A Teachable Moment

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

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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Scrap Salary Schedules Says Van Roekel

The sad truth is that both the National education Association and the American Federation of Teachers support the corporate sponsored drive for digital accountability for teachers and students and the Common Core Standards that are aligned with this testing epidemic. Both grow progressively more distant from the work of the people they represent to the point where their national presidents sound increasingly like Bill Gates and the other corporate reformers.

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel speaking to the Education Writers Association conference in Chicago earlier this month declared himself against conventional salary schedules that pay teachers on the basis of academic preparation and years of classroom experience and in favor of systems that at least in part measure and reward merit. At a time when the increment system is under attack at bargaining tables throughout the country, making speeches like this is tantamount to aiding and abetting the efforts of boards of education to control teacher wages – to have their wages stagnate like those of more and more Americans – to push back against the unions who have brought teachers into the middle class. In short it’s abjectly stupid and harmful. It brings kudos from the reformers who see the NEA’s support for corporate public school reform as evidence of our union being “forward thinking” to be sure, but it has caused members to wonder whose side their leaders are on.

If Van Roekel felt compelled to attack the so-called single salary schedule, he might have had the foresight to advance the idea of a pro- union, solidaristic schedule, one predicated on the concept that two people doing the same work should appropriately receive the same pay. He might have advanced the idea of a probationary period during which teachers are paid an apprenticeship wage, perhaps spending part of their day being mentored rather than actually teaching and advancing upon completion of a reasonable probationary period to the maximum salary on current schedules. Although this too would be controversial with the rank and file, he could at least show how such a system has members earning more dollars over the course of a career than the current system. But solidarity is just a word, I fear, to our national union leaders. They seem to find it easier to support ideas that pit member against member and undermine our ability to resist our enemies.

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Taking a Risk for Justice

A couple of days ago, at a union meeting of leaders from adjacent school districts, I listened to Jeanette Deutermann, the leader of the Long Island Opt-Out movement, parents who will not allow their kids to be subjected to New York’s obsessive testing. Deutermann spoke eloquently of how the upsetting experience of her child during the state exams led her to start asking questions about them, the answers to which were deeply disturbing. She shared her concerns with some friends, tied into what opt-out movements in other states were doing, and the Long Island movement was born.
Deutermann is clearly looking for a way to work with teachers. She doesn’t want to get them in trouble, but she knows that it is only through a close alliance of parents and teachers that the powers in Albany will be more fearful of an enraged public than the corporate leaders sponsoring the current testing regime as a tool to discredit public schools.

In response to Deutermann’s remarks, I spoke about the need for teacher unions to support the Opt-Out movement if we are to maintain our credibility with our parent communities. At the very least, I maintained, we ought to be encouraging our own members to opt their kids out of a testing regime that we often claim is tantamount to child abuse. Addressing the concerns of several leaders that there were risks associated with defying the education department both for individuals and school districts, I tried to bring my colleagues back to their roots.

I observed that the brave souls who started our teacher union movement took far greater risks than I was talking about. That, for example, the brave teachers who undertook the first strike on Long Island did so with a law on the books that permitted the state to terminate them for striking. However, they knew what all who strive for social justice know – that there is always risk in confronting injustice, but the risk of tolerating it is greater. Those who take the battle on are not fearless. They get scared, but they do what they have to anyway.

I don’t know if I convinced anyone. I do know I’m sick and tired of union meetings where leaders find an assortment of excuses to avoid taking action. Too many of our unions have adopted a service model instead of an organizing one, the one that brought us from what was essentially serfdom to economic security. I know too that if we rise up and use our numbers to unite with pro-public education citizens and confront the privatizers, the testocrats and the plain stupid, we can save public education and our profession.

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Gates and Our Union

Some of my colleagues were upset by Diane Ravitch’s blog post for yesterday from which they learned that last year our state union accepted a grant from the Gates Foundation to its Education and Learning trust of $500,000. I’m happy for their surprise. I’m even happier for their anger! I hope they channel their anger into action.

While I didn’t know of this, even though I’m a member of the NYSUT Board of Directors, I’m not in any way shocked by this news. That the NEA and AFT have both been altogether too cozy with Gates has been clear for years. Why would anyone be surprised that the AFT’s largest state affiliate would try to translate that coziness into dollars? Where was the outrage two AFT conventions ago when the featured speaker was none other than Bill Gates talking about teacher accountability and how to measure it? Very few people walked out of the hall with me. Our leaders encouraged us to be polite to the man who has done more to discredit teachers and public education than anyone I can think of. Our leaders believed for a time that a seat at Bill Gates’ table would enable us to influence the policy of his foundation, ameliorating the negative influence of his money on our profession. I believe they have started to learn otherwise. We can see them changing course. Their policies haven’t worked. Our members are increasingly demanding action. They are starting to get it.

Both AFT and NEA have gotten considerably more aggressive in the anti-testing campaign. While they can’t yet bring themselves to openly support the Opt-Out movement, it’s beginning to lo0k as though they will have to if we are to maintain any credibility with parents of the children we serve. When AFT President Randi Weingarten calls for a moratorium on “the consequences” of the Common Core Standards because of the slipshod way in which they are being implemented, she surely knows that call will go unheeded and that the only next step open to us will be to join the growing public movement against the Common Core. Both organizations are making serious efforts to get away from service oriented unionism and back to their organizing roots. Witness the call of New York’s leaders for a mass demonstration in Albany on June 8 to demand a sane testing regime and adequate funding of our schools. Better yet, witness the organizing work being done at the local level to make this day a huge success.
So, colleagues, be angry. Let your anger move us to action. Let’s get organized. Let’s start taking some risks to defend public education. We’re going to have to do more than vote and write letters to save the institution we love.

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Gates Is At It Again

In a show soon to air on PBS, Bill Gates is said to be going to air his latest teacher improvement plan. Taking a step back from student test scores as a measure of teacher quality, he is now proposing that the country spend 5 billion dollars to put a camera in every classroom so that God knows who can watch and evaluate teachers’ performance. It can’t be long before some data driven dunce comes up with a scale that gives principals 25% of the teacher score, parents 25%, students 25% and taxpayers in the community another 25%.

There are literally countless people working in America’s public schools who know infinitely more about educating children and judging the quality of teaching than Bill Gates. We almost never get to hear them. In America today, the value of an idea is directly proportional to the money behind it.

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A Dirty Little Secret

The dirty little secret in the debate about the role of testing in our public schools is that the more we rely on tests to evaluate teachers, the more truly ineffective teachers we will have in our nation’s classrooms. That’s because the easiest teaching there is to do is teaching to a test. It requires very limited knowledge and even less imagination. Get the students convinced that the “must” pass the test, and by and large they will accept the drill and kill that is becoming increasingly standard fare. It’s probably even true that we could get very similar test results with high tech devices and a security guard watch over the students as they follow endless links on the road to mastery scores on their tests.

In the old Soviet Union there was a joke among workers that went, “The government pretends to pay us, and we pretend to work.” In the education world of the testocracy, we will increasingly pretend to teach, and our students will pretend to learn. After a brief period, nobody will even know we are pretending.

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Sunday Morning Talk

he Sunday morning talk shows are a highlight of my week. A pile of fresh bagels, an assortment of smoked fish, lots of coffee and politics. What could be better? Watch a few. Record a few. The whole day accounted for, especially when there is no baseball to watch.

But on ABC’s This Week, Michelle Rhee hawking her new book disturbed my morning as not even war reports can. Here was this media-made expert again being given attention as though she accomplished something important and actually knows something about public schools. It’s maddening to see the deference she receives, even though there is a growing body of evidence that her accomplishments as head of the D.C. schools is also a largely media concocted story. Confronted by George Stephanopoulos with the fact that there is growing public opposition to the standardized testing that she has championed, this master media manipulator began to back away from her staunch advocacy of testing, sensing that that her economic future may depend on public popularity. Sounding very much like national union leadership, Rhee thinks that we need a balanced testing regime, although exactly what balanced means to people like her she has yet to say. The most infuriating part of the interview was when Stephanopoulos as her what she had learned from her D.C. experience, and Rhee, a wide toothy smile on her face, said that she probably shouldn’t have fired a fired a D.C. principal on TV. I guess for her that passes for moral growth.

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