A Teachable Moment

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

The Duty of Civil Disobedience

I was at a regional union meeting yesterday, a meeting called to organize our response to Governor Cuomo’s declaration of war on teachers and our union. While there were an number of good ideas discussed, and while I was pleased to see by the attendance that our local leaders perceive the threat posed by the Governor’s proposals, I continue to be struck by the our reluctance to embrace bold action. There appears to be an underlying belief that if we can just find the right words, if we can schedule the right meeting, make the appropriate number of lobbying visits to our elected representatives, we will be able to prevail against a politically skillful, determined governor who is clearly seeking vengeance for our failure to support him in his last election. One local leader appropriately asked what our position was vis a vis the opt-out movement, to me one of the most potent weapons we have in the battle against high stakes testing. Our representatives to our state union running the meeting and some union staff there carefully parsed a few sentences in response when to my mind what was called for is a two pronged, full-throated embrace of the parent led movement. While I spoke about my local’s work in support of the opt-out movement and our goal to double the number of our students talking the exams from 20 percent last year, it is clear that our state union is reluctant to do more than utter platitudinous statements about parents’ right to opt their children out of the tests.

Last year over 60,000 students did not take the state examinations, over 20,000 here on Long Island. The simple fact is that there cannot be any bad consequences for either students or teachers if no one takes the tests. If we as educators believe that the current state regime of high stakes tests is detrimental to the emotional and intellectual growth and development of the children in our schools, then we must first of all keep our own children from taking the tests. To do otherwise is simply hypocritical and destructive of our credibility on this and other education issues. This belief also obliges us to encourage the parents of our students to do the same. I’m well aware that that the ability to do that varies from district to district. What all can do however is find ways to let parents know that we will not hold it against their children if they opt-them out. There are many parents who are uncomfortable opting their children out, knowing that student scores count towards their teachers’ evaluations and thinking that teachers will be angry if their kids don’t show. There are countless ways for teachers to let parents know at meetings, during phone calls etc. that we understand and appreciate their stance in withholding their children from the tests.

Our unions were formed by acts of civil disobedience. We won the right to bargain collectively by engaging in illegal strikes and other prohibited activities. Injustice invariably draws civil disobedience to it. I deeply believe that it will take many small acts of disobedience by and ever-growing coalition of believers in the centrality of public education to our democracy to save it from people like Governor Cuomo and the Wall Street interests who are funding the war against us. We ignore the duty of civil disobedience at our peril.

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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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A Must Read

As a young man, my elders always reminded me that my political views would grow more conservative with the passage of time. It used to irk me greatly to have my political thoughts countered with this bromide. I couldn’t imagine that simply as a factor of growing older and acquiring more my political sensibilities would gradually shift rightward. Was there some sort of political sclerosis that afflicts the aging that I knew nothing about?

I’ve been pleased to find that contrary to what I was led to expect, my intuition was correct. My political thoughts have grown more radical with the passage of time and appear to me to be directly related to knowing and understanding more about the world. I’m very glad that even as I reach my senior years, my mind is open to penetrating arguments like the one in Henry Giroux’s article “Barbarians at the Gates: Authoritarianism and the Assault on Public Education.” If you have followed and credited my thought on the real agenda behind the so-call education reform movement, if the substitution of training for education troubles you, if our increasingly blind faith in the centrality of technology to the education of our youth nauseates you, if you have suspected that the privatizers grab for public education is part of a much broader social agenda, read this article. You and I may not agree with it all, but it’s the kind of analysis that helps us challenge and clarify our own thoughts. I’m very thankful to the friend who sent it my way.

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Teacher Pay

Most teachers are paid on a salary schedules that remunerate them for time on the job and college degrees and courses taken. On some schedules, it can take 30 to 35 years to get to the maximum pay obtainable, each year on the schedule bringing an increase or increment as it is called. These so-called single salary schedules evolved over the history of public education from its beginning when teachers essentially received room and board in exchange for their services to schedules that gradually reflected the increasing educational requirements of the profession. There was a phase when elementary teachers were paid less than secondary teachers, women less than men and minorities least of all. In many ways, the changes in teacher remuneration parallel the changes in our society from one that was once largely agrarian to the current industrial model. Many of the current ed-reformers argue the need for a post-industrial method of paying teachers. Maybe, but most tend to propose ideas that would have most teachers making less.

Little noted in the debate over teacher pay is the fact that the single salary schedule yields the peculiar situation in which two people doing exactly the same work receive widely disparate remuneration. In my own district, $65 thousand dollars separate the beginning teacher with a BA degree from the teacher with 15 years of experience and a MA plus 60 graduate school credits. Now I do believe in the value of experience and education, but surely it doesn’t take a teacher 15 to 30 years to reach the top of her game. Yet, many teachers reading this criticism of the increment system will strongly disagree with me. If we listen carefully to their criticism, what they are often saying is, “I came up through this system. Why should it be different for beginning teachers?” To them, it’s as though God decreed an immutable single salary schedule and to tamper with it is to violate the order of the universe. Yet, wedded to it though they are, the increment system has perpetuated a growing inequity of two people receiving hugely differ salaries for the same work.

But even more galling than teachers’ blind faith in the increment system is management’s current attack on it. Not content to stretch out the payment of salary to journeyman teachers to in some cases 35 years, almost all of the salary settlements in my area of New York State have been financed by stealing money from the teacher who make the least and giving it to those who make the most. This has taken many forms, all of an ethical piece. Delaying the payment of increments into the school year and freezing increments have become all too common. For several years now, I’ve attempted to move teacher union leaders on Long Island to see this attack on the increment system as one that must be resisted, sadly to no avail. At a recent meeting of local leaders, several presidents appeared to be of the view that the next generation of teachers will simply not have it as good as we did, a sentiment that was later ironically added to with, “The Young members don’t care. It’s impossible to get them to do anything.” There’s a view to build a strong union movement on.

I recognize the facts that state aid has yet to return to 2008 levels and that New York’s property tax cap is in the process of doing to our state what Prop 13 did to California. But the failure of our unions to counter the attack on the increment system is sparking a generational conflict in our memberships that will ultimately render us less capable to combat all attacks.

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John King’s Departure

I wish I could share the joy New York’s education world feels this morning at the news that Commissioner of Education John King will be gone by the New Year. While I’m glad to be freed from listening to his squeaky, whiney justifications for the unjustifiable, and while the state has had more than enough of his almost fatal combination of ignorance compounded by arrogance, his leaving to become a senior advisor to the U.S. Secretary of Education is an outrage, albeit he will fit in well with a department that has become the handmaiden of the increasingly discredited corporate sponsored education reform movement.

I could share the joy many take in his departure if I believed that he will be replaced by someone who would work to free us from the tyranny of the testocracy, someone who understands education as a social process that’s about much more than making children college and career ready, someone who gets the difference between education and training. I don’t believe it possible to get such a new commissioner so long as Regent Tisch is the chancellor. It was she who brought the completely unqualified King to New York and elevated him from running a charter school in Massachusetts to leading our state’s public schools. I’ve seen nothing in the intervening years to suggest that Tisch’s judgment has improved. Her recent pimping of charter schools is but the latest example of her contempt for the system she is charges with overseeing.

So, to my friends in the movement to save public education in our state, enjoy King’s departure if you will, but don’t take his leaving as a victory. The battle to reclaim our public schools is nowhere near over. John King was just a pawn of powerful forces who seek to discredit our schools in order to privatize them and ultimately profit from them.

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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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Leaders Who Won’t Lead

The other day, I posted an article on my Facebook page noting the criticism of some Hudson Valley school superintendents about the Common Core State Standards and the high stakes testing integral to this corporate sponsored school reform. My comment on the article was, “If New York’s superintendents got together, the Cuomo/Tisch/King attack on our public schools could come to an end. Imagine coordinated resistance by teachers, administrators and superintendents.” Last evening, at a forum on the Standards held in the South Huntington Public Library, four Long Island public school leaders, Superintendents Tom Rogers of Syosset and Lorna Lewis of Plainview-Old Bethpage and Assistant Superintendent Lydia Bellino of Cold Spring Harbor and Associate Superintendent Lydia Begley of Nassau County BOCES, displayed the kind of risk averse edutalk that passes for knowledge in some circles but which is ultimately a cover for a gross ethical failure to assume their appropriate role as defenders of our public schools and the children they serve.

Not a day goes by that several of our teacher members don’t contact me with some problem related to the Common Core State Standards. Most of the complaints stem from what teachers are convinced are the developmentally inappropriate expectations behind the Standards. I have a whole repertoire of stories of crying, puking children who are severely stressed and who talk about hating reading and or math. In our district, 20 percent of our students’ parents were so concerned about the negative effects of the state’s high stakes tests on their children that they opted them out of the entire testing process last year. Yet, these so-called school leaders on the panel last night had not a word to say about any of what they have to know is taking place daily in the schools they are paid to oversee. While the silver tongued Dr. Rogers warned the audience several times that the panel’s comments should not be construed as agreement with everything the state is asking schools to do , and while he and the others maintained that they express their disagreements with the state through vehicles comfortable to them, the fact of the matter is these highly paid leaders will not lead in the battle to protect their school districts because of fear as to what such public advocacy could bring by way of reprisal from Albany. “We’re doing what we can while we just follow Albany’s orders,” appears to be their flimsy defense.

The most informative part of the evening was the comments and questions of the parents in the audience. Not surprisingly, there were no questions or comments even remotely indicating support for the Standards or the testing baggage that comes with them. One comment from a teacher/parent stands out this morning as I replay the evening. She spoke as the parent of a child with severe learning disability who is unable to achieve anything higher than the lowest possible scores on the state examinations but who nevertheless is expected to meet the same standards as every other student. She spoke movingly about how no matter how hard her child works, she will fail and will never receive a high school diploma. How many thousands of kids like her daughter are in the same predicament? When they do fail, they will become nameless statistics used to demonstrate the failure of the public schools when in fact the real failure resides with the policy makers in Albany and the local school leaders who will not publically say what they know. Some of us are determined to see to it that that never happens.

It would be extraordinarily helpful to our cause if the leaders of our school districts joined us to save the institution of public education, an institution that has been personally very good to them. A few of them are publicly with us, and the rest have an open invitation to stand up and do the right thing at such time as the burden of conscience becomes more difficult to bear than the fears of damage to one’s career. With them or without them, whether we have the unbridled commitment of the state or national teacher unions or the local or state PTA’s, parents and teachers will win the battle to save our public schools and protect the children they were created to serve.

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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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From Public Funds to Private Coffers

I’m almost at the point of thinking that the Common Core State standards are behind the country’s recent economic growth. Have you ever seen so much hocus-pocus, so much mystification of the simple as we are witnessing with the implementation of the Standards. New tests, new texts, new professional development courses, more consultants, more public relations to attempt to quell the growing rebellion against the Standards, more , and more and more. More taxpayer dollars being squandered on what teachers and the public are seeing ever more clearly as a business and not an education plan.

I’m thinking about this deplorable situation this morning having met with a group of teachers yesterday who reported that our high school hired some 30 substitute teachers yesterday to provide Common Core training to about a third of the staff. Two more days, I’m told, are to come. What is it about the Standards that they remain opaque to the bulk of the staff after countless meetings and staff development sessions? Wouldn’t a sound instructional innovation be readily understood by teachers who all minimally have an MA or MS degree? It becomes clearer and clearer that the real shifting going on is from public funds to private coffers.

Don’t forget to vote today. Think GREEN!

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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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Most of Us Know We Are Headed in the Wrong Direction

To me the most interesting question in the recently released survey of New York’s school superintendents is the one that reads, “Given all that has gone on in education in the last four years, would you say that the efforts to improve the quality of education in New York State have moved New York schools in the right direction, wrong direction or have had little impact at all?” An astonishing 53% of the leaders of our state’s school districts believe our schools have moved in the wrong direction (39%) or have experienced little impact at all (14%). If we look at the responses of Long island superintendents we find 44% think our schools are going in the wrong direction and 22% think that all of the turmoil we have experiences has produced little impact. 66% of Long Island superintendents, the leaders of some of the best schools in the state have essentially said we have wasted the past four years.

If this is an accurate measure of their opinion, them why are will still implementing all of these so-called reforms. Parent confidence in them is weak at best, teachers believe we are destroying what used to be enviable schools and now most of our superintendents think we are going in the wrong direction, why are we then stupidly doing so if there is clear agreement by all constituencies that what we are doing is ill advised. Imagine if all of Long island’s districts spoke in one voice and said we refuse to be participants in the substitution of training for education. We insist on educating our children. We will not have corporate reformers telling us what’s best for our children.

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Exercise and Standards

I remember sitting in elementary school, trying to stretch my legs without drawing attention to myself, being careful not to let my feet protrude into the aisle lest Miss Truelsen came by and stepped on them saying, “Excuse me!” in a tone that made clear that this was no accident. I remember watching the clock, trying to telepathically move the hands to noon so I could get up and run home to lunch, longing more for the activity than the meal my mother was preparing. What torture it was to sit for so many hours. I suspect today’s kids see it pretty much the same. School still straight-jackets kids whose bodies instinctively rebel against restraint.

I was prompted to recall these days by an article in the Times reporting on a study that sought to see the relationship between physical activity and children’s ability to concentrate. What do you know; exercise improved the ability children’s powers of concentration. I could have told you that when I was in third grade. More interestingly, exercise improved the ability of kids diagnosed with ADHA significantly. How sad that schools across the country are cutting back on physical education. It seems that vigorous daily exercise should probably be a central part of sensible education standards. Have you heard any reformers talking about this/

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Career Ready?

In the days when we had what we called comprehensive high schools, there was a real sense in which we turned out students who were career ready. Every day on my way to work I pass a busy auto repair shop owned and operated by a graduate of our schools who spent a significant part of each of his school days in our auto shop program, receiving top-notch training in the care and repair of cars. I occasionally run into another student who when last we met owned three auto body shops, shops that he runs with skills learned in our auto-body program. I once knew kids who learned to be master woodworkers, hand making furniture and learning carpentry skills that they have since used to earn a better living than many of the teachers I represent. All that’s gone now, victim to what are misconstrued as higher standards. It’s a bitter that irony that the more we talk about our schools turning out career ready students, the less we offer anything that prepares students to earn a living right out of high school. I guess that’s why I get a rush of righteous anger every time I hear some dumbbell talks about how we have to prepare career ready students.

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To Be Human is to Play

If you didn’t hear this morning’s NPR piece on the importance of free-play to the development of the brains of young children, spend four minutes and listen now. After you do, think about what the early grades of our best public schools look like today, with less and less time for play and more and more stultifyingly stupid exercises in what we pretend to be higher order thinking but which are at best age inappropriate, at worst child abuse. Need a little motivation to listen? The brain researcher interviewed in the piece suggests that it is from free play that our brains are prepared for “life, love and even school work.”

I’ve come to believe that we will look back at this era of so-called ed reform as a self-inflicted wound, a time during which we allowed corporate scam artists and the craven politicians in their employ to victimize our nation’s children, literally robbing them of a portion of their humanity by stunting that portion of their growth and development that appears to be genetically programed to require free play to be activated. Increasingly, science is validating what my parents and teachers intuitively knew but which we have been hoodwinked into forgetting – children are biologically designed to play. If we are serious about making them college, career and life ready, we had better make time for them to do it.

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From California to New York

We knew it wouldn’t be long before the Vergara decision declaring California’s tenure law unconstitutional would prompt law suits in other states, particularly in ones with high profile unions. With the “reformers” notching a victory in California, the obvious next place to achieve a dramatic impact was New York, and, sure enough, it’s in the works.

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal announced that former news anchor turned education reformer Campbell Brown has found some plaintiffs to bring a challenge to the tenure and seniority laws of New York. The big lie impelling these suits is that but for tenure and seniority statutes, school managements would be free to fire the hordes of incompetent teachers standing in front of our nation’s classrooms preventing our youth from succeeding academically. These law cases are just one prong in a carefully designed strategy to attack and cripple teacher unions which have been the frontline defense against the privatizing profiteers who are hell-bent on turning our public schools into profit centers.

Curb collective bargaining, challenge public sector agency shop laws, attack tenure and seniority, spread the big lie that teacher unions exist only to defend mediocrity and encourage the belief in exploited minorities that their children can only be saved by a privatized system in which they are empowered to choose where and how their children are educated. Spread this anti-public education venom through a multi-media bombardment of the public financed by billionaire bankrollers engaged in what amounts to predatory giving, or as my friend Dave Linton calls it “giving to get.” That’s what we’re up against. I wish I saw our strategy as clearly.

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Learning How to Learn

Over the weekend I tuned into a Facebook conversation between several participants essentially over the relevance of the offerings of public schools to the future employment of the students it educates. The discussion was of interest to me on several levels.

Firstly, it reinforced for me the penetration of the pernicious idea that a k-12 education is about preparing students for employment. All participants to the discussion clearly viewed education through the lens of employment and competition. All appeared to buy into the notion that educators should first of all know what the labor market will be like in the future and train students to be marketable in it. Thus, one wants more attention paid to writing because the business world demands writing skills even at the lowest entry levels. One wants everyone taking calculus based on a curious notion that the ability to solve calculus problems is somehow related to problem solving in other fields of endeavor. Implicit in all of the comments was a belief that our schools are not doing enough to make their children marketable. Is it any wonder that with parents thinking these thoughts their children increasingly see middle and high schools as a resume building time?

This conversation was also an indicator of the success of the corporate campaign to discredit the public schools. To hear the captains of our industry tell it, it is almost impossible to find qualified people to fill the positions available because of the failure of public education. How these companies have managed to amass record profits amid their claimed critical labor shortage they never seem to explain. Their real agenda is to have the public schools take on the training that business once supplied.
When I think about all of the formal education I received, the downright silliness of all of this talk is clear to me. Boiled down to its essence, my education was all about teaching me how to learn. Like many of my generation, I had no idea of what I wanted to work at when I was in high school. College began the process of narrowing the possibilities. In my day the first two years of college consisted of essentially required courses in the arts and sciences. I took course in biology, psychology, economics, history, philosophy, English, math, foreign language and speech. No one talked to me about their relevance to my future employment.
After a master’s degree in English, I went into the Peace Corps to teach English in Ghana only to find when I got there that what my school needed me to do was to teach biology and function as a principal. I had no training to do either. All I had was a broad education in the arts and sciences. But it turned out that was all I needed. So I figured out how to schedule a secondary school with nothing but sheets of cardboard to work with. I went to the university in the capitol city and bought a couple of biology text xt books written using example of plants and animals with which West African students are familiar. Staying a night or two ahead of my students, I managed to teach a very reasonable biology course, even contacting the UN and getting equipment and materials to build a little laboratory. Without any formal training, I met the challenges I faced. I did so, not because I’m special, but because I came to those challenges equipped with the ability to learn what I needed to learn.
Later, while I earned my living as an English teacher, I began to take an interest in my local teacher union, accepting more and more responsibility as the years passed until I ran for and won the presidency. No one trained me to be a union leader. No one taught me how to run a welfare fund. Yet, though daunting at times, I managed to learn what I needed to learn to be effective. When management began using computers to manipulate important data in labor negotiations, armed with a broad education, I learned a couple of computer languages, even managing to write a compiled database program for our union.

Those who claim to know what the work world our students will meet in their lives speak with a certainty based more on ignorance than knowledge. My readers know my view is that our society will need fewer and fewer workers over time so that the real question is how will we politically divide the vast surplus we will able to produce with fewer workers and what will those without formal work do with their days? But, I’m prepared to be as wrong as I believe those who project a future of public schools and colleges as vocational institutions. What I know I’m not wrong about is the value of liberal education which to me is about learning how to learn. With that, not only is the world a more comprehensible place, but one is also as well equipped as he can be for the unforeseen challenges life will surely bring.

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Testing and Standards

The Plainview Board of Education voted last night to not participate in the field testing of the state assessments for the elementary grades. Their action is the latest sign in our community of the growing disaffection with high stakes testing that has no demonstrable purpose other than to convince some people of the existence of accountability schemes for both students and teachers.

In the debate, several board members lamented what they saw as the confusion among many of the Common Core State Standards with the assessments, viewing the two as completely separate issues. While I agree that it is possible, in fact desirable, to talk about high academic standards without discussing high stakes testing, the fact is that the political process that brought us the two combined them from the get-go. Both come from a stream of corporate sponsored initiatives that have sought to propagate the myth that our schools are failing and that it is only through the imposition of national standards and constant assessment that there is any hope of rescuing America from its dramatic academic slide. The Common Core’s spiritual soul is the same testocracy that brought us No Child Left Behind. It’s a failed policy that seeks to punish rather than support – close schools – increase rigor -fire teachers – get tough on all on a system that’s grown slothful and uncompetitive. Its supporters seem to relish failure. It’s as though it provides an opportunity to root out sin.

The time will come when we can have a sensible discussion about standards, a discussion led by educators who bring their knowledge of teaching child development to the table. That can’t happen until we end the connection between standards and testing by getting a testing regime in our state that’s aimed at supporting instruction by pointing teachers to areas of student learning that require additional attention. Once we have ended the curriculum narrowing, culture choking effect of our current testing practices, once we have stifled the corporate raiders of our public institution, once we regain our senses and realize that education is about much more than college and career, once more of our politicians owe their allegiance to their communities rather than their one percent bankrollers, we may have the political space in which to tackle national standards seriously.

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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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The Creation of Ignorance

If you’re like I am, it seems to you that the world is being overcome by ignorance. Almost half of Americans do not believe in evolution, believing instead that the earth is some 6000 years old. Climate change is seen by many as a left wing conspiracy to undermine the capitalist system. Scary numbers of parents are keeping their kids from being vaccinated against terrible, life threatening diseases. And a president like Barack Obama who once could have passed for a Rockefeller Republican is seen as a socialist bent on nationalizing the private property of Americans, not to mention taking away their guns. If there has been a failure of our public schools, it’s this kind of unbounded ignorance.

I’m thankful to Diane Ravitch for drawing my attention to an academic discipline I have been unfamiliar with – agnotology,the study of the cultural production if ignorance. As part of the WordSpy definition has it, “Ignorance is often not merely the absence of knowledge but an outcome of cultural and political struggle.” In her blog a few days ago, she draws upon scholarship in this area of study to help us understand the forces at work to discredit public education. I know some of my readers routinely read Ravitch, but if you haven’t read this post, it’s a must.

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Obama Didn’t Disappoint Me

While many are increasingly disappointed with President Obama’s education policy, a policy predicated on testing and linking the student results to teacher evaluations, disappointment is not the right word to capture my thoughts and feelings. I’m more apt to respond with, “I knew it,”

When Obama was first campaigning in the primaries, he and most of the contenders at the time came to the National Education Association (NEA) Convention seeking our support. He was completely forthright in expressing his support for charter schools and testing. It was clear to anyone who cared to listen that he thought our nation’s schools were failing. Yet the NEA wound up supporting him anyway, even though Hillary Clinton was much better on our issues. From that time on, I’ve come to expect nothing good from Obama on education. Candidly, if Mitt Romney had presented himself as the moderately progressive governor of Massachusetts he actually was, I would have been very tempted to vote for a Republican for president for the first time in my life, knowing that Obama was going to be nothing but trouble. He hasn’t disappointed me.

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