A Teachable Moment

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

The Alignment of the Anti-Deformers

My, my how the direct action of parents and teachers against the Common Core State Standards and the high stakes tests aligned to them has shifted the positions of many of our teacher union leaders. The AFT ‘s Randi Weingarten no longer supports value added teacher evaluation models and while still supporting the Common Core Standards in the abstract is forced to admit that the implementation has been an abject disaster. Even the leadership of NYSUT, as aloof from the day to day realities of classroom teachers as they can be, is realizing they’ve been standing on policy quicksand and are seeking firmer ground. Where the last meeting of the NYSUT Board of Directors debated whether or not we should invite Commissioner King to our convention this spring, the upcoming meeting will entertain a motion of no confidence in the commissioner offered by President Dick Iannuzzi. Where Iannuzzi recently told me that parents were not interested in fewer tests but wanted better assessments, I suspect it won’t be long before his team retreats from absurd position as they are challenges by a slate of challengers running against them.

With many of our politicians beginning to move away from Common Core and the testing that comes with it, with our state and national union leaders beginning to hear the anger of their memberships, with a growing number of parents questioning what their children are experiencing in their classrooms, with a growing number of them opting their children out of all high stakes tests, there is developing and irresistible alignment of political forces to end the so-called reform movement that is deforming public education in America.

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More Testing Stupidity

Common Core is quickly coming to be the justification for metastasized stupidity. The leadership of my school district has announced mid-terms for the children in our kindergarten school – MID-TERMS! Granted they call them mid-year assessments, but flagrant ignorance of the abilities and needs of five year-olds is apparent no matter what we call it.

Where once we nurtured children by honing their dexterity with things like blocks, where we taught them songs that inculcated desirable behaviors and values, where naps and milk and cookies came at daily intervals, where music, arts and play were organized to teach youngsters whose bodies are often not ready to sit in one place to focus on abstract concepts, we now have pencil and paper tests on academic skills that we drum into their little heads. We spend gobs of time testing children who too often take from the experience the seeds of a sense of inadequacy. Neurotically fixated on a media manufactured myth of waning global competitiveness, we somehow think that if we just demand more of our children than was demanded of us, we will somehow succeed as a nation, mindless of the likely probably that nations that treat their children so poorly will and deserve to lose.

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Public Schools and Citizenship

Today’s post is part of a series I’ve been intermittently doing on standards teachers could support (Searching for Standards teachers Could Support) (Teacher Written Standards Would Be Age Appropriate).
Public schools that don’t inculcate the feeling of belonging to the public and having responsibilities to it are schools that significantly betray the welfare of the public who fund them. Schools that foster the belief that education is primarily to make students college and career ready are training institutions, not places designed to educate people to live in a democratic society. Children leaving public schools with high standards are connected to their communities, are thoroughly familiar with their local, state and national governments, know their elected representatives and their positions on the issues of the day and look forward to gaining their voice at the ballot box. They have benefited from being exposed to a diverse student body so that the unfamiliar is not threatening to them. While they love their country dearly, they respect the right of other cultures to order themselves differently and do not believe that all people in the world should govern themselves as they do. They have been taught the human costs of war and have developed a suspicion of the motives who want to engage in it. They have respect for the environment and have a strong sense of obligation to protect it.

The public schools I went to by and large met these standards. We were always encouraged to think of larger things than ourselves. Singing songs like “I am Special” would probably have landed us a punch in the nose. My teachers taught us the Negro National Anthem at a time when many African Americans lived under barbaric racist laws. They taught us union songs and about the rights of working people. We sang songs about the United Nations, newly establish after WWII – one of the lines, “One great world at peace once more.” We always had a sense that how we lived in our school community was preparation for engagement in the communities we would live in later on. We had current events almost every day, with the New York Times or Herald Tribune available to us each morning for pennies a day.

My public schools sought to make us good citizens. Today’s schools have fallen down on this job. If the reformers get their way, they will do worse with each passing year. They have no interest in educating children for citizenship. To them children are producers and consumers. There’s nothing about citizenship in the Common Core State Standards. Why?

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What Are We Doing?

A thread on a Plainview parents Facebook page came my way, begun by a parent whose child will enter our high school next year and who enquired of the group whether or not the child should have a lunch period programmed into his day or take an extra class instead. Now it’s in the interest of the members I represent to have students take as many classes as possible. More classes equal more teachers. More teachers equal more union members…..

Yet I can’t help but wonder how it is that we have arrived at the point where this parent’s question is seen as reasonable and where many of the responses from the group counsel no lunch. Six hours of classes without a break? The labor laws of New York require workers to receive a minimum of a thirty minute break after they have worked four and a half hours. Why would we provide less to children? Why have so many lost sight of the fact that gulping down a sandwich while trying to concentrate on a class is not the same thing as sitting with a group of peers and talking teen talk? Why is it that we encourage children to drive themselves in ways that we resent in our adult lives?

Childhood is a social construction. It didn’t always exist. In fact, it’s a fairly recent invention. No so long ago, children were treated as little adults – they dressed like adults and worked like adults. We seem to be living in a society that is increasingly moving backwards, a society that is slowly forgetting the concept of childhood, believing instead that we must heap as much pressure on them as we can for their chase of the bitch goddess Success.

A parent I know has demanded that her high school child take lunch. The child’s friends are amazed that her parents “allow” her to have a meal and some relaxation every school day. It’s no surprise that those unfortunate children tell their parents that they don’t want lunch. How could they possibly do otherwise?

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Sit and Stare Has Got to Go

We are rapidly approaching the spring high stakes tests in New York. My school district, like too many in the state, refuses to respond to the needs of a growing number of children whose parents are choosing to opt them out of these state examinations, believing that they are harmful and antithetical to quality education. The need is a simple one. We need to provide an alternative to the current policy of having opting out students sit and stare into space as their peers take these examinations. The current policy is not fair to opting out students. It isn’t fair to those taking the exams either.

The Plainview- Old Bethpage Board needs to provide an alternative educational experience for children to refuse to take the state exams. They need to do this to prevent opting out students from the painful experience of sitting in one place for extended periods of time without anything to do. They need to do it too to be fair to those students trying to concentrate on the examinations who have a right not to be distracted by squirming peers whose bodies are rebelling against adult imposed idleness.

The members of our union understand that there are some logistical problems related to providing an alternative experience for opting out students. To help the district avoid hiring substitute teachers to supervise those not taking the exams, we have offered to give up our contractual preparation periods on testing days to provide supervision at no additional cost to the district. We are willing to do any reasonable thing to end the cruel “sit and stare” policy.

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Leave It to Cuomo

Like in a tire ripped open by a New York pothole, the air is rapidly escaping from so-called education reform movement in New York. With parents and teachers becoming increasingly aroused to action against the Common Core State Standards and the tests aligned to them, with members of the legislature beginning to respond to the ire of their constituents, with New York City under its new mayor poised to undo the Bloomberg corporate reforms, this is the time our Governor, Andrew Cuomo, decides it would be wise to call for the demonstrably failed concept of teacher merit pay to be grafted on to the equally stupid annual professional performance review process that ties student test scores to teacher evaluations. Is there no end to Cuomo’s pandering to the corporate reformers? Probably not, as they are the ones who have filled his campaign fund with millions of dollars, probably enough to scare off any serious challenger.

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Stop! Please!!!!

Maybe it’s a consequence of the Homeland marathon I did over the recent holiday; maybe it’s a waning tolerance for mindlessness or the tendency of the eduworld to mystify the obvious, but I find myself thinking that if forced to watch videos like this one on Common Core math for kindergartners, I would give up my country and all I love. See how many seconds it takes you before you feel like bashing in the screen.

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Weingarten’s About-face

I congratulate AFT President Randi Weingarten for finally coming to the conclusion that value added measures of teacher performance are a sham – there being no research that establishes their validity. While I welcome her to my side in the battle against obsessive testing, as the elected leader of a union I belong to, it’s not that easy to forget the damage her support for the linkage of student performance on standardized tests to teacher evaluation has caused. It’s much easier to forgive Diane Ravitch who was never elected and paid to represent me. Despite serious opposition to her position from the rank and file, Weingarten persevered, sincerely believing that she was right – that she had insights many of the members lacked. She proved to be wrong.

Should the insurgent candidates in the upcoming NYSUT elections prevail, they will do so in large measure because of their perceived failure to handle the testing/teacher evaluation issue appropriately. As NYSUT makes up about half of the AFT membership, it will be interesting to see if Weingarten meets a similar fate.

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NYSUT Elections

What had been rumored for months became clear over the weekend. There is a slate of candidates running in opposition to the current New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) leadership team in an election to be held in April. My readers are familiar with my differences with NYSUT leadership who have in my view essentially acquiesced to the corporate sponsored public school reform agenda and as a result have progressively distanced themselves from the membership.

I look forward to what those who would replace them have to say about the future of our state union. I’m interested in their analysis of our current state of affairs and what they have in mind to do to improve things. I’m frankly troubled that this group emerges so close to the election with very little time to introduce themselves and develop their positions on the issues. I hope this election cycle will serve to open a broad discussion of where our movement is going, a discussion that includes the rank and file. If it doesn’t, it is unlikely that the kind of change we need will be forthcoming. For now, let’s listen to what the candidates have to offer.

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Skills Gap?

A central tenet of the corporate school reform movement is the belief that the failure of our public schools is making our nation less economically competitive in a world in which trade has become globalized. The offered “evidence” for this belief is the oft stated unchallenged “fact” that there are many good jobs available in the United States that go begging because employers cannot find workers with the 21st century skills these jobs require.

In a brilliantly eye-opening piece in the January edition of Labor Notes entitled ‘Skills Gap’ a Convenient Myth (Sorry no link available), labor historian Toni Gilpin challenges this conventional wisdom, leaving this reader, at least, convinced of its absurdity. When one stops to think, a lesson learned in high school economics gives us all we need to know to debunk this myth. If there is a skills gap, the wages of skilled workers would rise with the scarcity of their skills. It’s basic supply and demand economics. Yet, we know they haven’t risen. In fact they have stagnated or declined over the last 30 years causing what we are coming to see as the our age’s great social and political problem – rising economic inequality. Where one does see skilled jobs going unfilled, Gilpin says, “…it’s because employers seek high-value workers at discount rates.” Witness what Boeing is attempting to do to its highly skilled workforce. Boeing workers, some of the most highly skilled workers we have, are being threatened with having their jobs outsourced to other parts of the country if they do not agree to management’s demand for wage and pension concessions. How could this happen in an economy where there is a shortage of skilled workers?

So it’s not a failing public schools caused skills gap America is experiencing. It’s a jobs gap. It’s not training that is going to provide the jobs we need. It’s the existence of jobs that provides training. We’ve been encouraged to have this all backwards. Just as we have been encouraged to believe our schools are failing. Get a hold of Gilpin’s piece if you can. It’s a wonderful remedy for the corporate bull that clouds our thinking.

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Asking Parents To Be Teachers

One of the more interesting aspects of the implementation of the Common Core State Standards in New York has been to watch the leaders of our school districts inveigh against testing, the age inappropriateness of the early childhood standards and the evaluation of teacher tied to this entire corporate sponsored venture. Yet, the same school leaders, the front line recipients of the parent led rebellion against the Common Core Standards and the tests aligned with them feel obliged to try to offer palliative accommodations to the growing parent anger. Thus we have a growing number of districts offering parents training in how to help their children cope with challenges brought by the new standards. These school leaders want it all ways. They correctly sense the growing opposition of parents and teachers, but are fearful of bucking the Commissioner King and Regents Chancellor Tisch. They preach concern for children, but appear more interested in their careers than standing up for what’s right.

What remains to be seen is whether these parent Common Core classes allay parent concerns. Were I a parent paying the very high school taxes in suburban communities like mine, I would be livid over the notion that I required training to help my children to do their school work. What kind of schools am I sending my kids to if I have to teach them when they come home? To me it is absolutely clear that if we are asking children to do things that require their parents to constantly help them, we are demonstrably asking them to do tasks inappropriate to their age.

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Ending On A Hopeful Note

This will be my last post for 2013, a memorable year for public education in many ways. It has been the year that has witnessed the beginning of the public’s perception that they have been had by the corporate backed education reformers who had them convinced for a while that greedy union teachers who were accountable to no one were endangering their kids’ futures. This is the year in which there has been a rapidly growing perception that the reformers are not really interested in educating the nation’s youth but rather in the profits to be made by the selling of reformist flimflam. The more student failure there is to rise to test set standards, the more profit there will be to be made. One senses the awakening of our political class to the reality that parents are getting ready to vote on the issues of testing and the Common Core. Reformist retreat is in the air. Even our national teacher unions are catching up with the anger of their local members who have borne the brunt of the reformist attack, sometimes with NEA and AFT supporting the corporate agenda. I strongly suspect that we won’t see either accepting Gates Foundation money to promote reforms like the Common Core State Standards. For those of us longing for sanity in public education, the year end on a hopeful note. If, as I suspect, the opt-out movement significantly increases the number of children taking New York’s spring tests, our efforts to save public education will be enormously strengthened.

On that note, I’ll close out this year‘s blog, hoping I’ve challenged your thoughts on public education and moved you to be an activist in defending the institution I love dearly. I wish you all wonderful holiday season and a Happy New Year.

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What The PISA Scores May Really Be Saying

There is so much blither written about test scores that one is surprise when one reads a piece about them that is informative and thought provoking. The Huffington Post offered such a piece a couple of days ago that offers a platform on which it just might be possible for the testers and the anti-testers to reconcile their differences. The piece digs into the recently released PISA scores and come to some policy conclusions that have poverty as a central focus. Give it a serious read.

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Special Science Class

The Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957 triggered broad concern that there was a dangerous missile gap between our nations and a science education gap too. A 7th grader at the time, I recall coming to school one day to find that regular classes were cancelled, and the whole 7th grade was to be given a printed science test of some kind. It was a few weeks after that my parents received a letter telling them that I had been selected on the basis of that test to be placed in a Special Science class the following year. The competition with the Soviet commies was on, and we 8th graders were going to play our part in it. In 1960 John F. Kennedy would be elected President in part on a platform focused on the “missile gap.” That, however, would not be the last time a candidate for public office stretched the truth.

I’m reminded of those days as the STEM contingent of the so-called education reform movement plays to our contemporary fear that we are becoming globally uncompetitive due to the perceived poor performance in math and science on international tests like PISA. More and more this largely contrived education gap is being used to shift the focus of our public schools from education to training, training for employment in jobs that contemporary seers know will exist when today’s students reach adulthood. I hope this current misperception of our situation meets with the same success as our reaction to Sputnik. That’s not because I’m against the young learning science. I am strongly against trying to push them into careers at an early age.

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Let’s Be Rid of the Regents

I challenge anyone who has followed the public outcry at the implementation of the Common Core State Standards in New York and the completely incompetent job Commissioner King and Chancellor Tisch have done both in the development of policy and its implementation, I challenge them to watch the webcast of yesterday’s meeting of the Board of Regents and to not come to the conclusion that the Regents is a governing body whose time has come and gone. For those without the fortitude to watch the whole meeting, start at about minute 55.

Most of our illustrious Regents seem to think that the Commissioner did a great job at his recent forums correcting misinformation. After all, they have seen great Common Core lessons on their visits to the schools in their districts. If they have a problem, a better messaging strategy is all that’s necessary. I venture to say that not tooo many people who attended the forums would agree.

I have believed for years that we would be much better off with people directly elected by the people running education policy. In New York City, Michael Bloomberg is going, and the winning candidate to replace him made it clear that his vision of public education is quite different than Bloomberg’s corporate approach. Why do we need Regents shielding Governor Cuomo from taking responsibility for the education of our state’s children?

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The Swelling of a Small Idea

There is a Yiddish expression for making much of nothing. We say, sie ferkochen a kasha, they cook up a kasha, kasha being buckwheat groats, little grains too numerous to count which expand when they are cooked. That’s the expression that came to mind after spending little over an hour listening to Common Core guru David Coleman talk about the Common Core State Standards and how they should be implemented. The speech was made before anyone began the implementation process. For all of his high blown, clever rhetoric, his rendition of the Standards boils down to – do fewer topics in math, but do them in greater depth, and in English have children do 50 percent of their reading in informational texts of increasing complexity so that they gain background knowledge which in turn makes them able to read more sophisticated texts. Big, stinking deal! Is this the latest mystification of the obvious?

If you have been troubled as I have with how these little grains of thought have swollen into a kasha that has overflowed its pot as they have been cooked up by the numbskulls running education policy in Albany, listen to Coleman’s speech, and think about how easy it might have been to do national standards differently.
This is not to let Coleman off the hook. Listen too for his statement that so long as we have high stakes tests, teachers will teach to them. The challenge as he sees it is to make tests worthy of being taught to. I suppose that’s what he will be about as he sets about leading the effort to rewrite the SAT.

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This post is part of the series of posts seeking national standards classroom teachers and parents could proudly support. The introduction to the series can be found here.

Despite all of what is essentially propaganda to the contrary, classroom teachers were not hands-on participants in the drafting of the Common Core State Standards. If they had been, we wouldn’t have parents and teachers across the nation in an uproar, particularly those dealing with young children.

We know beyond a doubt that children develop at different rates. In an ideal world, not all children would start school at 5 years of age. We would observe their development carefully and begin to formally educate them when they were ready. In a system of public schools that must accommodate millions of children, that isn’t practical. We have begun them all in most places at five, but we provided some broad flexibility in at least the early grades so that kids with lags in aspects of their development were accounted for and hopefully caught up to their peers. That is, the expectations for the various grades were flexible enough that kids of a broad spectrum of abilities could still be considered to be doing satisfactorily.

With the Common Core Standards, at least as they are being implemented in New York, that is far from the case. We have what I call the compounded educational felony of age inappropriate standards promulgated nationally by people with, to be kind, very limited understanding of the cognitive development of children, passing them on to incompetents like we have in Albany to be interpreted and expressed in the so-called modules on the State Ed website. That leaves classroom teachers with little children who can barely hold a pencil properly coloring in bubbles on answer sheets to verbal math problems which they can’t read with any degree of precision. It leaves them shoving vocabulary words down the throats of children who may parrot the words back but who are not ready yet to store them in working memory.

Finally, no teacher I know would have just dumped the Common Core State Standards without first thinking through the learning gaps that need to be filled in the transition to this new approach. Just yesterday, I was talking to a colleague who teaches 6th grade math in a district serving a high percentage of children who live in poverty, kids who for a variety of reasons have gaping holes in their learning. She reminded me that math knowledge is acquired sequentially. Miss some basic concepts in first grade, and you’re probably going to have difficulties in grade 2. Unaddressed, the gaps grow exponentially. Try as a child to deal with math that is served up in non-traditional ways, ways in which many elementary teachers find it difficult to understand and the learning gaps are multiplied by at least several factors. Send these kids home with homework that their parents don’t recognize as math, and you have guaranteed that numbers of them will see themselves as bad at math for the remainder of their lives. Many will actually be. As bad, parental support for public schools is undermined as parents send their kids to schools that frustrate them and diminish their self-confidence.

Good, highly experienced teachers, teachers from inner city, rural and suburban schools writing national standards and planning for their implementation would have foreseen these problems and attempted to plan for them. The standards would have been informed by the essential skills of people with broad experience and knowledge of what children at a given age can be expected to do. We could still have such standards, if the Obama administration would come to its senses, shed itself of the influences outfits like the Gates Foundation and other corporate interests and work with our two national unions to recruit real teachers to rewrite the Common Core State Standards that in their current iteration will accomplish nothing.

Even then, however, we would still be faced with national disgrace that a quarter of our nation’s children live in poverty.

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Imagine! Teachers Do Better In Person

Only those who don’t understand education as a social process but absorption of information see champion online education. That good teacher always entails quantifiable factors seems to be something in the process of being forgotten. Hopefully the data driven drones will awaken to the developing body of information on feeble results of hyped panaceas. These results are with college age students. Image what high school results would be like.

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Searching for Standards Teachers Could Support

In response to a question I asked of NEA President Van Roekel about our union’s support of the Common Core State Standards, he raised the question of what are we for instead. Here’s the broad outline of standards I could wholeheartedly support. I plan to come back to this outline from time to time to flesh my standards out.

I’m open to k-12 standards that delineate minimum expectations across the grades. Those standards should be developed by classroom teachers and field tested and refined before they are nationally released. The standards I envision would leave teachers free to develop the curriculum they feel will best enable their students to meet the standards. The ultimate goal of the standards would be a broadly educated student equipped for responsible adulthood and citizenship, a student prepared for the next step is in whatever path he chooses, be it college, the world of work the military or whatever. My teacher developed standards would, I’m sure, guide students to social responsibility, respect for the environment and political participation. In short they would seek to inculcate that which would create citizens who wish to live in a decent society free of the scourges of ignorance, poverty and prejudice.

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New York is the Key

I’ve written about my differences with state and national union leaders on what I have termed their wholesale embrace of the Common Core State Standards. I had occasion last week to meet with a group of local union presidents from across the country and NEA President Dennis Van Roekel under the auspices of the National Council of Urban Education Associations (NCUEA), a powerful caucus with in the National Education Association (NEA). I used my opportunity to engage Van Roekel to address what is becoming clearer to me all the time: the difference between the Common Core Standards as they exist as originally promulgated and the Standards as they are being experienced in the school districts and classrooms of our nation.

Acknowledging that the implementation of the Standards in New York has been a disaster, Van Roekel went on to explain that the NEA’s support for them has been driven by internal polling of the membership indicating broad support for them, and, in fact, several of the presidents in attendance spoke to the support of their members. He did say that the members have some concerns about implementation but are generally supportive.

While I was reluctant to accept this report on NEA’s polling, a number of experiences at this conference caused me to change my view. Wherever I went, whatever discussion I participated in at this NCUEA conference, there was a sense in the leaders I met that Common Core Standards are here to stay so that we might as well make the best of them that we can. To be sure there are places in the nation where the Standards are being implemented better than in New York, but that doesn’t mean that they are being enthusiastically embraced by our members. In a world where their leaders offer them no alternatives, it’s sensible to try to make the best of things.

I returned home convinced that the battle against testing and the Common Core Standards increasingly linked to that testing will have to be won in New York first. Here I increasingly meet local leaders who see the lunacy the Standards have become, leaders whose members are fed up with the attempt by corporate interests to take over their profession, standardizing their work and neutering it of its creative challenges. Not only must the battle be won in New York, but the driving energy to victory is going to have to emanate from Long Island where parents are joining with teachers to defend what we all know are some of the best schools in our nation.

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