Monday, August 29, 2016

What Does It Take To Get Promoted to Principal in NYC?

by special guest blogger Peter Lamphere

You’d hope it would be skill. Or perhaps leadership. Maybe it would be an overarching educational vision. But apparently, rising to principal in NYC nowadays entails heaping abuse on your subordinates and destroying the educational community you supervise.

Some readers of this blog may remember headlines from years ago about Rosemarie Jahoda’s harassment of the Bronx Science math department, which triggered one of the largest mass grievances in our union’s history. Yet this summer, Rosemarie Jahoda was appointed interim acting principal at Townsend Harris High School - one of the premier public high schools in Queens.

When I joined the Bronx Science math department in September of 2006, I entered a pedagogical community with several centuries of collective experience teaching some of the most gifted students in the country. Greg Greene - whose freshman geometry class I dutifully attended every day and who reminded me to “always do my homework before class” - had been teaching at the school since 1968.  Many others had been teaching since the seventies or eighties and were some of the most dedicated and creative teachers I’ve had the pleasure of working with. They generously shared their lesson plans and techniques. They were joined by a number of newer teachers like myself (I had 4 years in at that point) who added energy and new perspective.

A year later, our supervisor was replaced by Jahoda, who seemed like a very competent, friendly educator.  We didn’t know that she had been told by principal Valerie Reidy to bring order to the “wild west” of the math department. The math teachers were a group who knew their union rights and were willing to defend their untenured colleagues - which apparently angered principal Reidy.

Jahoda followed her mandate with gusto - and soon was ordering untenured faculty not to speak with veteran mentors and reducing younger teachers to tears with ruthless criticism. She also yelled red-faced in department meetings. An arbitrator later found she “reduced 7 teachers to tears on 12 separate occasions,” had raised her voice at teachers in front of students, and called another veteran a “disgusting person” in a meeting.

By May of that school year, the teachers of the department were fed up. Twenty of us (out of 22!) filed a harassment grievance and refused to meet with her without another colleague present for fear of a hostile work environment.  As our case wound through a multi-year arbitration process, all of the untenured teachers who signed the grievance were either fired or left the school. Others quickly followed in a string of retirements. But we were vindicated by the ruling of respected arbitrator Carol Wittenberg who held that Jahoda had engaged in a course of harassment and recommended her removal from the school.

I know many of the current Bronx Science math department teachers and respect the good work they do, but Jahoda destroyed the kind of teaching-learning community that is extremely valuable for students and families, not to mention educators. New York City schools desperately need to multiply such communities of learning.  Instead, Rosemarie Jahoda is being rewarded for destroying one.

In a sane system, this would hardly be grounds for promotion.  But the DOE is not a sane system.

Principals are regularly rewarded for bad behavior and abuse. Racist Queens principal Minerva Zanca, who attacked black employees as having “big lips,” looking like “gorillas” with “nappy hair,” is working an F-Status counseling job to supplement her retirement income.  Rather than settling out of court with the EEOC, Chancellor FariƱa chose to let the DOE get sued by Preet Bharara, US District Attorney, for protecting Zanca and Superintendent Juan Mendez.

Only by organizing strong UFT chapters can we protect teachers, and students and families, from incompetent and abusive administration.  The main lesson I learned from my Bronx Science tenure as chapter leader was that simply relying on the UFT grievance process is not sufficient. Although the UFT grievance department supported us through three years of grinding hearings, the DOE simply ignored the arbitrator's ruling (relying on a technicality in Article 23 of our contract that makes such decisions non-binding). I was able to overturn one U-rating on my record in court, but the Bronx Science chapter had been weakened and I was forced to transfer from the school to keep my job.

With the MORE caucus this coming year, I plan to help run a series of chapter organizer training workshops, to help support educators mobilize the power of their coworkers to defend themselves against the insanities of our education system, and their abusive representatives.  Please join us at tomorrow's forum about the nuts and bolts of chapter organizing, and share your own stories of organizing against abusive administrators below.  Collectively, we can work toward building sanity into this system.

Friday, August 26, 2016

UFT Will "Hook You Up" with the "Right People"

I often get calls for help from all sorts of people. Alas, I don't know everything. But I know people who know everything, or almost everything. My District Rep has been very helpful to me over the years, and I know a few people at central who are always willing to help.

Former chapter leaders James Eterno and Jeff Kaufman have been invaluable sources of advice. Blogger Chaz has expertise on subjects ranging from 3020a to the NY subway system, and always has a moment for me. Please forgive me if I've left out anyone (because there are a lot of people I've left out).

I'm also pretty fond of the UFT website. I get emails from members asking about all kinds of things, and that's the first place I check before I bother anyone. There's a little search window there, I type in a few letters, copy and paste, and I'm a genius. The longer I do this, the more the questions are repeated and the more I actually know off the top of my head.

There are some things UFT has told me not to respond on, particularly certification and retirement. I'm loath to give advice that may set someone on the wrong path. What I tell people in those cases is to call the borough office. I tell them to get back to me if the office doesn't help and that, in that case, I'll find someone who will.

I was pretty disappointed recently when I suggested this to someone new to our system. The person at the office was helpful, but also offered to "hook up" my friend with the "right people" at the UFT so as to get involved. I mean, there is this person, whose salary is paid by our dues money, and appears to be pushing caucus politics on my friend. I don't actually have an issue with partisan politics. I eagerly take part. But I don't do it on the union dime.

I've done a lot of partisan things. I've run for office. Sometimes I've even won. What's more partisan than that? A month ago, I went to Minnesota to see my first AFT convention. I figure I should know what the hell my dues are paying for. I saw that what they were paying for were a whole lot of high school teachers who NYC high school teachers voted against. They were there voting for whatever the hell UFT Unity told them to. I sat and watched as they were instructed how to vote.

Does UFT Unity tell its summer staff to push "the right people" on new teachers? Or do they do this on their own accord? Either way it's unacceptable while they're on the clock. I guess they could say they were only trying to get my friend to go to the Labor Day parade. On the other hand, you don't need to know "the right people" to do that. You just have to show up.

I'll be there this year, actually. And I will bring people with me. But dimes to dollars I'm not "the right people." The most leadership ever calls me to involve people in union is never.

Fine with me. The "right people" have brought us Danielson, junk science ratings, mayoral control, 3020a with burden of proof on the teacher, the ATR, severely curtailed seniority rights, and money you don't get until ten years after you earn it (if you're lucky enough to be alive by then and haven't resigned).

Isn't it ironic that we are judged by how engaged our students are, but that leadership's notion of engagement is so limited? It's basically sign a loyalty oath,  do whatever the hell we tell you, and we'll get you a trip to Minnesota and a gig answering phones. This is not precisely intrinsic motivation. I help people. believe it or don't, because I like doing it. If you ask me, it goes hand in hand with being a teacher. Supporting union means enabling the next generation to do my job, not just attending some gala luncheon with Mike Mulgrew.

I guess "the right people" don't expect that anyone like me will hear about it when they pull nonsense like this. When your circles consist of "the right people," you don't have to bother entertaining other points of view. But if you're in leadership, it's your job to consider all points of view you represent. It's too bad our leadership opts not to. If they'd do their job, representing us, we'd be a lot better prepared to do our job of representing ourselves.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The New School Leader at the Important Meeting

 by special guest blogger Charter School Teacher

I’m chugging along Day 3 of our Very Important Professional Development. So far it’s been typical stuff. School goals, how to set up a classroom, using google docs. Blah blah blah. Teachers either sleep or are on their cell phones. Teacher use of electronics has become so rampant that the Principal had to stop the Very Important Session to say “Uh, just as a courtesy, please limit the use of electronic devices …”

Towards the end of Day 3 the New Lady in a Very Important Position announced in her best 5th grade Catholic schoolteacher voice, “You have homework tonight. I want all of you to take the June Regents in your subject area. Please pick up your homework assignments on your way out.”

The teachers who had been sleeping woke up, the ones playing Candy Crush temporarily put away the game, the ones making dog filters on SnapChat closed out their sessions. What? Subject teachers had to take a three hour exam in a subject we already taught?

“Yes that’s correct,” New Lady said. “It’s very important we collect this data to assess where our students might be.”

I raised my hand. “But … we teach the subject. We already know the answers to the Regents. How will this be useful?”

“I want to see which questions you had a hard time with,” she responded in a clipped, annoyed voice. “I’ve never taken these exams before.”

“But we teach this and we’ll score a 100 on it. That’s not the same as our students.”

“This is not up for discussion!” she said. She was very offended. Her face turned as red as her hair. “Pick up the homework packets by the end of day today and have them ready by tomorrow.”

Teachers looked around. Was this for real? New Lady wanted us to take Regents in subjects we already taught in order to assess which questions students got wrong? Why not have, say, the Science teacher take a Global exam and vice versa? Wouldn’t that be more useful?

Another teacher asked “Do I have to write both essays for my exams?”

“Yes,” New Lady replied. “It’s very important we have this data.”

So on our way out we picked up our “homework” — the June 2016 Regents in our respective subject area. One teacher pointed out that all the answers were online.

“Shhhh. New Lady doesn’t need to know that,” another snapped.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Part 154 Comes to My Class

Next year, I'm going to have to work with a co-teacher. This is because of the ridiculous regulation in CR Part 154 that ELLs cannnot be more than one grade apart. With decades of experience, even though I am state-certified in multiple subjects, I can't legally teach the class by myself. And despite being the largest high school in Queens, with one of the largest ELL populations in the city, we haven't got enough students to reasonably separate our beginners--the group is very lopsided.

What's going to happen is that there will be one group of grades 9-10, and another of grades 11-12. We will teach them together because one teacher will be assigned to each group. Under the current UFT Contract, our classes can run up to 68. Now I absolutely believe the good intentions of my administration. But I've seen good intentions go awry, even with good people in charge. That's why I'd advise any teacher not to get into what I'm getting into--it's an unacceptable risk. I know for a fact that if we need space for another classroom there simply will not be any. 

In most if not all other places, things are even worse. I've written before about the idiotic rules that keep ESL students from getting the level of direct English instruction they need.  For over a year now, I've been trying to get UFT leadership to support us, UFT teachers, in an effort to not only restore their instruction, but also to restore ESL teachers to their jobs of actually teaching ESL. A whole lot of us have been reduced to supporting subject teachers, and there's simply no way to make 154 work effectively.

In small schools, ESL teachers are expected to do everything and support everyone. They're supposed to do that while other teachers are teaching so-called core subjects. You know, those are subjects like social studies and math, which matter. According to the State of New York, the ability to actually speak English does not.

UFT has passed a resolution condemning the fact that students get less English instruction. Alas, the only follow up they've done consists of a "white paper" that has not been released, containing I have no idea what, and a study. Unfortunately UFT has decided to actively study the only part of 154 that is not problematic--an additional year of ESL instruction for students who've tested out already.

The fact that students are going to get direct English instruction cut has not yet been deemed worthy of examination by our esteemed leadership, nor the fact that ESL students are supposed to learn both English and a core subject simultaneously in the same time American-born students learn only the core subject. Another thing UFT thus far deems unworthy of examination is the effect on teachers. As previously mentioned lot of small schools have only one ESL teacher who is expected to run around like a chicken without a head and do everything all at once, an impossibility according to those with whom I speak.

At the advice of several people, I've reached out to Regents Commissioner Betty Rosa. Evidently Dr. Rosa is quite busy, because she hasn't bothered with even a form letter in response. In fact, the only response I've gotten from her was in person, when she defended it by saying there were "good intentions" behind it. I watched Dr. Rosa speak the entire evening. She is very smart. She has to know that good intentions are no defense whatsoever for catastrophic results, and that sitting around hoping for the best is hardly an action plan.

I am not yet sure what I am going to do about this. Dr. Rosa can sit around and hope for the best, but I most certainly will not. I'd very much like to get UFT leadership on board with me, as I'll bet Dr. Rosa answers their email.  I fail to see why we can’t simply and openly work together toward improving conditions for ELLs and their teachers, or why anyone in leadership need be adversarial in this matter.

But this is one of the stupidest things I've seen in three decades of teaching, and I won't be twiddling my thumbs. I'm very much hoping to push not only UFT policy, but also UFT action somewhere far away from the entire thumb-twiddling thing.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Dress Codes

Some people take dress codes more seriously than others, I notice. I've had people walk into my classroom and tell girls wearing spaghetti strap tank tops that they're inappropriate. I can't remember what they did about it, but I do remember that I didn't care at all and would never have said anything.

I've never sent anyone out of my class for wardrobe. I remember asking a kid once to wear his jacket for the rest of the day to cover some obscenity or other, and while looking for that story, I found this one. I'm pretty surprised I didn't do the same for that kid, because I'd certainly be inclined to do something like that today.

I've never sent a girl out to change her clothes. It's my understanding that we have a bunch of t-shirts in the dean's office to cover things that need covering but I've never done it. Not even for the girls with halter tops and cut offs split to their belt loops. I probably just ignore them, or even try not to look at them. Let the professional fashion police deal with that, say I.

A lot of teachers take exception to this. Maybe I'm sexist. I make the boys take off their hats and do rags in my classroom. I've come to see that as disrespectful. The girls' shorts? I don't know. I haven't got jeans to give them and I'm not sending them home. If the boys want to wear shorts it's fine with me. I haven't seen any of them with halter tops yet but if I did, I wouldn't be the one to make a stink about it. I only give students a hard time if they don't try to do the classwork, or homework, or bring a banjo or accordion to class. You have to set standards.

But that's an interesting message above, and it never crossed my mind until I read it. I've also never heard of a distraction free learning environment, and I'm not sure I'd like to be part of one. We are human. How can we not get distracted? Sure there is a line somewhere, but I can get as distracted as any teenager if you give me half a chance. OK, I'm not checking my smartphone during class, and I'm not ogling the girls. But if someone says something funny, I can lose it. This is a problem for me because I often see humor where no one else does. It can be a real problem for me, at meetings, when I start laughing out loud and no one else seems to understand why.

A kid might say, "This room smells like math," or, "Without my glasses, I can't even find my glasses." I will surely lose it. Sometimes the kids join me and sometimes they don't. I don't know. But I can't make a distraction free classroom. Boys will look at girls if they're wearing 5 sweaters, four scarves, mittens, a hat, a hood, and a North Face parka. Certainly the Ugly T-shirt from the dean's office isn't going to make them forget who they want to look at. I looked at girls when I was a student, particularly in math and science classes, and back then I think maxi-skirts were in style. It didn't bother me that much, and no one was gonna stop me, certainly no one talking about right angles.

I don't remember any pretty girls in summer school. Maybe that was the lesson I needed to learn at that time, sitting in a hot room somewhere hearing again about geometry while all my friends (and all the girls) were at the beach. I'm agnostic on dress codes. If we don't have them for ourselves, who are we to force them on kids?

Now I'm not advocating dress codes for teachers. If you can come in wearing a toga and teach well, more power to you. I'm just not sure we really need one for the kids. But if I'm wrong, feel free to let me know in the comments.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Revive NYSUT and Dinosaurs

I'm always astonished when people in authority act without thinking. Perhaps I'm naive. What with Donald Trump blabbering all over about everything, it's pretty much par for the course in America these days.

I shouldn't be surprised, really, because I've seen these things over and over. The other day I blogged about a topic that NYSUT leadership found sensitive. I know this because they tweeted a response that was baseless and absurd. I can only suppose you don't go the baseless and absurd route if you've got a better one.

Ridicule can be effective sometimes. For that, though, it needs to be based on what the subject did. Sometimes it just seems to come out of nowhere, and then itself becomes a worthy target. For example we've all seen UFT President Michael Mulgrew musing about flying saucers and martians, in an effort to ridicule Common Core opponents. Years ago, we saw former UFT President Sandra Feldman declare anyone who thought we could improve on her 25-year longevity must be "smoking something." (Yet I was pretty glad to hit maximum at 22 years after we'd defeated her agreement.)

So making absurd statements is not an original notion from NYSUT's version of Unity.When Mulgrew said, in front of God and everybody, that he was gonna punch faces and push them in the dirt to defend Common Core, well, it almost cried out for ridicule. It was a sensational story, and was widely covered. In any case, Revive NYSUT, or NYSUT Unity, or whatever they're calling themselves this week, deemed the following an apt response to my blog:

Let's take a look at that. First, there's the accusation of bias. Bias is generally associated with prejudice. The blog they criticize was not created out of whole cloth. I'm certainly opinionated, this blog reflects my opinions, but my opinions are formed by years of experience, reading and observation. Bias is when you look at something you don't like, fail to consider it, and then condemn it for a predetermined reason, which is likely tantamount to no reason at all. Someone's biased here, but it isn't me. Let's take, for example, the assertion that the blog was "fact free."

I count four sources for that blog. There was the Times Union article suggesting that NYSUT leadership wanted to cut benefits for its employees, who specifically referenced pensions. There was a Politico piece specifically referencing a law that allows NYSUT leaders to accrue double pensions. There were quotes from PJSTA President Beth Dimino suggesting NYSUT tried to bypass local presidents to solicit VOTE COPE contributions, and there was a quote from former NY Deputy State Comptroller Harris Lirtzman, who'd done some homework analyzing the NYSUT pension system.

So that's what I based my opinions on. What did NYSUT Unity base their opinions on? Absolutely nothing but their own prejudices, as far as I can tell. Now the upstanding individual who likely writes this stuff did a hit piece on me a while back, calling me a part-time teacher. (I'm not linking to it because it doesn't permit comments and no one reads the blog anyway.) I don't remember exactly what I wrote to cause him to do this, but he wrote a long piece about what he decided I thought. That's easier than actually confronting what I may have said or done, and that's what you call a strawman fallacy. It doesn't get into the difficult business of addressing whatever the argument was I'd made. Rather, it invents an easy target, something that it claims I think or believe and simply attacks that easier target.

These are the sorts of things you do and say when you have no argument.

And as Revive NYSUT broke promise after promise, I know I've done the right thing by exposing and opposing them. They were against Common Core, they said in the pamphlet above, but President Karen Magee, at an AFT Convention, suggested the alternative to it was a "free-for-all." They said they were against APPR but haven't moved a millimeter toward its repeal. They said they were against Cuomo but failed to oppose him in two primaries and a general election. They say they're for NYSUT transparency, but when you mention their verifiable actions they accuse you of being a lunatic.

All of this is troubling. What's most troubling, though, is these are the people who are negotiating for us at a state level. It's no wonder Cuomo walks all over us, and at the very nadir of his popularity is able to make APPR even more draconian, with the aid of his Heavy Hearts Assembly. Can you imagine people who think the genius who wrote that tweet should be representing us? Can you imagine people with that brand of judgment negotiating for us on a state level?

I can. And sadly, it explains a lot.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Bad Song Sunday

There's a story about jazz violinist Joe Venuti. Venuti was known for rarely, if ever, doing requests. One night he broke his policy and elicited suggestions from the audience. Someone requested Feelings. Venuti declared it the worst song ever written, and played Sweet Georgia Brown instead. Give it a listen and let me know if you think Venuti was right.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

NYSUT Follows in the Footsteps of Rahm Emanuel

As usual, there's big fun in Chicago. Admin wants to make teachers fund their pensions, and pick up the 7% of the pension that the city had paid, when it felt like paying it. Essentially, this becomes a 7% pay cut. It's funny how, when contract time comes around, there are all these deals that aren't what they seem.

For example, if you get a 5% raise, and you work 5% more, you did not get a raise. Or if you get a raise and don't receive it for 10 years, it has considerably less value than it would if you'd gotten the money up front. Don't believe me? Try buying a car with the 30 or 40 K NYC owes you. Let me know how that works out.

It's pretty reprehensible that the Chicago government is treating its teachers this way. CTU President Karen Lewis says they will strike rather than accept pay cuts. This is what happens when an employer doesn't plan properly. It blames working people rather than itself, and asks them to suck it up, even while those in high places are highly compensated.

We all know what a loathsome reptile Rahm Emanuel is. We expect this sort of nonsense from him. It's pretty shocking, though, to see similar talk from NYSUT leadership, according to a letter NSYUT employees sent local presidents:

(it)...says that officers of the union are willing to "significantly reduce our benefits," in order to dodge a looming financial crisis.

While it doesn't detail how those benefits would be lowered, much of the letter talks about the growing costs of NYSUT pensions for its own retirees.

NYSUT, of course, is a union, and ought to take very seriously the priorities of union. But it appears NYSUT leadership has no problem circumventing local presidents to ask members for COPE money even as it takes aim at empoyee pensions. As PJSTA President Beth Dimino puts it:

From the same legislative department run by Andy Pallota that gave NY Teachers; tier 5, tier 6, 4 year tenure, and an evaluation system based 50% on flawed HST, they want more money from each of us to further screw ourselves! 

I actually sat across from Pallota at a 2014 forum in which he would not commit to opposing reformy Andrew Cuomo. In subsequent forums, I watched him evolve his message this way and that, but it ultimately didn't much matter. Indeed, though his Revive NYSUT slate promised they opposed Cuomo, they failed to do so in not one, but two primaries. They followed up by sitting on the fence in the election.

Now they're threatening their employees with the very same thing Rahm is holding over the CTU.  NYC is a very large union, and all contracts are negotiated by Michael Mulgrew and his merry band. There are a whole lot of smaller locals, like PJSTA, and the PSA supports them as they negotiate. From Beth Dimino:

PSA members are the people who provide field services to our locals. They are our labor relations specialists (LRS) and they help local presidents negotiate your contract and answer the day to day questions presidents face when they deal with Administration. I'm not exaggerating when I say that without our LRSs we'd be lost! 

A lot of small local members on Facebook have taken the PSA symbol as their profile pictures.

It is a fundamental responsibility of union leadership to improve conditions for its members. Clearly there are sometimes setbacks in negotiations. But I've been following NYSUT pretty closely for the last few years, and the only serious pension improvement over which its presided has been for the NYSUT officers themselves, who can accrue two pensions simultaneously. So even as teacher pensions are seriously degraded, Karen Magee and Martin Messner don't have to worry they won't be taken care of.

As for the rest of us, we're on our own. Worse, they have failed to set an example for governments, and are now looking to degrade the pensions of their own employees. After reviewing public documents submitted to the US Department of Labor, Harris Lirtzman, former NYC teacher and deputy New York State comptroller, attributes this to poor planning:

NYSUT funds its pension plan, largely, on a pay-as-you go basis: money comes in through member dues and employee contributions and goes right back out to pay current year pension benefits. NYSUT stays solvent only through a complex network of loans and transfers every year to and from the AFT and UFT.

I don't know what NYSUT does with all the dues we pay it, but that's less than encouraging. Are they indulging in some shell game with our money and expecting PSA to help pick up the tab?  Are the top people, like Magee and Pallota getting big bucks while the little people suffer? Are they, in fact, expecting working people to pick up the tab for their lavish lifestyles?

That's not what I'd call setting an example. We need to be better than the likes of Rahm and Cuomo. We need to show them that things can be done better.

For my money, NYSUT leadership is doing precisely the opposite.

Bonus: Here's the rapid response from NYSUT Unity. Note that they utilize ridicule rather than argument. These are the people running our union.

Friday, August 19, 2016

127,000 NYC Students Are Homeless

That's one in eight. It's not at all surprising because minimum wage workers can't afford to live here. If we raise the wage to $15, they still won't be able to afford it.

And still, reformies of all stripes get all agitated about how what we need is to fire the teachers, to establish charters, to give school "choice." Jesus, what about the choice to have a home? Isn't that just a little more fundamental than whether or not $500K-per-annum Eva Moskowitz gets to open up another charter school, or whether or not the city has to pay for it?

Nonetheless, every week there's another story about some study Eva's BFFs, the so-called Families for Excellent Schools, have done that proves that either City Schools Suck, Bill de Blasio Sucks, or ideally both. Where are our values?

I don't personally believe that standardized test scores are an indicator of much beyond family income. I don't think it's a coincidence that NY State took over the schools in Roosevelt but left Great Neck alone. But even if I did believe such a thing, there is no way I would prioritize test scores over living conditions. Self-proclaimed education guru Bill Gates has declared the way to defeat world poverty is for poor people to raise chickens.  Well, that's not an option if you live in Queens or the Bronx. Neighbors can be picky about having chickens running around in apartment buildings.

The fact is all schools targeted for closings contain high percentages of impoverished children. They contain high percentages of students with special needs. As long as we keep funneling children with proactive parents into charters, as long as we allow them to maintain and follow up on "got to go" lists, and as long as we allow them to dump kids back into public schools without replacing them we won't have any real "choice."

Sorry, reformies. If you gave a crap about children you'd stop attacking those of use who've dedicated our lives to serving them. You'd stop dragging them and their parents to Albany to maintain the substandard jobs you offer those who can't get UFT jobs. You'd fight to get kids out of poverty rather than putting your millions behind smoke and mirrors. You'd fight to make sure children had a future with middle class jobs rather than attacking teaching, one of their very best options.

You cannot ignore the fundamentals and make progress. One out of eight of our kids is homeless. That's not even considering the working poor, struggling to get by. Do you seriously think that parents working multiple jobs have time for parenting? Do you seriously think that homeless and overworked parents have the time to examine, apply for, and do the extra work hours charters can demand?

It costs $500 for an Epipen this year.  That's a 400% hike from what it was in 2008. Do homeless kids even know they need one? Have they signed the paperwork to help get one, if such paperwork is even available? I don't know, but I am certain that homelessness is a thing, that poverty is a thing, and that as long as we keep our head in the sand and worry about how many Moskowitz Academies we can open, or how many meaningless tests kids can pass, we're way off the mark in our priorities.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

A Lesson for Common Core Enthusiasts

Someone sent me an interesting link from the Gates-funded Center for American Progress the other day, about how we could all do fabulous close reading things with the Common Core standards. Believe it or not, just about every organization that's taken money from Gates has fallen head over heels in love with Common Core, on which Gates spent a whole lotta cash. Go figure.

During the 2014-15 school year, more high school seniors read the young adult-oriented books The Fault in Our Stars and Divergent than Shakespeare’s Macbeth or Hamlet, according to a report that tracks what K-12 students at more than 30,000 schools are reading during the school year. These books are generally self-selected, making it not all that surprising that students would prefer to read a contemporary New York Times bestseller than a 17th-century play written in early modern English. And while some of the books that students select are thematically targeted to a mature audience, they are not particularly challenging to read for the average high schooler. The Fault in Our Stars and Divergent, for example, have the readability of a fourth- or fifth-grade text in terms of sentence structure and word difficulty.

God forbid that students should read stuff they enjoy. The end of the world is nigh. What we should value, according to this logic, is difficulty rather than content. Allowing students to self-select has a negative connotation in that paragraph. I'd argue the opposite. If students love to read, they will practice it without guns to their heads. Then, when they are presented with difficult readings, they will figure out how to get through them and deal with them. Forcing them to plod through Shakespere if they don't wish to is not how you get motivated readers. They continue:

Three of the top five most commonly assigned titles in grades 9 through 12 are To Kill a Mockingbird, The Crucible, and Of Mice and Men. All three books, while classics, are not particularly challenging in terms of sentence structure and complexity

Can you imagine that? Those crappy teachers are assigning books because of depth of theme, and they have no regard for how rigorous they are. It doesn't matter what sort of discussion or independent thought those books inspire. The important thing is how big the words are, how complicated the sentences are (all the better if they're in non-standard English) and whether or not the kids can muddle through them and pass a test.

You know what I never think about, and what most readers don't think about? We don't think about the grade level of what we're reading. We read for information, we read to learn, we read to be entertained, and we read for a lot of reasons. But we don't read simply to encounter big words and complicated sentence structure.

I was never taught any of this stuff and I miss it not at all. I was motivated to read myself and never expected other people to tell me what words meant. That’s what dictionaries are for. You'd think what 5-year-olds need is to work on unlocking complex text. That will make them love reading for sure. No more blowing bubbles in their milk and none of that Cat in the Hat nonsense anymore. We're raising a generation of test-takers who have SAT-oriented vocabularies.What more could any country want?

Now I actually have nothing against encouraging vocabulary. Vocabulary is a tool, and we use it as we need it. Were it up to me, I'd teach kids more about logic. I'd let them know what logical fallacies are. I'd let them know what bad arguments are made of. I'd let them explore and detect lies, like, for example, Common Core was developed by teachers, or that it's research based and field tested. I'd want my kids to know that health care is available to all in most non-third-world countries and few outside the United States go bankrupt paying hospital bills.

In fact, I'd like folks who advocate Common Core, like Reformy John King, to stand up and defend his ideas just like he wants our kids to do. That would be a whole lot better than cowardly canceling meetings because he can't muster a coherent argument. It's disgraceful that someone who advocates logic would call parents and teachers "special interests," and get all huffy when we ask why he sends his kids to schools that don't utilize the methodology he demands for our kids.

I also do not think it’s necessarily of value to use big words. Communication is about reaching as many people as you can with the correct words, words that inform, words that are appropriate and most easily understood, not words that impress. People who try to impress with big words end up doing precisely the opposite, even if they use them correctly.

One of my favorite series of books is The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. It's beautiful, lyrical writing. It's simple and universal. I've taught it to ESL students and they've loved it. It's about a woman in Botswana who's very smart, who's suffered greatly, but who's determined to make something of herself. It's about how she makes things happen by outsmarting those around her. It's not about how difficult the books she reads happen to be.

I don't love to read because I went to school and some teacher shoved big words and/ or complicated sentences down my throat. I don't love to read because some teacher handed me The History of Cement and made me close read it.  I love to read because of the very smart people who've taken the time to write. And if I have to plod through The History of Cement, I can do it because reading is natural for me.

The Common Core folk have got everything ass-backwards. And it's not because they weren't taught via Common Core. I wasn't taught via Common Core, and I can see right through all of their reformy nonsense. They'd love it if only we'd keep ignoring the fact that over half our country's children live in poverty. If we can get them to pass standardized tests here and there, that validates the reformies, and that's good enough.

Let them eat sentences.