A Teachable Moment

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

Knowing to Comprehend

Imagine taking a reading test and confronting the following paragraph. That’s the way too many of our young students feel as they take the high stakes tests we require of them.

“Test cricket is a game that spans over two innings. This means that one team needs to bowl the other team out twice and score more runs than them to win the match. Another key difference between test cricket and other forms of cricket is the length of the innings. In test cricket there is no limit to the innings length. Whereas in one day cricket & Twenty20 cricket there are a certain amount of overs per innings [sic]. The only limits in test cricket is a 5 day length. Before the game begins an official will toss a coin. The captain who guesses the correct side of the coin will then choose if they want to bat or field first. One team will then bat while the other will bowl & field. The aim of the batting team is to score runs while the aim of the fielding team is to bowl ten people out and close the batting teams’ innings. Although there are eleven people in each team only ten people need to be bowled out as you cannot have one person batting alone. Batting is done in pairs.”

You no doubt were able to read every word in the paragraph above from cricketrules.com. Yet, unless you know the game, you can’t comprehend very much of what it says. It requires previous knowledge to make it completely intelligible. So it is with all reading. The reader is expected to have certain basic knowledge in order to be able to comprehend what is being said. While this appears to be self-evident and is confirmed by reams of education research, the fact is that most of our elementary schools focus on basic reading skills and neglect the knowledge base necessary for good comprehension. Every few years we seem to send our elementary teachers for staff development in the latest reading program or technique. Given that the state examinations are in reading and math, more and more of the elementary school day has been devoted to skills instruction. In so doing, we have ironically lessened our students’ capacity to be better readers, depriving them of the basic knowledge needed to be good readers.

A recent article on this subject in The Atlantic should be read by every person responsible for the education of young children. We need to begin the task of rebuilding a content based curriculum if we are ever to improve the reading ability of our children.

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A Pissing Contest Over Teacher Evaluation?

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

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

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

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A Dubious Distinction

The high school at which I worked for over thirty years has been named by the state as a Reward School. This perceived distinction is granted to schools scoring in the top 20 percent on the state’s English and math exams, having made score gains in the previous year and not having significant achievement gaps among segments of the school population. Board of education members have been publically praising the superintendent for this achievement. While I have always believed the school to be one of the best in our area, being a Reward School is a distinction based on a metrics that have very little to do with its quality education. To me, our high school is a superior place of learning despite the attempts of a board and administration who have very consciously tried to boost high stakes test scores to the exclusion of more purposeful instruction.

Rating a school on the scores on one English exam and several math tests, exams of highly questionable validity, is absurd. Awards like this are the end product of a high stakes testing regimes that delude the public into believing that serious work is being done to raise the academic bar. It is also a foolhardy way to evaluate the effectiveness of a superintendent, the school administrators and the teaching staff. There are numbers of schools in our area that achieve very respectable test scores but which fail to prepare students for serious college academic work.

Some years ago, we had a superintendent whose mantra was, “We’re number one.” At every public meeting, he would find some way to reinforce the notion that somehow we were in a competition and we were going to come out on top. When I asked him once how we would know we were the best, he looked at me with a broad smile. His gambit was all about boosting his salary. Reward School is a very similar concept.

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Ignoring Failure

By all means, let us continue the battle against high stakes testing, a battle that we are winning. But in the process of ending the mismeasurement of student accomplishment, let’s not slip into the belief that evaluation doesn’t really matter. I fear that’s the message we are unintentionally sending students when, as we are increasingly doing on Long Island, we craft grading policies that count the results of state Regents Examinations only if they raise student averages. I have no strong feelings about Regents exams one way or another. When I was teaching, I always pitched the level of my courses above that of the Regents. Yet, not all students had to take the Regents to graduate during my teaching days. What I do strongly object to is the growing ethically tenuous practice of counting the results for some and not for others. If we deeply believe that the exams are not true measures of student achievement, then we should not count the results no matter student scores. If, on the other hand, we believe them to be an accurate measure of student knowledge, then by what ethical principle do we exempt students from the results who receive low grades? If we are to ignore Regents failure, why count other failures?

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Thank You, Opt-Out Movement

New York State is touting a miniscule decline in the number of children withheld from the state’s grades three through eight examinations in English and mathematics. The drop from twenty-one percent last year will probably embolden Commissioner Elia and the Ed Department bureaucrats to continue to pressure the parents of our state into submission to a testing regime that is destroying public education. The State is also spinning a nominal increase in the test scores as proof of the efficacy of its test and punish approach.

Frankly, I have no idea whether the decline in opt-outs is statistically significant. It strikes me that roughly twenty percent have consistently boycotted the examinations in recent years as part of one of the truly progressive public education movements of the years of my involvement with public education issues. Think about it for a minute. The movement loses most of its eighth grade parents each year requiring it to recruit significant numbers of new parents each school year. Maintaining twenty percent of parents willing to defy the authority of the state, with many school administrations attempting to strong-arm them into submission, is no mean feat.

The continued well being of the opt-out movement is one of the very few positive signs in a world of public education that is beset by enemies. At a time when we have a national administration that seeks to turn our public schools over to corporate interests; when we increasingly see school leaders confusing training with education; when so few of those chosen to lead our public schools are empty careerists who no abiding loyalty to the institution of public education; when significant numbers of students in our schools are coerced into measuring their self-worth by their math and ELA scores; when test preparation crowds out the socialization of children to be participating citizens of our democracy; it is a shot in the arm for people committed to liberal education to know the opt-out movement not only exists but continues to thrive.

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Worth Reading and Thinking About

Two articles in today’s New York Times are worthy of note for what they say about the increasing absurdity of contemporary education, both here and abroad. The first is about the broad usage of webcams in Chinese schools that enable parents, or anyone else for that matter, to observe the goings on in classrooms and to comment on what they see. While some schools in the U.S. have experimented with this technology, no place has used it to the extent that the Chinese appear to have, although there will undoubtedly be increasing pressures to do so in our schools. That pressure is generated by the unexamined notion that because we have the technical means to do something, it is probably a good idea to do so. The notorious tiger parents, for whom their children’s success in school is of paramount importance, now have the means to scrutinize their children’s performance minute by minute, all the while keeping an eye on their teachers as well. In a surveillance society, the camera sees everything. No one seems to care that that the presence of the camera profoundly changes what it records.

The other article worth thinking about is one on homework. Some elementary schools in New York City that are experimenting with no homework policies are being hit with a backlash from some parents who are demanding that worksheets and such continue to be sent home. Some less well-off parents that they cannot afford to fill the time previously taken up with homework with enriching activities for their children. Curiously, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to them to simply let their kids relax, go out in the street to play or watch a movie on TV. Fact – There is no evidence that doing homework in elementary school leads to greater achievement. Fact – There is ample evidence that play is an important factor in human development and that American children have less and less time for it. So, by all means, let’s do away with elementary homework, but let’s not do it in the name of some snooty concept of enrichment. The enrichment our children need is play time and down time.

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Opt-Out Thrives on Long Island

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

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

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Being Educated

Throughout my teaching career, I have too often been faced by students, supervisors, parents and colleagues who appeared to believe that the purpose of our public schools and the education they provide is to somehow prepare children for their life’s employment. How in hell we are supposed to know what employment will be open to them and what it is that they will choose to do in that economic environment is never made clear except to offer up some vague prognostication of what the economic future holds. When I have suggested that the best an education should offer children is to equip them to be able to read and teach themselves whatever it is that they wish to know throughout their lives and enablep them to be knowledgeable citizens of our democracy, I’ve been responded to with stares of disbelief or comments about my naiveté. Yet, the older I get, the more confirmed in my view I get.

Just the other day, as I finished Siddhartha’s Mukherjee’s tome The Gene, a history of the science of genetics, I was reminded of how thankful I am to have been educated and possess the ability to follow my interests wherever they take me. When I began college, I had no idea of how I would spend my economic life. Fortunately, I went to school in a day when the first two years of my studies were in required courses in the arts and sciences. Although I soon began to lean toward majoring in English, I continued to take subjects like comparative vertebrate anatomy, embryology and genetics. Now, some fifty years since my college days, I could read and thoroughly appreciate Mukherjee’s book because of Professor Norman Rothwell’s brilliant lectures. More importantly, I have an appreciation of the ethical issues genomic engineering causes us to confront.

Coincidentally, a day or two ago, as I was thinking about this subject, I got a message from a former member of my district’s board of education, pointing me to this article about Sir Ken Robinson and his thoughts about our unfortunate tendency to see the goal of education as employment and economic success. She sent me the link to the article because Robinson’s words reminded her of things that she had heard me say. Better late than never, I suppose, but the fact is that our public schools have gotten much more over-focused on job training since the time our board member remembered hearing me warn against confusing education with job training. Test scores and grades are what school is increasingly about. So much so that before our board of education has a proposed policy before it to only count student Regents exam scores in their final averages if those scores boost those averages. Do we seriously think that people who advance such a policy are concerned about education and its capacity to enrich the intellectual, cultural and spiritual life of human beings?

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Hillary and the NEA RA

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

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Albany Fails Again

The New York State legislature has finished its yearly session without any significant progress on education issues. For most teachers, the failure to untie student performance on high stakes test from teacher evaluations is the bitterest pill left by the legislature for us to swallow. It’s more than time for parents, teachers and all citizens concerned with the corruption of New York’s schools by the corporate school reform movement to rise up and defeat those in the state senate who value heir political contributions from the reformers more than the children and educators of our state.

Unless and until we target and defeat at least a few supporters of the testing scourge, our public schools will continue to suffer. The same people who support the so-called reforms are by and large the supporters of the property tax cap, charter schools and using public money to support private and religious schools. They must pay a political penalty, or they will succeed in undermining a vital institution of our democracy. It’s time to vote to save public education.

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Ethically Challenged

My appreciation of the extent to which the corporate testing industry has perniciously infiltrated our schools distorting their purpose continues to expand. Yesterday, a parent in our district forwarded to me an email she received from our high school guidance department hawking the services of a test prep company offering summer courses aimed a cramming for the SAT and ACT examinations. It’s troubling enough that a school district would consciously contribute to inflating the importance of these exams, exams known to be poor predictors of college success, exams which more and more colleges and universities are considering optional. More troubling still was learning that the district has a contract with this company and another test prep outfit, granting them the use of our facilities in exchange for discounted prices for their courses. I’m frankly mad at myself for not knowing until now that this was happening.

Recently a teacher at Midwood High school in Brooklyn was removed from his classes for selling copies of Mary Shelly’s Gothic novel Frakenstein at his cost to students so that he could teach the book to his class. Here we have a school district (I’m sure one of many) selling test prep courses to an entire student body without the district’s leadership raising the obvious ethical questions.

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New York Standards

New York’s Commissioner of Education Elia is raising expectations modifications to the Common Core State Standards, probably to be billed as New York Standards. Supposedly, the coming changes, vetted by classroom teachers, will be more age appropriate than the standards currently in place. I have my doubts, however.

Years of highly successful reformist propaganda have left too many Americans with a belief that their public schools, even our best ones, are failing. Demand for schools that make children college and career ready has been ginned up to the point of hysteria where children are encouraged in the earliest grades to begin building their resumes to ensure that they will get into the best colleges and get the best jobs, probably in some STEM field. It extraordinarily hard to imagine in this super-heated education environment that standards will be promulgated that realistically align with the developmental needs of children. Does anyone believe that we will see standards that reflect an understanding of the role of public education in developing citizens of a democratic society? Will play be returned to its centrality to the learning of young children? Will we get a set of standards that encourages teachers to pause at teachable moments and have the kind of conversations that while absent from teacher evaluation rubrics can be the most important things that students take from a class, or will the new standards continue the rush to the intellectual emptiness of state examinations?

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It’s Just Business

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

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The Lederman Verdict

So Sheri Lederman, the Great Neck teacher who challenged the growth score portion of her teacher annual professional performance review, won her case. The court ruled that the value added methodology used to arrive at her score was arbitrary and capricious. The ruling is a moral victory, but unfortunately only applied to Lederman and to a particular evaluation she received. The law is now changed, although there is now an even bigger value added component. The fact is both this case and the ruling point to the difficulties and frustrations of seeking a judicial remedy for the pseudo-scientific bull-shit that has turned our schools into test prep institutions and will eventually choke all the life out of the school experiences of our children. It’s why each day I become a more fervent supporter of the opt-out movement, convinced as I am that it is only through civil disobedience that we will end the corporate assault on public education and our nation’s teachers. Sure, there are other legal cases in the hopper that may eventually give us better and broader verdicts, but how many years of curriculum constricting test prep must our children endure before that happened? How much more demoralization must our teacher experience?

Let’s use the Lederman verdict and its declaration that the value added method of evaluating teachers on the basis of student test scores is pointless – junk science if you will. Let’s use it to educate more parents to the wisdom of opting their children out of the tests that support value added evaluation. When almost no children take the test, there’s no value added anymore.

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Can Sanity Be Coming to Teacher Evaluation?

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

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

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

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

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Not Again!

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

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

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

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Opting Out in Defense of Public Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morton Rosenfeld
President

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Need to Re-energize Opt-Out

I met with some union colleagues last evening. I was happy to learn that they are moving forward with getting their members to sign membership renewal cards for next year. Like me, they are hoping that the death of Justice Scalia ends the imminent threat posed by the Friedrichs case to agency fee, but they are determined to protect their locals lest their faith in the four liberals on the high court has been misplaced or one of the Republican Neanderthals running for the presidency wins and appoints an ideological successor to Scalia. I actually am starting to believe that this generation of union leaders is starting to learn the secrets of organizing.

Their interest in organizing was manifest in our discussion of the status of the opt-out movement. Most of us are concerned that some of the energy of the movement has been sapped by the propaganda success of the moratorium enacted last year on consequences from high stakes tests for either students or teachers. I share the fear expressed that some of the public, and perhaps even our own members, believe that the threat posed by high stakes testing has abated. Yet, students are still asked to take essentially useless tests, and, worst of all, the tests continue to drive instruction a direction toward the substitution of training instead of education. The simple fact is that the reasons the opt-out movement was formed remain, and those of us who passionately support it are looking for fresh ways to support and build it, as it continues to be the most potent weapon we have against the test and punish reformers.

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The Failure to Oppose King

John King has apologized on behalf of the federal government for policies that left teachers feeling themselves the target of the government’s attack. NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia hopes his apology translates into deeds to improve the conditions and status of teachers. One would think that John Kind was the brand new eraser come to wipe the slate completely clean (Pretty soon no one will understand this metaphor.). Why would anyone take either of them seriously?

Eskelsen Garcia certainly knows King’s history in New York. It is a history that keeps giving. A committed supporter of high stake tests, the linkage of that testing to the evaluation of teachers and the flawed Common Core Standards so disrupted public education in the state that it will be years before we are able to return to some semblance of normalcy. To be sure, he was implementation federal law and the instructions of the Regents, but it was always clear that this man whose education experience was brief and confined largely to charter schools relished his assignment and saw himself as a leader in the so-called education reformed movement. To believe now that he has seen the error of his way in New York and that he, and for that matter the Obama administration, are now sorry for what they have done to public education and to the teaching profession is simply unbelievable.

For most of the teachers in New York it is much too late to apologize. Teachers here are nonplussed by the Obama administration’s nomination of King. The nomination effectively negates any second thoughts they may have about the consequences of their Race to the Top approach. Seeing their national union leaders Eskelsen Garcia and Weingarten acquiesce to King’s nomination to be Secretary of Education is interpreted as indifference to the lasting harm King caused to public education in our state.

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You Thought You Knew About Pearson

Mention the name Pearson in the circles in which I travel, and it is as though you mentioned some sinister, criminal enterprise. No other company is so closely associated with high stakes testing and the corporate influence on public education. Yet, I suspect that most of the people I know in public education, like I, know very little of just how pervasive the influence of this company is on education – from K to graduate school. One needs to read Stephanie Simon’s piece on Politico to begin to understand the frightening extent to which Pearson saw the potential in the American school reform movement for them to make huge profits, cultivating a perception gullible by school administrators that only they had the materials, test and programs to bring the academic progress the reformers demanded. I certainly never understood that they have been repeatedly given huge, no-bid contract by major public universities to provide those schools with online college courses. If you have been angered at the business influence on our public schools, read this piece. It will enrage you. I hope some of the nation’s attorneys general read this piece and start to look into these no-bid contracts Pearson has gotten. There almost has to be something seriously wrong here.

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