A Teachable Moment

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

We Dreamed of One World

The papers, radio and TV are all focused this morning on the vote in the United Kingdom, the so-call Brexit, to determine whether Britain will remain in the European Union or go it alone. Many have noted the parallels between what is happening politically in Britain and the United States as well as much of the western world. There’s a broad retreat into tribalism. Established political elites are challenged by growing numbers of citizens who long for a past marked by colonialism, ethnocentrism and racism that for centuries exploded periodically into violence.

I began my public schooling in 1947, just after the end of World War II. I was taught by teacher who watched the carnage of that human tragedy, some with spouses who had experienced it firsthand. Some had grown up during World War I and talked about relatives who died in that explosion of human ignorance. Having lived through these decades political delusions, they very consciously tried to instill in us notions of a better world. They had us sing songs about “One world built on a firm foundation. One world no longer cursed by war.” We sang the Negro National Anthem and were asked to imagine how it might feel to be a Negro in America. We had lessons on the brand new United Nations and the hope it generated for the possibility for world peace. My teachers’ generations had known war and were clear in their conviction to influence us to strive for, “One great world at peace once more. One world, one world, With peace forevermore.”

That same idealism sparked the founders of what would go from a Common Market to the European Union to try to do what had never been done before, build a union of people with centuries of armed conflict separating them into an ever closer association so that a shared prosperity might bring them peace, burying once and for all the ancient hatreds and prejudice. That’s been threatened for some time, and dangerously so with the possible end of British participation in the European Union. Here at home similar forces lurk, calling upon citizens, many seriously disconnected from the world’s richest economy, to imagine an idealized past when white men ruled, women and minorities new their place, government was indifferent to the needs of its citizens and business were free to rape and pillage the landscape.

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A Sad Evening

I attended my last meeting of our board of education last night. I’ll miss many things about being the president of my local, but the board ceremonies conferring tenure on teachers and retirement “celebrations” like the one last evening have become so revolting to me that I’m quite sure they will continue to elevate my blood pressure for as long as they occasionally come to mind. Maybe it’s me, but having administrator speakers who in many instances haven’t been here long enough to know very much about the retirees is at the very least in bad taste, if not insulting. Hearing a person’s twenty-five or thirty years of service to a school district summarized in a minute or two trivializes their efforts and accomplishments. Most of the speeches sounded like the many vapid observation reports I’ve read over the years that are too often boilerplate educationese devoid of content and style and accomplishing nothing useful for anyone. Few, if any, speakers had a story or anecdote that might give the audience some slight sense of the human beings who stood in front of hundreds of children in whose memories many of them will be imprinted forever. I’ve gotten sadder at each of these events I’ve attended. Worse still, though, are the end of life evaluations at funeral services, where all that can be said about the deceased is how well planned his lessons always were and how he diversified instruction.

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Albany Fails Again

The New York State legislature has finished its yearly session without any significant progress on education issues. For most teachers, the failure to untie student performance on high stakes test from teacher evaluations is the bitterest pill left by the legislature for us to swallow. It’s more than time for parents, teachers and all citizens concerned with the corruption of New York’s schools by the corporate school reform movement to rise up and defeat those in the state senate who value heir political contributions from the reformers more than the children and educators of our state.

Unless and until we target and defeat at least a few supporters of the testing scourge, our public schools will continue to suffer. The same people who support the so-called reforms are by and large the supporters of the property tax cap, charter schools and using public money to support private and religious schools. They must pay a political penalty, or they will succeed in undermining a vital institution of our democracy. It’s time to vote to save public education.

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Ethically Challenged

My appreciation of the extent to which the corporate testing industry has perniciously infiltrated our schools distorting their purpose continues to expand. Yesterday, a parent in our district forwarded to me an email she received from our high school guidance department hawking the services of a test prep company offering summer courses aimed a cramming for the SAT and ACT examinations. It’s troubling enough that a school district would consciously contribute to inflating the importance of these exams, exams known to be poor predictors of college success, exams which more and more colleges and universities are considering optional. More troubling still was learning that the district has a contract with this company and another test prep outfit, granting them the use of our facilities in exchange for discounted prices for their courses. I’m frankly mad at myself for not knowing until now that this was happening.

Recently a teacher at Midwood High school in Brooklyn was removed from his classes for selling copies of Mary Shelly’s Gothic novel Frakenstein at his cost to students so that he could teach the book to his class. Here we have a school district (I’m sure one of many) selling test prep courses to an entire student body without the district’s leadership raising the obvious ethical questions.

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Freedom From Fear of Gun Violence

We don’t talk about AR-15 rifles as a weapon of mass destruction, but can anyone think about Sunday’s event in Orland and say that this military style weapon is not. It has become the weapon of choice of the crazy and zealot. Unless and until we choose to understand that the writers of our Constitution could not ever have imagined a single American armed with more fire power in an AR-15 than dozens of Minutemen with their muskets. Surely, the Founding Fathers were they to find themselves among us would recognize that the right to bear arms that they authored must be balanced against the advent of weapons so potent that they must be withheld from all but those defending our country. Surely, their voices would be raised against the Second Amendment zealotry responsible for a literal epidemic of gun violence in our nation. But, I suspect we will find gun sales up in the weeks ahead. When do we begin to talk seriously about the freedom from fear of gun violence?

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Thinking Regionally

I was recently at a meeting of local teacher union presidents, a meeting called to take stock of where we are in our efforts to return the emphasis of our work to organizing rather that providing services. My sense of things from the discussion is that we have made some progress. Many locals have done some excellent work organizing around opting out of high stakes testing and voter participation. Yet, it’s clear that we have much more to do.

I was pleasantly surprised to find one of my colleagues taking up a cause I have long advocated – the need of locals to band together around essential collectively bargaining issues. It has been clear for anyone who has cared to notice, that school boards and their attorneys have collaborated and evolved a coherent, common agenda. Yet we cling to the notion that collective bargaining is a local issue. To see it as such while your adversaries work in concert regionally is nothing short of delusional. More importantly, it is ultimately inimical to the welfare of the members we are responsible to serve. It has had disastrous consequences.

Take for example the concerted attack on the increment system of paying teachers on the basis of experience. Almost every collective bargaining agreement made in the last few years has been financed by stealing the increment money from those who make the lowest salaries to give pittances to those at the top of the pay scale. How does it help to build and strengthen our movement to take money from our newest and often youngest members to give it to those who earn in many cases twice as much? What kind of solidarity is that? Many haven’t even gotten the full value of the increment to divide among their members. These deals are dubbed “negative money” by the other side, an allusion to the Triborough Law that says that salary schedule increments be paid even after the expiration of a contract. Thus if a contract is settled for less than the cost of increment, it is settled for “negative money.”

NYSUT, our state union, deserves credit for putting significant effort into encouraging locals to focus on organizing. The current leadership has worked hard to steer the organization back to its organizing roots. It’s time, however, to organize around collective bargaining issues. It’s time for whole regions of our state to declare that they will stand together against common management demands. And it’s time for our state organization to encourage such efforts. To be sure, they can’t force locals to participate. We are, after all, a confederation of locals. But just as our state organization promotes and encourages a collectively determined political action agenda, they ought to and have the means to promote regional collective bargaining agendas. Every local that feels obliged to accept negative money makes it that much harder for other locals to escape the same fate.

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A Very Good Day

I’ve been an ardent supporter of Bernie Sanders. I’ve been literally thrilled to see a democratic socialist like me give voice to ideas that I have long cherished and to see millions of Americans throng to his call for economic justice. I’m not surprised that Bernie lost the battle to be the Democratic nominee for president; I’m still amazed and encouraged by the fact that he got as far as he did.

Many in our ranks of education unionism were divided this primary season. Many did not like the move by our national leaders to an early endorsement of Hillary. Some are still engaged in the magical thinking that says Bernie still has a path to victory at the convention. Feeling are still sore on all sides. That’s to be expected.

But let’s try to begin the healing process with some sober reflection on the fact that America took a giant leap forward last night. A woman is now the nominee of one of our major political parties. Hillary accomplished that, and that accomplishment is not to be sneered at. Public education unionists who have made women’s equality part of their social justice agenda for years can all take pride in this historic event. If they haven’t done do, they need to listen to Hillary’s pitch-perfect speech last night, magnanimously praising Bernie and his campaign, acknowledging his energizing of progressives everywhere, locating her victory in the historic context of an ever-improving America, an ever more just nation, a nation seeking an ever more perfect union.

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Shame on Us

Forty-seven percent of the student body of Public School 188 in New York City is homeless. Students come and go, innocent victims of the economic vicissitudes of their parents. Their teachers desperately try to ameliorate the crime of poverty society has inflicted on these kids, getting them necessities like shoes and toothbrushes. Read this article and tell me that America cares about all its children. Read this article and explain how it is that the teachers of these impoverished children are supposed to meet the demands of the ed reformers to raise test scores and make them college and career ready. Read this article and explain how such conditions can exist in the richest country on the face of the earth. Read this article and explain how we can possibly be over-taxed if such conditions exist. Read this article and see if you don’t feel that we are all shamed for allowing children to live this way.

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What Are We Teaching Kids?

Listening to Market Report on NPR this morning, I got the latest insight into what is really wrong with America’s education system. I was astounded to hear that Goldman Sachs received 250,0000 applications for employment this graduation season – 250,000. I shouldn’t be so surprised. In recent scholarship interviews I have participated in, when asked where they see themselves in ten years, several have said they hope to be hedge fund managers. What does it say about our education system that so many young people seem so motivated by greed? Does this trend parallel the decline of the liberal arts as central to our education system? I’m much more worried about numbers like this than I am about standardized test scores.

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John King Strikes Again

Did anybody expect good things from John King, when on the verge of being run out of New York, the Obama administration selected him to replace Arne Duncan, himself a beleaguered education policy maker on the national level? So, it’s no surprise that Kings draft of the regulations implementing the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) proposes that 95 percent of students in a public school district must participate in the state’s high stakes tests or the district may suffer a penalty in the form of a cut in Title I funding.

That these regulations violate the spirit of not the letter of the recent legislation is clear. The whole focus of the bi-partisan ESSA was to return authority to the states to determine issues of standards and testing. But that doesn’t seem to matter to John King. A tool of the corporate education reform movement, King looks at the country and sees a growing national opt out movement threatening that movement. He remembers the power and fury of the opt-out movement in New York and how it made his position there untenable. He appears determined to use his brief time in Washington to try to use the economic power of the federal government stifle the voices of parents and educators who with increasing militancy are demanding an end to corporate reform movement’s rape of our nation’s public schools.

Our national union leaders ought to be questioning Hillary very carefully about her thoughts on this move by King to defeat the opt-out movement. Here in New York we have a right to know what our would-be majority leader Chuck Schumer thinks about this issue. Wouldn’t it be hopeful if he had one of his almost daily media events to demand end to this threat to a parent’s right to determine whether her child will participate in the state’s regime of high stakes tests?

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New York Standards

New York’s Commissioner of Education Elia is raising expectations modifications to the Common Core State Standards, probably to be billed as New York Standards. Supposedly, the coming changes, vetted by classroom teachers, will be more age appropriate than the standards currently in place. I have my doubts, however.

Years of highly successful reformist propaganda have left too many Americans with a belief that their public schools, even our best ones, are failing. Demand for schools that make children college and career ready has been ginned up to the point of hysteria where children are encouraged in the earliest grades to begin building their resumes to ensure that they will get into the best colleges and get the best jobs, probably in some STEM field. It extraordinarily hard to imagine in this super-heated education environment that standards will be promulgated that realistically align with the developmental needs of children. Does anyone believe that we will see standards that reflect an understanding of the role of public education in developing citizens of a democratic society? Will play be returned to its centrality to the learning of young children? Will we get a set of standards that encourages teachers to pause at teachable moments and have the kind of conversations that while absent from teacher evaluation rubrics can be the most important things that students take from a class, or will the new standards continue the rush to the intellectual emptiness of state examinations?

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Break Time

Winding down 30 plus years of union work, trying to bargain new contracts for all but one of my local’s units and the usual lunacies associated with the approaching end of a school year leave me with the need for a break from blog posting. Thanks to unused snow days tacked on to Memorial Day, that’s actually going to happen. I’ll be back on June 1. Please be sure to look for me.

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Driven By a Fear of Failure

There is an insatiable demand in upper middleclass school districts like mine for extra help, remedial or tutoring or whatever term we use to demand that something be done to assuage our adult anxiety that our children may not know all that they need to gain acceptance to Harvard and earn six figure incomes. That demand while it always existed to some degree has spun out of control in response to the advent of the Common Core State Standards and the tests aligned to them.

Little kids who are being asked to do intellectual things that their brains are not yet ready to do are subjected to extra hours of school only to come home to excessive homework and sessions with private tutors. Weekends are not free from school related activities either. Even summer vacations are often spent attending “camps” that are organized around academic pursuits. Even the devil would be impressed with how little time today’s kids have for idleness.

The process of building a winning resume begins early and quickly develops into a race of each against all, more AP classes, more extra-curricular activities , more service to the community, more extra help sessions, more private tutors, more SAT and ACT prep, more grade grubbing, more cheating, less sleep, less social interaction, less relaxation, less appreciation of learning and ideas. Got to get ahead. Go to get ahead. Got to get to an elite college. Why they have to do all of this is never seriously questioned, either by students or most of their parents. They ironically don’t appear to be equipped to raise such existential questions.

I sometimes think that there never was a generation of parents less confident of the ability of their children to become competent, accomplished adults. This fear of failure drives a relentless pressure to do more, achieve more. Success is tied to just one more tutoring session, one more extra-curricular activity. No calculus? You’re a failure, and, by the way, what’s wrong with your parents for not insisting that you take it? Don’t they want you to be college and career ready?

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It’s Just Business

Those who doubt that the Common Core State Standards and the high stake tests aligned to them are part of a corporate business plan rather than thoughtful educational proposals aimed at improving student performance need to read Jonathan Pelto’s current article in The Progressive. Pelto chronicles PARCC’s legal efforts to stifle any serious criticism of their Common Core tests. If their tests are as good as they claim, why all the threats against critics?

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Students and Teachers As Numbers

Why do we appear to think that unless you give teachers a score for their effectiveness, we are not holding them accountable? A law passed last year has local unions negotiation yet another number based mumbo-jumbo system for evaluating teachers at providing each one with a so-called HEDI Score, an acronym for ratings of highly effective, effective, developing and ineffective. Two of my colleagues and I spent part of yesterday afternoon working with central office counterparts on this exercise in futility. Basing our discussion on guidance documents from the state, documents that could serve English teachers as examples of how not to write, it was obvious to all of us that what we were doing had little, if anything, to do with the evaluation of teachers but was rather an exercise in professional pretense.

Here has been very little improvement, if any, upon the narrative observations of teachers that constituted teacher evaluations prior to the test based accountability reforms of recent years. Imperfect though they were, as good as the skill of the observer for the most part, they told a skilled reader more about the performance of teachers than the reducing a teacher’s work to a score. Union leaders and central office administrators will spend untold hours over the next few months developing teacher evaluation plans that will mean nothing to a single student,will further demoralize teachers and will discredit the politicians who sold out to the corporate school reform movement and passed the laws creating these foolish schemes.

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Yet Another Education Commission

New York State like many others is concerned about what is like to be a looming teacher shortage. It created a Teach New York Advisory Council to make proposals to make teaching a “mature practice profession” that will attract the best and brightest to invest their futures in public school teaching. The Council has issues its report. It addresses almost none of the reasons fewer young people are seeking to become teachers. In fact, if we were to force every college age students remotely thinking of entering the teaching profession to read the report, the recommendations would depress the numbers opting for education careers below the current trend. While here and there the report contains the germ of a worthwhile idea, most of it is an agglomeration of clichéd educationist gibberish that is just the kind of pseudo-scientific nonsense that drives teachers insane.

I have news for the writers of the report. There is a looming teacher shortage because teaching is becoming increasingly less enjoyable to do. More and more, the work is becoming routinized, scrutinized rather than supervised and under paid. The work is overseen by people who too often have leadership positions but no leadership skills. Notions of the continuous improvement of instruction send the message to teachers that they can never do enough, never give enough hours to be trusted. Despite all of their hard work, they are victimized by school reformist propaganda that incites the public to believe their schools are failing, when the fact point more clearly to society failing almost half of its children, leaving them mired in poverty and suggesting that education is all that is need to extricate them. In fact, a subtext of this report suggests that our schools are failing.

I have been a very lucky teacher. I had thirty-five very good years teaching in an environment where I was quickly able to satisfy my bosses that I was a serious teacher who didn’t need to be scrutinized. Trusted to do right by the students assigned to me, I had the freedom to exercise professional discretion as to how best to teach my students. I don’t recall being seconded guessed at any time. In short, I and the work I did were respected. Too many teachers today work in a very different environment, one that the Teach New York Advisory Council report does little to address beyond paying lip service to teacher professionalism.

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Let’s Use our Public Schools to Address Domestic Violence

If you walk through the halls of an American high school with a focused eye, it won’t be long before you come upon a boy treating a girl in an abusive manner, physically, verbally or both. If fact, I have the distinct sense after thirty-five years of teaching high school students, that one can to a reasonable degree of certainty spot the boys who will grow up to be serious abusers of women. I can’t count the number of girls I have counseled about getting out of abusive relationships with boys who treat them like possessions rather than people for whom they have affection. Yet, while most health education classes raise the issue, I don’t know of any schools that have a coherent, coordinated k-12 program to raise the consciousness of young people to the insidiousness of domestic violence in our country.

The grim domestic violence statistics suggest that such programs should be in order. A recent article in Huffington Post summarizes our national shame. Each day, three women are murdered by a current or former male partner. 38,028000 women report having experienced violence by an intimate partner. One in four women in the United States will experience violence at the hand of an intimate male partner. We read statistics like this, we see professional male athletes suspended for domestic violence, but it doesn’t seem to dawn on us that our public schools may be the place to begin to work with children on avoiding these behaviors. If not in our public schools, where are we going to work with children to rid ourselves of this scourge? That little boy pushing kindergarten girls around may well be acting out a behavior he has already learned from his father. We could begin to help him understand his behavior and change it.

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The Latest Bigotry

I have been both amused and horrified by the response to the Department of Education’s notice to the nation’s school districts that they are to provide that transgendered children are to be permitted to use the bathroom associated with the sex with which they identify. To hear the reaction, largely from southern Republican leaders one would think that the feds had revived the Civil War. “This will be the end of public education, if this prevails,” Texas Lieutenant Governor Patrick said. “People will pull their kids out, homeschooling will explode, private schools will increase.” Really?

It is momentarily amusing to listen to the stupidity, the banal ignorance of people who are seemingly incapable of any empathy for transgendered children. One’s amusement, however, quickly turns to revulsion as one understand their response as hatred of the other as blind and dangerous as hatred associated with race or ethnicity. These people are haters, albeit the press tends to present them as having principled positions against treating these children like we would treat anyone else. These are the people who conceive of homosexuality as a life-style choice, who see gays and lesbians as proselytizing; seeking to lure straight children to the illicit temptations of biblically prohibited human behavior. They’re not conservatives in any meaningful sense of that term. They are narrow-minded ignoramuses whose grip on reality is threatened by anything anyone different from them or anything that challenges their views on the way the world ought to be. They are threatened by the black, brown, foreign language speaking, the gay, the lesbian, the Muslim, the Jew – anyone or thing beyond their intimate experience.

For these haters, America will be great again only when millions of Americans are returned to living separately from the “regular people,” the white, the Christian the real American. These angry people can’t even allow themselves to pee with anyone different from them.

The good news in this entire national epidemic of ignorance is that the very children these bigots long to protect don’t appear to have any problem with sharing bathrooms with children who identify with their sex. Interviews done across the country by the New York Times indicate that most children don’t understand why many of their parents are making a big deal over who uses what bathroom. To the bigots’ horror, I suppose, this says something really good and uplifting about what is happening in our public schools where at least to some significant degree children are shedding the bigotry of their parents.

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Our Kids Know!

I spent the last two afternoons interviewing high school students in Plainview and Syosset for our unions’ Berkowitz Scholarships. The scholarship is name for a psychologist who worked in the Plainview schools for over 40 years and his wife who was an elementary school teacher in Syosset. In both schools I met some of the most academically accomplished kids from both school districts.

When asked to look back on their education and reflect on how they would evaluate it, almost to a person these very thoughtful young people talked about how it seems to them to be all about tests and grades rather than on learning anything. The last candidate I met has just finished her last Advanced Placement exam, one of five she had taken this year. She spoke at some length and with a precision unusual for people her age about how much of what she was expected to know for these exams was already becoming blurry to her. I was struck by how these winners of the competition to be academic top dogs saw the competition as simply an instrument to get to college, the next competition.

What a frightful mess we have made of public education. We bandy about words like rigor, critical thinking skills, inquiry and assorted other verbal subterfuges for the stark reality of test driven intellectual drivel across the grades. Our teachers know it. Our students know it. Increasingly our parents know it. Many of our administrators know it. Yet, day after day, we facilitate the mindless competition that ironically alienates children from learning we claim we want them to experience. The mental health professional in our schools report they are seeing more and more students who are over-stressed, anxiety ridden and in many cases physically breaking down under the strain of the inappropriate expectations we have of them. Is this what we mean by college and career ready?

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The Lederman Verdict

So Sheri Lederman, the Great Neck teacher who challenged the growth score portion of her teacher annual professional performance review, won her case. The court ruled that the value added methodology used to arrive at her score was arbitrary and capricious. The ruling is a moral victory, but unfortunately only applied to Lederman and to a particular evaluation she received. The law is now changed, although there is now an even bigger value added component. The fact is both this case and the ruling point to the difficulties and frustrations of seeking a judicial remedy for the pseudo-scientific bull-shit that has turned our schools into test prep institutions and will eventually choke all the life out of the school experiences of our children. It’s why each day I become a more fervent supporter of the opt-out movement, convinced as I am that it is only through civil disobedience that we will end the corporate assault on public education and our nation’s teachers. Sure, there are other legal cases in the hopper that may eventually give us better and broader verdicts, but how many years of curriculum constricting test prep must our children endure before that happened? How much more demoralization must our teacher experience?

Let’s use the Lederman verdict and its declaration that the value added method of evaluating teachers on the basis of student test scores is pointless – junk science if you will. Let’s use it to educate more parents to the wisdom of opting their children out of the tests that support value added evaluation. When almost no children take the test, there’s no value added anymore.

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