Thursday, October 30, 2014

As Education Commenter, Frank Bruni Is a Great Food Critic

by special guest blogger Harris Lirtzman

Time Magazine’s most recent issue offers for its readers the picture of a perfectly round, deep red apple about to be squashed to a pulp by a judge’s gavel with the warning:  “Rotten Apples: It’s nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher. Some tech millionaires may have found a way to change all of that.”

Evidently, the article is not as terrible as the visual, though the writer couldn’t be bothered to find a single working teacher to talk to as part of her reporting.  But we all know that thousands of grocery shoppers and patients in doctor’s offices very often see only a magazine cover and magazine editors know that.  Score another for the “education reformers” in their campaign to demolish the integrity and hard work that almost every teacher I have ever known brings to his or her job every day.

The other day, the New York Times columnist, Frank Bruni, recently its restaurant critic, wrote a “thought piece” called “Towards Better Teachers.”  I know that the pressure of writing two eight hundred word columns a week can bring any author to his knees so Mr. Bruni decided to offer his readers a book report instead of his usual opinion piece.  Bruni sat down with former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein to puff his new book Lessons of Hope: How to Fix Our Schools.  During the interview, er, transcription, of Mr. Klein’s words, Bruni offered "But they [teachers] owe us a discussion about education that fully acknowledges the existence of too many underperformers in their ranks. Klein and others who bring that up aren’t trying to insult or demonize them. They’re trying to team up with them on a project that matters more than any other: a better future for kids."

 Joel Klein has never, ever, not once during or since his Chancellorship "tried to team up with teachers to build a better future for our kids."

This is stenography. This is not reporting.  Joel Klein spoke. Bruni wrote.
Bruni feels sorry that we teachers had our feelings hurt by the recent Time article
My feelings aren't hurt that the man who was the Times restaurant critic until two years ago now takes dictation while Joel Klein pontificates about teachers. I am simply angry. I am simply tired that restaurant critics, technology entrepreneurs and hedge fund managers now make policy for public schools and for public school teachers.

But that's OK. Andrew Cuomo, our governor and likely to be our governor for the next eight years, declared early this week to the NY Daily News editorial board that public schools are "one of our only remaining public monopolies" and that he feels obligated to break that monopoly by going to war with public teacher unions in order to increase the number of almost entirely unregulated and unsupervised charter schools in the state.

Mr. Bruni opines, with help from his keepers.  Mr. Cuomo rules, with no apparent help from anyone. And though Mr. Cuomo is a fearful man there are brave teachers and parents and students who will resist his determination to turn public schools over to private oligarchs, restaurant critics and former Michael Bloomberg autocrats.

Many of you may believe that public schools need to do better and are angry that teachers have pensions and tenure. Yes, public schools need to do a better job but public schools have always played an important role in forming citizens who function in a democratic society and teachers struggle every day to teach children who speak dozens of languages, have special needs, come from dispossessed communities with limited resources and require extraordinary and skillful work to make them proficient in language and math and history and science. Taking away tenure will solve none of these problems and Joel Klein and Campbell Brown and Michelle Rhee and David Boies and John King, all of whom send their children to private schools, have never once extended a hand in partnership to teachers to work together to improve public schools. They just want teachers to be humiliated and frightened enough so that they will not fight for public schools or for the preservation of their unions and well-earned but not profligate salaries and pensions.

Mr. Bruni, I hear there's a really good salad being served at Per Se and a wonderful Chateaubriand available at Eleven Madison Park. May I reserve a table for you so that you and a few of your closest hedge fund manager and Silicon Valley friends can think of a few new ways to save black and brown kids in Brownsville and Corona Park from the hands of yet another grasping dolt of a teacher?  After all, my friends who’ve been doing this work for more than twenty years “don’ know nothin’ about teachin’” public school students and eagerly await your latest prescriptions for forcing them do their jobs better by taking away their basic work-rights and job protections and destroying their union. That will, I’m sure, spur them onto great and glorious feats of teacherdom not possible without the new paradigm of private management of public schools promised by our Silicon Valley experts, restaurant critics and education-warrior of a governor.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Cuomo's Betrayal--The Fruit of Appeasement

We in UFT/ NYSUT/ AFT are always on the cutting edge. When people say Bill Gates is trying to destroy American education, we open our arms, show them how open-minded we are, and invite him to be keynote at AFT convention. Of course I wasn't there, you weren't there, and anyone there who may have opposed Bill Gates had signed a loyalty oath agreeing not to do so in public. Nonetheless, our loyalty-oath signing "representatives" showed how reformy the UFT was.

When mayoral control came to NYC with Mike Bloomberg at the helm, we supported it. When it proved to be an abject disaster, with dozens of awful school closures that sent our brothers and sisters into the ATR, we asked for a few piddling improvements, failed to get them and supported it again. When Bill de Blasio kept a campaign promise to block charters, Cuomo and the legislature passed a law favoring Eva Moskowitz, and we did not even lift a finger to stop it. A very highly placed source in NYSUT told me my UFT President supported it.

When it's time for passionate defense, though, we're right there. Mike Mulgrew brought 800 loyalty-oath-bound "representatives" to Los Angeles last summer and swore anyone who took his Common Core away from him would be punched in the face and pushed in the dirt. Any day now I expect to be crawling around in the mud recuperating with Diane Ravitch, Carol Burris, Leonie Haimson and all the other dangerous figures my President needs to beat the crap out of.

When Zephyr Teachout, who actually supports and respects teachers, reached for the Working Families Party nomination, our union made it known that it would not support the party if it embraced Zephyr. And we blocked the only viable chance of making Andy Cuomo, with his booming warchest, break a sweat. When Zephyr boldly challenged him in the primary, the President of the AFT was busy making calls for arch-conservative Kathy Hochul, lest Tim Wu should win and a true progressive should even help govern NY State.

And God forbid NYSUT or UFT should endorse Howie Hawkins, the last and only candidate standing who is not insane. That would be radical and scary. What would people think? Instead, we'll sit it out and pretend we aren't tacitly endorsing Governor Andrew Cuomo. After all, he is a Democrat, when he isn't making glitzy commercials pretending to support women, or students, or anyone other than the only person he cares about--himself.

You'd think Cuomo would be grateful. You'd be wrong, of course. The error our union leadership makes, over and over, is thinking because we let the reformies stab us in the arm, in front of God and everybody, that they won't follow up by stabbing us in the back. But they always do and we never learn.

Cuomo got in front of the Daily News editorial board and used the boilerplate term favored by fanatical ideologue teacher bashers everywhere--the public school "monopoly." Likely he forgot about the police monopoly, the fire department monopoly, and the government monopoly. Certainly he forgot how many Americans and New Yorkers would benefit if we enacted single payer, gave everyone health care, and had a monopoly rather than people going bankrupt over medical bills. Certainly the fact that charter schools have failed to improve education hasn't factored into his thinking. The fact that the best education systems in the world are public and unionized didn't seem all that important either.

 For our restraint, for our diplomacy, for our covert support, he has declared war against us. Once again, Mike Mulgrew, Karen Magee, and Randi Weingarten have screwed up by failing to take be proactive, by choosing fear over inspiration, by moving backward rather than forward.

Cuomo pretty much announced he hates us and everything we stand for.  What do we do? Boycott Time magazine, a magazine that has hated us for years, a magazine it's unlikely any of us read anyway?

When are we going to wake up and insist on real union and real leaders? I, for one, am getting a little tired of waiting. How about you?

Related: Perdido Street School on NYSUT's pathetic response.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Fear Is a Luxury We Cannot Afford

If the intent of the APPR law, which our union leadership boasted of co-writing, was to freak teachers out continually, I'm pretty sure they've achieved their goal. Though we're already on the second year of the Junk Science Express, I see little sign that anyone is used to it. Teachers are afraid to let out a peep. I hear from teachers all over the city asking me, "Can my principal do this?" and I send back chapter and verse suggesting, "No, absolutely not."

Yet these teachers are often afraid not only to file a grievance, but often to even contact their chapter leaders, who they suspect or accuse of being in cahoots with admin. One teacher reported her chapter leader said, "I can't take sides on this issue." In fact, when there are contractual violations, it's hard for me to figure how a chapter leader could not take sides.

The thing is, people are afraid. They're terrified. If I grieve those four classes in a row, will my small-minded vindictive supervisor come in and trash me in an observation? If I complain that I have five different classrooms on seven different floors, will I be condemning myself to two years of ineffective ratings and get the fast train to Palookaville?

One argument you'll get from the union is that ratings were completely subjective before this, that a principal could simply say, "You stink," and that that would be it. The problem is, though, there were not necessarily such dire consequences. The DOE would need to prove you were incompetent, and if they didn't do so, you were back in your job.

Things are a little different now, and we're finally seeing the first lawsuit over the insane law that punchy Mike was so happy about. Apparently junk science can be problematic, particularly when someone's got outright evidence there's no basis for it whatsoever. But what if you haven't got incredibly wonderful test scores to use as evidence?

If you're a New York City teacher and that's the case, you are in a heap of pain. One ineffective rating brings you a few visits from a peer evaluator. If this person, who jumped for extra money to sit in judgment of brother and sister UFT members, declares thumbs up, the DOE will have to prove your incompetence. However, if this fine upstanding citizen votes thumbs down, it will be on you to prove a negative, something that will be an uphill battle.

Of course it may not come to that. UFT has arranged that 13% of ineffective rating appeals will go to an impartial arbiter rather than the evil DOE. I suppose those 13% will have a better chance. However, 87% will go straight to the DOE, and it isn't a large leap of faith to determine where the DOE will tell those 87% to go.

This is not how you treat people you want to inspire children. This is not how you treat your dog, if you love your dog. So in 2014, NYC teachers fall somewhere below the status of beloved dog, and people shake their heads in wonder that half of us walk away before hitting five years. APs dream of pliable young teachers and wonder why they can't hold onto them.

I think there's something wrong with me because I stopped being afraid at some point. I have no idea why. But I love being a teacher, and I want others to love it too. Placing guns to people's heads is simply not the way to make that happen. Personally, I don't believe that the demagogues who push this nonsense give a golly goshdarn about teacher quality.

They just want to drag it down to the lowest common denominator, and make us as replaceable as Walmart associates. Do you think it's a coincidence that the Walmart family spends so much supporting reforminess? I don't.

The only people who can save our job and our kids are us. If we let people walk all over us, they won't hesitate. Don't give up your rights and expect to be rewarded for it. Whether or not I'm crazy, we simply can't afford to be afraid.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Common Sense vs. Tenure Reforminess

In Spanish, they say, “Common sense is the least common of all the senses.” Nowhere is that argument clearer than in the arguments against teacher tenure, most recently played out on the cover of Time, the paragon of publishing that matched Michelle Rhee with her broom and declared Hitler "Man of the Year."

There are all these arguments about bad vs. good apples, but they ultimately seem absurd to me. Basically, the argument is tenure protects bad teachers, and it therefore should not exist. Self-appointed education expert Campbell Brown repeatedly dredges up a few cases and pastes them all over Twitter and any paper that will print her.

What shall we do, then? Shall we eliminate tenure so as to make it easier to fire the so-called bad apples? Or should we simply take tenure away from them and leave it with the better apples? And if we do that, who gets to decide who deserves it and who doesn't?

In fact, UFT leadership moved, again, to weaken tenure in the last contract. There is an unfounded but popular prejudice against ATR teachers, and leadership reinforced it by adding a second-tier due process for them and making them easier to fire. Endorsing insane notions like this one gives reformy demagogues like Campbell Brown fodder to plod ahead with their absurd arguments. After all, if punchy Mike Mulgrew thinks ATR teachers deserve fewer rights than others, there must be something wrong with them. And therefore the reformy hordes can ask for fewer rights for other questionable apples.

But that’s not, in fact, the argument they’re using this year. The argument is that no teacher should have tenure. Instead, we should trust in the good graces of those people who failed to identify and/ or fire the alleged bad apples before giving them tenure. After all, since accountability applies only to unionized teachers, no administrator can possibly have made the remotest mistake, ever.

So with that assumption in mind, they plod ahead. It makes no difference if kids live in poverty, don’t speak English, or have severe learning disabilities. The only reason they fail standardized tests is that their teachers suck. Therefore, we must remove all job protections for teachers and fire at will.

Aside from the preposterous assumptions implicit in this argument, there’s something quite reminiscent of bigotry here, that the bad ones spoil it for the good ones, and therefore none of them should have rights. In fact, were you to take this argument and apply it to the country at large, it would suggest once the police picked you up for something, you were guilty. Certainly some people rob banks, commit atrocities, and do various other things that fail to merit the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, and you could reason that stripping everyone of basic due process would make it harder for the bad apples to get away with such things.

Then there’s the argument that other Americans don’t have tenure and can be fired for a bad haircut. Diane Ravitch tells the story of two farmers. One says, “My neighbor has a cow and I don’t. I want his cow to die.” That’s the sort of thinking that goes behind attacks on tenure, and also attacks on health benefits. Somehow, we’ve managed to become one of the only non-third world countries that doesn’t offer health care as a basic right. We’ve also managed to pretty well decimate union nationally, and corporate frauds like Fox News can sell Americans on the concept that this is somehow a good thing.

This blog may or may not be meaningful to you, but without tenure you would not be reading it or others like it. And it’s important for teachers to speak out. Take a historical look at societies that have attacked teachers and you may not find we’re in such good company.

Make no mistake, the reformy zillionaires don’t give a damn about you, your kids, or your students. If they did, they’d be protesting low tax rates that starve school districts, rather than giving cash to demagogues like Cuomo or Astorino. They’d be using their money to fight poverty rather than the teaching profession.

The proposition that working teachers need fewer protections or benefits is an attack on what remains of the American middle class. The sooner we wake up, realize that, and put a stop to it the better off we’ll be.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

College and Career Readiness?: Mind the Gap!

I saw this poster on my train.  I work hard to prepare students for life.  For many, this includes college.  For most, this includes the ability to find a happy balance between personal satisfaction and paying their bills.

"Reformers" have outrageously raised the academic standards.  In their misguided way, they think they will shock students into college and career readiness or take their teachers down with them. Let us forget for a moment that 65% are failing in NY state and imagine that students could actually meet these standards.  Will they be college and career ready?  Perhaps intellectually, but probably not financially.

When students suffer from some of the same problems experienced by  inhabitants of Duncan's academic paradise of South Korea, over-education and high unemployment, what is to be done about the excessive baggage of debt?  Joblessness and college debt will march hand in hand.  Welcome, then, to the world of college and career readiness!  But don't forget to mind the gap!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

What's a Day in the Life of a Student?

There's an interesting piece in the Washington Post about how stressful it is to be in school all day. Perhaps we don't understand or envision the lives of the kids we serve. Doubtless we all find our own classes fascinating, or we probably wouldn't be able to conduct them, but do they resonate with our kids?

It's an interesting observation that we are up and running around most of the time, and may not, therefore, understand how tough it can be to sit in place for 40 minutes, or indeed all day. Actually, I remember being bored out of my gourd for the overwhelming majority of my high school classes. Participation was not encouraged in any but one of my classes. That class was called sociology. I remember being amazed at having a teacher who elicited our ideas and appeared interested to hear them. I always recall that one kid, who was pretty much a model student, boasted of how reading was unnecessary, since the only two books he'd ever read were Love Story and Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and that he'd turned out fine.

I was an avid reader in high school, but the school itself rarely asked me to read anything, let alone anything challenging. I can remember English classes in which we read Silas Marner and The Old Man and the Sea, aloud, one page at a time. These classes were pretty easy for me, since all I had to do was figure out which page the girl in front of me was on. With that info, I could read the next page aloud and then tune out for the rest of the class. It was a great gig for the English teacher, who could just sit on her ass for weeks as this nonsense went on.

I also recall studying biology, which NY State now calls living environment. I had a bearded teacher in a white lab coat. He would place a transparency he'd prepared on an opaque projector, and we would copy notes every single day. He would stand in front of the room stroking his beard and occasionally ask, "Is everyone finished copying?" When everyone finally finished, he would change the page. I spent the entire year looking longingly at the girl to my right, who sadly had a college boyfriend. I spent a week in June cramming from a red Baron's Regents book, barely passed the exam, and never studied science again.

When I finally made it to college, I found that my sociology teacher's style of actual discussion was pretty popular. The good student that had been hibernating within all those years woke up, and I had teachers who actually encouraged me as a writer and a person. Almost no teacher I had before college had done that.

I'm happy to say I know not a single teacher as stultifyingly tedious as those I encountered in high school. But I think it would probably benefit all of us to try the experiment of sitting for a day or two in a student's shoes. A former principal of mine had us go to PD like that one day, but I'm not sure that was sufficient. For one thing, most of us expect PD to be stupefying, and reports I hear from people who sit through endless PD on Mondays and Tuesdays seem to confirm that.

Perhaps instead of terrorizing us with high-stakes observations and dismissal based on test scores, we ought to be given a couple of days to shadow students and do their work. This real-life process would give us insights into who are students are and what they go through, and would allow us to adjust our own practices to suit the needs of the kids we serve. Personally, I'd love to follow some of my beginning ESL students for a few days and learn how well equipped they are to deal with the classes they have.

But I'm just a lowly teacher, so I'm not altogether optimistic my suggestion will resonate. Only the likes of Bill Gates, Andrew Cuomo, John King, Michael Bloomberg, Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein and Barack Obama get to decide what goes on in public schools.

Doubtless that's why they all send their own kids to private schools.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Parent Teacher Conference Notes

As chapter leader, I get one period off to deal with various and sundry crises, so I only teach four classes. As a matter of fact, since I teach beginning ESL I teach two double period classes, so I have fewer students than most teachers. Add to that the fact that many parents don’t speak English and are shy about coming to school and it’s a pretty slow night.  

I’m fairly amazed at the number of students who came in with their parents without having shown them their report cards. It’s particularly unwise since I’m sitting there with a laptop and can pull them up in an instant. Several students told me they didn’t have time to show their parents the report cards. That’s just hard to fathom. I mean, they are pieces of paper. You put them in your hands and move them to someone else’s hand. It takes no time at all.

I like to get bad news over with quickly, so I have the distinct impression that my kids would have been better off if I hadn’t been the one to do the first reveal. They looked at me as though I were treacherous, unworthy of their trust. Clearly they did not expect me to preface my discussion of how they were doing in my class with an overall view of how they were doing in others. Some were doing better in my class than others, and would probably never speak to me again if it weren’t for the fact that speaking is why they’re actually doing better in my class.

My entire department is in the library, and one of my former students has taken charge of the entire room. She’s concurrently running around like a madwoman and eating donuts. You can tell whenever she approaches because the donut smell somehow follows her around. My student aide is very impressed by that. He’s never met a girl who smelled like a donut before and quite clearly deemed her too good to be true. Aside from the whole donut thing, I’m impressed. When I met her last year she could barely sputter out a single word of English.

My student aide got very bored when the girl who smelled like donuts moved away and parents stopped coming around. He complained quite a bit, but we’re in the library. Why don’t you read a book, I asked. He said he couldn’t read books in English. I dragged him over to the manga section, where he rejected book after book until I pushed a Walking Dead comic in his face. He’s reading it right now. I learned to read with comic books, so why shouldn’t he?

I wonder whether I could effectively teach a comic book in my class. I don’t suppose I could do The Walking Dead. I’m not sure you learn much about character from zombies. I have to find something that the kids would find interesting but which wouldn’t get me fired. I suspect some of the kids’ parents would see me as a slacker, but it would be very cool to get my beginners to read just about anything authentic.

How were your parent teacher conferences?

Thursday, October 23, 2014

When the UFT Starts Looking More Like a Parasite...

We are not our union.  I haven't exactly figured out the relationship yet.  I know teachers need the UFT and the UFT needs teachers.  In defense of tenure, I feel the relationship is one of symbiosis, but at other times, as with the Common Core, teacher evaluation systems and treatment of ATRs, the parasitic relationship seems essentially harmful.

We pay our union dues, yet we are not our union.   On Long Island, PJSTA union leader, Beth Dimino, who spoke so passionately against the Core, actually teaches.  She is a veteran science teacher.  She is on the front lines every day.  She sees beyond theories that may look pretty when pushed along by millions of dollars.  She witnesses first hand the harmful effects of the Core.  She never forgets she represents teachers.  She never forgets she serves the kids.  And as such, she is a "mandated reporter" of child abuse--even if it's called the Common Core and its Sugar Daddy has millions to offer.

I realize the exigencies which make it preferable for our top UFT officers to be relieved from classroom duties.  Yet, this seems all the more reason why these same officers should encourage free thought.   This seems all the more reason why they should frequent the halls of schools not to sell contracts, but to pick up on the pulse.  Reps must come to see how membership can best be served and then they must start serving.

Chapter leaders are not our union.  Instead, Unity advises its members to toe the line.  Caucus members must cease and desist from any independent thought that might challenge official leadership positions.  They are advised to steer clear of anti Core positions.  The same Unity that holds the purse strings to lucrative double-pensions pulls the puppet strings of its own members.

Active members are certainly not our Union.   Only 17% of active UFT members bothered to vote in the last elections.  You might think the UFT would be actively concerned that this is a serious sign of illness.  Instead, Unity seems more focused on stymieing the voice of current members and guaranteeing its death grip on power by increasing retiree votes.  More than half of the recent votes in leadership elections came from retirees.

ATRs are not our union.  This one gets me worst of all.  We have let a class of people who worked in some of the hard-to-staff schools linger in limbo.  Many of these teachers are veterans, seasoned professionals, who deserve the best.  They are lumped together in a class repeatedly stereotyped by the media as derelicts.  When a resolution is presented to give ATRs their own chapter given their special interests and second-tier due process status, Leroy Barr has only to speak against it and all must follow.  The resolution is shot down.  Do you think Leroy Barr might feel differently if he walked in the shoes of an ATR?

NYC teachers must be the UFT.  But we are not.  Conditions are so bad today that many do not stick around for even five years.  As long as our dues keep coming, the UFT could pretty much survive without ever caring to ask what we want.  Sometimes it thinks it knows what we wants.  And, sometimes if does know.  But at other times, I'm pretty sure it doesn't care what we want.

Our union is separate from us.  We are besides the point.   I feel more kinship for the PJSTA than my UFT.  I pretty much want from the UFT what the PJSTA wants from NYSUT.  I want a union that is not separate from teachers.  I want a union of teachers, not a union controlling teachers.  And I believe it must start with veteran and career teachers and even some of the passionate recent retirees who understand life on the front lines.  If teachers want to win back education, it must  begin by winning back the UFT.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Small Game Hunting in Mr. Educator's Classroom.

I had my initial planning conference yesterday. I selected option one, with the formal observation. I always think it's a good idea to plan with my supervisor. That way, if she says my lesson was awful, I can ask why the hell she asked me to do it like that. Now this may not work for you, because past earnings are no indicator of future returns. Nonetheless, that's my approach.

My primary concern, as a teacher of beginners, is the reluctance of a large number of my students to actually speak. Many of my students come from places where they sit in large classes,  listen to teachers and never, ever interrupt. It's a cultural thing. It also explains why, despite sometimes having studied English for years, they cannot speak it at all. Sometimes I think that foreign English teachers instruct kids to always look at the floor and mumble when using English so that no one will ever detect those troublesome errors. Very, very bad advice, say I.

A few days back I had a real issue with a girl in one of my classes. She does well on exams, but will not utter a sound for the most part. When face to face with a question, she will answer, but with extreme reluctance. She has been a little upset with me since I made it clear that playing with her cell phone under her desk would get me to bend sideways, look under her desk, and tell her to put it away. She's tried other subterfuge, like hiding it under a book, but I keep catching her. Perhaps I should just let her use it and hope for the best. But I probably won't.

In any case, on this particular day, she kept putting her head down, hiding under various items of clothing, and acting peculiar in every way. I don't speak her first language, so I called her guidance counselor, who does. Sadly, she was unavailable. After investigating several less desirable choices, I sent her with another student to the nurse, who sent her right back to me. I never found out what happened.

The following day she returned, and was a little more cooperative. She seemed to follow a little better. I didn't even catch her using the phone. But of course, there was a crisis. Another student detected a cockroach the size of a Buick walking along a bulletin board in front of the classroom. It was pretty gross. I didn't know exactly what to do, so I tried to continue whatever it was I was doing. But miracle of miracles, my quiet girl got up unbidden, looked right at me, and asked, "Can I kill it?'

I was pondering a reply when she walked right up to it with a piece of paper, grabbed it and knocked it from its multicolored construction paper perch. I thought she had it, but apparently she did not. A very shy boy who speaks, but only when questioned, jumped up and stomped the thing to death.

I wonder whether Danielson would have awarded me points for my students' enthusiasm and initiative.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The U.F.T. Unity Caucus Respects Parliamentary Rule


NYC Educator carried a post earlier in the month with a quote by Leo Casey of UFT Unity:

To honor their democratic decisionmaking processes, some parties and caucuses adopt an understanding that is known as cabinet rule in the British parliamentary system: Once a democratic decision has been made within the party or caucus, its members are obliged to not oppose it in Parliament.[2] If the matter in question is one of fundamental principle, one can always leave the party or caucus and oppose it. In my view, this understanding is essential for a caucus to function as a democratic body.

I couldn't agree more.  UFT members need to take loyalty oaths attached to the powerful purse strings of lucrative, double-pension earning, after-school positions in union offices, expense-paid trips to conferences across the country,  a host of additional perks and the good life in general.  If you can't shut up and toe the line or shut down your own independent thought, then in the best parliamentary fashion, "Depart, I say; and let us have done with you.  In the name of God," and your double pension, "go!"


Let Robert's Rules of Order reign in the discussion to admit a preponderance of your own speakers.   If any breathing soul should actually manage to acquire the unabridged version of Robert's Rules and bring a point to light from the back of a crowded room, the one that inconveniently recognizes the opposition is entitled to equal representation during debate, yield gracefully when your Parliamentarian admits the sad truth.   After all, you, too, are a parliamentarian at heart.

But remember it doesn't hurt to employ tactics of the bully pulpit!  Because when eight-hundred people are sworn to uphold what you do at the D.A., you can't go wrong.  Manhandle the opposition, if you like, and banish the thought that your own caucus could ever be emboldened enough to actually represent differing views of either conscience or constituency!  After all, who wants consequences when it could mean off with their second jobs and double pensions?


Since you are a true parliamentarian, democracy pulses through your veins.  It gives the life-blood to your caucus.  Increase the weight of retiree voting.  Who cares anyway if most retirees are out of touch with the current corporate-backed war waged against educators?  Send the ballots home instead of allowing voting in schools.  You can probably ensure that more than 50% of the voters will be retirees.  And, they love you.  Unity can sure look golden from a golf course or a rocking chair.  Just keep the cupcakes and bagels fresh in Florida and retirement sweet.  And, maybe, just maybe, the current rank and file will survive long enough to be served one of your cupcakes someday.  They sure look sweet from the vantage point of a "bare cupboard"!

When matters like the contract arise and all the cupcakes with which you've plied retirees in Florida no longer have meaning because they can't vote, then let the voting be done in schools.  Don't bother to send your reps to see what the rank and file want.  After all, you are a parliamentarian at heart.  Why would you need to do such a thing?  Just send out your reps after the contract is a fait accompli to purportedly answer questions, but really sell it.  E-mail your chapter leaders and tell them to pass down the line the words of demoralization:  This is the best that we can do.  The "cupboard is bare."  Do you want to go to the back of the negotiating line as #151?  Banish the thought and vote for the contract now!  Then, in the name of God, and the parliamentary system, go!



Since you're a parliamentarian at heart, have no compunction for shoving the contract down throats.  Force feed the M.O.A. past your Contract Committee, Executive Board and D.A. before most have time to make much sense of it.  You are a parliamentarian with eight-hundred caucus members hoping to keep their cupboards filled by your generous union offices.  Let the undigested contract pass through the system.  You'll never be an ATR.  After all, you're a parliamentarian.  So what do you care?




If the Opposition gains power, find further ways to silence them.   There are always solutions for parliamentarians.  Make a stab at co-opting New Action.  No longer allow chapter leaders to elect UFT District reps.  You might lose another seat.  Let voting for high-school reps be done at large and thereby further crush dissent.  And, if Unity Executive Board members "sit and listen.  Some never speak.  Most rarely speak," so much the better.  You are a parliamentarian.  So, who cares?  Go eight-hundred strong and cast one vote eight-hundred times.  Subvert the voices of the rank and file in NYSUT and then the AFT.  Let your caucus members do the important work of holding places on line in L.A. for your big hitters.  After all, the more people you can intimidate with your fists, the merrier, so long as you have the parliamentarian rules of merry, old England in hand!

With such wonderful democracy in play at our UFT headquarters and such great policies in place, including mayoral control and V.A.M., why would anyone consider antiparliamentarianism?  It's too hard to spell.  And, besides, it's not even a word!

So, someday if you play your cards right,



you may get your own statue.



and one can always hope that time and the truth do not take its toll.

Monday, October 20, 2014

MORE and the Mission from God

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with MORE since its inception. Though I ran a few times with ICE in ill-fated union elections, I was never completely sold on MORE. As they were the only non-Unity endorsed option, as I knew and respected some of their candidates, I supported them in the last election, and asked members at my school to vote for them too. But my name didn’t appear on their ballot.

There are some people I admire intensely who’ve worked very hard for MORE. I’m not going to name them here, as I’m certain I’ll miss someone pivotal, probably the person I admire most. I'm sad to disappoint some of them. I've been to 3 or 4 meetings. At the first, I saw factions within the group, and it was simple for me to determine where I stood.

My friend James Eterno was quite frustrated at their September meeting, which I suppose I was blessed not to have attended. Apparently the lion’s share of it was devoted to the crucial issue of whether or not to retroactively endorse the Staten Island march to protest the death of Eric Garner. James found that absurd, as did I. If you wanted to endorse it, you went. If you didn’t, you didn’t. I saw 15 or 20 reps from MORE at the march, and honestly I didn’t see many more from Unity.

James held an ICE meeting last month in Manhattan. He proposed that MORE, with limited resources, focus on issues that actually effect those of us working in the schools. I agreed strongly with him that whether or not MORE retroactively endorsed the march was not one of those issues. Issues important to us are things like class size, reasonable evaluations, fair contracts and better treatment of and placement for ATRs.

I went to the MORE meeting  last Saturday. James introduced a resolution that MORE focus on member issues. Preceding that resolution was one to propose UFT endorse Howie Hawkins, the only pro-education candidate on the New York ballot. I made the egregious error of speaking in support of that resolution. I had not anticipated that the chair, eager to break into groups or something, would make it a point to give precedence to people who had not previously spoken on the next issue, which was Eterno’s proposal. Alas, that proposal was the main reason I went out and bought an LIRR ticket to be at the meeting. I felt we needed to save ourselves before we saved the world, but I never got to say so.

I listened to people comment on how bad racism was, how badly people are treated, and how we had to fight it. I’m not really sure what to say about that. My household is two-thirds Latino, far more diverse than the MORE meeting. My full-time job is teaching and helping newcomers to this country. I can’t help it if I happened to walk into a room full of white people. I don’t know why the room had that makeup. But there were the repeated cries about the importance of social justice, with grudging acknowledgement that teacher issues were also important.

Actually, while I have major issues with the Unity leadership, racism is certainly not among them. It’s ironic that, for all the talk I heard at the MORE meeting, Unity is considerably more diverse than they are. I take people one at a time or I could never be an ESL teacher. The biggest lesson I’ve learned in the last 30 years, teaching kids of every color, nationality, and religion is this—there is absolutely no stereotype that holds true.

If MORE wants a more diverse membership, they can achieve it by appealing to a wider group of teachers. But as I listened to them say they need to talk about the motion more, they need to vote on whether to talk about it more, they need to table it so they can break into groups, they need to send it to the steering committee, they need to vote online, they need to have a retreat, they need to go to happy hour, and various other priorities, I realized those objecting were on a mission from God. I’ve learned repeatedly that you can’t reason with people who are on a mission from God.

Though no one said so outright, there was clearly no room whatsoever for the Eterno proposal in this mission. It had to be discussed, analyzed, sent to this committee and that, scrutinized, t's crossed, i's dotted, studied, considered, placed online, tabled, and forgotten at the earliest opportunity. Pedestrian concerns must never be allowed to interfere with missions from God.

I have a much more modest mission. My mission is to introduce real democracy to the UF of T. My mission is to get a voice for the members I represent. My mission is to break the half-century monopoly on power held by a flabby and complacent leadership that finds two-tier due process acceptable. My mission is to improve not only the education of my students, but also their future prospects.

Some members in MORE are not primarily interested in that mission, or the simpler one of representing member interests. They will go along with it if it doesn’t get in the way of their saving the world, eradicating racism, and promoting the Revolution, but it’s clear to me their priority to save the world, and if it doesn’t occur in any of our lifetimes, that’s fine too. Make no mistake—I also believe in saving the world, and I’ll contribute in some small way if I can.

But I work in a school, I represent hundreds of people, and the most they ever approach me and ask me to save the world for them is never. It makes me very sad that MORE and I will not work together. They’ve spent years promoting their brand. Were they willing to help working educators with what they really need, I’d back this brand 100%.

What's even sadder is that the failure of MORE, an ostensible labor union caucus, to focus on labor union issues means there is not much hope that anyone is. There's New Action, which met with Randi Weingarten and agreed to endorse her and her successors in perpetuity for a few seats. There's another guy Randi met with who, by sheer coincidence, created a new caucus and nominated himself for President two weeks later. I don't think Mulgrew's losing a whole lot of sleep over potential opposition.

I like the idea of a brand people know. But this brand is problematic, because there are a lot of people with overarching goals that dwarf mere interests of teachers, students,  parents, and education. You can't dwell on such petty details when you're on a mission from God

I once had a student teacher who I asked to bring in pictures to help teach present progressive. You know, The people are walking. The girl is singing. He brought in pictures of Jesus healing the sick and people kneeling before Jesus. Of course he too was on a mission from God and was not particularly receptive to my response (which I'll spare you). I was there to teach English, not to proselytize. There's a time and place to proselytize, but it's not during my English class.

Teachers are desperate for representation. Teachers need someone to speak out for them and inspire them to speak out for themselves. It's high time to stop appeasing Bill Gates and do what's right. Our union leadership has failed at that, repeatedly and spectacularly. If MORE wishes to succeed, they need to drop the mission from God and focus intensely on these three things:

1. Represent the members.
2. Represent the members, and
3. Represent the members.

That's a prerequisite for not only success, but also relevance.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

MOSL and the Ten Commandments

Every school needs to determine precisely how junk science is utilized to determine teacher ratings. In our school, we tried to make measures as broad as possible. Wherever we could, we did not tie teachers to ratings based on their individual students. We felt this was unhealthy. For example, if some kid came to me asking for extra help, it would probably be less than optimal for me to say, “Screw you, kid, because you’re in Miss Grundy’s class.”

I probably wouldn’t say that in any case, but I would never want to be in competition with my colleagues. This places me in opposition to the prevailing reformy winds, which cry, “Fire the lowest 5, 10, or 90% of all teachers.” That’s also nonsense. But the entire notion of MOSL is nonsense, and if you’re involved you have no alternative but to choose the nonsense that suits you best.

The trend in my school was highly effective ratings in the building. This left a lot of happy teachers. But alas, most of us, myself included, were dragged down to merely effective after our junk science scores were averaged in. On the flip side, a lot of developing ratings were pulled up to effective.  As chapter leader, pissed off though I was about my rating and those of most of my colleagues, I felt we had more or less done the best we could.

My school, though, tends to do well. I’ve spoken to other people who’ve seen highly effective ratings dragged down to developing, and there are a few cases I’ve heard of that went from highly effective to ineffective. Hopefully cases like those will be corrected on appeal. Most appeals will go to the chancellor, where precedent from Klein on has been a rejection level of almost 100%. Our new agreement allows UFT to present 13% of cases to independent arbitrators, who will hopefully be more reasonable.

The consequences of poor ratings can be dire. Developing is not all that bad, though not all that good either. The primary consequence, aside from damage to your pride and such, is a TIP, or teacher improvement plan. Theoretically, the teacher and admin will collaboratively work out a plan to improve whatever needs improvement. Should that be the junk science portion of the rating, it will be an uphill battle indeed. Reliable studies suggest that teachers effect test scores somewhere between 1 and 14%. And of course if your supervisors are insane, the TIP could be torturous.

You may not appeal a developing rating. However, you will not face 3020a dismissal charges based on such ratings either. Ineffective ratings are quite a bit more threatening. Should you get one, you will be visited by a dementor validator who will decide whether or not you suck. Should the validator decide that in fact you do not suck, your principal can still bring you up on 3020a dismissal charges the next year. However, the DOE will have to prove you suck.

If the validator gives you a thumbs-down, saying yes you do suck, you will then have to prove that you do not suck. This basically robs you of that whole innocent-until-proven-guilty thing, which can be more than a minor inconvenience, what with poverty, health care, homelessness, and minimum wage employment all out there to welcome you.

So the decision of your MOSL committee can be a very serious thing. Do you know what your school’s MOSL committee decided? Did it work last year? Was it changed this year? What has worked for you and your colleagues? What hasn’t? And why on earth are we asked to make such high-stakes nonsensical decisions in the first place?

Thursday, October 16, 2014

What if You Have to Skip Town Before You're Observed?

You never know. Maybe Cathie Black finally read those awful things you said about her and the DOE has put out a hit on you. Maybe your rich uncle in Tasmania is sick and needs you by his bedside. Perhaps you've finally found a killer deal on that chateau in the Ozarks you've always dreamed about. Who knows?

But, but doesn't the APPR agreement say you've got to be observed four times? Well, not necessarily. On page five it says this:

d) When a teacher is unexpectedly absent for the remainder of the school year (e.g., extended leave), the teacher shall have a minimum of two (2) observations, which shall fulfill the observation requirements set forth herein.

Is that reasonable? I'm not really sure. What if have to I leave today, before Cathie and the Tweedies can find me? Should I tell my supervisor to observe two classes and then make a break for it? And what if she rates me poorly. After all, here I am running for my life, and I may not be entirely at my best. Let's look at another scenario, though.

What if you get pregnant? Are you "unexpectedly absent?" How could you be when it's common parlance to say you're "expecting?" Is it in any way reasonable to load you up on observations in a short time? Let's say that today you suck, and you're leaving at week's end. Shouldn't you have more time to improve before you get tagged with a rating that says you sucked for the year?

And what about the 40% of junk science that's added to your rating? Since it already has no validity whatsoever, is it worse when you haven't actually been in the school? I suppose not, but even those who argue the validity of test scores in your department, or others as the case may be, will have a hard time saying that the kids did so poorly because of you. After all, you weren't even there. In fact, you could argue that the kids could have done much better if you were there. Who could argue?

So here's what we know. You must be observed at least four times by admin, unless you are highly effective, in which case you must be observed at least three times by admin and three by your inferior colleagues. Unless, of course, you leave unexpectedly. Then it is perfectly fine to be observed only twice, not matter what your rating. Because it is perfectly valid to judge you based on two observations if you leave.

The question then becomes why the hell isn't it good enough to observe you twice if you stay. The answer, of course, is because the MOA says it isn't, and that ought to be good enough for anyone.

It's important that APs and principals do 200 observations a semester, because Whatever It Was That They Did Before was a complete waste of time. Besides, as teachers, it's not our place to question the great and mysterious APPR agreement.

After all, who the hell do teachers think they are, running around and demanding logic? Next thing you know, students will be demanding it too, and then where would we be?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Lost Boys (and Girls)

I didn't need 35 minutes on Tuesday to make home contact because home contact has become part of who I am. I was once instructed to teach special education, and though in addition to being totally unqualified I was not very good at it, I learned a lot. The first thing I learned was that home contact was not optional. I've carried that with me, and my kids know that whatever language they speak, someone who speaks it will call their home if they break my heart. I'm very sensitive, so that happens often.

I hate it when kids come late to my class. I think that's something left over from my years in the trailer, when the bell would ring and I'd have to run like hell. I (almost) always made it, so I don't feel all that sorry for 15-year-old kids in better shape than I am who can't manage. Actually, once in a while anyone can be late. But when it's regular, I don't buy it. If I can do it, so can you.

Sometimes I discover odd things when I call. I find that kids live with guardians. Sometimes it's an uncle or a sister, and that's usually not a problem. Other times it's someone who's paid to care for the kid. What's odd in these cases is that people who take money to do this job often fail to find the job interesting enough to do. People ask, "What can I do?" I suppose they could stop taking money. It's tough to deal with teenagers. If you can't do it, you shouldn't take money for it.

Sometimes I find that kids are in group homes run by religious institutions or religious leaders. I'm particularly horrified by this because it seems to me if you're presenting yourself as religious you ought to have a higher standard. I've called places like this that simply do nothing, and are shocked when I call making demands on them. I've spoken through translators with lackeys, who tell me about all the important things the religious leaders do and how they haven't got time to bother sending kids to school, or checking where they go when they leave the place.

But whether the place is religious or not, it's pretty basic that if you take money to care for kids, you care for kids. Some people will say well, the kids are grown and ought to take responsibility. That's fine. But what if they don't? There's a reason we don't call kids adults until they're 18, and like it or not, plenty of kids fail to magically turn adult on their 18th birthdays.

I understand that there is this concept of the American Dream, and that a lot of people come here for it. I honestly do not understand sending your 14-year-old daughter to live with strangers and hoping for the best. I know a lot of people pay a lot of money for such services. But unless their kids are incredibly mature and intelligent, it's an awful idea.

I feel like calling up the parents in their home countries and telling them they aren't spending their money wisely. I wonder whether I'd get in trouble for that.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

If You Liked Philly Teachers Losing Contract, You'll Love Astorino in NY

Teachers in Philadelphia recently had their contract pretty much tossed in the trash. Step-raises were abolished, and teachers will be forced to pay into health care. This is ostensibly because the district is desperate for money. Why?

The SDP faces a $300 million budget shortfall largely created by slashing state education aid by $1 billion, and abandoning a state school funding formula designed to increase resource allocations to the highest need schools and districts

Yet they've got $400 million to build a prison, in case their priorities are not yet clear enough. It's illegal in Philadelphia for teachers to strike, just as it is in New York. But in New York, where UFT just went six years without a contract, we have the Triborough Amendment to the Taylor Law. This amendment keeps existing contracts in place until and unless a new one is signed.

Rob Asorino doesn't much like the Triborough Amendment. He says it's choking the government. This, of course, is the very same government that refuses to tax the wealthy BFFs of folks like Astorino and Cuomo, preferring to drastically cut education and, among other things, send police out on missions to ticket  dangerous people like you for much-needed funds.

It doesn't matter to Astorino that we don't have the most basic tool of unionism in our repertoire, the right to strike. Astorino thinks we sat around like zillionaires for six years, laughing at Bloomberg as he denied us our contract. But Astorino can't have it both ways. If he wants to change the reasonable Triborough Amendment, let him repeal the draconian Taylor Law.

If he doesn't want to do that, he may as well be Scott Walker, who happens to be his enthusiastic supporter. Actually, no one in Wisconsin knew Walker was going to decimate union either. But Astorino's insistence that we have an advantage is an outright falsehood. Triborough is simply a small compensation for a fundamental right that we don't have. There are draconian penalties for teachers who strike in NY.

In fact, I wouldn't put amending Triborough past Andrew Cuomo either. Cuomo pretends to be a "student lobbyist," but he maintains a Gap Elimination adjustment that strangles districts of state aid, while concurrently preventing them from raising taxes for than 2% or rate of inflation, whatever's lower. Essentially, he's ensuring worse service in public schools even as he stands up for Moskowitz and privatization.

Cuomo is awful, unacceptable. But it's quite clear he has to, from time to time, at least pretend to be a Democrat, rather than the self-serving opportunist he is. Cuomo was the first Democrat for whom I declined to vote, and I'm not changing my mind this time around. But any teacher who votes for Astorino may as well be voting for his BFF Scott Walker. Teachers can ignore who Astorino is, and vote for him anyway, but they're deluding themselves. I see no labor policy that differentiates him from his BFF Walker.

The only acceptable candidate for those of us who actually support education and working people is Green Howie Hawkins, already endorsed by Diane Ravitch. Maybe you think you know better than Diane.

But, having read three of her books,  I've yet to meet anyone who knows better than Diane.