A Teachable Moment

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

Research to Keep an Eye On

Read carefully, there is nothing astounding about the findings of a new study on the effects of introducing language and math concepts in pre-school. Yet, I suspect that much mischief will come of this study, as those who view childhood as a period of rat-race training use it to buttress their argument that to equip children for the 21st century economy we must intellectually assault them, demanding that they perform intellectual activities that their nervous systems are unprepared to do. Advocates of maintaining childhood as a special time of human development would be wise to read the actual study which offers almost no justification for some of the academic torture being inflicted on children. The researchers conclusions are what anyone versed in child development might have expected to find.

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Criminal Justice Reform and Our Children

Too many of America’s children live stunted lives for reasons ranging from poverty, to poor housing, to inadequate medical care to underfunded public schools. A new study adds to our understanding of how the failure of our criminal justice system deprive massive numbers of our nation’s children with the crucial support they need to develop and mature into productive, useful citizens – their parents – often their fathers. Here’s a statistic from Leila Morsy and Richard Rothstein’s study to conjure with. By age 14, 25 percent of African American children have had the life disrupting experience of have a parent incarcerated. Think about that. Try to imagine being told that your father is going to prison, and then think about what it would be like to try to go to school the next day.

I have learned much from reading Richard Rothstein about how despite our protestations about loving children, American treats so many of them so badly. This study is a call to action on criminal justice reform as an approach to improving the lives of thousands of our children.

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Money for Schools Does Matter

Much of the rhetoric of the education reform movement has either stated directly or implied that more money is not the solution for the under-performance of poor children in our nation’s schools. Two new studies with two different methodologies now refute that counter-intuitive claim.

Where courts have interceded to challenge the underfunding of public schools in some communities, ordering those districts to spend more money, student scores on the NAEP test have significantly improved according to one study. The other research looked at time of school attendance in school and earnings after leaving school. Where greater financial resources were made available, students stayed in school longer and increased their earnings significantly.

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Political Progress

I and many others have been critical of the early endorsement by our two national teacher unions of Hilary Clinton before extracting from her some reasonable commitments to our political agenda. Recent days, however, have brought the pleasant surprise that through leadership efforts Hillary is laying out education positions that hold the promise of undoing the severe damage done to our schools by the Obama administration’s brainless test and punish approach to closing the achievement gap between the children of the poor and the more affluent. Brainless is really too mild an epithet for a Race to the Top scam that led cash strapped states in the midst of a financial crisis to embrace the untested Common Core State Standards and teacher evaluation plans tied to high stakes tests. Hillary seems to understand this and has pulled away from full-throated support for charter schools, recognizing that they do not educate all of the children public schools do. She has additionally, stated that she knows of no evidence to justify the tying of student test scores to teacher evaluations. I strongly suspect that our leaders have been telling Hillary that their endorsement wasn’t going to amount to much if her positions on education didn’t start to bend in our direction. One way or another, let’s recognize AFT and NEA progress when we see it.

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Those Who Need More Get Less

One of the vast improvements over the years of my involvement in public education has been the advent and growth of special education services. When I began to teach, such services we essentially limited to the intellectually impaired who in the parlance of the day were in “the retarded class.” The high school I began in had about 1200 student and one such class.

Special education has allowed us to take children who once were assigned to dead-end classes aimed at getting them a diploma that was little more than a certificate of attendance and with teaching strategies aimed at assisting them to get around their disabilities enable them to be able to partake of an academic program to qualify for higher education and broader opportunities in general.

It’s with that experience in mind that I read the report this morning of research that appears to show that minorities are underrepresented in the nation’s special education programs, an underrepresentation that militates against their academic success and against their ability to escape the poverty into which so many of them are born. The results of this research are surprising to many in that there has been a growing body of opinion that feels minorities are over represented in program for the learning disabled, a view that has been coming to see special education as a dumping ground or the modern equivalent of the dead-end classes we had at the start of my career. Those of us who work in more economically privileged communities and who know firsthand the benefits of special education should have probably known that the odds were quite good that minority kids were getting less of a good thing than their white, richer peers. Why does it continue to be that those who need more get less?

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The Ethical Challenges of Teaching Today

My understanding of the impact of poverty on children has been enormously enriched by the insights of Richard Rothstein, a scholar at the Economic Policy Institute. To read his work or to hear him speak is to see through the political smoke callous, ethically bankrupt politicians like Andrew Cuomo whose teacher accountability snake-oil is promoted to hide facing the failure of our society to deal with the reality that a quarter of our nation’s children live and are being permanently scarred by poverty. All of this is my personal preamble to Valerie Strauss’ publication of Rothstein’s remarks to the graduating class of Bank Street College of Education. While teachers have always faced ethical challenges, the totally corrupted state of our public schools raises ethical issues no previous generation of teachers has had to confront. Although I wish Rothstein had worked the possibilities of an ethical life in teacher achieved through collective action with one’s colleagues, his thought provoking remarks should be read and considered by every teacher in today’s public school classrooms, even in our best schools. This is a must read!

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Scapegoating Teachers

On my way to work yesterday, I listened to a WNYC piece focused on the Mount Vernon schools and the challenges it faces educating vast numbers of kids who lives have been damaged by poverty. This is a school district in which over 600 of its students are homeless, one in which many enter schools physically and mentally unequipped to learn.

As I thought about what I would write about today, a story told by a principal in the district came to mind and evoked the same rush of anger I experienced when I first heard it. She told of seeing a little boy who had been absent from school that day and enquiring of him the reasons for his absence. The boy explained that he had no clean clothes to wear to school, leaving the principal to ask, “Where are we living,” her way of expressing the cruel irony that such conditions exist in one of the richest counties of the richest country in the world.
Mount Vernon and other similar schools districts in the state have waged a legal battle for what they believe is the serious short changing of their schools by the state. Asked what she would do if the money her district sought were forthcoming, the Mount Vernon principal talked first about hiring a full-time nurse, because, she explained, so many of her students had unaddressed health issues and never get to see a doctor. She went on to enumerate other services like psychologists, guidance counselors and many service providers who are routinely part of our wealthier school districts.

The radio piece contrasted these heart rending conditions with Governor Cuomo’s speeches blaming ineffective teachers for the problems of schools like the ones in Mount Vernon. Andrew Cuomo wants people to believe that putting resources into districts like this only inflates the bureaucracy, adding nothing to the performance of the schools. If you listen to the people from the Mount Vernon schools featured in this piece and think about what they confront daily, then if blame is to be allotted for these horrendous conditions, it lies with empty windbags like Andrew Cuomo who would scapegoat teachers to try to avoid their responsibility to take care of the desperate needs of children like the ones featured in this story.

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If you missed Monday’s story in the New York Times on the Harvard study on the relationship between the neighborhood one lives in and one’s chances to escape poverty, I urge you to follow this link and read it now. Readers of my blog know that I have long supported policies aimed at the integration of economic classes in neighborhoods for its beneficial effects on the education of all children but particularly on children born into poverty. It has always seemed obvious to me that it is foolhardy to create circumstances where the poor live only amongst the poor and then expect that they will somehow life themselves up and out of the culture of these blighted neighborhoods. If you have believed that poverty is ultimately a matter of choice and that the poor are somehow responsible for their own miserable circumstances, read this peace and have a hard think about you beliefs.

Move a kid out of a blighted neighborhood and his chances to escape a life of poverty improve with each year of his escape from the blighted neighborhood of his birth. You significantly improve his chances of finishing high school and going on to college. You even statistically extend his longevity considerable, making economic integration a matter of life and death. We don’t hear much about integration anymore. It was a central issue of the civil rights movement in my youth. That discussion seemed to die with the death of the War on Poverty. Our failure to keep that discussion going has undoubtedly contributed to New York having become one of the most segregated places in our nation.

Reading this piece will also probably make you madder than you already are at how the stupid people in Albany believe that ineffective teachers are anchoring the children of the poor in life-long poverty.

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Legislators Flail About Looking for Political Solution

The teacher evaluation plan in place in Plainview-Old Bethpage took us about a year and a half to negotiate. While I would be the first to say that the time could have been much better spent, there is one sense in which our APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review) has been an improvement over the way evaluations were done prior to its advent, although that improvement has nothing to do with the student test score part of the plan.

The introduction of a rubric to guide the observation process has taken what had tended to be amorphous written observations, often simply an endless series of clichés, and introduced more concrete language about discernible aspects of a teacher’s performance. The observations that I get to read these days are much better focused and anchored specific references rather the generalized blather I used to read. Today I usually know immediately what the observer was talking about, something that heretofore was often difficult to know. There is now at least the potential that the process provided teachers with feedback that challenges them to think about what they are doing.

It’s ironic then that one of the few real gains from all the effort that went into negotiating these APPR plans is being challenged by Governor Cuomo who wants to put increased emphasis on student test results. As I write this, yet a new proposal is circulating in the legislature that would have the Regents come up with changes to the teacher evaluation process. To me, that’s one of the scariest ideas yet.

No one in authority is talking about any plan that will have any significant effect. If we were serious about teacher evaluation instead, of looking for excuses to not have to deal with the staggering number of New York’s children who live in impoverished families, we would be looking to an approach that had practicing teachers deeply involved in the process. We would look to organize schools in ways that would make teachers the most important people in the building, empowered to make professional decisions like who gets tenure. Can anyone imagine Merryl Tisch suggesting that to the Regents? It’s seriously disheartening to watch our elected officials flailing about in search of a political solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist.

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Hillary’s Dilemma

Back in February, I wrote about what educators would want to hear from Hillary Clinton about public education once she announces her candidacy for the presidency. Heavily dependent for political contributions on the Wall Street crowd that is funding much of the so-called education reform movement, I said then that both the NEA and AFT ought to start making it clear to her that “…she will have to stake out positions aimed at ending the tyranny of high stakes testing, stopping the public funding of corporately run charter schools, promoting teaching and education over training, correcting the serious flaws in the Common Core State Standards and addressing in meaningful ways the scourge of child poverty that afflicts so many of the nation’s children, robbing them of a chance at a decent life.”

I was pleased, therefore, to see the New York Times take the issue up today in a front page article. Hillary has a real dilemma. If she is not strong in support of public education and the people who work in our schools, union leaders like me will have serious difficulty marshaling our members to provide the boots on the ground support she is going to need. If she solidly supports public schools and teachers, she runs the very real risk of abandonment by her bankrollers, especially if Jeb Bush is the nominee of the Republicans. Bush has been a leader of the corporate attack on public education.

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On Asses and Seats

There’s an old Yiddish saying that translates as, “Your ass can’t sit in two places at the same time.” It is sometimes uttered in its literal meaning, and sometimes metaphorically to highlight the holding of two mutually exclusive ideas. It’s in its latter sense that it comes to mind this morning to highlight the administration of my school district and many others who some days wish to be seen as militants in the anti-testing struggle but at other times act to perpetuate the illusion that the malignant testing mandates are not drowning out serious education.

From the superintendent of schools to the lowly elementary teachers, there isn’t anyone who doesn’t know that high stakes tests are increasingly driving instruction. There also isn’t anyone without a concern for the test results. Teachers’ jobs depend on them to in part, and the superintendent and other administrators know that a poor district performance on the state assessments is difficult to explain, ironically even to those oppose to the testing regime. Teachers have been given books and materials meant to exercise kids in the kinds of questions they can expect in April. Yet, curiously and completely hypocritically, faced with growing opposition to the tests, the administration of my district ordered teachers not to send test prep material home, apparently not wanting parents to see what their children are doing in the name of education. The implication to teachers is to use the test prep material in school where parents won’t be able to observe just how much instructional time is dedicated to the tests. Everyone has an interest in good test results, objectively meaningless though they may be.

It’s the same with the district’s response to the opt-out movement. The administration knows that the growing numbers of parents who refuse to allow their children to be subjected to the state assessments is the most potent weapon that we have to end the misuse of testing. They even agreed with us last year to make opting-out a less stressful experience for children, working with us to create alternate settings for these kids so that they would not have to sit and stare as other children took the examinations. Yet, with testing season rapidly approaching, they have done nothing to apprize parents of the process for opting their children out, clearly seeking to avoid growing numbers, but, in so doing, aiding and abetting the continuation of the very testing regime they claim to abhor.

So here’s a gentle reminder Plainview-Old Bethpage administration and other like it. Your asses can’t sit in two places at the same time. If you don’t want test prep, let’s sit down and work out a plan to end our participation in the tests. Furthermore, let’s also see if we can’t agree on the developmentally inappropriate aspects of the Common Core State Standards and promulgate Plainview-Old Bethpage standards that are aligned with reasonable expectations for children and flexible enough to service the academic needs of all. Let’s all have the courage to sit with those who care about children and cease our participation with those who have no interest in public education or the children it serves but are motivated by abject avarice. That’s the comfortable place to sit.

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Why Do Minorities Often Support Yearly Testing?

In the battle against high stakes testing and its deleterious effects on the education of children, leaders of our minority communities and civil rights organizations are often missing. Yet, it has always seemed clear to me that minority children stand to suffer the most from the culture of testing that narrows curricula and sends a not so subtle message children often victimized by poverty that they don’t measure up and that schools is not for them. I’m thankful to Diane Ravitch for pointing me to an article by Denisha Jones, a Indiana University professor, that suggests these minority groups support yearly testing in grade 3 through 8 in that it serves to shed a continuous light on the achievement gap between white and minority students and buttresses their demands for resources to counteract it. While Jones doesn’t develop a definitive strategy for winning civil rights groups to the anti-testing cause that she supports, understanding why people whose children stand to lose the most from the scourge of high stakes testing might support it nevertheless is hopefully the beginning of a process of winning them to the cause. This article deserves to be read widely.

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Hey, Hillary

When Hillary Clinton speaks at this year’s NEA Convention as I am almost positive she will, I expect to hear he speak about an education agenda in sharp contrast to that of President Obama. I hope our national leaders are telling her that although she gets very substantial financial support from Wall Street Democrats who bankroll the so-called education reform movement, she will have to stake out positions aimed at ending the tyranny of high stakes testing, stopping the public funding of corporate run charter schools, promoting teaching and educating over training, correcting the serious flaws in the Common Core State Standards and addressing in meaningful ways the scourge of child poverty that afflicts so many of our nation’s children, robbing them of any real chance at a decent life. We should not be in a position wherein the inevitability of her nomination permits her to waffle on what are essentially existential issues for teachers and others are employed in public education. If we are to enthusiastically support her candidacy, she must above all else convey a sincere appreciation of the work of our members and the contribution of public schools to the welfare of our country. Public schools and all who work in them need a candidate who offers hope that we can foil the unrelenting attacks on us with the help of a friendly administration in Washington. Absent some pledge to this effect, people in public education will not be the boots on the ground of a successful campaign.

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Poverty, Poverty, Poverty

Here in New York, our governor is holding state aid to education hostage to his demand to screw the state’s teachers in any way he could imagine, from curtailing their tenure rights to tying their evaluations ever closer to the scores of their students on high stakes tests of doubtful reliability. No one with the brain of a flea would expect any of the governor’s proposals to substantially impact education outcomes, but he like too many of our elected leaders can’t face the real problem of far too many children in our public schools – POVERTY! For anyone who cares to know the effects of poverty on children, there is an ample literature documenting the debilitating effects of growing up poor, from the physiological and neurological to the economic and emotional. Simply put, people who are born poor tend overwhelmingly to end up poor – not as some would have it by choice, but by our societal indifference to their plight. The last of our national leaders to talk understandingly about poverty and its effects was Lyndon Johnson, who marshaled significant resources to launch a war on this stain on our nation’s honor. Much of our political class has succeeded in convincing people that his war was a failure, forgetting the dramatically positive impact on the conditions of the elderly and the fact that the war was ultimately curtailed by the demands of our ill-fated adventure in Viet Nam. I’m thinking about this subject this morning having read an impassioned plea by Charles Blow in the New York Times to put aside partisan differences and recognize that we have a moral obligation to millions of poor American children. Blow’s words increased my contempt for politicians like Andrew Cuomo who blame teachers for their political cowardice that prevents them from dealing the ongoing tragedy of poverty in America.

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A Hopeful Experiment

I’m weary of the phony hand wringing over the plight of our nation’s poor children trapped in public schools that don’t work. We do nothing to address the debilitating effects of poverty; we do nothing to create an economy where all people who agree to work receive salaries sufficient to provide a decent standard of living; we do nothing to end the economic and racial segregation that reinforce the scourge of poverty; we do nothing but blame our society’s failures on our under-resourced public schools that are given the impossible task of compensating for our indifference to the circumstances of almost a quarter of our nation’s children.

That’s why when I hear of some effort to improve the lot of poor children that is grounded in reality and stands a good chance to help, I’m suspicious that I must have misread or heard the proposal because hopeful efforts are so rare. But sure enough the mayor of Providence Rhode Island is pushing a program that has real potential to at least close some of the achievement gap. We’ve known for some time that poor children begin school having heard thousands, if not millions, fewer words than more affluent children because generally poorer parents spend less time talking to their children. Providence has launched a program to reach out to poor parents of young children to attempt to explain the importance of stimulating their children’s speech and teaching them how to do it. You can read about this very worthwhile experiment in a wonderful article by Margaret Talbot in the current edition of the New Yorker. If you are as jaded as I am from all of the stupid talk that characterizes the contemporary public education world, read this piece.

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Absenteeism and Poverty

Those school reformers not motivated by the desire to privatize public schools for the profits to be made might want to look at and think about a new report released by New School scholars entitled “A Better Picture of Poverty” in which the effects of chronic absenteeism in New York City Schools is documented. The report located some 130 schools serving k-5 students in which a third of the school population has been chronically absent for 5 years in a row. Imagine the cumulative impact of missing significant amounts of instruction year after year. How do teachers cope with essentially itinerant students who are present one day and gone the next. The research shows that even the kids with better attendance suffer as teaching time is taken up by the desperate attempt to catch the chronically absent up. While the study was done in New York City, there is little doubt that the problem it documents is much the same in most of America’s blighted urban areas. On many occasions, I have heard my friend Phil Rumore, the head of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, talk about the centrality of chronic absenteeism to the problems of the Buffalo Schools. The reasons for the absenteeism vary from homelessness to not having clean clothes. How could anyone be stupid enough to believe that social pathology of this magnitude can be remedied better teachers?

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Rich Child, Poor Child

The Obama administration announced today a new effort to attempt to get highly qualified, experienced teachers into the classrooms of our neediest schools. Once again, the administration appears to be saying the teachers are the problem rather than unaddressed festering social issues that are beyond the scope of public schools as they are currently configured. My colleague, PCT Treasurer Jane Weinkrantz, analyzes this latest attack from the President and Arne Duncan in this guest post. MR

The Obama administration’s July unveiling of the “Excellent Educators for All” initiative to place more “excellent” teachers in low- income schools has just been updated. However, the initiative still suggests that the President and his basketball buddy, Arne Duncan, still haven’t gotten a realistic grip on how the American education system works and why it succeeds where it succeeds and fails where it fails. The program demands that states create plans to distribute effective teachers more equitably among high and low income school districts. Here are the edu-vapor bullet points straight from Duncan’s press release:

• Comprehensive Educator Equity Plans
◦ The Department is asking states to analyze their data and consult with teachers, principals, districts, parents and community organizations to create new, comprehensive educator equity plans that put in place locally-developed solutions to ensure every student has effective educators.
◦ Chief State School Officers will receive a letter today from Secretary Duncan asking them to submit their new plans by April 2015. These plans were first created in 2006 and are required by Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
• Educator Equity Support Network
◦ The Department is investing $4.2 million to launch a new technical assistance network to support states and districts in developing and implementing their plans to ensure all students have access to great educators.
◦ The network will work to develop model plans, share promising practices, provide communities of practice for educators to discuss challenges and share lessons learned with each other, and create a network of support for educators working in high-need schools.
• Educator Equity Profiles
◦ To empower communities and help states enhance their equity plans, the Department will publish Educator Equity profiles this fall. The profiles will help states identify gaps in access to quality teaching for low-income and minority students, as well as shine a spotlight on places where high-need schools are beating the odds and successfully recruiting and retaining effective educators.
In addition to the profiles, the states will receive their complete data file from the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC). States will be able to conduct detailed analyses of the data to inform their discussions about local inequities and design strategies for improving those inequities.

Just to be clear, I want every child to have an excellent teacher. I don’t think income should be a factor in teacher quality. But, we all know it is. Look at any real estate advertisement. We may love the granite countertops, the central air or the “park like grounds,” but without the “EXCELLENT SCHOOLS!!!” part of the caption how eager are we to move in? When we purchase homes, American families buy the best schools we can afford. Think about the number of times someone you’ve met has said, “So what district are you in?” and commented “Very nice,” or sniffed with disdain, depending on your answer. We take pride in our zip codes because of our school districts. So what types of schools do the people who can’t afford homes and really can’t afford anything else get? They get schools with high teacher and administrative turnover, building code violations, crowded classrooms, outdated materials and failing standardized test scores.

A friend of mine teaches in a charter school in the South Bronx. She tells me stories of crowded classrooms, hungry children, violent children, kids who don’t speak English or have learning disabilities yet receive no services, a fractured discipline system, building safety conditions comparable to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, a sometimes scary walk from the subway to her school and, not surprisingly, an out-of-control teacher turnover rate. She is an intelligent woman and a dedicated teacher. In Plainview, she would be highly effective; at her school, most of her students failed the state assessments and we know test scores are the final and true arbiters of efficacy.

In Davonte’s Inferno: Ten Years in the New York Public School Gulag, Laurel M. Sturt, a New York City teacher who spent ten years working in an elementary school in the Bronx describes the revolving door of faculty as follows: “The want ads should read, ‘Seeking selfless, tireless, individuals with unbounded idealism, energy, stamina, and a capacity to be abused, maligned and underpaid.’ Indeed, the attrition rate is already huge, in urban districts about twenty percent a year, with about half of teachers nationwide leaving before the end of their fifth year. The instability from that high turnover, destructive to any learning community, but particularly to those in poverty (a change in teachers negatively affects learning outcome), costs in the billions of dollars annually from wasted teacher training, the expense of new training, and the loss of accumulated expertise from teachers who leave.”

Teacher burnout in low-income districts is much higher because the work is so much harder and the kids face so many more challenges just to get to school each day. Sturt chronicles children who came to school hungry, dirty, sick, sleepless, abused, homeless, with parents in prison and pretty much any other Dickensian condition you can imagine. There is a vast difference between that type of school and a school where, every August, teachers send out elaborate school supply lists that can total $50-$100 with the realistic expectation that everyone will have those items on the first day of school. The difference is money. Any child, but probably particularly a poor one, could tell you that. The middle class and wealthy can afford to give their children the support they need to thrive physically. I mention that before thriving academically because let’s face it—you can’t learn much when the loudest voice you hear belongs to the growl of your stomach and the heaviest thing you own is the weight of your own eyelids.

Yet, President Obama and Secretary Duncan think the difference is teachers. If they can just find the right teachers to teach in those poor schools, all will be well. Yet again, anything that’s wrong with education is something that is wrong with teachers. Poverty is not the problem. In fact, it’s OK to be hungry and homeless if you’re reading on grade level and passing your ELAs. If President Obama had announced a plan to make sure every low-income child has a full stomach, a bed to sleep in, a coat in the winter and a notebook to bring to class, I’d be thrilled. As it is, he’s announced a plan…well, not really a plan…if you look at those bullet points, there’s nothing there that could be called a plan. There are just some vague ideas: states will share “promising practices” which means that states will have to think of some promising practices—we’re not even feeling confident enough to call them “best practices” yet— because the Department of Education is flat out of suggestions. So, OK, President Obama and Secretary Duncan have issued a decree that states come up with plans, using guidelines that barely exist. Chad Aldeman, an associate partner at the nonprofit Bellwether Education Partners, told The Huffington Post. “The guidance released here — it’s honestly pretty fluffy, it’s just a non-binding plan.”

The non-existence of a plan isn’t even the real problem. Changing the players won’t change the schools, as long as the children remain deprived. The big change the President revealed today is painful in its naivete and commitment to delusion. He announced that states now have until June 2015 rather than April 2015 to submit their Educator Equity plans, giving states two more months to devise a solution to what is ultimately the problem of poverty. That should be plenty of time.

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Social Capital and Student Achievement

One of oft repeated stupidities of the education reformers, most notably Arne Duncan, is the goal of having a great teacher in front of every classroom. There are about 3 million public school teachers in the United States. Assuming we could all agree on what qualities constitute a great teacher, what are the odds we could find 3 million of them? To paraphrase newly elected National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia, there are people who seriously believe that it is possible for 100 percent of any population to be above average. They believe such things because all things are possible to people who don’t know anything about the subject they’re talking about.

So, if we agree that the goal of a great or even above average teachers in every classroom is a self-contradictory objective, is there another approach to school improvement that offers real possibility of success? A recent article in the Shanker Blog by two University of Pittsburgh researchers summarizing their studies in public schools suggests an approach that will ring completely true to teachers but will not be easily swallowed by our education bureaucrats who believe that all wisdom flows down from them. Professors Leana and Pil argue that “…organizational success rarely stems from the latest technology or a few exemplary individuals. Rather, it is derived from: systematic practices aimed at enhancing trust among employees; sharing and openness about both problems and opportunities for improvement and a collective sense of purpose.”

These researchers show that what they call social capital is essential to school improvement. Social capital consists of the “…relationships among teachers, between teachers and principals, and even between teachers, parents and other key actors in the community.” In schools with rich social capital, teachers have time and the inclination to talk to each other about their work. They feel confident confiding in others about gaps in their knowledge or know-how. They have a sense of working in common cause. Studies conducted by these investigators show strikingly significant gains in student achievement when teachers have a robust social capital support system.

If Leana and Pil are correct, and my experience says they are, then the function of school leaders is to promote the development of social capital in our schools. Yet, current trends are moving in the exact opposite direction, with evaluation systems that single out individuals rather than promoting cooperation and what union guys like me refer to as solidarity. School leaders seeking to promote the development of social capital spend much less time scrutinizing teachers, putting their time and effort into creating a climate of trust and information sharing. Does that sound like the leadership of your district?

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NEA RA – Some Thoughts

Some thoughts on the recently concluded NEA Representative Assembly. They’re more first impressions rather than carefully thought out ideas, but I know that I will be thinking and writing more completely about them in the future.

I both understand and am angered by what I see as the blind support of African American NEA leaders for many of the administration’s ed policies. They appear to broadly accept the Obama/Duncan view that the Common Core State Standards are going to significantly lift minority children out of poverty. How that happens, no one seems to articulate beyond repeating incessantly that if we hold all children to high standards, they will meet them.

When the teachers in my upper middle class district tell me that about a third of our students are floundering with the CCSS, how can anyone believe that children who begin school with a documented achievement gap are going to thrive academically when highly advantaged children aren’t? Where in the CCSS is the magic that is going to raise up the children who until now have been largely forgotten by society. This time, I fear, African Americans will be had by one of their own, not that that makes this stupidity any less revolting.

The RA passed a resolution calling for the resignation of Arne Duncan, something some of us tried to pass three times before only to be defeated by NEA leadership fearful of offending the President and losing their seat at the table, albeit at their master’s feet. The mood has clearly changed. What’s needed is leadership to galvanize the growing anger of the membership into a movement. Incoming President Lily Eskelsen Garcia has all the skills to do that. Whether she has the brains and heart to do so is unknown. If she like too many leaders becomes the mouthpiece for NEA Executive Director John Stocks, nothing good will happen. Stocks talks about organizing at every NEA meeting I’ve been at. The more he talks about it and the more I get to talk to staff who are assigned to his “organizing” priorities, the more convinced I am that he is in way over his head. With all of the talk about organizing, once again the NEA assembled close to nine thousand union activists to a meeting and did nothing to send each one home with a task to do around a national organizing drive. It’s enough to make people like me crazy.

Finally, there were several new business items that sought to investigate the magnitude of the contributions of people like Bill Gates to the NEA. Those efforts were beaten back, but I sense the members’ desire for transparency in this regard is growing. They know their leaders have essentially been co-opted and seem to want to expose the extent to which they have been sold pernicious ideas about testing and teacher accountability by corporate elites with no legitimate interest in improving the nation’s schools. Were I Lily, I might open the books on this issue to signal an abrupt, clean break with the policies of the past.

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The Latest Hit on Public Education

Judge Rolf M. Treu wrote in his ruling declaring California’s tenure law unconstitutional, “The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.” What is compelling is the big lie perpetuated in this outrageous decision – the lie that it is the inability of school districts to fire incompetent teachers that is responsible for the poor academic performance of minority students in urban school districts, a lie that the mainstream press repeats to the point where it obliterates other possibilities.

Tenure laws provides that before a teacher may be dismissed, there has to be a good reason, a good reason for which there is a preponderance of the evidence. What sort of legal mind finds it appropriate to sever an individual from his employment, from his ability to earn a living and feed his family, without a preponderance of evidence to support that decision? It shouldn’t be easy in any workplace for the boss to simply fire someone without cause. In my years as a union officer, I’ve handled a handful of cases in which non-tenured teachers who have no due-process rights in New York were slated for dismissal without a jot of evidence to support their firing. One was motivated by racial hatred on the part of an influential member of the board of education another by the union activities of the teacher and the others by factors I never could determine, but demonstrated incompetence was clearly not the issue. We were able to save these individuals, but most teacher unions wouldn’t even try. It’s simply so hard to do without due process rights. The fact it that employment decisions are sometimes made with bad intentions by bad people, and only a mechanism based on establishing a factual basis for a decision to terminate an individual prevents these life-altering decisions from happening.

The notion that the reason minority students suffer a very significant achievement gap is ineffective teachers is untrue. It’s really shocking to learn that none of the plaintiffs in this case attend schools that have ineffective teachers. Some even go to charter schools in which teachers are not apparently covered by the tenure laws. We know that too many poor students begin school already behind their more well-off peers, although we haven’t as yet found a way to blame public school teachers for this fact yet. We know too that poverty is much more than not having money. It often blights people’s souls, tightly circumscribing their hopes and dreams, leaving them with a sense that no matter what they do, they can’t better themselves.

On NPR’s Leonard Lopate show the other day was an African American businessman and author John Hope Bryant who while talking about his book made the following statement about poverty that I’ll paraphrase. He suggested that if one went into an impoverished community and administered a clinical depression survey, 60 percent of the population would turn up clinically depressed. If Bryant is right, and my experience teaching in an alternate education program suggests he is, then the almost religious belief of some of our leaders that if we only had more effective teachers the devastating effects which express themselves as an achievement gap in our public schools is like the ignorance of the religious fundamentalists who despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary insist that dinosaurs and human beings co-existed on the earth a few thousand years ag0.

More on the ramifications of this decision for teacher unions tomorrow.

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