A Teachable Moment

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

Where We Do Fail

If America’s schools are failing, it’s not because they aren’t turning our college and career ready young people. Our failure has nothing to do with calculus, coding STEAM or bream for that matter. We are failing in any number of areas that will prejudice the current generation’s ability to cope with major political and social issues facing our nation. Were I given the task of writing a curriculum that would stimulate students to think deeply and develop problem solving strategies, I would focus on many areas currently virgin territory in most of our public schools. Here’s a beginning list. I’d be interested in what you might add.

We spend far too little time looking at and discussing the media environment in which our students are growing up. In a world awash in information, how does one know what is important – what is reliable? In a world in which people can individualize their sources of information and entertainment, what challenges does that pose to the bonds that link us as a people? In an environment in which information moves at the speed of light, a world in which we are bombarded by messages that change from second to second, what are the effects of that bombardment on human beings? What can they do to avoid some of the known dangers?

My curriculum would have children talking about freedom. What is political freedom? Does the right to vote mean the same thing to people of different social classes? Do I care about voting if I’m hungry? How does a society appropriately balance freedom and responsibility? Is that government best that governs least? Can we balance our desire for a free society with our technological ability to know almost everything about everybody at any moment?

What does it mean to be American? Are we an exceptional people? How did we get to be exceptional? What does it mean to call a work of art or music American? What does what we eat say about us? Why do we cling to being Italian Americans, Irish Americans, German Americans etc.? Is e pluribus unum a noble goal or a reality?

What are our duties to others as citizens of the nation, as fellow ethical human beings? What demands does a society appropriately make on its citizens? Are there alternative motivators to greed? If we could wipe our memories of who we are , our social status and how our society is organized, what kind of society would it be in our self-interest to make? What are a citizen’s responsibilities in a free society?

What are our responsibilities to our environment, to the life that comes after us? What can one person do to manage the threats to our planet? What’s the deal on climate change? Is it a hoax as some maintain? How can one know?
To be sure this is only a partial list. To be sure, it’s hard to demonstrate how the pursuit of any of these questions promotes one’s ability to earn a living. One can certainly get into college without thinking about most of them. Yet, it seems to me undeniable that their inclusion in a good public school curriculum would yield something far more important – a more enlightened, more engaged more cohesive, more democratic society – the goal of the originators of the public school.

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9/11 and Our Escape from Freedom

We will be reminded all day of the tragic events of what has been seared into American memory as 9/11. The focus of most commentary will be on the tragic loss of life. Yet, the lasting effect of that series of events, an effect that that seems to spread malignantly and which threatens the very nature of what it has meant to be American is the metastasizing erosion of our freedom. We will be told that the world has changed, but as I wrote some time ago, “The real change has less to do with world events and technological innovation than with our diminishing capacity to be outraged by the lame justification for the erosion of freedom and decency. There is nothing inevitable about surrendering our freedom and accepting constant surveillance. That is a choice we make. And that hasn’t changed.”

So, on this 9/11, let’s pause and consider the extent to which the terrorist attacks on that day accomplished their purpose way beyond the killing and property damage they caused. We are now almost constantly surveilled, our public places hardened to the point of being unwelcoming, our phone calls and emails are monitored, public library records open to scrutiny, we go almost nowhere without photo-ID. Last night President Obama talked about how Americans are for freedom in the world. I sadly have to disagree. The America I see is increasingly willing to sacrifice its freedom for the illusion of safety. It frightens the hell out of me. 9/11 contributed mightily to this willingness.

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Cuomo Rebuked

I suspect Andrew Cuomo is seething with anger this morning. His opponent Zephyr Teachout got a bit more than a third of the vote in election that the New York Times was calling “…an embarrassing rebuke to Mr. Cuomo, [which] … could put a dent in any national aspirations he may hold.” While the Nassau County results are not yet available, Teachout got 43% of the Suffolk County vote, suggesting that the teacher unions and the opt-out movement activists did a good job of turning their members out. We can only imagine what we might have been able to accomplish if NYSUT and some of the other public employee unions has had the guts to take Cuomo on.

Those of us who supported Teachout/Wu have a decision to make. Do we now support Cuomo, stay out of the governor’s race or support Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins. I intend to ask the executive board of my local union for an endorsement of the Hawkins/Jones ticket. While a life-long Democrat, I have for some time stopped voting for people who call themselves Democrats but whose policies are more closely aligned to those of Ronald Reagan than to Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Take a look at how the Hawkin campaign talks about public education.

Once upon a time, I would have had a Working Families Party candidate to vote for instead of Cuomo. That party, however, has betrayed its name and supported Cuomo. The only place for progressive Democrats to comfortably go in this election is with Hawkins and the Green Party whose positions on education, the economy and the environment sync beautifully the beliefs and values of most of the labor movement.

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A Senseless Error

Why the hell is the president of a national teachers union getting herself involved in a state election in which the state affiliate has taken no position? As preposterous as that sounds, that’s exactly what AFT President Randi Weingarten has done by making a robo-call yesterday on behalf of Kathy Hochul, Andrew Cuomo’s choice for lieutenant governor. In doing so, she has further inflamed many NYSUT members who were already embittered by what they see as their state organization’s cowardly failure to take on a governor whose policies have cheapened and degraded their profession. Did she think that calling on behalf of Hochul wouldn’t be seen as a tacit endorsement of Cuomo? Does she think the membership that stupid? Or did she simply fail to think, her mind clouded by her personal need to maintain her insider credentials among the political elite? Whatever her reason, that call was a whopping, flatfooted, tin-eared mistake. Looking on the bright side, the call will up the turn-out today for the Teachout/Wu ticket.

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Hillary and Cuomo

The endorsement of Andrew Cuomo by Hillary Clinton was not only disheartening but raises significant concerns as to where she stands on education issues. Throughout the Obama presidency, education unionists have suffered buyer’s remorse, wallowing in a state of what might have been if Hillary had won the nomination and become our president.

Beyond question, Hillary was aware that NYSUT had not endorsed Cuomo. It is also fairly certain that she was aware of a strong body of opinion within the NYSUT ranks that thinks NYSUT’s failure to endorse Teachout was a major blunder by a new cadre of leaders who can’t seems to define a new political agenda for our union. Hillary clearly calculated that we would not hold the Cuomo endorsement against her and that she could support and incumbent governor whose political operation is financed by the same investment, banking and real estate interests who have historically supported the Clintons, the same interests who have been bankrollers of the school reform agenda in New York.

We ought to be making it clear to Hillary that our support for her cannot be counted on. She needs to know that we remember Bill Clinton’s efforts at national standards in his Goals 2000 the prominence of standardized testing in his federally supported state based standards program. Perhaps the best way to start to pin her down on education issues is to begin a little flirtation with Elizabeth Warren , although it’s not entirely clear what Warren’s positions on public education are either, she having said some disturbing things on vouchers in the past.

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Exercise and Standards

I remember sitting in elementary school, trying to stretch my legs without drawing attention to myself, being careful not to let my feet protrude into the aisle lest Miss Truelsen came by and stepped on them saying, “Excuse me!” in a tone that made clear that this was no accident. I remember watching the clock, trying to telepathically move the hands to noon so I could get up and run home to lunch, longing more for the activity than the meal my mother was preparing. What torture it was to sit for so many hours. I suspect today’s kids see it pretty much the same. School still straight-jackets kids whose bodies instinctively rebel against restraint.

I was prompted to recall these days by an article in the Times reporting on a study that sought to see the relationship between physical activity and children’s ability to concentrate. What do you know; exercise improved the ability children’s powers of concentration. I could have told you that when I was in third grade. More interestingly, exercise improved the ability of kids diagnosed with ADHA significantly. How sad that schools across the country are cutting back on physical education. It seems that vigorous daily exercise should probably be a central part of sensible education standards. Have you heard any reformers talking about this/

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Time for Regents to Fade Away

Isn’t time for New York to do away with the Regents? Isn’t it time that citizens be able to hold their elected representatives accountable for education policies rather than having the un-elected Regents as a buffer between the citizenry and the people we elect? How different things would be if that were the case. With polls increasingly showing waning public support for New York’s education policies, we could conceivably change them as soon as January first. Instead, led by the imperious Ms. Tisch, the Regents are talking about doubling down on the abject stupidity of tying teacher evaluations to student results on high stakes tests that are increasingly divorced from any sane notions of the age appropriate education of children. It’s time for the Regents to fade into the history of education in our state.

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Career Ready?

In the days when we had what we called comprehensive high schools, there was a real sense in which we turned out students who were career ready. Every day on my way to work I pass a busy auto repair shop owned and operated by a graduate of our schools who spent a significant part of each of his school days in our auto shop program, receiving top-notch training in the care and repair of cars. I occasionally run into another student who when last we met owned three auto body shops, shops that he runs with skills learned in our auto-body program. I once knew kids who learned to be master woodworkers, hand making furniture and learning carpentry skills that they have since used to earn a better living than many of the teachers I represent. All that’s gone now, victim to what are misconstrued as higher standards. It’s a bitter that irony that the more we talk about our schools turning out career ready students, the less we offer anything that prepares students to earn a living right out of high school. I guess that’s why I get a rush of righteous anger every time I hear some dumbbell talks about how we have to prepare career ready students.

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Dems Need to Send a Message

I welcomed our staff back this morning, part of the opening day activities for the new school year. I welcomed them to pick up where we left off in the battle to save public education. I believe this will be a crucial year in that battle, and I believe next Tuesday’s Democratic Primary in New York is a very significant event in that fight. Democrats who want the pathological high stakes testing stopped, who want high academic standards that they have participated in creating and ratifying, who want to be able pass their school budgets with simple majorities – Democrats who simply want their community public schools back need to send a message by voting for Zephyr Teachout, the only progressive Democrat running in the primary.

I’m going to be doing all I can to encourage the registered Democrats in our local to get out and vote for the Teachout/Wu ticket. I am encouraged to see many of my local teacher union presidents doing the same. I strongly suspect that our governor is going to be in for a surprise on primary evening. He will probably win, but with nothing like the margin he once thought he would get to boost his presidential aspirations.

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Regents Double Down on State Tests

If you thought the New York State regents were a ridiculous pack of imbeciles, think again. You may well have denigrated the cognitive powers of the world’s imbeciles.

As parents and teachers grow increasingly aware of the damaging effects of high stakes testing and the linkage of that testing to the evaluation of the state’s teachers, what do our Regents do? The attempt to meet the mounting pressure on them to reduce the amount of testing by asking districts to base 20% more of teachers’ evaluation on the state examinations. Just as we are learning from experience that, as we expected, there is essentially no relationship between the growth scores teachers receive and their ability to teach, our Regents move to double down on.

This is clearly beyond imbecilic. It speaks to their complete incompetence to oversee education policy. If these people had to stand for election, as I increasingly believe they should, they would be gone at the first election.

Last year over 60,000 children were withheld by their parents from taking the state examinations. Let’s hope this year that number doubles. Let’s also hope that New York’s voters send Governor Cuomo a message through the Democratic primary and the general election, a message that he and Speaker Silver take to heart and one which causes them to end the ignorance that is being palmed off as education policy.

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Time for Teachers to Teach Andrew Cuomo a Lesson

The turnout will probably be very light on September 9, primary day in New York. With the pools showing Andrew Cuomo with a sizeable lead, even angry Democrats will be tempted to stay home. If they do, Cuomo will be even more full of himself than usual, and the process of rolling back the so-called education reform movement in New York will be that much more difficult.

I’m encouraged to believe that we will be able to suppress his numbers, however, if the union teachers in the state, a great many of whom are registered Democrats, practice what they teach and come out to vote. There may be a New York teacher supporting Cuomo, I’ve neither met not heard of him. Teachers know the damage Cuomo has done to public education in our state. They’ve heard him repeatedly lie about the quality of our schools, repeatedly telling the public that we are 38th in the nation, a number he made up and repeats like a mantra. They know he is totally responsible for the property tax cap that if not lifted will destroy quality public education in our state. They know his sanctimony well, having watched him inveigh against Albany corruption until some of his pals began to come under scrutiny. They know him for the empty windbag he is, a windbag with an eye on the Whitehouse. I suspect they will relish teaching him a lesson. If their public sector union colleagues are motivated by their anger to vote, Mr. Cuomo could get taken down a peg.

Between now and September 9, I will be talking to the teacher I know, asking them to support Zephyr Teachout for governor.

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Research Tells Us

Few things in life lack my confidence as much as the reliability of education research. So much of it reminds me of the story of the scientist who sought to find out what happened as he serially cut off the legs of a centipede. He cut off two legs and said, Jump centipede jump.” And the centipede jumped. He continued doing this without limiting the ability of the centipede to jump. Finally he cuts off all of the legs of the centipede, and, at the command to jump, nothing happened. The scientist ran to his notebook and recorded the following: When you cut off all of the legs of a centipede, it renders the animal deaf.

Thanks to Valerie Strauss for pointing to a study of the reliability of ed research. It turns out that the vast majority of this stuff is never checked to see if it is replicable. How many of the stupidities inflicted on our public schools in the last years owe their origins to researched based nonsense? I wonder, however, if anyone has attempted to replicate this study.

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NYSUT Leadership – No New Direction

Too much of what is left of the labor movement has devolved into a pathetic insider game in which leadership puts more time, effort and thought into their relationships with state and national political figures than developing an agenda and strategy for the mobilization of its membership. My latest experience with that reality was the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) Presidents Endorsement Conference held yesterday in Albany.

I wrote on Monday that this conference posed the first big challenge to the new leadership of our state union. Could they chart a new political course away from the accommodationist policies of the past and begin to shape a new political strategy of supporting candidates that pay more than lip-service to our union positions, candidates with unequivocal records and positions in support of working people, public education, economic and social justice. Sadly, the new leaders approach to the endorsement of candidates for state office was indistinguishable from that taken by past leaders. To be fair, as I write, the NYSUT Board of Directors is in the process of making the final decision on endorsements, but while they may change a few things at the margins, it appears almost certain that NYSUT will take no position in the race for Governor of New York.

I and some others tried to advance the position that we support Zypher Teachout in the Democratic primary, and, should she be unsuccessful, Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins in November. We did so because we and, more importantly the members we serve, view Andrew Cuomo as the worst governor on the issue of public education in our memory. He has hobbled our schools with a property tax cap that has cut programs to children and led to the layoff of thousands of our members. At the bidding of his hedge fund and real estate mogul bankrollers in New York City, he has promoted charter schools. He has been a leader in the mindlessly stupid tying of teacher evaluations to student scores on standardized tests. He has done near to nothing to stop the totally incompetent implementation of the Common Core State Standards, claiming that he has no control over education in our state. On education issues alone, he has done our members such harm that to take no position on his re-election bid as to make no sense to our membership. Worse this failure to support candidates whose positions on education issues literally mirror our own poses the very real risk of weakening the membership’s will to be politically active. Still worse, the coalitions we have been building with parents to end the standardized testing mania will not understand our fearful reluctance to take King Andrew on.

Our leaders are not without reasons for their recommendation of no endorsement. Their reasons, however, are what reveal that lack of new thinking and direction. A deal has been negotiated with some of the other unions in the state to have the New York AFL-CIO take the same position of no endorsement of Cuomo. I’m absolutely sure that a great deal of thought and effort went into these negotiations for what I also agree is a desirable outcome. But here’s the problem for our own organization, and it’s a very serious one. All of this insider negotiation by state union leaders left the members out. No one in NYSUT had any thought to see if this strategy had the support of the locals that make up NYSUT. It seems clear that few if any members of the NYSUT Board of Directors knew about this plan. If they did, they certainly kept it a secret.

I would bet that at every general membership meeting of my local, I have found a way to remind our members that by myself, I have no power – that whatever power I have comes from management’s understanding that our members are behind what I say. NYSUT leadership has not understood that for some time. They clearly still don’t.

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First Big Challenge for New NYSUT Leadership

Tomorrow is the long awaited New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) endorsement conference, a gathering of local union presidents who will be making recommendations for endorsements for state offices to be elected in November.

While few but the most cynical expect the body to endorse Andrew Cuomo for re-election (There would be a rebellion if they did.), there is a strong body of opinion that believes that the intention of the officers and the powerful United Federation of Teachers, the powerful New York City local, is to do the next best thing and make no endorsement thereby hoping to avid his legendary wrath.

The New NYSUT leadership will face its first serious challenge at this conference. Will it chart a political course away from the accommodationist policies of the past administration, or will it boldly chart a new direction, putting its political efforts into supporting candidates whose positions align with NYSUT policy, progressive candidates committed to ending the reign of the testocracy and those who wish to privatize our public schools.

If they have the courage to chart a new course, they will support the Green Party ticket of Hawkins and Jones whose education positions are almost congruent with NYSUT policy. They will ask members who are registered Democrats to support Zypher Teachout in the Democratic Primary, so as not to alienate those who cling to the fantasy that she will somehow defeat Cuomo. After Teachout loses, they will have no trouble supporting the Greens.

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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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