A Teachable Moment

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

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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Chancellor Tisch Tries to Buck Up Superintendents

Chancellor Tisch made the following remarks about opting out at the March 9 meeting of New York’s superintendents. Had she made these remarks to a group of teachers, she would have been hooted out of the room, so divorced are thoughts from the reality of what our teachers are facing in their classrooms daily. While on one hand I hate to spread her ill-informed message, I hope my readers will respond to them by redoubling their effort to encourage parents to opt their children out of assessments that tell us little to nothing useful.

So, let’s talk about opt out.

If you encourage test refusal, you have made a very powerful statement. We all want the tests to be even better – as short as possible and as closely matched to instruction as possible. That is a fair critique, and we continue to improve the tests over time.

However, some have a very different goal. They have said they want to bring down the whole system on which adult accountability is based – even if only a little bit – on evidence of student learning. I am much less cynical, and I see things very differently. I believe that test refusal is a terrible mistake because it eliminates important information about how our kids are doing.

Why on earth would you not want to know whether your child is on track for success in the fifth grade or success in college? Why would you not want to know how your child and your school are doing compared to other children in district, region, and State? Why would you not want to know the progress of our multi-billion dollar investment in education? Why would you not want to know whether all students are making progress, not just the lucky few?

I do not pretend that test results are the only way we know, but they are an important piece of information. They are the only common measure of progress we have.

We are not going to force kids to take tests. That’s not the New York way. But, we are going to continue to help students and parents understand that it is a terrible mistake to refuse the right to know.

We don’t refuse to go to the doctor for an annual check-up. Most of us don’t refuse to get a vaccination. We should not refuse to take the test.

I know that superintendents are on the front lines in this debate over the future of our schools. Day after day, you help your community understand the importance of high standards and the necessity for measures of student progress. We would be lost without your leadership.

It is true that many of us want to bring down an accountability system that few serious statisticians believe measures a teachers’ contribution to the education of children. To evaluate hard working teachers on a mathematically flawed testing regime to whatever degree is a fraud both on those teachers and the students in their charge.

The Chancellor’s comments say nothing about the absurdity of high stakes tests driving instruction rather than rich curriculum and the ingenuity of teachers to take children where they find them and advance them academically as far as they can go. She says nothing about the stupidity of standards that seriously conflict with what we know about child development. Standards like insisting that every kindergarten child read by first grade ignore that some are simply not neurologically prepared to do so and that forcing them to do so runs the risk of teaching them to hate reading at best or possibly ensuring they will never read as well as they might have. Tisch says not a word about the daily narrowing of the curriculum so that what is not tested is not taught, and the horrifying pressure to teach to the arbitrary rhythm of pacing charts that assume that every child can learn the same thing, in the same way and the same time.

The bottom line is that the education dilatant Chancellor has a faith in high stakes testing directly proportional to her lack of experience in education. A growing number of teachers and parents have faith in neither high stakes testing not the Chancellor and the Regents. By opting their children out, they cast a vote of no confidence in the education bureaucracy and their governor whose education agenda would make things unimaginably worse. The only thing encouraging about the Chancellor’s remarks to the superintendents is that she felt compelled to make them. They were clearly a response to the spate of public letters by superintendents calling the state’s testing regime and the governor’s doubling down on testing into serious question. So, the real message here is to do what we can to double the opt out numbers this year. Tisch sees the opt out movement for the threat to her agenda that it is. That she felt compelled to try to enlist the superintendents in pushing back should embolden us to keep the pressure up.

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Cuomo’s Chutzpah Sets Him Apart

Andrew Cuomo’s defense of his latest education reform proposals in his letter to the Long Island public in Sunday’s Newsday is interesting on a number of levels.

Clearly he is feeling the heat of an aroused public that is increasingly demanding an end to the scourge of high stakes testing and a re-working or abandonment of the Common Core State Standards. While Long Island has pockets of poverty and economic decay that have historically been associated with poorer performing students, the fact is that most Long Island communities have school systems that rival any in the country and the world. Citizens here pay very high property taxes to support those schools, take a keen interest in the school work of their children and know that by any measure their kids compete favorably with those from other parts of the country. They resent Cuomo’s suggestion that their schools are failing, seeing it for the lie it is, and experiencing it as almost a personal insult.

It fascinates me to see this governor, who challenges my capacity for contempt, endlessly trying to find a way to spin a series of education proposals that fewer and fewer see as offering any serious possibility of improving education in New York. He says his proposals are all about attracting and keeping and supporting good teachers. Sure they are. The reformers have made teaching such an attractive profession that enrollments in teacher education programs are down in New York and elsewhere. Intelligent people seeking a career love the idea of increasing the hurdles to be jumped over to get a highly stressful, low paying job at which one’s evaluation is based on student scores on state assessments that have been demonstrably shown to be unreliable measurements of teacher performance. Our best college graduates are aching to enter a field in which professional judgment and creativity are increasingly choked off by the demand to strictly follow corporate developed programs that mechanize teaching and the pressure to get high exam results to avoid the threat to one’s employment. They love the idea of being scrutinized for five years, for the most part by observers who know nothing about the culture of their schools, to earn the right to an abridged due process procedure. They are enthralled by the possibilities that through a test score based evaluation process that has been shown to rate teachers highly effective one year and ineffective the next they have a shot at a $20,000 bonus.

My favorite part of the Cuomo letter is where he states, “Virtually everyone also agrees that New York’s teacher evaluation system is not accurate and is skewed in its construction to provide favorable results for teachers.” Really? Here’s where Cuomo’s chutzpah sets him apart from lesser political scumbags. Left out of his remarks is the fact that this system that’s not working is the very system he negotiated with NYSUT And which he hailed at the time. Here are Cuomo’s words from the February 12, 2012 press release. “Today’s agreement puts in place a groundbreaking new statewide teacher evaluation system that will put students first and make New York a national leader in holding teachers accountable for student achievement,” This agreement is exactly what is needed to transform our state’s public education system, and I am pleased that by working together and putting the needs of students ahead of politics we were able to reach this agreement.” So the system that’s not working is Cuomo’s system which his current proposal simply double down on.

At the end of his letter, Cuomo tries to refocus the public’s attention from teacher evaluation to making it easier to takeover “failing schools,” reforming tenure and making it easier to get rid of what he maintains are the significant numbers of bad teachers in our schools. Here Cuomo is following the polls which show a lack of public interest in the tenure and school takeover issue. Cuomo senses that he will be able to peel the public away from organized teachers on these issues and get what he wants. Let’s hope we are not about to enter into another bad deal with Angry Andy.

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The Corporate Stooge is Catching It Now From School Superintendents

It’s not every day that a New York superintendent of schools publically refers to our Governor, Andrew Cuomo, as a corporate stooge. But that’s what Fairport Interim Superintendent and former Rochester Superintendent William Cala did. Cala joins a growing number of superintendents of school who have finally had enough of Governor Cuomo education reform plans. Unable to do their budgets without knowing how much income from the state they can expect, and knowing full wee that making changes to the tenure law and teacher evaluation law can only have a negative effect on teachers and the students they teach, the normally timid, authority bound superintendents are starting to get cranky. When superintendents begin to rebel, watch out.

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The Unbashed Superintendents

Governor Cuomo talks about tightening up the teacher/principal professional performance review (APPR). Chancellor Tisch counters with doubling the percentage student test scores count towards the evaluations and increasing the teacher probationary period from three years to five. Our education leaders are racing to outdo each other in the sport of bashing teachers and holding them accountable for social pathologies they not only had nothing to do with creating but which they fight to overcome daily.

Have you noticed how in all this moaning and groaning about ineffectual teachers and to a lesser extent principals we hear little or no bashing about superintendents of schools, the leaders of these supposedly failing education institutions. As they are responsible for hiring the apparent hoards of ineffective teachers standing in front of America’s classrooms, why don’t we tie their evaluations to the same student scores? Why don’t we devise an APPR for them that includes say fifty percent student scores and a rubric that divides leadership into its component parts? The leadership rubric could be completed by having the employees of the school district each fill out a computerized form on which they award points, one to four, for the various qualities of leadership essential to the smooth running of a school district. For example, on a scale of 1 to 4, where 1 is ineffective and 4 highly effective, does the superintendent offer a clear vision of where he/she wishes to lead the district and the reasons this direction is desirable? Can the superintendent’s word be counted upon? Do you feel that the superintendent appreciates your work is and defends it from those who attack it? You get the point. It’s not hard to do. Maybe Ms. Tisch can from her own pocket hire some people to construct a uniform rubric – like the law school students hired to work on the teacher/principal APPR.

The adoption of such a superintendents’ APPR would push them from the sidelines in the battle to save public education and our profession directly into the combat. I’m unsure how many of them would be an asset in our cause, but it would sure improve the capacity of many to have some empathy for what teachers are experiencing today if they were subjected to the same stupidity that is being inflicted upon us.

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Organize What?

Both national teacher unions and most of their state affiliates are focused on organizing. Suddenly, unions have discovered that they need to return to their organizing roots if they are to meet the challenges posed by a corporate school reform effort backed by almost limitless funding that allows for the almost complete saturation of their message in the media. I’ve sat through countless meetings at various levels of these organizations, never really catching what it is our unions are attempting to organize around. I’ve been amused at such meetings to invariably find that a meeting of leaders called to talk organizing end without the participants being asked to work on some specific organizing activity.

My latest reminder of this irony occurred yesterday at a meeting of local union leaders, many of whom have been engaged in a series of state union sponsored meetings aimed at building local organizing capacity. At one point in the meeting, I found myself listening to the all too usual lament about how the members of their local unions don’t want to do anything. I was particularly taken by a younger leader who talked about an organizing effort that was aimed at building better attendance at union meetings. She had clearly put considerable effort into getting a turnout that never materialized. Although it puzzled her, she drew the correct conclusion that members were clueless as to why they should bother going to her meeting. Somehow, despite her state and national unions encouraging her generation of leaders to organize, there is no clear understanding as to what it is we are organizing around.

When I began to teach in my district, my local that had already had a strike to win the right to bargain collectively for the teachers (its first organizing idea) was organizing around the central idea of a starting teaching salary of $10,000. Most of the salary schedules in the area began at half that. With a Master’s degree and two years of experience, I began at $8,300. The simple, straight forward demand for a starting salary of $10,000 was an idea that resonated with all of us who were struggling to make a living, many of us requiring second and third jobs to make ends meet.

Our unions are having trouble organizing for lots of reasons, but central to the problem has been our failure to establish a few clear goals to organize around and a strategy for achieving them. Deep down we know that the scourge of high states testing and its linkage to teacher evaluation is a natural, but somehow our efforts never get much beyond our state and national leaders talking about it. While some of our locals actively encourage the opt-out movement, we don’t robustly encourage our locals to participate. While union media cover rebellions against testing like the recent one in Seattle, no effort is made to promote such activities elsewhere. A generation of teachers is on the verge of losing the last vestiges of the freedom to practice their craft, they being increasingly straight-jacketed with programs aligned (how I have come to hate that word aligned) to the Common Core State Standards that their state and national organizations have helped to promote, and our members have no clearly articulated goal and strategy for saving their profession.

So by all means, let’s organize, but until our members clearly understand what it is we hope to accomplish, I fear we are just squandering our money and our credibility in the organizing efforts we are making.

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Send All Leaders in Albany a Message

Andrew Cuomo has spent most of his re-election campaign hiding in plain sight. He’s made very few appearances, has managed to avoid all but one debate and any close scrutiny of his record. So it was a little surprising to read of his anti-teacher outburst to the Daily News, flipping the bird to the UFT and NYSUT for failing to endorse him by talking about a new round of tougher teacher evaluation proposals that he will submit after his reelection. So, on the eve of the election, with polls showing him 20 points or so ahead of his closest challenger, New York’s bloviating bull thrower of a governor decides to poke his finger in the eyes of Mike Mulgrew and Karen Magee, even though those two leaders surrendered to the governor when they failed to ask their governing boards to endorse Zephyr Teachout in the Democratic primary or Howie Hawkins in the general election. That’s the kind of timidity that invites bullies like Andrew Cuomo to prey.

New York’s teachers need to send a message to Cuomo, the members of the legislature and to their union leaders that they are tired. They can do that on Election Day next Tuesday by going to the polls and voting for the Green Party’s Howie Hawkins for governor. For Hawkins, it’s people and planet before profits. So it’s no to more charter schools, the Common Core State Standards, high stakes testing, the property tax cap, the gap elimination and hydraulic fracking and yes to renewable energy, due process for teachers, a progressive system of taxation, a $15 per hour minimum wage, the Triborough Amendment, universal health care and local control of schools. Should Hawkins receive votes equal to or better than his current polling numbers of about 10 percent, and should organized teachers continue to work after the election to build the party that embodies its values, the Greens will become a growing power to be reckoned with by the governor and legislature. He can easily do that, if New York’s teachers decide to stop wasting their vote by staying home or voting for the lesser of two evils and instead voting for what they believe. Our union movement is dying for some idealism.

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Social Capital and Student Achievement

One of oft repeated stupidities of the education reformers, most notably Arne Duncan, is the goal of having a great teacher in front of every classroom. There are about 3 million public school teachers in the United States. Assuming we could all agree on what qualities constitute a great teacher, what are the odds we could find 3 million of them? To paraphrase newly elected National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia, there are people who seriously believe that it is possible for 100 percent of any population to be above average. They believe such things because all things are possible to people who don’t know anything about the subject they’re talking about.

So, if we agree that the goal of a great or even above average teachers in every classroom is a self-contradictory objective, is there another approach to school improvement that offers real possibility of success? A recent article in the Shanker Blog by two University of Pittsburgh researchers summarizing their studies in public schools suggests an approach that will ring completely true to teachers but will not be easily swallowed by our education bureaucrats who believe that all wisdom flows down from them. Professors Leana and Pil argue that “…organizational success rarely stems from the latest technology or a few exemplary individuals. Rather, it is derived from: systematic practices aimed at enhancing trust among employees; sharing and openness about both problems and opportunities for improvement and a collective sense of purpose.”

These researchers show that what they call social capital is essential to school improvement. Social capital consists of the “…relationships among teachers, between teachers and principals, and even between teachers, parents and other key actors in the community.” In schools with rich social capital, teachers have time and the inclination to talk to each other about their work. They feel confident confiding in others about gaps in their knowledge or know-how. They have a sense of working in common cause. Studies conducted by these investigators show strikingly significant gains in student achievement when teachers have a robust social capital support system.

If Leana and Pil are correct, and my experience says they are, then the function of school leaders is to promote the development of social capital in our schools. Yet, current trends are moving in the exact opposite direction, with evaluation systems that single out individuals rather than promoting cooperation and what union guys like me refer to as solidarity. School leaders seeking to promote the development of social capital spend much less time scrutinizing teachers, putting their time and effort into creating a climate of trust and information sharing. Does that sound like the leadership of your district?

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Ed Dep’t Doubles Down on Stupidity

If one needed any further proof that education policy in the Obama administration is bankrupt and that Education Commissioner Arne Duncan is totally unfit to lead the federal education efforts, surely the decision by the feds to revoke the state of Washington’s waiver from the demand of the No Child Left behind Act that mandate that every child be proficient in reading and math should remove any doubts one might have had. Yet this is precisely what Duncan has done because the Washington legislature refused to pass a bill tying teacher evaluations to the test results of their students. Thus, even schools in which test results improved very significantly have been rated failing and 20 percent of the federal funds must now be set aside for tutoring or sending students to schools not deemed to be failing. There is just one word for actions like this – STUPID!

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Time for Regents to Fade Away

Isn’t time for New York to do away with the Regents? Isn’t it time that citizens be able to hold their elected representatives accountable for education policies rather than having the un-elected Regents as a buffer between the citizenry and the people we elect? How different things would be if that were the case. With polls increasingly showing waning public support for New York’s education policies, we could conceivably change them as soon as January first. Instead, led by the imperious Ms. Tisch, the Regents are talking about doubling down on the abject stupidity of tying teacher evaluations to student results on high stakes tests that are increasingly divorced from any sane notions of the age appropriate education of children. It’s time for the Regents to fade into the history of education in our state.

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Respecting Teachers’ Judgment

This post belongs to a series I have been writing intermittently about standards teachers could support. Other posts are Searching For Standards Teachers Could Support, Teacher Written Standards would be Age Appropriate and Public Schools and Citizenship.

Teachers could respect standards that respected their professional judgment. Any set of standards presumes a predictable classroom environment in which they are to be applied. In any school, however, as social beings, children and teachers come to class usually prepared for the planned lesson but sometimes not. Sometimes, those are the best days of all. I was reminded of this the other day as I came across a tweet by a 5th grade teacher in a neighboring district who wrote, “Successfully tossed today’s plans aside and introduced my class to the works of Pete Seeger.. this beats CC any day.”

We call these things teachable moments, but that term doesn’t catch what’s going on here. For the 5th grade teacher quoted here, Pete Seeger’s death was a moving event – Seeger having been important to him in ways we can’t begin to calculate. His relationship with his 5th graders is clearly such that he “needed” to share his knowledge and feelings about this great musician who played crucial roles in most of the great social movement of the last sixty years. His love and respect for Seeger’s work was important to share with children he clearly cares about.

His lesson on Seeger was a success in this teacher’s eyes, but any teacher can tell from his tweet that he knows the education bureaucracy he works for with their assessments, pacing charts and progress monitoring wouldn’t appreciate his deviation from his Common Core lesson plan. I’ll go with tis teacher’s standards any day. If you want to hear the voice of what my standards point to as a highly effective teacher, check out his Twitter feed at @rrato.

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Leave It to Cuomo

Like in a tire ripped open by a New York pothole, the air is rapidly escaping from so-called education reform movement in New York. With parents and teachers becoming increasingly aroused to action against the Common Core State Standards and the tests aligned to them, with members of the legislature beginning to respond to the ire of their constituents, with New York City under its new mayor poised to undo the Bloomberg corporate reforms, this is the time our Governor, Andrew Cuomo, decides it would be wise to call for the demonstrably failed concept of teacher merit pay to be grafted on to the equally stupid annual professional performance review process that ties student test scores to teacher evaluations. Is there no end to Cuomo’s pandering to the corporate reformers? Probably not, as they are the ones who have filled his campaign fund with millions of dollars, probably enough to scare off any serious challenger.

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Weingarten’s About-face

I congratulate AFT President Randi Weingarten for finally coming to the conclusion that value added measures of teacher performance are a sham – there being no research that establishes their validity. While I welcome her to my side in the battle against obsessive testing, as the elected leader of a union I belong to, it’s not that easy to forget the damage her support for the linkage of student performance on standardized tests to teacher evaluation has caused. It’s much easier to forgive Diane Ravitch who was never elected and paid to represent me. Despite serious opposition to her position from the rank and file, Weingarten persevered, sincerely believing that she was right – that she had insights many of the members lacked. She proved to be wrong.

Should the insurgent candidates in the upcoming NYSUT elections prevail, they will do so in large measure because of their perceived failure to handle the testing/teacher evaluation issue appropriately. As NYSUT makes up about half of the AFT membership, it will be interesting to see if Weingarten meets a similar fate.

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TEACHER WRITTEN STANDARDS WOULD BE AGE APPROPRIATE

This post is part of the series of posts seeking national standards classroom teachers and parents could proudly support. The introduction to the series can be found here.

Despite all of what is essentially propaganda to the contrary, classroom teachers were not hands-on participants in the drafting of the Common Core State Standards. If they had been, we wouldn’t have parents and teachers across the nation in an uproar, particularly those dealing with young children.

We know beyond a doubt that children develop at different rates. In an ideal world, not all children would start school at 5 years of age. We would observe their development carefully and begin to formally educate them when they were ready. In a system of public schools that must accommodate millions of children, that isn’t practical. We have begun them all in most places at five, but we provided some broad flexibility in at least the early grades so that kids with lags in aspects of their development were accounted for and hopefully caught up to their peers. That is, the expectations for the various grades were flexible enough that kids of a broad spectrum of abilities could still be considered to be doing satisfactorily.

With the Common Core Standards, at least as they are being implemented in New York, that is far from the case. We have what I call the compounded educational felony of age inappropriate standards promulgated nationally by people with, to be kind, very limited understanding of the cognitive development of children, passing them on to incompetents like we have in Albany to be interpreted and expressed in the so-called modules on the State Ed website. That leaves classroom teachers with little children who can barely hold a pencil properly coloring in bubbles on answer sheets to verbal math problems which they can’t read with any degree of precision. It leaves them shoving vocabulary words down the throats of children who may parrot the words back but who are not ready yet to store them in working memory.

Finally, no teacher I know would have just dumped the Common Core State Standards without first thinking through the learning gaps that need to be filled in the transition to this new approach. Just yesterday, I was talking to a colleague who teaches 6th grade math in a district serving a high percentage of children who live in poverty, kids who for a variety of reasons have gaping holes in their learning. She reminded me that math knowledge is acquired sequentially. Miss some basic concepts in first grade, and you’re probably going to have difficulties in grade 2. Unaddressed, the gaps grow exponentially. Try as a child to deal with math that is served up in non-traditional ways, ways in which many elementary teachers find it difficult to understand and the learning gaps are multiplied by at least several factors. Send these kids home with homework that their parents don’t recognize as math, and you have guaranteed that numbers of them will see themselves as bad at math for the remainder of their lives. Many will actually be. As bad, parental support for public schools is undermined as parents send their kids to schools that frustrate them and diminish their self-confidence.

Good, highly experienced teachers, teachers from inner city, rural and suburban schools writing national standards and planning for their implementation would have foreseen these problems and attempted to plan for them. The standards would have been informed by the essential skills of people with broad experience and knowledge of what children at a given age can be expected to do. We could still have such standards, if the Obama administration would come to its senses, shed itself of the influences outfits like the Gates Foundation and other corporate interests and work with our two national unions to recruit real teachers to rewrite the Common Core State Standards that in their current iteration will accomplish nothing.

Even then, however, we would still be faced with national disgrace that a quarter of our nation’s children live in poverty.

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The Deadly Connection of Test Results and Teacher Evaluation

Whether it’s Common Core or some other reformist miracle cure for the social pathology that we believe can be cured if only we have the right kind of schools, once we link student performance on standardized tests to teacher evaluations we will inevitably have a system in which we teach to some test. To think otherwise is to believe that human beings will ignore the threat to their income these tests pose and concentrate their attention instead on ensuring the exposure of their students to rich curriculum experiences that lie outside the narrow scope of these exams. Only those drinking the reformist Kool-Aid believe that. The connection between student test results and teacher evaluation will have to end if we are ever to get out of this mess the reformists have created. I say this as the president of a local teacher union in which 77 percent of the members were rated highly effective and none ineffective.

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