Friday, September 04, 2015

Christie, Cuomo, and Teachers

I don't read Jersey Jazzman's blog as often as I should. He's got very sharp analysis of all things Jersey, and often goes beyond. He's gone in depth over the massive failures of merit pay, and the fact that politicians continue to believe in it, rely on it, and impose it despite a 100-year history of abject failure. His most recent blog is on Chris Christie's public criticism of a system he himself negotiated and passed. This is, in fact, exactly what Andrew Cuomo did, before revamping it to make it even worse.

In New Jersey, there is a case of a teacher who was late 111 times over a two-year period. His case was brought to an arbitrator, and the teacher wasn't fired. Now I'll go on record, as did JJ, to say that if you're supposed to be in at a certain time, or course you should be in at that time. And I'll also agree that 111 latenesses over two years is pretty outrageous. That's why it's got such attention-grabbing potential on Twitter.

Wow, those teachers can get away with anything, huh? It's awful. Who needs any further detail before we pass judgment? Does it matter that most of the latenesses were only two minutes, or that he had to actually stand on a line to clock in every morning? What if, as I read in an ensuing interview, he never missed a moment of class? Does it matter that he was, in fact, rather severely penalized? He will be on unpaid leave until January. Could you afford to be without income or medical benefits for half a year?

In any case, as JJ points out, it was the arbitrator's call. As sad as it is, Christie sometimes has to follow the rules he helps make. I mean, it's tough to do that, just like it's tough to have to pay the state portion of the pension. After all, wouldn't that money be better used in the form of tax breaks for Christie's wealthy BFFs? But I digress.

The thing that I found most egregious about the clarion calls against tenure was that it took one flashy case, and painted all of us with it. For example, I was not late 111 times over the last two years, yet my tenure is being condemned on the basis of one person who was. That, dear readers, is what is known as a stereotype. For example, I'm kind of upset with Iowans this week, as they have an undue influence on who becomes President. If I find one Iowan drunk on the street, shall I condemn them all as a bunch of drunks? If one of them is cheap, or dumb, or promiscuous, or crazy, shall I do the same?

That particular paintbrush is indispensable in the bigot's tool kit. I won't rehash ethnic stereotypes, but they're all based on the same old thing. I grew up with stereotypes. I didn't much like them when I was a kid, but I understand them a lot better now. My job entails dealing with kids from every corner of the earth. Few things upset me as much as one kid refusing to cooperate with another, because she comes from here or there, because she's this or that religion or color, because her accent is harder to understand than yours, or whatever. I tell the kids someone hates each and every one of us in this room just because of who we are.

I have patience for children. Bigotry has considerably less charm when it comes from adults. Adults are supposed to know better. I'm sorry, Chris Christie, that when you make agreements even you have to follow them. I realize how inconvenient that is. But I won't label all governors juvenile crybabies simply because it applies to you and Governor Cuomo. Because that would be a stereotype, and stereotypes are the refuge of the small-minded.

It's pathetic when politicians have to resort to such nonsense. You'd think, by 2015, we'd be past that. Sadly we're far from it.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

The Only Thing Unity Caucus Is Good At

Sure we have a substandard contract, and the money everyone else got five years ago won't be in your pocket until five years from now. Leadership expects you to ignore that and say, "Thank you sir, may I have another?" It's also true the contract sets up a new level of due process, only for ATR teachers, and that this, according to the UFT President, represents progress.

I could go on, but I will spare you for the moment. I've been teaching over 30 years, and I can tell you the job has not much improved. Leadership thinks any change it makes is an improvement. Even when they surrender previous improvements they are improvements. This is the best of all possible worlds, you are living in the best of all possible times, and you have the best of all possible contracts due to the best of all possible union leadership. So what if over 80% of working UFT members are so absolutely cynical and disenfranchised they can't even be bothered to vote? So what if the election is dominated by retirees who have no stake in future contracts? Who cares if high school teachers aren't allowed to select the high school VP?

The point is, Unity Caucus has a monopoly on power, the system is designed to maintain said monopoly, and if something shocking occurs, like an opposition figure winning the vice presidency, the system can be tweaked so that it never happens again. So that's just what they do. And if those annoying New Action folks should keep winning, well, you can always make some deal to have them support the sitting UFT President.

That deal, in fact, has fractured the opposition for years. It was genius on the part of then President Randi Weingarten. A fringe benefit was that those New Action members who didn't approve of the unholy alliance with Unity broke away, and formed another caucus, ICE. ICE actually managed to win a few seats on the UFT executive board until Unity tweaked the system so as to co-endorse New Action rather than fail to oppose them. Now if you were to combine the New Action votes with MORE votes, they would have actually defeated Unity last time.

Of course, there are always contingencies, so Randi Weingarten met with a disaffected teacher, and a week later, voila!, there was yet another caucus. Personally, I don't know or care what the intentions of that teacher were. I have reservations about MORE, but they have people I respect enormously and I will support them this election cycle, as I did the last. With them, there's certainly no coincidental meeting and no deal with Weingarten, Unity, or any person or entity that's made deals counter to the interests of teachers.

In case the point is not clear, the only thing Unity Caucus is really good at is sustaining the Unity Caucus. The election is fungible, with rules that can be changed any time they become inconvenient. AFT President Weingarten can meet with anyone, offer jobs if necessary, and divert a lot of people who might become serious opposition. I don't think Mulgrew does things like that. Who knows if he answers email or talks to anyone at all?

Right now UFT votes are overrun by loyalty oath signers who will do anything and advocate for whatever based on a free trip or after school gig. In NYSUT and AFT, they vote as told. If your chapter leader isn't Unity, you have no voice in AFT. If your chapter leader is Unity, you still have no voice in AFT because that person is sworn to represent leadership rather than rank and file.

It's time to make a crack in the wall. It's time to make them listen whether they like it or not. Because it will be us who wake the sleeping, or dead if need be. We have made no deals and we are stalking horses for no one, willing or otherwise.

And make no mistake, this will be our year. We are going to break the Unity wall and they are going to listen to us inside what they believe to be their house.  In truth, it's not their house.  It's our house.

And the time for us to use it is long overdue.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

ESL--Twice the Work in Half the Time

I'm quite upset about what's happening with my ESL students. They're getting substantially less support and being held to increasingly inappropriate expectations. In fact, I approached UFT leadership about in June and was encouraged that they might do something to help.

We had scheduled a meeting for tomorrow, they sent me several reminders, and I worked my summer plans around it. Yesterday I got an email that it was canceled, with no explanation whatsoever. I had to call the people who'd agreed to come with me and tell them not to bother. (They did not thank me for having invited them.)

(UPDATE--UFT is rescheduling this meeting.) 

So instead of sitting on a beach somewhere, I'm here playing stick with my dog. (That's not so bad. I love my dog.)

A recent piece in Hechinger Report suggests that Common Core, which UFT leadership passionately supports,  is creating double the work for ESL teachers, even as NY State issues draconian cuts in time for kids to learn English. As reported previously in this space, the geniuses who run education in this space have taken one period of English instruction away from high-school level ELLs, to replace it with a content area course taught by either a dual-certified content area teacher or a content teacher working in concert with an ESL teacher.

I don't know whether the teacher interviewed or writer of this piece are familiar with the new regulations. But for us, in fact, the new rules amount to a demand that we somehow make kids acquire language more quickly via wishful thinking. Rather than spend time acclimating teenagers, who naturally acquire language more slowly than their younger counterparts, we're placing them in a content course they'd have taken anyway, and hoping they learn English at the same time. We're essentially demanding that they acquire academic English instantly, via magic for all I know, and offering even less support for a process known to take 5-7 years on this astral plane.

There are several additional flaws in this approach. One is, while it won't hurt to have someone qualified deal with these children, content area courses frequently culminate in the same assessment regardless of whether or not the kids know English. I suspect many principals, freaked out over test scores, will place kids in these classes so they can pass Regents exams. If they don't, of course, it will be some defect in the teachers, rather than the simple and indisputable fact that the kids don't know English.

Of course, the geniuses who administer NYC education think ESL only exists so that kids can do better in content area courses. Things like, you know, living their lives, communicating with others, vastly enriching their educational and vocational opportunities, ordering lunch, or meeting friends, lovers, husbands or wives are of no relevance whatsoever. The priority is getting a 65 on that Global Regents.

And yet the current plan won't much help even with that very low standard. It's interesting to read the story about Port Chester, where it appears all of their ESL students speak Spanish. You can do things with a monolingual population you can't do with a population hailing from all parts of the world. I'm not exactly sure what they are because, over decades of teaching newcomers, the most I've ever had an ESL class that spoke only one language has been never.

Yet there are some good ideas here. A bilingual class (which the article does not much differentiate from an ESL class) would be a much better place to teach content area. Alas, bilingual classes I've seen have frequently been taught largely in foreign languages, neglecting  English quite a bit. This is not what bilingual classes are supposed to be, but even in those cases it would be easier to teach science, social studies, or indeed anything. It would also be easier to assess reading and writing skills or lack thereof. While I teach newcomers reading and writing, I do so gradually. Handing them a two-inch thick textbook and demanding a 5 page paper day one would be nothing less than insane.

While the bilingual teacher in the article adores the standards, I'm afraid I do not, and parents across the state agree with me. That's why 20% of NY States students opted out of the tests, a 300% increase from last year. Parents are weary of having their children discouraged, with hours of incomprehensible homework and developmentally inappropriate assignments. I agree with some of what she says:

“But, if the test is assessing their ability to read and respond to literature, make inferences and think critically — how can they prove proficiency if they are in the beginning stages of English? How do we capture what they know, and what they’re capable of and how far they’ve come?”

We can't, and that would apply whether or not we had Common Core. One thing kids need, regardless, is to learn English. And for that, no matter what our goals, the new state rules are absolutely nuts. The notion that kids need less time to learn a language in addition to all the Common Core stuff we're thrusting upon them has no basic in research, logic or common sense. You don't need to study language acquisition to know that it takes time to learn one. If you don't believe me, go find a writing test in a language you don't understand and try to get through it.

Better yet, why don't we send MaryEllen Elia on a fact-finding trip to Shanghai. She can sit with the students as they take their tests, try to pass them, and we'll judge her just as we do our students. If she doesn't pass with flying colors, we'll conclude that the Shanghai schools and teachers are failing.

Because absurd as that sounds, those are precisely the expectations she has for my kids.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Ratings Are Out

Does anyone other than me wonder whether the early rating release indicates that NYC is making time to enact the draconian Cuomo/ Heavy Hearts rating plan this year?

Correction: I just checked and they actually came out almost the same time last year, on September 2nd. I'd thought it was later, but I was wrong. I remember learning about it in a UFT chapter leader meeting. Clearly it was earlier than I'd remembered.

Teacher Name: ARTHUR GOLDSTEIN Teacher ID: 0622911
School Year: 2014-2015 School Name/DBN: 26Q430—Francis Lewis High School

The overall APPR rating is based on the sum of three subcomponent scores: Measures of Teacher Practice (60%), State Measures (20%), and Local Measures (20%). Ratings are determined using the scoring chart below.
Measures of Teacher

State Measures
Local Measures
0-60 points:

0-20 points:

0-20 points:
Highly Effective
HEDI Rating

HEDI Rating

HEDI Rating
Overall Rating
0-100 Points:
HEDI Rating

Teaching in a Right to Work State

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From time to time in this space, you may note a disparaging word or two about UFT leadership. There are several reasons for this. One is that leadership has supported a host of counter-intutitive measures that hurt working teachers in its perpetual bid for a "seat at the table." Mayoral control is a biggie. We supported it when it came out, and then, after it was proven an unmitigated disaster, we demanded a few changes. When we failed to get them, we supported it anyway.

There is our support for APPR, which forces teachers to be judged on test scores largely beyond their control. There is our support for charter schools, which operate on a completely different playing field and yet are used by politicians and journalists to undermine those of us who teach all of NYC's children. There is our support for and participation in charter colocation, which reminds me of nothing more than a cancer to public schools. There's our abject failure to support opt-out, and our misguided trust in the Heavy Heart Assembly, Cuomo, Gates, John King, Mary Ellen Elia and the like.

And then there is a rigged election that deprives high school teachers the right to choose its own VP, not to mention the UFT choosing district reps who chapter leaders used to elect. Democracy finds it hard to breathe, let alone prosper, under loyalty-oath driven representation, as the UFT ensures those of us who follow the philosophy of Diane Ravitch get no voice whatsoever in NYSUT or AFT.  

But as we face a real threat in Friedrichs. The fact is, if dues retrieval becomes voluntary, the massive apathy engendered over decades by union leadership will cause massive losses in revenue, and will render collection the number one, if not the only priority, of the leadership that's failed to represent the feelings and struggles of working teachers for decades. Will it become the lot of chapter leaders to skulk around begging people for $1200 a year so Michael Mulgrew can negotiate sub-standard contracts, two-tier due process, and punch us in the face if we don't support Common Core? That's gonna be a tough sell.

On the other hand, it's not a whole lot of fun being in a so-called Right to Work State. Take a look at North Carolina, where teachers can't even make ends meet. The environment is not a whole lot different from that here, in that teachers and public schools are routinely blamed for all the ills of humanity. But the funding has been rolled back to the point where public schools can barely function, and the teachers are on long-term exodus from the state. Make no mistake, that's the agenda of the reformies, and Cuomo would do it in a New York minute of the parents and citizenry were less aware.

Union is our bulwark against this, and we must work to make UFT an organization responsive to those of us who see what's coming. Flawed though our union is, we must work to improve it rather than lie down and watch it be destroyed. As bad as things are, they could be much worse. A lot of us are working to make things better, and I expect to give more detail on that in this space in the coming weeks and months.

Friedrichs can hang over our heads like the Sword of Damocles, but we cannot give up. We cannot become North Carolina. If you think it can't happen here, take a look at Michigan and Wisconsin. No one thought it would happen there either. Because even if we win Friedrichs, that's just cutting one head off the monster. Surely another will grow in its place.

We need to be smarter and quicker than the reformies. Our current leadership has not proven up to the task. One way or another, we are going to help them, whether they like it or not.

Monday, August 31, 2015

"The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations"

You don't hear much about real societal issues when it's far simpler to scapegoat teachers.  Statistically linking low test scores to increasing childhood poverty is supposedly no more than the "soft bigotry of low expectations" to some.  Suggesting that poverty poses any obstacle to success or that hungry kids need something more than "grit" makes you a Mister-Softee bigot.

Any solution more costly than breaking unions and firing teachers is "soft" bigotry at its best!  Why beg for smaller class size?  Why attack poverty...when you can attack the teachers of the poor?  Didn't Jeb and George Bush say it best?:

Now, some say it is unfair to hold disadvantaged children to rigorous standards. I say it is discrimination to require anything less—the soft bigotry of low expectations.  - George W. Bush

The challenges facing children, and here I do not refer to the Common Core, seem to increase by leaps and bounds.  Homelessness has greatly been on the rise in the City.  The BBC recently reported that in all likelihood there are tens of thousands of exploited children in the United States.  Many are under-aged.  Some are held by drug-traffickers.  Victims are often caught in a web in which they blame themselves for their condition.   That's not right.  Don't blame poverty, desperation or depravity.  That would be more "soft-bigotry"!  Blame teachers.

In this day and age of ed. "reform," it is all the rage to turn blinders towards poverty, opting instead to focus on the depavity of teachers.  In 2013, American teachers, perhaps 40,000, were exposed for frequenting a website to find sugar daddies, primarily in Philadelphia, Miami-Dade, Los Angeles and NY.  Sources pointed to cuts in teacher pay (particularly in Philadelphia) and strikes against unions as well as weakening job security.  More "soft bigotry."  Women are driven to these extremes solely because they are teachers!

Today, there are new options.   One can become a much talked-about painted lady of Times Square...  And for those who see no market for painted gentlemen or transgenders, or for those who are more timid, superheroes and cartoon figures also do well.  Why not be Mister/Mrs. Softee and take your low expectations with you?

So why do people try to make a buck in Times Square?  There must be a variety of reasons.  According to one Nicaraguan-Saudi gentleman who earns his living posing as Spiderman, "I don't get what they want people to do, to work, or to steal and deal drugs?"  He cannot find minimum-wage work ("I go and there are twenty people in line in front of me also waiting to get a job").  With his costume, he averages nine dollars an hour, doing "whatever a spider can"!  Just imagine the dreams he might have woven (or not) had he been Common Cored.  "Oh, what a tangled web..."

Many of the street performers in Times Square are immigrants, speaking little to no English, fearing deportation, unable to find other labor.  But don't bother blaming the economy.  And, certainly don't look to Washington!  That would be more of that "soft-bigotry" stuff.  Don't bother blaming anything or anyone but teachers.  And, if a few teachers turn up in Times Square this September, it only goes to prove that it's a short step from painting sheep to painting scapegoats!

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Renewal Plan

9 percent of NYC's public school population is literally homeless, In some schools, the number can run as high as 40%. Governor Cuomo, rather than trouble himself with such trivialities, works tirelessly to demonstrate it's teachers and schools that are failing our children. Of course, being impoverished in a city like New York is far from limited to those who lack a consistent home.

But that issue is being disregarded altogether in favor of fixing the schools and teachers at the root of the more pressing issue, which Andrew Cuomo and his Heavy Hearted Assembly have determined to be low test scores. After all, when you're seething with ambition, indifferent to absolutely everything else, and you've taken millions of dollars from people whose agenda entails squeezing further millions out of those costly public schools, you tend to do what they say.

The city, containing dozens of so-called Renewal Schools, has got to do something about it or have Cuomo take over those schools. That's basically the plan. If de Blasio can't figure out how to get the homeless, the hungry, the tired, the poor, the non-English speaking huddled masses to get better Common Core scores, MaryEllen Elia will get busy and do it herself. It isn't easy to ignore root issues, but she's determined, and she can't wait to turn those money-sucking community schools over to her wealthy and therefore worthy BFFs.

The city plan to deal with test scores directly related to homelessness, learning disabilities, and lack of English entails merit pay, which has not worked anywhere in over 100 years. Perhaps that's why no one's calling it merit pay, but since the entire project revolves around solving the wrong problem anyway the point is moot. Each school will get $27,500 to offer as bonuses to the teachers who will help raise the test scores and save the schools. It doesn't matter if your school has 20 teachers or 200 teachers because that doesn't matter either. The problem is test scores and the solution is $27,5000.

A principal can take that 27K and distribute it among up to three teachers. These lucky duckies will then set about the task of raising the test scores of kids, because that is the only way New York needs to help its children. Once their test scores are higher, they won't mind being homeless anymore. That they have disabilities hindering their ability to read, write, or do math will no longer be of any consequence. And kids who don't speak English will no longer find that an obstacle. (I actually spent several years teaching ESL students how to write formulaic nonsense so they could pass the English Regents exam, without which they couldn't graduate. I'm absolutely certain they would've benefited more from my teaching them English conversation, grammar, usage, and actual writing.)

Would you move to a school facing extinction in order to make an extra $7500? I wouldn't. I don't believe in miracles, and every educational miracle I've seen thus far has entailed either juking the stats, changing the grades, selecting the students, getting rid of those whose scores weren't high enough, or some combination of the above factors. In fact the most recent fantastic charter success I've seen occurred when the staff decided to grade their own state tests, something illegal in public schools.

It's pretty easy to fabricate miracles. It's unconscionable that the United States is so determined to scapegoat communities, schools and teachers in its effort to ignore a basic and fundamental issue affecting our people.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

On Keeping Young Teachers

Our school's a relatively good place. I'd argue that most of the administrators aren't even crazy. Yet the maniacal footprint of the reformies is everywhere, and there's no escape for a working teacher. This is brought home to me by a few of the people who've left us this year. And no, I'm not talking about retirees.

I was recently contacted by a teacher who stayed late every night writing lesson plans, not the first such teacher who's contacted me. I remember the last one I knew, who happened to be in my department. Because I'm chapter leader I keep very strange hours and stay late for all sorts of reasons. But this young woman stayed for hours after work each day, plotting out lesson plans in excruciating detail. I could not persuade her to do anything differently, and eventually she left. Perhaps she's a reluctant workaholic. Who knows?

What I keep hearing from teachers in trouble, from teachers not in trouble, from teachers who don't care one way or the other about trouble is that they're tired of being in a fishbowl. They're tired of thinking the boss could walk in at any moment and catch them doing something less than Danielson-worthy. They're tired of being constantly auditioned for a job they already have.

The teacher who just contacted me is taking a job elsewhere, and I often hear from teachers who are considering jobs elsewhere. It's heartbreaking to me because I think this is the best job there is. Don't get me wrong, I hate the new gotcha system as much as anyone. And given this blog's been up over a decade, I probably complain more than just about anyone. But the classroom and the kids inside of it aren't the problem at all. (This notwithstanding, I also know a bunch of other teachers who've left without sharing detail with me.)

Yesterday I heard a young teacher who I'd deemed almost a Renaissance man had left. This guy was conversant in multiple subjects, and had perhaps the most relentlessly positive attitude of any person of my acquaintance. I was certain the kids loved him, because it appeared everyone else did. Last year he surprised me by confiding how unhappy he was under this new system. I was shocked. He was the last person I'd have expected to complain about anything.

To me he's a bellwether of sorts. If a guy like this can't make it in a school like mine, how is any teacher to make it anywhere? Sure there will be a lot of young teachers who persevere and push through, but at what cost? Do we seriously want the people who are to be role models to our children to be constantly walking a tightrope and hoping for the best?

Even now there is a lawsuit to strip us of due process and render us at-will employees. Who the hell is going to speak up when special ed. kids are poorly served if they can then be fired for a bad haircut? Who's going to report safety hazards? Who's gonna bother calling the union about the moldy trailers? And for goodness sake, who's gonna want to take an already crazy job like chapter leader?

A former student of mine just took a teaching job in my school. This is a very, very smart and capable young woman. Will she make it, or will she wither under unreasonable pressure? I hope for the former, but I'd understand the latter.

We really need to make this job one worth having, not only for the teachers who come after us, but also for the kids they'll need to serve. People who believe Campbell Brown represents the children we serve are laboring under a serious misconception, and will need those reformy broomsticks surgically removed from their asses at the earliest possible opportunity. I only hope they have health insurance adequate to the task.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Works to Ability

That's a potential report card comment. I can't remember whether or not it's still available. The geniuses in charge of such things have revamped the comments so they all say things like "meeting the standards," "approaching the standards." or "not meeting the standards." They've rendered them less direct and more complicated. In their highly-compensated eyes, that is somehow an improvement.

You can't just say things directly anymore. The implications are bizarre. "Your kid is like everyone else." "Your kid is less like everyone else than many other kids." "Your kid is even more like everyone else than anybody else." You have to wonder which parent wants to place this message on a bumper sticker and announce it to total strangers stuck in traffic on the Long Island Expressway.

But no matter how badly they muddy the message, no matter how pedantic and pretentious they render the verbiage, they cannot touch "works to ability." as the worst comment ever. I always wonder who thought of that. What's the message when someone gets a 50 along with the comment, "works to ability?" To me, that comment says, "Your child is not smart enough to pass my class."

Now you could give the child a 65, with the "works to ability" comment, and then you're saying, "Your child is smart enough to just squeak by, but could never possibly excel."  That's kind of offensive too. Were you to say that to a parent's face, you might be putting yourself at risk. If you told me that about my kid, and were sitting near an open window, I'd consider that an unacceptable risk.

In fact, if the kid got a 90 and "works to ability," you'd be saying the kid who got 95 was smarter. And if no one did better, maybe you'd be passing judgment on yourself. "I taught this course in such a fashion that no one could get a perfect score." Or perhaps you'd be saying, "I'm smarter than all these kids," also not a particularly constructive statement.

I'm really curious whether there's any productive use for this comment. If you've got one, please let me know.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Planting the Seeds of Knowledge, Inch by Inch

A Variation on "The Garden Song"

Inch by inch, row by row
Gonna make this V.A.M. score grow
All it takes is high stakes and Gates' dough
And the D.o.E's stern frown

Inch by inch, row by row
Someone drop cut scores just so
Someone pull them from below
Till the brain comes tumblin' round

Preppin' minds and readin' tomes
Kids are made of 6G phones
Feel the need to call a home
'Cause the time is close at hand

Brain for brain, fun and pain
Test erasures leave a stain
Throw my body down Pearson's drain
For the money from "the Man"

Pencil rows, right and wrong
Temper them with prayer and song
Moskowitz will say so long
She'll take your school fair and square

Old crow watchin' hungrily
From her perch in yonder tree
In my garden I'm as free
As that feathered thief up there

Inch by inch, row by row
Gonna make my V.A.M. score grow
All it takes is high stakes and Gates' dough
And the Governor's stern frown

Inch by inch, row by row
Someone drop cut scores just so
Someone pull them from below
Till the brain comes tumblin' round

Monday, August 24, 2015

What's in a Word?

I knew a stitting AP back when she was just a lowly teacher like me. I don't remember why, but I observed her class a few times. She had a great way with the kids. She was endlessly patient, and always uttering terms of endearment. The kids responded. They loved her. You could feel it.

Another teacher I know, when she was brand new, was having trouble with her classes. The kids were walking in whenever they felt like it. They were acting like they owned the place. A group of ESL students, in particular, were strolling in 15 minutes late and chatting in their native language the entire period. I happened to know the ringleader, and she didn't behave that way in my class. I spoke her language and called her home. I told the teacher to call homes every day they were late. I also told the teacher to separate the social group.

"Can I do that?" she asked.

"Of course you can," I told her. It's amazing the things people don't know. She was a quick study. She followed up with phone calls, took no guff, and the kids took to calling her a Nazi. I was proud of her.

But she changed. She turned into a "honey, sweetie" teacher, mothering the kids and finding them responsive. She texted me messages the kids would write her on the board. She told me stories about her kids and how she helped them. In essence, she used my suggestions when she needed them, but found her own voice. There are a lot of definitions of teacher voice, but to me it's a teacher's unique approach to kids.

I can't do the "honey, sweetie" thing. I fear if I were to do that, I'd be some teacher jail somewhere twiddling my thumbs, or shuffling papers, or whatever they have you do nowadays. It's sexist, truth be told. Women can say stuff like that to anyone, but it's suspect coming from a man.

My persona is different. I am a crazy person, losing my temper completely whenever someone makes a subject-verb agreement error. I will scream, cry, bang my head against the wall, whatever. Kids will not forget that. But I'm always deliberate. When I'm really mad, I'm quiet. I never want kids to know they have power over my moods. I think about how to react to things that really irritate me, and don't act on impulse. But like everyone, I make mistakes.

One day, a girl in my class, a girl who very much reminded me of my daughter, asked me a question. I answered her, "No, sweetie," as I would my daughter. As the words exited my mouth, I thought, "Oh my God. This is it. I'm going to the rubber room for sure." But as it happens, the girl took it in exactly the spirit I meant it and there was no problem at all.

It's a tough call for teachers. Chancellor's Regulation A-421 basically says anything that makes a kid feel embarrassed or makes it tough to function in class is verbal abuse. (Fortunately for Eva, with kids pissing their pants left and right, neither this reg nor A-421, corporal punishment, applies to her.) What if the girl felt awkward by my comment, or that of one of my colleagues?

In fact I know people who've faced 3020a for the offense of making careless but in no way malicious remarks. A lot depends on whether or not your supervisor is insane, and on whether or not said supervisor hates you and everything you stand for. Really, the best you can hope for is that a supervisor be reasonable, and it's sad but demonstrable, particularly if you read Susan Edelman in the Sunday Post, that a whole lot of them should be upping their Prozac.

Anyway, dear readers, be very careful how you speak to the children. Because it's not so much what you say as what they hear, or how your supervisor interprets it. And if it gets to the unparalleled experts at OSI, you'd better get out your prayer beads right away.

On the positive side, it's great to see what many of us have known for years reported in the papers. I've been a chapter leader for six years. Every time a DOE genius gives what I consider a bad contractual interpretation to a principal, I run it by UFT. And thus far, every time without exception, the UFT interpretation has prevailed.

What can you say about an organization that hires lawyers who can't interpret a contract better than a lowly English teacher like yours truly? If you feel like saying it, that's what the comment section is for.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

My Retirement Plan

I'm gonna try and join this band. You gotta love a guy who sings with a cigar in his mouth, taking it out only when it's time to make rooster sounds.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Summing Up the 74's Summit

If you have a lot of patience, and you probably have more than the common person if you're a teacher, have a go at hearing some of the Republican candidates' ideas for education.

The 2015 Education Summit in New Hampshire was hosted by Campbell Brown who claims to speak for 74 million children under the age of eighteen, but seems practically incapable of teaching any of them herself, long-term.

In the initial session, Brown notes that she will interview from 9 a.m. straight through to 12:15 p.m., without any break.  She adds, "unless I pass out."  If interviewing one candidate at a time, from her cozy chair seems a difficult task, can you imagine her standing in front of thirty-four students for most of the day, five days a week, and grading 175 homework assignments each night?  Alas, it is much easier to attack teachers and their job protections than to do the job yourself.

As I listened to her conversations, I was struck by a number of things.  Not surprisingly, most of the six candidates agreed on a number of points.  They wished to devolve education from Washington to the states, localities and parents.  They wished to increase "school choice."  They identified teachers' unions, whom many of them painstakingly distinguished from the teachers themselves, as their real nemesis.  Some said they could work with Randi Weingarten (Christie); others said they could not (Bush).  They rejected the Common Core State Standards, several doing an about face from years back.

Jeb Bush criticized the public "monopoly" of education.  He related the story of a boy in a public high school who could not figure out that there was an hour and a half between the 1 p.m. start and 2:30 p.m. finish of a ballgame.  He mentioned his great teacher at Andover who made him struggle through Cervantes' Don Quixote in its original Spanish.  I wondered if the boy having trouble with the clock at the imaginary baseball game might possibly have been able to read Cervantes better than Bush.  Little attention was paid in the debate to the problems faced by English-language learners in our schools.  There will be more of them in the future.

Bush, of course, wants "accountability."  And, as is the opinion of so many "reformers" of his ilk, accountability can only be achieved by pinning test scores on teachers.  To think that a teacher could be brought down any year (after many years of exemplary service) by a society in which children face increasing poverty is nothing more than the "soft bigotry of low expectations."  The single driver of a student's success is a "capable teacher."  Bush even seemed to blame continuing strife at Ferguson on teachers (44:08).  Since I didn't expect much more from Jeb Bush, I suppose, I, too, am guilty of the "soft bigotry of low expectations" for his ed. policies.

Scott Walker described the barriers to successful education.  He called out Washington, teachers' unions (drawing the seemingly tenuous distinction made by many candidates between teachers and their unions) and funding.  He promoted the idea that many Americans could find good jobs with just and Associate Degree.  It would be nice to think so, but since I'm beginning to doubt that I will be able to maintain a good job with my Masters given this current climate of ed. "reform," I'm a little doubtful.

John Kasich asked why kids arrive at college unprepared.  I have one answer from NY.  I call it ed. "reform."  In this new climate of ed. "reform" ushered into NYC under Mayor Bloomberg, kids had to be moved along at any cost or the school might be closed.  Graduation numbers had to climb so Bloomberg could tout the title of Education Mayor. The Regents exams became easier for a time.   Credit schemes were manufactured.  Teachers were pressured.

Kasich further praised mentors,  encouraged teachers to tell students to "stay off of drugs" a la Nancy Reagan's "Just-Say-No" campaign and called out to God.  Also, as pointed out by NYC Educator the other day, he mentioned his desire to ban teacher lounges.  So, much for attracting the best and the brightest to a profession in which "professionals" are treated as potential criminals and every possibly conspiratorial site must be shut down.  Perdido Street suggested Kasich might also consider shutting down teacher bathrooms for the very same reason.

Jindal discussed the post-Katrina "miracle" of New Orleans.  He was careful not to praise the storm (a la Secretary Duncan) as the best thing since sliced bread.  He had some perceptive thoughts on the failure of Common Core given his role as a parent in the system.  He praised "highly-effective" teachers as crucial to student success.  Does he knows that highly-effective teachers lose a lot of their effectiveness when transferred to a school with the neediest children?  Does he care whether or not these "highly-effective teachers" would suffer burnout at a Renewal School, a premature stroke, transfer or even quit?

Carly Fiorina seemed very well spoken, although I could not agree with all of her points.  She raised the specter of the next Secretary of Education being a champion in the charter-school industry.  I immediately envisioned Eva and I was sickened to the Core.  She praised the TFA, claiming the single factor which drove so many of these idealistic kids from the classroom was older, embittered teachers.  I would guess it's burnout given over-sized classes.  To her credit, Fiorina seemed to understand that school must not be all about testing.

I loved her point about the importance of art, history, music and philosophy as a means to shape humanity, citizenry and innovation.  Brown seemed confused.  Instead of following up on the point which seemed like a spark of inspiration for Fiorina, Brown uttered a few more "" than usual and turned to another topic.  Fiorina, however, managed to return to the same point in her concluding remarks.  The point made earlier that Fiorina had a grandchild interested in teaching went over Brown's head.  Brown had later asked her if she had any grand kids.

Not surprisingly, Christie harped on the deleterious effects of unions and tenure.  He hopes to equip every kid with an i-pad.  Whereas Fiorina understood that a teacher is more important than an i-pad, Christie seemed far less convinced.

To end on a positive note, all of the candidates seemed interested in rewarding good teachers--in one way or another.  Fiorina seemed to understand that most teachers don't enter the profession for money.  They enter it with lofty ambitions to help kids.  The other candidates seemed to swear by merit pay and, the other side of the coin which seemed universally popular with all the candidates, eliminating tenure.  Whereas so many politicians believe dollar signs must primarily motivate human behavior and that good teachers can only be measured through standardized test scores, the sad fact is some of the most beautiful souls, so many of them belonging to teachers, build their lives around helping others, not money grubbing, and sparking young imaginations, not prepping kids for standardized blah.  Let Governor Kasich speak to God about that sometime!

Friday, August 21, 2015

Hypocrisy, Thy Name Is MaryEllen Elia

 I was pretty shocked when NY State Regents unanimously nominated MaryEllen Elia to be NY State Commissioner of Education. For one thing, I had heard Michael Mulgrew speak of the great hope he had in the Regents to modify the new and draconian APPR law. Given that, I was surprised they'd select someone with such enthusiasm for testing, junk science, and all things reformy. It makes me really wonder exactly how much interest (if any) the Regents have in doing the right thing.

It's true Elia gave lip service to being a teacher, and to seeing herself as a teacher. But every teacher I know abhors the new system that judges us, now even moreso, on student tests. It's not even a secret anymore that the state takes these tests and manipulates the cut scores so they show whatever it is the state feels like proving that week. The only teachers I know of who support this stuff at all are those in Educators 4 Excellence, you know, the ones who take Gates money just like Elia did in Florida. And while their leaders, Evan Stone and Whoever the Other One Is, were briefly teachers, they aren't anymore.

And that's exactly who Elia went to speak to yesterday. And let's be clear--that is a political statement. If Elia wanted to speak to teachers, she could have tried for an audience with NYSUT or UFT. There's certainly precedent for reformies getting audiences with unions, like Gates addressing the AFT. (When that happened, Randi Weingarten seemed to encourage the troops in ridiculing the protesters. Gates thanked AFT by trashing teacher pensions just days later.)

That's great to hear. I hate it when politicians, op-eds and editorial boards bash teachers. I'm acutely aware of it because it happens almost every single day. Teachers don't want to be accountable because they object to having their jobs dependent on junk science. Teachers shouldn't talk to one another in teacher lounges. Teacher unions should be punched in the face.

Of course, the clever politicians who bash us often differentiate between teachers and teacher unions. "I would never bash teachers. I love teachers. My mother was a teacher. Yes, I had a mother." They blather on as though only Satanists are in teacher unions, and they only hate Satan. I suppose someone should inform those pols that teachers are in teacher unions, and that when they punch unions in the face they punch us in the face. Of course Elia hasn't yet broadcasted her intention to punch teacher unions in the face. Instead, she came up with this little gem:

Now, here's the thing about stereotypes--they are always hurtful, and they are always wrong. It doesn't even matter if they're positive. And make no mistake, Elia's statement is not positive at all. She's calling me and thousands of my brothers and sisters unethical. She's saying Diane Ravitch, Leonie Haimson, Carol Burris, Jeanette Deuterman, Beth Dimino and Jia Lee are promoting evil. And yet it's Elia herself who takes a salary several times that of any working teacher to carry out an agenda based on junk science.

It's Elia who supports giving every child in New York the same test. It doesn't matter to Elia if that results in a developmentally inappropriate curriculum. If the kids have learning disabilities, if they don't speak English, if they're malnourished, if their parents both work 200 hours a week, if they live in rotating shelters, too bad for them. The State has spoken.

Just because you're selective about the group of teachers you bash, you're still a teacher-basher. And with all due respect, I've seen absolutely no evidence that MaryEllen Elia is in any position whatsoever to lecture anyone about ethics.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

John Kasich Has a Royal Edict--Sit Down and Shut Up, Teachers!

That's the message I get from John Kasich, who talking heads sometimes falsely paint as the least insane rider on the Republican Clown Car. I'm not getting a whole lot of laughs from these clowns, as every one of them seems to hate us and everything we stand for. Though a bunch of them oppose Common Core, I personally believe it's not on principle (they don't have any). Republicans oppose it because it was introduced by President Barack Obama. If GW had introduced it, perhaps the Democrats would have fought it. Maybe not, since they were on board with NCLB. I'm not seeing much principle on that side of the aisle either.

Kasich is getting a lot of attention for his meeting with self-appointed education expert Campbell Brown yesterday. He said if he were king, he'd get rid of teacher lounges. Let's get one thing straight--it's not a great idea to elect people who fantasize about being king. It's the President's job to represent We, the People, not to issue edicts on what we should and should not do. Kasich uses what authority he already has to do things like rescind collective bargaining for day care workers. He says he doesn't want to impose right to work laws, but actions speak louder than words, and SCOTUS may soon make that unnecessary anyway.

Much has been written already about how there are, in fact, few teacher lounges anyway. In my school, there are a few adjuncts to bathrooms that have tables and chairs. In our school, they also have computers and there are always a few teachers working out lesson plans and power point presentations. Oh, the luxury of sitting in a bathroom. The only school I remember working in that had a dedicated teacher lounge was Newtown High School, where I worked for one semester in the 80s. I have no idea whether or not it's still there.

Teacher lounge has a broader and more obvious meaning. Right here, this is a virtual teacher lounge, and John Kasich would like nothing more than for us to all shut the hell up. Here's why:

Kasich said at an education summit in New Hampshire that many teachers believe that "we’re out to take their job" when schools evaluate teacher performance and that teachers' lounges provide an environment where this worry spreads.

So basically, when we're judged on the test scores of students we may or may not teach, and when our jobs literally depend on the outcome, we shouldn't worry. Who cares if the American Statistical Association says there's no validity to this method of evaluation? So what if there's no science or research to back it up. John Kasich says it's no problem, and that should be good enough for anyone.

"No we’re not out to take their job. If you need help, we’ll help you. If you’re a terrible teacher, then you should be doing something else because you’re going to find more satisfaction doing something else that you’re good at," he said. "We have to constantly communicate that."

How is Kasich going to help us? As king, he doesn't even want us to speak to each other.  Does Kasich know something we don't? If so, why doesn't he tell us about it? Are we supposed to trust a guy who says he doesn't need right to work, but who rescinds collective bargaining when given half a chance? Apparently that's precisely the level of critical thinking King Kasich wants from working teachers.

He then suggested that teachers' unions contribute to educators' worries.

That's because Kasich thinks union leadership stokes the fires of teacher discontent. I can't speak for all union leaders, but right here in Fun City Michael Mulgrew participated in a law that imposed junk science value-added ratings on NY State teachers. I have heard him praise it repeatedly. He likes to call it a growth model and say of course we can get kids from point A to point B. That may be so, but  tests that purport measure it are a whole lot more specific, may or may not be valid, and are subject to NYSED setting cut scores wherever the hell they feel like.

That's not to mention, of course, things like PE teachers being judged on scores kids get in English. An alleged improvement is that now PE teachers will be judged on the English scores of kids they actually teach. Do you need to be a genius to conclude that PE scores may vary wildly from English scores no matter how good or bad the PE teacher may be? Are the English teachers supposed to hear no evil and not realize that tests designed to measure student achievement do not, in fact, measure what they do when they teach?

Teacher unions contribute to my worries, but not in the way Kasich thinks. Teacher unions here made noise about opposing Andrew Cuomo but failed to do so when it counted, during the primaries and election. Teacher unions have enabled and supported mayoral control, junk science ratings, two-tier due process, and the erosion of tenure and seniority rights. In stark contract to Kasich's royal musings, the overwhelming city teachers are so cynical and demoralized that they can't even be bothered to vote in union elections. Kasich should be getting together with the other GOP hopefuls and having a party.

And if that's not enough, we're now facing the end of automatic payroll deduction. UFT's top-down method of governing, along with its miserably inept contract negotiations and craven willingness to give up whatever possible for a "seat at the table" has failed to inspire. It will be very had for people like me to convince thoroughly disaffected members to pay dues.

Up in that ivory tower at 52 Broadway no one frets over that. It's tragic they live in an echo chamber where absolutely everyone has signed a loyalty oath. Hopefully we can do so before SCOTUS puts a knife in our heart, because make no mistake, if it goes down this year, there's nothing to prevent it reading its ugly head again.

And I have a message for John Kasich--there may or may not be a physical teacher lounge in most buildings. But there are virtual ones everywhere, you're looking at one now, and we are not going down now, or ever.

Not even if you become king.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Those Goshdarn Inconvenient Questions

Yesterday there was an important article in City Limits about an organization I've had questions about for years. Often, when I see their name in the paper, I email the reporter and ask who's in the organization. I seem to remember that the co-called parents union was going to have a big get-together over the perfidy of teachers, or maybe one of those Hollywood productions about how awful we are. Evidently few wanted to go, and they had to cancel it.

Also I knew the parent union was Mona Davids and never saw evidence of another member until this guy Sam someone joined her. I'm not sure whether they came before or after Campbell Brown (or even why we're under constant attack by someone named for a soup can). Still, I know their voices appear in articles that stereotype us as perverts and try to take away our tenure. I grew up being stereotyped and it was no fun at all. Now I teach ESL students, kids from all over the world, and I'm very sensitive to stereotypes. Any of my kids who uses one, and I'm glad to tell you that happens rarely, is surprised to see the lesson stop altogether as I deal with it immediately.

I'm on Facebook a lot and I'm always surprised and disappointed to hear adults use stereotypes. "You libs all think this," or whatever. First of all, anyone who needs to resort to name calling hasn't got much of an idea. Second, a lot of us "libs" no longer blindly support Democrats. I'm a lifelong Democrat, and I keep my registration so I can vote in the primary. But Obama fooled my only once and Cuomo never fooled me at all.

Mona Davids appeared to be an ally of working teachers for a while, but then started taking positions exactly like Campbell Brown. Because a small number of teachers were accused of doing outrageous things we should no longer have due process. The chancellor, who was then denying U-rating appeals at a rate of almost 100%, should decide whether to fire us. No more of this independent arbitrator nonsense. And then, of course, were the dueling lawsuits to end tenure. I can't remember which one is still going forward, but I'm pretty sure one is. Sadly for Mona, she never got nearly the name recognition Campbell Brown walked in with.

And someone has finally bothered to ask questions about her "union."

Reached by phone while on vacation in Florida, the Union's founder and president Mona Davids acknowledged that the four-year-old advocacy group was not listed on Guidestar, an online public register of nonprofits and advocacy groups, nor at, the New York State Attorney General's website of state nonprofits. 

Davids suggested that her organization's lack of an online paper trail made it more authentic. Her group's 9,000 members, a figure whose provenance Davids said she could not explain at that moment, were "unbought and unbossed," "parents on the ground."

Maybe I should start a union too. Instead of being NYC Educator, I can be the NYC Educator union. I can claim thousands of members and multiply my credibility by just that much more. I can get quoted in papers as President, rather than simply me. And the great thing about that is I won't have to necessarily hold any meetings, show where my funding comes from, account for who is part of my group, or bother with any of that grunt work.

I can say whatever I want, change my mind whenever I want, stop allying with people who decline to fund me, get all sorts of publicity for my group, whether or not there is anyone in it, and show up to public events with maybe one prominent supporter. I'm thinking Arwen. And I'm sure I can talk a few people into coming along with us. Maybe I'll offer them a free drink. Works for E4E.

I'll say the same thing and multiply my voice by 9,000. Or maybe a whole lot more. It's a WIN-WIN.