A Teachable Moment

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

Regents Cling to the Wrong Approach

It wasn’t very surprising to learn yesterday the New York State Regents voted to make their teacher evaluation regulations permanent. While some seats on the Board of Regents were flipped last year, there are still not enough members committed to ending the test and punish approach to school improvement that is choking meaningful quality education from even our best public schools. The real disappointment came with the knowledge that Regent Tilles, a professed opponent of the test and punish policy, voted to support the regulations, claiming he had to because it is required by law. Frankly, I have always seen Tilles as wanting things all ways. He opposes the current policy but votes to support the regulations. He opposes the scourge of high stakes testing but played a vital part in hiring Commissioner Elia, a proponent of testing and its connection to teacher evaluation. I fear Tilles is more interested in becoming chancellor than he is in acting on his professed beliefs. One way or another, he has let the defenders of public education on Long Island down.

Today, parents and school personnel who oppose the direction of education policy in our state are wearing red to show support for their local public schools. The failure of the Regents to seriously revise the regulations promulgated last spring will undoubtedly serve to breathe new energy into the opt-0ut movement. It will also hopefully begin the process of targeting public education’s political enemies in Albany and devising a strategy for their defeat in November 2016. Despise Governor Cuomo as I do, the crafty devil senses that the political tide is turning against him and his education policy, causing him to suddenly favor changes to the teacher evaluation system in the direction of greater fairness. It’s going to take more than that Andy!

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Maybe Teacher Evaluation Is A waste of Time

I recently had a Facebook exchange with a citizen on the subject of the evaluation of teachers. He was responding to my view that connecting teacher evaluation to student results on high stakes tests is an absurd thing to do for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that the student tests were not designed to measure teacher performance. In the citizen’s most recent post, he asked me how I would evaluate teachers. I promised him this blog post as my response.

While much of the education community is hyper-focused on teacher evaluation, to me most of the discussion is directed at answering the wrong question, an all too familiar circumstance. Just as the No Child Left behind Act was premised on the mathematical absurdity that all children could through proper education become above average, the reality is that teaching talent is also distributed on a curve or spectrum. To think that it is possible to have a great teacher in every American classroom is equally absurd, assuming we could define the characteristics of that greatness, something I think is almost impossible to do. The almost fetishistic discussion of teacher evaluation and the policies that have emerged to weed out bad teachers from the profession have been an abject failure, having accomplished little more than the demoralization of countless teachers who put heart and soul into their work.

Were we serious about raising the caliber of members of the teaching profession, we would take steps to actually make teaching more of a true profession, where good practice is determined by those engaged in the practice rather than political people and administrative hacks. We would begin by developing a more clearly defined path to becoming a teacher. In the current model, young people invest at least four years of their lives qualifying to be a teacher before they have anything like a realistic experience of what it is like to actually do the job. Suppose we took young people interested in teaching and in their sophomore college year actually put them in the public schools several days per week, giving them increasing responsibilities as they advanced through their teacher training program. We might even employ them during their junior and senior years, giving them actual responsibilities for students. These years of “clinical experience” would be under the shared supervision of the university and the staff of the public school who would have joint responsibility for certifying them as qualified to teach. Young people completing this program would know if they liked the work and whether they were any good at it. They would also know that people who actually do the job day in and day out think them capable of doing it. How different from the current model where one takes some state examinations, does a few hours of teaching and is declared fit to teach.

A sensible teacher induction process could reduce the number small number of bad teachers we have. Yes we have some, but far fewer than conventional wisdom would have us believe. No one knows about them better than the teachers in the schools where they work. My union experience defending the rights of these people has taught me that most of them really hate the job and feel trapped in it. To be sure they offer elaborate rationales for why things are not going well for them, but when I listen carefully I almost always detect, “I really don’t want to do this job anymore. I never really wanted to. But I’m now trapped in it with no economic alternatives to staying until retirement.”

A system of teacher training like the one I propose would weed most of these people who should not be teachers out. Those who remain will still be of varied abilities and dedication, but they will have already passed muster with people who actually do the job who have observed them under progressively real conditions, unlike the current system where prospective teachers watch teaching for a semester and then do student teaching for another. Once they get a full-time teaching position, I would have them under the direct supervision of the tenured members of the department or school. Most of what I learned about teaching over the years I learned from the teachers with whom I worked. While the administrators who observed me from time to time said good things about my work, I learned almost nothing from those experiences. Like most teachers and performers, self-criticism was a more powerful motivator than that of any administrator. In a system of peer responsibility that very common quality of being self-critical combined with the pressure to conform to a departmental or school consensus on the work to be done is far more likely to influence teacher practice than the current system that confuses supervision with scrutiny.

So much time money and rhetoric expended about how to rank teachers. People are evaluated on every job, people will say. I suspect it’s largely a waste of time in most places.

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When Did the College Board Get to Run Our Schools?

Am I alone in thinking it an outrage that the College Board gets to decide that the PSAT will be administered on a school day this year? How does it come to be that a company gets to decide to rob the nation’s high schools of a day of instruction? If you check the College Board’s website, you’ll find my favorite my favorite they give for this rip-off; it will allow the exam to be given without it conflicting with extra-curricular activities. Shame on any school district including my own for acquiescing to this outrage.

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Mathematical Magic

Spectators of the Plainview Board of education meeting last evening got a first-hand view of the pernicious influence high stakes testing is having on the best of our public schools, even schools whose managements profess strong opposition to this testing. The tests and the scores they generate have an almost mesmerizing effect on many people causing them to lose track of their understanding of their objective meaninglessness and harmfulness. For almost one hour, members of our administration and board talked about the scores our students received and the import of those scores for our academic program. While they from time to time reminded themselves that over fifty percent of our students opted out of the exams, the magic of a meaningless number to establish the value of an instructional program was clear as areas where “we need work” were observed.

Such careless discussion can have profound consequences. At one point in the presentation of our scores, the high school’s results on the Common Core Algebra Regents exam were discussed. Over fifty percent of the students in our district take algebra in middle school. Thus, the students taking it at the high school are for the most part are kids who don’t like math, have a history of not doing well at it or have disabilities that make math difficult for them. The fact that fifteen percent of them scored at the mastery level (Whether that designation has any meaning I’ll leave for another day.) is probably a sign of the high quality of our program. Yet, to a parent in the audience listening to this discussion, the message was quite different. When she rose to speak during public participation she passionately expressed the view that a fifteen percent master rate was a sign of failure. For her at least, the presentation cast real doubt on the efficacy of our academic program.

The propagandists of the education reform movement have used mathematical magic to discredit public education. That magic is so powerful that even those who understand it and the corporate scam behind it, can find ourselves enthralled to the point losing track of the scam.

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It’s Not About Selfies

I’m absolutely sure it would be hard to refuse to take a picture with the President of the United States. But when you are the head of the nation’s second largest teacher union and the President of the United State is Barack Obama whose administration has done more to discredit and destroy public education than any in my long memory, one has the obligation to pause and consider the message such a picture sends. Weingarten’s tweet suggests she was well aware of my point, apologetically observing that she is “not beyond a selfie w/ this special guy.” To teachers smarting under the influence of Race to the Top and the scourge of high stakes testing it unleashed, including the value added evaluation of teachers, the closing of neighborhood schools and the almost complete lack of attention to the centrality of crippling poverty to the achievement gap that test data masks, coziness with the man responsible is not the message our national union should be sending. Our members have a right to expect their leaders to subordinate personal honors for the good of the organization.

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Testing and Higher Education

In recent days, I’ve had two parallel experiences that further solidified my belief that high stakes testing is destroying any notion of meaningful education.

My partner Judi Alexanderson and I visited her daughter Kris, a history professor at the University of the Pacific. Unlike many in her business, Kris, although research oriented, tries hard to create an interesting learning environment in her courses, putting very serious thought and effort into planning each session. In one of the many conversations we had over our visit, she talked at some length at the frustration she and her colleagues experience getting today’s college students to engage in serious discussions of the content of the courses they teach. Too often they express no opinions, insisting in their exchanges with their professors that they just want to know what will be expected of them on examinations and writing assignments. Kris suggested that she had very similar experiences at Drexel and Rutgers where she previously taught.

A week later I had a visit with my brother Paul, a physician who recently retired from a career in academic medicine, including a stint as an assistant dean of a medical school. I mentioned to him my conversation with Kris Alexanderson, at which he promptly exclaimed, “I had the same problem with the medical students.” He went on to explain how when many medical schools made the made passing the National Boards a condition of graduation, students began to approach their studies through that lens, expressing interest primarily in what would be on that test.

Readers of this blog are more than familiar with my views on standardized testing and its corruption of education. It was eye opening to me, however, to hear two educators in vastly different fields of higher education talk of how the interests of their students have narrowed to what they can expect on their examinations.

Today’s test pushers talk about preparing students to be college and career ready. That expression irritates me no end, especially if as I suspect these two educators are correct about what is happening in higher education. One day soon, we will awake to the painful irony that all that we did in the name of preparing kids for college and careers ill-prepared them for both, additionally robbing them of the satisfaction of being educated.

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Worker Self-management and Public Schools

The more I’ve worked in and around public education the more convinced I’ve become of the need to fundamentally change the way in which they are organize. The hierarchical structure of our school systems promotes inefficiency, depresses the creativity and intelligence of the staff and undermines the democratic values the institution was created to foster. Vast sums are spent on level upon level of management whose efforts lend little to the mission of the enterprise – the education of young people

I found myself thinking again about teacher management of our schools as I listened this morning to a BBC program on worker self-management as it is practiced in several companies- large enterprises in which there are no managers. Decisions once made by bosses are arrived at by consensus of the workers who take responsibility for every aspect of the operations. Here’s the link to this twenty minute segment. How might we reconceptualize our public schools so that those who do the essential work of educating assume responsibility for their work? How might such a discussion lift us out of the accountability morass we are in?

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Are You Threatening Us?

Commissioner Elia has been making noises about exploring sanctions on districts that have high numbers of students opting out of the state examinations. That stupid talk suggests a lack of know how even more profound than her predecessor whose disregard for the thoughts and feelings of the parents in our public schools quickly became legendary. I don’t recall the arrogant King ever seriously threatening districts the way Elis has.

I strongly suspect that the more she blusters the higher the opt-out numbers will be. I believe it’s fair to observe that the highest opt out numbers last year came from districts that will suffer no great losses from a cutoff of Title I federal funding. The citizens of these districts are not about to be cowed by the threats of a Florida bureaucrat who is deaf to the problems high stakes testing has created. They will not stand by and allow the so-called reform movement destroy the fine schools their high taxes have created. Every Elia threat will enhance the cause of ending the test and punish assault on public education.

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Big Surprise: There’s a Teacher Shortage

The top domestic story in this morning’s New York Times concerns the teacher shortage in many areas of the country. Imagine that! In is few short years, we have gone from a glut of teachers to a shortage. It’s not hard at all to understand how that has happened. Neither is it hard to figure out how to fix the problem.

The financial crisis hit states very hard, causing huge drops in revenue which in turn caused them to cut state aid to local school districts that solved their budget crises by laying off teachers. Across the country, thousands of teachers were excessed, many never to return to the profession, if they were lucky having found new careers. Those teachers who survived the layoffs found their wages frozen or stagnating and their working conditions deteriorating, both as a result of scarce financial resources and the acceleration of the corporate school reform movement’s drive to discredit public education with the goal of privatizing it. Key to discrediting the institution was a growing cult of accountability that has sought to tie student performance on standardized test to teacher evaluations, even though no reputable statisticians support the validity of this process. In many places, governors, often backed by the same forces pushing the so-called reform movement, launched attacks on education unions that ran the gamut from seeking an end to tenure to withdrawing or curtailing collective bargaining and pension rights. In short, that which made teaching attractive to many, job security, union wages, defined benefit pensions, the opportunity to do interesting, rewarding work and the certainty of a decent retirement began to evaporate.

With thousands laid off, with working teachers increasingly disgruntled, with much of the media reinforcing the lie that public education is failing America’s children, with teaching increasingly becoming test preparation, with all kinds of senseless barriers being created to qualify as a teacher being erected, is it any wonder that fewer young people are going into education. Why would a young person seek a career in which practitioners are increasingly presumed to be ineffective no matter what they do, where they are over scrutinized and under supervised, where they must hold multiple jobs to support their families and where their work is increasingly routinized? What is it that our society believes is going to attract them in sufficient numbers?

The attacks on teachers will either cease or the trend towards a growing shortage will continue. Young people seek careers that provide some dignity and status. Those are increasingly hard to come by working in public education today. Sadly, I find myself discouraging young people I meet from seeking to become teachers. I feel ethically obliged to do so.

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Blue Ribbon?

I was amused this morning to read of the concern by some that a couple of schools on Long island may not achieve the federal Blue Ribbon School award because a sizable number of their students opted out of the high stakes state exams this year. These awards have been around for some time and were an early facet of the drive to value schools on the basis of test results in English and math, the narrowest measures of the value of a school’s academic program. The article features a picture of principal Kerry Dunne holding a voluminous application for the award, an application that it’s said took some sixty hours to complete. SIXTY HOURS!

My amusement at the stupidity of a professional putting so many hours into an award that in the end means nothing to the children in her school soon faded as my mind turned to the invidious comparison between school administration in this age of corporate education reform and when I began my career as a public school teacher.

Back then, the administration of Plainview-Old Bethpage promoted a very different kind of competition. Teachers were encouraged to try new things, to teach from their strengths, to avoid mindless uniformity. Our superintendent would come to one school and talk about the exciting new thing he had just seen at a school across town. Teachers from other district were always coming to our schools to see some new thing we were doing. For me the encouragement to do new things began the day I was hired.

At my final interview with the superintendent, he spent our time talking to me about my recent Peace Corps experience in Ghana. Among his questions was whether I had learned anything about African literature. When I told him I had, he immediately asked me if I would consider teaching a ten week senior elective on African literature and, if I would, to let him know as soon as possible how much money I would need for the books I would select to read.

Today we compete to be like everyone else, to get the highest test scores, to have the most AP papers written, to win the most contests, to achieve the highest ranking from pop news magazines, to be Blue Ribbon Schools. Our students compete to build resumes that have a remarkable uniformity to them.

The real Newsday story should have been the hope inspired by the opt-out movement that we are on the road to returning to the day when teachers were encouraged to teach and schools were more motivated by more that pointless competition. If by opting out of the test and punish model of education we return to the day when schools were schools, we will have achieved much more than a blue ribbon.

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Wasted Summer

It has bugged the hell out of me to have our union office in the same building that houses a test prep outfit. All during the school year, each afternoon brings a hoard of tired looking teenagers who come to cram for one test or another. Beyond doubt, most of these kids will go home after test prep to do hours of homework, work more and more aligned to some test that they will be taking. Where once the students were all of Asian ancestry, these days the population reflects that of our surrounding suburban public schools. It’s doubly disturbing to see the volume of students increase in the summer months and to recognize that there is no break for these kids from the pressures put on the to excel academically.

Why do these kids accept this mistreatment? How have they come to see schooling as a 365 day a year endeavor? I try to imagine my parents wanting to send me to such a place. The closest I ever came to such a thing was when my high school called my mother to inform her that they were starting an early morning program for underachievers like me. At the time, I was a solid B student, quite content to spend my afternoons and evenings in pursuits other than academic. If memory serves, the school wanted me to come at 7:30 in the morning ( an hour before the regular starting time) for some kind of enrichment classes. Mom was thrilled with the idea and sorely disappointed when I refused to go. “Why do I want to go to school an extra hour a day,” I asked her in disbelief that she would even suggest such an absurd thing to me. Had my parents forced me to go, I’m absolutely sure I would have spent that early morning in the luncheonette adjacent to my school, talking to Syd the owner about how unreasonable my parents were for making me get up so early.

My parents thought about the importance of going to college and having a good career as much if not more than parents today. Neither of them had the advantage of a higher education. From the time I was little, they would suggest careers to me, all of which required a college education. My mom had this thing about my being a chemical engineer, although I’m quite sure she could not speak more than one sentence about what such a person actually does. Yet, while communicating the importance of education, they basically left school to me. I don’t recall being asked about assignments due, homework to be done or anything else about school routines. I was ironically freer to be a kid than today’s children, while more engaged in developing the skills necessary to take care of myself and determine my own direction.

I strongly suspect that the things I learned playing sports and hanging out with my friends each summer taught me more valuable skills than any of the kids attending summer test prep sessions.

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Tax Cap=Capped Wages

In wealthier school districts in New York, the property tax cap has essentially been a cap on the wages of teachers and support personnel, the people who make the districts work. Districts like Plainview-Old Bethpage have seen no program cuts. We pour more and more dollars into the latest technology, are planning to increase the administrative staff and hire various consultants to do all sorts of things one would have thought we hired the administrators to do in the first place. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to curtail the services available to the children of our community.

Yet, it is quite clear that the wages of the district’s personnel have begun to stagnate, with miniscule raises and a salary freeze having been the history of the last few years. In a very real way, the quality of school districts like mine have been maintained by the essentially capped wages of the staff, the staff having in a very real sense subsidized through diminished salary demands the education of the community’s children. The capping of wages has coincided with a palpable decline in the working conditions of staff, with teachers work becoming more and more test driven and routinized and support staff being asked to do more and more with less and less. The anger of staff is rising. At building union meetings last school year, I had more pointed questions and angry comments about salary and working conditions than ever before. At our last general membership meetings, pay and benefits dominated the discussion, discussion that had a sharp edge to it.

Communities like mine are going to have to come to terms with the fact that their school employees are not going to accept their wages being essentially frozen. They are going to have to be smarter about building their budgets and are going to have to build political coalitions to pass larger budgets that require a super majority to pass. Those coalitions are also going to have to work to build a movement to fund public education off of a more progressive tax than the property tax.

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Pension Envy

Economic and political elites in the United States have been undermining what had once been a developing right in our nation – the right to retirement security. Fewer and fewer workers in the private sector having any employer sponsored pension benefits, the attacks began on public employee defined benefit plans. In an age when government came to be seen in Ronald Regan’s words as the problem rather than the solution to social problems, a public which saw its retirement prospects growing increasingly insecure has been more than willing to believe the charge that public employees are a privileged group whose defined benefit pensions are an undue strain on taxpayers who do not generally enjoy similar benefits. When I joined the New York State Teachers Retirement System there was only one level of benefits or tier. Today there are six, each substantially worse than the one that came before it.

The drive to destroy defined benefit public employee pensions seems to have reached a new low in California where a bipartisan group has put an initiative on the ballot that appears to have been cleverly designed to trick voters into approving lower pension benefits for future state employees but which has been duplicitously constructed to allow the reduction of retirement benefits of current employees going forward. In other words, should it pass, a state worker can be hired with the promise of one level of retirement benefits but halfway through his career, when his options for employment elsewhere are limited, those benefits could be changed by ballot initiative. I was alerted to this by a Facebook posting by a California union friend. Keeping in mind political trends have a way of starting in California and moving eastward, I recommend giving this somewhat wonky article a careful read.

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Join Us! Don’t Attack Our Leaders

My blog today is a response to a Facebook posting by the president of our local board of education. He expresses the facile view that the scourge of high stakes testing and its consequences could have been avoided by a union leadership more concerned with the interests of its membership. While my reads know of my disagreements with various levels of union leadership, it’s not fair to confuse mistakes with personal corruption as Mr. bettan and too many other do. Here’s the posting and my response.

As I’ve been saying for years: The sad reality is that this entire hi-stakes testing mess could have been avoided if AFT leadership hadn’t sold out their members. In NY Cuomo never gets test scores linked to APPR without the support of NYSUT. Race to the Top never happens without support from national teacher union leadership. Time to stop blaming billionaires like Bill Gates and companies like Pearson and start realizing that teacher unions have been taking money from their foundations all along the way. This is just another example of Weingarten putting her agenda ahead of her teachers. Note: my comments here have nothing to do with Clinton or the presidential election, but rather the disconnect between teachers and those they pay to represent them.
Gary Bettan

While I have been highly critical of the response of our unions to the corporate attack on public education, an attack spearheaded by Bill Gates for whom you apologize, to cavalierly state that high stakes testing and its consequences could have been avoided if the AFT and NEA had simply chosen not to go along is to simplify history to an absurdity.

A fairer analysis than yours would take account of the creation, through the corporate manipulation of the media, of an education crisis in the United States. As Diane Ravitch and other scholars have amply demonstrated, there is no crisis. In fact by almost any measure, America’s schools have been improving. This attack on public schools diverts the public’s attention from the real crisis – a growing number of America’s children are being permanently scarred by poverty. Such an analysis would also take account of corporate influence on our politics. No child left behind and Race to the Top didn’t just happen. They are a testament to the influence of money on politics and policy.

While I disagree with our state and national union leaders and have expressed that disagreement in person and in my writings, I have never suggested that they sold our members out. While they have made strategic and tactical errors, I believe them to be motivated by an abiding concern for the membership. Their challenge was and is how to push back against a corporate reform effort that is clearly aimed at the destruction of public education as we know it. They made a decision to engage the reformers and the politicians whom the reformers had bought and paid for, hoping through engagement to blunt the attack on our schools and members. That engagement has included taking money from places like the Gates Foundation to finance union education experiments. Let’s remember too that much of this testing escalation took place in the midst of the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression, one in which states had gaping holes in their budgets and the Feds were offering millions to climb on to the reform bandwagon, insisting on thing like tying teacher evaluations to test results.

In New York, this all took place at a time that I was on the NYSUT Board of Directors. The state was in a financial hole as were many local school districts. The Feds were offering close to a billion dollars if we would buy into the Race to the Top program with its Common Core Standards and testing regime tied to them. The challenge to NYSUT was how to get the federal money that many of its locals needed to save the jobs of their members while blunting the impact of the federal mandate to tie student test results to teacher evaluation. Their answer was to try to use collective bargaining to permit locals to participate in the creation of teacher evaluation plans, so-called APPRs.

While I and others spoke out against the APPR deal NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi made with Governor Cuomo and worked to try to get the NYSUT Board to vote it down, the fact is a majority of the NYSUT Board supported this approach, and the deal was done. Therefore, while it is fair to say that Iannuzzi made a mistake (It’s important to note that many in our ranks still do not believe he did.), it is completely unfair to suggest that he sold our members out. He made a decision that was backed by our board. It was in part that decision that ultimately cost him his job.

This year in New York we witnessed Governor Cuomo renounce the deal he made with Iannuzzi as achieve legislative changes that will make matters even worse. I was encourages to see NYSUT President Magee embrace the opt-out movement, thereby recognizing that it is only through the collective action of educators and parents that we are going to be able to overcome the power of the corporate reform movement. We had over 200,000 students opted out of the exams this year, more than triple the number of last year. We are at work to triple it again. Our members invite you and the other members of our Board of Education to fully embrace this movement. Such an effort will be infinitely more productive than hurling unfounded accusations against union leadership. Our unions are being attacked by the same corporate interests. Friends of public education like you need to join with us not attack our leaders.

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A Premature Endorsement

Over the weekend the Executive Council of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) voted to endorse Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. That endorsement coming out of the blue has upset many union activists who have found in Senator Bernie Sanders an authentic champion of working people who has rekindled their idealism – idealism that has been hard to come by in a world of declining private sector union membership and a corporate funded assault on organized workers in the public sector. Most union activists, I suspect, would have been completely open to supporting Hillary Clinton later on in the primary process, recognizing the longshot nature of the Sanders candidacy. Many of us hoped that the give and take between Sanders and Clinton would force Hillary to the left on economic, worker and education issues than she would naturally tend to be without serious opposition.

The AFT based its endorsement on the questionnaires completed by the candidates and a poll conducted of the membership during the last week in June indicating members support for Clinton. While some of my union colleagues mistrust the findings of the membership poll, I accept the results for what they are – a snap shot of the membership at the very beginning of the primary process when a good number of the members know very little about Bernie Sanders and the progressive policies he has supported over his distinguished career in Congress. If that poll were taken today after news reports of the crowds Sanders has been attracting in Iowa and New Hampshire, I suspect we would see a different picture.

In pushing this early endorsement, AFT Randi Weingarten has very unnecessarily poked her finger in the eye of many of the organization’s activists, the very people whose work on the ground is infinitely more important to a candidate than the money the union is able to provide. While the membership poll was clearly intended to make the endorsement appear to be membership driven, the timing of it was so ham-handed as to have generated the exact opposite effect.

If we look at the candidate questionnaires, it seems to me we find strong support for the thesis that the endorsement came too early. Were we to base our endorsement solely on the positions of the candidates, it seems to me Sanders would clearly get our nod. But don’t take my word for this; see what Sanders and Clinton had to say.

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The Offer of a Hand in Our Own Destruction

Word yesterday that the New York State Education department has dumped Pearson as its test maker for the grades 3 through 8 assessments in favor of Questar, a rival company. We are also told that the contract with the new company, worth some 44 million dollars, will oblige the test makers to increase the number of versions of the test that will permit the validity of trial questions to be tested while shortening the length of the test itself. We are led to understand that through a process yet to be made clear teachers will be involved in the crafting of these exams and the data derived from them shared in a more pedagogically useful manner that heretofore. This announcement, the first under new Commissioner Mary-Ellen Elia, is being hailed by some, including NYSUT leadership, as a victory in the battle against high stakes testing. Why a shift in companies is seen as some kind of victory is beyond me.

While the length of the 3 through 8 tests is a significant issue, it is of much less importance to educators and parents than the fact that students are tested yearly and that their academic progress in English and math is measured by one test, No competent teacher would evaluate a student’s performance on such a limited basis. Add to that absurdity the fact that such limited information is then used to evaluate teachers and we have a system that has predictably corrupted public education. By defining success for both students and teachers by high stakes test scores, we have created a system where the curriculum is increasingly devoid of anything not covered by the tests and the very pace of the instruction is determined by the need to cover the tested material by the time of the test, weeks before the actual end of the school year. We have made school less joyous for students and promoted dishonesty among too many teachers and administrators who have come to see themselves in a struggle for survival. None of these existential issues for public education are address by the state changing the test maker. The whole thing appears to be a public relations move to get out from under the bad press that has been heaped on a discredited Pearson.

Questar may be able to make tests that are more error free than some produced by Pearson, but that should not cool the passion of those of us who see high stake testing as a potent tool of those who seek to delegitimize public education so as to privatize it and profit from it. It will do nothing to boost the morale of teachers who see their profession being stolen out from under them. It won’t curb the pressure we are putting on young children as we narrow their education to the point where it is becoming training rather than preparation for informed adulthood and citizenship. Inviting teachers to participate is quite simply luring them into participating in their own destruction.

The answer to the scourge of high stakes testing is not a new test maker. The answer is to return testing to the hand of educators who know how to harness it to sound pedagogical practices. The best way to make that happen is for parents and teachers to reject and resist the current testing regime. Over 200,000 students refused the state tests this year, up from 60,000 last year. Our goal has to be to boost that number to at least 400,000 next spring by starting now!

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NEA and the Opt-Out movement

One of the more disheartening aspects of the recent NEA Representative Assembly was its failure to fully embrace the opt-out movement. While a number of new business items that nominally supported the opt-out movement passed, items that called for working with other organizations to promote the opt-out movement failed and failed badly.

To the extent that one could discern from the debate the reason for the failure to embrace the opt-out movement, it appeared to be a fear that failure to meet the federal threshold of 95 percent participation in the mandatory high stakes tests would result in a loss of Title I funding. Of perhaps even more importance were the comments of a number of speakers who expressed the concern that opting out would lead to negative consequences for the teachers whose evaluations are tied to these examinations.

The latter reason is of a piece with a general impression I took away from the convention. There is an almost unanimous belief among the assembled union leaders that public education is under attack and that a major weapon in that attack is high stakes testing. Yet, despite that perception, there is no common understanding that to beat back that attack is going to require direct actions like promoting the opt-out movement, even if such support puts our members at some risk. There is no broad understanding that the risks of doing nothing other than making speeches and dabbling in electoral politics is in the long run more risky.

Here’s where leadership could make a profound difference. NEA President Lily Eskelsen-Garcia is as gifted a communicator as we have ever had. She and the other NEA officers surely understand that the most potent weapon we have had in the battle against high stakes testing has been the opt-out movement. It’s as simple as, if no one takes the tests, we can then have a serious conversation about the place of testing in public education. Leadership’s failure to speak that truth to the assembled union leaders and their unwillingness to embolden the delegates to take a stand, risks and all, was deeply disturbing, to me and especially to many New York union leaders who have strongly embraced the opt-out movement and helped to drive our opt-out numbers to over 200,000 this spring.

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Brainless in Orlando

    KoThe NEA Representative Assembly was disappointing on a number of levels that I’ll be talking about going forward.

    Yesterday, if one can believe it, the body voted down a motion that would have prevented the NEA from taking money from outfits like the Gates Foundation and other organizations and corporations that do not support the pro-public education policies of the NEA. If there ever was a no brainer, it seems to me this was the one. No one has done more damage to public education than Bill Gates who for a time had co-opted the two national education unions into supporting the Common Core State Standards and worse still the tying of the results of Common Core aligned high stakes tests to the evaluation of teachers. That Gates money influenced our policies is beyond any reasonable question.

    Push back by activists in both organizations caused both national union presidents to state that they would no longer take Gates Foundation money. Ironically a motion that looked to make it policy not to take Gates money would up serving to create a policy of encouraging the taking of this corrupting funding. Wendell Steinhower, the President of the New Jersey Education Association gets my award for the most brainless speech of the convention. Rising to oppose the motion that would prevent the NEA from taking Gates money and money from similar sources, Steinhower called upon us to take the money so that people like Gates would have less of it to give to bigger enemies than Gates. For a leader one of the largest state education unions to be so almost cosmically ignorant of the corporate campaign to destroy public education and the centrality of Bill Gates to this campaign left this union leader wondering about the future of our union. NEA President Eskelsen-Garcia’s subtle but clear encouragement of the opposition to telling Gates and others to keep their money makes her passionate statements about high stakes testing and the damage it is causing ring completely hollow. We simply can’t accept money from people who propose and fund political movements inimical to the welfare of our members and build a viable movement to defeat those movements. To believe that we can is to believe that people like Gates are stupid and essentially suicidal.

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Lead to Power

Our national teacher unions are bending backwards trying to appeal to the new generation of public school teachers. Our leaders have been saying that within the next six years, two million new teachers will be added to our ranks. These newer teachers want help with their professional lives, and I’m sure they do, but not the kind of stuff our national unions are peddling.

I could be completely wrong, but I don’t think having canned lesson plans available to them is a vital concern. I doubt that they are as interested as our leaders would have us believe they are in staff development. If they are anything like the teachers of my generation, they want to go home at the end of their workday to take care of their own kids and do the preparation for the next day’s classes. They don’t want to sit and listen to the latest educationist twaddle.

I suspect they would like some help with the extraordinary amount of work we ask them to do. We spend so much time comparing our test score to those of other countries but very little comparing the number of hours teachers spend in the classroom. Our teachers are asked to do so much more than teachers in the countries we like to compare ourselves to. We ought to be putting our effort into the issue of class size. Some English teachers in my upper middleclass district have student loads of over 120 students. As an old English teacher, I know it is literally impossible to teach writing effectively with those kinds of student loads, but our national leaders say very about this.

In short, I believe that the goal of teacher unions always was and always should be power, the power to demand and get good pay and benefits; the power to demand and receive fair treatment; the power to practice our profession with the degree of autonomy necessary to do it well; the power to evaluate our students; and the power to shape the standards of good professional work. NEA leaders have begun talking about the empowered teacher, but somehow they don’t seem to want to empower teachers the way I do.

I wonder sometimes whether the public doesn’t view our advocacy for things like staff development and professional growth opportunities and National Board Certification and such as our admission that our members are not up to snuff because they require all of this assistance and improvement.

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One Person, One Vote?

You might think that there would be an almost universal belief among our nation’s teachers in the sanctity of the principle of one person one vote. However that belief was hard to find at the yesterday’s meeting of the National Council of Urban Education Associations (NCUEA), the largest caucus within the National Education Association (NEA).

Before the NEA Representative Assembly this year is a constitutional amendment that would give the local unions in states that belong to both the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the NEA (so-called merged states) the number of delegates to the annual convention they would have if they were not merged. When they merged and expressed a desire to belong to both national unions, the NEA insisted that they receive representation only equal to the number of NEA members at the time of the merger. It was a stupid arrangement insisted on by an NEA with a long history of rivalry with the AFT and suspicion of the AFL-CIO.

The times have changed dramatically for people working in public education, but the NEA continues to have great difficulty adjusting to that change. A good half of the members I represent weren’t members when these merger deals were done. They neither know nor care about the political circumstances that made these merger deals seem reasonable at the time. They know that a local union like ours that used to get three delegates to the NEA RA when we only belonged to the NEA and that we are not entitled to any. We can only participate by running for election against candidates from other small locals in our area.

The NCUEA debate on this issue was instructive for what it revealed about the thinking in our national ranks. The overwhelming majority of the NCUEA delegates thought that if merged states want full voting rights, they should pay full dues to both national unions. In other words, in order to have a say, you have to pay. Those making this specious argument know full well that few if any local unions could afford to pay both.

The vote at NCUEA undoubtedly presages the vote at the NEA RA in a few days. What will happen there at what is billed as the largest deliberative, democratic body in the world is that the principle of one person one vote will be ignored in favor of a parochial desire to keep the NEA as it always has been, even though as time passes more and more states are seeing the benefits of merging. Teacher maybe under attack, their very profession being stolen out from under them, but the NEA will want to stifle the voices of many of its local union for reasons completely antithetical to the democratic principles they espouse.

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