A Teachable Moment

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

Kid Deserve Time to Eat and Relax

As I do most mornings, I check on the Long Island Opt-Out Facebook page to see what members are up to. This group and its leader Jeanette Deutermann were responsible for organizing probably the largest boycott of state high stakes tests in the nation last year. In my district, Plainview-Old Bethpage some 20 percent of the kids skipped the exams.

This morning there was a post about how some districts are cutting lunch periods short and skipping phys ed in elementary schools to get more test prep in. A parent from my district reported that her child often returns from school with her snack which she says she didn’t have time to eat because students had a “working snack” period, and she didn’t feel she had enough time to finish the assignment and eat.

In our high school students are made to feel guilty if they take an unassigned lunch period. A publicity driven superintendent of schools hungry for the notoriety provided Newsweek or other pop-culture vehicles who rate schools in part on how many kids take AP classes. Teachers who know that in one way or another they will be judged on their test scores pile on the homework to the point where anyone who care to know realizes that even if high achieving high school students do homework until past midnight, they still need to get to school early to have time to grab what they couldn’t possibly finish from someone who has it. Those with better organizing skills, arrange for a division of labor on the assignments with a group share in the morning. While some lament the dishonesty in all of this, the greatest dishonesty is subjecting young people to a kind punishingly long day, more arduous than most of their college days will be, and more about endurance than education. If we can’t tell that something is seriously wrong when even little kids report that they don’t have time to eat and relax, then we have abdicated our responsibility to care for our young.

What a sorry state of affairs when there needs to be a rebellion to ensure that every child has 4o0 minutes or so to eat and talk with friends.

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An Analysis of Cuomo’s Victory

Following up on yesterday’s post on the takeaways from the Election Day, former Plainview-Old Bethpage social studies teacher and retired PCT member Joseph Marcal sent me his analysis of the gubernatorial election results in New York.

An analysis of the results of the election of Governor Andrew Cuomo shows how dissatisfied many Democrats are with him even though he won the election. In 2010 Cuomo received just short of three million votes which was 62.6% of the total vote. In the past election, he only received 1,942,705 votes which was 54% of the vote. By contrast both Carl Paladino in 2010 and Rob Astorino received almost the same vote of around 1,500,000 for both Republicans.

Why was the Cuomo vote so much lower”? The answer is in three parts. First Howie Hawkins of the Green Party received only 1.3% of the vote in 2010. In 2014 he received 4.9% of the vote. Hawkins went from almost 60,000 votes in 2010 to 175,000 votes even though there was a much lower voter turnout this year. Second, over 80,000 voters who voted in this election for other offices withheld their vote for governor. In other words they found no candidate for Governor worthy of their vote. Third,the fact that so many Democrats stayed home and did not vote at all while the Republican turnout was about the same indicates dissatisfaction by Democrats who simply passed on this election.

While Governor Cuomo can bask in his victory one can see the dissatisfaction of so many voters. How else can anyone explain the very low voter turnout, the rise of Howie Hawkins and the sharp decline of votes for Governor Cuomo this year?

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Election Takeaways

What to take away from the almost across the board Republic victory last night?

Clearly Democrats don’t have a message, at least not one that resonates with a population that feels itself disconnected from the improving economic statistics. Wages continue to stagnate to the point where Republican snake oil about economic improvements trickling down from the job creators to workers is more hopeful than the message of a party that increasingly finds it difficult to distinguish itself from the opposition on any issues other than hot button social ones. Progressive purity on the social issues doesn’t help people pay their bills.

Where were the Democratic candidates talking about the crying need to improve paychecks to improve demand to cause companies to hire more workers to meet that demand? Where were the candidates proposing massive public works projects to rebuild the crumbling infrastructure of our country, building that is easily financed with the low interest rates in effect today? Where were the Democrats addressing the problems of the long-term unemployed, many of whom will probably never have decent jobs again? Where were the Democrats marshaling the parents and teachers who are outraged by the well-heeled education reform lobby that is rapidly transmuting education into training, training that they aim to privatize as soon as they can engineer the failure of the public schools. Where were the Democrats boldly talking about the enormous contribution of the 11 million or so undocumented workers in our country who deserve an opportunity to stand tall in the light of day and be recognized for the Americans they have become? The answer to these and other such questions is NOWHERE!

Here in New York Governor Lesser of Two Evils gets another 4 years. Has anyone met a voter who is enthusiastic about that? Those of us whose skin crawls at the mention of his name can take some solace in the fact that his vote was clearly much less than he was hoping for. Those of us who supported Howie Hawkins and his call for a Green New Deal never though he could win but hoped he would carry a progressive message to a state once very hospitable to those ideas. That the Greens will now be in third place on the state ballot, ahead of the Working Families Party sell-outs, is about the only thing that made me smile this morning. Hearing their leader on the radio this morning excoriate Cuomo for his failure to live up to his deal with the WFP to work to elect Democrats to the state Senate was an example of fine dining on crow.

Those who believe that Hillary will save us in 2016 need to remember that she is tied to many of the Wall Street interests that Angry Andy is. Is she willing to call for the kind of policies that are necessary with rising wages, policies that will not be popular with many large contributors to he campaigns? Will she excite with hope those who didn’t bother to vote yesterday, believing that their effort didn’t matter, that is would change nothing? I have trouble with inevitability.
There is clearly more to take away. I’m looking forward to studies of the contribution of voter suppression on the election, for example. But enough for one dismal day.

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From Public Funds to Private Coffers

I’m almost at the point of thinking that the Common Core State standards are behind the country’s recent economic growth. Have you ever seen so much hocus-pocus, so much mystification of the simple as we are witnessing with the implementation of the Standards. New tests, new texts, new professional development courses, more consultants, more public relations to attempt to quell the growing rebellion against the Standards, more , and more and more. More taxpayer dollars being squandered on what teachers and the public are seeing ever more clearly as a business and not an education plan.

I’m thinking about this deplorable situation this morning having met with a group of teachers yesterday who reported that our high school hired some 30 substitute teachers yesterday to provide Common Core training to about a third of the staff. Two more days, I’m told, are to come. What is it about the Standards that they remain opaque to the bulk of the staff after countless meetings and staff development sessions? Wouldn’t a sound instructional innovation be readily understood by teachers who all minimally have an MA or MS degree? It becomes clearer and clearer that the real shifting going on is from public funds to private coffers.

Don’t forget to vote today. Think GREEN!

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A Green New Deal

In 1944 Franklin Roosevelt believing that the allies would shortly win the war, proposed an economic bill of rights for the American people. Here’s a grainy video of the speech, remarkable in that there isn’t a politician of one of the major parties who would dare to make anything like it today.

This speech is very much the center of the Green Party’s platform that seeks to put people and planet before profit. Howie Hawkins and the Greens echo Roosevelt’s speech in their call for a Green New Deal, adding to Roosevelt’s economic proposals a plan to protect the environment through a job creating plan to make New York powered by renewable energy by 2030.

It’s deeply disturbing to realize that 70 years after Roosevelt’s speech, the Democratic Party has no room for the kind of commitment to economic justice that he was talking about. Hawkins and the Greens and independents like Bernie Sanders are owed our gratitude for keeping these progressive ideas alive. If the polls are correct, Hawkins will get about 9 or 10 percent of the vote tomorrow, the largest vote for a minor party candidate ever. Just imagine what he could have done had he the 35 million dollars Cuomo raised from those who call themselves Democrats but have used their financial success to effectively reverse the New Deal and the security it sought for working people.

Bernie Sanders is making noises about running for president in 2016. Should he do so, he will have my support. He, and to some extent Elizabeth Warren, have the kind of moxie to motivate people to believe once again in the possibilities of a rendezvous with a glorious and just economic destiny.

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Another Leader Strongly Disagrees

My friend Phil Rumore, President of the Buffalo Teachers Federation is as angry as I am at the garbled message NYSUT is sending to its members by thanking Rob Astor for a letter he sent chastising Governor Cuomo for his intemperate remarks about the evaluation of teachers in an interview with the Daily News. You can subtract me too from the 600,000 NYSUT members on whose behalf our NYSUT officers thanked Astorino. Here’s Phil’s response.

MEMO TO: NYSUT Board of Directors

FROM: Philip Rumore, President, BTF

RE: “Open letter to Rob Astorino, elected leaders and candidates”

Make that 599,000 members in whose behalf that President Magee and Executive Vice President Pallotta are thanking Rob Astorino. Count me out.

To thank a candidate for Governor, who is opposed to tenure and supports renewable tenure, supports private school tax credits, supports the property tax cap, opposes the Dream Act, opposes Public Campaign Financing, opposes Triborough, etc. is beyond my comprehension.

He is obviously going to use this in his campaign.

That NYSUT is now posting information relating to Howie Hawkins does not undo the damage this “Open letter” will do.

What is the message to our friends that support us on the issues that Astorino does not?

Any justified anger with Cuomo and his recent statements does not justify over re-acting by praising a candidate
that opposes most of what we stand for – especially when Howie Hawkins stands with us on all of our issues.

While I have been proud to support you both in the past, I respectfully and strongly disagree with you on this issue.

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I Profoundly Disagree

I wrote yesterday of how the timidity of our unions to take on Governor Cuomo stokes his bullying tendencies, the latest example being his announcement that he will submit a plan for an even stronger evaluation system for teachers than the one he caused to become current law.

Desperate to gain some traction in an underfunded, somewhat pointless campaign, Republican Rob Astorino hoping to capitalize on teacher anger at Cuomo wrote an open letter to teachers taking Cuomo to task for denigrating them and reminding us that his wife is a special ed teacher and telling us that although we won’t always agree, he will be nicer to us than Angry Andy. Howie Hawkins, consistent with his thoroughly pro teacher pro public education positions also wrote, criticizing Cuomo gratuitous attack on teacher and our unions.

NYSUT officers, who engineered a position of no endorsement in the race for governor, responded to these letters with what has got to be one of the futilely silly efforts in our union’s history. They issued a series of letters, tweets, emails and Facebook postings thanking both Astorino and Hawkins for standing up for public education. The net result of these efforts is to put the union’s imprimatur on a vote for Astorino, a man with an arch conservative record, a politician who I heard many times excoriated by NYSUT Board members from his area, and, if I’m not mistaken, by Karen Magee herself before she was elected NYSUT president. This “anyone but Cuomo” message is neither principled nor smart.

If the NYSUT officers are remorseful over their failure to endorse in the race for governor, it would surely make more sense to encourage a vote for a candidate whose positions on education issues almost mirrors NYSUT policy, and whose positions on environmental and social issues parallels NYSUT’s social justice efforts. Howie Hawkins is that candidate. Such a response has many advantages. It says to the political world that we are going to support people who support our needs and beliefs and that our votes can no longer be taken for granted. Perhaps even more importantly, a shift away from the Albany insider political game to a politics that embraces our ideals could offer us a real opportunity to re-energize the waning desire of our member to engage in politics and sadly to even bother to vote. Howie Hawkins and the Green Party gave us this opportunity, but our leaders in Albany are saying a vote for Astorino is just as good. I profoundly disagree with them!

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Send All Leaders in Albany a Message

Andrew Cuomo has spent most of his re-election campaign hiding in plain sight. He’s made very few appearances, has managed to avoid all but one debate and any close scrutiny of his record. So it was a little surprising to read of his anti-teacher outburst to the Daily News, flipping the bird to the UFT and NYSUT for failing to endorse him by talking about a new round of tougher teacher evaluation proposals that he will submit after his reelection. So, on the eve of the election, with polls showing him 20 points or so ahead of his closest challenger, New York’s bloviating bull thrower of a governor decides to poke his finger in the eyes of Mike Mulgrew and Karen Magee, even though those two leaders surrendered to the governor when they failed to ask their governing boards to endorse Zephyr Teachout in the Democratic primary or Howie Hawkins in the general election. That’s the kind of timidity that invites bullies like Andrew Cuomo to prey.

New York’s teachers need to send a message to Cuomo, the members of the legislature and to their union leaders that they are tired. They can do that on Election Day next Tuesday by going to the polls and voting for the Green Party’s Howie Hawkins for governor. For Hawkins, it’s people and planet before profits. So it’s no to more charter schools, the Common Core State Standards, high stakes testing, the property tax cap, the gap elimination and hydraulic fracking and yes to renewable energy, due process for teachers, a progressive system of taxation, a $15 per hour minimum wage, the Triborough Amendment, universal health care and local control of schools. Should Hawkins receive votes equal to or better than his current polling numbers of about 10 percent, and should organized teachers continue to work after the election to build the party that embodies its values, the Greens will become a growing power to be reckoned with by the governor and legislature. He can easily do that, if New York’s teachers decide to stop wasting their vote by staying home or voting for the lesser of two evils and instead voting for what they believe. Our union movement is dying for some idealism.

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The Smart School Bond ACT

Proposition 3 on the ballot in New York this Election Day is entitled the Smart Schools Bond Act. While it may be smart for the high tech industry, I don’t believe it is a wise move for the citizens of this state.

The Act proposes that the state borrow 2 billion dollars which then would be apportioned to school districts on the basis of their state aid to enable them to purchase essentially whatever they wish. Districts would be free to buy things like computers and tablets and other gadgets that are almost obsolete as you take them out of their packaging. Yet, the taxpayers will be paying for them long after they are seen as relics of a remote past. The judgment of some of our school leaders suggests that much of this money would be wasted on the gadgets de jour. We need only look the colossal waste of millions on I-Pads in Los Angeles, where dollars that could have been spent to lower class size and expand cultural programs ended up as a pile of useless junk instead.

I have written before of what for me is the scam perpetrated on the public by some of the high tech companies who have discovered public schools as a major profit center. While there is astonishingly little evidence that the huge expenditures on high tech produce any significant academic gains, corporate propaganda has had the public convinced of its efficacy. They have contributed significantly to the empty verbiage of today’s discussions of education in which people vapidly punctuate their remarks with meaningless expressions like “21st century learners” and “best practices.” While I recognize that I risk poisoning the well when I observe that former Google CEO Eric Schmidt is on the panel created by Governor Cuomo that recommended features of the Act and will “oversee” its implementation should it pass, the fact is to me it is the latest example of corporate infiltration and subversion of public education.

A recent meeting of our board of education offered an example of just how deeply corporate ideas have penetrated our public schools. Our district just spent many thousands of dollars converting from Windows XP to Windows 8, a conversion brought on by Microsoft’s termination of its technical support for XP. Rather than lamenting how we are at the mercy of the Gates Empire who can stop supporting their products any time they choose to, one of our board members thought it an honor that Microsoft offered us an opportunity to be in one of their commercials. Some honor.

Finally, future iterations of the Common Core aligned high stake tests are planned for administration over the internet. Should this act pass, it will facilitate this process. This fact alone should cause those of us battling the scourge of high stakes testing to vote NO on Proposition 3. Maybe the Smart Schools Bond Act is not so smart for taxpayers after all.

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Proportional Representation

In Wednesday’s gubernatorial debate, among the many ideas proposed by Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins was a system of proportional representation. Needless to say, neither the other candidates nor the press asking the questions picked up on Hawkins’ proposal. Yet, the idea deserves serious discussion. A proportional representation electoral system could be an antidote to the growing mistrust of our government and other public institutions. Part of that mistrust surely stems from a feeling shared by many that their elected representatives from the two major parties do not speak to their interests and needs.

An electoral system based on proportional representation, while it can take many different forms, differs from our system of plurality voting. In our system, looking at the New York State Assembly for example, the state is divided up into election districts. Each district is represented by the winner of a plurality of the votes in that district, usually either a Republican or a Democrat. Such a system leaves members of the losing parties with the feeling that their views are not represented in the legislature. In a proportional system of representation, a party would get seats in the Assembly in proportion to the percentage of the vote it receives in the election.

Let’s take the upcoming election. If we had a proportional system and the Green Party gets 10 percent of the vote, they would be given 10 percent of the seats in the Assembly. Having those seats would provide those who voted for the party with a voice. In the case of the Greens, that would mean that ideas like a ban on hydraulic fracking, a single payer universal health care system, a 15 dollar minimum wage, an end to high stakes testing and the Common Core State Standards and other progressive ideas would be part of the public political debate. The presence of Green legislators, even though not in the majority, would influence members of other parties and would likely bring about the incorporation of at least some of their ideas in exchange for their votes. Most importantly, the people who voted for them would feel represented, even though they are in the minority. They would be less likely to be disengaged from the process. Proportional representation is inherently more democratic. In a proportional system working people could be relieved of the fear that in voting for smaller party candidates, they are wasting their vote. They could more comfortable vote for candidates who express their ideas and ideals, knowing that the odds that their views will receive at least some representation. Bravo to Hawkins for raising this important issue.

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The Debate

If you watched the New York gubernatorial debate last night, you have to agree that Howie Hawkins offered more clearly articulated substantive proposals than either Andrew Cuomo or Rob Astorino. Actually, the only other candidate to voice some ideas worth thinking about was the Libertarian Party candidate Michael Mc Dermott.

In its coverage of the debate this morning, all the New York Times could find to say about Hawkins and McDermott was, “The debate also included the Green Party nominee, Howie Hawkins, a United Parcel Service worker from Syracuse, and the Libertarian, Michael McDermott, a real estate broker from Long Island. Mr. Hawkins pledged to represent the “99 percent,” while Mr. McDermott expressed frustration with Republicans and Democrats.” The Tomes’ coverage was limited to the exchanges between Cuomo and Astorino which were conveyed in language saturated with boxing metaphor which in no way captured the impoverishment of the ideas of both candidates whose responses were essentially limited to Cuomo calling his opponent a racist and Astorino alleging that Cuomo is a felon who is about to be indicted.

Neither the Times not the candidates felt obliged to grapple with Hawkins’ ideas that included a research backed proposal for complete reliance on renewable energy in 15 years, a single payer health insurance plan and a progressive tax measure that would have the wealthy paying the rates they once paid thereby enabling significant tax relief for most New Yorkers. In education, where Cuomo claimed to have nothing to do with high stakes testing and the Common Core, Hawkins is for ending both and returning education to the control of locally elected officials. He was the only one in the debate who talked about the attempt by corporate interests to promote policies intended to have public schools fail so that they can become corporatized profit centers in the near future.

Last night’s debate is but the latest reminder of how our current political system constricts the flow of ideas, stifling all voices except those of the two brain dead major political parties. My guess is that only a very small proportion of the electorate saw the debate. With the press and media coverage essentially limited to the empty verbiage of Cuomo and Astorino, this will be for most voters an idea-free election. What a shame. Imagine if Hawkins’ best suggestion that we move to a system of proportional representation received serious exposure. I’ll have more to say about that tomorrow.

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No Trust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Degraded Language of Ed Talk

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

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

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Social Capital and Student Achievement

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

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

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

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

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Israel Offers No Solution

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

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

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

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

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Most of Us Know We Are Headed in the Wrong Direction

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

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

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Improving Instruction Through Demoralization

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

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

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

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It’s Time for Candidates Who Support Working People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Homework Habit

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

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

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

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

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

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