A Teachable Moment

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

Platforms Matter

My mind has been on the implosion of Donald Trump’s presidential aspirations, not on public education. It’s fascinating to read Republic stalwarts like David Brooks, Peggy Noonan and Charles Krauthammer all questioning the mental health of their party’s nominee. How wonderfully encouraging! But many of us knew that Nixon was crazy too. While more secretive about his psychic wounds, he managed to fool the nation, all the while appealing to many of the same dark emotions as Trump. Have we forgotten the Southern strategy, his code for the appeal to racism? Let’s not be too confident that this race is over.
There hasn’t been much talk in this campaign about public education. People committed to the centrality of public education to our democracy ought to take a look at the platform of the two parties in this regard. Let me not editorialize. Here are the two platforms. Bernie or Bust friends, think about which party is more clearly supportive of public education as you conceive of it?

Here is the Democratic education plank.

Democrats believe we must have the best-educated population and workforce in the world. That means making early childhood education and universal preschool a priority, especially in light of new research showing how much early learning can impact life-long success. Democrats will invest in early childhood programs like Early Head Start and provide every family in America with access to high-quality childcare and high-quality preschool programs. We support efforts to raise wages for childcare workers, and to ensure that early childhood educators are experienced and high-quality.

We will ensure there are great schools for every child no matter where they live. Democrats know the federal government must play a critical role in making sure every child has access to a world-class education. We believe that a strong public education system is an anchor of our democracy, a propeller of the economy, and the vehicle through which we help all children achieve their dreams. Public education must engage students to be critical thinkers and civic participants while addressing the wellbeing of the whole child.

We also support increased investments in afterschool and summer learning programs, which help working families, keep kids safe, and inspire learning at a time when many students are left unsupervised. We must find ways to encourage mentoring programs that support students in reaching their full potential. Mentoring is a strategy to ensure that children living in poverty have the encouragement and support to aim high and enter the middle class. We will focus on group mentoring, which is a low-cost, high-yield investment that offers the benefit of building a supportive network of peers who push one another towards success.

Democrats believe all students should be taught to high academic standards. Schools should have adequate resources to provide programs and support to help meet the needs of every child. We will hold schools, districts, communities, and states accountable for raising achievement levels for all students—particularly low-income students, students of color, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities.

We must fulfill our national commitment to provide a meaningful education to students with disabilities, and work towards full funding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act so that students with disabilities can receive the extra resources and services they need. With an 33 appropriate educational foundation, children with disabilities can thrive and become adults with greater opportunities and more meaningful life experiences.

We are also deeply committed to ensuring that we strike a better balance on testing so that it informs, but does not drive, instruction. To that end, we encourage states to develop a multiple measures approach to assessment, and we believe that standardized tests must be reliable and valid. We oppose high-stakes standardized tests that falsely and unfairly label students of color, students with disabilities and English Language Learners as failing; the use of standardized test scores as basis for refusing to fund schools or to close schools; and the use of student test scores in teacher and principal evaluations, a practice which has been repeatedly rejected by researchers. We support enabling parents to opt their children out of standardized tests without penalty for either the student or their school.

Democrats recognize and honor all the professionals who work in public schools to support students’ education—teachers, education support professionals, and specialized staff. We know that good teachers are essential to improving student learning and helping all students to meet high academic standards. Democrats will launch a national campaign to recruit and retain high quality teachers. We will ensure that teachers receive the tools and ongoing professional development they need to succeed in the classroom and provide our children with a world-class education. We also must lift up and trust our educators, continually build their capacity, and ensure that our schools are safe, welcoming, collaborative, and well-resourced places for our students, educators, and communities.

We will invest in high-quality STEAM classes, community schools, computer science education, arts education, and expand link learning models and career pathways. We will end the school-to-prison pipeline by opposing discipline policies which disproportionately affect African Americans and Latinos, Native Americans and Alaska Natives, students with disabilities, and youth who identify as LGBT. We will support the use of restorative justice practices that help students and staff resolve conflicts peacefully and respectfully while helping to improve the teaching and learning environment. And we will work to improve school culture and combat bullying of all kinds.

The Democratic Party is committed to eliminating opportunity gaps—particularly those that lead to students from low-income communities arriving on day one of kindergarten several years behind their peers. This means advocating for labor and public assistance laws that ensure poor parents can spend time with their children. This means raising household incomes in poor communities. It means ensuring children have health care, stable housing free of contaminants, and a community free of violence in order to minimize the likelihood of cognitive delays. It means enriching early childhood programming to prepare children in areas such as literacy, numeracy, civic engagement, and emotional intelligence. It means supporting equitable and adequate state funding for public education, and expanding Title I funding for schools that serve a large number or high concentration of children in poverty. It means ending curriculum gaps that maintain and exacerbate achievement gaps.

We support policies that motivate rather than demoralize our educators. We are committed to ensuring that schools that educate children in poverty are not treated unfairly, which is why we 34 will end the test-and-punish version of accountability that does no more than reveal the many opportunity gaps facing students from low-income communities.

Democrats are committed to providing parents with high-quality public school options and expanding these options for low-income youth. We support democratically governed, great neighborhood public schools and high-quality public charter schools, and we will help them disseminate best practices to other school leaders and educators. Democrats oppose for-profit charter schools focused on making a profit off of public resources. We believe that high-quality public charter schools should provide options for parents, but should not replace or destabilize traditional public schools. Charter schools must reflect their communities, and thus must accept and retain proportionate numbers of students of color, students with disabilities and English Language Learners in relation to their neighborhood public schools. We support increased transparency and accountability for all charter schools.

Contrast this conception of public education to that of the Republicans.

Education: A Chance for Every Child Education is much more than schooling. It is the whole range of activities by which families and communities transmit to a younger generation, not just knowledge and skills, but ethical and behavioral norms and traditions. It is the handing over of a cultural identity. That is why American education has, for the last several decades, been the focus of constant controversy, as centralizing forces from outside the family and community have sought to remake education in order to remake America. They have done immense damage. The federal government should not be a partner in that effort, as the Constitution gives it no role in education. At the heart of the American Experiment lies the greatest political expression of human dignity: The self-evident truth that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” That truth rejects the dark view of the individual as human capital — a possession for the creation of another’s wealth.

Parents are a child’s first and foremost educators, and have primary responsibility for the education of their children. Parents have a right to direct their children’s education, care, and upbringing. We support a constitutional amendment to protect that right from interference by states, the federal government, or international bodies such as the United Nations. We reject a onesize-fits-all approach to education and support a broad range of choices for parents and children at the state and local level. We likewise repeat our longstanding opposition to the imposition of national standards and assessments, encourage the parents and educators who are implementing alternatives to Common Core, and congratulate the states which have successfully repealed it. Their education reform movement calls for choice-based, parent-driven accountability at every stage of schooling. It affirms higher expectations for all students and rejects the crippling bigotry of low expectations. It recognizes the wisdom of local control of our schools and it wisely sees consumer rights in education — choice — as the most important driving force for renewing education. It rejects excessive testing and “teaching to the test” and supports the need for strong assessments to serve as a tool so teachers can tailor teaching to meet student needs.

We applaud America’s great teachers, who should be protected against frivolous lawsuits and should be able to take reasonable actions to maintain discipline and order in the classroom. Administrators need flexibility to innovate and to hold accountable all those responsible for student performance. A good understanding of the Bible being indispensable for the development of an educated citizenry, we encourage state legislatures to offer the Bible in a literature curriculum as an elective in America’s high schools. We urge school districts to make use of teaching talent in the business community, STEM fields, and the military, especially among our returning veterans. Rigid tenure systems should be replaced with a merit-based approach in order to attract the best talent to the classroom. All personnel who interact with school children should pass background checks and be held to the highest standards of personal conduct.

Academic Excellence for All Maintaining American preeminence requires a world-class system of education in which all students can reach their potential. Republicans are leading the effort to create it. Since 1965, the federal government, through more than 100 programs in 34 the Department of Education, has spent $2 trillion on elementary and secondary education with little substantial improvement in academic achievement or high school graduation rates. The United States spends an average of more than $12,000 per pupil per year in public schools, for a total of more than $620 billion. That represents more than 4 percent of GDP devoted to K-12 education in 2011-2012. Of that amount, federal spending amounted to more than $57 billion. Clearly, if money were the solution, our schools would be problem-free.

More money alone does not necessarily equal better performance. After years of trial and error, we know the policies and methods that have actually made a difference in student advancement: Choice in education; building on the basics; STEM subjects and phonics; career and technical education; ending social promotions; merit pay for good teachers; classroom discipline; parental involvement; and strong leadership by principals, superintendents, and locally elected school boards. Because technology has become an essential tool of learning, it must be a key element in our efforts to provide every child equal access and opportunity. We strongly encourage instruction in American history and civics by using the original documents of our founding fathers.

Choice in Education: We support options for learning, including home-schooling, career and technical education, private or parochial schools, magnet schools, charter schools, online learning, and early-college high schools. We especially support the innovative financing mechanisms that make options available to all children: education savings accounts (ESAs), vouchers, and tuition tax credits. Empowering families to access the learning environments that will best help their children to realize their full potential is one of the greatest civil rights challenges of our time. A young person’s ability to succeed in school must be based on his or her God-given talent and motivation, not an address, ZIP code, or economic status. We propose that the bulk of federal money through Title I for low-income children and through IDEA for children with special needs should follow the child to whatever school the family thinks will work best for them.

In sum, on the one hand enormous amounts of money are being spent for K-12 public education with overall results that do not justify that spending level. On the other hand, the common experience of families, teachers, and administrators forms the basis of what does work in education. In Congress and in the states, Republicans are bridging the gap between those two realities. Congressional Republicans are leading the way forward with major reform legislation advancing the concept of block grants and repealing numerous federal regulations which have interfered with state and local control of public schools. Their Workplace Innovation and Opportunity Act — modernizing workforce programs, repealing mandates, and advancing employment for persons with disabilities — is now law. Their legislation to require transparency in unfunded mandates imposed upon our schools is advancing. Their D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program should be expanded as a model for the rest of the country. We deplore the efforts of Congressional Democrats and the current President to eliminate this successful program for disadvantaged students in order to placate the leaders of the teachers’ unions.

To ensure that all students have access to the mainstream of American life, we support the English First approach and oppose divisive programs that limit students’ ability to advance in American society. We renew our call for replacing “family planning” programs for teens with sexual risk avoidance education that sets abstinence until marriage as the responsible and respected standard of behavior. That approach — the only one always effective against premarital pregnancy and sexually-transmitted disease — empowers teens to achieve optimal health outcomes. We oppose school-based clinics that provide referral or counseling for abortion and contraception and believe that federal funds should not be used in mandatory or universal mental health, psychiatric, or socio-emotional screening programs. The federal government has pushed states to collect and share vast amounts of personal student and family data, including the collection of social and emotional data. Much of this data is collected without parental consent or notice. This is wholly incompatible with the American Experiment and our inalienable rights.

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A Good Day for Public Education

It seems at least probable that my criticism of our union leaders for their failure to win concessions from Hillary Clinton that she would end the tenure of Education Secretary John King was premature. The final democratic platform plank on education is excellent on the uses of testing and the right of parents to opt their children out of high stakes tests. It’s even better than it might have been on charter schools, coming out against for profit charters and, more importantly, taking a reasonably strong stand on preventing charters from negatively influencing neighborhood public schools. I was very glad to see that AFT President Randi Weingarten was influential in winning significant changes from some of the original language proposals. To be sure, Hillary is not bound to govern by the language of the platform, but, realistically, she can’t very well continue the Obama administration’s testing oriented education policies. Neither is there going to be a place for a John King to implement policy derived from this platform.

I won’t be too surprised if Hillary has to tip-toe around this plank in her speeches and debates. Her strongest support is the African American community, many of whose leaders are strongly in favor of high stakes testing. Many in this community believe that absent test based school and teacher accountability systems, the schools their children attend, schools that are too often seriously under-resourced, will languish. She needs to find a way to show how the schools in all communities are negatively impacted by the uses of standardized tests that were never designed to rate schools, teachers or kids for that matter.

I hope news of the Democratic platform on education gives heart to some of my teacher union friends who are still grieving for the defeat of Bernie Sanders. It ought to go a long way to have them understand that the choice between Hillary and Trump is not at all between two evils. Hillary and the Dems are clearly recognizing the failure of the Obama education policy and committing to rolling back some of its essential features. That’s progress! It’s not perfection, but it moves us forward.

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Will King Ever Be Gone?

Why are none of our nation education union leaders publically demanding that Hillary respond to Secretary John King’s decree that school with more than 5 percent opt-out rate be treated as failing schools and be sanctioned by the feds? Many of us knew this would happen when President Obama poked his finger in the eyes of America’s teachers by naming King to be his Secretary of Education succeeding Arne Duncan who did more to diminish the stature of the teaching profession than I can remember. We desperately need to hear from Hillary that she will rid us of this anti-public education secretary.

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NCLB is Dead. Welcome ESSA!

The nation took a huge step forward today with the Senate’s passage of Every Student Succeeds Act, the successor to the failed No Child Left Behind Act that ushered in the test and punish approach to public school reform. This bipartisan measure is said to have the support of President Obama, although it must be seen a repudiation of his policies and the work of his Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Credit is due for the efforts of our two national teacher unions for their very effective work in getting this legislation passed.

The downside of the measure is that it maintains the yearly testing of current law, but differs markedly in permitting the state significant latitude in what is done with the test scores. It also ends the federal mandate that the test scores be tied to the evaluation of teachers. More responsibility for education is returned to the states where issues of academic standards, teacher evaluation and what to do about failing schools will now be addressed without the financial coercion effectively dictating state policies. To be sure, there is still much work to be done to undo the harm done to our schools by the corporate driven test and punish reform movement. We can begin to see, however, movement toward a return to sanity.

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Our Tax Dollars Wasted

New York State has spent almost 700 million dollars on Race to the Top. 700 million dollars to implement a test and punish culture in our public schools. 700 million to enrage parents and encourage them to opt their children out of the tests on which we have spent millions. Here’s the state’s breakdown on what they spent our tax dollars on. November 2016 will be our opportunity to hold the people who let this happen accountable.

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No Doubt Left About Elia

If we had any doubts about who Commissioner Elia is and where she stands on the scourge of high stakes testing and the incalculable damage it is doing to even our very best public schools, her release of a tool kit for superintendents makes it clear to teachers and parents that she wants New York’s students taking the 3 through 8 ELA and math tests and expects her superintendents get both groups to toe her line. Were I a superintendent, I would be outraged by the insult of thinking that I was too lazy and or stupid to write my own letters to parents and teachers if I wanted to, requiring Dr. Elia to give me a form letter into which I simply have to fill in the name of my district. What chutzpah! But what a jerk. The superintendents’ organization should blast her for this outrage, but I bet they don’t. If she had not smelled their fear, she never would have had the nerve to put this demeaning crap out to them in the first place.

Before most superintendents have even examined the tool kit, its publication has further inflamed those parents and teachers who have come together to defend our public schools from a testing regime that has been designed to discredit the institution of public education so that it may be privatized into an even bigger profit center than it already is. Jeanette Deutermann, founder of Long Island Opt Out, immediately took to social media to warn superintendents that our movement is watching them and is poised to pounce should they turn their backs on the their communities. My guess is that Elia has given our movement a gift, one that will help us achieve our goal of doubling our opt-out numbers this year.

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Take Your Appeals Process and…

According to the New York State Department of Education, some two thousand teachers are potentially eligible to appeal their ineffective “growth score” on the state test portion of the teacher annual professional performance review (APPR). To my very pleasant surprise, only eighty-six have applied.

The small number of appeals suggests that most of the members of the pool of eligible teachers recognize the absurdity of the so-call growth scores and so long as their jobs are not threatened by the APPR process could care less whether they receive a highly effective or an effective rating. Their response to the appeal process is a small but healthy expression of contempt for an evaluation system that is seen by most teachers as denigrating their hard work.

The appeals process appears to be part of a public relations campaign by the Regents and Commissioner Elia to rehabilitate the State’s disastrous education reform efforts with cosmetic changes. Look for the State to re-introduce the Common Core as the New New York Standards which will change some of the words but little of the substance of the Standards. Regrettably, real change is probably only going to happen when a majority of the children in all of the public schools in our state are opted out of the high stakes examinations and when we defeat a least a few of our elected leaders who have inflicted this scourge on us.

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Accountability or Surveillance?

Much of what gets talked about today under the heading of teacher accountability should be more appropriately referred to as surveillance. Accountability implies responsibility and an obligation to explain or account for one’s actions. Surveillance denotes watching for wrongdoing, catching malefactors in the act. It’s root is the word from which we get vigil. True teacher accountability tends to be embedded in the culture of an institution. It’s internalized by all staff regardless of rank to the point where an outlier gets the attention and sanction of all. It takes thoughtful leadership to build true accountability. It’s ultimately built on a deep respect for the work and the institution.

Teacher accountability today is increasingly a surveillance system. Neither the teacher observation systems currently employed nor the linkage of student test results to teacher evaluations promotes real accountability. Those are systems to which we devote huge resources of time and money to ferret out information that would be self-evident in an accountability approach built on a belief and trust in individuals to do the right thing. Those are systems that promote gaming. They do nothing to nurture institutional loyalty. The dirty little secret behind all the accountability palaver is that we could put an end to all of the surveillance we do of teachers, all the formal observations, all their growth scores, all the spying on them, all the questioning of children in their classes and the educational outcomes would be totally unchanged. Were we instead to put the money we spend on surveillance into reducing class size or other educationally enhancing measures, we would accomplish something real.

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Tonight’s Debate

I’m looking forward to the Democratic debate tonight. I’m hoping that unlike what we have seen thus far from the Republicans, education policy will figure significantly. A lot depends, of course, on the questions the moderator asks, but with Hillary having gotten the endorsement of the NEA and AFT and Bernie likely to try to minimize its impact, the subject is likely to come up one way or another.

Look for signs tonight that the candidates understand that there is a grassroots rebellion surging against the corporate driven education policy of the Obama administration. If the candidates understand this phenomenon and its huge potential electoral power, especially in low turnout primary elections, we should hear them competing for the votes Americans who oppose yearly high stake testing and the connection of these tests to the evaluation of teachers. I’ll be looking for recognition that poverty is the central factor prejudicing the achievement of America’s children and specific recommendations for hoe to confront the fact that so many American children begin school substantially behind their wealthier peers.

All of the Democratic candidates claim to be strong supporters of public education. We need more than their claims. We need to hear definitive plans for how they are going to do this, plans for ceasing the war on teachers and public education.

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The Public Mostly Gets It

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

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

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

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Wait for the Taskforce Report, But Get Opt-Out Letter In

Feeling the heat of the growing parent revolt against high stake testing and the evaluation of teachers based on student test scores, Governor Cuomo has once again reached for the creation of a taskforce on the Common Core State Standards, hoping to mollify those who hold him politically responsible for the chaos wrought in the name of higher academic standards.

Early responses to the naming of his taskforce are less than enthusiastic, with NYSUT welcoming the taskforce’s creation but suggesting that proof of its worth will await its recommendations for cleaning up the current education policy mess. Opt-out movement leaders have taken to social media this morning, most alleging the taskforce to be a fraud owing to its lack of parent and teacher members.

To the best of my knowledge, there are no informed opponents of the Common Core State Standards or high stakes testing on the panel. Those I know talk about the need to reduce the number of tests and a fairer system to evaluate teachers, but basically support the concept of national standards and the use of high stakes tests to measure student progress. The influence of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers is clearly present, with Randi Weingarten its former president, Catalina Fortino and a teacher from Brooklyn all owing allegiance to that powerful local union whose President, Michael Mulgrew, passionately defended an attempt to have the American Federation of Teacher oppose the Common Core at its last convention. It was on that occasion that he made his now infamous, intemperate threat to punch in the nose anyone who tried to take the standards away.

I will be pleasantly surprised if any change other than around the margins comes from this panel. Those of us who care about the extreme damage being inflicted on our best school districts in the name of standards and accountability must continue to build the parent movement to veto test and punish education by refusing to participate in it. Let’s wait for the panel’s report, but while we’re waiting, let’s encourage parents to get their opt-out letters in.

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New Yorkers Are On To The Common Core

A new Siena College poll finds 64 percent of New Yorkers think the Common Core State Standards have either had no effect on public education (24%) or have worsened it (40%). That then means that we have spent millions of dollars of scarce resources to fund the implementation of an approach that has diminished the public’s confidence in its schools. We have tied these standards to a regime of high stake tests of undetermined validity and in turn tied the student results to the evaluation of teachers, demoralizing our teacher corps as they have never been demoralized before.

We hired a new commissioner on the basis of her allegiance to the standards, the tests aligned with them and teacher accountability linked to student test scores. When does the absurdity of this policy dawn on our elected representatives? When do we collectively say, ENOUGH? When does it become clear to the policy makers that a few cosmetic changes will not suffice to convince the public of the merit of this policy? Must we wait for one hundred percent of New York’s students to opt out of the testing regime? Or have we reached the point where what the people of the state think no longer matters? Maybe the problem is even bigger than we think.

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The Seattle Strike

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

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

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

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Maybe Teacher Evaluation Is A waste of Time

I recently had a Facebook exchange with a citizen on the subject of the evaluation of teachers. He was responding to my view that connecting teacher evaluation to student results on high stakes tests is an absurd thing to do for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that the student tests were not designed to measure teacher performance. In the citizen’s most recent post, he asked me how I would evaluate teachers. I promised him this blog post as my response.

While much of the education community is hyper-focused on teacher evaluation, to me most of the discussion is directed at answering the wrong question, an all too familiar circumstance. Just as the No Child Left behind Act was premised on the mathematical absurdity that all children could through proper education become above average, the reality is that teaching talent is also distributed on a curve or spectrum. To think that it is possible to have a great teacher in every American classroom is equally absurd, assuming we could define the characteristics of that greatness, something I think is almost impossible to do. The almost fetishistic discussion of teacher evaluation and the policies that have emerged to weed out bad teachers from the profession have been an abject failure, having accomplished little more than the demoralization of countless teachers who put heart and soul into their work.

Were we serious about raising the caliber of members of the teaching profession, we would take steps to actually make teaching more of a true profession, where good practice is determined by those engaged in the practice rather than political people and administrative hacks. We would begin by developing a more clearly defined path to becoming a teacher. In the current model, young people invest at least four years of their lives qualifying to be a teacher before they have anything like a realistic experience of what it is like to actually do the job. Suppose we took young people interested in teaching and in their sophomore college year actually put them in the public schools several days per week, giving them increasing responsibilities as they advanced through their teacher training program. We might even employ them during their junior and senior years, giving them actual responsibilities for students. These years of “clinical experience” would be under the shared supervision of the university and the staff of the public school who would have joint responsibility for certifying them as qualified to teach. Young people completing this program would know if they liked the work and whether they were any good at it. They would also know that people who actually do the job day in and day out think them capable of doing it. How different from the current model where one takes some state examinations, does a few hours of teaching and is declared fit to teach.

A sensible teacher induction process could reduce the number small number of bad teachers we have. Yes we have some, but far fewer than conventional wisdom would have us believe. No one knows about them better than the teachers in the schools where they work. My union experience defending the rights of these people has taught me that most of them really hate the job and feel trapped in it. To be sure they offer elaborate rationales for why things are not going well for them, but when I listen carefully I almost always detect, “I really don’t want to do this job anymore. I never really wanted to. But I’m now trapped in it with no economic alternatives to staying until retirement.”

A system of teacher training like the one I propose would weed most of these people who should not be teachers out. Those who remain will still be of varied abilities and dedication, but they will have already passed muster with people who actually do the job who have observed them under progressively real conditions, unlike the current system where prospective teachers watch teaching for a semester and then do student teaching for another. Once they get a full-time teaching position, I would have them under the direct supervision of the tenured members of the department or school. Most of what I learned about teaching over the years I learned from the teachers with whom I worked. While the administrators who observed me from time to time said good things about my work, I learned almost nothing from those experiences. Like most teachers and performers, self-criticism was a more powerful motivator than that of any administrator. In a system of peer responsibility that very common quality of being self-critical combined with the pressure to conform to a departmental or school consensus on the work to be done is far more likely to influence teacher practice than the current system that confuses supervision with scrutiny.

So much time money and rhetoric expended about how to rank teachers. People are evaluated on every job, people will say. I suspect it’s largely a waste of time in most places.

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Join Us! Don’t Attack Our Leaders

My blog today is a response to a Facebook posting by the president of our local board of education. He expresses the facile view that the scourge of high stakes testing and its consequences could have been avoided by a union leadership more concerned with the interests of its membership. While my reads know of my disagreements with various levels of union leadership, it’s not fair to confuse mistakes with personal corruption as Mr. bettan and too many other do. Here’s the posting and my response.

As I’ve been saying for years: The sad reality is that this entire hi-stakes testing mess could have been avoided if AFT leadership hadn’t sold out their members. In NY Cuomo never gets test scores linked to APPR without the support of NYSUT. Race to the Top never happens without support from national teacher union leadership. Time to stop blaming billionaires like Bill Gates and companies like Pearson and start realizing that teacher unions have been taking money from their foundations all along the way. This is just another example of Weingarten putting her agenda ahead of her teachers. Note: my comments here have nothing to do with Clinton or the presidential election, but rather the disconnect between teachers and those they pay to represent them.
Gary Bettan

While I have been highly critical of the response of our unions to the corporate attack on public education, an attack spearheaded by Bill Gates for whom you apologize, to cavalierly state that high stakes testing and its consequences could have been avoided if the AFT and NEA had simply chosen not to go along is to simplify history to an absurdity.

A fairer analysis than yours would take account of the creation, through the corporate manipulation of the media, of an education crisis in the United States. As Diane Ravitch and other scholars have amply demonstrated, there is no crisis. In fact by almost any measure, America’s schools have been improving. This attack on public schools diverts the public’s attention from the real crisis – a growing number of America’s children are being permanently scarred by poverty. Such an analysis would also take account of corporate influence on our politics. No child left behind and Race to the Top didn’t just happen. They are a testament to the influence of money on politics and policy.

While I disagree with our state and national union leaders and have expressed that disagreement in person and in my writings, I have never suggested that they sold our members out. While they have made strategic and tactical errors, I believe them to be motivated by an abiding concern for the membership. Their challenge was and is how to push back against a corporate reform effort that is clearly aimed at the destruction of public education as we know it. They made a decision to engage the reformers and the politicians whom the reformers had bought and paid for, hoping through engagement to blunt the attack on our schools and members. That engagement has included taking money from places like the Gates Foundation to finance union education experiments. Let’s remember too that much of this testing escalation took place in the midst of the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression, one in which states had gaping holes in their budgets and the Feds were offering millions to climb on to the reform bandwagon, insisting on thing like tying teacher evaluations to test results.

In New York, this all took place at a time that I was on the NYSUT Board of Directors. The state was in a financial hole as were many local school districts. The Feds were offering close to a billion dollars if we would buy into the Race to the Top program with its Common Core Standards and testing regime tied to them. The challenge to NYSUT was how to get the federal money that many of its locals needed to save the jobs of their members while blunting the impact of the federal mandate to tie student test results to teacher evaluation. Their answer was to try to use collective bargaining to permit locals to participate in the creation of teacher evaluation plans, so-called APPRs.

While I and others spoke out against the APPR deal NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi made with Governor Cuomo and worked to try to get the NYSUT Board to vote it down, the fact is a majority of the NYSUT Board supported this approach, and the deal was done. Therefore, while it is fair to say that Iannuzzi made a mistake (It’s important to note that many in our ranks still do not believe he did.), it is completely unfair to suggest that he sold our members out. He made a decision that was backed by our board. It was in part that decision that ultimately cost him his job.

This year in New York we witnessed Governor Cuomo renounce the deal he made with Iannuzzi as achieve legislative changes that will make matters even worse. I was encourages to see NYSUT President Magee embrace the opt-out movement, thereby recognizing that it is only through the collective action of educators and parents that we are going to be able to overcome the power of the corporate reform movement. We had over 200,000 students opted out of the exams this year, more than triple the number of last year. We are at work to triple it again. Our members invite you and the other members of our Board of Education to fully embrace this movement. Such an effort will be infinitely more productive than hurling unfounded accusations against union leadership. Our unions are being attacked by the same corporate interests. Friends of public education like you need to join with us not attack our leaders.

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Mystifying Teacher Evaluations

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

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

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The Ethical Challenges of Teaching Today

My understanding of the impact of poverty on children has been enormously enriched by the insights of Richard Rothstein, a scholar at the Economic Policy Institute. To read his work or to hear him speak is to see through the political smoke callous, ethically bankrupt politicians like Andrew Cuomo whose teacher accountability snake-oil is promoted to hide facing the failure of our society to deal with the reality that a quarter of our nation’s children live and are being permanently scarred by poverty. All of this is my personal preamble to Valerie Strauss’ publication of Rothstein’s remarks to the graduating class of Bank Street College of Education. While teachers have always faced ethical challenges, the totally corrupted state of our public schools raises ethical issues no previous generation of teachers has had to confront. Although I wish Rothstein had worked the possibilities of an ethical life in teacher achieved through collective action with one’s colleagues, his thought provoking remarks should be read and considered by every teacher in today’s public school classrooms, even in our best schools. This is a must read!

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Scapegoating Teachers

On my way to work yesterday, I listened to a WNYC piece focused on the Mount Vernon schools and the challenges it faces educating vast numbers of kids who lives have been damaged by poverty. This is a school district in which over 600 of its students are homeless, one in which many enter schools physically and mentally unequipped to learn.

As I thought about what I would write about today, a story told by a principal in the district came to mind and evoked the same rush of anger I experienced when I first heard it. She told of seeing a little boy who had been absent from school that day and enquiring of him the reasons for his absence. The boy explained that he had no clean clothes to wear to school, leaving the principal to ask, “Where are we living,” her way of expressing the cruel irony that such conditions exist in one of the richest counties of the richest country in the world.
Mount Vernon and other similar schools districts in the state have waged a legal battle for what they believe is the serious short changing of their schools by the state. Asked what she would do if the money her district sought were forthcoming, the Mount Vernon principal talked first about hiring a full-time nurse, because, she explained, so many of her students had unaddressed health issues and never get to see a doctor. She went on to enumerate other services like psychologists, guidance counselors and many service providers who are routinely part of our wealthier school districts.

The radio piece contrasted these heart rending conditions with Governor Cuomo’s speeches blaming ineffective teachers for the problems of schools like the ones in Mount Vernon. Andrew Cuomo wants people to believe that putting resources into districts like this only inflates the bureaucracy, adding nothing to the performance of the schools. If you listen to the people from the Mount Vernon schools featured in this piece and think about what they confront daily, then if blame is to be allotted for these horrendous conditions, it lies with empty windbags like Andrew Cuomo who would scapegoat teachers to try to avoid their responsibility to take care of the desperate needs of children like the ones featured in this story.

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Crazier All The Time

The New York State Education Department has yet to write the regulations to implement the new Annual professional Performance Review (APPR) law, but just its published outline has forced teachers to think in ways that are inimical to quality public education. Numbers in my local union have talked to me about seeking to negotiate a protection for them from the clause in the law that says a teacher can’t be judged to be effective if she in ineffective as measured by her students’ test data. Serious, career professional teachers, teachers with reputations for excellence, teachers who are highly desired by our parent community, some of these teachers want a contractual guarantee that if they are found to be ineffective on the state growth measure, they will automatically be switched to a non-tested grade, in this way guaranteeing themselves that they will not be ineffective two years in a row and thereby subject to dismissal proceedings.

I supposed none of us should be surprised that people whose livelihoods are threatened will search for creative ways to protect themselves. The law itself even suggests this as an approach in that it provides that no student can have an ineffective teacher two years in a row. There are some rural school districts in this state that have only one or two teachers per grade who will be forced to play musical grades.

As I write, however, I’m unaware of any proposal in Albany to address the serious consequences of this crazy law. Instead, the Senate’s energy seems to be consumed by the political fallout from the indictment of Majority Leader Dean Skelos. There is pending legislation to delay implementation of this stupid law, bills to codify a parent’s right to opt her child out of the state assessments and assorted other measures that do nothing to treat either teachers or children fairly or protect the quality of our public schools. It grows clearer each day that representatives who won’t change this law will have to themselves be changed.

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Don’t Confuse Talk With Action

Monday night’s meeting of the Plainview-Old Bethpage Board of Education was the first since the passage of the law which effectively made student results on state assessments the most important piece of teachers’ evaluations. Teachers whose students fail to reach an essentially arbitrary growth targets cannot be rated effective, even if those who supervise them on a daily basis rate understand them to be effective or better. What that does is to tie teachers’ continued employment to student test results. Does anyone doubt that teachers will be hyper-focused on preparing their students for the state tests? To not do so is to be irresponsible to themselves and their families. With that understanding of what New York had done to teachers and public education, I listened in amazement to Superintendent Lorna Lewis explain to the public how despite the action of the legislature and the governor, our schools would not yield and become focused on test preparation. What a canard!

First of all, we have already become a district that moves to the substance and rhythm of the state Common Core assessments, even though they have until now counted for only twenty percent of a teacher’s evaluation. With the new law wherein test results trump the observation of supervisors, one would have to be delusional not to understand that teachers will be driven to focus on preparing children for tests that are determinative teachers’ ability to continue to have their careers. Why, I wonder, would we lead the public to believe otherwise, a public half of whom opted their kids out of the assessments in protest against what they are doing to the academic program in our schools?

The leaders of our district like many seem to confuse talk with action. They are against testing, yet they don’t publically support the opt-out movement, have increasingly worked routinize instruction, focusing on the alignment of the educational program with the very assessment they claim to oppose. Just yesterday, I was told that teachers have been instructed to give final examinations in 5th and 6th grades, no one ever bothering to ask teacher whether that is an appropriate thing to do. More and more we’re preoccupied with making children college and career ready without ever understanding that we are squeezing out of the program many of the very things that actually contribute to that readiness. If the expression college and career ready means anything it implies the growth and development of a human child which surely includes much more than what is measured on an English or math test. Our leaders would have us understand that all is well in our schools. Nothing could be further from the truth. The parents who refused to let their kids take the state exams know this, and they are growing in numbers. They are the hope that we can bring real education back to our schools. If we double the number of children opting out again next year, there will be no one taking the tests. We could get to that happy day much faster if all our school leaders would act like the scourge of high stakes testing is the real threat that it is.

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