A Teachable Moment

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

Legislators Flail About Looking for Political Solution

The teacher evaluation plan in place in Plainview-Old Bethpage took us about a year and a half to negotiate. While I would be the first to say that the time could have been much better spent, there is one sense in which our APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review) has been an improvement over the way evaluations were done prior to its advent, although that improvement has nothing to do with the student test score part of the plan.

The introduction of a rubric to guide the observation process has taken what had tended to be amorphous written observations, often simply an endless series of clichés, and introduced more concrete language about discernible aspects of a teacher’s performance. The observations that I get to read these days are much better focused and anchored specific references rather the generalized blather I used to read. Today I usually know immediately what the observer was talking about, something that heretofore was often difficult to know. There is now at least the potential that the process provided teachers with feedback that challenges them to think about what they are doing.

It’s ironic then that one of the few real gains from all the effort that went into negotiating these APPR plans is being challenged by Governor Cuomo who wants to put increased emphasis on student test results. As I write this, yet a new proposal is circulating in the legislature that would have the Regents come up with changes to the teacher evaluation process. To me, that’s one of the scariest ideas yet.

No one in authority is talking about any plan that will have any significant effect. If we were serious about teacher evaluation instead, of looking for excuses to not have to deal with the staggering number of New York’s children who live in impoverished families, we would be looking to an approach that had practicing teachers deeply involved in the process. We would look to organize schools in ways that would make teachers the most important people in the building, empowered to make professional decisions like who gets tenure. Can anyone imagine Merryl Tisch suggesting that to the Regents? It’s seriously disheartening to watch our elected officials flailing about in search of a political solution to a problem that doesn’t really exist.

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Time to Increase the Pressure

Imagine if all of the school boards that have joined the battle against Governor Cuomo’s proposed doubling down on high stakes testing publically announced that they pledge not to implement the law if it should pass and that they will join with their teachers and cease administering the state examinations until such time as exams are created that can be used to help teachers teach. Imagine such an assertion of local control. Imagine it coupled with a pledge by NYSUT to recruit candidates for the legislature to oppose those who support the governor, whether it is in primaries or by supporting candidates who are neither Republican nor Democrats. The polls show growing support for the anti- testing movement. We need to exert even strong pressure on the pro-testing legislators.

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On Asses and Seats

There’s an old Yiddish saying that translates as, “Your ass can’t sit in two places at the same time.” It is sometimes uttered in its literal meaning, and sometimes metaphorically to highlight the holding of two mutually exclusive ideas. It’s in its latter sense that it comes to mind this morning to highlight the administration of my school district and many others who some days wish to be seen as militants in the anti-testing struggle but at other times act to perpetuate the illusion that the malignant testing mandates are not drowning out serious education.

From the superintendent of schools to the lowly elementary teachers, there isn’t anyone who doesn’t know that high stakes tests are increasingly driving instruction. There also isn’t anyone without a concern for the test results. Teachers’ jobs depend on them to in part, and the superintendent and other administrators know that a poor district performance on the state assessments is difficult to explain, ironically even to those oppose to the testing regime. Teachers have been given books and materials meant to exercise kids in the kinds of questions they can expect in April. Yet, curiously and completely hypocritically, faced with growing opposition to the tests, the administration of my district ordered teachers not to send test prep material home, apparently not wanting parents to see what their children are doing in the name of education. The implication to teachers is to use the test prep material in school where parents won’t be able to observe just how much instructional time is dedicated to the tests. Everyone has an interest in good test results, objectively meaningless though they may be.

It’s the same with the district’s response to the opt-out movement. The administration knows that the growing numbers of parents who refuse to allow their children to be subjected to the state assessments is the most potent weapon that we have to end the misuse of testing. They even agreed with us last year to make opting-out a less stressful experience for children, working with us to create alternate settings for these kids so that they would not have to sit and stare as other children took the examinations. Yet, with testing season rapidly approaching, they have done nothing to apprize parents of the process for opting their children out, clearly seeking to avoid growing numbers, but, in so doing, aiding and abetting the continuation of the very testing regime they claim to abhor.

So here’s a gentle reminder Plainview-Old Bethpage administration and other like it. Your asses can’t sit in two places at the same time. If you don’t want test prep, let’s sit down and work out a plan to end our participation in the tests. Furthermore, let’s also see if we can’t agree on the developmentally inappropriate aspects of the Common Core State Standards and promulgate Plainview-Old Bethpage standards that are aligned with reasonable expectations for children and flexible enough to service the academic needs of all. Let’s all have the courage to sit with those who care about children and cease our participation with those who have no interest in public education or the children it serves but are motivated by abject avarice. That’s the comfortable place to sit.

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Time Is On Our Side

It may not be a popular view, but I’m beginning to hope that there is no budget deal by April 1. If there is one, I suspect the legislature will have significantly caved to the education demands of our megalomaniacal governor. Time appears to be on the side of those opposed to Cuomo’s plans. A recent Quinnipiac University poll shows strong support for the opposition of New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) to the Governor’s plan to tie teacher evaluations even further to the high stakes test scores of their students. Overwhelmingly, the public recognizes that this is a very bad idea, so bad that it is a big factor in substantially reducing Angry Andy’s favorability numbers. Cuomo has dug himself an education policy hole that the Assembly and Senate have to slowly fill in on his head. A late budget would also allow for this year’s opt-out numbers to amplify what polls have been showing, waning support for the test an punish approach to the improvement of public education in New York. Those numbers are bound to be much higher than the 60,000 children whose parents withheld them from the state assessments last year. Let the budget process grind to a crawl, as we watch Governor Arrogance try to slither away from the tough positions he staked out.

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Last Night’s Tilles Center Forum

I attended the forum at the Tilles center last evening, sponsored by LIU and the Long Island Principals Association and featuring Diane Ravitch, by any measure the best known critic of the school reform movement in the nation. Here are my takeaways from this event attended by well over 1000 participants.

Ravitch has done more to energize teachers to fight to preserve their profession than most of the nation’s major teacher union leaders with the exception of Chicago’s Karen Lewis. She speaks not only with an academic’s authority on education issues, citing a host of facts and figures, but also with a keen sense of what moves teachers viscerally. She, better than most they come across during their work days, understands what’s happening to teaching, how a generation of teachers is having the profession robbed out from under them by a clique of corporate reformers for whom profits trump even the welfare of the nation’s children.

My friend Jeanette Deutermann was on the panel that followed Ravitch’s speech. People have been observing lately that Long Island is the epicenter of the opt-out movement. Deutermann’s relentless organizing around this issue has been primarily responsible for our area’s lead on the issues of the destructive effects of high stakes testing and the recognition that the most potent weapon we have in the battle to end the testing scourge is to refuse to permit out children to take the tests. As I listened to her exhort the audience to stand up and fight back, I marveled at how much she has accomplished, starting her quest with a good deal of nerve and a free Facebook page.

Superintendent Joe Rella emerged as a clear audience favorite and deservedly so. Unlike many in his position, he has clearly not forgotten what it’s like to be a teacher. He communicates a plain spoken understanding of the threats posed to our profession by politicians like Andrew Cuomo and his corporate supporters, an understanding that includes an appreciation of how teachers are being asked to effectively change who they are in the implementation of what is called school reform. Unlike many of the superintendents I have worked with, this guy knows how to lead. It’s no wonder that he and the union leader in his district, my colleague Beth Dimino, who shared the stage with him last evening have an obvious respect and affection for one another.

Finally, last night’s event is but the latest evidence of the growing push back against the corporate reform movement in our state and a governor who is doing its bidding. To my mind, if our union movement had not been so late in coming to understand the possibilities of challenging the reform movement, if our leaders had seen the foolishness of seeking to accommodate the reformers, we would have been much further along to what will be out ultimate victory. The palpable energy at last night’s forum was there to be tapped all along.

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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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Cuomo Re-Energizes The Opt-Out Movement

In all my efforts this year to promote the anti-testing cause, I’ve tried to encourage union colleagues and parents to aim for doubling the number of students in their communities whose parents refuse to let them take the state assessments. My readers are well aware of my belief that building the opt-out movement is the most power single action we can take to bring about an end to the pernicious influence of high stakes testing on public education. Never did I imagine, however, Andrew Cuomo would so lose control of his senses at NYSUT’s failure to support his bid for re-election that he would propose increasing the weight of student scores in teacher evaluations to 50 percent thereby leaving parents with no other realistic alternative but to opt their children out of the tests. I sense a new energy to the opt-out movement. Even the waitress in the diner where I stop for breakfast this morning was talking about her perception that almost everyone she know is opting their children out this year. The public pushback against the Cuomo proposals to double down on testing, create a whole new bureaucracy of outside teacher evaluators to do classroom observations have clearly backfired on the Governor. Where once it was difficult to find people interested in running for our board of education, I’ve been contacted by no less than three in the past two weeks, all of whom are clearly motivated by a passion to end the harmful effects of the state’s testing regime on our outstanding schools.

Last year over sixty thousand kids were withheld from the state tests by their parents. With the help of Governor Angry Andy do we dare to think about one hundred and fifty thousand? I’m thinking it could happen.

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Cuomo Spurs Teacher Activism

One of the heartening aspects of Governor Cuomo’s war on teachers and public education has been to see the revival of union member activism in this struggle. Sometimes with the direct involvement of our state union, sometimes through local initiatives, our members have held legislative breakfasts, community forums, demonstrations and events of all manner. They have exploited the power of social media as never before, visited and written to their elected representatives and sought to build coalitions around the idea of maintaining local control of public schools. I especially like one that came my way sent by the staff of PS321 in New York City to the parents of their children. In a very controlled, modulated teacher voice it carefully explains to parents what they have to fear from Governor Cuomo’s proposed changes to the system for evaluating teachers in New York State. I’m going to ask our teachers to send one like it to the parents of in Plainview-Old Bethpage, adding opting out of the state tests to the possible actions parents may want to take to foil the Governor’s attack

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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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Forums Won’t Be Enough

Plainview-Old Bethpage, Syosset and Jericho held a joint legislative breakfast on Saturday, sponsored by the PTAs, administrative unions and teacher union locals from each district. Congressman Steve Israel, Assemblyman Chuck Lavine, Regent Roger Tilles and a representative from Senator Marcellino’s office were in attendance as was County Legislator Judy Jacobs… There was a good turnout of community residents and education professionals, our representatives mostly said the right things on issues from testing to teacher tenure, but, in the end, I don’t believe forums like this are going to be enough.

Yes, Congressman Israel is sponsoring legislation to cut the number of tests in half. But his bill is not going anywhere in a Republican controlled House, and, even if it did, it does nothing to break the toxic nexus between testing and teacher evaluations. Ironically, the Republican controlled Congress is more likely to return the testing and accountability piece to the states, which if they do still leaves us to do battle with Andrew Cuomo and his hedge fund friends seeking to make a killing on education. Regent Tilles was the most knowledgeable about the evils of the Cuomo plan, but he has been more or less a lone voice on the Regents, most being careful about taking Chancellor Tisch on. There is simply not the sense of urgency yet in our elected leaders to motivate the kind of action we need to end the destructive tyranny of high stakes testing and deliver a political body blow to our governor and would be President of the United States.

The economic elites who are sponsoring the so-called reform movement are essentially immune to public opinion. Our politicians sustained by the contributions of the wealthy are usually unmoved until public anger on an issue is made so clearly manifest that it must be addressed. If we are to defeat Andrew Cuomo’s doubling down on testing and his attack on teacher tenure, there must be more than lobbying and forums. There must be massive non-compliance with the current testing regime. Last year some 60 thousand kids were withheld from the tests. We must at least double that this year. Those who have been trouble by breaking the Albany’s rules, who anguish over the ends justifying the means need to be reminded of Saul Alinsky’s view of this question. Alinsky maintained that those who perseverate in response to required action and who anguish over whether the ends justify the means tend to wind up on their ends without any means.

It’s high time that education professionals stop believing that if we just fashion the right argument justice will prevail. In America and elsewhere justice has often been achieved through civil disobedience. It shouldn’t be too difficult to close down the State Ed department from time to time. We ought to be a presence at every public event the Governor holds, protesting his policies in ways that get us the press attention that amplifies our message and which embarrasses him. We need teachers, principals, board of education members and superintendents of schools to refuse to follow Albany rules that get in the way of providing the education our professional consciences demand. We need to find ways to grind the system to a halt.

I’m not suggesting that conventional political activities are pointless. I do maintain that those efforts are enhanced when through acts of civil disobedience we create a sense of urgency in our elected leaders making them fearful not to act on our behalf.

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Become a Teacher?

I came across a news item this morning reporting a decline in the number of North Carolina students choosing to become teachers and indicating that some state leaders are beginning to see the decline as a crisis. Reports like this have been coming in for some time from all over the United States. Few, if any, of these reports talk about any reasonable approach to solving this growing problem in a nation whose teacher workforce is aging. The simple fact is that in most places, teachers are under-paid relative to similarly educated people and, almost more importantly, their working conditions are deteriorating precipitously.

Wherever they turn, teachers are depicted as a lazy, ill-educated incompetent lot who must be tested and developed. More and more, their jobs require less and less creativity with a shift away from direct instruction and towards becoming facilitators of students either learning on their own or through technologically mediated means. Increasingly, teachers are employed to train children for college and careers rather than educating them to be enlightened citizens of a democratic society. Were I a young person seeking a career, teaching would be the last thing I would contemplate. For a lifestyle that often doesn’t permit them to live in the communities in which they teach, teachers are subject to endless ridicule by craven politicians like Andrew Cuomo who have neither the intellect nor the guts to take on the social issues that cause thousands of children to enter our schools already years behind their peers in cognitive and linguistic development due to the mere fact of being born poor. At their work place, teachers are often supervised by people who themselves spent little time in the classroom who are quick to second guess every move they make. All too often, if they are committed to maintaining high academic standards, they are plagued by parental complaints that spring from a belief that any thing that makes their children feel bad is tantamount to bullying. It’s becoming more and more of a thankless job that everyone thinks he can do better than you.

I think young people are seeing these conditions and choosing to go in other directions. To halt this trend will require restructuring the way schools are organized in ways that give teachers real autonomy over their work, respect for the difficulty and arduousness of the work (How many laypeople know how physically hard it is to stand and talk for five to six hours a day?), opportunities to perform different roles in their schools and a package of salary and benefits that permits them to live decently and take care of and educate their own children. All the talk by policy makers about increased support and staff development is at best palliative and avoids the central fact that the job offers fewer rewards than it used to.

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Poverty, Poverty, Poverty

Here in New York, our governor is holding state aid to education hostage to his demand to screw the state’s teachers in any way he could imagine, from curtailing their tenure rights to tying their evaluations ever closer to the scores of their students on high stakes tests of doubtful reliability. No one with the brain of a flea would expect any of the governor’s proposals to substantially impact education outcomes, but he like too many of our elected leaders can’t face the real problem of far too many children in our public schools – POVERTY! For anyone who cares to know the effects of poverty on children, there is an ample literature documenting the debilitating effects of growing up poor, from the physiological and neurological to the economic and emotional. Simply put, people who are born poor tend overwhelmingly to end up poor – not as some would have it by choice, but by our societal indifference to their plight. The last of our national leaders to talk understandingly about poverty and its effects was Lyndon Johnson, who marshaled significant resources to launch a war on this stain on our nation’s honor. Much of our political class has succeeded in convincing people that his war was a failure, forgetting the dramatically positive impact on the conditions of the elderly and the fact that the war was ultimately curtailed by the demands of our ill-fated adventure in Viet Nam. I’m thinking about this subject this morning having read an impassioned plea by Charles Blow in the New York Times to put aside partisan differences and recognize that we have a moral obligation to millions of poor American children. Blow’s words increased my contempt for politicians like Andrew Cuomo who blame teachers for their political cowardice that prevents them from dealing the ongoing tragedy of poverty in America.

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The Duty of Civil Disobedience

I was at a regional union meeting yesterday, a meeting called to organize our response to Governor Cuomo’s declaration of war on teachers and our union. While there were an number of good ideas discussed, and while I was pleased to see by the attendance that our local leaders perceive the threat posed by the Governor’s proposals, I continue to be struck by the our reluctance to embrace bold action. There appears to be an underlying belief that if we can just find the right words, if we can schedule the right meeting, make the appropriate number of lobbying visits to our elected representatives, we will be able to prevail against a politically skillful, determined governor who is clearly seeking vengeance for our failure to support him in his last election. One local leader appropriately asked what our position was vis a vis the opt-out movement, to me one of the most potent weapons we have in the battle against high stakes testing. Our representatives to our state union running the meeting and some union staff there carefully parsed a few sentences in response when to my mind what was called for is a two pronged, full-throated embrace of the parent led movement. While I spoke about my local’s work in support of the opt-out movement and our goal to double the number of our students talking the exams from 20 percent last year, it is clear that our state union is reluctant to do more than utter platitudinous statements about parents’ right to opt their children out of the tests.

Last year over 60,000 students did not take the state examinations, over 20,000 here on Long Island. The simple fact is that there cannot be any bad consequences for either students or teachers if no one takes the tests. If we as educators believe that the current state regime of high stakes tests is detrimental to the emotional and intellectual growth and development of the children in our schools, then we must first of all keep our own children from taking the tests. To do otherwise is simply hypocritical and destructive of our credibility on this and other education issues. This belief also obliges us to encourage the parents of our students to do the same. I’m well aware that that the ability to do that varies from district to district. What all can do however is find ways to let parents know that we will not hold it against their children if they opt-them out. There are many parents who are uncomfortable opting their children out, knowing that student scores count towards their teachers’ evaluations and thinking that teachers will be angry if their kids don’t show. There are countless ways for teachers to let parents know at meetings, during phone calls etc. that we understand and appreciate their stance in withholding their children from the tests.

Our unions were formed by acts of civil disobedience. We won the right to bargain collectively by engaging in illegal strikes and other prohibited activities. Injustice invariably draws civil disobedience to it. I deeply believe that it will take many small acts of disobedience by and ever-growing coalition of believers in the centrality of public education to our democracy to save it from people like Governor Cuomo and the Wall Street interests who are funding the war against us. We ignore the duty of civil disobedience at our peril.

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AFT Doubles Down on Testing

The case has never been stronger for a merger of our two national teacher unions under new, member oriented leadership. With reauthorization of the ESEA on the agenda of the new Congress, we again have the very unfortunate circumstance where the NEA and AFT are carrying a different lobbying message, neither of which resonates with the members in the nation’s classrooms. That was again evident this morning with the joint announcement by the AFT and the Center for American Progress that is sure anger many, if not most, of the rank and file. While the two organizations agreed on a bunch of mushy platitudes, central to their announcement is mutual support of annual testing as part of the reauthorization of the ESEA soon to be before the new Congress. To be fair, less of the testing they support would be part of teacher accountability schemes, but this nuanced position even if achieved in new legislation would accomplish little to nothing to undo the damage high stakes testing has done to even our best public schools. This proposal would simply increase the stakes for teachers and students on fewer tests. Maybe there’s a strategy here, but it’s not one that seeks to capitalize on the growing public anger over testing and the Common Core State Standards. It does nothing to marshal the ideas and energy of our members in the battle to preserve our profession. It does alienate us from the parents who have been working with us to end the scourge of high stakes testing. More importantly, it will further weaken the bonds of the membership to the organization.

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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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Tisch Matches Cuomo’s Ignorance and Then Some

The morale of the teachers I engage is frighteningly low. There is a growing anger in them that if left unchanneled will turn in on them and make their situation even worse. From everywhere come voices of criticism and disparagement. New York’s teachers having yet to fully absorb the ridiculous evaluation scheme foisted upon them a few years ago heard from their angry, spiteful governor just before Christmas vacation that he wants to change that system yet again to produce a higher number of ineffective teachers than is produced by the current system. Our dilettante chancellor of our state university, a person who is as qualified to preside over the state’s education system as I am the Federal Reserve System, although I vaguely remember writing an economics paper comparing the role of the central bank in different economic systems, not to be outdone by the governor has responded with a call to increase the use of student test results in teacher evaluations, extend the probationary period before tenure is granted to five years from three and the making hearing officers in tenure cases employees of the state to expedite the process of firing ineffective teachers. Not a single thing either of these leaders has proposed will improve education in our state in the slightest. All that they have already accomplished is to undermine citizens’ faith in their public schools and make the incredibly difficult job of teacher that much more onerous.

As I read Merryl Tisch’s response to Governor Cuomo, I found myself remembering the young person I was when I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. But for the fact that New York was willing to substitute my Peace Corps teaching experience for the certification requirements at the time, I would never have been a teacher. If I had had to take more of the content-free education courses then required, I would have done something else. When I think of how I would have reacted to the requirements today, requirements which Tisch wants to increase, I know beyond doubt that I would have taken my life in a different direction. Frankly, I think anyone who sets out to be a public school teacher today is nuts. There are so many hoops to jump through, all for the possibility of getting a job with working conditions that erode on almost a daily basis for at best modest remuneration. It is increasingly becoming a job in which one has no professional autonomy, where the work is becoming so routinized that it is difficult to call it education. I saw the other day where enrollments in ed schools has been declining the past few years. That’s surely a sign that young people are beginning to understand what the work of teaching is becoming.

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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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