student would be unable to complete. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day. So the great homework swap takes place each day where one needs to do only one or two assignments which can then be swapped for anything else that there was not enough time to do. Often the students’ parents are aware of this cheating but feel themselves powerless to do anything about it, so completely are students and parents convinced that these ethical indiscretions are simply essential to academic success.

The picture in middle and elementary school is little better. There’s less outright cheating, but in too many cases young children are spending too many hours poring over what is essentially academic drudge work inflicted by teachers who believe they must give it to be seen as a good teacher rather than out of any conviction about its utility.

It’s with that grim view of homework in our schools that my niece Danielle brought an article by Alfie Kohn to my attention reporting on a recent study of the relationship of homework to academic achievement as measured by grade and standardized test scores. It turns out that my view of the value of homework is largely supported both in the recent study Kohn reports on and in those studies that came before it. There just is very little evidence that the time and effort of that teachers and students and teachers put into homework yields anything worthwhile. After reading this piece I found myself remembering teachers in the film Race to Nowhere who reported that achievement in their classes improved after they stopped giving homework.

Nevertheless, the homework habit is seemingly impossible to break. It’s baked into our system. While many of us know it is pointlessly out of control, speaking out against it is tantamount to a heresy. It’s hard to be seen as a good teacher if one doesn’t give homework. I’m aware of kindergarten parents criticizing teachers who refuse to give any.

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Ed Dep’t Doubles Down on Stupidity

If one needed any further proof that education policy in the Obama administration is bankrupt and that Education Commissioner Arne Duncan is totally unfit to lead the federal education efforts, surely the decision by the feds to revoke the state of Washington’s waiver from the demand of the No Child Left behind Act that mandate that every child be proficient in reading and math should remove any doubts one might have had. Yet this is precisely what Duncan has done because the Washington legislature refused to pass a bill tying teacher evaluations to the test results of their students. Thus, even schools in which test results improved very significantly have been rated failing and 20 percent of the federal funds must now be set aside for tutoring or sending students to schools not deemed to be failing. There is just one word for actions like this – STUPID!

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Scrap Teacher of the Year

Don’t you think it’s time to scrap the Teacher of the Year? In saying that, I mean no disrespect to any of the recipients of this award. I’m sure all have been extraordinary teachers and generally remarkable human beings. It’s just that I’m sure I know many teachers who are equally deserving who will never be so honored, many who labor heroically with students who present gut wrenching educational and social problems – kids who exist at the margins of their school’s society. These teachers never develop the clack necessary to get nominated for teacher of the year. They are often, in my experience, under-appreciated by the bosses they work for who know little and care less about the life-enriching work that they do.

By honoring one individual with the title Teacher of the Year we subordinate the importance of the work of literally thousands of equally gifted, dedicated teachers whose work in these crazy times is demeaned and denigrated by those whose aim is the extinction of public education. Like Miss America, enough already!

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Leadership and Trust

I am of the view that were the administration of any school district to disappear at the start of the school year, the outcomes for students would be precisely the same at the end of the year. So long as office staff were empowered to pay the bills, order the supplies and arrange repairs, there would be no measurable difference in what student would learn or how they would be treated. There is a good chance that the entire atmosphere of the district would improve.

I was thinking about that yesterday as I tried to explain to some of our district’s policy makers how a management’s lack of trust of its employees is directly related to the commitment of the employees to the welfare of the enterprise. I was prompted to raise the issue growing out of an edict delivered to our middle school teachers demanding that they have children sign in when they attend extra help classes at the end of the day. The edict appears to have been motivated by a management desire to know the extent to which children participate in these classes. That is a worthwhile thing to know, I suppose. But rather than simply asking building administrators or teachers about their experience with this program, they opted to impose a system that sends the message to both building administration and teachers that they are not trusted, that there is a presumption that they would not answer such questions honestly.

The reality is that most teachers provide more of this extra help than they are contractually obligated to. Now that they have learned that they are not trusted , that they must be treated like piece workers having students sign that they have been served, I’m certain than many will provide less of this service than they have in the past. You think I’m a shirker; I’ll show you.”

More and more these days I meet so-called school leaders who haven’t got the foggiest idea of how to lead people. They are clueless that loyalty has to flow down before it flows up, that people should be presumed to be doing the right thing until there is demonstrable evidence to the contrary. People need to know that their leaders trust them, that they are valued and supported. That’s the environment in which the teamwork and cooperation school leaders are always talking about can exist. The irony is that in the 35 years I taught high school students, I always began by trusting every kid in my classes. Most of the really good teachers I know do. It’s central to having the kind of cooperation that makes a school year memorable for both teacher and students. To me, that so many school leaders fail to understand the centrality of trust to leadership gives me a pretty good idea of what kind of teachers they were.

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A World of Their Own

I watched this Shanker Institute panel discussion on teacher accountability this afternoon. It’s remarkable in that the Shanker Institute is an AFT sponsored think tank set up in honor of our sainted Albert Shanker. The discussion is worth watching for the glimmers here and there of some interesting ideas, primarily from Pedro Noguera, an NYU professor. The video is astonishing in that it was made by a national teacher union but is completely free of the thoughts and insights of any teachers. So much of teacher leadership fails to speak in the voice of teachers. I think Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the new NEA President, is trying to break that pattern, but time will tell if she can. For some time, our national unions have been remote from our members.

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Hawkins Gets a Big Boost

No voice has been more powerful and effective in the battle to end the tyranny of corporate sponsored high stakes testing inextricably tied to the Common Core State Standards than Diane Ravitch. No voice has resonated with parents and teachers like hers. My guess is that were she to compete for the presidency of either of our national teacher unions, she would win in a heartbeat. Her stature in the movement to oppose the so-called education reformers will undoubtedly give a big boost to Howie Hawkins, the Green Party candidate for Governor in New York.

Though focused on education, Ravitch’s endorsement is based on much more. Ultimately, the values expressed by Hawkins and the Green Party align more closely with hers than do the business ethos of the Cuomo administration. But, read it for yourself. See if there is anything in it with which you disagree.

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Standing With Those Who Stand With Us

“Those candidates who have respected teachers, public education and organized labor will find that respect is a two-way street.

Candidates who take educators and public education for granted will learn about respect in a new way. As Aretha Franklin put it, they’ll find out what it means to me… and all 600,000 of NYSUT’s members and their families in every zip code of the state.”

These two paragraphs conclude an audio spot for Northeast Public Radio by NYSUT President Karen Magee. The piece speaks passionately to the indignities public educators experience every day as they absorb the attacks of craven politicians, leashed to their corporate donors, who propagate the myth that our public schools are failing due to the incompetence of many of the teacher in them. It’s a really good piece both substantively and rhetorically until it reaches what should be the climax where it withdraws into a flaccid generalized warning to our political enemies.

So here’s the way I believe the piece should have ended.

In the race for governor, there is only one candidate who respects teachers, public education and organized labor. That candidate is Howie Hawkins, the Green party candidate for governor. Howie opposes the Common Core State Standards, wants to end the tyranny of high stakes testing, understands and wishes to end the damage done by the property tax cap, supports teacher tenure and free public education pre-k-16. That’s clear un-nuanced respect and support for teachers and public education. Our members will be looking for similar views in the candidates they support for members of the legislature. We’re serving notice to the politicians of this state that we are organizing our members, parents and supporters of public schools to take our public schools back.

I’m taking a few days off. Back on Monday.

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Creative Insubordination

The superintendents of New York’s school district are in Albany for their annual fall meeting. Wouldn’t it be great if they got themselves together, stood up and demanded an end to the test and punish ideology that has become the central idea of state ed policy? Wouldn’t it be encouraging to see the real education leaders in our state telling regent Tisch and Commissioner King that as a matter of conscience they are unable to implement their education policies, that to do so would require them to compromise their duty to provide for the welfare of children.

It won’t happen, I know. Most will sit there, offering some suggestions around the margins of state policy and go home and do what they are told. These are the leaders of our school districts. They and too many of the board of education members who hire them make speeches about how the test and punish system is, but then they go and test and punish. So few of them seem capable of what I like to call creative insubordination. It’s a real shame! But, truth be told, we don’t see much creative insubordination from union leadership either.

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The People’s Climate March

climate_marchI’m so glad I let Judi Alexanderson talk me into marching in the People’s Climate March yesterday. Sunday is usually a day on which the most energy I’m willing to exert is cooking a good dinner and opening a bottle of wine.

The pictures of the event don’t do it justice. Upwards of 400,000 people of every occupation, from resident physicians to building janitors, from teachers to members of the building trades marched together. Various religious groups, people from different states and even countries, black brown white, unimaginable diversity, from rich to poor, the very young and the elderly – all coming together out of a deep concern for the planet. All united to say to the leaders of the governments of the world, DO SOMETHING!

We hear so much anti-government talk these days. It was moving to see hundreds of thousands of people, those who marched and the thousands on the sidelines that clearly supported the mobilization, clearly understanding that while it may be possible to make some progress in controlling the production of heat trapping gases, it is, in the end, only governments that can seriously confront the issue in a meaningful way.

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Turn Off Your Child’s Screen

I’m increasingly the odd man out in discussions with educationists and lay people about the downside of our increasing dependency on in our nation’s classrooms. I’ve been writing for some time about the dangers, suggesting that research increasingly shows us that people read screen differently than they do paper text. While it has been comforting to see more and more research supporting my view, that research hasn’t had much impact on the leadership of our public schools who continue to be enthralled by the corporate claims for the benefits of high tech classroom.

Consider the latest research insight that appears to show that we have an area of our brains that equips us to read things like our twitter feeds and a distinctly different area for doing deeper more serious, more academic reading. Even more to the point, the studies show that screen reading doesn’t activate the part that enables deeper reading. What is more, the ability to engage the portion of the brain needed for deeper reading atrophies with disuse.

If we are open to the validity of this research (If we are honest with ourselves we will admit that we all read screens differently than paper), we need to get more serious than we have been about some trends in education. More and more schools are introducing e-texts to our schools. Many school districts are buying tablets or asking kids to bring their own devices to school so that students are doing more and more of their reading on screens. The national exams tied to the Common Core State Standards are to be administered online, tests which are claimed to measure students’ ability to read harder, more academic material. Does any of this make any sense? Are we ironically undermining the ability of Americans to do the very kind of reading and thinking that we spend so much time talking about advancing? More and more evidence seems to point in that direction.

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The Extra Help Madness

How did I ever do it? How did I manage to go to 12 years of public school and six years of full-time graduate school with seeking out my teachers for extra help only 2 times that I can remember? I recall seeking out my college math prof for some help with a problem and my linguistics professor in graduate school who had assigned me a paper on the Anglic Spelling Reform Movement which when I went to begin my research I learned to my horror that the primary sources were almost all in Swedish, a language I neither speak not read. My parents never lobbied the officials of my schools for extra help. Neither did they hover over me as I did my homework. I was expected to be responsible for my school work.

How did it come to be that today no matter how much extra help (sometimes referred to as remedial), the demand for more increases exponentially? I have the impression that children today have become conditioned to expect that they will have to have things explained several times before they are under any obligation to know it. It also seems to me that the grade obsession sickness that pervades our schools sends the message that that one’s grade may increase a point or two from attendance at special help sessions, either from knowing the material better or by being seen by the teacher to be “really” interested. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for providing assistance to students who are trying to stretch their abilities and tackle subjects that in my day would not have been open to them. What I think we need to talk about, however, is why is it that even our brilliant students appear to believe that they need to attend remedial regularly. Are we on the road to what is done to children in many Asian countries where they are sent to cram schools after their regular schools day? Are these schools which Asian immigrants have brought with them to the United States going to become mainstream with all students expected to attend? We need to have an intelligent discussion about this. We can’t just continue to meet what has become a completely irrational demand.

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Deflating Enthusiasm at the Start of the New School Year

I’ve been going around to our school buildings, preaching a few union sermons and listening to our members’ concerns. There are the usual complaints, and then there are the heartfelt pleas to do something to end the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR), a demeaning process of teacher evaluation in our state.

It used to be that teachers got their evaluations at the end of the school year. These written documents were essentially summaries of the observations administrators had done during the course of the year. Imperfect as those evaluations were, in all but a few cases they were not controversial in the sense that they almost never surprised anyone. If deficiencies in one’s performance had been noted all year, one was not surprised to find them in the end of year evaluation. Even where such evaluations were seen by teachers as unfair, teachers got them before they left for the summer, and a little rest and relaxation had a way of letting them be seen in perspective.

Now, however, at least 20 percent of a teacher’s evaluation is tied to the high stakes test results of their students. Because the results of the tests are unavailable until mid-August, teachers are just now getting their APPRs for last year. Putting aside the foolishness of tying student scores to teacher evaluations, it would be hard to find anything more apt to deflate one’s enthusiasm for the start of a new school year than to receive an evaluation that one perceives to be substantially divorced from the quality of one’s work for a year that has already gone by. It’s clear to me that I can tell teachers from today till tomorrow that these scores don’t mean anything, there being a moratorium in place against their use to influence employment decisions. The fact it that professional teachers find the process degrading, and their anger about this issue is growing.

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