A Teachable Moment

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

Stronger From the Ground Up

My last post addressed what I believe to be the confusion of many NYSUT local leaders over their support for PSA, the NYSUT staff union, in its current round of collective bargaining. I maintain that they appropriately owe their support not to PSA but to NYSUT leadership who are trying to address an existential, structural deficit.

Many local leaders are moved to answer staff calls for support and solidarity owing to their dependence on these employees for too much of the work of their locals. Over the years a service model has developed in which locals call upon their NYSUT labor relations specialist (LRS) to do what would be better done by the officers and members of the local. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t blame them for doing so. They have been encouraged by state leaders and staff to do so. If a problem arises, call your LRS, the implication being that you put yourself and your local at risk if you deal with the matter yourself. The problem, however, is we build no local capacity when we operate this way. Local leaders miss opportunities for hands-on learning. Dependence on “experts” yields only ever-increasing dependence. Powerful movements are not created this way. They are created by empowering people to use their own talents in furthering their cause. To the extent that they call upon experts, those calls are opportunities to learn new information and skills; they should obviate the need to make the same call in the future. Those calls build self-reliance and increase the respect of adversaries.

One of the major roles of a state union ought to be to provide the assistance necessary to make their member locals essentially self-reliant for day to day operations. Negotiations, grievances, personnel issues etc. are all thing that are ultimately more effectively done by local leaders who have been encouraged to build the reservoir of knowledge and skill necessary for these tasks. Not only would such a state union model yield better organized , significantly strengthened local unions, it would control the costs of the state union and allow more financial resources to remain locally where they could be used to further enhance local capacity. When I stepped down as the president of my local, we were sending in excess of $325,000 to NYSUT while we were prevented from implementing scores of ideas that would have enhanced our operation for lack of financial resources.

We surely need a state union, but we need one that believes and promotes the growing power and capacity of locals – one that understands that its own strength is best enhanced from the ground up. Even our smallest locals can be made more self-sufficient and thereby more effective. I don’t claim to have all of the answers as to how to bring this about, but I know that this is a discussion we should be having and aren’t. Over my years of service, I attended far too many meetings at which local leaders called for more state staff and resources. Where have those calls gotten us?

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Which Side Are We On?

Labor unions have a notoriously hard time bargaining with their own employees. New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) has been no exception. Don’t take my comment the wrong way. I believe unions have a responsibility to treat their employees as they would have their members treated in their workplaces – good salaries, good benefits and good working conditions. My local has always tied the salaries and benefits of its employees to the contract of the people we represent in similar work categories. That said, the fact of the matter is the conditions of many union staff are often much better than the people they represent. That’s certainly true in NYSUT.

Currently, the unions representing NYSUT staff are bargaining new contracts for ones expiring at the end of the month. For years, through several administrations, NYSUT leadership has been aware of a looming structural deficit that threatens the future financial health of the organization. Part of the reason for that deficit has been labor contracts beyond the capacity of the organization to finance. Both the current and past leadership of NYSUT have taken some steps to rectify this looming problem but nowhere near enough to ensure the health of the organization. The current leadership is apparently looking to tackle the underfunding of the pension system in its current round of negotiations, a thoroughly appropriate thing for them to do. The staff counters with a tried and true ploy – organize the local leaders against the demands of state leadership.

In recent days, as the expiration date of the NYSUT contracts approaches, some local leaders have spoken out in support of the staff – arguing that the pension issue should be dealt with outside of the negotiations process, when management’s ability to leverage change will be diminished… Rather than recognizing that as local leaders their interests and responsibilities lie in supporting the management bargaining team, they have allowed themselves to lose track of the interest of their membership in solving the long range financial problems of their state organization.

Although it is detrimental to the interests of their members, it is easy to understand how these things happen. The personal relationships of local leaders with the field staff are often strong ones. Much of the work of too many locals is basically done by the labor relations specialists, not the local leaders. It’s real hard to tell someone you’re close to and on whom you depend that you can’t support their demand in their negotiations. Yet, I suspect, these same local leaders will groan loudly about the ever increasing dues of the state union and the failure of the state leaders to control costs.

I have no idea as to whether the NUSUT’s leadership’s demands of the staff are real proposals required to solve what I know to be very real financial problems of our state organization. I do know that they understand the problem, and I’m pleased to know that they are seeking to fix it. I wish all of my union colleagues could locate their own self-interest and that of their local members in standing behind their management’s attempts to solve our existential, financial problems.

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Black Lives Matter and Public Education

In the racially charged Trump campaign, licensed surrogates like former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani and other like him have accused the Black Lives Matter movement as essentially racist. Very interestingly, even the more liberally oriented press has done a very poor job of elucidating what the movement stands for other than fair treatment by the police forces of our nation. It turns out they have interests other than the U. S. criminal injustice system They have ideas about public education, many of which are shared by the more progressive elements of our teacher unions and the Democratic Party. Their platform calls for increased and equitable funding of public schools, and end to charter schools, general opposition to the corporate school reform agenda, community control of schools, the removal of police from schools and an end to out of school suspensions which they see as contributing to the school to prison pipeline. While teacher unionists will have some differences with some planks in their platform, there is certainly a basis for a coalition around much of what we share with Black Lives Matter.

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Platforms Matter

My mind has been on the implosion of Donald Trump’s presidential aspirations, not on public education. It’s fascinating to read Republic stalwarts like David Brooks, Peggy Noonan and Charles Krauthammer all questioning the mental health of their party’s nominee. How wonderfully encouraging! But many of us knew that Nixon was crazy too. While more secretive about his psychic wounds, he managed to fool the nation, all the while appealing to many of the same dark emotions as Trump. Have we forgotten the Southern strategy, his code for the appeal to racism? Let’s not be too confident that this race is over.
There hasn’t been much talk in this campaign about public education. People committed to the centrality of public education to our democracy ought to take a look at the platform of the two parties in this regard. Let me not editorialize. Here are the two platforms. Bernie or Bust friends, think about which party is more clearly supportive of public education as you conceive of it?

Here is the Democratic education plank.

Democrats believe we must have the best-educated population and workforce in the world. That means making early childhood education and universal preschool a priority, especially in light of new research showing how much early learning can impact life-long success. Democrats will invest in early childhood programs like Early Head Start and provide every family in America with access to high-quality childcare and high-quality preschool programs. We support efforts to raise wages for childcare workers, and to ensure that early childhood educators are experienced and high-quality.

We will ensure there are great schools for every child no matter where they live. Democrats know the federal government must play a critical role in making sure every child has access to a world-class education. We believe that a strong public education system is an anchor of our democracy, a propeller of the economy, and the vehicle through which we help all children achieve their dreams. Public education must engage students to be critical thinkers and civic participants while addressing the wellbeing of the whole child.

We also support increased investments in afterschool and summer learning programs, which help working families, keep kids safe, and inspire learning at a time when many students are left unsupervised. We must find ways to encourage mentoring programs that support students in reaching their full potential. Mentoring is a strategy to ensure that children living in poverty have the encouragement and support to aim high and enter the middle class. We will focus on group mentoring, which is a low-cost, high-yield investment that offers the benefit of building a supportive network of peers who push one another towards success.

Democrats believe all students should be taught to high academic standards. Schools should have adequate resources to provide programs and support to help meet the needs of every child. We will hold schools, districts, communities, and states accountable for raising achievement levels for all students—particularly low-income students, students of color, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities.

We must fulfill our national commitment to provide a meaningful education to students with disabilities, and work towards full funding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act so that students with disabilities can receive the extra resources and services they need. With an 33 appropriate educational foundation, children with disabilities can thrive and become adults with greater opportunities and more meaningful life experiences.

We are also deeply committed to ensuring that we strike a better balance on testing so that it informs, but does not drive, instruction. To that end, we encourage states to develop a multiple measures approach to assessment, and we believe that standardized tests must be reliable and valid. We oppose high-stakes standardized tests that falsely and unfairly label students of color, students with disabilities and English Language Learners as failing; the use of standardized test scores as basis for refusing to fund schools or to close schools; and the use of student test scores in teacher and principal evaluations, a practice which has been repeatedly rejected by researchers. We support enabling parents to opt their children out of standardized tests without penalty for either the student or their school.

Democrats recognize and honor all the professionals who work in public schools to support students’ education—teachers, education support professionals, and specialized staff. We know that good teachers are essential to improving student learning and helping all students to meet high academic standards. Democrats will launch a national campaign to recruit and retain high quality teachers. We will ensure that teachers receive the tools and ongoing professional development they need to succeed in the classroom and provide our children with a world-class education. We also must lift up and trust our educators, continually build their capacity, and ensure that our schools are safe, welcoming, collaborative, and well-resourced places for our students, educators, and communities.

We will invest in high-quality STEAM classes, community schools, computer science education, arts education, and expand link learning models and career pathways. We will end the school-to-prison pipeline by opposing discipline policies which disproportionately affect African Americans and Latinos, Native Americans and Alaska Natives, students with disabilities, and youth who identify as LGBT. We will support the use of restorative justice practices that help students and staff resolve conflicts peacefully and respectfully while helping to improve the teaching and learning environment. And we will work to improve school culture and combat bullying of all kinds.

The Democratic Party is committed to eliminating opportunity gaps—particularly those that lead to students from low-income communities arriving on day one of kindergarten several years behind their peers. This means advocating for labor and public assistance laws that ensure poor parents can spend time with their children. This means raising household incomes in poor communities. It means ensuring children have health care, stable housing free of contaminants, and a community free of violence in order to minimize the likelihood of cognitive delays. It means enriching early childhood programming to prepare children in areas such as literacy, numeracy, civic engagement, and emotional intelligence. It means supporting equitable and adequate state funding for public education, and expanding Title I funding for schools that serve a large number or high concentration of children in poverty. It means ending curriculum gaps that maintain and exacerbate achievement gaps.

We support policies that motivate rather than demoralize our educators. We are committed to ensuring that schools that educate children in poverty are not treated unfairly, which is why we 34 will end the test-and-punish version of accountability that does no more than reveal the many opportunity gaps facing students from low-income communities.

Democrats are committed to providing parents with high-quality public school options and expanding these options for low-income youth. We support democratically governed, great neighborhood public schools and high-quality public charter schools, and we will help them disseminate best practices to other school leaders and educators. Democrats oppose for-profit charter schools focused on making a profit off of public resources. We believe that high-quality public charter schools should provide options for parents, but should not replace or destabilize traditional public schools. Charter schools must reflect their communities, and thus must accept and retain proportionate numbers of students of color, students with disabilities and English Language Learners in relation to their neighborhood public schools. We support increased transparency and accountability for all charter schools.

Contrast this conception of public education to that of the Republicans.

Education: A Chance for Every Child Education is much more than schooling. It is the whole range of activities by which families and communities transmit to a younger generation, not just knowledge and skills, but ethical and behavioral norms and traditions. It is the handing over of a cultural identity. That is why American education has, for the last several decades, been the focus of constant controversy, as centralizing forces from outside the family and community have sought to remake education in order to remake America. They have done immense damage. The federal government should not be a partner in that effort, as the Constitution gives it no role in education. At the heart of the American Experiment lies the greatest political expression of human dignity: The self-evident truth that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” That truth rejects the dark view of the individual as human capital — a possession for the creation of another’s wealth.

Parents are a child’s first and foremost educators, and have primary responsibility for the education of their children. Parents have a right to direct their children’s education, care, and upbringing. We support a constitutional amendment to protect that right from interference by states, the federal government, or international bodies such as the United Nations. We reject a onesize-fits-all approach to education and support a broad range of choices for parents and children at the state and local level. We likewise repeat our longstanding opposition to the imposition of national standards and assessments, encourage the parents and educators who are implementing alternatives to Common Core, and congratulate the states which have successfully repealed it. Their education reform movement calls for choice-based, parent-driven accountability at every stage of schooling. It affirms higher expectations for all students and rejects the crippling bigotry of low expectations. It recognizes the wisdom of local control of our schools and it wisely sees consumer rights in education — choice — as the most important driving force for renewing education. It rejects excessive testing and “teaching to the test” and supports the need for strong assessments to serve as a tool so teachers can tailor teaching to meet student needs.

We applaud America’s great teachers, who should be protected against frivolous lawsuits and should be able to take reasonable actions to maintain discipline and order in the classroom. Administrators need flexibility to innovate and to hold accountable all those responsible for student performance. A good understanding of the Bible being indispensable for the development of an educated citizenry, we encourage state legislatures to offer the Bible in a literature curriculum as an elective in America’s high schools. We urge school districts to make use of teaching talent in the business community, STEM fields, and the military, especially among our returning veterans. Rigid tenure systems should be replaced with a merit-based approach in order to attract the best talent to the classroom. All personnel who interact with school children should pass background checks and be held to the highest standards of personal conduct.

Academic Excellence for All Maintaining American preeminence requires a world-class system of education in which all students can reach their potential. Republicans are leading the effort to create it. Since 1965, the federal government, through more than 100 programs in 34 the Department of Education, has spent $2 trillion on elementary and secondary education with little substantial improvement in academic achievement or high school graduation rates. The United States spends an average of more than $12,000 per pupil per year in public schools, for a total of more than $620 billion. That represents more than 4 percent of GDP devoted to K-12 education in 2011-2012. Of that amount, federal spending amounted to more than $57 billion. Clearly, if money were the solution, our schools would be problem-free.

More money alone does not necessarily equal better performance. After years of trial and error, we know the policies and methods that have actually made a difference in student advancement: Choice in education; building on the basics; STEM subjects and phonics; career and technical education; ending social promotions; merit pay for good teachers; classroom discipline; parental involvement; and strong leadership by principals, superintendents, and locally elected school boards. Because technology has become an essential tool of learning, it must be a key element in our efforts to provide every child equal access and opportunity. We strongly encourage instruction in American history and civics by using the original documents of our founding fathers.

Choice in Education: We support options for learning, including home-schooling, career and technical education, private or parochial schools, magnet schools, charter schools, online learning, and early-college high schools. We especially support the innovative financing mechanisms that make options available to all children: education savings accounts (ESAs), vouchers, and tuition tax credits. Empowering families to access the learning environments that will best help their children to realize their full potential is one of the greatest civil rights challenges of our time. A young person’s ability to succeed in school must be based on his or her God-given talent and motivation, not an address, ZIP code, or economic status. We propose that the bulk of federal money through Title I for low-income children and through IDEA for children with special needs should follow the child to whatever school the family thinks will work best for them.

In sum, on the one hand enormous amounts of money are being spent for K-12 public education with overall results that do not justify that spending level. On the other hand, the common experience of families, teachers, and administrators forms the basis of what does work in education. In Congress and in the states, Republicans are bridging the gap between those two realities. Congressional Republicans are leading the way forward with major reform legislation advancing the concept of block grants and repealing numerous federal regulations which have interfered with state and local control of public schools. Their Workplace Innovation and Opportunity Act — modernizing workforce programs, repealing mandates, and advancing employment for persons with disabilities — is now law. Their legislation to require transparency in unfunded mandates imposed upon our schools is advancing. Their D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program should be expanded as a model for the rest of the country. We deplore the efforts of Congressional Democrats and the current President to eliminate this successful program for disadvantaged students in order to placate the leaders of the teachers’ unions.

To ensure that all students have access to the mainstream of American life, we support the English First approach and oppose divisive programs that limit students’ ability to advance in American society. We renew our call for replacing “family planning” programs for teens with sexual risk avoidance education that sets abstinence until marriage as the responsible and respected standard of behavior. That approach — the only one always effective against premarital pregnancy and sexually-transmitted disease — empowers teens to achieve optimal health outcomes. We oppose school-based clinics that provide referral or counseling for abortion and contraception and believe that federal funds should not be used in mandatory or universal mental health, psychiatric, or socio-emotional screening programs. The federal government has pushed states to collect and share vast amounts of personal student and family data, including the collection of social and emotional data. Much of this data is collected without parental consent or notice. This is wholly incompatible with the American Experiment and our inalienable rights.

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Let’s Start Looking at What’s at Stake

To my Bernie or Bust friends, I believe it important to look more deeply at what Bernie Sanders said last night when he talked about the contribution of his campaign to the Democratic Party Platform. To my friends who are unionists and who understand in their bones how the decline of the American labor movement parallels the decline of America’s middle class, take a look at this passage from the platform on workers’ rights.

“Protecting Workers’ Fundamental Rights The Democratic Party believes that when workers are strong, America is strong. Democrats will make it easier for workers, public and private, to exercise their right to organize and join unions. We will fight to pass laws that direct the National Labor Relations Board to certify a union if a simple majority of eligible workers sign valid authorization cards, as well as laws that bring companies to the negotiating table. We support binding arbitration to help workers who have voted to join a union reach a first contract. A major factor in the 40-year decline in the middle class is that the rights of workers to bargain collectively for better wages and benefits have been under attack at all levels. Donald Trump would make matters worse by creating a race to the bottom where the middle class is fighting over fewer and fewer good-paying jobs. In fact, Trump rejected some attempts by his own employees to unionize and has personally hired union-busting firms to undermine workers’ rights. Democrats believe so-called “right to work” laws are wrong for workers—such as teachers and other public employees who serve our communities every day—and wrong for America. We will continue to vigorously oppose those laws and other efforts that would eliminate dues check-off procedures, roll-back prevailing wage standards, abolish fair share requirements, restrict the use of voluntary membership payments for political purposes, attack seniority, restrict due process protections, and require annual recertification efforts. We oppose legislation and lawsuits that would strike down laws protecting the rights of teachers and other public employees. We will defend President Obama’s overtime rule, which protects of millions of workers by paying them fairly for their hard work.”

You will search in vain for anything to do with workers’ rights in the Republican Party Platform. Contrast this passage with the one above. Then tell me how any union member can flirt with the idea of supporting Donald Trump. Tell me how any union member could be so preoccupied with the flaws in Hillary Clinton that they can overlook what Trump and the Republican Part have in mind for the American worker.

“The greatest asset of the American economy is the hard-working American. That is why our first priority is getting people back to work by fostering the kind of growth that creates jobs. That overarching goal unites all the sections of this platform. It runs through our commitments on education and workforce development. It underlies our approach to welfare reform, regulatory reform, and our determination to advance the kind of trade agreements that multiply opportunities for workers here at home. It also impels us to challenge the anachronistic labor laws that limit workers’ freedom and lock them into the workplace rules of their great-grandfathers. Instead of facilitating change, the current Administration and its agents at the National Labor Relations Board are determined to reverse it. They are attacking the franchise model of business development, which is essential to the flexibility and creativity of the new economy. They are wielding provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act from the 1930s, designed to fit a manufacturing workplace, to deny flexibility to both employers and employees. They have repealed union transparency rules that allowed members to discover what was being done with their dues. They have outlawed alternatives to unions even when they were favored by the workers. Their Project Labor Agreements discriminate against the overwhelming majority of workers by barring them from jobs on taxpayer-funded projects. Their patronizing and controlling approach leaves workers in a form of peonage to the NLRB. We intend to restore fairness and common sense to that agency.”

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Trump Junior

While it may be for naught, I will continue to try to reason with those teacher union members considering voting for Donald Trump or the Libertarian or Green Party candidates. Thos e familiar with my political positions know that I’m not a great fan of Hillary’s, but if we are interested in public education, we have to put our energy into stopping Donald Trump from becoming President of the United States. That means voting for Hillary.

If you watched Donald Junior’s speech last night you hear enough to frighten you into the reality of what we must do. If you missed it, be sure you watch it here. After you do, think about the anti-intellectual theme running throughout – the suggestion that educated, credentialed people somehow know nothing about the world. Listen to the appeal to the uneducated. More importantly, at 16 minutes and 48 seconds into the speech, listen to the indictment of public education, its teachers and administrators and the due process protections of tenure. Although plagiarized in part, the speech echoes those who have wages a well-financed, coordinated campaign to discredit the public schools of our nation in order to privatize them.

Why would any public school employee vote for a candidate who obviously places no value on the work that we do and who poses an existential threat to the institution we cherish – public schools?

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A Good Day for Public Education

It seems at least probable that my criticism of our union leaders for their failure to win concessions from Hillary Clinton that she would end the tenure of Education Secretary John King was premature. The final democratic platform plank on education is excellent on the uses of testing and the right of parents to opt their children out of high stakes tests. It’s even better than it might have been on charter schools, coming out against for profit charters and, more importantly, taking a reasonably strong stand on preventing charters from negatively influencing neighborhood public schools. I was very glad to see that AFT President Randi Weingarten was influential in winning significant changes from some of the original language proposals. To be sure, Hillary is not bound to govern by the language of the platform, but, realistically, she can’t very well continue the Obama administration’s testing oriented education policies. Neither is there going to be a place for a John King to implement policy derived from this platform.

I won’t be too surprised if Hillary has to tip-toe around this plank in her speeches and debates. Her strongest support is the African American community, many of whose leaders are strongly in favor of high stakes testing. Many in this community believe that absent test based school and teacher accountability systems, the schools their children attend, schools that are too often seriously under-resourced, will languish. She needs to find a way to show how the schools in all communities are negatively impacted by the uses of standardized tests that were never designed to rate schools, teachers or kids for that matter.

I hope news of the Democratic platform on education gives heart to some of my teacher union friends who are still grieving for the defeat of Bernie Sanders. It ought to go a long way to have them understand that the choice between Hillary and Trump is not at all between two evils. Hillary and the Dems are clearly recognizing the failure of the Obama education policy and committing to rolling back some of its essential features. That’s progress! It’s not perfection, but it moves us forward.

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Will King Ever Be Gone?

Why are none of our nation education union leaders publically demanding that Hillary respond to Secretary John King’s decree that school with more than 5 percent opt-out rate be treated as failing schools and be sanctioned by the feds? Many of us knew this would happen when President Obama poked his finger in the eyes of America’s teachers by naming King to be his Secretary of Education succeeding Arne Duncan who did more to diminish the stature of the teaching profession than I can remember. We desperately need to hear from Hillary that she will rid us of this anti-public education secretary.

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Why Bother to Meet?

I’ve taken a few days to think about late week’s NEA convention before writing about it. I found myself unsure of whether it was the most boring and inconsequential NEA convention I had ever attended did I see it that way for some reason owing to my recent retirement. The more I think about it, the more I’m sure it’s the former.

For an organization under attack from many quarters, for a union that has bled substantial membership in recent years, there was surprisingly little in the way of calls to action. If this had been one’s first national meeting, one would think that all is so well that all we have to talk about are the rules by which we run our conventions. It was truly alarming to listen to speaker after speaker offer some suggestion about how we might change our rules to facilitate our meeting, speakers who ironically clearly had nothing on their minds of substance to talk about.

NEA Executive Director John Stocks offered up an impassioned speech the theme of which was that we have to listen to the needs of our newest members of the profession. While his manner bespoke serious business, the content of his remarks were almost humorous by comparison. Is our teacher union movement in such bad shape that the activists of the organization have to be reminded to listen to the members? What a missed opportunity to send people home from the convention with a serious mission.

I would hazard a guess that a majority of the delegates came from local unions that do not have one hundred percent membership. Imagine if someone in leadership had worked the crowd up to have each one go home and recruit one new member this year, one new member. What if the 10,000 or so activists were asked to go home and make an immediate visit to the office of their Congressperson to demand that the recent ESSA legislation be implemented as written and not as Secretary King has interpreted it? I’m always amazed that we gather our union activists at great cost to meetings and send them home with nothing specific to do, all the while talking about the need to organize.

Hillary spoke to a wildly enthusiastic crowd. While some in the press suggest that she signaled a pronounced break from the education policies of the Obama administration, I found her comments so nuanced as to be unsure of exactly what her positions are other than we will have a seat at the table and that she has our backs. Clearly no one in NEA leadership pressed her before hand to explicitly repudiate the corporate education reform movement. If they warned her about saying anything positive about charter schools, she certainly paid them no heed, drawing some loud boos from the audience when she alluded to them positively. Our organizations demand so little in exchange for our support.

I continue to be bitterly disappointed by the performance of Lily Eskelsen Garcia, our NEA president. With personality traits that at once make people like her, this person of enormous political talent has essentially frittered away her time in office. She is ideally suited to be the face of the anti-corporate reformers. Yet she and the NEA she leads always appear to be reluctant to take them on, often opting instead for engagement with them in the hope of convincing them of the errors of their ways. I’m all for keeping hope alive, but……

If big, expensive meetings like the national conventions of the NEAand AFT are not to be about inspiring and motivating the unions’ activists to build the organization in some way, enlarging its power and prestige, if after we have met there is nothing specific for the attendees to do to build and energize our movement, must we not consider some better use for the resources put into organizing these meetings?

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The Last Day

Today is my last posting as a local union president. So many people have said so many kind words about me, none more meaningful to me than those who thanked me for teaching them to stand up for themselves, to speak their minds rather than swallowing their thoughts along with a heavy swig of self-loathing for one’s timidity. That’s what I’ve tried to be about – teaching working people how to gain individual and collective power to better their lives. That’s what unions should be about. It always fascinates me when some management type complains to me about the rudeness of many of our members. What they term rudeness turns out very often to be people having the nerve to NO confidently and loudly to their bosses. I usually thank them for letting me know and making my day.

I’m happy to be leaving. The world of public education has grown ugly. Powerful forces seek the demise of public education. To them it is a potential profit center, not a vital social institution. These corporate forces have had major successes. Worst of all, they have undermined the confidence of the public in the institution to the point where it is becoming increasing difficult to get good people into the system. The so-called leaders of too many of our schools are driven not by and love and respect for the institution but by an ethic that has them eying their next job before they’ve mastered the one they just got. A little district like mine has turned over thirteen administrators in a little more than a year.

Part of me, however, would like to remain on the frontline to see if we can’t win the battle to save the institution. Yet, I know if our precious public schools are to be saved it will take a new generation of union leaders aligned with an aroused public to eventually win the day. I know that can happen. My time in public education witnessed the elevation of teaching from a low paid job for educated women with few other employment options to where at least in my part of the country we make a respectable living. A rebirth of the militancy that led to these achievements is all that it would take to protect public education. Can we bring it to life again? That’s the unanswered question. There are some good signs. I shall try to remain hopeful and do what I can from the sidelines to protect and defend our public schools that have been good to me and to this great nation.

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Hillary and the NEA RA

Getting ready to go to the NEA convention in D.C. next week. No doubt Hillary will be the featured speaker. While the hall will give her a thunderous reception, she has to speak to the many Bernie supporters, most of whom will be back home. She needs to tell them that she strongly opposes high stakes testing, that she has come to understand the damage it is doing to America’s public schools. She needs to make clear that that she believes the linkage of student test scores to teacher evaluations is without merit and destructive of teacher morale. She needs to make clear that her administration will seek an end to that connection. She needs to make clear that her administration will cancel the federal regulations that threaten school districts with loss of federal funds if 95 percent of their students fail to participate in the examinations. If she does most of that in clear unambiguous language, most Bernie’s supporters who cling to the belief that she is a supporter of the corporate school reform movement will rally to her support. They will be able to take some pride in claiming that their support for Bernie forced her to support their education positions. Hillary has everything to gain from a pronounced move in their direction and nothing to lose.

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The Last Day

The last day of the school year. As expected, teachers calling all morning to complain about the score in some box on the rubric used to evaluate their performance, even though their over-all rating is effective or in many cases highly effective. So much time and energy is put into this process. So little of any use comes out of it, either for the employer or the teacher. We would be hard pressed to show that that any of this administrative work has any effect whatsoever on the education of a single child. Yet, we spend fortunes of money on a huge bureaucracy to create the illusion of meaningful evaluation and the weeding out of incompetence. The truth is the truly incompetent usually demonstrate that trait in multiple ways within the first few weeks on the job. What if the real purpose of our evaluation systems is to keep teachers in their place, have them categorically accept all directions they are given, swallow the indignities directed at them from superiors who often know nothing about the art of teaching, what if the real purpose is control though the fear of a negative evaluation?

I’m going to continue to blog over the summer, although perhaps not as often as during the school year. Although I’ll be retiring next week, I plan on continuing this work. So, if you put education out of your mind for the summer, don’t forget to come back in the fall.

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We Dreamed of One World

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

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

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

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A Sad Evening

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

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Albany Fails Again

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

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

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Ethically Challenged

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

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

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Freedom From Fear of Gun Violence

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

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Thinking Regionally

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

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

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

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

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A Very Good Day

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

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

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

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Shame on Us

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

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