A Teachable Moment

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

Long Island School Board Elections

Tuesday’s board of education elections on Lon Island were but the latest evidence that a growing number of parents want an end to the corrosive effects of high stakes testing. Jeanette Deutermann, founder of Long Island Opt-Out, reports that of the 75 candidates her organization endorsed, an astonishing 57 were elected. Our state representatives ought to be thinking about these results because supporters of the movement will be coming after them next. Those who make war on teachers will have their careers ended on the battlefields they have created. When the movement starts being covered on the front page of the New York Times, the cretins who represent us in Albany better watch out.

My own local worked very hard for the election of Jodi Campagna, a representative of Deutermann’s Long Island Opt-Out. Some who were opposed to her attempted to brand her a one issue candidate, seeing her advocacy for opting out of high stakes testing as a narrow vision for the future of our school district. More aware voters, however, saw the Jodi’s advocacy for what it really is – a battle to preserve a free, rich, multi-dimensional education that prepares children for responsible adulthood as citizens of a democratic society. Those who fail to understand that vision behind the opt-out movement are ironically themselves possesses of a restricted vision for our schools, that limited view being best expressed in the phrase that so easily rolls off the lips of the ill-informed –“ college and career ready.”

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Yesterday’s Regents Meeting

I have a seemingly endless capacity to endure verbal torture and was therefore able to watch that portion of yesterday’s Regents meeting available online. By the end, a couple of things became clear. While the most often used word in the hour or so meeting used to talk about the meeting itself was “conversation,” there really was no conversation to be heard. Instead it was more a group of windbags, most of whom spent their very limited time talking about things that they frankly appeared not to understand at all.

Not one of them seriously challenged the opaque presentation by deputy Commission Ken Wagner, a perfect master of meaningless speech disguised as intellectual discourse, a character who always causes my mind to wander to memories of the comedian Professor Irwin Corey, even though they all expressed very politically correct concerns with the state’s testing regime and its tie-in to teacher evaluation. What was needed was for one, just one, of the Regents to shout out, “Just what the f…. are you talking about.” Instead, lest someone think the Regents were losing their nerve on testing aligned to the Common Core Standards, Ms. Tisch, brought them back in line with her summary of the “conversation” from which she took away that none of the Regents wanted to ‘back away” from a testing regime tied to the Standards. The only Regent with the nerve to challenge Tisch a jot was Regent Betty Rosa from the Bronx who expressed her doubts the tests and the standards, politely dissociating herself from the Chancellor’s remarks.

While none of the Regents was clear on what our current testing regime tells us either about the performance of teachers or students, all seem to agree that we need betters test that do what they would be hard pressed to say. No one participating in the meeting seemed to be even remotely aware of the damage they have done to teaching and thereby to the student of our state. Those who have been hopeful that the Regents will somehow ameliorate the idiotic changes the Governor and Legislature made to the APPR law will be sorely disappointed. Frankly, I never expected much from them and have long been in favor of doing away with this body that is not directly answerable to the public.

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Angry Andy Is Still At It

Beginning to rival Scott Walker in his contempt for public education and public employees, our governor was out on Sunday speaking to religious groups about his tax credit scheme that would allow for tax deductions to individuals and businesses that donate scholarships to non-profit parochial and private schools. Never one to temper his remarks, Cuomo poured out his usual venom, suggesting that “sending your child to one of these failing public schools is in many ways condemning your child to get a second-class education.”

Keep it up Angry Andy. Deprive schools of the financial resources they need, scare a cowardly legislature into passing a teacher evaluation law that has demoralized the state’s teachers and now come up with a scheme to reward your rich friends and funnel even more tax dollars away from public schools. If Cuomo is a Democrat and if the Democrats in the Assembly choose to follow him, then I guess I’m not a Democrat anymore. What a shameful disregard for the public good.

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Kids Need to See to Learn

Pam Gallin and some ophthalmologist colleagues went into some schools in New York City’s poorer neighborhoods and screened 2400 children for eye problems. Four hundred and fifty of them were found to need glasses, some of them so badly they couldn’t see the “E” at the very top of the eye chart. Some of the children who had been labeled behavior problems turned out to be simply trying to communicate with classmates because they couldn’t see what the teacher was doing. This is just one of the many difficulties poor children face. Many children miss numbers of day of school because of dental pain, their parents often not having the money for dental care or the ability to take off from work to take the children. Poverty reduces the quality of these children’s live in so many ways, ways that are not accounted for in much of the gibberish written about failing inner city schools.

Not only are these children the innocent victims of poverty, now the state of New York wants to victimize their teachers. Just imagine how many thousands of kids there are in the inner cities of our state who like the kids in Dr. Gallin’s op-ed need glasses but are unable to get them. Then remember that their scores on standardized test are used to determine the continued employment of their teachers. How stupid can our leaders be? Their vision is so much more difficult to correct.

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Always the Wrong Discussion

The subject of almost always seems to stimulate public discussion that is unrelated to the urgency given to it at any given moment. In other words, we always seem to be having the wrong discussion, or so it seems to me.

In my town, the burning issue is whether we should close our unique kindergarten school in favor of moving the students to our -1-4 buildings. Passions are boiling over this issue. Try to get a serious public discussion of the fact that the program we offer kindergarten children increasingly diverges from what we know from research on child development, and one is met with blank stares at best. Some weeks ago, I tried to say some of this at a public meeting of our board of education. I spoke about how an alarming number of the members I represent who work in the area of mental health report that they are seeing shockingly high numbers of children presenting serious mental health issues. After I was done speaking, one board member angrily took me to task for my remarks, as though I was the enemy of the people.

Our media are filled with almost vengeful criticism of our public schools, but how many people do we hear talking about a growing rejection of scientific findings by Americans as perhaps a symptom of a failing education system. Is it not a striking failure of our schools that so many Americans view the concerns of climate scientists that there is good reason to believe that human activity is adding significantly to the warming of our planet as a hoax? What’s wrong with schools that graduate millions of students who believe the earth was created 6000 years ago? So much of our public discourse springs ultimately from ignorance of almost cosmic proportions, ignorance that goes unaddressed by our society and its leaders who peddle ignorance for their own political advantage. We’ve reached a point where the Governor of Texas alerts his state National Guard to watch the maneuvers at a local army base, encouraging his citizens to believe that the federal government means to take Texas over. What kind of schools produce a citizenry that doesn’t laugh him out of the governor’s mansion?

Do we seriously think that Common Core is going to address this failure to equip several generations of Americans to participate knowledgably and intelligently in our democracy? How will these so-called standards increase voter participation from the 37 percent of the last election cycle? How are high stakes tests tied to teacher evaluations going to enable our children to free themselves from ignorance spawned beliefs that continue to plague mankind? What does the expression “college and career ready” mean if our public schools encourage more and more of our best and brightest to go into finance and hedge fund management? How are any of the so-called reforms that serve as the focus of our public discourse on education going to address our society’s sin for permitting generation after generation of America’s children to be raised in debilitating poverty, poverty that starts children falling behind their more fortunate peers literally from the moment of their birth?

So many serious questions about how we educate our children need serious discussion while we put our time, money and resources into what at best are marginal issues.

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It’s Not About Better Tests!

I’m always trying to teach our union members that there are always opportunities to develop political coalitions, often with people with whom we disagree on most issues. So, I’m thankful the Plainview-Old Bethpage Board of Education voted last evening to send the grade 3 through 8 field tests back to the education department. Anything that reduces the horrific waste of instructional time and delegitimizes the corporate sponsored test and punish regime is welcomed by me and the teachers I represent. Yet what became very clear from the discussion prior to the vote to return the field test was the lack of understanding on the part of most board members of why these field tests and the tests that they serve to develop are at odds with the goal of quality education.

Too many of our board members seem to think that if we could only get better tests, tests that are available for public scrutiny, they could support a high stakes testing regime. Their discussion last evening did not reveal any understanding of what high stakes testing is doing to the instructional program in our district and throughout the country and that these malignant effects are inherent in any such testing program, even ones decoupled from teacher evaluations. If standardized tests that compare students are central to student advancement, they will create a political pressure for teachers to teach to the tests. Add to the high stakes for students a linkage to teacher evaluation and you have a combination guaranteed to narrow the curriculum to those subjects and skills necessary for students to advance to the next step in the race to nowhere and for teacher to ensure their continued employment. The best of tests that become the be all and end all are ultimately antithetical to an education aimed at the intellectual and ethical development of children. The burgeoning ranks of the opt-out movement understand this. This movement is not about the quality of tests; it’s about their inappropriate use.

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Looking For Board of Ed Members

In looking to support candidates for the board of education elections coming up on the 19th of this month, more than ever we need to look for people with the courage to challenge the status quo, people who are willing to take some risks to defend our schools from the attacks from Washington and Albany.

We need to support people who understand the malignant effects of high stakes testing on students and teachers. Too many board members in my community talk a good game of being against testing but are willing in to do little beyond writing a letter and issuing a statement.

We need to find and support candidates who will hire and support school leaders who know how to lead, people who understand that loyalty has to flow down before it flows up. We need board members who understand that public institutions are not businesses and cannot be run on business principles that are focused on profits rather than the welfare of human beings.

Above all we need board members who believe the way public schools are currently organized to do their work is archaic, essentially an adversarial factory model that harkens back to a time when a docile, female workforce with few other employment options staffed our public schools. We need board members who know that there is untapped creativity and insight in the stifled voices of staff who are increasingly being ignored just when their thoughts are needed the most.

While my final though will appear controversial to many, to my mind it is the most important at this juncture. We need board members who understand that the quality of a school district is at best marginally related to the number of AP exams their high school students take. We need people who understand that the mission of public schools is the intellectual, moral and ethical growth of young people to the end that they become knowledgeable and engaged participants of our democratic society. We need policy makers for whom the phrase “college and career ready” expresses but a fraction of the very important work we do.

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Learning Summit

I can’t claim to have watched even most of yesterday’s Learning Summit, called by the Regents as they try to appear to seek informed comment from people who claim to know stuff about public education. From what I read this morning a consensus emerged that the new teacher evaluation law makes little sense from any number of perspectives. What will come of any of this, I have no idea. I did find it very interesting that UFT President Michael Mulgrew took credit in his testimony for getting the legislature to punt the teacher evaluation football over to the Regents. Why we would want to do that is beyond me, but I’m sure when I ask I’ll be told it is part of a grand strategy that I just don’t understand.

That aside, in the hour and a half that I watched, I must have heard the term “best practices” 30 or 40 times. It dripped off the lips of every expert contributing to the formation of a pool of almost meaningless drivel. Various puffed up characters, I frankly can’t remember their name, spoke with a degree of certitude about the best way to do teacher evaluations as though there exists a body of settled hard science. My favorite was a lady who claimed that teachers want the feedback from numerous observations. Somehow, in 40 years of teaching at the high school and college levels, and representing thousands of teachers over the years, I never met one that said that. For me the best practice is to run for the hills at the sound of some pompous ass talking about best practice.

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Crazier All The Time

The New York State Education Department has yet to write the regulations to implement the new Annual professional Performance Review (APPR) law, but just its published outline has forced teachers to think in ways that are inimical to quality public education. Numbers in my local union have talked to me about seeking to negotiate a protection for them from the clause in the law that says a teacher can’t be judged to be effective if she in ineffective as measured by her students’ test data. Serious, career professional teachers, teachers with reputations for excellence, teachers who are highly desired by our parent community, some of these teachers want a contractual guarantee that if they are found to be ineffective on the state growth measure, they will automatically be switched to a non-tested grade, in this way guaranteeing themselves that they will not be ineffective two years in a row and thereby subject to dismissal proceedings.

I supposed none of us should be surprised that people whose livelihoods are threatened will search for creative ways to protect themselves. The law itself even suggests this as an approach in that it provides that no student can have an ineffective teacher two years in a row. There are some rural school districts in this state that have only one or two teachers per grade who will be forced to play musical grades.

As I write, however, I’m unaware of any proposal in Albany to address the serious consequences of this crazy law. Instead, the Senate’s energy seems to be consumed by the political fallout from the indictment of Majority Leader Dean Skelos. There is pending legislation to delay implementation of this stupid law, bills to codify a parent’s right to opt her child out of the state assessments and assorted other measures that do nothing to treat either teachers or children fairly or protect the quality of our public schools. It grows clearer each day that representatives who won’t change this law will have to themselves be changed.

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If you missed Monday’s story in the New York Times on the Harvard study on the relationship between the neighborhood one lives in and one’s chances to escape poverty, I urge you to follow this link and read it now. Readers of my blog know that I have long supported policies aimed at the integration of economic classes in neighborhoods for its beneficial effects on the education of all children but particularly on children born into poverty. It has always seemed obvious to me that it is foolhardy to create circumstances where the poor live only amongst the poor and then expect that they will somehow life themselves up and out of the culture of these blighted neighborhoods. If you have believed that poverty is ultimately a matter of choice and that the poor are somehow responsible for their own miserable circumstances, read this peace and have a hard think about you beliefs.

Move a kid out of a blighted neighborhood and his chances to escape a life of poverty improve with each year of his escape from the blighted neighborhood of his birth. You significantly improve his chances of finishing high school and going on to college. You even statistically extend his longevity considerable, making economic integration a matter of life and death. We don’t hear much about integration anymore. It was a central issue of the civil rights movement in my youth. That discussion seemed to die with the death of the War on Poverty. Our failure to keep that discussion going has undoubtedly contributed to New York having become one of the most segregated places in our nation.

Reading this piece will also probably make you madder than you already are at how the stupid people in Albany believe that ineffective teachers are anchoring the children of the poor in life-long poverty.

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Smoke – No Substance

The latest news from Albany offers little hope that the recent budget deal that brought us a doubling down on the test and punish approach to teacher accountability will amended in favor of an approach to teacher evaluation that is fair to student and fair to their teachers. Senate Education Committee Chair Flanagan and his counterpart Kathy Nolan in the Assembly are working on a bill that they hope will cool the passions of a public that has expressed their outrage over the scourge of high stakes testing by over 200,000 opting their children out of the recent state assessments.

Nothing in this proposed legislation brings students relief from the effects of high stakes testing on the education they receive. There is nothing to lessen the unbearable pressure on teachers to teach to these pathetic assessments, even though the curriculum is strangled in the process. What Nolan and Flanagan offer is delayed implementation of a completely invalid method of evaluating teachers. Nothing in it gets us out from under the fact that no matter what the Regents do in creating regulations to implement this new law, good teachers are going to be found ineffective or developing without any easy way to demonstrate their competence. Does anyone seriously think that the conditions created by these tests will be ameliorated in any way from a study of the tests?

Once again, these legislators think we’re stupid. They think they can blow enough smoke to hide the fact they have yet to apologize for the damage they have done and yet to have mustered the courage to fix it. They think we won’t be able to sustain the passion and energy to continue to fight for justice for teachers and students. Somewhat ironically, they don’t seem to believe that we will hold them accountable. They were wrong about U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. They are wrong about the parents and teachers of this state.

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The NYSUT Convention

Last Wednesday, I wrote in hopeful anticipation that the NYSUT convention I was about to attend would be different than the ones I had attended in years past. I had the audacity to hope that this assembly of union activists would come together around a coherent plan to hold our political leaders accountable for what they have done to our profession in the name of accountability. I looked for a plan that would offer our membership hope, a membership whose anger over the dismantling of their profession is generating an anger that is gradually turning in on itself for lack of any other direction.

What I experiences instead was a masterpiece of hopelessness. That mood began to be generated at the Presidents Conference which preceded the convention. There President Karen Magee, completing her first year in office, chose to begin the meeting by trashing the previous union administration, coming just a hair short of accusing it of doing nothing to stop the attack on public education and the people who work at it. That depiction was contrasted to a litany of the great things the new officers have done in the span of one short year. In a matter of a few short sentences, Magee managed not only to stir up the residual anger that had slowly abated from last year’s hotly contested election, but she even found a way to piss off many of her own supporters who were enraged by her complete lack of tact. That tactlessness was repeated both in her speech to the convention and in the tone and demeanor as the presiding officer of the meeting. As the meeting wore on, the term solidarity grew increasingly ironic. From time to time, various speakers tried to address the situation by appeals to unity and solidarity. But solidarity is about the bonds that connect people. It must be created, not simply called into existence. Sadly, nothing at this convention furthered the tightening the bonds that connect us.

The 1900 union activists who schlepped to Buffalo for this meeting went home with no clear plan for them and their members to implement, no greater confidence in the strategy and tactics of their state leaders and most importantly no greater hope to share with their local’s members. One would be hard pressed to imagine a more pointless meeting.

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The NYSUT Convention and Hope

It’s NYSUT convention time again. This will be the first convention organized by the team of officers elected last year. I’m hoping the meeting will be radically different, less oriented towards a seemingly endless series of speeches by the political leadership of the state and more towards using the time in Buffalo to organize and motivate the assembled activists to leave to implement a coherent action plan. Frankly, I don’t want to hear Chuck Schumer tell me how much he loves us, when I know full-well that he loves his Wall Street backers more. While I have always liked Tom DiNapoli very much going back to the days when I lobbied him for the old NEA-New York, his stories about the teachers who were important to his life have little meaning at a time when today’s teachers are increasingly wondering why they entered the profession.

Were I running the show, I would turn it into the launching of the Politician Accountability Plan. Our members are fed up with our political class finding ways to hold them accountable for things they have little control over. It’s time for us to use our numbers in coalition with the opt-out movement, the anti-Common Core Standards movement, the economic justice movement and other progressive groups to hold the political leaders responsible for the war on public education accountable to us. We need a plan to make every assembly person and senator who voted to double down on the link between student test scores and teacher evaluations answer for what they have done to the students and teachers in their communities. We need to bring the NYSUT counter attack on Governor Cuomo down to the local level in a tireless effort to depress his polling numbers to the point where he becomes the political has been he deserves to be. We should be issuing a challenge to Hillary Clinton to tell us exactly how a Hillary administration will undo the damage to our schools the Obama/Duncan crowd has wrought. We should be using this meeting to send a message that we will not be taken for granted any more.

There are surely other things our convention could organize to do. The important thing is that when our activists leave Buffalo, they do so committed to a plan that offers hope to the members back home that their profession can be saved and that sanity can be returned to their classrooms.

I’ll be back on Monday, May 4, unless something happens in Buffalo that can’t wait until then.

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Holding Our Leaders Accountable

I grow progressively concerned that too many in the public school community will simply sit back and accept what our elected leaders in Albany have done to teachers and public education. Last night I listened to a presentation by our superintendent to our board and the public as to what the new APPR law calls for, a presentation that presumed compliance with what she publicly stated was an absurd way to evaluate teachers. While our board president was happily enraged by what he heard and called upon the public to vote against our representatives who voted for it, there was not plan voiced to do anything about this betrayal. I also don’t hear from NYSUT, our state union, of a plan to get even with those who heretofore claimed to be our friends.

This morning I wrote to the leaders of our school community calling upon them to work with our union on the beginning of a plan for the accountability of Assemblyman Charles Lavine and Senators Kemp Hannon and Carl Marcellino, all of whom voted to double down on the tying of student scores to teacher evaluation. My email to school leaders follows. I encourage my readers in other schools districts to do the same.
POB Leaders,

After Dr. Lewis’ presentation on the New AAPR law, we all know that we have been betrayed by our elected leaders. It would almost be impossible to dream up a more stupid way of evaluating teachers than is provided for in this new law. Should this law be implemented, its impact on the teachers of our district will be profound. In my brief remarks last night, I doubt that I did justice to the deep anxiety and confusion I met when I attempted to address the concerns of the Parkway staff yesterday morning.

Assemblyman Lavine and Senators Hannon and Marcellino all voted for this law. I propose that the school community invite them to a community meeting to explain their vote to us. Invite is perhaps too weak a word. Maybe insist is better. While I doubt that any of those cowards will attend, if they don’t, we can then publicize their unwillingness to explain their votes.

Such a move by the leadership of the school community would accomplish three things. Firstly, it calls elected officials to account. Almost as importantly, however, it would suggest to the teachers who will bear the brunt of this law, that we are getting organized in their defense, that the entire school community understands the great unfairness that has been perpetrated against them. Finally, one way or another, the call for such a meeting will escalate the considerable pressure being exerted on our representatives to fix the problem they have created.

Let me know your thoughts.

Morty

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Anger Turning Within

I wish our elected leaders in Albany could have been with me this morning at a union meeting in one of our elementary schools. Had they been, they would have heard the deep anxiety and frustration of teachers who have come to believe that their ability to practice their profession and support their families are in serious jeopardy from a governor and legislature who appear to them to be bent on removing them from the classroom for some reason they are unable to fathom. They work their asses off day in and day out only to have their elected leaders denigrate their work, too many in their community resent their salaries and benefits and their supervisors fail to support their hard work. Truth be told, and certainly not a surprise to me, they don’t feel their union is doing enough to protect them from these threats, even though they know that much of the pressure they feel is coming from state and national sources. While they surely know that our local has done more than most in the fight against high stakes testing and its corrosive effects on the academic program and teaching, their anxiety about working in an environment seemingly hostile to their personal futures and their need for relief from these feelings is all consuming at this point, anger that is unaddressed often turning within.

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Bits and Pieces

A Different Perspective on the Opt Out Numbers

New York State Allies for Public Education is reporting that they believe over 90 percent of the school districts in the state will have less than 95 percent participation on the ELA exams. Are the Feds really going to sanction that many school districts? They couldn’t possibly be that stupid. That would ensure 100 percent next time, a result that may well happen any way if our leaders in Albany don’t take concrete steps to undo their teacher evaluation legislation passed earlier in the legislative session.

Tisch a Heroine?

From many quarters comes praise for Merryl Tisch for standing up to Governor Cuomo and saying that school district will have until September 2016 to get their new teacher/principal evaluation plans in place. Why anyone would praise Tisch is well beyond my powers of comprehension. We ought to be pressuring her to resign, she having worked hand in glove with the corporate school reform machine. What makes delaying the implementation of an even more stupid teacher evaluation system than we currently have worthy of heroine status? Why would the leaders of the AFT praise her?

Up The Pressure on Legislators

Instead of praising Tisch, our focus should be on the legislature whose members appear to be confused and upset by the backlash from their adoption of the new teacher/principal evaluation system. They also appropriately appear to be reading the astonishing opt-out numbers and as a clear sign that there may well be significant political ramifications for those who voted for that legislation. Our demand should be simple. End the connection between student scores on high stakes tests and limit the number of times students are tested in grades 3 through 8. Return to testing as a teaching too, not a punishment.

Meritocracy Gone Amuck
If you haven’t read David Brooks’ column today, it’s a must read. He addresses an issues that my readers have repeatedly heard me sound off about – sending children messages that their being loved and respected is tied to their academic success – that to continue to be loved is to continue to succeed in ever more challenging school endeavors. Brooks nails this one, hard though that is for me to say about a pretty right wing commentator.

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Jeanette Deutermann

Diane Ravitch’s blog today carries a thank you from Jeanette Deutermann, the indefatigable founder of the Long Island Opt –Out movement, its Norma Rae if you will. No one in the state of New York has done more to organize, and I mean organize, opposition to the scourge of high stakes testing. No one has even approached her commitment to protecting children from the demonstrable harmful effects testing has had on children and the educational program they receive. I’ve been proud to know her and work with her. At a time in our history when skillful leaders are hard to come by, Jeanette has kept the secret of leadership alive. She knows what so few of the so-called leaders I know do – that all people want power; they just don’t know how to get it. If you show them how to get some power and believe in their ability to achieve it, they will follow your lead and causes once thought hopeless become possible. So, as those of us who have been active in the Opt-Out movement enjoy our great victory, let’s pause and recognize our debt of gratitude to the person without whom this day might well not have arrived.

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A Modest Proposal

Our state math assessments begin today. As I write the opt out numbers are coming in predictably a bit ahead of the English numbers last week. This is also the week that the New York State legislature resumes it work. Legislators are going back to Albany having heard an earful from the people at home about their recent vote to double down on testing as part of the teacher evaluation process. They also go back knowing that an enraged public withheld their children from the tests at a rate of at least three times that of last year. Should this movement continue to grow, as it shows every sign of doing, within a year or so there won’t be any children taking the state examinations. Some of the legislators are openly talking of doing something to fix the problem they and the governor created. They are clearly beginning to see that the organizing skills of the people who invented and grew the opt out movement can clearly be put to use election time to hammer those who put obedience to Andrew Cuomo and the corporate backers of so-called education reform above the interests of the parents, children and teachers in their districts.

The easiest fix would be to go back to what we have been doing until a more sensible approach to teacher evaluation can be developed. Better yet would be to pass a law that breaks the unsupportable connection between student standardized tests results and teacher competence. Still better is a modified version of something I used to do at grading time for my students that just might be a simple approach to teacher evaluation. Before I gave out quarterly grades I made students write down for me what they thought they had eared for the quarter. Almost invariably, the students gave themselves lower grades that I did. I strongly suspect that given the same assignment to critique their performance for the school year, teachers would overwhelmingly point to more shortcomings than those paid to supervise them would have seen. In such a system, we would probably have fewer highly effective teachers, the governor would have accomplished his mission and nothing of any consequence would have changed for anybody. Why go through all of the political contortions, the endless educationist drivel, the countless hours of testing and test prep when deep down we all know that none of this nonsense makes the slightest difference to the education of a single child in our schools. We can count on the low self-esteem of teachers to underrate their performance and to always believe that they could have done better.

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Sorry NYT – It Is a Parent Led Movement

This morning’s New York Times offers the latest example of the pathetically poor coverage of the opt-out movement and the role of teacher unions in it. The current narrative has it that the unions are the principal motivators of the movement and the parents of the children opting out almost the dupes of the union bosses who have come to see opposition to testing as their weapon to defend from the bipartisan assault on public education. My experiences as a union leader at both the local and state levels in New York tell a different story and make wonder and confirm my suspicions that the mainstream media are at best handmaidens to the corporate education reform movement in our state.

Let’s be clear; while I and other local union leaders welcome NYSUT to the opt out cause they are newbies to the movement. In fact, they’re even pretty new to the anti-testing movement. As a former member of the NYSUT Board of Directors I recall with considerable chagrin the obdurate refusal of the union’s previous leadership under Dick Iannuzzi to embrace the anti-testing movement. I vividly remember an exchange between Dick Iannuzzi in which he answered my call to squarely oppose high stakes testing and the Common Core State Standards and join forces with the growing opt-out movement with, “We disagree. I don’t think parents want to do away with testing. What they want are better tests.” Let’s remember too that it was Iannuzzi’s team that negotiated the current APPR agreement with Governor Cuomo, an agreement which acknowledged that student scores on high stakes tests were an appropriate measure of student performance. By the time Iannuzzi realized the growing power of the anti-test/opt out movement and began to quietly cooperate with it, that movement was already launched with a dynamic leadership all its own. Here on Long Island, Long Island Opt Out led the way with a leader in Jeanette Deutermann who knows more about organizing than most of the union leaders I know. In part, his failure to read the political tea leaves on the testing/ opt –out issue would cost him the presidency of NYSUT.

Even in the early days of the Magee administration, while she and our national union affiliates gradually began to speak more critically of what testing was doing to public education and while some locals had upped their profiles and publically supported the opt-out movement, there still was not clear policy decision taken to frontally assault the testocracy by promoting refusal of the examinations. It was literally only weeks ago that Karen Magee in an interview said that if she had school age children, she would opt them out of the impending exams. That remark and stronger ones to follow came only after the governor and the leaders of both parties in the legislature conspired to screw that state’s teachers.

What early union support there was for the opt-out movement existed here and there at the local level. The fact is that most locals were even reluctant to tell their own members to opt their children out, repeatedly seeking guidance from NYSUT, only to get equivocation.

No, the opt out movement has been an essentially parent driven movement, aided in some places by local teacher unions, but completely independent of them, so much so that at times there was some friction between our supporting locals on Long Island at the parent leadership of the movement. While I’m very glad that NYSUT has come around to a full-throated support of opting-out, they are walking on a path that others have blazed before them. If I had had my way, the critique offered by the New York Times would have been true. It didn’t work out that way, however.

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Screens and Self-Esteem?

The educrats and Board of education members I engage think of me, I’m sure , as a 21st century Luddite for my often acerbic criticism of what I see as their thoughtless support for the infusion of technology into our schools. While I’m as fascinated by technology as most and have used it to good effect in my union work, I’m nevertheless aware of a growing concern among many serious scholars about the effects of screen viewing on the developing brains of children, a development that continues into a person’s twenties. I’m frankly appalled by the almost total lack of concern expressed by these leaders. I’ve sent many of them links to peer reviewed articles by neuro-scientists. I once even bought a copy of a well- received book on the effects of screen gazing on the academic skills of college students, only to find that only one out of the seven had the fortitude or the ability to read it. While I know techno-hucksters have won the battle, I still can’t give up, reminders constantly coming my way of why we need a more serious discussion of the role of technology in education than we have had to date.

I had dinner the other night with a young history professor who talked about how many of her colleagues have banned electronic devices in their classrooms. While she uses technology in what she is sure are beneficial ways, and while she is aware that some students find it more efficient to take their notes on the laptops they bring to class, she has had the experience of walking around the classroom as she is talking only to find students engrossed in social media and even less wholesome endeavors. She is sorely tempted to bar these distractions from her classes.

Sunday brought an article in the New York Times about research suggestions yet to be confirmed that substantial screen watching impairs children’s ability to read the body language of others and their development of self-esteem. While not dispositive, it somehow doesn’t surprise me that there may be a connection between a child being glued to her smart phone and a diminished capacity to make eye contact with others. More and more the technology infusers have almost a religious zeal about them that question asking doubters like me find deeply disturbing.

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