A Teachable Moment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New Yorkers Are On To The Common Core

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

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

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The Seattle Strike

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

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

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

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Regents Cling to the Wrong Approach

It wasn’t very surprising to learn yesterday the New York State Regents voted to make their teacher evaluation regulations permanent. While some seats on the Board of Regents were flipped last year, there are still not enough members committed to ending the test and punish approach to school improvement that is choking meaningful quality education from even our best public schools. The real disappointment came with the knowledge that Regent Tilles, a professed opponent of the test and punish policy, voted to support the regulations, claiming he had to because it is required by law. Frankly, I have always seen Tilles as wanting things all ways. He opposes the current policy but votes to support the regulations. He opposes the scourge of high stakes testing but played a vital part in hiring Commissioner Elia, a proponent of testing and its connection to teacher evaluation. I fear Tilles is more interested in becoming chancellor than he is in acting on his professed beliefs. One way or another, he has let the defenders of public education on Long Island down.

Today, parents and school personnel who oppose the direction of education policy in our state are wearing red to show support for their local public schools. The failure of the Regents to seriously revise the regulations promulgated last spring will undoubtedly serve to breathe new energy into the opt-0ut movement. It will also hopefully begin the process of targeting public education’s political enemies in Albany and devising a strategy for their defeat in November 2016. Despise Governor Cuomo as I do, the crafty devil senses that the political tide is turning against him and his education policy, causing him to suddenly favor changes to the teacher evaluation system in the direction of greater fairness. It’s going to take more than that Andy!

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Big Surprise: There’s a Teacher Shortage

The top domestic story in this morning’s New York Times concerns the teacher shortage in many areas of the country. Imagine that! In is few short years, we have gone from a glut of teachers to a shortage. It’s not hard at all to understand how that has happened. Neither is it hard to figure out how to fix the problem.

The financial crisis hit states very hard, causing huge drops in revenue which in turn caused them to cut state aid to local school districts that solved their budget crises by laying off teachers. Across the country, thousands of teachers were excessed, many never to return to the profession, if they were lucky having found new careers. Those teachers who survived the layoffs found their wages frozen or stagnating and their working conditions deteriorating, both as a result of scarce financial resources and the acceleration of the corporate school reform movement’s drive to discredit public education with the goal of privatizing it. Key to discrediting the institution was a growing cult of accountability that has sought to tie student performance on standardized test to teacher evaluations, even though no reputable statisticians support the validity of this process. In many places, governors, often backed by the same forces pushing the so-called reform movement, launched attacks on education unions that ran the gamut from seeking an end to tenure to withdrawing or curtailing collective bargaining and pension rights. In short, that which made teaching attractive to many, job security, union wages, defined benefit pensions, the opportunity to do interesting, rewarding work and the certainty of a decent retirement began to evaporate.

With thousands laid off, with working teachers increasingly disgruntled, with much of the media reinforcing the lie that public education is failing America’s children, with teaching increasingly becoming test preparation, with all kinds of senseless barriers being created to qualify as a teacher being erected, is it any wonder that fewer young people are going into education. Why would a young person seek a career in which practitioners are increasingly presumed to be ineffective no matter what they do, where they are over scrutinized and under supervised, where they must hold multiple jobs to support their families and where their work is increasingly routinized? What is it that our society believes is going to attract them in sufficient numbers?

The attacks on teachers will either cease or the trend towards a growing shortage will continue. Young people seek careers that provide some dignity and status. Those are increasingly hard to come by working in public education today. Sadly, I find myself discouraging young people I meet from seeking to become teachers. I feel ethically obliged to do so.

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Join Us! Don’t Attack Our Leaders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Offer of a Hand in Our Own Destruction

Word yesterday that the New York State Education department has dumped Pearson as its test maker for the grades 3 through 8 assessments in favor of Questar, a rival company. We are also told that the contract with the new company, worth some 44 million dollars, will oblige the test makers to increase the number of versions of the test that will permit the validity of trial questions to be tested while shortening the length of the test itself. We are led to understand that through a process yet to be made clear teachers will be involved in the crafting of these exams and the data derived from them shared in a more pedagogically useful manner that heretofore. This announcement, the first under new Commissioner Mary-Ellen Elia, is being hailed by some, including NYSUT leadership, as a victory in the battle against high stakes testing. Why a shift in companies is seen as some kind of victory is beyond me.

While the length of the 3 through 8 tests is a significant issue, it is of much less importance to educators and parents than the fact that students are tested yearly and that their academic progress in English and math is measured by one test, No competent teacher would evaluate a student’s performance on such a limited basis. Add to that absurdity the fact that such limited information is then used to evaluate teachers and we have a system that has predictably corrupted public education. By defining success for both students and teachers by high stakes test scores, we have created a system where the curriculum is increasingly devoid of anything not covered by the tests and the very pace of the instruction is determined by the need to cover the tested material by the time of the test, weeks before the actual end of the school year. We have made school less joyous for students and promoted dishonesty among too many teachers and administrators who have come to see themselves in a struggle for survival. None of these existential issues for public education are address by the state changing the test maker. The whole thing appears to be a public relations move to get out from under the bad press that has been heaped on a discredited Pearson.

Questar may be able to make tests that are more error free than some produced by Pearson, but that should not cool the passion of those of us who see high stake testing as a potent tool of those who seek to delegitimize public education so as to privatize it and profit from it. It will do nothing to boost the morale of teachers who see their profession being stolen out from under them. It won’t curb the pressure we are putting on young children as we narrow their education to the point where it is becoming training rather than preparation for informed adulthood and citizenship. Inviting teachers to participate is quite simply luring them into participating in their own destruction.

The answer to the scourge of high stakes testing is not a new test maker. The answer is to return testing to the hand of educators who know how to harness it to sound pedagogical practices. The best way to make that happen is for parents and teachers to reject and resist the current testing regime. Over 200,000 students refused the state tests this year, up from 60,000 last year. Our goal has to be to boost that number to at least 400,000 next spring by starting now!

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NEA and the Opt-Out movement

One of the more disheartening aspects of the recent NEA Representative Assembly was its failure to fully embrace the opt-out movement. While a number of new business items that nominally supported the opt-out movement passed, items that called for working with other organizations to promote the opt-out movement failed and failed badly.

To the extent that one could discern from the debate the reason for the failure to embrace the opt-out movement, it appeared to be a fear that failure to meet the federal threshold of 95 percent participation in the mandatory high stakes tests would result in a loss of Title I funding. Of perhaps even more importance were the comments of a number of speakers who expressed the concern that opting out would lead to negative consequences for the teachers whose evaluations are tied to these examinations.

The latter reason is of a piece with a general impression I took away from the convention. There is an almost unanimous belief among the assembled union leaders that public education is under attack and that a major weapon in that attack is high stakes testing. Yet, despite that perception, there is no common understanding that to beat back that attack is going to require direct actions like promoting the opt-out movement, even if such support puts our members at some risk. There is no broad understanding that the risks of doing nothing other than making speeches and dabbling in electoral politics is in the long run more risky.

Here’s where leadership could make a profound difference. NEA President Lily Eskelsen-Garcia is as gifted a communicator as we have ever had. She and the other NEA officers surely understand that the most potent weapon we have had in the battle against high stakes testing has been the opt-out movement. It’s as simple as, if no one takes the tests, we can then have a serious conversation about the place of testing in public education. Leadership’s failure to speak that truth to the assembled union leaders and their unwillingness to embolden the delegates to take a stand, risks and all, was deeply disturbing, to me and especially to many New York union leaders who have strongly embraced the opt-out movement and helped to drive our opt-out numbers to over 200,000 this spring.

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Brainless in Orlando

    KoThe NEA Representative Assembly was disappointing on a number of levels that I’ll be talking about going forward.

    Yesterday, if one can believe it, the body voted down a motion that would have prevented the NEA from taking money from outfits like the Gates Foundation and other organizations and corporations that do not support the pro-public education policies of the NEA. If there ever was a no brainer, it seems to me this was the one. No one has done more damage to public education than Bill Gates who for a time had co-opted the two national education unions into supporting the Common Core State Standards and worse still the tying of the results of Common Core aligned high stakes tests to the evaluation of teachers. That Gates money influenced our policies is beyond any reasonable question.

    Push back by activists in both organizations caused both national union presidents to state that they would no longer take Gates Foundation money. Ironically a motion that looked to make it policy not to take Gates money would up serving to create a policy of encouraging the taking of this corrupting funding. Wendell Steinhower, the President of the New Jersey Education Association gets my award for the most brainless speech of the convention. Rising to oppose the motion that would prevent the NEA from taking Gates money and money from similar sources, Steinhower called upon us to take the money so that people like Gates would have less of it to give to bigger enemies than Gates. For a leader one of the largest state education unions to be so almost cosmically ignorant of the corporate campaign to destroy public education and the centrality of Bill Gates to this campaign left this union leader wondering about the future of our union. NEA President Eskelsen-Garcia’s subtle but clear encouragement of the opposition to telling Gates and others to keep their money makes her passionate statements about high stakes testing and the damage it is causing ring completely hollow. We simply can’t accept money from people who propose and fund political movements inimical to the welfare of our members and build a viable movement to defeat those movements. To believe that we can is to believe that people like Gates are stupid and essentially suicidal.

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Andrew Cuomo Prepares to Blow Some Smoke

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s poll numbers continue to sink in large measure owing to the growing organized opposition to his education policies and the public perception that everything that comes from Albany is tainted by corruption. What does a desperate, cynical politician do when faced with extinction? If the politician is Andrew Cuomo he doesn’t think about changing his policies. He thinks instead of an emotional appeal to Jewish voters many of whom see a nuclear deal with Iran as inimical to the state of Israel. He leaks to the press that he is thinking of opposing any deal with Iran even before he knows what the deal contains and certainly before he has done any careful analysis of where the interests of the United States lie. He calculates that citizens will be dumb enough to forget the reason they have driven his poll numbers down in the first place – the content and style of his approach to governing.

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Either They Are With Us Or …

If everybody who claims to oppose corporate sponsored school reform were willing to seriously do so, we would be much closer to what I still believe will be an inevitable victory. The vote of the Regents to adopt the Education department’s recommended APPR regulations was eleven in favor, six opposed. Among the eleven voting for adoption was Long Island’s Roger Tilles.

Tilles has enjoyed broad support from Long Islanders interested in public education. He correctly saw that the opt out movement had long political legs and almost embraced I by talking about its potency and correctly predicting its rapid growth. Joining the six regents who strongly opposed the new regulations would have built on his public support, and, beyond question, Tilles is smart enough to have known this. His support for the new regulations suggests that he has an agenda the importance of which trumps his allegiance to the anti-testing movement. Having heard him talk several times about his desire to become the next chancellor, I suspect that’s what his vote is about.

We can expect him to explain his vote as a strategic play towards a bigger goal than the changes to the APPR process. Others may choose to believe him I won’t. That’s a version of the excuse our legislators give for having voted to change the APPR law in the first place. Given his public record of opposition to much of what the new regulations contain, he was ethically obliged to oppose these stupid and harmful regulations.

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More Time to Do A Stupid Thing

The New York Regents having voted to grant four month delays for districts that show they cannot negotiate new teacher evaluation plans by the statutory November deadline is being viewed with deep relief in the public education community. It seems having more time to do something stupid if preferable to having to do it quickly. And stupid and wasteful of time money and energy the new system surely is. It’s the latest Albany perpetrated fraud. Complete with growth measures that can’t be substantiated to measure student growth, with independent evaluators who will know next to nothing about the context in which their evaluations of teachers will take place, with SLO targets, weighted averages, rubrics, matrices all adding up to HEDI scores – all to tell us what should be immediately discernible to a trained educator’s eye – whether a teacher is bad, good or exceptional. The more I think about this latest iteration of the teacher evaluation fraud the more dedicated I become to seeing to it that the scum-bucket legislators who voted for this crazy law pay the ultimate political price for they cynical bargain with governor who is owned by the corporate education reformers. If you doubt that take a look at this Common Cause report.

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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 SAT’s Business Plan

How many excuses will our society come up with to avoid the fact that it is unwilling to confront the national shame that a quarter of our youth live in poverty, a condition that significantly alters their futures in countless ways? Will we continue to tolerate corporate snake oil salespeople like the SAT’s David Coleman who is now hawking a program to have SAT prep become an integral part of the public school day beginning in grade 8? The SAT will provide free Kahn Academy materials, attempting thereby to capitalize on Kahn’s current popularity in some circles. But this is but the latest example of corporate giving to get, with fortunes to be made as SAT dips into school budgets everywhere. Isn’t this just what public education needs most at this moment, more test prep. It’s getting to be the time for a movement to opt out of the SAT and all of its products. You can read about this latest attempt to infiltrate public education in this article in The Atlantic.

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Enough Evaluation Rhetoric

When do the politicians and educationists exhaust their capacity to pontificate on what kind of teacher evaluation and accountability scheme we should have? I’m so sick and tired high sounding verbiage that complicates what to me has always been really simple.

It has and always will be easy to spot teachers who do not belong in our schools. One shouldn’t need any teacher tests to know if a candidate for an English position is knowledgeable about the subject. A skilled English teacher armed with the candidate’s college and graduate school transcripts should be easily able to glean knowledge of the subject in the course of a good interview.

Of course one can know a subject thoroughly and not be able to teach it successfully. Those who are thoroughly lacking in teaching ability reveal themselves almost immediately to those who know how to look for teaching talent and care to see. One doesn’t need any rubrics to see if students are engaged in a coherent lesson on part of the established curriculum. One requires no arcane powers to gauge the quality of teacher questioning and the depth of the student discussion her questions provoke. Where a teacher has developed rapport and respect with her students, the presence of an observer causes the students to almost instinctively help that teacher shine – kids who feel supported academically and emotionally responding in kind. If one wants to view the efficacy of a teacher’s writing instruction, a periodic review of her written assignments is all that is necessary to see if quality work is being done.

I’m completely sure that what I’ve said for English works for any discipline. It presumes that the supervisor knows the subject herself and is confidently willing to honestly evaluate her subordinates. I stress the honesty piece in that over the years I’ve witnessed numbers administrators try to explain their failure to document the shortcomings of clearly bad teachers by blaming it on the strong union I lead. The fact is, however, our union has never gone to bat for a probationary teacher whose poor performance has been amply documented.

The really good news is that there never have been large numbers of ineffective teachers in my district. That’s true of most districts in our state. The overwhelming number of them work harder, invest more emotion and time in their work than they are paid for and are too often made to feel that their efforts are unappreciated. This seemingly endless search for the ideal way to evaluate them contributes mightily to their feelings of being underappreciated. Listening to them talk about the ever changing evaluation models, one senses that they perceive that they are being stalked by predators out to rob them of their profession.

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Long Island School Board Elections

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

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

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Yesterday’s Regents Meeting

I have a seemingly endless capacity to endure verbal torture and was therefore able to watch that portion of yesterday’s Regents meeting available online. By the end, a couple of things became clear. While the most often used word in the hour or so meeting used to talk about the meeting itself was “conversation,” there really was no conversation to be heard. Instead it was more a group of windbags, most of whom spent their very limited time talking about things that they frankly appeared not to understand at all.

Not one of them seriously challenged the opaque presentation by deputy Commission Ken Wagner, a perfect master of meaningless speech disguised as intellectual discourse, a character who always causes my mind to wander to memories of the comedian Professor Irwin Corey, even though they all expressed very politically correct concerns with the state’s testing regime and its tie-in to teacher evaluation. What was needed was for one, just one, of the Regents to shout out, “Just what the f…. are you talking about.” Instead, lest someone think the Regents were losing their nerve on testing aligned to the Common Core Standards, Ms. Tisch, brought them back in line with her summary of the “conversation” from which she took away that none of the Regents wanted to ‘back away” from a testing regime tied to the Standards. The only Regent with the nerve to challenge Tisch a jot was Regent Betty Rosa from the Bronx who expressed her doubts the tests and the standards, politely dissociating herself from the Chancellor’s remarks.

While none of the Regents was clear on what our current testing regime tells us either about the performance of teachers or students, all seem to agree that we need betters test that do what they would be hard pressed to say. No one participating in the meeting seemed to be even remotely aware of the damage they have done to teaching and thereby to the student of our state. Those who have been hopeful that the Regents will somehow ameliorate the idiotic changes the Governor and Legislature made to the APPR law will be sorely disappointed. Frankly, I never expected much from them and have long been in favor of doing away with this body that is not directly answerable to the public.

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Kids Need to See to Learn

Pam Gallin and some ophthalmologist colleagues went into some schools in New York City’s poorer neighborhoods and screened 2400 children for eye problems. Four hundred and fifty of them were found to need glasses, some of them so badly they couldn’t see the “E” at the very top of the eye chart. Some of the children who had been labeled behavior problems turned out to be simply trying to communicate with classmates because they couldn’t see what the teacher was doing. This is just one of the many difficulties poor children face. Many children miss numbers of day of school because of dental pain, their parents often not having the money for dental care or the ability to take off from work to take the children. Poverty reduces the quality of these children’s live in so many ways, ways that are not accounted for in much of the gibberish written about failing inner city schools.

Not only are these children the innocent victims of poverty, now the state of New York wants to victimize their teachers. Just imagine how many thousands of kids there are in the inner cities of our state who like the kids in Dr. Gallin’s op-ed need glasses but are unable to get them. Then remember that their scores on standardized test are used to determine the continued employment of their teachers. How stupid can our leaders be? Their vision is so much more difficult to correct.

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Always the Wrong Discussion

The subject of almost always seems to stimulate public discussion that is unrelated to the urgency given to it at any given moment. In other words, we always seem to be having the wrong discussion, or so it seems to me.

In my town, the burning issue is whether we should close our unique kindergarten school in favor of moving the students to our -1-4 buildings. Passions are boiling over this issue. Try to get a serious public discussion of the fact that the program we offer kindergarten children increasingly diverges from what we know from research on child development, and one is met with blank stares at best. Some weeks ago, I tried to say some of this at a public meeting of our board of education. I spoke about how an alarming number of the members I represent who work in the area of mental health report that they are seeing shockingly high numbers of children presenting serious mental health issues. After I was done speaking, one board member angrily took me to task for my remarks, as though I was the enemy of the people.

Our media are filled with almost vengeful criticism of our public schools, but how many people do we hear talking about a growing rejection of scientific findings by Americans as perhaps a symptom of a failing education system. Is it not a striking failure of our schools that so many Americans view the concerns of climate scientists that there is good reason to believe that human activity is adding significantly to the warming of our planet as a hoax? What’s wrong with schools that graduate millions of students who believe the earth was created 6000 years ago? So much of our public discourse springs ultimately from ignorance of almost cosmic proportions, ignorance that goes unaddressed by our society and its leaders who peddle ignorance for their own political advantage. We’ve reached a point where the Governor of Texas alerts his state National Guard to watch the maneuvers at a local army base, encouraging his citizens to believe that the federal government means to take Texas over. What kind of schools produce a citizenry that doesn’t laugh him out of the governor’s mansion?

Do we seriously think that Common Core is going to address this failure to equip several generations of Americans to participate knowledgably and intelligently in our democracy? How will these so-called standards increase voter participation from the 37 percent of the last election cycle? How are high stakes tests tied to teacher evaluations going to enable our children to free themselves from ignorance spawned beliefs that continue to plague mankind? What does the expression “college and career ready” mean if our public schools encourage more and more of our best and brightest to go into finance and hedge fund management? How are any of the so-called reforms that serve as the focus of our public discourse on education going to address our society’s sin for permitting generation after generation of America’s children to be raised in debilitating poverty, poverty that starts children falling behind their more fortunate peers literally from the moment of their birth?

So many serious questions about how we educate our children need serious discussion while we put our time, money and resources into what at best are marginal issues.

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It’s Not About Better Tests!

I’m always trying to teach our union members that there are always opportunities to develop political coalitions, often with people with whom we disagree on most issues. So, I’m thankful the Plainview-Old Bethpage Board of Education voted last evening to send the grade 3 through 8 field tests back to the education department. Anything that reduces the horrific waste of instructional time and delegitimizes the corporate sponsored test and punish regime is welcomed by me and the teachers I represent. Yet what became very clear from the discussion prior to the vote to return the field test was the lack of understanding on the part of most board members of why these field tests and the tests that they serve to develop are at odds with the goal of quality education.

Too many of our board members seem to think that if we could only get better tests, tests that are available for public scrutiny, they could support a high stakes testing regime. Their discussion last evening did not reveal any understanding of what high stakes testing is doing to the instructional program in our district and throughout the country and that these malignant effects are inherent in any such testing program, even ones decoupled from teacher evaluations. If standardized tests that compare students are central to student advancement, they will create a political pressure for teachers to teach to the tests. Add to the high stakes for students a linkage to teacher evaluation and you have a combination guaranteed to narrow the curriculum to those subjects and skills necessary for students to advance to the next step in the race to nowhere and for teacher to ensure their continued employment. The best of tests that become the be all and end all are ultimately antithetical to an education aimed at the intellectual and ethical development of children. The burgeoning ranks of the opt-out movement understand this. This movement is not about the quality of tests; it’s about their inappropriate use.

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