A Teachable Moment

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

Faith in Our Schools

Perhaps the most corrosive effect of the corporate school reform movement has been its frightening success at discrediting the institution of public education, often even in our nation’s best school districts. In Plainview-Old Bethpage, an upper middleclass community with schools that much of the nation would envy, I meet more and more citizens who are increasingly mistrustful that our schools have the best interests of their children in mind. Their mistrust includes the school administration and the teachers. On one hand they appear to believe the false reformer rhetoric that has their children locked in a dire economic competition with the rest of the world whose educationally advanced students are preparing to sink our children into penury, while on the other, they are coming to realize that we are driving our children to undertake a volume of academic work that leaves them little to no time or space required for their psycho-social development.

At our board of ed meeting last night, the issue was how to deal with Common Core Algebra 2, a revamped state course of study that appears to omit certain trigonometric functions necessary for the study of advanced mathematics and physics and which are tested on the ACT college entrance examination. A group of citizens came to petition the board to exercise its option under New York regulation to switch gears and return to the old curriculum that covered the trig topics in question, something which a number of districts in our area are doing in the name of giving their students a competitive advantage. Speaker after speaker spoke to how the current curriculum and the Regents examination it is geared to disadvantage their children who will compete with students from the districts who will be doing the easier and trig inclusive curriculum and exam. Seeking to assuage these patents’ concerns, the superintendent suggested that the district offer after-school and weekend classes on the missing trigonometry topics while changing the pre-calculus course next year to include trig. That proposal was met with an intense anger, with parents voicing how their children could not possibly fit one more thing into their already precisely scheduled, over stressed lives. With the board vote against the motion, the parents left talking about the injury the school district has inflicted on their children, their respect for and belief in the institution diminished – diminished ultimately by a school reform effort that our local leaders feel powerless to change.

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Long Island Opt-Out is calling for a boycott of Newsday, our local newspaper, because of their promotion of the U.S. department of Education’s threat to withhold federal education aid to district who don’t meet the 95 percent participation rate on federally mandated high stakes tests. Not a problem for me to support this Opt-Out call. I haven’t subscribed to Newsday for a good ten years. Their anti-public education, anti-union, anti-public service bias caused me to quit them.

Opt-out leader Jeanette Deutermann appears to be particularly angered by education editor John Hildabrand whom she has learned has a one-edged anti-public education ax that he has been grinding for years. I long ago stopped taking his phone calls, having repeatedly experienced his distortion of the things I said to him. He has burned so many people in public education that I don’t understand why anyone talks to him. If every education union leader ignored him, if every superintendent refused his calls, if every school board member avoided the temptation to see his name in print, we could marginalize his malevolent influence on public education on Long Island.

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A Hopeful Sign of Change

One of my least favorite expressions has become “college and career ready,” an expression almost invariably sliding thoughtlessly off the tongue of some puffed-up buffoon who is clueless as to what education is or ought to be about. These words are repeatedly invoked to justify what has become nothing short of child abuse, an approach to high school education that encourages children to take as many Advanced Placement courses as they can fit in their schedules, sign up for extra-curricular activities that often extend into the evening and spend weekends attending tutoring sessions and doing volunteer work, all to provide them with data to fill the spaces on the applications to the elite colleges And universities to which their parents aspire to have them attend. Where we should be promoting serious intellectual engagement, discussing what it means to be a citizen of a democratic society, exploring what it means to live an ethical life, providing time and space for young people to figure out who they are and begin to sense a direction for their lives, we impose academic drudgery, keep them doing school work for almost unimaginable hours, inculcate that they are only as good as their grades and force them to compromise their sense of right and wrong as we oblige them to cut ethical corners to get an undoable amount of school work done. There is hope, however, that we may be coming to our senses.

A project begun by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and supported by many other colleges and universities seeks to end the gaming of the college admissions system that has encouraged applicants to view a resume documenting a twenty-four hour a day commitment to academics and school related activities as the ticket to success. These schools are beginning to adjust their admissions practices, seeking ways to identify real intellectual curiosity, serious though and reflection on one’s relationship to the members of one’s family and one’s community and what it means to be an ethical human being. On one level, what these schools seem to be after in their applicants is evidence of an understanding that education is not a commodity but a process of enriching our humanity. I like to hope we may yet be able to redeem the promise of educating the young.

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Debasing Data

A series of nose bleeds took me to an ENT doctor that I have seen off and on for almost twenty years. When I first saw him, it was at a university hospital center where he was a full-time physician in a premier ENT department. I had arranged to see him because of an unexplained bout of dizziness that had stumped my family doctor. Between the doctors and his assistants, I spent almost an hour, answering questions, and taking tests that were all carefully explained. I felt I had the team’s undivided attention.

I was contrasting that visit this morning to my recent one to where my ENT now practices in a high tech private practice office. I was drawn to do so while reading a very insightful article by a physician on how the practice of medicine and teaching are being negatively altered by the collection and frivolous use of data. After a brief greeting, the doctor sat down at his computer, typing away furiously – more time typing than examining me. In fact, after a brief treatment, I left him in the exam room, entering more data from my visit than I would have thought could have been generated in our brief encounter.

I’ve been carefully watching the subordination of teaching and learning to testing and pointless data collection for some time. To borrow a phrase from Wordsworth, it has been a “fretful stir unprofitable,” with little if anything to show for the effort but anxious, upset children and dispirited teachers. It was interesting to read a physician draw parallels between the condition of his profession and mine.

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The Lesson of Flint

How many Flint Michigan children will be permanently intellectually damaged as a result of the misfortune of being born poor? Added to the myriad effects of poverty on the education outcomes of children, the criminal failure of the state of Michigan which had effectively taken over the finances of the city and is directly responsible for shifting the city’s water source from the Detroit system to the Flint River has surely permanently damaged an as yet unknown number of children, all in the name of saving money. For fifteen months, Governor Snyder ignored the obvious threat to the citizens of Flint. Many have called on him to resign. Somehow that seems too good an option for him. One has to wonder if he would have waited fifteen months to declare an emergency if this tragedy had occurred in an upper class white community.

Beyond the criminal indifference of Snyder, however, Flint is but the latest outrageous example of what is happening all over the United States, as our infrastructure crumbles while our elected leaders talk about cutting taxes. Water supplies, bridges, dams, power grids and more decay while few of our politicians say a word about the failing infrastructure threats to our people. In 2015, the American Society of Civil Engineers New York Council issued its report card on New York’s infrastructure. Here’s what it had to say about our drinking water infrastructure. “In New York State, 10,147 regulated water systems provide clean water to 20 million of New York’s citizens. Nearly 95% of New York’s population receives water from the state’s public water supply systems. Unfortunately, 95% of the submitted improvement projects to the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund program remain unfunded due to the overwhelming demand. The latest estimate of repairing, replacing, and updating New York State’s drinking water infrastructure is $38.7 billion over 20 years. With almost half of New York City’s pipes put in place prior to 1941, it would take 100 years or more to upgrade its aging pipes at current replacement rates. From frequent pipe breaks to large system upgrades to rebuilding from storm damages, New York State’s aging drinking water network has no shortage of challenges.” A little scary, don’t you think?

Look at what the engineers have to say about the rest of our infrastructure. Think about the problems they identify when next some politician promises to lower our taxes. That person is promising to not take any action to fix the many threats to the public’s safety. He is also ignoring the extent to which our roads, bridges, water supplies, school buildings etc. are the foundation of our economy. How many Flints must we have before we wake up to the infrastructure challenges before us?

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Paid Family Leave

Could it be that the stars are aligning toward the passage of paid family leave legislation in New York?

A few weeks ago, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio granted twelve weeks of paid family to over 20,000 City employees by executive order and with the further promise to negotiate with the unions for the remainder of the City’s workforce. Not to be out done by his rival for supremacy in New York’s Democratic Party, Governor Cuomo featured a proposal for paid family leave in his State of the State speech the other day.

People in public education need many fixes to the state’s laws, but paid family leave would be a real boon to the people I represent, people who can’t currently afford to settle in their new born children, deal with the unexpected illness of a family member, often a parent who lives in retirement thousands of miles away. A week doesn’t go by that I don’t receive a phone call from a desperate member seeking help with maintaining her income while meeting her obligations to a member of her family. Too often, management is indifferent, sometimes even hostile to the member’s need. It would relieve so many to know that in such time of need, the law of New York was there to support with up to twelve weeks of paid family leave.

II intend to make passage of paid family leave a major focus of my local’s lobbying efforts this year. I hope and trust that my NYSUT brothers and sisters will do the same. Both the NEA and AFT need to get very publically behind legislation introduced by New York’s Senator Kirsten Gillibrand that would make paid family leave a national entitlement. It’s surely time for the United States to join the rest of the civilized world and take the welfare of families seriously.

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Making Our Own Justice

I’ve always found it curious that most people recoil at the statement that the law is often made in the streets. Social unrest, or the threat of it, has historically been a powerful motivator of justice. The Brown Decision, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the 60’s came to be thousands and thousands of citizens, united beyond race and social class by their belief in equality, demonstrated in the streets of our nation, demanding justice and an end to the oppression of people on the basis of their race.

I read a piece by Shamus Cooke this morning of this lesson that I learned long ago. Cooke reminds our union brothers and sisters that we don’t have sit back and let the reactionary majority of the Supreme Court use the Friedrichs Case to eviscerate public sector unions, the only part of the American labor movement that has been growing in recent times. He calls on us to do what those who engineered all social justice movements have done. Get organized and take to the streets. I fear it’s a challenge we won’t accept to our everlasting shame. We may have forgotten how to make our own justice.

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Our Kick in the Ass

One can almost hear the teeth gnashing of public sector union leadership following the reports of the argument at the Supreme Court yesterday in the Fredrichs case. Simply stated, Friedrichs and ten other California public school teachers are challenging the right of the California Teachers Association and its affiliates to collect an agency fee from individuals who choose not to belong to the union, an agency fee currently legal and paid in recognition that whether or not a person belongs to a union, he profits from their work in negotiations and contract enforcement. All reports indicate that the argument did not go well for the unions. Want to know more about the case and argument? The best coverage I’ve read is in the SCOTUSBLOG.
What I don’t hear from the national or state unions is a coherent plan in the event that agency fee is completely struck down by the high court, a likely event given what the media coverage seems to indicate. My local, currently at 100% membership, will shortly be asking members to sign membership renewal cards authorizing dues deductions for the 2016-17 school year. We want to know who is with us and who’s a freeloader seeking to profit from our work. Then, if the Supreme Court wants to be the agent of the right wing that seeks the destruction of organized labor, we will be prepared to resist. I can’t understand why the national unions are not promoting a similar plan. Enough moaning and groaning. Both the NEA and AFT talk about organizing. Let’s actually do it now in anticipation of the worst possible outcome of the Fredrichs case. Let our fear of what the court will do be our kick in the ass.

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The more I think about the moratorium on the consequences of high stakes testing for teacher and students in New York State, the more I’m sure that what we’re witnessing is simply a more sophisticated, more media savvy campaign to make the standards, the high stakes test aligned to them and the connection of both to teacher evaluation permanent. None of our leaders in Albany are talking about permanently ending the absurdity of judging teachers on the basis of student tests. What we are hearing is the continuing belief that appropriate tests can be developed for this purpose. What’s also curious is that while there is a moratorium in place for the time being, the state tests will still be given and the results for teacher evaluation will be reported on an advisory basis. In other words, we’ve put a halt on the consequences of these exams because we have no confidence that they measure what they claim to, but we are going to report the results anyway thereby potentially embarrassing some teachers, although that embarrassment is not to be construed as a consequence.

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The King Narrative

I’m a firm believer that we are what we do, not what we say. I’m reminded of that this morning having just read a Politico piece on our new Acting Secretary of Education John King, a man whose lack of leadership skills is outweighed only by his arrogance. Just as he did when he came to New York, King is trying to ingratiate himself with the Washington media, using his personal narrative of triumph over extreme adversity to position himself as on the side of the angels. New Yorkers have heard it all before, how King, orphaned as a very young child, was save by his New York City teachers. So grateful was he for their sustaining help in his time of need, that, when without any qualifying experience, he was elevated in his thirties by Chancellor Tisch to be New York’s Commissioner of Education, he immediately declared himself the enemy of the state’s teachers and a growing number of parents.

Now he gets to oversee the writing of the implementing regulations of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the successor to No Child Left Behind. Watch him try to undermine the intent of the law which is essentially to limit the powers of his department. His elevation to national leadership of public education is but the latest sign that the battle of citizens to take back control of their schools from the corporate reform movement is still a long way from victory.

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An Ivy Prof’s Take on the Race to Nowhere

School districts like mine have lost their way. They are increasingly about helping students build resumes for college admission rather than preparing them for life as citizens of a democratic society. A colleague sent me this article by an Ivy League professor who has spent years teaching the kind of students we are aiming to train these days. His conclusions about the worth of what we are doing both for individual students and for our society should be read and pondered. He has a very interesting take on the race to nowhere we have organized for our children.

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Our Unplanned Lessons

If we encourage high school students to take more coursework than they are able to complete the assignments for, and, if in so doing we encourage them to divide up the work with their classmates, what are the lessons we are teaching them about how to conduct their adult lives? Teachers, administrators and any parent who chooses to knows that our current push to fill the high school programs of children with as many Advanced Placement courses as possible has put many of them in the position of cheating to survive. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to do all of the homework these courses require and have time for what have come to be understood as the obligatory cluster of extra-curricular activities which together create the cover of a well-educated, well- balanced student hiding a driven, over-worked, over-stressed young person who is being encouraged by the adults in his life to cut ethical corners in order to get an edge.

We cover our eyes to this corruption of education at our peril and the peril of our children. We are beginning to hear more and more about the psychological damage we are doing to children in the name of competitive grit and higher standards. We need to add to that discussion some sober thought on the ethical norms we are promoting by creating an environment where children feel themselves in an almost Darwinian struggle to get ahead. Doesn’t our self-interest and theirs demand something better?

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Education Swindle

Corporate exploitation of parental insecurities about the education of their children and their future economic well-being is everywhere. On the recent holiday, I found myself walking down Front Street in Hamilton, Bermuda, when my eyes alighted on shop window poster with an arresting picture of a young, attractive child. A closer look brought me to the door Oxford Learning, a tutoring outfit looking to convince the parents of 3 to 5 year old “Little Readers” of their need for instruction in reading, phonics, math, listening and fine motor skills. I found myself thinking of my mother, a person infinitely more cynical than I, who if she had seen the poster would have responded with this oft repeated advice to her son. “The world,” she was fond of saying, “is composed of the sky above and the earth beneath our feet. Much of what is in the middle is a swindle.”

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Bravo, Bill De Blasio

Yesterday’s announcement by New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio that he will be granting non-union city workers up to six weeks paid family leave is an historic event . His additional invitation to the unionized city workforce to seek negotiations on the issue probably means that all city workers will enjoy this much needed benefit in the not too distant future.

As a local union leader of a seventy-five percent female membership, I’ve had an up-front view of the burdens placed on mothers who are unable to afford the luxury of spending some reasonable time with their new born children. I’ve observed the bitter irony of parents whose careers center around taking care of other people’s children bear the guilt of feeling themselves unable to give their own children a proper start in life. I listened to their anguish about leaving sick newborns with strangers because they have to be at work. I’ve represented them in disciplinary meeting at which their bosses reveal their cold indifference to the needs of their families, admonishing them about their responsibilities to other children. In America we talk a lot about our love of children, but we haven’t structured our society to enable all families to provide what all children need. To our everlasting shame, the richest country in the world allows so many thousands of its children to live in poverty while many of its politicians look to cut what little safety net exists. In other industrial democracies and even in some less developed places, paid family leave is a right and the welfare of children is paid more than lip service.

Bernie Sanders has brought the issue of the crying need for paid family leave to his campaign for the presidency. While I expect Hillary Clinton to be the Democratic nominee, she too will campaign on this issue. She will now be able to point to the great city of New York and its support of the families of its workforce as an example to the rest of the nation of what can happen when leaders show real concern for children and families. Bravo, Bill De Blasio.

I’m taking the holidays off. I wish all my readers a very happy holiday season and a very happy New Year. I’ll talk to you again on January 4th.

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Don’t Let the Moratorium Become a Trap

Federal law no longer mandates the use of student test data to evaluate teachers. While the 3 through 8 testing mandate remains, it is essentially left to the states as what is done with the test results. New York law, however, mandates a linkage of student test scores and teacher evaluation. While the Regents have adopted new regulations that establish a moratorium on the uses of state test scores in teacher evaluation, the information coming out of the State Education Department make sit absolutely clear that that in the 2019-20 school year, there is an expectation that teacher evaluations will make use of a revised growth model. Thus, if the stupidity of linking teacher evaluation to student scores on high stakes tests is to be consigned to the substantial history of idiotic education reform ideas where it so rightfully belongs, it is going take a change in the law. It becomes increasingly clear that the Cuomo’s Common Core Task-force is a diversion meant to confuse the public into thinking that there has been a meaningful retreat from the corporate driven education reform agenda. Clearly, the Regents have not given up their commitment to yearly testing and on the pseudo-science that claims the efficacy of judging teachers on the student results of that testing. If we fail to build politically on the moratorium, rather than a significant step forward, it will become a dangerous trap.

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It’s Not Tutoring Children Need

Some parents of elementary students in my community have been lobbying our board of education for a tutorial or extra help program for their children. We’ve been hearing this call for some time, its advent paralleling the era of high stakes tests and the narrowing the curriculum to the tested subjects of math and English. Last year, labor and management agreed to the piloting of a before school program staffed by volunteer teachers to attempt to address the perceived need. Much of the demand for these services seems to come from parents’ perception of the frustration of their children with the changes to mathematics instruction brought about by the introduction of the Common Core State Standards.

The question that too few raise is not why we don’t have an across the grades tutorial program. The real question is what is it about our program that makes parents and students feel the need for instruction beyond the regular school day? The easiest part of an answer is that some of what the Common Core asks of young children is developmentally inappropriate. The more complicated answers centers around what happens when we allow the results of high stakes tests to drive instruction.

The testing era has brought with it the pacing chart. The rhythm of elementary instruction is no longer dictated by the judgment of the classroom teacher as to when a class is ready to move forward to the next topic but by a timetable designed to ensure that all the tested topics will be covered by the time of the state examination. Again and again, teachers have told me that they knowingly feel obliged to move ahead even though they know for certain that numbers of the children in the class are not ready for the move. So while our teachers are constantly and skillfully informally assessing student responses to instruction, they too often feel compelled to subordinate their professional judgment because to “not finish” the curriculum is to risk the perception that one’s teaching skills are lacking.

The testing era and the “rigor movement” associated with it have brought a very significant increase in the amount of homework young children are doing. We ought to be concerned about this trend, recognizing that six or seven hours of sitting and receiving instruction is a hard day’s work for a young child. We need to be constantly reminded of their need for recreation and play as vital activities in their development. We should also try to appreciate that the homework students receive should be able to be completed by them and not require parents to try to decipher and explain it to their children. The interaction of parents and their children should not be extensions of the teacher/student relationship. Ideally, the home should support the school, not be an extension of it.

Finally, we are encouraging young children to have an unhealthy concern for school grades. We seem to have forgotten how easy it is for little kids to come to associate their self-worth with their grades at school. One of the best parts of the opt-out movement is their slogan that kids are more than a score. I recall talking to a friend’s child who had become hyper-focused on his grades and who when pressed by me to say why he felt his grades so important said, “Without my grades I’m nobody.” That child’s school surely failed him.

Our focus as adults should not be on finding ways for little kids to accommodate inappropriate demands on the time and stage of development. By and large, it’s not tutoring they need, but an education aligned with their stage of development, not some arbitrary standard of what they should know.

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A Techie Who Gets It

Readers know of my contempt for the notion that technology has an important role to play in the education of children. When I think of the million upon millions of dollars spent by public school districts on the latest electronic panacea only to have the gadgets be outdated by the time the incredibly slow purchasing process of school districts is completed, I get enraged at what could have been done with that money to make meaningful educational improvements. I will never understand why school leaders don’t get the fact that we have been infusing technology into public school program for over a decade. We have done so amidst an almost cultish belief in the efficacy of data to drive academic decisions. Yet, we have no evidence that our seduction by the purveyors of ed tech gadgetry has improved anything. Wouldn’t we have seen the results by now?

I came across this article by a higher ed techie, Joshua Kim, that has me hoping that we might begin to get a grip on our exuberance for high tech solutions to education issues. Here’s a tech guy who gets it. “The true value of education, the type of education that people will pay for, is only found at a scale where an educator can get to know a learner as an individual.”

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Aspirations of Adults vs. Welfare of Children

Most days, I check on the social media sites in my school district focused on our public schools. I try to correct misinformation that’s circulating as well as advancing the concerns of our union membership. I’m encourages by what appears to be a growing number of parents who understand that the quality of a school system is at best marginally related to how many college courses their high school students take. This morning, a parent on one of the social media sites I monitor asked why it is that our board of education seems headed in the direction of accelerating all of our students in 8th grade math in what has come to be called “algebra for all,” as though this were some kind of populist political movement. I responded to her post specifically with our school district in mind, but to varying degrees I believe most of our suburban school districts are similarly guilty of what I have come to see as the exploitation of children. Here’s my answer to why our leaders want algebra for all. See if it doesn’t fit your district as well.

We’ve become a district that is more interested in the building of student resumes than in their intellectual, social and emotional growth. Our programs are increasingly aimed at rising on the scorecards of the pop magazines that rate school districts on indices having almost nothing to do with real accomplishments. Our leaders believe that the more work we pile on children, the more we brainwash them to believe that if they just take another AP class their future will be ever so much better is the extent to which we are a quality school district. More and more, our programs are driven by the aspirations of adults rather than the welfare of children. We appear to aim for a meretricious facsimile of a real education. Sadly, that is what we are achieving. Algebra for all is but one symptom of what is increasingly wrong

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The Parade of Martinets

The best teachers I have known over my career spent almost no time talking about rules and regulations yet had the best classroom management. They communicated through their command of subject and seriousness of purpose that they were in control and worthy of the respect of their students. They rarely had to call parents, wrote few if any discipline referrals and usually seemed to know the next move they had to make to lead kids where they wanted them to go. They assumed cooperation and received it. They didn’t live in constant fear losing control.

Those that went on to try their hand at administration tended to use the same skills to lead the adults, setting good examples of cooperation and respect. They never forgot how difficult the work of teaching is and how the last thing teachers need are administrators making their work more difficult. It is these experiences with great teachers and administrators that inform my view of so many of the martinets I meet in our schools today, so-called leaders whose fears of losing control, springing from deep personal uncertainties, lead them to feel compelled to try to lead through fear and intimidation. At best, these would-be leaders get grudging obedience. They never command the respect integral to good leadership. They come and go from our school districts, to be laughed at if they are remembered at all.

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Enough Celebrating Already!

Just as I feared, there is much too much celebration of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act and the report of the Cuomo task-force on Common Core. Even Michael Mulgrew, President of the United Federation of Teachers, and until recently a militant supporter of the Common Core State Standards, is hailing developments in Washington and Albany as a huge victory.

Let’s try to remember that he supporters of the test and punish approach to education reform are in retreat; they are not dead. Remember, there is still federally mandated testing in grades 3 through 8 and still a battle to be waged over how to make New York’s academic standards developmentally appropriate.

So long as the testing mandate continues in its current iteration, the focus of elementary education will continue to be rigidly on English and mathematics. What we test tends to be what we get. Surely the last few years should have taught us that. Neither Washington nor Albany has raised the issue of developing standards for what good schools should provide for the intellectual, emotional and social development of children. Only math and English seem to be important. Is there not considerably more to the nurturing of a human child than his English and math skills? How much more comfortable we could all be to see a call for early childhood standards that focused on the centrality of play.

Let’s be buoyed by recent developments. They have given us hope that we are beginning to turn away from the stupidities foisted upon us in the name of reform. Let’s, however, not stop the efforts that have brought us these happier days with the promise of even better ones to come.

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