A Teachable Moment

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

A Pissing Contest Over Teacher Evaluation?

My readers are more than familiar with my opposition to high stakes testing in the evaluation of students and teachers. I believe it fair to say that my voice in New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) was an early influence in moving our union’s position from support for test based teacher accountability all the way to support for the opt-out movement which seeks to encourage parents to withhold their children from these tests. I feel obliged to state my bona fides as a preface to questioning the current approach of our state union to dealing with this issue.

Currently, largely through the work of the NYSUT and the heroic work of the Opt-Out Movement, we have a moratorium on the use of high stakes tests to evaluate teachers. While a majority of students still take the tests with the student growth scores still reported to the district by teacher, scores are advisory. The commissioner of education appears to be proposing that the moratorium be extended, to which NYSUT has responded with a demand that teacher evaluation be returned solely to local school districts. I completely agree that the state has mucked up the teacher evaluation process and that a return to local control of the process is desirable. I’m not sure, however, that now is the time to get into a pissing contest with the state, a state that is apparently willing to extend the moratorium protecting our members.

At a time when most of our political energies should be focused on the mid-term congressional elections in the fall, at a time when we should be focusing our members attention on the importance to our welfare of returning control of the congress to Democrats, failure to win the battle over evaluations will make our job of turning our members out in November all the more difficult. How much easier and safer it would be to take credit for the extension of the moratorium with a reminder to our membership that we continue the battle for a return to locally bargained teacher evaluation systems.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

We All See What’s Happening

I met an old friend for breakfast yesterday. During our catching-up conversation, he found himself talking about his grand-children, noting their lack of social skills and correctly connecting that problem to their incessant connection to their smart-phones. We all see this happening, are distressed by the thought of a generation of children whose human connections may be stunted for their entire lives and yet are fearful of doing anything about it lest we be seen as enemies of progress, 21st century Luddites.

Next week children will be at school bus stops weekday mornings, staring at their phones, completely disinterested in conversing with their assembled classmates. They will file into their schools and in many of their class sit for extended periods of time staring at a computer screen, their schools promoting digitized education as the way to personalize a child’s instruction, letting them learn their own way, at their own pace. Few parents will voice any concern as to why their children are spending so many of their waking hours engaging a computer screen. Some of their teachers know that important elements of an education are increasingly being displaced by gadgets of one kind or another. Too often, however, they keep that knowledge to themselves lest they be judged by their supervisors to be inferior teachers. Other teachers, trained in the era of test driven accountability, technologically mediated instruction, I fear don’t even realize that they have become agents of a meretricious corporatism deskilling children of the abilities necessary to be engaged citizens of a democratic society.

Wouldn’t it be great if this new school year we began to think about taking charge of our technology and at least mitigating its control of us and our children? Why don’t we declare technology free school days. In every classroom, teachers and students talking to one another for the entire period, finding time to talk about what is going on in our country and the world, sharing each other’s humanity, maybe even talking about what new technologies are doing to that humanity.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Opt-Out Thrives on Long Island

The opt-out movement is still strong here on Long Island. If fact, it seems to be clear that a majority of Long island parents are no longer anguishing about the decision to opt-out or not. Withholding their children from the tests has become routine. School districts where upwards of 80 percent of students opted out of this year’s English exam seems to have unceremoniously adjusted to this boycott. While opt-out numbers are yet to come in from New York City and upstate, Long Island results point to a little crow eating by Commissioner Elia who predicted an increase in the number of students taking the exams this year.

The opt-out movement has been one of the very few high points in the recent history of public education. The growth of the coalition of parents and educators who nurture it encourages us to believe that there is hope for the renewal of public education and that out schools can eventually be freed of the testing tyranny that has increasingly robbed a generation of children of an age appropriate, humanistic education, one that prepares them for life, not just employment

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Growing Opt-Out

The New York State math and English assessments for grades 3 through 8 will soon be upon us again. While there have been some changes in the exams around the margins, they remain an insidious inhibitor of quality education in our state. Educators with the best of intentions and a deep appreciation of what children should be taught are nevertheless teaching to these tests, they being judged, like the children they teach, on the basis of their students’ scores.

To a generation of political leaders who can only understand learning by measuring it, a generation that has reified accountability thereby reducing it to a number, talk of authentic assessment not only has no meaning but is too often seen as seeking to evade accountability. It doesn’t seem to matter to worshipers of math and English scores that over a decade of test score driven accountability has yielded no significant improvements. Some educators like me believe that it has reduced some of our best schools to shadows of their former selves. In my home district, while district leaders utter pious platitudes about test driven accountability, leadership still makes programmatic decision based on essentially useless scores.

The only option open to people who are serious about ending the tyranny of these tests is for parents to opt their children out of taking them. Each of the past few years has seen the opt-out rate in New York grow. This trend must continue to the point where it becomes absurd to spend huge sums of money on assessments that almost no one is taking. Only then can we expect to have a serious conversation about what a sane accountability system would look like.

Teachers have a duel role in accelerating opt-outs. They need to set an example in their home districts by opting their own children out of the assessments and demanding that meaningful educational experiences be offered in their stead. Through their unions, they must also encourage the parents of their students to follow their lead and opt their children out. There are thousands of public school teachers here on Long Island. Imagine if each of them convinced one new parent to opt her children out.

One of the few good things to happen in the realm of public education in New York has been the advent of the opt-out movement that has grown from a small group of dedicated parents, many of whom like Jeanette Deutermann exerted enviable leadership, to a coalition of parents, educators and citizens determined to save quality public education in our state and nation. We must grow this movement.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Hillary and the NEA RA

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

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

The Last Day

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

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

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

It’s Just Business

Those who doubt that the Common Core State Standards and the high stake tests aligned to them are part of a corporate business plan rather than thoughtful educational proposals aimed at improving student performance need to read Jonathan Pelto’s current article in The Progressive. Pelto chronicles PARCC’s legal efforts to stifle any serious criticism of their Common Core tests. If their tests are as good as they claim, why all the threats against critics?

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Students and Teachers As Numbers

Why do we appear to think that unless you give teachers a score for their effectiveness, we are not holding them accountable? A law passed last year has local unions negotiation yet another number based mumbo-jumbo system for evaluating teachers at providing each one with a so-called HEDI Score, an acronym for ratings of highly effective, effective, developing and ineffective. Two of my colleagues and I spent part of yesterday afternoon working with central office counterparts on this exercise in futility. Basing our discussion on guidance documents from the state, documents that could serve English teachers as examples of how not to write, it was obvious to all of us that what we were doing had little, if anything, to do with the evaluation of teachers but was rather an exercise in professional pretense.

Here has been very little improvement, if any, upon the narrative observations of teachers that constituted teacher evaluations prior to the test based accountability reforms of recent years. Imperfect though they were, as good as the skill of the observer for the most part, they told a skilled reader more about the performance of teachers than the reducing a teacher’s work to a score. Union leaders and central office administrators will spend untold hours over the next few months developing teacher evaluation plans that will mean nothing to a single student,will further demoralize teachers and will discredit the politicians who sold out to the corporate school reform movement and passed the laws creating these foolish schemes.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Measuring School Worth

The U.S. News rankings of America’s high schools were out last week. They are an essentially pointless ranking based on the number of students registered for Advanced Placement (AP) courses. They take no account of how many of those students actually take the tests or the scores they achieve. Few college professors see these courses as the equivalent college course, either in terms of content or the experience of students becoming increasingly responsible for their learning in a college setting. Yet, these baseless rankings have so insidiously entered contemporary education lore that people believe and make judgments on what is little more than thin air. They are responsible for a senseless competition between schools that increasingly feel compelled to push kids into AP courses who would often be much better off in a different academic setting. It shocking to see so many educators take these rankings seriously. It’s time this aspect of corporate influence on American public education received the scrutiny it deserves. Isn’t it peculiar that so much of the evaluation of our schools comes from areas of our society other than education? Why is there no educators’ index of school quality?

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Can Sanity Be Coming to Teacher Evaluation?

An extraordinary amount of time money and energy has been spent in the quest for some holy grail of teacher evaluation, all to absolutely no effect other than to severely damage the morale of the nation’s teaching force. Motivate by the empty slogan “a great teacher in front of every classroom, our political leaders, often with the assistance ed school professors, have taken us from evaluation system to evaluation system, all seeking to quantify the unquantifiable. Here in New York, school districts are supposed to have yet a new plain in place before the start of the new school year or face the loss of the recently enacted increase in state aid to education. Districts are in the process of doing this even though we all know that in a year or so we are going to have to do it again.

Here’s what I know about evaluating teachers. Judging their worth on the basis of student test score has been clearly demonstrated to be more about junk science than about judging worth. While it used to be the case that building administrators mostly knew how to judge good and bad teaching, in this day when they tend to come to their positions before they have mastered the craft of teaching, fewer and fewer of them have the foggiest idea of what they are looking at, focused as they are by rubrics that have them seek evidence for various parts of a lesson rather than the impact of the whole.

The best judges of teaching are teachers. In most schools, the experienced teachers know who the good teachers are. They know who should get tenure and whom we would be better off without. When one asks teachers whom they learned the most from about being a teacher, they will invariably tell you they learned from other teachers, more often than not in unplanned moments of interaction rather than any staff development at which some high paid consultant tells them what they ought to know. Yet, in most of our schools, we are indifferent to the thoughts of teachers about who should enter and stay in our profession. We schedule the teacher workday in such a way as to essentially preclude teachers having opportunities to talk to one another about their work. We isolate them for most of their day and have people less experienced and knowledgeable than they judge the quality of their work.

I had a little glimmer of optimism this morning as I read an article by Charlotte Danielson whose academic work has impelled many teacher accountability efforts. She now appears to be rethinking the subject more soberly. We share a belief in the importance of focusing on probationary teachers, making sure they are worthy of career status. We agree too on the importance of teachers engaging each other as a central feature of a system that promotes continuous teacher learning. Who knows? With big name scholars in the filed like Danielson thinking sanely about teacher evaluation, perhaps we can come up with a system that makes sense, even to our politicians.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Not Again!

“This is a tremendous amount of work with no purpose. I think the people who wrote this don’t understand what it costs to renegotiate … and how now districts are being held hostage to this.” She was talking about the requirement in state law for school districts to negotiate new teacher evaluation systems tied to student test scores, even though there is a moratorium on the use of score to evaluate teachers and work is beginning at the direction of the Regent to come up with a new approach to teacher evaluation.

It’s satisfying to know that at least one Regent is thinking about the absurdity surrounding high stakes testing and teacher evaluation in New York State. We have a bunch of new Regents who have begun to distance themselves from the Tisch era of corporate led school reform, a new chancellor who almost from the moment of taking office announced that if she had a child, she would opt her out of the state exams, and we have by all accounts a growing state and national opt out movement of parents and teachers who are seeing to it that fewer children take high stakes tests each year. We had over 100,000 opt outs on Long Island alone this year. What is to be gained from spending countless professional hours working out annual professional performance review plans (APPR) that are bound to change in a very short time? This is the kind of stupidity for which Albany has become famous.

It’s time for the Governor and our legislators to act to remedy this costly, teacher morale destroying foolishness. Changing the system by which we evaluate teacher every couple of years does not inspire the confidence all should have in the accuracy and fairness of that system.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Opting Out in Defense of Public Education

Last week, with New York’s high stakes tests upon us, I wrote to the parents of the children asked to endure these useless exams asking them to consider opting their children out. The response to my letter has been so positive that I’ve chosen to make it my blog post for today. Here it is.

Dear POB Parents,
Last year over 50 percent of the POB parents of children in grades 3 through 8 refused to allow their children to take the New York State assessments in English and math. In so doing, they joined a rapidly growing movement of citizens (over 200,000 last year) who are fed up with the state’s regimen of high stakes tests that have increasingly turned our schools towards test prep rather than authentic education, stressed children unnecessarily and dispirited teachers whose evaluations were inappropriately tied to student scores on these exams. The testing season is again upon us.

While our members are active in the Opt-Out movement and are convinced that it affords citizens the best opportunity to end the damage done to our schools by Albany’s education policies, we deeply believe in the right of parents to decide what is right for them and their children. I assure you that whatever your decision, your children will be treated appropriately.

Our leaders in Albany would like you to believe that there is no longer any good reason to oppose the state assessments. Nothing could be further from the truth. Your children are still asked to take these stress producing exams, their scores are still reported as are teacher’s evaluation scores. While our new Commissioner of Education talks about changes to the tests and the standards to which they are aligned, it is completely clear that she believes in measuring the worth of schools and teachers on the basis of standardized tests.

Should you decide to join us in ending the tyranny of high stakes testing in New York by opting your child out, our district requires that you send a hard copy letter to that effect to the principal of your child’s school. I have enclosed a sample letter for your convenience.

I trust the day is not too far off when instruction in our schools is once again driven by the judgment of educators trained to work with children rather than bureaucrats of education testing companies. Until that time, our members will do whatever they can to ameliorate the negative effects of these tests on the education of your children.
Sincerely,

Morton Rosenfeld
President

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Hope is Alive in New York

It’s not very often that one gets to see meteoric change in the direction of an institution. However, that’s what we witnessed the other day after the installation of Chancellor Dr. Betty Rosa who asked by a reporter whether if she had school age children she would opt them out, she replied with a resounding YES. That monosyllabic sound bite said that the process of reversing the catastrophic corporate sponsored test and punish school reform movement championed by outgoing chancellor Merryl Tisch is beginning without pause. It will no doubt take time to undo the serious damage Tisch and her agent John King wrought, but we have gotten an immediate sense from our new leader that there is reason to hope that we can find more reasonable and meaningful ways to assess students and provide for teacher accountability.

Some school leaders were put off by Rosa’s remarks, the superintendent of my own district for one. These critics confuse standardized testing with high standards of academic achievement. They do not see them for what they are – essentially instruments that measure the ability to pass standardized tests and artificial sorters of students into categories from which they often find it impossible to escape and progress. These critics ignore what growing numbers of parents and teachers have seen – a test driven transformation from educating children for adult citizenship to training them to be docile cogs in the corporate workforce. They are on the wrong side of history, having seriously underestimated the public’s willingness to swallow the crap they have offered up in the name of reform.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Who’s Accountable?

I’m onto my system of school accountability again. It enraged me to read of the introduction by some of the nitwits leading our nation’s school systems of virtual school days. You’ve got it. Virtual school days have kids staying at home and doing their school work in one way or another through the internet. One has to laugh at the rationale offered by some for this cheap knockoff of education. Since more and more employers have their employees working from home, public schools offering virtual school days are preparing students for the workplace of their futures. The schmucks selling this snake-oil are the pawns of the corporate school reformers who would love nothing better that a complete system of virtual schools. No need for school buildings, school buses, no student cafeterias. No need to manage the behavior of hundreds of children. No teachers getting together to engage each other professionally. Much harder for unions to organize people who never come to one workplace. The perfect system for the faceless cogs so desperately sought after by the titans of our rapidly emerging dystopia. Where is our system of accountability to check these charlatans who would cheat children of their right to a real education?

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Mindless Uniformity

The surest sign to me that a school or school district is intellectually dead is if all of the teachers on a grade are teaching the same thing at the same time using the same lessons and materials. In such places, the corporate reform movement has won, the quality of education being measured by the results on high stakes tests, tests that control what gets taught and when. Such places are led by education functionaries who either never had any understanding of and commitment to public education or sold that commitment for a step up the ladder of administrative success. The best days of teaching and learning in my district were when we had a leader who went from building to building challenging the faculties to try new things, to experiment, to take some risks to make things better. Teaching the way everyone else did marked one as lazy, unimaginative and therefore uninspiring.

I grow increasingly concerned that the deformers of public education are winning the battle of ideas as the public misconstrues uniformity for quality and differences as a sign that their children are missing out on something to which they are entitled. On one hand this is clearly the result of the preoccupation with high stakes testing. What we test is what we get. Yet, there is something more going on. Has a public that has grown increasingly mistrustful of public institutions developed a level of mistrust that perceives anyone getting something they are not receiving as a rip-off, an uneven playing field, a failure of that institution, almost a personal affront? I’m not sure, but I do know one thing. A mindless uniformity of instruction and quality education are mutually exclusive concepts.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

A Different Common Core

If we were seriously interested in holding our public schools accountable, we would be much more interested in things other than standardized test scores. We would be horrified by how many Americans reject the scientific certainty that all life on earth has evolved over millions of years. We would be appointing one committee or another to determine why so many of the products of our schools know so little about their elected representatives, how their government works and how few of them ever bother to vote. In our discussions of academic standards, we would search for a curriculum that started children learning in their earliest years about what the legacy of slavery has meant to our nation and what it continues to mean to today’s African Americans. We would heavily sanction schools that didn’t find daily ways to engage students about current events, criticizing teachers for their failure to engage contemporary controversies in their classrooms. We would be taking stock of the extent to which America’s students recognize their responsibilities to others and how their political and economic freedoms are inextricably tied to those of their fellow citizens. We might even come up with some mathematical index to gauge the success of our schools as the agents of the renewal of our society. We need to be talking about a different common core.

This subject is on my mind this morning since I read this article in the New York Times on how poorly America’s seem to be doing in getting children to understand climate change and humans contribution to it.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Moratorium?

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.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

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.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Cuomo’s Strategic Retreat

The media and blogosphere are full of speculation about Governor Cuomo’s apparent turn-away from the connection of student test scores to teacher evaluations. On my way to work this morning, local public radio had a commentator talking about Cuomo’s retreat from the combined attack of the parents and teacher union activists in the opt-out movement. If indeed Cuomo is retreating on the issue, we have to figure it’s a strategic retreat, one most probably designed to get even with those who have had the temerity to disagree with him. That’s simply baked into the character of the governor we have come to know. Just look at his treatment of Mayor de Blasio, a leader in his own party but a rival for the public’s attention.

I implore my colleagues in the movement to end the scourge of high stakes testing to avoid declaring premature victory. I am increasingly convinced that Cuomo’s retreat is temporary, just long enough to dissipate the energy of the anti-testing movement many of whom are already celebrating victory and declaring value added teacher evaluations dead. To do so is to trust Andrew Cuomo. Is there anyone in our movement who does? Then let’s act accordingly and redouble our efforts to bring sanity back to the evaluation of students and teachers.

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments

Watch Out for a Moratorium

In my November 6 post, I warned about the distinct possibility of the Cuomo administration out maneuvering the parent/teacher movement to end the scourge of high stakes testing and the tying of that testing to the evaluation of teachers by having his Common Core Commission propose a moratorium of some kind.. Today, the august New York Times is reporting unidentified sources as saying that a moratorium is in the offing. If true, while many will see this as a victory, I’ll be increasingly convinced that Cuomo’s real goal will be to suck the wind out of the teacher/parent opposition to his test and punish approach to public education – lull his opponents into a false sense that they have won. Once the pressure is off of him, he will go right back to supporting the agenda of his Wall Street backers. The only strategic response to a moratorium is to redouble our efforts to end the corporate sponsored reform movement once and for all.

Taking the rest of the week off. Back on Monday. Happy Thanksgiving!

posted by Morty in Uncategorized and have No Comments