A Teachable Moment

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

The Cost of Test Driven Schools

We used to laugh at students in many Asian school systems who attended their public schools during the day only to enroll in tutoring schools in the evening to cram for the high stakes tests the results on which in many countries determine a young person’s educational and economic future. American students were allowed to be children, with time for recreational activities, friends and families. There was a balance in their lives between school and home. Without challenging the endurance of our children, without tying their self-worth exclusively to their academic prowess but with a much more determined effort to develop their ties to their communities and nation and with a very conscious effort to provide they with opportunities to find out who they were, the United States managed to maintain the world’s premier economy with a highly productive workforce. We knew that “the child is father of the man” and acted accordingly, trying to cultivate the development good people, good citizens and a good society.

Now we don’t laugh at the drone children of our Asian competitors. We emulate them. More and more we teach to high stakes tests, increasingly blurring the distinction between education and training in the process. Our communities are awash in after-school tutoring services that promise higher grades on everything from basic reading comprehension to the Graduate Record Exams. There are three such places just in the office building in which our union office is located. Our public schools are increasingly urged by ever more anxious parents to provide before and after school extra help to our youngest elementary students to ensure that they have every competitive edge they can get in the race to nowhere. At a recent meeting of our board of education, parents implored the board to provide Saturday and or evening high school math classes in trigonometry for fear that their children might miss a question or two on the ACT examination.

The United States will be no safer if our children do are doing school work during most of their waking hours. Kids fighting with their parents over homework that parents only half understand will not ensure the economic supremacy of the nation. Suppressing what we have learned about the psycho-social development of children will surely not produce happier, better adjusted children with a strong sense of responsibility to others. We can’t test, tutor or academically bludgeon our way to a better, more equal, more wholesome society. We can educate ourselves to a better place, if we choose to.

More and more people are choosing to do so. The rapidly growing opt-out movement is effectively challenging the use of high stakes tests. In more and more communities parents are questioning why their children are doing homework to the exclusion of a real home-life. I meet more and more parents who tell their children, “That’s enough homework for one day.” We need to demand that teaching be done in such a way as to devote the time necessary to meet students’ needs rather that slavishly following test driven pacing charts. Kids shouldn’t need extra help because teachers are forced to move on even though they know that their students haven’t mastered their lesson. We need to remind ourselves that really good schools are about the education of human beings, not the training of economic units. We need to understand that the cost of what we are doing today will be far greater than the reformers would lead us to believe.

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Faith in Our Schools

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

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

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Our Unplanned Lessons

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

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

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It’s Not Tutoring Children Need

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Aspirations of Adults vs. Welfare of Children

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

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

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The Technology Scam

Rajen Sheth is the director of product development for the Chrome and Android divisions of Google. He is known as the father of Google Apps. Trained as an electrical engineer and computer science person, he has no recognized qualification in the field of k-12 education. He designs and sells Google products, products which are capturing more and more of the public school market.

The current wave of “education reform” is driven in part by technology hucksters like him whose meteoric economic success appears to suggest to Americans that their opinions on subjects outside their professional domain are somehow more worthy than the average Joe. So Bill Gates knows how to evaluate teachers, and because of his billions, policy makers take him seriously. Sheth’s job is to sell Chrome Books, a tablet device that has captured over half of a very lucrative public school market. So he gets to blither away at what education should become, belittling the extraordinary work of all of the hard-working teachers in America’s classrooms. He know that the model of one teacher for 20 to 30 students doesn’t work anymore, that through Chrome Books and various apps, we can individualize instruction, perhaps even avoiding the need for teachers at some point in the future.

People like Sheth have been such successful marketers that few in leadership positions in education ever challenge the assumption that the massive introduction of technology has significantly improved the quality of public education in the United States. Why aren’t Americans more suspicious of education ideas promoted by people who want to sell us expensive things? This year, companies like Google and Microsoft have sold 13.3 million devices to schools. Can we reasonably expect them to be honest about the usefulness of their products in the teaching of the nation’s children? Why do we continue to allow their voices to be amplified in proportion to their wealth?

After putting this posting up, I read Diane Ravitch, writing today about the corporate money behind “personalized learning.”

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Vanishing Childhood

It becomes clearer and clearer to me that knowledge of child development no longer informs educational decisions. Very young children in our schools are having mathematical abstractions shoved down their throats in the name of rigor and high standards. High school age kids are made to feel themselves laggards if they do not fill their school days with Advanced Placement courses which are claimed to run at college level. More and more, a k-12 education is little more than years of resume building to make one appealing to a prestigious college or university. Lost is a conception of what is appropriate at the different stages of a child’s life. If so-called college level courses are to be pushed into lower and lower grades, why don’t we simply do away with those classes and send the kids off to college? We don’t do that because we have some residual understanding that they are not ready for college, that they have some growing up to do before they will be ready for college and college ready for them. Instead, to prove to ourselves that our children are smart we, spoon feed them facsimiles of college courses, more and more ignoring what used to be considerable attention to their physical, psychological and social transition to adulthood. We ignore too the insights of our psychologists and social workers who report an increasing number of troubled children. When do we remind ourselves of what we used to know – that not everything that we can get a kid to do is appropriate for kids to do?

Childhood is a fairly recent social construction. Not so long ago kids were dressed like little adults and worked like adults. Having kids sit in school all day and sending them home to hours of homework is a clear sign that that our construction of childhood is reverting back to a view of children as little adults who must from almost the beginning of their lives be trained for the rat race of life.

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When Does Test Based School Reform Pay Off?

My readers are more than familiar with my view that there is almost nothing to be gained from high stakes testing, the results of these tests essentially serving to rank winners and losers. Millions of dollars have been spent, a nation’s teacher workforce has been demoralized, the public’s confidence in its schools has been damaged, the education of our children has been narrowed – all in the name of test based school reform. This morning’s news reports on the latest NAEP scores which show a slight decrease and which have put the reformers on the defensive. In following the discussion of the NAEP results, I came across this piece from the National Education Policy Center that is the best indictment of the test based reform agenda that I’ve read.

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The Shifting Political Winds

Those that doubt that the political winds are changing for the corporate education reform movement need only think about this weekend when President Obama acknowledged that we have gone overboard on high stakes testing and Andrew Cuomo, not to be outdone, announced that he recognized the evils of high stakes testing first and took steps to ameliorate it. Both men, each having consciously and aggressively used high stake testing to bludgeon public schools, now sense that there is a political reckoning coming as a nation-wide opt-out movement grows, the Common Core Standards are challenged by both left and right and parents increasingly recognize the negative stresses these reforms have placed on their children.

Neither Obama nor Cuomo has yet proposed fundamental changes. Less time devoted to testing is a small step in the right direction. Unless and until there is a recognition that annual standardized testing is at best an inaccurate measure of student accomplishment, unless and until the notion that these tests are a valid way to measure the effectiveness of teachers, unless and until there is an understanding that academic achievement is dependent on myriad variables most of which are beyond the control of public schools, the battle to reclaim public education from the corporate reformers who seek its demise will continue. While the statements of both men are welcomed, we await the real change we seek.

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Education vs. Training

Those of us who value education, especially public education, are faced with overcoming the very successful rhetoric of the reform movement that like an insidious virus has invaded our understanding of what it means to be educated, rapidly replicating itself to the point where many cannot remember or do not know that education was once about more than training for a job or college entrance.

My elementary schooling taught me to read, write and do some math, but it was about so much more. It was there that I learned about classical music, not a staple in my childhood home. I learned folk music too, songs of social protest, labor songs. So much of what we did in school was directed at citizenship, at our responsibilities to others. Excellent copies of great art works hung on the school walls, works that our teachers would talk to us about. There were weekly assemblies, often focused on guests who had come to talk to us. I vividly remember a family of refugees from the Korean War coming to speak to us about the plight of their country. I remember too the Korean folksong they taught. There was time for crafts of all kinds, from making a covered wagon out of strawberry boxes to woven bookmarks. There was time for fun. The best of the teachers I had told us stories of their own lives. Our music teacher even brought her French husband to school one day to talk to us about growing up in France and what France was like under the Nazi occupation. Or Miss Levy who had a travel itch and who told us wonderful stories of her experience of the midnight sun in Spitsbergen and spending a summer in India.

My teachers did so much to make us aware of the world beyond our Brooklyn community and helped us to understand our place in it. They had time to do these things. There were no pacing charts, no high stakes tests, no psycho-babble about twentieth skills, no making us anxious about gaining acceptance to college or our need to know what we wanted to work at as adults. We didn’t go home to hours of homework. The little homework that we had didn’t require the assistance of our parents. Home was for good time without parents, listening to the radio, watching television, reading and dinner conversations. My school was about getting educated. It was not about what I could take from the world but about what I might be able to give. It wasn’t aimed at preparing me for global economic competition but rather for citizenship and an enriched cultural life. Above all else it got me thinking about social justice and human freedom.

Some of my readers will respond that the world has changed. It surely has but in ways that make real education even more important than it was in my youth.

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The Latest Common Core Scam

One of the key points in the marketing of the Common Core State Standards has been the desirability of some to compare the accomplishments of students across state lines. How do New York students compare to those in Colorado or Utah? Universal standards for what children should be able to do grade by grade in theory make such comparisons possible. It is only theory, however, a theory that omits the reality that public education exists in a roiling political environment, one in which elected officials subordinate educational idealism to electoral realities. A front page story in the New York Times this morning makes this point exactly. It turns out that states define and report student accomplishment on the Common Core exams variously, making meaningful comparisons just about impossible. A student who is proficient in one state could be failing in another, even though both have been taught to the same standard. Every so slowly, the American people are learning that they have had their pockets picked once again.

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The Public Mostly Gets It

For 47 years Phi Delta Kappa and the Gallup Organization have been polling American attitudes towards public education. This year’s just released poll clearly shows that the American public does not support the major planks of the corporate school reform program. The public overwhelmingly believes that students are subjected to too many standardized tests and are against holding students, teachers and schools accountable on the basis of them, understanding that they are more than the score on a snap shot examination. Despite the massive publicity campaign to discredit our public schools and the tax dollars that support them, the number one education issue in the mind of the public is insufficient funding.

So if the public does not support the corporate reform agenda, and there is almost no evidence that it is working to improve anything, in whose interest are the test and punish reforms being pushed? Our democratic institutions are threatened as never before by the corruption of our politics by the moneyed interests. Central to that corruption is the attempt to discredit and privatize our public schools, the institution that sustains our democratic values. These interests throw massive amounts of money into our political campaigns, shaping the positions of candidates with their dollars. One of the key factors of Donald trump’s popularity is his unequivocal admission that he has given money to politicians of both parties because that’s what good businessmen like him do. After all, they need favors sometimes.

There is much to encourage defenders of public education in this poll. The reformers are clearly losing the battle for the public’s support. The remaining challenge is for public school defenders to build the political movement to defeat the corporate dominated stooges who represent us. For the unionists in this pro-public education coalition this will require a dramatic break from our traditional safety first politics. In this regard, the rush to early endorsements in the Democratic presidential primary is not very encouraging.

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The Seattle Strike

There were four education union strikes in the state of Washington this fall with the Seattle strike receiving the most attention. It remains to be seen whether this strike activity is a harbinger of increased union militancy or a phenomenon peculiar to special circumstances in the way schools in Washington State are funded.

One this is clear. The Seattle strike while about pay and benefits was also about professional conditions, the kind of conditions that have been demoralizing the people working in our nation’s public schools for some time. Already a leader in the anti-high stakes testing movement, the Seattle union representing teachers and support staff demanded and achieved two major concessions. Once and for all, they broke the ludicrous nexus between student test results and teacher evaluations, even winning some reduction in the number of tests required. Convinced that students were being subjected to more and more unrelenting academic pressures that were crowding out any time for students to relax and let off steam, the union bargained contractually mandated recess time for students. With some significant gains in special ed staffing and a financial package calling for a 9.5 percent wage increase over three years, an increase above a state funded increase of 4.8 percent over the next two years, the week-long strike certainly produced one of the best settlements we have seen in a long time.

The Seattle strike was clearly influenced by the recent teacher strike in Chicago, where a militant union mobilized the community to confront the test and punish policies of Democratic mayor Rahm Emmanuel. I want to believe that a trend is developing of a return to kind of militant education unionism that arose in the late 50’s and 60’s that ushered in an era of improving salaries, benefits and working conditions and which did so much to improve the lot of people working in our public schools and the children served in them. I want to believe that we can rebuild our movement from the bottom up and return it to a position where we sit at the table where education decisions are made as people who must be reckoned with because we are once again organized and organizing for ourselves and for economic justice in our nation.

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Big Surprise: There’s a Teacher Shortage

The top domestic story in this morning’s New York Times concerns the teacher shortage in many areas of the country. Imagine that! In is few short years, we have gone from a glut of teachers to a shortage. It’s not hard at all to understand how that has happened. Neither is it hard to figure out how to fix the problem.

The financial crisis hit states very hard, causing huge drops in revenue which in turn caused them to cut state aid to local school districts that solved their budget crises by laying off teachers. Across the country, thousands of teachers were excessed, many never to return to the profession, if they were lucky having found new careers. Those teachers who survived the layoffs found their wages frozen or stagnating and their working conditions deteriorating, both as a result of scarce financial resources and the acceleration of the corporate school reform movement’s drive to discredit public education with the goal of privatizing it. Key to discrediting the institution was a growing cult of accountability that has sought to tie student performance on standardized test to teacher evaluations, even though no reputable statisticians support the validity of this process. In many places, governors, often backed by the same forces pushing the so-called reform movement, launched attacks on education unions that ran the gamut from seeking an end to tenure to withdrawing or curtailing collective bargaining and pension rights. In short, that which made teaching attractive to many, job security, union wages, defined benefit pensions, the opportunity to do interesting, rewarding work and the certainty of a decent retirement began to evaporate.

With thousands laid off, with working teachers increasingly disgruntled, with much of the media reinforcing the lie that public education is failing America’s children, with teaching increasingly becoming test preparation, with all kinds of senseless barriers being created to qualify as a teacher being erected, is it any wonder that fewer young people are going into education. Why would a young person seek a career in which practitioners are increasingly presumed to be ineffective no matter what they do, where they are over scrutinized and under supervised, where they must hold multiple jobs to support their families and where their work is increasingly routinized? What is it that our society believes is going to attract them in sufficient numbers?

The attacks on teachers will either cease or the trend towards a growing shortage will continue. Young people seek careers that provide some dignity and status. Those are increasingly hard to come by working in public education today. Sadly, I find myself discouraging young people I meet from seeking to become teachers. I feel ethically obliged to do so.

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Andrew Cuomo Prepares to Blow Some Smoke

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s poll numbers continue to sink in large measure owing to the growing organized opposition to his education policies and the public perception that everything that comes from Albany is tainted by corruption. What does a desperate, cynical politician do when faced with extinction? If the politician is Andrew Cuomo he doesn’t think about changing his policies. He thinks instead of an emotional appeal to Jewish voters many of whom see a nuclear deal with Iran as inimical to the state of Israel. He leaks to the press that he is thinking of opposing any deal with Iran even before he knows what the deal contains and certainly before he has done any careful analysis of where the interests of the United States lie. He calculates that citizens will be dumb enough to forget the reason they have driven his poll numbers down in the first place – the content and style of his approach to governing.

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The Screen Invasion

Regular readers are well aware that I am at best suspicious of the importance of technology to the education of children, especially young ones. I see the infusion of technology in our public schools as a part of the corporate sponsored education reform movement that has cleverly but insidiously manipulated public opinion into almost a fetishistic belief that a modern education must be structured on a technological base. Without kids spending huge amounts of time staring at screens in school, all hope for rewarding employment in the future is jeopardized. Seemingly unaware that this belief gradually clouds the historic meaning of an education, its meaning coming closer and closer to training, ignorant and irresponsible school leaders seeking celebrity have become the unwitting handmaidens of the high tech moguls, using their power over public school budgets to purchase all of the paraphernalia a 21st century education is said to require. Once down this path, school districts are seemingly forever committing more and more of their budgets to trying to stay up-to-date technologically, not realizing that Silicon Valley has a business plan that renders this attempt impossible.

I’m thinking about all of this again this morning in response to my friend Jeanette Deutermann, the Long Island Opt-Out leader, drawing my attention to a piece in the Hechinger Report highlighting the mass introduction of I-Pads in the Mineola Schools. Deutermann was alarmed by what she read and wondered why more parents are not similarly aroused. The huge response by people to her Facebook posting of this article offers some hope that parents are beginning to recognize this invasion of screens into our classrooms as the serious threat to quality education that it is.

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Either They Are With Us Or …

If everybody who claims to oppose corporate sponsored school reform were willing to seriously do so, we would be much closer to what I still believe will be an inevitable victory. The vote of the Regents to adopt the Education department’s recommended APPR regulations was eleven in favor, six opposed. Among the eleven voting for adoption was Long Island’s Roger Tilles.

Tilles has enjoyed broad support from Long Islanders interested in public education. He correctly saw that the opt out movement had long political legs and almost embraced I by talking about its potency and correctly predicting its rapid growth. Joining the six regents who strongly opposed the new regulations would have built on his public support, and, beyond question, Tilles is smart enough to have known this. His support for the new regulations suggests that he has an agenda the importance of which trumps his allegiance to the anti-testing movement. Having heard him talk several times about his desire to become the next chancellor, I suspect that’s what his vote is about.

We can expect him to explain his vote as a strategic play towards a bigger goal than the changes to the APPR process. Others may choose to believe him I won’t. That’s a version of the excuse our legislators give for having voted to change the APPR law in the first place. Given his public record of opposition to much of what the new regulations contain, he was ethically obliged to oppose these stupid and harmful regulations.

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More Time to Do A Stupid Thing

The New York Regents having voted to grant four month delays for districts that show they cannot negotiate new teacher evaluation plans by the statutory November deadline is being viewed with deep relief in the public education community. It seems having more time to do something stupid if preferable to having to do it quickly. And stupid and wasteful of time money and energy the new system surely is. It’s the latest Albany perpetrated fraud. Complete with growth measures that can’t be substantiated to measure student growth, with independent evaluators who will know next to nothing about the context in which their evaluations of teachers will take place, with SLO targets, weighted averages, rubrics, matrices all adding up to HEDI scores – all to tell us what should be immediately discernible to a trained educator’s eye – whether a teacher is bad, good or exceptional. The more I think about this latest iteration of the teacher evaluation fraud the more dedicated I become to seeing to it that the scum-bucket legislators who voted for this crazy law pay the ultimate political price for they cynical bargain with governor who is owned by the corporate education reformers. If you doubt that take a look at this Common Cause report.

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Mystifying Teacher Evaluations

This morning, I read through the proposed Regents regulations to implement the new APPR process written into law during the state budget process. The language in which the proposed regulations are expressed is the usual opaque educationist drivel one has come to expect from an education department whose pronouncements are increasingly unintelligible. They have been developing an in- group slang language for educrats to be able to talk to each other without the outside world understanding what they are saying. One would think that the procedure for evaluating a teacher or principal could be expressed in clear, concise English immediately intelligible to the person being evaluated.

While I’m sure I will have more to say once the regulation are adopted, I can’t help observing once again that neither the current APPR process nor this new one will improve the education of the children of this state one jot. Neither is a significant improvement over the local evaluations systems in place before the education deformers decided to discredit them, encouraging the public to believe that teachers were essentially accountability to no one. That was and remains a lie. Forty years of working in schools convinces me that detecting really bad teachers, teachers who are subject matter deficient and/or who fundamentally lack the ability to teach and manage students is simple and amazingly easy. It’s so simple most students are capable to a very high degree of letting us know who they are. Locating the remainder of teachers on some sort of spectrum of ability is a far more difficult task and one that I grow increasingly sure causes more problems than it solves. It is hardly worth the time, money and effort devoted to it. It distracts us for the discussion of issues where we really could advance the work we do.

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Enough Evaluation Rhetoric

When do the politicians and educationists exhaust their capacity to pontificate on what kind of teacher evaluation and accountability scheme we should have? I’m so sick and tired high sounding verbiage that complicates what to me has always been really simple.

It has and always will be easy to spot teachers who do not belong in our schools. One shouldn’t need any teacher tests to know if a candidate for an English position is knowledgeable about the subject. A skilled English teacher armed with the candidate’s college and graduate school transcripts should be easily able to glean knowledge of the subject in the course of a good interview.

Of course one can know a subject thoroughly and not be able to teach it successfully. Those who are thoroughly lacking in teaching ability reveal themselves almost immediately to those who know how to look for teaching talent and care to see. One doesn’t need any rubrics to see if students are engaged in a coherent lesson on part of the established curriculum. One requires no arcane powers to gauge the quality of teacher questioning and the depth of the student discussion her questions provoke. Where a teacher has developed rapport and respect with her students, the presence of an observer causes the students to almost instinctively help that teacher shine – kids who feel supported academically and emotionally responding in kind. If one wants to view the efficacy of a teacher’s writing instruction, a periodic review of her written assignments is all that is necessary to see if quality work is being done.

I’m completely sure that what I’ve said for English works for any discipline. It presumes that the supervisor knows the subject herself and is confidently willing to honestly evaluate her subordinates. I stress the honesty piece in that over the years I’ve witnessed numbers administrators try to explain their failure to document the shortcomings of clearly bad teachers by blaming it on the strong union I lead. The fact is, however, our union has never gone to bat for a probationary teacher whose poor performance has been amply documented.

The really good news is that there never have been large numbers of ineffective teachers in my district. That’s true of most districts in our state. The overwhelming number of them work harder, invest more emotion and time in their work than they are paid for and are too often made to feel that their efforts are unappreciated. This seemingly endless search for the ideal way to evaluate them contributes mightily to their feelings of being underappreciated. Listening to them talk about the ever changing evaluation models, one senses that they perceive that they are being stalked by predators out to rob them of their profession.

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