A Teachable Moment

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

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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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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A Harbinger of Fall Possibilities

As I write this, the news media are reporting that Todd Kaminsky has won a very narrow victory over Chris McGrath, his Republican opponent. Kaminsky’s election is a victory for the coalition of parents and teacher union activists who have banded together to save public education from the corporate privatizers who seek to discredit our public schools to profit from owning them later on. This victory should be the harbinger of even greater victories in the fall. I have been arguing in union circles for some time that we need to look at districts with high rates of opting out of high stakes tests and union density. Our campaign to have our members be education voters needs the energy that comes from victories like Kaminsky’s. It’s my understanding that Ryan Cronin is running again against Kemp Hannon, a very beatable incumbent in the 6th Senate District who has done nothing to help us stop the testocracy from destroying our public schools. Cronin as a completely unknown made a very respectable showing when he ran against Hannon two cycles ago. In the current political environment we could elect him. But we need to make the kind of effort that was made in the 9th! We are already late.

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Long Island Opt-Out is calling for a boycott of Newsday, our local newspaper, because of their promotion of the U.S. department of Education’s threat to withhold federal education aid to district who don’t meet the 95 percent participation rate on federally mandated high stakes tests. Not a problem for me to support this Opt-Out call. I haven’t subscribed to Newsday for a good ten years. Their anti-public education, anti-union, anti-public service bias caused me to quit them.

Opt-out leader Jeanette Deutermann appears to be particularly angered by education editor John Hildabrand whom she has learned has a one-edged anti-public education ax that he has been grinding for years. I long ago stopped taking his phone calls, having repeatedly experienced his distortion of the things I said to him. He has burned so many people in public education that I don’t understand why anyone talks to him. If every education union leader ignored him, if every superintendent refused his calls, if every school board member avoided the temptation to see his name in print, we could marginalize his malevolent influence on public education on Long Island.

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No Help From Albany

While details of the tentative deal between Governor Cuomo and the leaders of the two houses of the Legislature have not been fleshed out as yet, it is clear that there will be no relief from the teacher evaluation absurdity inflicted on teachers in the budget bill adopted in the spring. While there appear to be some nods towards the opt-out movement with a lifting of the gag order preventing teacher from talking about the state exams and releasing more exam questions, the central absurdity of strengthening the linkage between student test results on tests not designed to measure teacher performance were left unaddressed.

Those issues will be addressed in the next election. Those of us who are trying to save public education from the bought and paid for politicians of our state are getting organized to target those who have done the bidding of the hedge fund moguls and real estate interests for political extinction. Union leaders in my area have scheduled a series of meetings in this regard, starting the process early enough to ensure that we have a significant impact. My colleagues in the teacher labor movement are also talking about energizing membership voting in a way that I haven’t heard for a long time. 2016 is a presidential election year, itself a energizing factor. Our challenge is to tap into that increased voter energy and direct it to the task of electing people who are committed to ending the scourge of high stakes testing and the war on the teaching profession. We either begin the process of changing the political landscape in Albany, or we continue see the erosion of public education as we have known it.

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Long Island School Board Elections

Tuesday’s board of education elections on Lon Island were but the latest evidence that a growing number of parents want an end to the corrosive effects of high stakes testing. Jeanette Deutermann, founder of Long Island Opt-Out, reports that of the 75 candidates her organization endorsed, an astonishing 57 were elected. Our state representatives ought to be thinking about these results because supporters of the movement will be coming after them next. Those who make war on teachers will have their careers ended on the battlefields they have created. When the movement starts being covered on the front page of the New York Times, the cretins who represent us in Albany better watch out.

My own local worked very hard for the election of Jodi Campagna, a representative of Deutermann’s Long Island Opt-Out. Some who were opposed to her attempted to brand her a one issue candidate, seeing her advocacy for opting out of high stakes testing as a narrow vision for the future of our school district. More aware voters, however, saw the Jodi’s advocacy for what it really is – a battle to preserve a free, rich, multi-dimensional education that prepares children for responsible adulthood as citizens of a democratic society. Those who fail to understand that vision behind the opt-out movement are ironically themselves possesses of a restricted vision for our schools, that limited view being best expressed in the phrase that so easily rolls off the lips of the ill-informed –“ college and career ready.”

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Looking For Board of Ed Members

In looking to support candidates for the board of education elections coming up on the 19th of this month, more than ever we need to look for people with the courage to challenge the status quo, people who are willing to take some risks to defend our schools from the attacks from Washington and Albany.

We need to support people who understand the malignant effects of high stakes testing on students and teachers. Too many board members in my community talk a good game of being against testing but are willing in to do little beyond writing a letter and issuing a statement.

We need to find and support candidates who will hire and support school leaders who know how to lead, people who understand that loyalty has to flow down before it flows up. We need board members who understand that public institutions are not businesses and cannot be run on business principles that are focused on profits rather than the welfare of human beings.

Above all we need board members who believe the way public schools are currently organized to do their work is archaic, essentially an adversarial factory model that harkens back to a time when a docile, female workforce with few other employment options staffed our public schools. We need board members who know that there is untapped creativity and insight in the stifled voices of staff who are increasingly being ignored just when their thoughts are needed the most.

While my final though will appear controversial to many, to my mind it is the most important at this juncture. We need board members who understand that the quality of a school district is at best marginally related to the number of AP exams their high school students take. We need people who understand that the mission of public schools is the intellectual, moral and ethical growth of young people to the end that they become knowledgeable and engaged participants of our democratic society. We need policy makers for whom the phrase “college and career ready” expresses but a fraction of the very important work we do.

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Jeanette Deutermann

Diane Ravitch’s blog today carries a thank you from Jeanette Deutermann, the indefatigable founder of the Long Island Opt –Out movement, its Norma Rae if you will. No one in the state of New York has done more to organize, and I mean organize, opposition to the scourge of high stakes testing. No one has even approached her commitment to protecting children from the demonstrable harmful effects testing has had on children and the educational program they receive. I’ve been proud to know her and work with her. At a time in our history when skillful leaders are hard to come by, Jeanette has kept the secret of leadership alive. She knows what so few of the so-called leaders I know do – that all people want power; they just don’t know how to get it. If you show them how to get some power and believe in their ability to achieve it, they will follow your lead and causes once thought hopeless become possible. So, as those of us who have been active in the Opt-Out movement enjoy our great victory, let’s pause and recognize our debt of gratitude to the person without whom this day might well not have arrived.

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Sorry NYT – It Is a Parent Led Movement

This morning’s New York Times offers the latest example of the pathetically poor coverage of the opt-out movement and the role of teacher unions in it. The current narrative has it that the unions are the principal motivators of the movement and the parents of the children opting out almost the dupes of the union bosses who have come to see opposition to testing as their weapon to defend from the bipartisan assault on public education. My experiences as a union leader at both the local and state levels in New York tell a different story and make wonder and confirm my suspicions that the mainstream media are at best handmaidens to the corporate education reform movement in our state.

Let’s be clear; while I and other local union leaders welcome NYSUT to the opt out cause they are newbies to the movement. In fact, they’re even pretty new to the anti-testing movement. As a former member of the NYSUT Board of Directors I recall with considerable chagrin the obdurate refusal of the union’s previous leadership under Dick Iannuzzi to embrace the anti-testing movement. I vividly remember an exchange between Dick Iannuzzi in which he answered my call to squarely oppose high stakes testing and the Common Core State Standards and join forces with the growing opt-out movement with, “We disagree. I don’t think parents want to do away with testing. What they want are better tests.” Let’s remember too that it was Iannuzzi’s team that negotiated the current APPR agreement with Governor Cuomo, an agreement which acknowledged that student scores on high stakes tests were an appropriate measure of student performance. By the time Iannuzzi realized the growing power of the anti-test/opt out movement and began to quietly cooperate with it, that movement was already launched with a dynamic leadership all its own. Here on Long Island, Long Island Opt Out led the way with a leader in Jeanette Deutermann who knows more about organizing than most of the union leaders I know. In part, his failure to read the political tea leaves on the testing/ opt –out issue would cost him the presidency of NYSUT.

Even in the early days of the Magee administration, while she and our national union affiliates gradually began to speak more critically of what testing was doing to public education and while some locals had upped their profiles and publically supported the opt-out movement, there still was not clear policy decision taken to frontally assault the testocracy by promoting refusal of the examinations. It was literally only weeks ago that Karen Magee in an interview said that if she had school age children, she would opt them out of the impending exams. That remark and stronger ones to follow came only after the governor and the leaders of both parties in the legislature conspired to screw that state’s teachers.

What early union support there was for the opt-out movement existed here and there at the local level. The fact is that most locals were even reluctant to tell their own members to opt their children out, repeatedly seeking guidance from NYSUT, only to get equivocation.

No, the opt out movement has been an essentially parent driven movement, aided in some places by local teacher unions, but completely independent of them, so much so that at times there was some friction between our supporting locals on Long Island at the parent leadership of the movement. While I’m very glad that NYSUT has come around to a full-throated support of opting-out, they are walking on a path that others have blazed before them. If I had had my way, the critique offered by the New York Times would have been true. It didn’t work out that way, however.

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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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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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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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Kid Deserve Time to Eat and Relax

As I do most mornings, I check on the Long Island Opt-Out Facebook page to see what members are up to. This group and its leader Jeanette Deutermann were responsible for organizing probably the largest boycott of state high stakes tests in the nation last year. In my district, Plainview-Old Bethpage some 20 percent of the kids skipped the exams.

This morning there was a post about how some districts are cutting lunch periods short and skipping phys ed in elementary schools to get more test prep in. A parent from my district reported that her child often returns from school with her snack which she says she didn’t have time to eat because students had a “working snack” period, and she didn’t feel she had enough time to finish the assignment and eat.

In our high school students are made to feel guilty if they take an unassigned lunch period. A publicity driven superintendent of schools hungry for the notoriety provided Newsweek or other pop-culture vehicles who rate schools in part on how many kids take AP classes. Teachers who know that in one way or another they will be judged on their test scores pile on the homework to the point where anyone who care to know realizes that even if high achieving high school students do homework until past midnight, they still need to get to school early to have time to grab what they couldn’t possibly finish from someone who has it. Those with better organizing skills, arrange for a division of labor on the assignments with a group share in the morning. While some lament the dishonesty in all of this, the greatest dishonesty is subjecting young people to a kind punishingly long day, more arduous than most of their college days will be, and more about endurance than education. If we can’t tell that something is seriously wrong when even little kids report that they don’t have time to eat and relax, then we have abdicated our responsibility to care for our young.

What a sorry state of affairs when there needs to be a rebellion to ensure that every child has 4o0 minutes or so to eat and talk with friends.

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Don’t Complicate Parental Decision on Testing

I have spent some time and effort since the opening of school trying to coach our union members on how to handle parent questions about opting their children out of the state high stakes tests. While regular readers of my work know that I am convinced that the Opt-Out Movement is the powerful force that will ultimately force the state to curtail its obsessive testing of students, that doesn’t mean that I want to encourage our members to use their teaching position positions to promote that cause.

I recently posted on our union’s Facebook page, a message to our parent community that I believe strikes the right balance for teachers who are questioned about opting out. It reads:

The teachers in Plainview-Old Bethpage are working with parents and other supporters of public education to end the damage being done to our schools by state mandated obsessive high stakes testing. We invite all in the community to join the effort to end this scourge that is destroying education in New York.

We know that many parents either have or are considering opting their children out of these tests. The decision to keep children from taking these examinations is a personal one. We do not presume to tell parents what to do.

We wish to assure you, however, that should you choose to opt your children out, we will respect your decision and continue to teach and treat your children in the professional, respectful manner we always have. We will not allow these unnecessary examinations to come between us and your children.

A parent’s decision to opt a child out of the state testing regime is not an easy one. I believe we as teachers have to recognize this and ensure that our focus is on the academic and emotional welfare of their children.

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Spreading the Word About Testing

My colleague Ken Ulric and I spoke to a group of retired educators this morning. Joining us was Jeanette Deutermann, the leader of the Long Island Opt-Out movement, a parent organization dedicated to bringing an end to obsessive high stakes testing in New York.

In the social hour prior to our presentation members of the group let us know that the larger than usual turn-out for the meeting was due to the topic of the program- testing. These retired teachers are still concerned for public education and the children in our schools. They are concerned about the education of their grand-children and the careers of their children who followed them into teaching.

Ken ably led us through an edited version of the Race to Nowhere movie, a fantastic motivator of anti-testing sentiment. The film served to warm the audience up for what Jeanette Deutermann and I had to say.

My theme was that he jobs they left don’t exist anymore and that the creative pleasures they experienced in the classroom are rapidly disappearing as more and more of the academic program of our schools devolves into test prep. I suggested that while the teacher union movement was late to recognize the significance of the issue, late to understand its potential for organizing, way behind parents like the Opt-Out parents, we were beginning to get our act together, the evidence for that being the mass rally NYSUT has called for June 8. I suggested too that if we believe, as most of us do, that the testing regime in New York is a form of child abuse, the we have an ethical obligation to work with others who agree with us to do whatever is necessary to bring the testing regime to an end. If that means opting our own kids and grand-kids out, so be it. If we don’t act in accordance with our ethics, we not only will we have no credibility with the parents of the children we teach, we will be an embarrassment to ourselves.

My friend Jeanette Deutermann was her usual engaging self. She spoke of how her own child’s reactions to the tests got her started on what would eventually become the Long Island Opt-Out movement . It was wonderful to see the warm response of this audience of retired educators to her presentation, many of them surrounding her with questions after the meeting was adjourned. Readers on Facebook, take a look at the Long Island Opt-Out page. Sign on. Become a part the movement.

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