A Teachable Moment

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

No Time To Be Nice

The opt out numbers look better and better. As of this writing, over 68,000 Long Island students refused to take the grade 3 through 8 examinations. That’s more refusals than there were in the entire state of New York last year. In no uncertain terms, these numbers are the response of a public who petitioned their elected representatives to do something to end the scourge of high stakes test in our state only to have to resort to civil disobedience when those representatives failed to do their job. I believe we need to keep the pressure on those who have been nothing less than duplicitous, telling us in various public forums that they supported our efforts to curb an out of control testing regime that was turning our best schools into essentially test prep institutions, only to in the end give the governor almost more than he asked for.

That being my view, it’s alarming to begin to hear NYSUT, our state education union, counseling being nice to these elected leaders who have betrayed us and the institution of public education. I don’t want to be nice to Assemblyman Charles Lavine. I want to support a candidate to primary him. If that fails, I want to run a Green Party candidate against him. Ditto with Senators Hannon and Marcellino who have grown far too comfortable and who seem to feel we will forgive them anything because that got us a little extra money for our schools. It is beyond question that by and large our elected leaders have no respect for us. Accepting bad treatment in my experience leads only to more bad treatment. I don’t understand why our union leaders in Albany don’t understand that. It’s really just that simple.

Many of us have worked very hard to build coalitions to oppose the attack on public education and the high stakes testing central to it. These groups are flush with our opt out victory and need to now be steered to politically removing the people who have shown themselves to be our enemies. This union leader is not going to be a party to letting people who openly screwed us off the hook.

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THE ANSWER IS OPT OUT

Yesterday I posed the question of whether parents would opt their children out of the state exams or acquiesce to the demands of a corporate school reform movement bent on destroying public education in our nation. I’m heartened to report that almost half of the parents in my community (48.2%) have said enough. They don’t care what Governor Cuomo thinks. They will not allow Chancellor Tisch and the State Ed department poison the educational climate of their schools with more and more of their programs dictated by the demands of tests that do absolutely nothing to improve instruction anywhere in our state. I strongly suspect that those numbers will grow over this testing season, as parents who felt a little uncomfortable bucking the dictates of the state see that over one thousand others put their qualms behind them.

This has been a very hopeful day. The growing numbers of citizens who care about public education who deeply understand the threat posed to it encourages me to believe that we can win the battle in the end. We more than doubled our opt out numbers this year. If we have to, we will do that again next year which would bring us to the point where almost no students are taking the exams. At that point, the testocracy melts into an ugly puddle of slime.

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OPT-OUT OR ACQUIESCE

Tomorrow the New York State 3 through 8 assessments begin. While Governor Cuomo and the legislature effectively more than doubled down on high stakes testing, there is a good chance that, in the best American tradition, citizens will cast their own vote on the testing epidemic by opting their children out of the exams. Exams that children don’t take cannot be used against them and their teachers.

Last year, over sixty thousand New York children were withheld by their parents from the assessments, over twenty thousand on Long Island. This year the numbers are bound to be significantly higher. The only question is how much higher.

It is not hyperbole to suggest that either parents will rise up and voice a resounding NO to what the testocracy is doing to public education, or they will acquiesce to the corporate powers behind the testing movement and thereby move the process of dismantling public education forward significantly.

Coincidentally, I just sent in the second half of my school taxes for the year. For the first time in my adult, I felt a pang of resentment for having to pay to support what to my mind is the daily debasing of education in our schools, as testing drives more and more of the curriculum and the notion of what it means to be educated evaporates in favor of what at best is job training.

My generation took to civil disobedience to promote the rights of all Americans to participate in our democracy. We took to the streets to stop a stupid war in Viet Nam in which thousands of my peers died for no discernible reason. Those were moral crusades, and I believe the movement to prevent the corporate takeover of public education is every bit as much of a moral issue. If we care about educating our children to be thoughtful, analytical participants of our democracy, people with a broad understanding of all that makes us human, then it seems to me we will thwart this latest attack on public education by refusing to have our children participate in the main weapon intended to destroy it – high stakes testing.
Should the opt-out movement fail, it will signal to those who lust to turn our schools into profit centers that they are on the right course and that the public doesn’t care enough to protest its schools.

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Time to Increase the Pressure

Imagine if all of the school boards that have joined the battle against Governor Cuomo’s proposed doubling down on high stakes testing publically announced that they pledge not to implement the law if it should pass and that they will join with their teachers and cease administering the state examinations until such time as exams are created that can be used to help teachers teach. Imagine such an assertion of local control. Imagine it coupled with a pledge by NYSUT to recruit candidates for the legislature to oppose those who support the governor, whether it is in primaries or by supporting candidates who are neither Republican nor Democrats. The polls show growing support for the anti- testing movement. We need to exert even strong pressure on the pro-testing legislators.

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Why Do Minorities Often Support Yearly Testing?

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

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Last Night’s Tilles Center Forum

I attended the forum at the Tilles center last evening, sponsored by LIU and the Long Island Principals Association and featuring Diane Ravitch, by any measure the best known critic of the school reform movement in the nation. Here are my takeaways from this event attended by well over 1000 participants.

Ravitch has done more to energize teachers to fight to preserve their profession than most of the nation’s major teacher union leaders with the exception of Chicago’s Karen Lewis. She speaks not only with an academic’s authority on education issues, citing a host of facts and figures, but also with a keen sense of what moves teachers viscerally. She, better than most they come across during their work days, understands what’s happening to teaching, how a generation of teachers is having the profession robbed out from under them by a clique of corporate reformers for whom profits trump even the welfare of the nation’s children.

My friend Jeanette Deutermann was on the panel that followed Ravitch’s speech. People have been observing lately that Long Island is the epicenter of the opt-out movement. Deutermann’s relentless organizing around this issue has been primarily responsible for our area’s lead on the issues of the destructive effects of high stakes testing and the recognition that the most potent weapon we have in the battle to end the testing scourge is to refuse to permit out children to take the tests. As I listened to her exhort the audience to stand up and fight back, I marveled at how much she has accomplished, starting her quest with a good deal of nerve and a free Facebook page.

Superintendent Joe Rella emerged as a clear audience favorite and deservedly so. Unlike many in his position, he has clearly not forgotten what it’s like to be a teacher. He communicates a plain spoken understanding of the threats posed to our profession by politicians like Andrew Cuomo and his corporate supporters, an understanding that includes an appreciation of how teachers are being asked to effectively change who they are in the implementation of what is called school reform. Unlike many of the superintendents I have worked with, this guy knows how to lead. It’s no wonder that he and the union leader in his district, my colleague Beth Dimino, who shared the stage with him last evening have an obvious respect and affection for one another.

Finally, last night’s event is but the latest evidence of the growing push back against the corporate reform movement in our state and a governor who is doing its bidding. To my mind, if our union movement had not been so late in coming to understand the possibilities of challenging the reform movement, if our leaders had seen the foolishness of seeking to accommodate the reformers, we would have been much further along to what will be out ultimate victory. The palpable energy at last night’s forum was there to be tapped all along.

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Shanker’s Charter Schools Seem More Impressive Today

The imposition of the Common Core State Standards has accelerated a trend that’s been with us for some time – the homogenization of instruction. More and more of our teachers are working to the rhythms of corporate made programs and pacing charts that seek to assure that everyone will be finished with the curriculum by the end of the school, whether the children know it or not. If the pacing chart says more on, teachers move on, not finishing the curriculum being a much higher order of pedagogical sin than finishing but having many students not completely understanding what you taught. This is just one of many serious problems facing public schools that essentially go unaddressed as we move forward with the corporate reform agenda which assumes that all children can learn the same things and that they can learn them in the same amount of time and in largely the same way. I don’t know a single teacher who thinks that’s a smart way of going about the work of educating children, but it is certainly the over-arching operative idea of most districts, certainly including ours.

I’ve been spending a great amount of time talking to anyone who will listen to me on this subject. Thinking this morning that it was time to try to reframe my discussions, I found myself recalling the speech Al Shanker made that contributed to the launching of the charter school movement. The former head of the AFT, never foresaw that the ideas expressed in his speech would be adopted by the enemies of the very public schools to which Shanker dedicated much of his adult life. Clearly frustrated by the one size fits all reform efforts of his day and the extent to which those movements more often than not were not informed by the voices of teachers, Shanker spoke of groups of teachers within schools coming up with new ideas that they would be given the autonomy to develop on their own. They would form schools within schools. In his vision, the creative talents of teachers would be loosed to explore reasonable possibilities for improvement, with parents enrolling their kids in the programs that seemed to fit their children the best. That’s what Shanker meant by charter schools. Were he with us to experience the mind-numbing stupidity that passes for reform today, I strongly suspect he would be redoubling his efforts to search for a model of reform that teachers hungering to practice their craft could embrace. His picture of charter schools looks pretty enticing to those struggling in today’s classrooms. The speech is still worth reading and thinking about. Find some time this weekend.

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It’s Testing Season

Today’s post is addressed specifically to readers in my community of Plainview-Old Bethpage. It’s part of our effort to end the scourge of high stakes testing in New York by citizens clearly know where we stand on parents refusing to let their children take the state’s assessments. Here’s where we stand.

The members of the Plainview-Old Bethpage Congress of Teachers have been at the forefront in the battle to end the destructive consequences of high stakes testing in New York State. We have opted our own children out of the state assessments and vigorously defended the rights of all parents to do the same. We were instrumental in ending our district’s “sit and stare” policy, having gotten our board of education to provide students not taking the exams a comfortable alternative school setting. We deeply believe that the growing number of parents refusing to submit their children to testing exploitation is our most powerful weapon in the battle with powerful economic and political forces that are bent destroying public education as we have known it and making huge profits in the process.

We want the parents of our community to know that whether they opt their children out of the state tests or not, we will treat their decision respectfully, seeing to it that their children are comfortable during the examination periods in either the testing or alternative setting.

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It’s Not Union Power That Should Be Feared

Fix our schools or our nation will be unable to compete in the increasingly globalized economy. We see this inevitability in the thousands of job openings that exist for high skilled workers that go begging for the lack of qualified people to take them. That’s the false idea that under-girds the corporate driven school reform movement. My readers are aware of my contempt for this argument, my belief being that if it were true we would see the wages of people in these high skilled areas being bid up which they certainly have not been.

Writing in this morning’s New York Times, Paul Krugman clearly agrees with me. His argument is that even right wing Republicans know that wage stagnation is a volatile political issue, but rather than deal with the kinds of policy changes that are necessary to address this issue that plagues the lives of most Americans, our attention is diverted to believing that if we just fix our schools, get everyone college and career ready, our problems will be resolved. It’s not too many steps from that to declaring war on America’s teachers and their unions as unscrupulous politicians like Andrew Cuomo has done. Completely unwilling to address the growing economic inequality in our state, Cuomo would have us believe that the all-powerful teachers union is the enemy of the state’s children and the economic progress of our community. The issue is power, but it’s the power that Cuomo’s financial supporters have, not the state’s teachers union. Read Krugman’s piece. He has a keen nose for bullshit.

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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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