Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Gates/ Walton/ Broad Fix for That Nagging Teacher Problem

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A cheery little reverie by special guest blogger Michael Fiorillo
- Proclaim austerity for the public schools, while continuing to expand charters.
- Put non-educators in positions of power, from Assistant Principal on up.
- Maintain a climate of scapegoating and witch hunting for “bad teachers,” who are posited as the cause of poverty and student failure, doing everything possible to keep debate from addressing systemic inequities.
- Neutralize and eventually eliminate teacher unions (the former largely accomplished in the case of the AFT). As part of that process, eliminate tenure, seniority and defined benefit pensions.
- Create and maintain a climate of constant disruption and destabilization, with cascading mandates that are impossible to keep up or comply with.
- Create teacher evaluations based on Common Core-related high stakes tests for which no curriculum has been developed. Arbitrarily impose cut scores on those exams that cast students, teachers and schools as failing, as was done by NYS Education Commissioner John King and Regent Meryl Tisch.
- Get teachers and administrators, whether through extortion (see RttT funding) threats or non-stop propaganda, to accept the premises of “data-driven” everything, even when that data is irrelevant, opaque, contradictory, or just plain wrong.
- Get everyone to internalize the premises and language of so-called education reform:
 – Parents are not citizens with rights, but “customers” who are provided                        “choices” that are in practice restricted by the decisions of those in charge, based on policies developed by an educational-industrial complex made up of foundations, McKinsey-type consultants and captive academics.
– Students are “assets” and “products,” whose value is to be enhanced (see the definition of VAM) by teachers before being offered to employers.
 – Teachers are fungible units of “human capital,” to be deployed as policy-makers and management see fit. Since human capital depreciates over time,it needs to be replaced by fresh capital, branded as “the Best and Brightest.”
– Schools are part of an investment “portfolio,” explicitly including the real estate they inhabit, and are subject to the “demands” of the market and the preferences of policy-makers and management.
- Create an intimidating, punitive environment, where the questions and qualms of teachers are either disregarded or responded to with threats.
- Get the university education programs on board under threat of continuing attack. Once they acquiesce, go after them anyway, and deregulate the teacher licensing process so that it’s easier to hire temps.
- Eliminate instruction that is deemed irrelevant to the most narrowly-cast labor market needs of employers, getting rid of art, music, dance, electives, etc., thereby reducing the focus of education to preparation for passive acceptance of low-wage employment.
- Embed software and electronic gadgets in every facet of the classroom and school, from reading to test taking, with the intention of automating/digitizing as much classroom input and output as possible.
- Use the automation/digitiliztion of the classroom to enlarge class size – something explicitly promoted by Bill Gates – and transform teachers into overseers of student digital production that is connected to massive databases, so that every keystroke is data that can be potentially monetized.
- Cash your bonus checks, exercise your stock options, declare Excellence and Civil Rights achieved, and go on to Better Things.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Here's What Tenure Really Does

There's a lawsuit claiming tenure discriminates against children. They say the worst teachers teach the most needy kids in the most needy areas.

I teach the most needy kids, so I must be a terrible teacher too. For goodness sake, my kids can't even speak English. What could be worse than that? The answer is fairly simple. What's worse than that is that they tend not to do well on standardized tests. The only logical conclusion, as you'd infer from NY newspaper editorials, is that I'm a thorough incompetent. I should be fired and replaced with a TFA expert with six weeks of valuable training. You won't see that person hanging around for 30 years and demanding a pension.

And it is, of course, mere coincidence that there is a high percentage of high needs kids in these areas. Rampant poverty in these areas is just an excuse. A good teacher could surely teach them some grit and make them forget that they wake up at 3 AM to help their mother deliver newspapers. A qualified teacher would make them forget that their parents are in another country. A highly effective teacher would make them pass all the tests even if they just arrived from China six weeks ago.

The only answer, as far as our reformy friends see it, is to eliminate teacher tenure. It's important to be able to fire teachers for any reason, or indeed for no reason. And naturally, that's entirely fair. Principals and assistant principals are very wise and never, ever, exercise personal agendas that have nothing to do with learning. And private enterprise hires at will employees, so why isn't that good enough for teachers?

I'd argue it isn't good enough for private enterprise either, but that it's even more important for public school teachers. The fact is that there are rules on how we deal with children. I know someone, a probationer without tenure, who was fired for the offense of asking that special ed. regulations be enforced. And I myself would have been fired for the offense of talking to a Times reporter if I hadn't had tenure.

I once identified two students who spoke fluent English but were in my ESL classes. Neither ever wrote anything. One consistently refused and was belligerent when I demanded he do anything beyond writing his name on a test. Another was friendly, overcompensated by participating orally, but could not decode words like "home," or "mother" when I wrote them. His first language was French, and my genius ex-principal would not accept the kid was illiterate until he had him try to read in French. While pronunciation varies, the French alphabet is essentially the same as ours.

I called his house, his grandmother told me he had a problem, and asked if I could help. My research, though far from extensive, uncovered no program to help high school kids who didn't read (though my school now has precisely such a program).

When that principal received a fax from the DOE with my name on it, it was as though the world had ended. I was constantly called into the office. I was asked to check in at the end of my day, and I was made to wait while the principal did whatever Very Important Business it was he had to attend to. In fact, my students were denied books I'd requested for a full year until I discovered somewhere we were contractually entitled to supplies. I casually threatened my then-AP with a grievance, and the books were magically ordered the next day.

I know people who were sent to the rubber room for less. I was perhaps fortunate because my report kept us all busy with scores of meetings, all of which I was forced to attend. At not one of these meetings was the welfare of the kids discussed. It was did we follow the rules, have we covered our asses, and can we get into trouble for this. The consensus was they did, they had, and they could not get into trouble.

As this went on, both kids stopped attending school, and helpfully solved administration's problem.

But I have no doubt whatsoever, had it been an option, that this principal would have fired me outright for telling the truth about these kids.

Has tenure saved your job?

Monday, April 21, 2014

A Look Into the Top-Secret World of High-Stakes Testing



There is such a degree of secrecy surrounding N.Y.S. Common-Core tests that you might mistake it for the Manhattan Project.  Teachers are not privy to share any of the specific questions with the public.  Nonetheless, one can find many generalized criticisms of the exams on the internet (like here and here).  One can also speak with teachers who proctored the exams as well as the children who took them at the different grade levels.  I haven't heard one person praise the exams.  A friend noted, however, that the readings seemed reasonable, but the questions were not.  I can only go on hearsay.

In case you're wondering why Common-Core tests are classified, I have absolutely no idea.  But I can take some educated guesses.  

The Top Ten Reasons for Keeping the Content of the N.Y.S. Common-Core Tests Secret:

10.  P.A.R.C.C. or Pearson may intend to use these questions again.  If they can recycle the same trash, there is no need for creativity on their account or on our account.

9.  These questions may cause controversy if it is discovered that they were borrowed, in part, as in the past, from the testing company's purchasable review books.

8.  If parents learn the length and content of the exams, they make seek to shelter their children before the six-day cycle of suffering has ended. 

7.  People with a Ph.D. really don't need to know at an advanced age that they couldn't pass a third-grade  Common-Core test--and that neither could the politicians, policymakers and test makers.

6.  People can't handle the truth.  If the test questions are publicized, there may be riots in the streets. 

5.  Releasing the contents of the exams might prove a grave national security risk. 

4.  Imagine if these questions should fall into the wrong hands.  Terrorists might gain hold of them and use them to threaten civilization as we know it today. 

3.  Last year's tests failed 70% of NY state's children.  These test questions might be circulated on the internet and used as weapons of mass destruction. 

2.  You know what happened with Roswell.  If Americans actually see the questions, they may believe, beyond any doubt, that it is proof of contact with extraterrestrial beings!

1.   If we actually find out about these questions, we might have to meet the same fate as the famed talking pineapple of April 2012.  We might need to be bumped off.


Sunday, April 20, 2014

More Media Mendacity--Charter Lobbyist Says Public Schools Pick and Choose

You have to love the audacity of a charter proponent twisting logic to this point. He opens with a story of Bill de Blasio's son in Stuyvesant. It's true Stuyvesant is selective, but it's also true that Stuyvesant is far from representative of public schools.

Then, of course, there is the preposterous image of people having to cross velvet ropes to get into public schools. According to this lobbyist, we pick and choose, and leave the undesirables at the door.

One way, according to the writer, that we are selective is via zip code. If you live in a neighborhood, you can attend that neighborhood's schools. And if you can afford a great neighborhood, you can attend a great school.

Actually, that's true less and less in NYC as fewer and fewer schools are neighborhood schools, and that's been accomplished by uber-reformy Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

And city schools take everyone. We take the kids I teach--ESL students who've been here a very short time. We take special ed. kids regardless of how many services they require. When charters talk of what percentage of special needs kids they take, they never mention the extent of those needs.

But even if we really used velvet ropes, the writer conveniently forgets that charters can require more of parents than public schools, like the odd walk over the Brooklyn Bridge, trip to Albany, or the phone call requiring you to leave work to attend to some minor infraction. The writer forgets the attrition rate at charters as they exclude children they find inconvenient, and the writer also forgets where those inconvenient children end up. These children don't face velvet ropes. In fact, they enter public schools.

After these children are removed, it's as though they never existed. Charters can boast of 100% graduation rates and 100% acceptance into four-year colleges. And what of the kids the charters dumped? Well, those kids become part of stats used against public schools. Too many kids took too long to graduate, and therefore we need to move Eva Moskowitz into your school. After all, the poor woman has to scrape by on less than 500K per annum, and she needs the work.

The charter guy wants to "expand access to the schools that are presently succeeding and work to create more of them," which means exactly to give Moskowitz even more space. Now she can't afford to pay for it, and charter lobbyists spent over 5 million bucks to make sure we knew that. We have to give her the space, and if we don't, we have to let her pick her own space and pay her rent. That's the American way, and Eva's BFFs paid Andrew Cuomo at least 800K to have it enshrined in law.

Meanwhile, my kids and I sit in a trailer, because neither the charter-loving writer nor any of the people who work for Moskowitz work for us. That's OK.

What's not OK is that neither Andrew Cuomo nor our state representatives work for us either. That needs to change.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Media Mendacity--NY Post Covers the MTA Contract

I'm always amazed at the audacity with which the truth is twisted in our media. The MTA came to an agreement with Governor Andrew Cuomo over a five year contract, and the Post is upset because they view it as costly. Evidently paying people to work is an inconvenience that ought to be avoided at any cost. But here's how the Post sees it:

...the 34,000 TWU members who work for the state-run MTA just got a great deal from Gov. Cuomo: five years’ worth of raises, plus a bunch of new goodies.

That sounds great, doesn't it? Who wouldn't want a great deal? I haven't had a raise in over five years, and I certainly want a great deal. But then you come to this:

...they can expect 8.25 percent raises over the five years between 2012 and 2016. That’s likely to run only slightly behind inflation.

Wait a minute.  It's running slightly behind inflation? I'm not an economist, but doesn't that mean MTA members will effectively be earning less by the end of this contract? I grant that it's only slightly less, but how on earth does making less equal a great deal? I'd have thought earning more would be a better deal, and earning less, even a little less would not be a good deal at all. Yet the Post editorial board thinks it's great. But there's more:

The average transit worker can expect to earn above $75,000 with this $6,000 or so raise — and will only have to pay $400 more in annual health-care costs in return.

So they actually get even less. Sure, 400 bucks a year probably won't fundamentally affect your lifestyle. But when you're already making effectively less money it doesn't particularly help either. Here's another thing that upsets the NY Post:

They’ll now have two weeks’ paid maternity and paternity leave, plus better dental and eye care, as Samuelson said yesterday.
Wow. That's awful. How can we give new parents time with their children? What if everyone had dental and eye care? That would be awful! Why should we encourage working people to take care of their eyes and teeth? How does that help our country? And why should we care whether or not they're healthy? Are there no workhouses? Are there no prisons?

It's a little scary that if you read this uncritically, you'll think that it's reasonable. If you read David Brooks uncritically, you'll think that Common Core is reasonable. Does anyone seriously believe that the corporate interests that pimp Common Core want our kids to question the bilge that passes for commentary in the Post?

What's reasonable is leaving an America with more, not fewer, opportunities for our children. And that means, at the very least, casting a critical eye on the sloppy nonsense Rupert Murdoch would have us accept as journalism in our beloved US of A.

Examined further at Perdido Street

Friday, April 18, 2014

How to Solve Poverty

It's tough to keep a job you like. I've managed to do it for almost three decades, but my daughter has not been so lucky. A few months ago, she went with my wife to try to join a new gym in our town, helped the staff translate for some Spanish-speaking customers, and then ended up with her very first job. She loved it, and was fairly gung-ho on it until quite recently.

The manager who hired her got fired, as did a much-loved and hard-working cleaning person, and my daughter and a whole bunch of her co-workers were no longer happy. So they organized, made a list of demands, and quit en masse. I don't suppose they will see their demands realized. This is a disadvantage of 8-dollar-an-hour, zero benefits non-unionized jobs.

She's fortunate in that she doesn't actually need this job. If she did, it would be a lot harder to take a stand. Around the country, minimum-wage workers have taken stabs at organized protest. But it's a lot tougher if you work several of these jobs just to make ends meet.

Should we really be placing working Americans in that position? I don't see how it helps anyone, even if Gates, Broad, Waltons, and the Koch Brothers are OK with it.

But the solution is simple. I've long felt, for example, that if we made those who administer schools systems patronize them you wouldn't have school trailers. Bloomberg wouldn't want that for his kids. Nor would John King or Barack Obama. And clearly, though they publicly praise charters, they don't place their kids in them.

Actually I don't mind that my kid takes a job where she doesn't make a whole lot of money. She's learning on the job, and she's OK with it. But we need to do better for people who haven't been teenagers in a long time. They haven't really got time for the luxury of practice.

So why don't we have Congress put their money where their mouths are? If they think 8 bucks an hour is a fair wage, why not have them live on it? In fairness, maybe those who chair committees could earn an extra buck an hour. If they pass bills that actually help people, maybe that could increase their hourly wage too. While it's true merit pay hasn't worked in the hundred years it's been around, Congress seems to be OK with methods that don't work, like VAM and Common Core. Let them live with it.

Of course we'll give them every advantage of Obamacare, including allowances for income when we yank their health insurance. That's only fair. After all, Congress doesn't think single payer is a good idea, and doesn't want to grant Americans the sort of health insurance they have, but as soon as the signup period opens up they can apply like everyone else. Naturally I hope they don't get sick in the meantime.

And of course if they decided to raise the minimum wage for all Americans, they would benefit too. Maybe if the laws they passed actually affected them personally, they'd think more carefully about what does and does not merit their attention.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Rhee's Two Takes on her Taping Incident

 by guest blogger Arwen E.

Michelle Rhee popped up in The Washington Post this month glorifying the same standardized tests from which so many parents seek to shelter their children.  It is so strange to me, in this day and age, that one who started her career with a glaring example of child abuse could come so far and exercise so much influence upon our public-school system.  I would like to briefly revisit that incident, including her more recent attempts to rewrite her own history.  

In an online Financial Times article entitled, "Lunch with the FT:  Controversial Schools Reformer Michelle Rhee," October 4, 2013, Edward Luce quotes Rhee, "I think when I took the job in DC, I was not particularly savvy about the media.  People asked me for interviews, I answered the questions and because I was so honest about my thoughts, it gave them the material. I can’t blame anyone other than myself for that. I was stupid.”



Luce asked her, among other things, about her incident taping students' lips at Harlem Park in Baltimore.  Rhee explained that she had asked her rowdy class to put their fingers to their lips as they passed other classrooms on the way to lunch:  "One of the boys asked for a strip of Scotch tape instead and suddenly everyone wanted the same thing,” she says. “And when I removed the strips, one of the boy’s dry lips bled a little. That’s all that happened. Now it’s turned into, ‘Michelle Rhee duct tapes children!’  But the only reason anyone knows the story in the first place is because I told it.”

Yes, the weapon of choice was masking tape, not duct tape, but it was a far from a harmless incident.  Rhee originally explained this incident (as well as another field-trip incident also objectionable on different levels) in a presentation to an audience at the Columbia Heights Education Campus in DC.  She had not been pressured by any interviewer to make these statements.  The audio from her speech is here.  I have transcribed it below.  No student asked for tape.  Everyone's lips were bleeding.  All the children were crying.  She and the audience seemed to take sadistic delight in hearing of the children's humiliation and suffering.   Merry laughter rang through the hall. 

Rhee's Original Recounting of the Lip-Taping Incident:

"For me it was 18 years ago that I first graduated from college and I got my first teaching job, but I can remember it like it was yesterday.  I mean I have these vivid memories in my head.  So, I'm going to tell you a little bit about some of them.  I can remember like it was yesterday the day that I was in the classroom and I didn't have very good classroom management in my first year of teaching.  And so I was trying every single management technique that I could.  Some of them really not so good, but I remember the day that we were particularly rowdy and we had to head down for lunch.  And my class was very well known in the school because you could hear them travelling everywhere because they were so out of control.  And, so I thought, OK, they're particularly amped up today so I got to do something about it.   So, I decided, OK, kids, we are going to do something special today.  I lined everybody up and I was like Sshh, gotta be really quiet on our way down to the cafeteria.  And then, I took little pieces of masking tape and put them on everybody's lips  [laughter begin].  And I was like you can't break the seal.  Don't move your lips.  So, all the kids were OK.  I put them on all the lips and we're going down the hallway.  I was like my gosh this works so well.  And we get down to the, you know, to the cafeteria.  And they're all lined up outside the cafeteria.  I was like tape the tape off.  And I realized that I had not told the kids to lick their lips beforehand.  So, and like the skin is coming off their lips [big laughs] and they're bleeding.  And so I had class of 35 kids who are crying [more big laughs] and other teachers are walking by and like what are you doing." 


It is sad to think, but, perhaps, if she had been brought up on charges then for her mistreatment of children instead of being promoted, protected and overfunded, I and my students might be suffering far less in our classroom today.  And she has the temerity to call her organization StudentsFirst!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Old, Old Song, and the Never-ending Battle Between Students and Teachers

Last year I had a student who was a big fan of the band Queen. Actually I don't know the precise extent of his love for the band, but I'm certain he enjoyed the song, "We Will Rock You." I know this because he was fond of the rhythm, and regularly expressed it by stomping on the floor and hitting the desk. At first a look would stop it, but as the year wore on it became longer and more persistent, and more and more students would join in.

Toward the end of the year it got long enough that he actually started singing, "We will, we will rock you," once or twice. It was kind of cute that the class joined him, and kind of funny that it started apropos of nothing. So the first few times it got that far I kind of did a slow burn and let them do it.

After a while, though, I realized my neighbor in the adjacent trailer was not as tolerant as I was. After all, where in the Danielson rubric were we gonna get points for organized singing? So I decided to put a stop to it. "You can't do that anymore until you learn the verses," I proclaimed, and it stopped for a few days.

However, the next time it started, he actually had the words. I couldn't really verify whether or not they were correct since I don't know the verses myself. There was something pretty funny about hearing them sung with an accent far different from that of Freddie Mercury, but once again I thought about being a good neighbor, and told him, "You haven't learned the verses. You're reading them."

Decades of experience had led me to notice such things.

My crestfallen student went home, but a few days later committed the words to memory and once again led the ever-popular chant. This was vexing. I had cleverly stopped it, but he rose to every challenge. Who the hell did he think he was, thwarting my evil plans like that? There was only one more card I could play.

"Do you know how old that song is?" I asked.

"It doesn't matter," he proclaimed.

"That song is so old that I listened to it when I was in high school."

There was an audible gasp.

And no longer was "We Will Rock You" heard in the NYC Educator trailer.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

"There is Some Good in this World...And it's Worth Fighting For"


"One Ring to Rule Them All!  One Ring to Find Them.  One Ring to Bring Them All and in The Darkness Bind Them." 

In these times in which the few but fearsome forces of greed are aligned against school children, public education, the teaching profession and the unions that protect so many of us, we must find common cause, coordinate our activism as much as possible and strive towards a more democratic society.  It seems some of our own have either lost their voice or turned against us, but the evil will not triumph for "the only measure that he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts.  Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse it" (Gandalf).  I have already seen many do so. 

I look to my UFT for more direction in our defense, but on some of the most important issues I feel adrift in a sea of scum-filled educational reform.  Yet, I know that I am not alone.  "All that is gold does not glitter.  Not all those who wander are lost."  I might say like Frodo, "I wish it need not have happened in my time."  But I hear more words, "so do all who live to see such times.  But that is not for them to decide.  All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."   

I am deciding these things now.  Indeed, each of us must decide what role we will play in this battle to save public education and the foundations upon which our democratic society are built.  It makes no difference whether we feel ourselves small or great in this great course of events: "Even the smallest person can change the course of the future" (Peter Jackson's Galadriel), particularly if we all bind ourselves to fight the common foe.  

We must stay the course together.  "On nothing is the power of the Dark Lord more clearly shown than in the estrangement that divides all those who still oppose him" (Haldir).  Yet, most of us are united in opposing the abuse of children through standardized testing wrought with a vengeance.  We oppose the demoralization and destruction of the teaching profession through VAM models and the APPR.  We oppose calculated attacks upon the Unions that protect us from nineteenth-century-style abuses.  We oppose the calculated destruction of the pension programs workers have paid into for their own security in their golden years.  We oppose One Common Core to Rule us All.  We oppose the destruction of the public-school system and the deregulated, profit-making privatization replacing it.  It strikes at the heart of the most sacred foundations of our democracy, the public school system.   

In this climate, I would much rather bind my fate with that of "little hobitses" than any Gollum, Wormtongue or the Dark Lord.  It is impossible to say for certain where this road leads, but I take comfort in the fact that although our forces are disparate, they are heading in the same direction. 

The Road goes ever on and on

Down from the door where it began.

Now far ahead the Road has gone,

And I must follow, if I can,

Pursuing it with eager feet,

Until it joins some larger way

Where many paths and errands meet.

And whither then? I cannot say (Bilbo).


The forces to destroy public education in the United States are aligned clearly against us all.  They push on ahead with superior money in an unapologetic, openly undemocratic way.  They push on ahead with superior money and unrestrained greed.  They sway some with the promises of wealth, and leave others in despair.  "I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil" (Gandalf).  Find hope though.  I do not envision their ultimate triumph because legions hold to the same values of Sam Gamgee from the great stories of old, "the ones that really mattered," that "there is some good in this world...and it's worth fighting for."