Sunday, August 02, 2015

What Do Mulgrew and Christie Have in Common?

Chris Christie says it's time to punch teacher unions in the face. This isn't surprising coming from the bombastic lunatic he is. This is a guy who makes agreements to fund pensions in exchange for higher contributions from state employees, and then turns around and says, "Screw you, I'm not paying." This is a guy who shouts down young teachers in public. This is a man who will take a state helicopter to watch his son play in a little league game. And I don't suppose we need to discuss the Fort Lee traffic issues any further.

We know that Christie means us no good. We know he has no regard for public education, and that he has contempt for public school teachers. We know he thinks we only work part time and are therefore overpaid. So it's not very tough to oppose Chris Christie, or indeed any and all of his fellow GOP contenders for President.

What's really striking here is that Christie appears to have taken a cue from none other than UFT President Michael Mulgrew, who suggested that people who tried to take his precious Common Core would get their faces punched and pushed in the dirt. It's incredible to be able to draw a parallel between someone who clearly hates us and everything we stand for and someone whose job entails representing our interests, but there you are.

Sometimes, it's good to be angry. For example, when we went five long years without a contract, a lot of teachers were pissed off, and justifiably so. A rep from UFT came to my school a few years ago when we were hanging tough on teacher evaluation. I was very supportive of that. I believe I upped my contribution to COPE to show my approval. A member asked when we were gonna get the raise that the cops and firefighters got. The UFT rep said union leadership was very smart, a line I often hear at the DA. He said that Bloomberg could not get the new evaluation system until he negotiated a contract, and that the member would get the contract.

Shortly thereafter, the smart leadership agreed to an APPR system without a contract, and if I recall correctly it was to help ensure NY State got Race to the Top money. This money went toward things that were of no assistance whatsoever to NY teachers and students, but for some reason we supported it. Not only did we fail to negotiate an APPR system, but we placed our faith in Reformy John King as an impartial arbiter. Anyone who's followed the King's career, one year teaching public school, two years charter, then running a charter school to running NY State education, knows he's just about as impartial as Bill Gates or the Walmart family.

So what's the point? Is Mulgrew just like Christie simply because they both wish to punch us in the face? No.

The point is this--no one should be talking about punching teachers in the face. It's a little more outrageous when it comes from the President of the largest teacher local in these United States, but it's absolutely unacceptable from everyone.

And while it's clearly necessary to fight demagogues like Christie, we ought never to have to be threatened by our union leaders. It is their very job to support us, not the nonsensical corporate programs foisted upon us by the likes of Christie's BFFs.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Blogger's Day Off...

...but you can read my open letter to Carmen Fariña at Huffington Post instead, if you like.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Double Whammy

For years we've had the APPR system hanging over our heads. Gates thought it was a swell idea, and the UFT participated in the MET program that enabled it all over these United States. But since VAM is based on nothing resembling science and has no validity whatsoever, the geniuses who enabled it decided to balance it with actual ratings from supervisors. Since VAM is pretty much a crap toss, and pretty much rates students rather than teaching, it's supposed to be objective. The subjective balance is the supervisor rating.

Of course, if your supervisor has an agenda counter to yours, hates you and everything you stand for, or gets peeved when you report her for grade-fixing, that part of your rating could end up swirling the bathroom bowl. In fact, the DOE recognized just such a case and has demanded that several poor ratings be reversed.

When the junk science APPR first came into effect, I complained loudly at a UFT meeting that it was nonsense. A district rep. I do not know get very angry with me. He said that if the principal gave him a bad rating, that maybe the test scores would bring his rating up. (That's unlikely since district reps teach only one class and are not included in junk science ratings.) I did not bother stating the obvious--that if his principal gave him a good rating, that maybe the scores would bring it down. The argument, though, endorsed a crap shoot for a high-stakes teacher rating. A colleague remarked it was akin to telling people to smoke cigarettes, because maybe they wouldn't get cancer.

But there is, in fact, a cancer in our system, and it is the high-stakes testing system Gates pushed, and we, the UFT and NYSUT, swallowed hook, line and sinker. It claimed another fatality last week but the casualties are too numerous to count, and are everywhere. Neither teachers nor supervisors ought to be in a position where they need to falsify test scores to satisfy nonsensical quotas.

But as long as we are, not only are the test scores unreliable, but the supervisor ratings are as well. For example, I am clearly a terrible teacher. My students, having arrived from every corner of the world yesterday, last week, or six months ago, don't even speak English. There is no question whatsoever but that they will fail every single English-based test they attempt. And since the tests have nothing whatsoever to do with the basic English I teach, there is no way I can ever get a good rating.

So what is my supervisor to do? If I get a good rating, if she thinks I'm a good teacher, she must be wrong because my kids failed the tests. If she gives me a bad rating, how are we to know she isn't just covering her own behind so as to shirk responsibility for the miserable test scores of my students?

Mulgrew defended the system to the DA, suggesting that those of us who criticized it, like me, like Diane Ravitch, were simple-minded and contrary, fretting that the sky was falling. After all, only a small percentage of us got poor ratings. There were a couple of points he forgot, though. One, of course, was the high stakes attached and that those with poor ratings were looking at job loss. Another was the consequence of the paucity of poor ratings, to wit, the draconian Cuomo/ Heavy Hearts plan facing the entire state. It was rolled out for the express purpose of firing more teachers, and if it fails it's likely as not we'll see an even worse plan.

The entire system stinks. The test scores are meaningless as to actual teacher quality, and the supervisors are under so much pressure to produce test scores that they simply cannot be objective. Can you imagine being a supervisor in a school with poor test scores and fighting for the careers of teachers whose kids got them? It would be like wearing a big red "Kick me" sign. Or, more likely a "Fire me" sign.

Rubrics most certainly do not guarantee objectivity, not for supervisors, not for teachers, and especially not for kids. It's insane to take all kids, no matter what learning disability, no matter what home environment, no matter whether or not they know English, and say, "You're 12 years old, and therefore must know A, B, and C." It's even more insane to say if the kids don't know A, B, and C that their teachers are incompetent and must be fired.

And yet now, in 2015, that is precisely where we find ourselves.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Another Fatality of Ed. "Reform"


Perhaps you've read the recent story of a NYC principal who committed suicide on the eve of being exposed for filling in answers on students' 2015 Common-Core NY State Exams.  Although the news is certainly dramatic, and you could view it as an isolated incident, it is not.  It is symptomatic of the gross failures of more than a decade of ed. "reform."

By promoting the idea that standardized tests, now aligned with the Common Core, are the best ways to measure students, and that the quality of teachers, administrators and schools can best be judged by these standardized tests, stupidity has been turned into a "science."  This stupidity fosters a sense of desperation and, ultimately, it destroys lives.

Desperation has exhibited itself in various forms.  Many experienced teachers have jumped at their first opportunity to retire.  And how many more might have chosen the 55-25 option several years back, if they only could have predicted the direction things were headed?   How many others might have turned to another profession twenty years back if they could have seen what was coming?  How can you blame anyone though for failing to predict that stupidity would be turned into a "science"--and their Union would appear to buoy the worst of it?  

Many teachers have thrown their arms up and quit.  The average years of experience now held by the average teacher has taken a dive.  Fewer people flock to the profession.  Others, stuck in the middle of their careers, wonder what changes will come with each passing year.  How much more stress will be thrown into a community built on nurturing young people and helping them become lifetime learners?  Who wants to be made to feel after a life of relative success that they are personally responsible for the failures of kids (some under-privileged and others over-privileged with time-consuming devices) with whom they spend forty minutes a day?  Who wants to feel a failure when the test questions, themselves, sometimes seem the work of frazzled brains?

Desperation exhibits itself when schools try to meet statistical goals.  Not many of us became teachers to try to manipulate statistics.  Grades must go up or schools will close down.  Remember Rhee's smiling face, handing out big checks to "miracle" teachers who helped kids' scores soar--albeit at the expense of an ungainly amount of erasures from wrong to right on student answer sheets? Remember Atlanta?  There are other reported cases in which schools seem to have fixed scores.  Doubtless, many more cases go unreported cases.  

Desperation exhibits itself when kids must be made to pass at any cost.  Classes are created to help kids recover credits.  Some of these classes may be legitimate, but far too many in the Bloomberg era seem excuses for manufacturing the wrong kind of "miracles."  Read about them online.  "Education Mayors" are apparently built on such stuff.  Teachers feel pressure to raise kids scores.  It is now more the responsibility of teachers to raise student scores than the students themselves.  How ironic!  Is it any wonder that cheating scandals--which used to involve just students--sometimes now involve teachers, principals and superintendents driven to acts of desperation?    

Given this new climate, teachers are forced to spend increasing amounts of time on prepping kids for tests.  Forget about textbooks, works of literature or newspapers.  When statistics are supreme, academics are out the door.  All you need these days are review books--and just the right ones.  Forget about projects to help the community.  Forget about focusing on current events.  Forget about it all, even though such things might make learning more meaningful to your students and possibly rebuild lives and/or the environment.   The school could be shut down for your idealism.  Get with the program!

So, while it is sad that a principal was driven by desperation to acts of dishonesty, it is no surprise.  Rather than face penalty and shame, she took her own life.  The recent example could only have been possible against the backdrop of ed. "reform."  Ed. "reform" is killing the teaching profession; it kills the will of some students to learn.  It closes schools, rips communities apart and, apparently, takes lives.  I would argue its long-range damage will be far more severe and, sadly, that damage remains to be seen.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Perdido--Fariña Unwittingly Admits VAM Is Invalid for All

Perdido Street School nails Carmen Fariña to her own words. Fariña thinks there should be an asterisk to so called highly effective teachers who move into renewal schools. After all, if they're highly effective at one place, how can they be developing or ineffective at another? If they do the same things, they should receive the same rating, Shouldn't they? Don't we have a rubric, and don't rubrics make everything equal all the time? Haven't we eliminated human error?

Well, of course we haven't, but that's the theory. The other part of the rating, of course, is test scores. Since students bear no responsibility for their test scores, since environment is not a factor at all, since home life has nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not kids pass tests, and since parents play no role whatsoever in the behavior of their children, it's important that teachers be responsible for the test scores of their students.

And to take it a step further, since teacher assessments are meaningless, even though teachers are rated for assessments, we can only rely on standardized assessments. The only true way to determine how kids are doing is to use tests written by people who've never met the kids in question, and do not differentiate from kids in Scarsdale or Roosevelt. Because while teachers are regularly told to differentiate instruction, the assessments are all the same and may not be differentiated at all. That makes sense, doesn't it?

The main point Reality Based Educator at Perdido makes is this--if the "highly effective" teacher moves to a troubled school and has a rating drop because of the school population, isn't it just as possible that the "ineffective" teacher from a troubled school might move to a better performing one and be "highly effective?" That's a great point. I know a social studies teacher who told me his passing rate on one of the Regents exams tripled when he moved to my school. He said he used the same techniques, and even suggested he might have been slowing down due to his advancing age.

The problem, of course, is public perception. In the Times today there's a piece about how Bloomberg's reformy initiatives are thriving in Albany, where Andrew Cuomo is on sale to the highest bidder.  Students First NY, Families for Excellent Schools, and E4E are the multi-headed dragon funded by those who wish to eradicate union, degrade teachers and teaching, and privatize education so as to enrich their shadowy funders.

Once again, I'm struck by the ignorance of the Times reporter who says teacher unions oppose this stuff. In fact, we're in bed with the reformies. Randi Weingarten helped negotiate a whole lot of VAM-heavy contracts around the country. The UFT has its own charter schools, and has colocated buildings. The UFT, in fact, partnered with Gates and the MET program that was the predecessor to the junk science nonsense we're living through nationwide.

Union has potential. Fast food workers have finally achieved something in NY State by edging a little closer to a working wage. This is because they stood together even without union and made a national noise. If we teachers are going to make progress, we have to start moving forward rather than backward. We have to get out a message like that at Perdido rather than inviting Bill Gates to keynote our convention. We have to tell Hillary Clinton that we want her to support science rather than voodoo before we endorse her.

It's common sense. But as they say in Spanish, common sense is the least common of all the senses.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Governor Andy's Thumbs Are Up for Working People (And Also Down)

Governor Cuomo has a new TV commercial, praising himself for supporting the $15 minimum wage. Make no mistake, this is a good thing. But it's not an accurate thing. In fact, NYC workers will not have that wage until the end of 2018, and workers in the rest of the state won't see it until July 1, 2021.

The restaurant industry has chafed at these decisions. “We continue to say that we think it’s unfair that they singled out a single segment of our industry,” Melissa Fleischut, the executive director of the New York State Restaurant Association, said.

They have a point, actually. The raise applies only to fast food workers in chains with 30 or more outlets.  So if the Donald opens 29 Trumpburger outlets, too bad for the folks who work there. And if you're working at Target, well, too bad for you. Perhaps this will cause more competition, or perhaps the best people will be working at burger joints. No more will you ask for extra pickles and find olives instead.

But Cuomo is disingenuous as always. He isn't getting $15 anywhere for years, and he isn't getting it for everyone. Worse, Cuomo is a miserable representative of working people. If he cared about us, he would not be at war with teachers and taking millions of dollars from enemies of public education. He would not be talking about taking control of schools away from communities, particularly poorer communities whose children earn low test scores for the apparently unforgivable offense of being impoverished.

In fact, if Cuomo were to be a champion for working people, he wouldn't have mustered the audacity to compare himself to his dad--Mario Cuomo took a principled stand against capital punishment, a stance that likely cost him his job, while Andrew took one against the millionaire's tax. While it's a pretty nice thing Andy did for his wealthy contributors, it hardly helped working people, who would have to cover the difference. In fact, the same Andy Cuomo who boldly fought for the 15 bucks an hour some people may get in a few years, if this thing stands,  came into office as a Democrat wanting to go after unions.

For those of you unfamiliar with history, and for all the flaws in UFT, NYSUT, and AFT leadership, unions negotiate better wages for working people. The more this happens, the more other employers have to compete. Union membership has been declining since Saint Ronald Reagan came into office and broke PATCO, the only union that supported him. And if you don't think Andy Cuomo has a knife as big as Ronald Reagan's to stick in our collective back, you haven't been paying attention.

This is Andy Cuomo's big liberal calling card, his attempt to present himself as a champion for working people. The only working person Andy Cuomo is concerned with is Andy Cuomo, and the only reason he does any work at all is for the advancement and preservation of Andy Cuomo.

Sadly, this commercial may persuade some New Yorkers of his good intentions. And should that happen, it will only go to show that there's a sucker born every minute.

Monday, July 27, 2015

I Gave $350K to the Mayor and All I Got Was This Substandard Contract

Oh, the tangled web our union leadership leads. They insisted on endorsing Bill Thompson four years too late, after Michael Bloomberg reversed the twice-voiced will of the voters to buy himself a third term (and won by such a small margin our opposition might have made a difference).

To thank us for stabbing him in the back he'd carried our water for so long, Thompson told the Daily News the city couldn't afford to give teachers the raise NYPD, FDNY and most other unions got. But that was water under the bridge, and UFT went ahead and made yet another spectacular losing endorsement.

They pulled out all the stops for Bill Thompson, aggressively recruiting people for the call centers. They had some sort of process to determine the nomination, and they claimed it was democratic. It was very reminiscent of the AFT process that ended up nominating Hillary. But there's always something going on with UFT leadership.

Almost concurrently with our contract negotiations, AFT, at the behest of UFT President Michael Mulgrew, donated 350K to Mayor de Blasio's nonprofit, Campaign for One New York. The nonprofit then spent 350K on commercials that praised the mayor's having achieved his promise to bring pre-K to NYC kids. This, of course, happened without the tax on the wealthy the mayor had previously demanded to achieve it. It's a well-established scientific fact that wealthy people are more delicate than those of us who actually pay the taxes. For example, had they been required to pay to support children of the bootless and unhorsed, they'd have been at great risk of becoming brittle, falling down, and perhaps breaking their hair, or even other less visible parts of their anatomy.

Now the thing about this story that got the attention of the reporter was that Mulgrew negotiated a contract only two months after this large donation. There is the hanging implication that somehow MIchael Mulgrew bought off the mayor. After all, there are a lot of teachers and the contract cost a lot of money. We waited years for that contract, even after 150 other unions got theirs, as Mulgrew repeatedly reminded us in the appeal to fear he used to sell the contract. If we didn't take it, we'd have to get in line behind 150 other unions! And retro pay was not a God-given right! De Blasio didn't need to hire people to scare UFT members accepting two-tier due process, or a ten-year delay in payment. He had the President of the UFT doing it for him.

So let me be the first to defend our President. There was most certainly no quid pro quo. Otherwise, why would this contract be such a piece of crap? Why would I, a lowly teacher, be lending the city 50 thousand bucks interest free? I mean, what working person can afford to do such things? Well, thanks to Michael Mulgrew's ingenuity, tens of thousands of UFT members found a way.

And who cares if ATR teachers can be fired for, as Mulgrew suggested, shouting in the halls on two occasions? Who cares if arbitrators can fire ATR teachers for pretty much whatever after a one-day 3020a process? Who cares if they can be fired for missing two job interviews they may or may not even know about? Most teachers aren't ATRs anyway. And who cares about the unresolved payments into health care to be judged by an arbitrator if Mulgrew's financial projections prove inadequate? What's the big deal if we lose the paltry increases we gained (or more)? Nothing's written in stone, and we haven't even bothered to write up an actual contract yet.

Personally, I do not believe Michael Mulgrew had any quid pro quo. If he had, our contract would have been more like the 4 plus 4 no giveback contract other unions got. If he had, we would not have foisted a 10% over 7 years pattern, the worst in my living memory, on our brother and sister unionists.

I wasn't born yesterday. I know there are quid pro quo deals in politics. But any implication that our union leadership indulges in such things is patently false. Unlike LGBT and immigrant groups, we didn't bother to extract any concessions from Barack Obama before we endorsed him in 2012. And indeed, if you don't believe that, just look at the shoddy and disrespectful treatment we've received from corporate stooge Arne Duncan for his entire tenure. I've seen no evidence we extracted any concessions from corporation-rich Hillary Clinton for our early endorsement either.

I absolutely believe we received nothing for our infusion of cash into Bill de Blasio's nonprofit. I absolutely believe we received nothing for our support of Barack Obama, and I'm further confident we will once again receive nothing for our support of Hillary Clinton.

That's one of the biggest reasons we need new union leadership.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Worst Advice Ever

As NY State scrambles to follow the mandates of charter-owned Governor Andrew Cuomo and his Heavy-Hearted Assembly, everyone wonders how the hell NYC will deal with the specter of receivership. The geniuses who crafted this bill decided that if a lot of kids failed tests, it was because the teachers suck and the schools suck. Factors like the poverty infesting each and every district in which low test scores occur meant nothing. So what if it happened without exception? Haven't you ever heard of coincidence?

Who cares if the kids are learning disabled or don't speak English? Let's fire those lazy teachers, get all that school money into private hands, and feel better about ourselves.

And when I read articles like this one, I'm struck by how little even very good writers seem to know about our history. I mean, sure we're not closing schools, which was like shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic to escape the water. Instead we're getting rid of the teachers:

More than half the staffs at both schools will be gone by this fall; 67 percent of the staff at Boys and Girls were either not rehired for their positions or left voluntarily, and 58 percent of staff at Automotive are not returning.

Ask yourself this--how many times have we turned over a staff, left the kids in place, and changed the test grades? To my knowledge, the answer is never. For example, reformy Steve Barr, after befriending and then firing most of its staff, failed utterly in his bid to turn around a notorious LA high school.. So for UFT and de Blasio to place their reps on it, in my view, is shortsighted at best. For one thing, should they fail, they will be turning over our schools to MaryEllen Elia, a tool to carry out whatever the hell Cuomo's deep-pocketed owners need carrying out.

I think they will fail. There is, in fact, no research, no practice, and no precedent for their success. Imagine, though, if they do not fail. Should that happen, they will have lent credence to the teacher-bashing, union-hating lunatics who attack us relentlessly, who hate us and everything we stand for. They will let potential teachers know that it is simply not worth the risk to teach high-needs children like those I serve.

The most outrageous statement I see in this story, though, is this one:

Major teacher turnover in dozens of schools is not an initiative that most would associate with the U.F.T. But Joseph Viterriti, a professor of education policy at the CUNY Graduate Center, said this could be an occasion for the union to flaunt its progressive credentials.

“The smart thing [for the union] to do is to come up with ideas that say ‘we’re for reform,’” Viteritti said. “It’s more likely to happen with a mayor they trust than it would have been in the past. This could be that moment where something really positive happens.”

I'm not sure whether or not Professor Viterriti has picked up a newspaper over the last ten years, but hey, why should a professor of education policy need to follow what goes on in education anyway? First of all, New York suffered through 12 years of Bloomberg "reform," and what have we got to show for it besides 62 schools in line for state takeover?  Perhaps Viterriti is unaware that UFT has supported mayoral control, charter schools, co-location, failed quasi-merit pay, and the Absent Teacher Reserve. Perhaps he doesn't know we've supported the abolition of seniority placement. Maybe no one has told him that we helped write legislation that got teachers rated by junk science, or that we approved Reformy John King as an impartial arbiter to determine our version of APPR.

Perhaps Viterriti doesn't know that there is no basis to suggest these "reforms" will work. And why should he? Even in the unlikely event that he did read the newspapers, there's very little in them to suggest these are arbitrary procedures with no track record whatsoever.

But let's forget about Viterriti and look at ourselves. In fact, we have an extraordinary track record of saying, "We're for reform." Wasn't it us who invited Gates and his MET program into our schools? Wasn't that the basis for the junk science ratings he's now inflicted on almost the entire country? In fact, didn't the AFT invite Gates to be keynote speaker at its convention? Didn't every UFT Unity loyalty oath signer applaud? Didn't former UFT President Randi Weingarten ridicule those who protested Gates from the podium?

Here's why stating, "We're for reform," is the worst advice ever. First of all, as I've pointed out, we've said it over and over. More importantly, the results of such statements, even if they've gotten us a "seat at the table," have been nothing short of catastrophic. We give them an inch, and they sue us to take away our tenure. We give them another, and they go to SCOTUS to demand we allow freeloading in our union. It is outright ridiculous to suggest anything UFT does will appease its critics. If you're reading this, President Mulgrew, be advised our critics want nothing less than

a. our total destruction
b. our utter irrelevance,
c. our total capitulation, or most likely
d. all of the above.

I understand what politicians mean when they advise not to negotiate with terrorists. The principle here is very much the same.

Friday, July 24, 2015

You Don't Need No Stinking English

I continue to be gobstruck by the idiotic nonsense that passes for leadership in NYSED. Someone told me yesterday about a DOE employee who did not believe in standalone ESL. This person self-represented as an expert. This is incredible to me, as I've been teaching ESL for decades and do not consider myself an expert. I know experts, though, and I've read experts.

The notion that my class exists so that kids can do better in core classes is one of the stupidest things I've ever heard in my entire life. The notion that it's expendable brings the stupid to a level I had not yet contemplated. Now it is possible to squeeze English instruction into subject classes. With time, it may even be a good idea.

But learning a language is very much like learning to read. This is what self-declared ESL experts cannot get through their incredibly thick heads. You want people to love the language, not dread it. You therefore focus on high-interest materials. You personalize things so that students can express themselves immediately. You focus on the practical. Once they love the language, you will be far more successful in asking them to read an essay about ancient history, or whatever it is you wish the students to know about.

I'm a good reader. I often am asked to plod through the UFT Contract to find this or that. For me, this is a necessary task. It's not something I jump up and down thrilled about. But it has to be done and I can do it. The reason I can do it is not, with all due respect to David Coleman, because I started reading contracts when I was six years old. The reason is because I grew up reading comic books.

I graduated to reading paperbacks my parents left lying around the house, and eventually learned what sort of books really did appeal to me. In fact, the picture above happens to be the book I'm reading right now. Doubtless David Coleman would think I'm wasting my time, and that it would be better-invested perusing The History of Cement. Here's the thing, though--I'm not much inspired by humorless pedants. Nor are my students, or most kids their age.

By utilizing Common Core, by constricting reading to non-fiction, dry and tasteless, we are consigning our children to dislike reading. We are doing then a huge disservice, conscripting them to academic careers of rigor and grit rather than joy and inspiration.

By taking this same moronic philosophy and applying it to the acquisition of the language I love, we are increasing the possibility that newcomers will not love our language, or that they will at least hate school. I think kids should love school, and that newcomers should love English.

That's why I oppose Common Core, even at risk of being punched in the face, and that's why I will fight for the right of the kids I serve to get an education that acknowledges and celebrates everything we know about language acquisition.   

Thursday, July 23, 2015

MaryEllen Elia, Magician

It's fascinating to read about NY State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and her listening tour. "Fix your schools or I will," sayeth she. There are a whole bunch of schools on the list. In Long Island, where I live, there are several districts facing receivership. Here they are, along with the percentage of students poor enough to qualify for free lunch.
Central Islip - 91%
Roosevelt - 91%
Wyandanch- 80%
Hempstead - 78%

Do you see a pattern here? I do, and the pattern is replicated all over these United States of America. For some odd reason, every time there are large percentages of impoverished children, there are also large percentages of low test scores. What can we conclude from that? Well, MaryEllen Elia, like Governor Andrew Cuomo and his Heavy Hearted Assembly, has concluded there are two fundamental issues.

1. The schools suck, and
2. The teachers suck.

This is why we now have a system that rates teachers based on the student test grades. You see, if I spend 40 minutes a day with Johnie, and he doesn't learn English instantly, and he can't answer Common Corey questions, I suck. If Arwen teaches a student with no food at home, and the student has issues staying awake in class, Arwen also sucks. The only solution, in the view of geniuses like Andrew Cuomo and MaryEllen Elia, is to test the kids, and based on their scores, get rid of teachers like us who suck.

Because NY State knows what to do with a troubled school district. Well, they've never actually been successful, because they spent a decade in Roosevelt and Roosevelt is still on the list. But MaryEllen Elia knows what to do. She has a secret plan, you know, like Nixon did when he was gonna win the Vietnam War. OK, really it's not a secret. She's gonna fix everything.

Here's the thing. I've never heard of anyone doing that. Green Dot failed in their much-vaunted school takeover in LA. As far as I know, there is one way to be successful in raising test scores. You start your own school, cherry pick the kids, get rid of the ones who don't perform, don't replace the ones who leave, and then grease the governor's palm so he makes laws for you. (There are, of course, the alternate models of lying about the stats or changing the scores yourself.)

All MaryEllen has is a list of schools. She has no plan other than getting rid of teachers and placing new people in charge. But hey, that's the law. The Heavy Hearts passed the law and Michael Mulgrew thanked them for it.

A lot of people will suffer. Teachers will be fired and the hearts will be ripped right out of communities. But hey, their test scores suck, so the teachers suck, the schools suck, and the communities must suck too. That's pretty much what the law says.

Time for MaryEllen Elia to wave her magic wand.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Working for Free--Another Charter "Innovation"

Some charter schools are looking to unionize. That's not a bad thing, and I'm certain it would benefit not only the teachers, but also the students. I'm not remotely persuaded that people living in fear of being fired for a bad haircut are the best role models with which we can provide our children. Nor do I want our children to grow up and be in jobs like those.

For those of you who hope we lose Friedrichs so you can save a few bucks on union dues, take a gander at the thought processes of non-union bosses:

I spoke with someone, and he articulated the core of the tensions quite well. He said, “look, if KIPP decides that teaching on a Saturday is what’s best for the kids, and that’s going to get the best result, then they should just be able do that without having to go through a teachers union and negotiate and/or pay them more to do so.” I think that’s the core of these issues, which is that you can do all these things, but should you have to actually engage with these workers to make these decisions?

In other words, why should we have to pay people to work? Why can't we just tell them, "If you don't come in Saturday, don't come in Monday." Why should they have to negotiate anything? Why should working people have any voice at all? I'm pretty surprised that anyone who cared in the least for school employees would take an attitude like that, but even in charters that are unionized, it's apparently not uncommon.

Now in fairness, when negotiating with management, it's your job to get as much as possible and theirs to pay as little as possible. But regardless of what you think of union contract negotiations, I wouldn't think there was an expectation of people working for free. It's very hard for me to accept that as a charter "innovation." It's not all that innovative to move labor back to the 19th century, at least not in my view.

But when you get in bed with dogs, you wake up with fleas. Here's a little flaw in the article:

And if you happen to think of teachers unions at some point during this education policy reverie, you’ll probably have them in the role they’re traditionally assigned by the media — as anti-charter and anti-reform. Just like Israelis and Palestinians, Crips and Bloods, Yankees and Red Sox, teachers unions and the charter movement simply don’t like each other. That’s just the way it is.

Actually, it isn't. UFT and AFT have supported charters and enabled this situation. UFT has gone so far as to open a few charter schools and indulge in the colocation so many of us find odious. The article also indulges in this nonsense:

A powerful narrative that has developed over the past decade and a half says that the reason we have these great disparities in our education system — huge, growing gaps between the rich and poor; etc. — is in large part because of bad teachers in the classrooms and the teachers unions fighting to keep bad teachers in the classrooms. So both liberals and conservatives have seen charter schools as a way in which they can either weaken the power of teachers unions, or just bypass teachers unions altogether.

It's remarkable that all the so-called bad schools full of so-called bad teachers are located in areas full of high poverty, high needs, or more likely both.  By ignoring that, someone's headed for failure, and inevitably schools and teachers will be blamed. I'm a bad teacher because my students, who speak no English, get low test scores. How many of my students could pass the Success Academy assessments? How many beginning ESL students do they accept? How many alternate assessment kids do they take? I'd wager zero. Therefore, there are no bad teachers like me.

Let me be very direct--lack of English is not a defect to be corrected. These are children, not defective used cars, and it's our job to help and guide them. We take everyone. That is not a flaw, but rather a quality to be emulated. It's pretty easy to pick and choose kids, eliminate the ones who don't work out, and then call yourselves geniuses because you got higher test scores. Oddly, a whole lot of charters cannot even manage that.

Charters are a band-aid on a gaping wound. If we really want the best for our kids, we'll help all of them, and that includes making sure they don't grow up in misery and poverty. It worked out very well in Finland.

Why can't we model our system on one that works, rather than one that puts more money into the pockets of the likes of Eva Moskowitz?

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

PROSE and Cons Part 2--Return of the Strawman

I had no idea the PROSE programs entailed enabling higher class sizes until the other day when Leonie Haimson tweeted it to Randi Weingarten. Leo Casey is consistently attentive to and protective of Randi, and I told Leonie he would claim she opposed teacher empowerment. I knew this because when my friend Julie Cavanagh opposed the latest substandard UFT Contract, that was exactly what he told her.

A few hours later, voila!

When you misrepresent your opponent's argument, that's called a strawman fallacy. Leonie did not, in fact, say teachers shouldn't be empowered. Nor did Julie. When you oppose a contract containing an agreement for two-tier due process, when you oppose an agreement to wait an extra decade for the raise most unions got before 2010, when you disagree that ATRs should be fired for missing two interviews about which they may or may not be aware, it doesn't mean you oppose teacher empowerment. Who wants to be empowered in that fashion? Not me.

I certainly support teacher empowerment. As far as class size, it would be great to be able to dictate smaller class sizes. Because of what I teach, I've had classes ranging from 15 to the contractual max. In fact, I've had classes up to 50 in ESL, back when I was new and didn't know any better. I've also taught classes of 50 as a music teacher. I know about big classes, and I know about small classes. Class size matters.

Leonie Haimson also thinks class size matters, which is why she's an advocate for public school parents and students. That's pretty much her job. She wanted to know why the School Leadership Team of parents, admin, teachers and students didn't get a vote.

This is pretty interesting. Just last week, Leo was angry at those of us who opposed the Hillary nomination. There was a scientific survey, he said, and we were questioning the results. I still haven't seen the survey, or the pool from which it was given, but how dare I? This week things were different. The fact is, parents do not get a vote on SBOs, be they PROSE or otherwise.

Leo harped on this quite a bit. Evidently, if there is a poll or a vote, you are not to question it. That's the way it is. If you don't accept it, well, you think only you and your friends should make the decision and you therefore don't believe in democracy. If there is not a poll or a vote, however, it's on you to actually find out how people feel, all by yourself.  The standing assumption, evidently, is UFT leadership is always right no matter what. But you know what? There was a vote. In fact, there were several, and they all said the same thing.

Now you could assume, from what I say, that I oppose SBOs. Someone did.

I most certainly do not oppose SBOs. Nor do I oppose teacher empowerment. Like Leonie, I oppose unreasonably large class sizes. If you want to empower teachers, give them the option to have smaller class sizes, even if the city has to pay for it. Don't tell me the only way to reduce what is already the highest class size in the state for some is to dump others into lecture-style classes. Don't tell me that some kids need attention and others do not.

Here's a fact--class size limits have remained the same in NYC for over 50 years, and class sizes themselves have been rising for 8 years. They are at a 15-year high in early grades. While UFT leadership devotes valuable lip service to it from time to time, they have done absolutely nothing to change it. I think some parts of the contract ought not to be messed with. In particular, class size ought to be inviolate. It's too high already.

Looking over some of these PROSE proposals, I note that it may be the teacher's option to teach oversized classes. That is simply a terrible idea. Can you imagine being a probationary teacher and having the principal ask you whether or not you want to teach an oversized class? What are you gonna say? In fact, given the terror many of us feel at the junk science evaluation system, which tenured teacher wants to face that?

There is a good reason why the chapter leader is given the task of grieving oversized classes. Once, I filed a grievance over them, and an administrator approached me. She said she asked Mr. Smith which kid he wanted removed from his class, and he said he wanted all of them to stay. What should she do? I told her it was not my problem, and it was not Mr. Smith's problem either. She overloaded the class, and it was on her to fix it.

When the chapter leader takes care of it, you don't have to pick which kid leaves your class. And you can't be made to feel guilty about it. Furthermore, you don't have to worry about the principal asking you for a waiver so he can dump extra kids in your class. You don't need to be put in the position of having to turn down his request to add students to what is already the highest class size in NY State.

Make no mistake--that is teacher empowerment. Allowing for exceptions to an already inadequate rule is precisely the opposite.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Looney Tunes of Educational Deformity

So, what's your biggest surprise and saddest realization in this era of educational deformity?  Has it been that the likes of Michelle Rhee blame teachers for poverty in America?  Or, that a lady who taped students' mouths shut to the point of bleeding could become a corporate-backed spokeswoman for educational "reform"?  Has it been that schools--which need to be places of nurture and comfort for the well-being of society--have turned into engines of stress, demoralizing students and turning teachers from the profession.

Has it been that over-brained technocrats concoct supposedly scientific formulas to measure teachers based on student test scores--which common sense tells us is nonsense?  Has it been that test companies profit immensely by trying to sell the idea that test scores are minorities' tickets to freedom?  Or, that two-faced "reformers" in ivory towers refuse to send their kids to schools that preach their own gospel?  Is it that some people, short on humanity, think music, art and physical ed. should be slashed to make room for more test prep?

In my mind, although all of these things bother me immensely, the biggest surprise, and the saddest realization, is that, too many times, my Union has been a part of the problem.  Instead of working exclusively for the interests of my profession, at critical junctures, it has abandoned me and my peers.  It oversaw the creation of a two-tier system by which older teachers, working with underprivileged kids might become long-term ATRs, scapegoats writ large.  It set up its own charters with big help from the Broad Foundation and Steve Barr, even engaging, itself, in a hostile co-location.  It championed Bill Gates and his Common Core.  It originally gave us twenty-two domains from hell to supposedly "gum up" all of our works, complemented by test-based junk science.  And, it staunchly defends the annual testing that sucks so much joy out of teaching and learning. Our Union seems an entity separate from teachers with interests which differ markedly at times from our own.

But with a system set up so the ruling party in the U.F.T., Unity, doesn't need to please its rank and file, why would anyone expect anything different?  Unity has guaranteed its stranglehold on power by blatant and ongoing manipulation of the political process.  When high-school teachers elected a non-Unity rep, Unity changed the rules to make the position at large.  When fear set in that chapter leaders might elect non-Unity district reps., the position became an appointment.  In anticipation of the 2013 elections, Unity raised the weight of retiree votes--when most unions do not allow retirees to vote at all.  There is nothing subtle here.  If I am wrong or unfair in these statements, someone please put me right.  I would like nothing more.  It's depressing.

Instead of worrying about the fact that only eighteen percent of active members voted in 2013, Unity rejoiced in its victory.  Retirees made up 52% of the total vote.  In a winner-take-all system, Unity squelches some of the City's most intelligent, but independent-thinking pro-Union voices.  It squelches the voices of smaller locals on Long Island and upstate.  It squelches voices through its sway in NYSUT and the AFT.

When 750-800 Unity members all promise to vote the same way for their meal ticket, specifically as told, even if not told the specifics of what they're voting for, you can join Leo Casey in calling it "parliamentary democracy" (surely not a loyalty oath, for that term is offensive to leadership!) or you can see it symptomatic of a potentially fatal sickness.  I see it as the latter.

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So, what will the Unity "yes" men and women say if the Supreme Court rules against Unions in the Friedrichs case?  What will they say when so many of the rank and file no longer think it worthwhile to pay their salaries--and, that independent opposition is among the few who truly understand the importance of a Union?

What will those who banked on advancing themselves, "professionally and politically," out of the classroom via their Union say?  What will all those people who fervently defend a patently non-representative system say when it's farewell to their double-pensioned jobs with pretty perks?  It will be full speed ahead with the propaganda engines, but they'll probably fail to realize that they--or the system they upheld--were part of the problem.  They'll probably fail to realize that they failed to adequately represent their constituency.  They'll probably fail to realize that a great many people fail to feel any connection with them or feel any particular fondness.  They'll probably fail to realize that "parliamentary democracy," Unity-style, hasn't worked.  Sadly, it may be too late for Unionism.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

PROSE and Cons

There's a lot of talk about the UFT PROSE model being utliized nationwide. This particular talking point is favored by AFT President Randi Weingarten lately. Evidently it's being put forth as an alternative to charter schools. Charters tend not to be unionized, and thus put a dent in union coffers. Maybe PROSE is a pro-union alternative. I was pretty surprised to see this, though, this morning.

Is it an improvement when our class size limits, already the highest in the state, are disregarded for the sake of "innovation?" I'm not persuaded. For one thing, there are little schools with less than noticeable union presence. A principal could pressure a weak chapter leader (if there even is one), and members could vote as told. I can't envision any benefit in oversized classes for kids, but for principals it could be a bonanza. If one teacher can teach 70 students, like good ol' Mikey Bloomberg wanted, that's one teacher the principal doesn't have to hire. There's tens of thousands for that fact-finding mission to Oahu.

But Weingarten defends the process:

I haven't received a response yet. Will keep you posted if that changes. I'm a public school parent, and I can tell you that I absolutely don't want my kid or any kid in an oversized class. The fact is the UFT Contract is the only instrument that governs class size in NYC. I'm a strong believer that our class sizes are already too large, and there is no way I would sign off on a PROSE plan to make them larger.

I've seen a few PROSE school teachers at the UFT DA, but I honestly haven't got a whole lot of detail as to what their programs entail. I'm sure there are things we could do better, but I can't see at all how raising class size enables that. And now that I know increased class size is a factor in PROSE, I have to wonder what other nonsense this program is allowing.

In our school, we've used SBO votes to enable PD and teacher inquiry teams. They have passed overwhelmingly. I'm not 100% certain they will make us a better school, and I'm not 100% certain they will help kids. But I'm absolutely sure they will do no harm.

It would be nice to know how PROSE schools explain larger class sizes as beneficial to kids. I can't imagine.

Can you?

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Turning a Building Around

Thanks to Andrew Cuomo and his Heavy Hearts Assembly, a whole lot of schools in NY State are looking down the barrel of receivership, i.e. state takeover. In a year or two, if Chancellor Fariña and her counterparts can't make test scores and graduation rates go up, Governor Andy and his hedge fund BFFs can turn over school leadership to Eva Moskowitz, or whoever they feel like.

I live right next to Roosevelt, where state takeover has been failing pretty much forever.  But why bother with history when all your programs are based on ignoring not only that, but also research and practice? If poor test scores are invariably aligned with poverty and high needs, why not ignore that utterly and blame the teachers? That's what newly-minted Commissioner MaryEllen Elia has done, blathering some hogwash about how these schools have been failing children for decades.

Here's the thing--there are ways to improve test scores. Eva Moskowitz and her corporate charter counterparts have one. First, you don't take the same kids the public schools do. You make extra steps to gain entrance. You make school a living misery, focused almost solely on tests. Then you get rid of those who don't measure up, and don't bother replacing them. Then you make a lot of noise about "no excuses" and vehemently deny the playing field is rigged.

Another route to school improvement is GW Bush's preferred methodology--the "Texas Miracle." Basically you just cook the books and base a national education program on fraud.  Or you could always erase to the top. We collectively assume programs like GW's and Eva's are models, things to be  admired and replicated. That, in fact, is why my neighbors, schools like Van Buren, Grover Cleveland and John Adams, are facing a very uncertain future.

In the two city schools facing these draconian measures this year, more than half the staff won't be returning. In an agreement with the city, these educators will get jobs elsewhere. I think those who left did a smart thing. They've avoided the ATR, and they've also avoided sitting around in targeted schools with guns to their heads. In fact the principal of Boys and Girls has so little confidence in his own ability to accomplish the turnaround, he took a big old bonus regardless of consequence and made a deal to be able to return to his old school if things go south.

I've heard Mulgrew say at the DA several times that we need to succeed in this venture. I certainly hope we do, but there are issues here that bear our attention. The prime issue is that there is no basis whatsoever to assume we will succeed. We cannot cherry pick, we cannot counsel kids out, and we cannot leave slots open as kids leave. It's particularly absurd to assume we're gonna reverse the trajectory of kids who've been attending school for a decade or more. Moskowitz doesn't just take on high school kids. In fact, the history of "miracles" has to do almost entirely with either outright fraud or using selected kids and comparing them to the population at large.

Until and unless we address poverty, the underlying cause of a whole lot of our problems, that isn't going to change. In a few years, they can fire me as an ESL teacher, but that still won't mean newcomers will arrive speaking perfect English. They can close or take over my school, but that won't mean the severely disabled kids we enroll (unlike Moskowitz and even most public schools) are gonna ace the Physics Regents.

The underlying assumption, that state tests are the only measure of what kids achieve, is ridiculous. For one thing, I'm no genius, and my tests are a whole lot better than state tests. My tests are written by me, in response to the needs of my kids. Conversely, the NYSESLAT, on which I will be rated, is designed to test Common Core skills. My kids need to learn English before they can deal with this nonsense, and the geniuses who run the country have just denied them extra time to do that. Bear in mind that the extra time was still not nearly enough, but better than nothing.

I'm very sorry to say that our schools are being set up for failure. It is an egregious error on the part of the UFT to accept all the false assumptions about our kids and schools and say we're gonna prove them wrong. The way to prove them wrong, in fact, is not to step on their rigged playing field, accept their rules, and hope for the best. We prove them wrong by doing our job, by teaching America.

America needs to learn that we do a whole lot more than prepare kids for tests over which we have no control. America needs to learn that, while MaryEllen Elia may indeed believe life is a big test, she has failed it by making such idiotic pronouncements. America needs to learn that the highly regarded American Statistical Association says that not only do teachers affect test scores by a factor of 1-14%, but that undue focus on test scores actually impedes us from helping kids, the most important thing we do. American needs to learn that the best predictor of college readiness is not the arbitrary crap the geniuses in Albany dream up, but rather teacher-issued grades.

There are, in fact, kids who do poorly on tests who can succeed because they get along well with others. There are some who get excellent test scores but who aren't really very good students.  Life is not, in fact, a test, and we don't spend most of our time figuring out which dot to blacken. Life is messy, people have feelings, emotions, and desires, and teachers who ignore them are not likely to be successful.

It was an egregious error for the Heavy Hearts to agree to Cuomo's draconian plan to fail our public schools. Worse still was UFT President Michael Mulgrew's thank you note for having done so. Whoever wrote that for him should be fired. We're in a very rough place, and we have no one but ourselves to blame.

Staking our reputation on doing what has never been done anywhere is not the wisest thing to do. Enabling the government to shirk its responsibility to the neediest of students is irresponsible on our part. We need to do better, not only for our own sake, but also for the sake of the children we are charged to serve.

You can replace the teachers and principal, but they're not the ones who need help. The kids need help, and they're not, in fact, the ones who are failing. It is us, their caretakers, who are failing, by ignoring their problems, studiously pretending they don't exist, and blaming their teachers and schools.