A Teachable Moment

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

Bits and Pieces

A Different Perspective on the Opt Out Numbers

New York State Allies for Public Education is reporting that they believe over 90 percent of the school districts in the state will have less than 95 percent participation on the ELA exams. Are the Feds really going to sanction that many school districts? They couldn’t possibly be that stupid. That would ensure 100 percent next time, a result that may well happen any way if our leaders in Albany don’t take concrete steps to undo their teacher evaluation legislation passed earlier in the legislative session.

Tisch a Heroine?

From many quarters comes praise for Merryl Tisch for standing up to Governor Cuomo and saying that school district will have until September 2016 to get their new teacher/principal evaluation plans in place. Why anyone would praise Tisch is well beyond my powers of comprehension. We ought to be pressuring her to resign, she having worked hand in glove with the corporate school reform machine. What makes delaying the implementation of an even more stupid teacher evaluation system than we currently have worthy of heroine status? Why would the leaders of the AFT praise her?

Up The Pressure on Legislators

Instead of praising Tisch, our focus should be on the legislature whose members appear to be confused and upset by the backlash from their adoption of the new teacher/principal evaluation system. They also appropriately appear to be reading the astonishing opt-out numbers and as a clear sign that there may well be significant political ramifications for those who voted for that legislation. Our demand should be simple. End the connection between student scores on high stakes tests and limit the number of times students are tested in grades 3 through 8. Return to testing as a teaching too, not a punishment.

Meritocracy Gone Amuck
If you haven’t read David Brooks’ column today, it’s a must read. He addresses an issues that my readers have repeatedly heard me sound off about – sending children messages that their being loved and respected is tied to their academic success – that to continue to be loved is to continue to succeed in ever more challenging school endeavors. Brooks nails this one, hard though that is for me to say about a pretty right wing commentator.

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A Modest Proposal

Our state math assessments begin today. As I write the opt out numbers are coming in predictably a bit ahead of the English numbers last week. This is also the week that the New York State legislature resumes it work. Legislators are going back to Albany having heard an earful from the people at home about their recent vote to double down on testing as part of the teacher evaluation process. They also go back knowing that an enraged public withheld their children from the tests at a rate of at least three times that of last year. Should this movement continue to grow, as it shows every sign of doing, within a year or so there won’t be any children taking the state examinations. Some of the legislators are openly talking of doing something to fix the problem they and the governor created. They are clearly beginning to see that the organizing skills of the people who invented and grew the opt out movement can clearly be put to use election time to hammer those who put obedience to Andrew Cuomo and the corporate backers of so-called education reform above the interests of the parents, children and teachers in their districts.

The easiest fix would be to go back to what we have been doing until a more sensible approach to teacher evaluation can be developed. Better yet would be to pass a law that breaks the unsupportable connection between student standardized tests results and teacher competence. Still better is a modified version of something I used to do at grading time for my students that just might be a simple approach to teacher evaluation. Before I gave out quarterly grades I made students write down for me what they thought they had eared for the quarter. Almost invariably, the students gave themselves lower grades that I did. I strongly suspect that given the same assignment to critique their performance for the school year, teachers would overwhelmingly point to more shortcomings than those paid to supervise them would have seen. In such a system, we would probably have fewer highly effective teachers, the governor would have accomplished his mission and nothing of any consequence would have changed for anybody. Why go through all of the political contortions, the endless educationist drivel, the countless hours of testing and test prep when deep down we all know that none of this nonsense makes the slightest difference to the education of a single child in our schools. We can count on the low self-esteem of teachers to underrate their performance and to always believe that they could have done better.

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No Time To Be Nice

The opt out numbers look better and better. As of this writing, over 68,000 Long Island students refused to take the grade 3 through 8 examinations. That’s more refusals than there were in the entire state of New York last year. In no uncertain terms, these numbers are the response of a public who petitioned their elected representatives to do something to end the scourge of high stakes test in our state only to have to resort to civil disobedience when those representatives failed to do their job. I believe we need to keep the pressure on those who have been nothing less than duplicitous, telling us in various public forums that they supported our efforts to curb an out of control testing regime that was turning our best schools into essentially test prep institutions, only to in the end give the governor almost more than he asked for.

That being my view, it’s alarming to begin to hear NYSUT, our state education union, counseling being nice to these elected leaders who have betrayed us and the institution of public education. I don’t want to be nice to Assemblyman Charles Lavine. I want to support a candidate to primary him. If that fails, I want to run a Green Party candidate against him. Ditto with Senators Hannon and Marcellino who have grown far too comfortable and who seem to feel we will forgive them anything because that got us a little extra money for our schools. It is beyond question that by and large our elected leaders have no respect for us. Accepting bad treatment in my experience leads only to more bad treatment. I don’t understand why our union leaders in Albany don’t understand that. It’s really just that simple.

Many of us have worked very hard to build coalitions to oppose the attack on public education and the high stakes testing central to it. These groups are flush with our opt out victory and need to now be steered to politically removing the people who have shown themselves to be our enemies. This union leader is not going to be a party to letting people who openly screwed us off the hook.

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Don’t Confuse Talk With Action

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

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

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

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Hard to Believe Tisch

Merryl Tisch is quoted this morning as saying that high performing districts (not defined) should be exempt from the new and as yet to be State Ed crafted annual professional performance review. I strongly suspect that the statement is intended to quell the growing opt out movement whose leaders tend to come from these very districts, Let’s remember that when the Governor’s Director of Operations wrote to Tisch seeing her input needed legislation, she responded with almost exactly what came out of the recently enacted legislation. Would such a move make sense? Sure it would, and that’s why I don’t expect it to happen. It would be hard to find a less sensible institution than our State Ed Department. Everything they turn out is at best opaque.

I’ll be taking this holiday season off, trying to recover from recent depressing events and restore my energy for the battles ahead. I’ll be back on April 13. Be sure to look for me.

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Opting-Out: More Important Than Ever

Parents who have been undecided about opting their children out of the New York State assessments have been given good reason to decide to refuse the tests. The distortion of teaching and learning of the current teacher evaluation system has now been magnified five- fold – by a change in the law that says that no teacher can be rated effective or highly effective if her student scores don’t meet some number to be determined by the State Ed Department. That effectively makes the test 100 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.

This betrayal by our elected leaders has got to be answered and answered immediately. The best means at had to do so is to drive the opt-out numbers through the roof. Teacher who have children in grades 3 through 8 who don’t opt them out are aiding and abetting the demise of their profession and prejudicing their employment. It’s just that simple.

Parents who want more from their schools than training in how to pass standardized tests must inform the schools their children attend that they refuse to permit their children to take the state tests. These tests have never had any educational value. They have now become a very significant impediment to anything enlightened people would deem an appropriate education. With these exams determining their future employment, teachers will have no choice but to teach to them. Thus, a curriculum already significantly narrowed by corporate sponsored reform will have more squeezed out of it leaving little but English and math. The bottom line is if no one takes the tests, they can’t be used negatively impact teachers and students.

The Governor and Legislature know full well that they have spit in the eyes of New Yorkers. They know what they have done is dreadfully unpopular. Two recent polls showed the public overwhelmingly supporting the teachers union over their elected leaders. Our leaders have calculated that we will forget what they have done to our schools. Opting out must be our immediate message that we will never forget. We must also begin immediately to work to challenge those who have represented other interests, not ours. Our local will be reaching out to our community searching for candidates to challenge Senators Hannon and Marcellino and our Assemblyman Charles Lavine, all of whom have claimed to be friends of public education but who abandoned us when we needed them most.

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Bargain With The Devil

Details in the Albany press this morning reveal a budget deal even worse than it originally appeared. Governor Cuomo sought to have the results of state assessments count fifty percent toward a teacher’s yearly evaluation. What the deal provides is that for some teachers the state tests will count one hundred percent.

Governor Cuomo’s office is saying that the deal establishes teacher evaluation criteria such that if student scores show a teacher to be “ineffective,” that teacher cannot be rated effective even if her observation results say she is highly effective. To my mind that’s one hundred percent of a teacher’s evaluation, and an unmitigated outrage. In the short time that we have had a system tying student score to teacher evaluations, I have seen some of our very best teachers get student test results that would have rated them ineffective or developing but for their outstanding performance as measured by observation and supervision. Although there is ample scientific evidence that the state assessments are unreliable indicators of teacher performance, with a high degree of likelihood that today’s highly effective teacher is next year’s ineffective one, the elected leaders of our state have apparently decided that science be damned, settling political scores with our state union is more important the professional lives of hard working teachers and their students.

If the deal as we understand it today is what is put into effect in November, teachers will be consumed by the need to have their students score high enough to get them rated effective. We will have taken a giant step towards the extinction of what we have known as teaching and education. What will remain for teachers to do will be to monitor student participation in digitized media test prep, which through engaging graphics and other facets of computer gaming will convince the ignorant that something called twenty-first century education has come at last. Those who are able to see through that digitized illusion will almost be like the book-people in Fahrenheit 451, keeping learning and education alive until such time as there is a period of enlightenment when the keepers of knowledge and learning are again respected and allowed to share their gifts with the young.

This bargain with the devil will apparently be voted on by the Legislature today. We need to study the vote and start the very next day to oppose those cowardly cretins who supported it. The Long Island delegation likes to think of itself as made up of strong supporters of public education. Those who vote for this deal have given up any right to that title.

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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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