A Teachable Moment

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

Look North for Desirable Ed Outcomes

I wrote yesterday about the very serious disconnect between what we know about the growth and development of children and what the education reform agenda expects children to be able to do. More specifically, I focused as I often do on the importance of play to their physical, emotional and intellectual growth and the erosion of our understanding of its centrality to our early childhood education programs. Those thought led me to see how our Canadian neighbors educate their young children. I haven’t looked at all of the provinces yet, but I was impressed and amazed at what I found in the Province of Saskatchewan.

The curriculum guide for kindergarten is a document clearly written by educators and informed by what we know about children. The importance of play is everywhere in the guide, as is the recognition that the goal is to link the natural curiosity of children with more formal education. Nowhere that I could see was there any talk about making 5 year-olds college and career ready. No asinine statements about making children internationally competitive. When one reads the document, one is struck with the concern for the welfare of children to be found on every page.

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To Be Human is to Play

If you didn’t hear this morning’s NPR piece on the importance of free-play to the development of the brains of young children, spend four minutes and listen now. After you do, think about what the early grades of our best public schools look like today, with less and less time for play and more and more stultifyingly stupid exercises in what we pretend to be higher order thinking but which are at best age inappropriate, at worst child abuse. Need a little motivation to listen? The brain researcher interviewed in the piece suggests that it is from free play that our brains are prepared for “life, love and even school work.”

I’ve come to believe that we will look back at this era of so-called ed reform as a self-inflicted wound, a time during which we allowed corporate scam artists and the craven politicians in their employ to victimize our nation’s children, literally robbing them of a portion of their humanity by stunting that portion of their growth and development that appears to be genetically programed to require free play to be activated. Increasingly, science is validating what my parents and teachers intuitively knew but which we have been hoodwinked into forgetting – children are biologically designed to play. If we are serious about making them college, career and life ready, we had better make time for them to do it.

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Campbell Brown

Last Thursday, Campbell Brown appeared on the Stephen Colbert show to tout her support for a law suit challenging the teacher tenure laws of New York State. While many of my union colleagues appear from their social media comments to think that Colbert exposed her as an enemy of public education, and while at moments in her appearance I felt like throttling her for the patent inaccuracies of her comments, the fact of the matter is I believe her skills as a TV personality were clearly in evidence. To Colbert’s satiric challenges to her ideas about tenure, she responded with gracious laughter. When explaining why she was supporting this law suit, her facial expressions and body language conveyed a sincere empathy for the plight of disadvantaged children and a deeply felt moral commitment to help them. In short, to viewers opposed to due process for teachers, she puts an attractive, sympathetic face on their radical, right-wing ideas. To those who haven’t really thought about teacher tenure, I suspect she inoculated herself from those who will try to portray her as a flaming, right-wing radical. If we are going to beat her in the arena of public opinion, step one is to recognize that she is a skilled opponent.

Step two is to recognize that logic and facts may sadly not be the best tools against her. Her message is not aimed at our higher faculties. She appeals to our reflexive response to children in jeopardy. Why aren’t we doing something to help these kids who are not learning the things they will need to be productive adults. It’s the teacher union and their tenure laws that prevent us from helping these defenseless children.

So far about the best responses to that appeal to defend children in jeopardy are things like Diane Ravitch offered today, where she tells the story of the attempt to discharge a tenured New Jersey teacher for drawing attention to a sweetheart contract between his board of education and a relative of a board member. Responses like this (and I think that we have many like it), appeal to people’s sense of fairness. A video with this teacher telling his story and what it did to him and his family would be even better. Teachers intuitively believe that facts and figures win arguments. In politics, it’s often which side connects with the public’s emotions. Progressives tend to not want to believe that, but they do so to their disadvantage.

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NYSUT’S Endorsement for Governor

Each day brings me new reasons for opposing the re-election of Andrew Cuomo. I’ve written extensively about his vile education policy, his pandering to New York City’s financial and real estate interests – his anti-tax policies and in general his failure to support policies aimed at helping working people.

On August 11, our state union, NYSUT, will hold its endorsement conference. While I don’t believe the leadership will seek the endorsement of Cuomo (Their credibility with the rank and file would be shot if they did.), I am concerned about the possibility of a position of no endorsement.

At a time when the credibility of NYSUT is at its lowest, a position of no endorsement would be a disaster. Members want their union to stand for something. The previous leaders of NYSUT were deposed in large measure because of their accommodationist policies, policies that brought us an absurd teacher evaluation process and the abjectly stupid implementation of the Bill Gates bought and paid for Common Core State Standards. To not stand up against Cuomo, even though we know he will probably win, would be to seriously weaken the bonds between the membership and our leaders in Albany.

I will go to the conference to argue for the endorsement of the Green Party’s slate of Howie Hawking and Brian Jones. While I will vote for Zephyr Teachout in the Democratic primary, there is very little chance that she will be on the ballot in November. Hawkins and Jones just put out an open letter to teachers in advance of the NYSUT endorsement conference. I would ask my readers to consider it carefully. I believe if you do, you will see that the Hawkins/Jones ticket is right on education, right on the environment, right on the economy and right on making Albany work all the citizens of New York State. If you agree and are a member of a NYSUT local, see if you can encourage your president to endorse the Hawkins/Jones ticket. Let’s feel good about casting our ballots in November

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Hoboken Admits Ed Technology Failure

Kudos to the Hoboken, New Jersey school system for cooperating with WNYC on a story that documents that school district’s failed costly experiment with providing high school students with tablet computers. Most of what one tends to hear these days is a seemingly monotonous chorus chanting the largely assumed virtues of infusing technology into the academic programs of our schools. No one seems to want to recognize that we’ve had over ten years of this infusion without any demonstrable evidence of its efficacy except perhaps at the margins.

The Hoboken experiment was a disaster essentially because teenagers will be teenagers. Although the district did buy hardened tablets recognizing that the kids would be hard on them, they failed to consider the possibility that they would quickly be left with a pile of broken, useless computers that they would have to pay some outfit to cart away. They also failed to consider how enticing it would be for teenagers to be distracted from their lessons by the internet constantly in front of them.

How many other Hobokens are there out there who don’t have the guts to publicize their failure? Does anyone know how much we spend nationally on school hardware and computer programs, constantly updating them every time the tech companies come out with a new version? Have we thought seriously, beyond the clichés of individualized instruction, 21st century education and global competition and all of the other cant that shrouds the subject of educational technology, about the wisdom of pouring more and more increasingly scarce dollars into projects like this? Hoboken suggests that it would be worth our effort to do so.

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The Common Core Addiction

The two national teacher unions cling to their support for the Common Core State Standards like an addicted smoker to his butts. One of the most curious arguments in support of their position has been the claim that to drop our support for the Standards would be to leave us with nothing, exposing us to the charge that we aren’t for anything other than the status quo. This was the argument made by Karen Magee, the recently elected President of New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), in the debate at the AFT Convention pitting supporters of the Standards led by Michael Mulgrew and the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and Karen Lewis and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) who vehemently oppose the Common Core. Why Magee who campaigned against the Common Core should make such a speech is a subject for a future post. How it strengthens us to support the Standards because we fear how we will look if we don’t is left unexplained. No one in high places in either of our two national unions seems to be questioning how we look as more and more of the public turns from support for the standards. A recent poll of New York State voters showed 49% want the implementation of the Standards stopped. If we look at union households, many of which are NYSUT members, the poll finds 57% against the Common Core. It’s time for the leaders of our national unions to do a Diane Ravitch, forthrightly announce that they have been wrong, although they had the best of intentions, and join the opposition.

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Forget the T-Word

Tenure has become a dirty word. The political right with the assistance of too many Democrats has masterfully succeeded in redefining tenure to mean lifetime employment for teachers without the possibility of being fired for cause. Thus, the narrative goes, there are hordes of incompetent, ineffective teachers standing in front of the nation’s public school classrooms effectively preventing the neediest students from achieving all that they are capable of becoming. So completely have the enemies of public education subverted the meaning of tenure that public discourse about the status of America’s schools is more focused on negative effects of tenure than on the real enemy of student achievement, poverty.

At the recent summer meeting of the National Council of Urban Education Associations (NCUEA), I listened to a legal update by NEA General Counsel Alice O’Brien. In talking about the about the recent Vergara decision that struck down California’s tenure law, O’Brien very conspicuously avoided the use of the word tenure, substituting “professional status” instead. That’s a much better, more positively charged expression than the current understanding of tenure.

A new teacher to a district serves a probationary period, in most place of three years duration. During that time they are carefully assessed and are essentially at will employees, meaning they can be fired in most places with as little as thirty days notice. After a three year period to prove their worthiness, they are awarded professional status. Having proven themselves worthy of professional status, they become entitled to due process before that professional status can be taken from them. Medical doctors accused of unprofessional conduct get a due process hearing as do most licensed professionals.

The battle for the public mind is often a linguistic challenge. O’Brien’s suggestion in this regard is a good one. Let’s start talking about professional status and forget the T-word.

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A Foolish Consistency?

When did it become the fashion to envy national systems of public education? When I began in this work, the joke was that in countries like France, every kid in the same grade was doing the exact same thing at any given moment of any give school day. We Americans thought that funny and far inferior to our locally controlled schools in which determined what was taught and when. I remember too my Peace Corps years working in Ghana with expats from the United Kingdom whose university studies, unlike our undergraduate education, were focused on one subject. How educationally stunted some of them seemed to me.

Central to the Common Core State Standards is an envy of this European homogeneity. Somehow the uniformity of the Standards is going to life the poor out of their poverty, make us more internationally competitive and probably cure cancer at the same time. Why is it then that the United States, with its locally controlled public schools, has been the world’s predominant economic power? Why is it that the dynamism of our economy is the envy of the world? Why is it that so many want to send their children to the U.S. for higher education? Are we really sure we desire homogenized mediocrity?

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NEA’s New President the Highlight of AFT Convention

For those of us who have watched the foolishness that has kept the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teacher (AFT) apart and often fighting one another, this morning’s session of the AFT convention was a truly unexpected and deeply appreciated experience.

Here was Randi Weingarten talking about seeking a new relationship with the NEA introducing Lily Eskelsen-Garcia, the newly elected President of the NEA, moving in and of itself. But then Lily, a gifted public speaker, starts talking about her life of doing what others never expected her to do, building on that theme to the climax of declaring that we ought to defy expectations – that we are NEA/AFT brothesr and sisters who are going to work together, arm in arm against our common enemies. In the tortured history of our two unions, that’s a very big deal.

If there is anyone in NEA leadership with the ability to move those in the NEA who have historically opposed cooperation with the AFT and who killed the last attempt at merger, it’s Lily. She takes office with the almost universal affection of the membership and an enviable ability to speak to their hearts. Should she begin to use the NEA presidency to move those who oppose the AFT and the AFL/CIO, should she undertake to target the NEA state affiliates who torpedoed the last attempt at merger, I’m betting she will succeed. Should she do so, her status as a heroine of our movement would be assured.

A convention that was otherwise notable for the timidity of the positions taken by the delegates, Weingarten’s decision to invite Eskelsen-Garcia to speak and Eskelsen Garcia’s call to work together “arm in arm” was enough for me to see this as the most successful union convention I’ve been to in a long time.

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AFT Opens Its Convention

Like the NEA, the AFT has as its convention theme organizing, organizing to regain the promise of America. Yet also like the NEA, it’s not exactly sure of what it wants to organize. There must be a couple of thousand delegates here in Los Angeles. One would think that an organizing union would send them all home with some specific organizing tasks. How powerful would it be if the Common Core Standards were divided up among the state organizations and each asked to put together a panel of experts to re-write? That’s right. Let’s create a rival set of national standards, developed by teachers and informed by the experiences of people who have actual classroom experience. Get teachers across the country to field test them and then offer them to the nation, free of charged and standardized test free.

Too bold? Let’s do something simple. Let’s work with the NEA and get every teacher in America’s public schools to sign a post card demanding the resignation of Arne Duncan. But don’t waste the opportunity of bringing thousands of union together to talk about organizing without some organizing project for them to do.

On a more positive note, AFT President Randi Weingarten in her address to the convention referenced the recent passage by the NEA Representative Assembly of a new business item calling for Duncan’s resignation. Even more surprising was her call for closer cooperation with the NEA and her announcement that incoming NEA President Lily Eskelsen-Garcia will speak to the AFT on Monday. Maybe the attacks on unions and public education are finally causing our national leaders to recognize how much more should unite us than separate us.

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NEA RA – Some Thoughts

Some thoughts on the recently concluded NEA Representative Assembly. They’re more first impressions rather than carefully thought out ideas, but I know that I will be thinking and writing more completely about them in the future.

I both understand and am angered by what I see as the blind support of African American NEA leaders for many of the administration’s ed policies. They appear to broadly accept the Obama/Duncan view that the Common Core State Standards are going to significantly lift minority children out of poverty. How that happens, no one seems to articulate beyond repeating incessantly that if we hold all children to high standards, they will meet them.

When the teachers in my upper middle class district tell me that about a third of our students are floundering with the CCSS, how can anyone believe that children who begin school with a documented achievement gap are going to thrive academically when highly advantaged children aren’t? Where in the CCSS is the magic that is going to raise up the children who until now have been largely forgotten by society. This time, I fear, African Americans will be had by one of their own, not that that makes this stupidity any less revolting.

The RA passed a resolution calling for the resignation of Arne Duncan, something some of us tried to pass three times before only to be defeated by NEA leadership fearful of offending the President and losing their seat at the table, albeit at their master’s feet. The mood has clearly changed. What’s needed is leadership to galvanize the growing anger of the membership into a movement. Incoming President Lily Eskelsen Garcia has all the skills to do that. Whether she has the brains and heart to do so is unknown. If she like too many leaders becomes the mouthpiece for NEA Executive Director John Stocks, nothing good will happen. Stocks talks about organizing at every NEA meeting I’ve been at. The more he talks about it and the more I get to talk to staff who are assigned to his “organizing” priorities, the more convinced I am that he is in way over his head. With all of the talk about organizing, once again the NEA assembled close to nine thousand union activists to a meeting and did nothing to send each one home with a task to do around a national organizing drive. It’s enough to make people like me crazy.

Finally, there were several new business items that sought to investigate the magnitude of the contributions of people like Bill Gates to the NEA. Those efforts were beaten back, but I sense the members’ desire for transparency in this regard is growing. They know their leaders have essentially been co-opted and seem to want to expose the extent to which they have been sold pernicious ideas about testing and teacher accountability by corporate elites with no legitimate interest in improving the nation’s schools. Were I Lily, I might open the books on this issue to signal an abrupt, clean break with the policies of the past.

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No One to Vote For

While there is an election for president of the NEA this week, the result is a forgone conclusion, Lily Eskelsen Garcia being the only candidate for the job. There is one contested office, secretary treasurer, where two candidates, Princess Moss and Greg Johnson are vying for the position. Try as one might, he can’t get any idea of what any of the candidates will do if elected, not one publishing anything like an agenda. Thus, close to three million members send nine thousand delegates to Denver to vote for officers and members of the union’s executive committee and none of the delegates has the slightest idea of what any of these people will do. History suggests that they will do nothing to ease the burdens of a membership that is being reformed to death by the corporate interests that want to destroy their unions and drive them into the private sector where the invisible hand of the market can slap them around, driving down their wages and benefits. There will be a lot of talk about organizing this week, but not one speaker will offer an organizing agenda that taps into the rage seething in the membership.

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Partial Public Employees?

The reasoning of Justice Alito in the Harris v. Quinn case should give Americans pause. Finding that the home health care workers, while paid by the state, are really the clients of the patients they serve, thereby making them only “partial” public employees. The union representing them, therefore, is not entitled to the agency fee for those who choose not to join the union but who enjoy all of the benefits. Partial public employees?

The home health care workers in question are paid by the state, work according to the terms and conditions of their union’s contract with the state. Yet Alito sees them as less than whole. His reasoning brings to mind the three fifths compromise written into the Constitution in 1787 which rendered slaves as three fifths human.

While most public sector unions are breathing a sigh of relief today, that relief will be short lived. Alito sees agency fee as having a “questionable” basis in law and appears to be looking for a case to shoot down agency fee altogether. For now, his opinion, joined by four other justices hostile to labor unions, will only impact the ability of the unions representing the home health care workers to extend the pay and benefits of these low wage workers. We shouldn’t be surprised that a court that sees corporations as having the same rights as human beings doesn’t give a damn about the needs of the working poor.

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A Sign of Hope?

I’ve been attending the summer meeting of the National Council of Urban Education Associations (NCUEA), a caucus within the National Education Association (NEA). The support of NCUEA for a new business item or resolution is often a harbinger of its success at the NEA Representative Assembly. Among the new business items discussed was a pair of new business items which taken together call for the resignation of Arne Duncan, partnership with the American Federation of Teachers and other organizations to end the scourge of high stakes testing and the organizing of a national day of protest against testing and the conditions that it furthers.

Much the same item failed at past meetings, union leaders uncomfortable attacking the Obama administration, an administration it helped to elect. This time, however, it passed by a substantial, suggesting that NEA leaders have had enough and are willing to buck their national leadership and organize to fight back. It will be interesting to see if the NEA Representative Assembly feels the same. That vote comes later this week.

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Duncan’s Ignorance

“It’s not enough for a state to be compliant if students can’t read or do math. We must have a system that will do more than just measure compliance.” So said our illustrious Secretary of Education on announcing a move by the federal government to force states to demonstrate that their special education students are making progress towards becoming proficient in reading and math.

Let’s recognize that there are places where special education students are not held to reasonable expectations and that minorities bear a special burden in this area. Realistic efforts to correct this problem are laudable. But let’s also recognize that Duncan’s belief that if we just have high enough expectations and “a robust curriculum,” special education students will excel is a distortion of reality. Put more bluntly, it’s just plain stupidity raised to national policy by a man whose ignorance in these matters has become a cruel joke.

I spent half my teaching career in an affluent school district known for the richness of its special education program teaching spec ed kids in the mainstream. I taught basically the same language and literature curriculum to these children as the regular education kids received, but I taught it differently, very differently and with different expectations. Contrary to Duncan’s belief, and despite my best effort, they didn’t excel in the sense that Duncan uses that word, most of them passing the state English examination, but just passing, many of them having had to make a herculean effort to do so.

Once again, data driven dunces like Duncan set schools up for failure. I saw progress almost every day I taught, but it often was not the kind of progress that shows up on standardized tests. To people like Duncan and the crowd that spends its days talking college and career ready gibberish, that progress has no meaning.

I’m off to the NEA and AFT conventions. I’m told there will be a No Confidence vote in Duncan at NEA. Such a motion failed once before. It will be interesting to see if the delegates have finally had enough. I’ll be blogging periodically during these meetings. Stay tuned.

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From California to New York

We knew it wouldn’t be long before the Vergara decision declaring California’s tenure law unconstitutional would prompt law suits in other states, particularly in ones with high profile unions. With the “reformers” notching a victory in California, the obvious next place to achieve a dramatic impact was New York, and, sure enough, it’s in the works.

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal announced that former news anchor turned education reformer Campbell Brown has found some plaintiffs to bring a challenge to the tenure and seniority laws of New York. The big lie impelling these suits is that but for tenure and seniority statutes, school managements would be free to fire the hordes of incompetent teachers standing in front of our nation’s classrooms preventing our youth from succeeding academically. These law cases are just one prong in a carefully designed strategy to attack and cripple teacher unions which have been the frontline defense against the privatizing profiteers who are hell-bent on turning our public schools into profit centers.

Curb collective bargaining, challenge public sector agency shop laws, attack tenure and seniority, spread the big lie that teacher unions exist only to defend mediocrity and encourage the belief in exploited minorities that their children can only be saved by a privatized system in which they are empowered to choose where and how their children are educated. Spread this anti-public education venom through a multi-media bombardment of the public financed by billionaire bankrollers engaged in what amounts to predatory giving, or as my friend Dave Linton calls it “giving to get.” That’s what we’re up against. I wish I saw our strategy as clearly.

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I’m getting Greener Every Day

Sunday, I attended a house party for Howie Hawkins, the Green Party candidate for Governor of New York. I voted for Hawkins last time, unable to pull the lever for Andrew Cuomo even before he had a chance to damage public education in our state. I’m going to vote for him again, this time with more enthusiasm.

I’m tired of voting for Democrats who aren’t members of the party I grew up in, one that represented working people. The party I grew up in believed in the ideals expressed by Franklin Roosevelt in his 1944 State of the Union speech in which he argued for a second Bill of Rights for Americans. Roosevelt asked Americans to believe it possible for people to be guaranteed a job at living wages, decent housing, medical care, education and enough income to provide adequate food clothing and recreation. He looked forward to a system in which farmers would be able to earn a living from their crops and business people were free of predatory monopolies. Mind you, he talked about all of this amid World War II. Successive generations of Democrats would champion civil right and respect for the environment. I used to be proud to be a Democrat. The party stood on high the moral ground of trying to make our economic and political systems work for the betterment of its citizens. The party that used to believe in these ideals helped to create and grow the middle class.

As Hawkins says it, Democrats today appear to want to repeal the New Deal, not extend it. In most elections we are given a choice between them and today’s Republicans who seems to want to repeal The Enlightenment. Some choice for working people.

I don’t think for a minute that Hawkins is going to be elected governor of New York, but what I know is his ideas are more like mine than any other candidate’s. He believes in a living wage for workers and supports a $15 per hour minimum wage indexed to the productivity of the American worker. He believes in progressive taxation – you make more, you pay more. He supports single payer health care for all. He believes that the unemployed who wish to work should be able to do so, if need be in a state funded WPA-style jobs program. Hawkins and the Green Part support the idea of our being 100% clean energy by 2030. Finally, and most importantly for an education union leader like me, he stands for an end to high stakes testing, the Common Core State Standards and the full-funding of public education, K through college.

Political positions are one thing, character another. What I like most about Howie Hawkins is that he works for a living. He’s a good union member working for UPS. He lives in the heart of Syracuse. When you listen to him talk, you realize that here is a man who has spent his life working for progressive causes, not building a political resume. The battles of working people for justice punctuate his almost every sentence. I love the idea that he has to take an unpaid leave of absence from his UPS job to run for another that he knows odds are he can’t win. It’s important to him to keep progressive ideas alive.

While Howie Hawkins may not win the governorship of New York, if I and progressive people like me who think it is possible to build a better more just society cast our vote for him, we just might breathe some life into the Democratic Party and turn it back towards its roots. My union colleagues who were so disappointed at the Working Families Party endorsement of Cuomo have a logical and comfortable place to go. There is nothing of significance in the platform of the Green Party and Howie Hawkins that doesn’t match up well with the principles and policies of our unions. It’s time to put our money, resources and votes behind the things we believe in instead of behind people we know will betray us after Election Day.

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A Small Step Forward

So New York now has a moratorium on the consequences of the Common Core high stakes tests for both students and teachers where student scores cause a teacher to be judged “developing” or “ineffective.” That’s not a small thing to the teachers in some districts who were clobbered last year.

However, it is, as NYSUT President Karen Magee suggested, a first step in what has to be a process of finding a teacher evaluation system that hold teachers accountable for what they can be reasonably expected to do. This legislation does nothing to stop the absurdity of forcing all children to meet a set of standards that take no account of what children are able to do at various stages of their development. Neither does it give us a sane testing policy, one aimed at informing instruction rather than disciplining and punishing.

I’m sure Governor Cuomo thinks NYSUT now owes him an endorsement for his generous easing of the consequences of high stake testing on our members. I hope we’ll be smarter than that. I hope we’ll put time, money and effort behind a candidate who will offer a vision of a real, developmentally appropriate education for every child in our state, an education that prepares our children to learn, not to qualify for the next school or job, one that enables them to be engaged citizens of a society in which the quality of life improves with each generation.

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Mired in Stupidity

Teachers in New York are anxiously waiting to see if their elected representatives in Albany can find their way out of a gross stupidity of their own making. In their budget agreement this year, they lifted the consequences of the state’s high stakes tests said to be aligned with the Common Core State Standards, while leaving teachers to be evaluated in part on the basis of student results on those same examinations. Reports for days have talked about intense negotiations over this issue. Reportedly, our friend Arne Duncan is sending the message that if we untie student test results from teacher evaluations even for a year or two, our Race to the Top money could be in jeopardy. So there we are. Mired in stupidity and hoping that by the wee hours of the morning, one of our elected clowns will have an idea.

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Been There- Done That

When I was in 8th grade, someone in the leadership of New York City’s schools decided that it would be a good idea to combine the instruction of English and social studies, calling it Core. While I remember a great deal about 7th grade English and social studies, I remember nothing about 8th grade except for the fact that I was stuck in an excruciatingly boring class for what seemed an eternity each day.

About 15 years later, after I’m an established English teacher, I’m asked by a respected colleague in the social studies department to consider teaching a parallel course in American literature to her honors American history section. Although skeptical about blending the two disciplines, such was my respect for Pat that I decided to give it a try. In those days, we required no approval by the superintendent of schools or the board of education. If we could convince the principal to give us the same kids for one period each day, we were free to try something new. Imagine being able to do that today. That’s a whole other post.

Pat and I gave it our best shot, working many extra hours to coordinate our lessons. From my perspective, I hated having teach the curriculum as a chronological survey course, it being more important to me with young students of English to teach them how to read literature critically than it is to demonstrate how it emerges from a particular moment in intellectual and artistic history, or a writer’s imaginings of that time. The pace of the class was determined by a historical timeline rather than my perception of what my students needed at the moment. Pat seemed to like it more than I, but it turned our she was just more reluctant to voice her concerns.

At the end, we talked about the year among ourselves and our students. Neither of us thought it was worth doing again. Neither of us felt we had done as good a job with our subject as we could have independently. Both of us felt that an interdisciplinary approach had more meaning with students who already had enough knowledge to draw the kinds of connections the course was designed to elicit. Unlike most experiments in k-12 education, ours was not doomed to success.

I found myself thinking about my experiences with interdisciplinary education as I listened to a presentation to our board of education by our middle school principals who want to do some block scheduling in 6th grade to combine the teaching of English and social studies and math and science. This decision appears to have been prompted by the desire of some teachers for additional time for math, time made necessary by the implementation of the Common Core State Standards. Somehow, a perceived need on the part of some teachers for some additional math time got morphed into the Core I experienced as a kid.

I hope to be around when the next innovators suggest that we go back to traditional 6th grade class in which one teacher taught most everything in her own way, in her own rhythm.

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