A Teachable Moment

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

An Immigrant Perspective on High Stakes Testing

Yesterday I had the pleasure to interview six of the best and brightest students to be graduated from our high school this year. I and two colleagues met them to pick this year’s winners of the two Berkowitz Scholarships that our union provides to graduating seniors.

While all the candidates were spectacular, and while what I’m about top say should in no way be taken as a sign of who our recipients will be, two of the kids I met were on my mind this morning. Both fairly recent immigrants to the United States, both from countries where the education system places great emphasis on career determining high stakes testing, I was interested to talk with them about their perceptions of the contrasts between their schooling in Plainview-Old Bethpage and in their home countries. Were I not a supporter of the use of standardized testing solely to teachers’ instruction and academic program evaluation, these two students would have converted me.

Both students talked about the exhilaration of being freer to pursue one’s interests in our schools, no test determining one’s career path. Both spoke animatedly about how our teachers are interested in what students think whereas at home students are simply told what to do, all in preparation for the all-important tests. Both spoke about relatives in their homelands whose lives are effectively circumscribed by the results of ultra-high stakes tests. Both thought America’s current fascination with high stakes testing is a huge mistake.

Why don’t our policy makers understand what these children seem to clearly get – that the more we talk about “college and career ready,” and the more this concept is defined in terms of scores on high stake tests, the more we will be emulating societies far less dynamic than our own, economically, politically and socially. Does it take being an immigrant to understand the value of what we have had?

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Standing Up For Supporters of Public Education

The Executive Board of our union has voted to support Ginger Lieberman and Debbie Bernstein in next Tuesday’s Board of Education election. As I have quite a few community readers, I’m making our statement of support my blog post for today.

On Tuesday, May 20, 2014 voters in Plainview-Old Bethpage will elect two (2) members of the Board of Education.

The members of the Plainview-Old Bethpage Congress of Teachers are supporting Ginger Lieberman and Debbie Bernstein.

While our members have not always agreed with their policy positions, we have come to respect Ginger and Debbie for their commitment to the welfare of the children of our district and their appreciation of the work our members perform. At some of our District’s worst moments, they have been voices of moderation and conciliation. They have always put the quality of our academic program first, helping us to avoid the massive cuts that neighboring districts have sustained while maintaining the District’s solid financial position.

Unlike their opponent, Ginger Lieberman and Debbie Bernstein are not single issue candidates. They, too, have worked with our union to end the scourge of high stakes testing in our state. They were instrumental in ending the superintendent’s regulation forcing students refusing to take the state assessments to “sit and stare” with nothing to do. They, too, oppose the field testing that the state wants to do in our district and are working to build Board support for sending the tests back.

But they have worked with us and the community on much more.
Next year, for example, in the toughest times for financing public education, we will begin an experimental program seeking to provide extra help to elementary students struggling with aspects of the Common Core State Standards. Proposed by the PTA, Ginger and Debbie were quick to realize the need and were essential to gaining the support of the entire Board of Education. They have always been supporters of trying to find better ways to help the community’s children.

We enthusiastically support Ginger Lieberman and Debbie Bernstein for POB Board of Education. In these challenging times for public education, experience and commitment to the institution of public schools is vital. Ginger and Debbie have demonstrated both. They deserve our support.

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Common Core Fresh Air

As the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) become increasingly controversial, the rhetoric pro and con has tended to grow more extreme. Amid all the hyperventilating surrounding the CCSS, one occasionally finds clearly stated, rationally argued criticism that just plain makes sense. A non-profit outfit called Defending Early Years has done that for the k-3 standards. See if you don’t agree with their eminently reasonable critique.

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LIFER Snake Oil

I attended a meeting of an organization call LIFER (Long Islanders for Educational Reform) last evening at which New York State Assemblyman Michael Fitzpatrick was a featured speaker. This is a group that seeks to further erode our public employee pension systems, end the requirement that increments be paid after a contract expires and a new one is not yet in place (Triborough Amendment), strengthen the property tax cap and end other programs that they call unfunded mandates but which are often programs that provide important services to children and create employment for our members.

Mr. Fitzpatrick has introduced legislation, part of which would end pensions as we have known them for people beginning their employment in school districts and other government agencies. Instead of a defined benefit pension, one where members can know exactly what they will receive upon retirement, Fitzpatrick wants to offer 401k style plans in which one’s retirement income is dependent on one’s financial acumen. What I found most disturbing about Fitzpatrick’s presence is what he was forced to disclose in response to a question from the audience.

A citizen asked him if in addition to being an assemblyman he worked for an investment bank. Flustered for a moment, he finally said that he worked for Morgan Stanley. But for that question, the audience would not have known that here was an elected representative arguing for a change in something as important as the retirement security of employees who works in an industry that would stand to profit from conversion from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan.

Hacks like Fitzpatrick and the others on the panel last evening simply invent facts to buttress their arguments. Fitzpatrick would have us understand that we are on the road to becoming another Detroit, a statement for which there is not a scintilla of evidence. A smooth talker from a thing called Empire Center ever so effortlessly spewed statistics many of which are patently ridiculous to any but the gullible or the dishonest. My favorite was his repeated statement that the average teacher increment on Long Island was 7 percent in the 2010-11 school year. One of my colleagues proved him wrong from the chart in his own report. But although there knowledgeable people in the audience to correct his more outrageous propaganda, this snake oil salesman still inflamed those in the audiences whose wages are stagnating and whose middleclass life is rapidly receding into believing that it is the devil teachers who are the cause of their economic stress. The more income inequality grows, the more we are going have public servants the scapegoats of an increasingly economically squeezed public.

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A Local Display of the Failure of Institutional Loyalty

On the agenda of Plainview’s Board of Education meeting last night was the subject of the field tests the state does for the Person Company to test questions for future state assessments in grades 3 through 8. The growing opt-out movement has emboldened some superintendents and boards to refuse to subject their children to yet more testing and in so doing make a statement to the inept people making and implementing education policy in Albany that we have hand ENOUGH. I suspect they are beginning to see that it will take non-compliance by parents and professionals to end the tyranny of testing in our state. But sadly, the leadership of Plainview-Old Bethpage hasn’t understood that yet. In fact, our superintendent appears to think that what teachers and parents want are better tests. Nothing could be further from reality.

In a long-winded, circuitous speech, Dr. Lewis offered her opinion of why we need to offer the field tests. Her remarks boiled down to this. The state says we have to give the tests. And, we have to give them because the Pearson Company doesn’t get enough money from its contract with the state to the reliability of its exams in other, less intrusive ways. So, we need to lobby our legislators to pony up more money for Pearson if we want our kids to be spared these tests.

As absurd as that sounds, that’s what she said. Keep in mind that in the era of property tax caps, public education is being starved of the ability to maintain its academic programs. Remember, the state assessments serve no instructional purpose whatsoever. Teachers don’t get to see where their students went wrong. Perhaps the most outrageous fact of the state’s testing regimen is the scoring. Commissioner John King essentially decides the cut scores determining where students fall on a completely arbitrary scale. Despite all of that, Dr. Lewis wants the taxpayers of the state to spend more money to get “better” tests that will still have no instructional value.

I wrote the other day about the general lack of institutional loyalty of the people making and implementing education policy in our state and nation. That was certainly on display last night. Rather than buck the powers that be in the simplest act of civil disobedience, we were counseled to accept what we know is wrong and harmful to the children we claim to serve. While several of our Board members raised objection to the field tests, not one made a motion to order Dr. Lewis to send the tests back to Albany like is being done in neighboring Jericho and Syosset. To be sure, parents can opt-their children out of these tests, but neither board nor superintendent are willing to stand up and be counted.

Dr. Lewis appears to believe that if we just talk reason to our elected representatives, they will respond rationally. Such a view ignores the money, power and influence of the people behind the use of high stakes testing to prove American schools to be failing (Watch Joshua Katz on this point.). The countervailing force to government policy that is essentially bought and paid for, therefore, has got to be a politically organized citizenry that is prepared to act in its own interest, participating in civil disobedience if necessary to draw attention to unjust law or policy. If public education is to be saved, that’s what is going to be necessary, as necessary as it was to stop the foolish war in Viet Nam or end the separate but equal doctrine of the United States Supreme Court. Such acts of civil disobedience are central to what it means to be American. Public education deserves leaders who are willing to take risks to preserve it. Sadly, our local school leaders can’t even return a completely meaningless test to help defend it. To me, that’s a failure of loyalty to the institution.

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Leaders and Institutional Loyalty

My school district is abuzz with talk that a number of administrators are seeking employment elsewhere. Some who are said to be actively engaged in job searches have barely been here long enough to learn their jobs, including the politics of being a school leader. Leaders have to inspire loyalty to the group, calling on their subordinates to act in the interest of something larger than themselves. The job market for teachers is such that once they get tenure in a good district, they stay for a career. We have a curious situation in too many of our public schools where the people with institutional loyalty are led by those with little to none. We’ve been accustomed for some time to superintendents coming and going. Where we once saw most of our school leaders come from the teaching ranks, now they rarely do. Many appear to know that they are just passing through, their eyes already on the next job as they begin the new one. How are such people to effectively lead teachers who spend a career in one place, often becoming parts of the fabric of the communities in which they serve? Why would a teacher with a career investment in a community take seriously a leader who odds are will be gone in 4 or 5 years.

I’ve tried unsuccessfully over my career to get people in my district and in our state and national unions to rethink the way schools are organized. I don’t claim to have all of the answers, but I do know that a system that pays people better as they grow increasingly removed from dealing directly with students is a stupid one. A system that has its most important workers, teachers, answering to people who often know less about the craft of teaching than they is one that is unable to tap the imagination and talents of its teachers and one in which teachers have little challenge to grow professionally. A system whose mission is to train citizens to be members of a democratic society but which itself is hierarchically managed is a system in conflict with itself. When Al Shanker latched on to the charter school idea, I’m sure he was thinking a similar thought. His charter vision, distinctly different from what the corporate reformers have made it, his vision was for groups of teachers with an idea for improving their schools to be given the opportunity and resources to do so, to take charge of their work. If their idea worked, it could be scaled up. He was looking for a different model of school management. His experiences in New York City told him that hierarchical bureaucracy was a failed model.

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Bringing Our Movement Back to Life

nullNew York State United Teachers (NYSUT) is getting back to its activist roots. On April 28, thousands of union teachers, parent and citizens concerned for the welfare of public education demonstrated against the education policies of Governor Cuomo outside a banquet hall where he was scheduled to speak to the Suffolk County Democratic Committee. Our presence caused him to have to sneak in a side door, while guests were forced to cross our picket lines to attend the gala, still not an easy thing for some Democrats to do. Sunday, upstate members had their turn in Lake Placid where Democrats for Education Reform, a pro-testing, pro-charter school, anti-union outfit financed largely by hedge fund and real estate money tied to Cuomo, was meeting.

In 40 degree temperature and a pelting rain, over 500 union teachers and parents picketed the facility at which the privatizers were meeting. Cuomo, scheduled to speak, apparently thought better of it because of our presence and took a powder. When I saw the weather Sunday morning, I thought our protest would fizzle. But such is the outrage of teachers at what this governor and his friends have been doing to public education that they drove from as far away as Buffalo to register their protest, vowing to not support Cuomo for re-election and to seek an alternative third party candidate who supports them and public schools. I made the trip expressly to see if our upstate brothers and sisters were as angry as our members are. I wrote after the Long Island rally that one senses a new energy in our movement and a motivation to organize to fight back. That spirit was certainly present in Lake Placid this weekend.

The Democrats are holding their state convention on Long Island later in the month. Work has already begun to demonstrate at that event as well. I’m starting to dare to hope that our teacher labor movement can be brought back to life.

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What Dark, Sadistic Urge?

A reader of my blog shared yesterday’s post on my view that the number of students taking AP courses is a fool’s measure of the worth of a public school. Another parent took issue with my thoughts, seeing me as somehow opposed to the “rigor” she believes comes with AP curricula. While I don’t believe that AP these days offers students anything remotely like a college experience, and while I’m not opposed to challenging students in age appropriate ways, I answered her in the following way.

Noting how I raised a different point than my critic responded to, I said: “I was raising the question of how we evaluate the quality of a school. Basing that evaluation on the number of students taking AP classes is to my mind stupid and springs from a misapprehension of what schools should be doing. The Rosenfeld Quality Index would not reward schools that have children doing homework until 2 in the morning, often sharing homework responsibilities with peers because there aren’t enough hours in the day to do all of the drudge work that schools feel obliged to ask them to do in the name of rigor. Schools that make kids fell guilty if they desire to eat dinner with their families every night have lost track of their responsibility to nurture the intellectual and emotional growth of children, substituting training for the rat race for real education.”

It has somehow come to pass that unless schools stress kids out to the max, unless we demand that every hour of their day be spent either in formal study or in resume building extra-curricular activities, unless we force them to sacrifice their ethics to the bitch goddess success, unless we literally rob them of their childhoods, we are guilty of preventing them gaining happy and productive adulthoods. What dark, sadistic urge drives this reformer foolishness?

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AP Madness

One of the more pernicious influences on public high school education in the United States has been Washington Post columnist Jay Matthews’ Challenge Index, a system for rating public high schools essentially on the basis of how many Advanced Placement (AP) classes students in a school take. To be seen as a good school these days is to enroll as many children in these courses as we can. It is rare that anyone in authority in our school districts even questions the appropriateness of 14 and 15 year-olds taking what are supposedly college level courses.

This push to get kids into AP classes has reached the point of absurdity in my own district, Plainview-Old Bethpage. Programming for next year was completed some weeks ago but apparently not in a way pleasing to the AP fanatics running our district. The order has apparently come down the chain of command to have our guidance counselors meet many of the children they have already counseled and programmed who have done well enough in honors classes or a previously taken AP to pressure them into enrolling in additional AP classes. Thus, kids who may well have selected a challenging program but who did not wish to have 5 hours of homework ever night and who wished to have a lunch period to relax and socialize are made to feel like slackers who may be prejudicing their chances for admission to the college of their choice. This is all done not because the leaders of our schools are interested in what children know but simply to be able to say that we are in the top whatever number of high schools in the United States. Of crap like this are the reputations of central office administrators made and more prestigious jobs gained.

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University of the Future?

My readers are long familiar with my concerns with the effects of the technological mediation of education. I am continually horrified by the cliché-ridden blather of those who talk about 21st century learners, the infusion of technology into instruction, multi-tasking, presentation skills and assorted jargon out of the mouths of people who always seem a tad ill-educated themselves. To me a kid spending his time in middle school learning to make PowerPoint presentations is a facet of the real impoverishment of our educational systems unnoticed by the so-called reformers. I have come to believe that many of the reformers, often coming from the business world, many from our high tech industries, have a business plan rather than and education vision. While much of the reform effort appears focused on k-12 education, less conspicuously, higher education, particularly public higher education is clearly threatened by the digital revolution. Sebastian Thrun, the creator of MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses) predicts that within 50 years, there will be only 10 universities offering higher education exclusively through the internet.

The BBC did a radio documentary of the MOOC phenomenon the other day. It struck me as a balanced and thoughtful presentation of the issues surrounding these courses through the thoughts of many of the people who were their pioneers. I urge you to find 20 quiet minutes to listen. I would further urge you to spend a good deal more time thinking about what these courses mean for the future of higher education.

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The Beginning of A Movement?

Thousand Protest Governor CuomoWho would have imagined as little as a few months ago that as strange an assemblage of people as the thousands that descended on Holbrook, Long Island yesterday would come together to chant, ” Cuomo has got to go.” Cuomo was there to speak to the Suffolk County democratic Committee.
There were union teachers, parents, anti-fracking advocates, members of the gun lobby, anti-Common Core citizens – all united for the moment by their disappointment in a governor who but a few weeks ago had poll numbers that had people talking about his potentially challenging Hillary for the Democratic nomination for president. I’ve been to a few demonstrations in my time. This one had a bit of the feel of the beginning of a movement to dump a governor whose arrogance seems to have motivated people of every political stripe to say ENOUGH! Parking for the event at a local catering hall was such that some Democrat office holders and leaders had to cross picket lines to gain entrance. Little did they suspect when they accepted the invitation to honor their governor who was about to lead them into the November elections that they would be put in this politically embarrassing position.

The next few weeks will tell if this protest has legs. Cuomo is speaking to his hedge fund supporters of charter schools on Sunday in Lake Placid. The New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) is organizing a demonstration there. Let’s see what develops in a rural, upstate, resort community. I’m interested enough to take the ride to see for myself.

While I don’t think for a moment that there is any chance for the Democratic Party to dump Cuomo from its ticket, I do believe a growing, state-wide protest of Cuomo policies could enable say the Working Families Party to be able to recruit a credible candidate who could advance a progressive agenda appealing to those concerned for the corporate threat to public education, the environment and the growing inequality between the financial backers of Andrew Cuomo and the rest of us.

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The Data Drones Take Another Hit

The education reform machine, aided by the policies of the Obama administration, pumps out endless propaganda seeking to demonize those who challenge teacher evaluations based on student test scores. Completely deaf to the socio-economic factors known to heavily influence student test performance, the reformers promote the belief that inspired teaching can somehow overcome poverty, mental illness, disability, homelessness and countless other things that influence a person’s ability and willingness to learn. Those who object to test based teacher evaluations, those who know it for the junk science it is, are seen to be simply against accountability and defenders the status quo.

This morning, New York Times carried a story with a wonderful irony for a test-based accountability denier like me. Among the lesser known features of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is a provision that ties Medicare payments to physicians, hospitals and other healthcare providers to their performance. For example, doctors and hospitals whose patients who are re-hospitalized for the same illness suffer payment penalties as such occurrences are viewed as evidence of sub-standard performance. The standards do not take into account the many factors that can cause two patients with the exact same illness to have two very different medical outcomes.

An expert panel put together to study the pay for performance feature of the ACA came up with what will surely be disturbing conclusions for the Obama administration. Their conclusion, “Factors far outside the control of a doctor or hospital — patients’ income, housing, education, even race — can significantly affect patient health, health care and providers’ performance scores.” It turns out that paying hospital and doctors by metrics that don’t account for the variable know to affect outcomes makes as much sense at judging teachers on the basis of their students’ test results.

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Cuomo Inspires Union Activism

Governor Andrew Cuomo has done for the teacher labor movement in New York what we have been unable to do for ourselves. He has motivated us to fight back against the enemies of working people and the public services they rely on for a decent existence. His teacher accountability scheme tied to student test scores that he negotiated with former NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi was a key factor in Iannuzzi’s defeat and is helping to depress his own poll numbers down to the low 40’s.

Arrogant Andrew has pissed the people in public schools off to the point where they are organizing to dog him at many of his events. On Monday the 28th, he is scheduled to be at the Villa Lombardi’s restaurant in Holbrook, Long Island to receive an honor from the Suffolk County Democratic Committee. An honor is not what he will receive from the thousands of teachers and parents who will be picketing him outside, protesting his education and tax policies.

Sunday, May 4, the Governor is the honored guest in Lake Placid of Education Reform Now, a union bashing, pro-charter school, high stakes testing group financed by many of the same hedge fund managers who have contributed to build Cuomo’s 33 million dollar political war chest. There, too, he will be met by NYSUT organized protestors who will demonstrate their displeasure with his education policies.

We are beginning to see the huge potential of our 600,000 members. It is entirely possible that with the coalition partners we have engaged in our efforts to end the scourge of high stakes testing in New York that we can teach this governor a lesson that will not be lost on our other elected leaders. We have always had the ability to be in his face wherever he goes. We seem to now have the will.

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A Different Perspective on Attendance

On during my spring break trip to London, I arrived just a bit before one of the national teacher unions was to take a strike vote over the issue of pensions and performance pay among other things. Suddenly, a trip that was to take my mind off public education provided an opportunity to think about the subject internationally instead. If I thought the United States had a monopoly on government education leaders who know little to nothing about teaching, simply learning that the national government in the U.K. now expects all to work until age 68 would have disabused me of that idea immediately. The corporate public school reform effort is alive and well in the U.K. as it is here. Remember, Pearson is an English company.

In following the strike developments, however, I learned of a curious law the U.K. has to promote better attendance. Apparently, there came a time when many U.K. parents to take the benefit of off-peak rates at times other than traditional school holidays were in large numbers taking their kids out of school to go on holiday. The response was the amendment of the education law to permit the principals of schools to fine parents for keeping their children from attending school without the school’s permission. Permission is granted only for things like family illness or funerals.
Adjusting one’s child’s school attendance to accommodate vacation plans is hardly unknown in our schools. Can anyone imagine empowering our school officials to fine parents that do so?

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Tackling Poverty in Oklahoma

As a Northeasterner, I readily admit to falling into the bias of believing that most progressive social ideas have their genesis in the Washington to Boston corridor. Yeah, California shows some hopeful signs, but the Northeast is the homeland of the belief in collective action in service of the welfare of others.

Occasionally, travel has forced me to re-examine that belief. Earlier in the year, I attended a conference in Austin Texas. Now, Texas was the last place I expected to find a novel assistance program for people who are economically down on their luck. But, there it was, a non-profit program, in existence for some time that has a “chain” of gyms across the city providing free access to people who could never afford the luxury of fitness training. It took people in Texas to realize that one of the effects of poverty is poorer health and that a free fitness program could be of some help.

Today, Public Radio carried a story about a program in Tulsa Oklahoma, a city that it turns out has a very high quality pre-k program and a novel approach to the federally funded Head Start program. Called the Career Advance Program, it springs from the belief that the best way to deal with the many problems of poor children is to help their parents too. Parents enrolled in the program receive a stipend to attend career oriented education classes, many in the health care field, in addition to classes in the basic personal skills necessary to be successful at a job. What common sense emanating from a red state in the heartland! The war on poverty is still being waged in Oklahoma. There’s a thought to wrap one’s head around.

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It will clearly be some time before the political dust from the recent NYSUT elections settles. Some people are finding it hard not to reflexively respond to statements and events in campaign mode. My favorite campaign leftover is the charge that our new leaders have failed to find a candidate to run against Governor Cuomo, as though it is easy to find a Democrat or moderate Republican with name recognition to challenge an incumbent governor with 33 million dollars in his war chest and an army of Wall Street types ready and willing to raise even more if necessary – and in less than one week in office. We’re divided some of my brother and sisters continue to say. But does the fact that 61 percent of the membership wanted a change in the leadership of our state really mean we are divided in some fundamental way, or are some people just still disappointed that the leaders they supported were defeated? There’s a real difference between the two.

Let’s look at the issues of the day. Just about all of us are still determined opponents of the scourge of high stakes testing, its linkage to teacher evaluation and its devastating narrowing of the curriculum across the grades. We understand it to be destroying meaningful education and robbing our membership of the ability to practice their craft with any degree of autonomy and dignity.

Supporters of either slate of NYSUT candidates oppose the way in which the Common Core State Standards were shoved down our throats with a dose of federal money. We are outraged at the fact that we had no real say either in the creation of the standards or their implementation. Daily, we witness examples of children being forced to struggle with concepts they are developmentally not ready to cope with.

Most of the supporters of either Dick Iannuzzi or Karen Magee believe that there is a well- orchestrated, well financed attempt by segments of the corporate world to discredit the work of teachers and public schools with the ultimate goal of privatizing education in the United States (See this piece on the birth of Common Core). We know it is a bold-faced lie to say that America’s schools are failing and that here in New York we have some of the very best schools in the country. We generally agree, too, that the single most potent force militating against the success of all children is the fact that almost a quarter of our nation’s children live in poverty, poverty that debilitates them in body in spirit.

Most NYSUT members, whether they were for Stronger NYSUT or Revive NYSUT, believe that Governor Cuomo has aligned himself with the bankers and real estate interests, those interested in public school privatization and the expansion of charter schools. We passionately desire to deliver his comeuppance; we long for a candidate we could support to oppose him in November. I don’t know a teacher who will vote for Cuomo under any circumstances.

Unanimously, the 25000 delegates to our recent NYSUT convention voted a motion of no confidence in John King, New York’s Commissioner of Education. That same motion demanded his immediate ouster. While it was not included in our motion, I believe if Chancellor Tisch’s name had been added to it, the vote would have been unchanged. We know the Regents need to be changed.

I could go on pointing out broad issues where if there are differences between us, they can be measured in microns. Where we do have differences is in strategy and tactics to achieve our common goals. In fact, in many ways our recent election was about competing strategies to advance an essentially consensus agenda. That’s not to minimize their importance, but they are a much lesser order of difference than if some of us believed in collective bargaining, but many of us didn’t, or if we were divided over the issue of support for teacher tenure.

There’s one other thing I need to say to those who focus on our differences. There has been a whole lot of bashing of the United Federation of Teachers during this campaign. The UFT has more clout in NYSUT than any other local. What a surprise in that it makes up about a third of NYSUT’s membership. When my local was in NEA/New York, Buffalo was our largest local, and what do you know – Buffalo wielded more political clout in that organization than any other. In fact, but for Buffalo’s opposition to my candidacy, I would have been president of NEA/New York. Angered by defeat, it never dawned on me to think our union would have been better off without them or that we were fundamentally divided. Like many, I would prefer if the UFT’s agenda focused on the suburban schools where I work. But a moment’s reflection renders that desire absurd. That reflection also reminds one of how much dues money UFT contributes to the financing of NYSUT and how on core issues there is usually little daylight between us. Their political work with the New York City legislative delegation redounds to all of our benefit much more often than it conflicts with the agendas of smaller locals. Funny, when the UFT voted to make Dick Iannuzzi NYSUT President upon Tom Hobart’s retirement, no one talked about them hijacking the organization.

Just a little quiet reflection suggests that on matters that really count, there is little division among us. We have differences in how to go about achieving our agenda, but we’ve always had those. The representatives of over 600,000 of us have democratically decided to change direction. The very important work of saving public education and our profession is before us. That challenge demands that we remind ourselves of why we built this coalition called NYSUT, that we rally around our leaders, even though we may not have voted for them, and that we give them a decent interval to show what they can do, always reserving the right to change direction again when we believe it is called for.

I’m taking off for the spring school break. Look for me again on April 23.

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Testing Tests Relationships

I asked the members of our union to tell me about anything out of the ordinary surrounding the recent administration of New York’s grades 3 through 8 English language arts exam. Amid the usual repots of crying kids, I received the following from Dr. Michele Price, a psychologist in our Old Bethpage School. Its insight into the family stresses caused by high stakes testing is an under-reported consequence of current education policy. MR

We are all familiar with the scenario of the man or woman who comes home from work and takes the pressure of the day out on his or her spouse and children. The demands of the ELA have created marked stress in households because of children crying over tests and homework, feeling generally anxious and depressed, as well as fighting with their parents and siblings. Children who are normally centered and socially-skilled have been arguing with their peers and having meltdowns at lunch and rec as a result of the demands of the test. Our brightest students have been crumbling under the pressure and shutting down. Teachers, support staff, and administrators are working every spare minute to help compose crying, frustrated children during their own lunches and preps, and arrive at their own homes in the evening too exhausted to function. One middle school student spoke to me through a torrent of tears, “My teachers spend so much time testing me. They no longer have time to teach me. I can’t take it anymore.” In addition, there has been conflict in families, with the parent who witnesses the daily negative impact of demands of the Common Core on the children expressing a desire to opt the children out of the test, and the parent who is not home as much and is not involved with the homework process insisting that the children take the test. As educators, we are all invested in the success of our students and certainly not opposed to rigor, but not at the expense of the mental health of all involved.

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Without A Whimper

The Kansas legislature has just done away with teacher tenure, essentially rendering the state’s teachers at will employees who can be fired without any due process. From what I’m able to glean from the press this morning, Governor Brownback is going to sign the bill, although the Kansas education Association is waging a political action campaign to urge the governor’s veto.

One by one, due process rights for teachers are disappearing with barely a whimper. Should this trend continue without serious, militant opposition, it won’t be long before the enemies of public employee unions are emboldened to attack tenure in places like New York. It may soon be the case that a majority of the teachers in the United States are no longer guaranteed due process and therefore disinterested in the loss of it by others.

A look at the Kansas National Education Association webpage offers this response to the passage of the tenure robbing legislation. Today teachers are teaching and students are learning, because this IS what we do.” If that’s the public response of the union to the rip-off of teacher rights, a rip-off that will certainly have innocent teachers fired on baseless allegations and some let go because they have reached the top of the salary schedule, the anti-teacher union forces will have gained another victory without even a battle, and others will be emboldened by how easy it is to steal teacher rights. By the way, as of 11:15 A.M. this morning, there was nothing on the NEA webpage about the tragedy in

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NYSUT Elections – The First Step

Here’s the takeaway from last weekend’s NYSUT convention. NYSUT members are fed up with the measured, halting, accommodationist response of their state union’s leadership to the false charge of failing schools, the imposition and failed implementation of the Common Core State Standards, the maniacal substitution of testing for learning and the public pounding of teachers by corporate leaders bent on privatizing public education. The delegates elected Karen Magee and her entire slate including members of the board of directors, and in so doing clearly said that they want their organization to stand up for our members and energize them to use their to numbers to push back against the forces arrayed against them. With a little over 60 percent of the vote, Magee has a mandate to change NYSUT’s direction and the way it does business.
The challenge to her and her team is daunting. For too long NYSUT has existed on playing the Albany game, putting all its energies into political action, failing to recognize getting members to authorize political action fund deductions from their paychecks neither mobilizes them to vote nor collectively confront the workplace issues that plague them daily. We forgot about being a movement, and as we did the political world began to realize they no longer needed to pay attention to us. I’ve had several experiences where members of the legislature have told me straight out, “I’m not afraid of NYSUT anymore. Your members don’t vote.”

Can the Magee team rebuild NYSUT from the ground up, giving this generation of teachers the same hope that the founders of our union had that if they stood together they could command respectable wages and working conditions and a professional say about the important work they do? I know they will try. I also know that I intend to do everything I can to help them to save our movement.

The education union movement allowed me to make a decent, middleclass living, to practice my craft free of coercion and work with colleagues to better our local schools and public education generally. Though our local union always sought cooperation, when that was not possible, we always had the wherewithal to militantly advance our interests, up to and including striking. I always felt proud to be a teacher and a union member. Today’s teachers need to feel that way again. They will only be able to do so if we are able to revive our movement. Saturday’s NYSUT election was the first step. May there be many more.

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NYSUT Convention

At the NYSUT convention today at which the officers are attempting to rewrite the history of their dismal failures, not the least of which has been a complete and total failure to attempt to organize the potential power of 600,000 members into the potent force it could be. Name the issue, andthe Iannuzzi team has been behind the curve – APPR, the scourge of high stakes testing, the Common Core State Standards. What I listened to today at a forum with the officers was carefully scripted smoke blowing in the eyes of local presidents. Shameless is the only word for this desperate attempt to cover their errors.

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