Category Archives: Unions

The New York Times Ponders An Emerging Teacher Shortage

Motoko Rich of The New York Times wrote a feature article for today’s print edition on the looming teacher shortage and the nationwide scramble to fill available teaching positions.  Predictions of a future teacher shortage are hardly new.  Consider this Senate hearing in 1997 where the then frequently made prediction that we would need “2 million new teachers over the next 10 years” was repeated by Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts:

This chart is a good summation as to what the current conditions are. This year, K-12 enrollment reached an all-time high and will continue to rise over the next 7 years. 6,000 new public schools will be needed by the year 2006 just to maintain current class sizes. We will also need to hire 2 million teachers over the next decade to accommodate rising student enrollments and massive teacher requirements. And because of the overcrowding, schools are using trailers for classrooms and teaching students in former hallways, closets, and bathrooms. Overcrowded classrooms undermine discipline and decrease student morale.

The prediction seemed a lot less dire when compared to the fact that, at the time, we credentialed about 200,000 new teachers every year — or roughly 2 million over 10 years. This time, however, it might be different.

Ms. Rich’s article cites that budget cuts following the Great Recession led to dismissals across the country, which may have led to fewer college students willing to accumulate debt for uncertain job prospects.  Further, with the economic recovery showing sustained growth over the past few years, there may be a larger array of more attractive job prospects for the college educated.  Whatever the cause, the result is that school districts are having to dig deeper into the labor barrel to find people people willing to teach or even to find people with the appropriate credential to teach.  Ms. Rich’s article pays special attention to California which had 45,000 teaching candidates seeking credentials as the recession came on in 2008, but since then the number of candidates in programs has dropped more than 50% to barely 20,000 in 2012.  The Golden State used to issue roughly 20,000 credentials a year, but by 2012 that number was 15,000 – there are currently 21,500 spots open this year.  Ms. Rich cites federal data showing a 30% decline nationwide in the number of people seeking to become teachers.

This fact, and the potential reasons behind it, makes this teacher shortage potentially very different and one to which we should pay close attention.  While it may indeed be true that we had a hiccup due to uncertain job prospects during the Great Recession and that competition from growing technology fields could be factors in this shortage, Ms. Rich did not examine another possibility that might make this shortage far harder to overcome with typical labor market responses:

We’ve made teaching suck the past 15 years.

I just wrote about the groundbreaking collaboration between the Badass Teachers Association and the American Federation of teachers on the Quality of Workplace Life survey released this Spring.  While the 30,000 respondents to the 80 question survey were not statistically sampled, their input is an important first step towards understanding the consequences of our current education reform environment.  From physical and mental health to support and respect from policy makers and administrators to workplace bullying and harassment to time and training for new curriculum demands to over testing to their general enthusiasm for their profession, teachers sent loud and clear warnings that there is a crisis in teachers’ working conditions.

It isn’t hard to imagine why.  For two 8 year Presidencies, we have, via legislation and policy, made increasing demands that our schools and school teachers raise their students to overcome inter-generational poverty with practically no additional help whatsoever and under the threat of punitive school and job level sanctions.  We have narrowed the curriculum so that non tested subjects play a smaller role in our children’s education.  We have a counter factual but extremely well funded by dark money campaign to sue away teachers’ modest workplace protections and weaken their unions.  We have state after state in the Union insisting on using value added modeling of student standardized test scores for teacher evaluation and retention despite the long known fundamental flaws with that approach.  We have prominent governors of both major political parties declaring open warfare on teachers and calling public education a “monopoly” that needs to be broken up or going on national cable news to declare that the “national teachers union” needs a “punch in the face.”

Can I say for certain that there is a causal link between these phenomena and the growing claims of a teacher shortage? Not at this time.  But the possibility did not escape journalist David Sirota:

What is especially worrying is how this time, talk of a teacher shortage could potentially become very long term unless we pivot quickly on school policy.  We have had more a full generation of students K-12 who have grown up in schools under No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.  These students are the most tested and potentially test exhausted students in our nation’s history.  The BAT/AFT survey shows that their teachers may be facing unprecedented workplace expectations and stress at a time when school budgets are only beginning to recover, if at all, from cuts made during the Great Recession.  And no matter how professional and upbeat a manner teachers strive to portray for their students, nobody can keep that up every day without fail.

We know that the decision to become a teacher is historically one that is deeply tied to a student’s experiences in school itself. A prospective teacher learns to appreciate school and develops early, usually very incomplete, ideas and ideals about what it means to be a teacher from over 13,000 hours spent with teachers teaching from Kindergarten until the end of high school.  David Hansen explains teaching as vocational work, deeply rooted the individual seeking to become a teacher:

It implies that he or she knows something about him or herself, something important, valuable, worth acting upon.  One may have been drawn to teaching because of one’s own teachers or as a result of other outside influences. Still, the fact remains that now one has taken an interest oneself.  The idea of teaching “occupies” the person’s thoughts and imagination.  Again, this suggests that one conceives of teaching as more than a job, as more than a way to earn an income, although this consideration is obviously relevant.  Rather, one believes teaching to be potentially meaningful, as a the way to instantiate one’s desire to contribute to and engage with the world.

What kind of positive vocational sense can we expect young people considering teaching to develop in a school system beset by narrowed curricula and diminished teacher autonomy, by calls to eliminate poverty without any assistance whatsoever, by dishonest campaigns to break their unions, and by national politicians insulting them at every turn?

In 2006, David Berliner wrote eloquently on “Our Impoverished View of Education Reform” where he strongly questioned the “one way accountability” system set up via high stakes standardized testing:

All I am saying in this essay is that I am tired of acting like the schools, all alone, can do what is needed to help more people achieve higher levels of academic performance in our society. As Jean Anyon (1997, p. 168) put it “Attempting to fix inner city schools without fixing the city in which they are embedded is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door.”

To clean the air on both sides of the screen door we need to begin thinking about building a two-way system of accountability for contemporary America. The obligation that we educators have accepted to be accountable to our communities must become reciprocal. Our communities must also be accountable to those of us who work in the schools, and they can do this by creating social conditions for our nation that allow us to do our jobs well. Accountability is a two way process, it requires a principal and an agent. For too long schools have thought of themselves only as agents who must meet the demands of the principal, often the local community, state, or federal government. It is time for principals (and other school leaders) to become principals. That is, school people need to see communities as agents as well as principals and hold communities to standards that insure all our children are accorded the opportunities necessary for growing well.

Our consistent failure to heed Dr. Berliner’s warning may now be resulting in a genuine shortage of teachers, not merely of teachers being credentialed but of potential teachers in the pipeline eager to join the ranks.  Things need to change.  Now.

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Filed under Chris Christie, Funding, teacher learning, teacher professsionalism, teaching, Testing, Unions

The Teaching Workplace: Missing the Forest for the Bathroom Stalls

In May of this year, the American Federation of Teachers released the results of a survey on teacher workplace stress conducted in collaboration with the Badass Teachers Association (BAT), a grassroots network of teachers across the country dedicated to pushing back “against so-called corporate education reform, or the Educational-Industrial Complex, and the damage it has done to students, schools, teachers, and communities.”  The survey focused on the quality of workplace life for teachers, and was comprised of 80 questions answered by over 30,000 participants. Results, presented in brief in this document, show a wide variety of issues that impact how teachers perceive their working conditions, including respect from politicians, the media, administrators, parents, and colleagues, frequency of workplace stress, major sources of stress, and frequency of bullying and negative health consequences within the workplace.  With so many participants, the survey is a notable first step to gaining major research and policy leverage for issues that have been impacting teachers for years, and it has already led to a meeting between the USDOE and the survey team of AFT and BAT representatives.

So it is somewhat disappointing that The Atlantic magazine decided to reduce the story to a tale of inadequate bathroom breaks.

To be fair, the article does discuss other workplace issues for teachers, and in a section of the survey report that also cites time pressure, disciplinary issues, and student aggression as everyday stressors for teachers, “lack of opportunity to use restroom” does stand out.  Further, the author, Alia Wong, makes very clear note of the health risks associated with inadequate hydration and use of the bathroom and quotes teachers in discussion forums noting the degradation of not being allowed basic sanitary needs.

However, the article missed a massive opportunity to take a substantive look at broader issues of workplace stress for teachers, potential reasons why it has been increasing in recent years, and how it contributes to the real staffing problem in our nation’s schools: the high percentage of teachers across the nation with fewer than 5 years of experience and the greater likelihood of schools with high percentages of students who are poor and ethnic minorities to have beginning teachers.  Research has shown that schools with blended cultures of experienced teachers able to mentor novices are best suited for teacher learning and professional development at all experience levels, and teachers in high poverty schools report that they leave either their schools or the profession entirely because of working conditions above any other factor.  The AFT and BAT collaboration on workplace stress opens the door to an incredibly important discussion that has, in recent years, been entirely shoved aside by anti-union activists who have declared, absent evidence, that experienced teachers protected by tenure are a central cause of school failure.

I was therefore disappointed that Ms. Wong’s article decided that, of all the issues reported in the public release of the survey, bathroom breaks warranted a lengthy treatment without pushing further on how workplace stress contributes to teacher turnover and the costs to students that come from high percentages of novice teachers who are often “on their own and presumed expert“.

Jamy Brice Hyde is a teacher in upstate New York, a member of the Badass Teachers Association, and a participant in the survey team that collaborated with the American Federation of Teachers.  According to Ms. Brice Hyde, The Atlantic “missed a tremendous opportunity to tell an incredible story about the crisis in public education. Because a teacher’s work environment is a student’s learning environment. They missed that.”  She spoke with me directly, and I learned that the survey has 31,342 respondents who answered the 80 questions online over a period of only 10 days at the end of April this year.  Ms. Brice Hyde explained that people had warned the team to only expect a few 1000 respondents given the general reach of such surveys, but the response rate was beyond anyone’s expectations.

Ms. Brice Hyde also confirmed that the survey results are not statistically weighted, and that the survey was solicited by a general call to AFT members rather than by statistical sampling.  As such, the results are only a beginning examination of the issue rather than a finished statistical analysis.  However, she confirmed that the raw data is currently being studied by qualified, university-based, researchers who are determining what can be validly inferred, so the process of learning from the survey will continue.

The survey itself was born from genuine grassroots discussions among members of the BAT group about conditions in the workplace, increase in teacher stress, and the very serious consequences many members have felt personally or seen among their colleagues, including recent suicides.  Contact with the AFT led to a conference call meeting with President Randi Weingarten, who Ms. Brice Hyde described as deeply impacted by the stories brought to the meeting and who immediately offered the teachers support to construct and disseminate the survey. President Weingarten, who spoke to me in a separate call, explained the impact of the phone conversation: “The level of need was so intense, and the level of disenfranchisement (of classroom teachers) was just so intense.”

Once the results were in and clear patterns in the responses were evident, the AFT lobbying team convinced Senator Booker of New Jersey and Senator Bennet of Colorado to author an amendment to Title 2 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to examine workplace stress for teachers.  President Weingarten was enthusiastic about both the collaboration with the BAT group and with its impact. “This time the process was as important as the product,” she said, “Because the process empowered people.”

The published survey results provide some stark highlights of what respondents believe to be the status of their profession and their working conditions.  While 89% strongly agreed that they were enthusiastic about their profession when they began their careers, only 15% could strongly agree now with another 38% somewhat agreeing.  A staggering 79% disagreed or strongly disagreed that they were “treated with respect” by elected officials, and 77% felt similarly about the media.  On the other hand, only 24% of respondents said the same thing about their students and their students’ parents, a result that reflects the annual KDP/Gallup poll which consistently shows that parents with children in public school hold those schools in high regard.

73% of teachers in the survey said they often find their workplace stressful, citing factors such as new initiatives being adopted without adequate support or professional development, negative portrayals of teachers and teaching in the media, uncertain job expectations, salary, and lack of participation in decision making as major sources of that stress.  Further, teachers said that mandated curricula, large class sizes, standardized testing, and lack of support for student discipline were daily sources of stress in the classroom.

Perhaps most alarming is the section reporting workplace bullying and health.  30% of all respondents reported having been bullied in the workplace, and 58% identified an administrator as a bully with 38% saying a coworker was a bully and 34% and 30% respectively identifying a student or a parent as a bully.  While 70% of respondents said their schools had a harassment and bullying in the workplace policy, only 42% said they got regular training on it.  45% of teachers in the survey did say they did not get adequate bathroom breaks, but it is possibly more disturbing to read that only half of teachers said their districts encourage them to use sick days when actually ill, and 26% said that in the past month their mental health was was not good for 9 or more days.

Jamy Brice Hyde informed me that the rest of the data set gave even more nuance to some of these problems.  Of the nearly one third of the respondents who had experienced harassment and bullying in the workplace, 64% believed it was not handled properly, and 38% of them did not report the experience to either a supervisor or a union representative.  84% said that they had not gotten union training on workplace harassment and bullying.  49% of the teachers responding said they had been treated for anxiety or depression at some point during their careers.

From the standpoint of professionalism, many of the responses should raise serious concerns as well.  Ms. Brice Hyde added that 45% of respondents disagreed with the idea that they can count upon support from their supervisor, and 52% disagreed that teaching allows they to make decisions on their own.  43% of the teachers said that they rarely or never have opportunities to make decisions that impact their work, and 45% said that their job interferes with family life. Structured support for new teachers is not the norm with 62% noting that their schools have no mentoring program for novices.

While 86% of survey respondents said that their feelings about teaching have changed in the past 2-3 years, Ms. Brice Hyde is hopeful that the data gathered by the BAT/AFT collaboration will lead to positive changes.  “The biggest thing we came away from this with is how to get local unions to be better as first responders to our teachers in need,” she said, “And to get the federal government to do a scientific study of teacher work conditions.”  I can certainly see her point, and I think she also correct to say that the survey has happened now “because it is relevant.”  Over 30,000 teachers took the opportunity to make their feelings about their workplaces known in only a 10 day period, and the results have already led to legislative change with the ESEA amendment by Senators Booker and Bennet.

This moment is, indeed, crucial. Research supports that working conditions are a central feature in teachers’ decisions to leave either a school or the profession.  Helen Ladd of Duke University found that more than 1 in 4 teachers in America had fewer than five years of experience in 2008, and her research further demonstrates that when it comes to teacher effectiveness, experience counts.  Harvard’s Project on the Next Generation of Teachers confirmed that working conditions is the number one reason why new teachers leave high poverty schools with no student factor even close in significance.  Recent research from the National Center for Educational Statistics suggests that national new teacher attrition over 5 years may be 17% which is much lower than previous estimates, but there may be flaws in comparing the new data with older research.  While this data does come from actually tracking a cohort of new teachers, it stopped after the fourth year while previous research by Richard Ingersoll of University of Pennsylvania drew estimates through 5 years in the classroom, and his estimates included teachers in private schools as well as public schools.  Also, the NCES study began tracking its cohort of teachers just when the Great Recession hit, so it is possible the attrition of this group of teachers was kept artificially lower than historic averages.

The NCES data, however, also speaks to the need to address the workplace.  First year teachers with mentors were far more likely to be teaching in their second year than those without.  Teachers who are better compensated tended to stay in teaching longer.  Teachers who began teaching in high poverty schools were slightly more likely to leave the profession entirely, but the data did not address the teachers who leave high poverty schools for more affluent schools, a significant source of staff turnover at such schools who pay a high price for such turnover.

The Badass Teachers Association’s collaboration with the American Federation of Teachers’ has provided valuable insights into which workplace conditions most seriously impact teachers and result in high levels of stress.  Our nation’s policymakers have made unprecedented demands on teacher accountability.  It is past time to hold the policymakers accountable for giving teachers the support and environment most conducive to their students’ learning.

That is a real story worth national attention.

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Filed under Activism, Media, teacher professsionalism, teaching, Testing, Unions

Teachers: Chris Christie Wants to Punch You “In The Face”

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is fond of saying that his preferred method of dealing with bullies is to “punch them in the face”.  It is the sort of “tough guy” talk that has served him up to this point of his political career and which used to earn him legions of fans who delighted in his outbursts of temper aimed at critics.  On Sunday of this week, he appeared on Jake Tapper’s “State of the Union” show on CNN, and when the host asked him “At the national level, who deserves a punch in the face?” he did not hesitate for a moment before saying “The national teachers’ union.”

(Mr. Tapper followed up this statement by a really hard hitting question asking Governor Christie why he was now saying his favorite New Jersey Musician is Jon Bon Jovi over Bruce Springsteen.)

So there you are — the very first people or entity that Governor Chris Christie thinks of when he contemplates a national level “punch in the face” are teachers and the union made up of millions of them.  Not the near historically ineffective legislative branch.  Not K Street’s infamous lobbying industry where former law makers go to get rich.  Not even the national press, attacks against whom have been red meat for conservative voters for decades.  The “national teachers’ union” which Chris Christie calls “the single most destructive force in public education in America.”

Observers of Governor Christie are hardly surprised by this as the governor, in his words, has been “saying this since 2009” when he sought the Governor’s office in New Jersey, and he has not let up his assault on the Garden State’s teachers since then.  In a New Hampshire Town Hall in June, Governor Christie gave a laugh line where he said that our national education system was a threat to the country equal to ISIS, and he went on to insult the work of the teachers he just compared to a fanatical terrorist organization:

“It’s the same as it was in the 1800s, for God’s sake. It’s a row of desks. Facing forward to a blackboard or a whiteboard. A person standing in the front of the room talking to the people in the desks. And they do so from roughly 8:30 to roughly 2:30 or 3 o’clock, and they’re off four months a year…We don’t have it (a longer school year) because the teachers’ union likes to be off 4 to 5 months a year.  They like to get a full time salary for a part time job.”

Governor Christie may have tried to give himself wiggle room by saying “teachers union,” but there is no doubt that he meant “teachers” – who make up the union membership, elect the union leaders, and about whose work he offered the most foul and disrespectful caricature this side of Bart Simpson’s relationship with Mrs. Krabappel. Chris Christie has zero respect for teachers whose work he thinks consists of talking at students for 6 hours a day and lazing around for a quarter of the year with nothing to do.

New Jersey teacher and researcher Mark Weber offers this definitive catalog of how often Governor Christie has used his office to denigrate teachers.  Amidst the outrageous accusations, such as saying teachers used students as “drug mules” for a social studies assignment, an interesting pattern stands out that also explains why the governor feels the need so often to punch people who offer public criticism.  Namely, famous “tough guy” who is always “telling it like it is” can dish out the punches, but he certainly cannot take them.  Consider Governor Christie’s assertion that the New Jersey Education Association said that he “hates children and loves millionaires.”  This was obviously in reference to a billboard campaign urging people to “Tell Governor Christie to protect our schools; not millionaires.”  Direct, but hardly an accusation that he hates children.  Further consider Weber’s documentation of Governor Christie claiming that NJEA officials prayed for his death when the “prayer” in question was a moderately tasteless joke.

More recently, Governor Christie has demanded that union leaders and rank and file “get realistic” over New Jersey’s ability to keep its pension system afloat, and accused those calling for him to abide by the 2011 pension reform plan that he himself championed –  and then abjectly refused to fund – of “gluttony.”  This is an astonishing effort to portray himself as the victim in the pension fight when he won the legislative fix he sought, refused to make the promised payments into the pension system, simultaneously gave management of huge portions of it to hedge funds that increased the state’s management payments to over $1.6 million a day, and is now crying poverty when unions and law makers demand that he keep his promises.

At the heart of Chris Christie’s most bellicose moments — with teachers and with others — is this same pattern: outrage at being challenged, portrayal of himself as the victim of others’ attacks, and using anger and energy to hide the fact that he has no real answer for the challenge presented. Even while asserting that as President the first people to get a “punch in the face” will be unionized teachers, he claims that he has “got the scars to show” that the unions are “the single most destructive force in public education.”

Any scars Governor Christie has are, in fact, self inflicted.  Pushing through and touting a pension reform plan that the NJEA accepted without threats of labor actions but then saw the Governor refuse to fund? Self inflicted.  Repeated encounters with professional teachers that show just how much Governor Christie enjoys punching down on those far less powerful than he is? Self inflicted. Pandering to primary voters at the expense of every school in the state that has been working overtime to keep up with the pace of reform demands in Trenton? Self inflicted.

Who has the real scars in New Jersey?  Teachers trying to work in schools that remain underfunded, and who are subject to performance evaluations based on ill thought out and invalid methods. Students whose educations are being distorted by a confusing and punishing system of high stakes evaluations that incentivize teachers and school districts to teach to the test. Families, and indeed entire cities, subjected to poorly and callously planned school “choice” plans that separate siblings and unleash chaos on schools without sufficient benefits.

That Governor Christie continues to portray himself as a “victim” in a drama where he is the main antagonist is no longer surprising.  What is hopeful is how few people seem to be buying it either in New Jersey or nationally.

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Filed under Chris Christie, One Newark, politics, schools, Unions

Welcome to the Class of 2015 — We Need You

This week, our teacher preparation program welcomes the graduates of the Class of 2015 as our teacher colleagues.  These accomplished young teachers are joining the profession at a time of great challenges, but it is also at a time of great opportunities, and having worked with them closely for the past four years, I am convinced that they will do well with those opportunities.  These young people are intelligent; they are dedicated; they are talented; and they are prepared.  It has been an immense pleasure to see their professional journeys.

It would be a disservice to them to downplay the challenges they face as new members of the profession.  Today’s graduates were mostly born in 1993 which means that they were in third grade when the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 mandated annual standardized testing for all children in all grades between three and eight and once again in high school.  They went through their formative elementary and secondary education as the high stakes attached to mandated testing was squeezing the curriculum into a narrower box with less art, music, social studies, and science.  While the impacts of Race to the Top, the Common Core State Standards, and PARCC and SBAC testing did not influence their education, they have done their clinical internships and student teaching within schools and with cooperating teachers who have had to grapple with these issues as well as the growing movement of parents who are denying schools the right to administer standardized tests to their children.

Now they leave their university preparation to enter teaching just as these matters are fully breaking upon our schools.  The CCSS are implemented in 43 states and the District of Columbia.  Mass standardized examinations aligned with the standards are now implemented in dozens of states, and they promise to find many fewer students proficient in mathematics and English than just a year ago.  States that won Race to the Top grants or were granted NCLB waivers from the USDOE are using growth measures based on standardized testing to evaluate teachers, despite the fact that the sum of research on growth measures demonstrates that they are unstable, unreliable, and have standard errors so large that even with 10 years of data, a teacher still has more than a 10% chance of being mislabeled.

If these challenges were not hard enough, the confluence of hastily implemented and ill-conceived policies comes amidst a rhetorical turn against teachers as the major culprits behind students whose test scores do not rise.  Today’s reform environment lavishes transformational power upon education, but it simultaneously measures that transformation via crudely designed standardized tests and then blames allegedly incompetent teachers when literally nothing else is done to improve the lives or communities of students who struggle.  A coordinated effort is underway to first assess teachers via standardized test results and then to remove any workplace protections teacher have to make it easier to fire them at will.  It is little wonder that the percentage of teachers who say they are highly satisfied on the job has dropped 30 percentage points to its lowest in a generation.

A distressing side effect of this environment are the number of more experienced teachers who appear ready to discourage our new colleagues from either entering the field altogether or from bothering to have hope on the job.  Peter Greene of Curmudgucation reminds us that this is a distressing and unethical practice, and he points out the specific work of the activists in the Young Teachers Collective who are directly asking their experienced colleagues to stop discouraging them.

I hope to G-d that my proud young graduates side with the activists at YTC.  We need them very badly.

Unlike Baby Boomers and my fellow Gen Xers who indulge in annual, graduation week denigration of the Millennials for their supposed faults, I am a fan of this generation.  Having worked closely with them for years now, I find this report on their outstanding and community oriented values to be absolutely correct.  Young adults today are more diverse than their predecessors, more open to diversity than any generation in history, better educated than anyone gives them credit for, and more desirous of being good parents and good neighbors than of the aggrandizement of self typified by generations who modeled our lives after Gordon Gekko.

So let me build on Peter’s plea for people to not be jerks to young teachers, and to add my own plea: young teachers, we need you.  We need you because you have been well-prepared.  We need you because if you do not stay we will have wasted the earned experience and skills you will gain in your first decade on the job, and that will harm future students.  We also need you because of those same values that typify your generation and which will serve as a tremendous asset to protect and preserve truly public education.

But if that is going to happen, we also need you to buck some typical trends in teaching and schooling.  It is very typical for teachers to simply keep their heads low, close the door, and wait for the current political tides to shift.  That is unlikely to work today; people are getting rich messing around with our schools, and they see our nation’s commitment to education for all as a $780 billion honeypot to monetize.  The good news in the midst of this is that the people still back our public schools, and while many have bought the relentless narrative that our schools writ large are failing, parents overwhelmingly support the schools their children attend.  You can generally count on the support of your students’ parents.

We need you, therefore, to be confident in that support and to help lend a voice, early in your careers, for certain truths that can reach the public only if they are amplified by many voices:

We need you to remind people that school and teachers cannot do it all alone.  Education is a likely component of most success stories in our country, but education did not play its role in those successes alone.  Education reform talks about education as key to overcoming poverty, but it spends very little time talking about how the advantage gap is overcome by much more than “grit” and “no excuses.”  We certainly see few reformers admit the severe funding gaps between our richest and poorest schools, and Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York has openly scoffed that funding has any role to play in educational inequities.

But even beyond that issue, there is a question about the central premise of education reform today; namely, if all students acquired more and better education, would they be able to leap over poverty in their careers?  The evidence for this is unclear because even though college degree holders greatly out earn non degree holders, that gap has grown because of cratering wages for less education rather than growing wages for more:

SDT-higher-education-02-11-2014-0-03

Increasing numbers of college degree holders will not magically create more middle class households unless the number of jobs genuinely requiring college education increase as well.  Education reformers who tout the power of standards and testing to prepare students who are “college and career ready” would do well to ask their billionaire backers to support middle class economics and actually be “job creators” if they really believe education will overcome poverty.  It won’t without fundamental changes in economic opportunity on the other side of education.

We need young teachers to speak up for fundamental truths about their children in communities of poverty. Grit and no excuses make for great bumper stickers and they can produce test practice mills that result in test scores.  But truly standing up for children is more than sloganeering and shutting down schools whose children are hungry and live in communities with few genuine opportunities.  The reality is that in many of our urban communities, black and brown children go to schools with inexperienced teachers, limited services, crumbling facilities, and over crowded classrooms and then go home to neighborhoods that have been in economic decline for decades.  None of the favored reforms today are doing anything to alleviate those conditions, and many of them are making them actively worse.

We need young teachers in such communities to have the bravery of Marylin Zuniga who has lost her job teaching third graders for a series of events based on her desire to embrace both action and compassion.  Ms. Zuniga had her students read and discuss a quote about justice from Mumia Abu-Jamal who was convicted of murdering a police officer in a 1981 trial that drew strong questions about the fairness of the trial and of the appeals court from Amnesty International.  Later in the year, Ms. Zuniga allowed her students to write get well letters to Mr. Abu-Jamal when she told them he was sick and they wanted to write to him.  While Mr. Abu-Jamal’s case stirs very strong emotion, especially among law enforcement, it is important to consider what Ms. Zuniga was doing with her students, most of whom are children of color in a poor neighborhood: she asked them to consider the legitimate voice of a black man in prison whose case raises difficult questions about the justice system, and on their own, the children showed and exercised compassion.  For young people whose lives are already disrupted by family members in trouble with the criminal justice system, this is a lesson with risks that are worth exploring.  And many in her community rushed to support her even though they were unsuccessful.

If we truly care about the children in poverty in our schools, we need more teachers willing to take such risks and to affirm their students’ desires to see humanity in everyone.  We need them to assert and to affirm their values of inclusiveness and human dignity even if it means taking a risk. Many decried Ms. Zuniga’s actions, but those who knew her the best affirmed the extraordinary stewardship she exercised for children who are already struggling.

We need young teachers to stand together.  There are many forces trying to fragment teachers from working together for their students’ true interests.  There are AstroTurf groups like “Educators 4 Excellence” who take large sums of money to act like a genuine grassroots group but whose pledge includes supporting discredited teacher evaluation methods favored by union busting corporate donors.  There is the “Education Post” headed by Peter Cunningham, formerly of the Obama Administration, and funded with millions of dollars from Eli Broad and the Walton Family Foundation to make a “better conversation” but mostly to pay people to respond to criticisms of education reform as if they have grassroots support.

So when I plead with young teachers to “stand together” I do not just mean to join your union and be active (although, yes, I do mean that too).  I also mean to do what your generation does better than any of us — maintain close and genuine bonds across distance via technology and to forge naturally occurring and completely authentic communities to support each other and to support your students.  Talk to each other.  Share ideas.  Plan.  Respond in the public sphere.  Magnify your voices.  Make stories of public school success go viral.  You have something that corporate reformers can never replicate:  you have authenticity.  Use it.

So, Class of 2015, welcome to our profession.  I am honored that you are my colleagues.  Please stay.  Please lead.

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Filed under Activism, Funding, Media, Opt Out, politics, Social Justice, Unions

Andrew Cuomo to New York State: Your Teachers Stink. I Will Fire Them. I will Break Their Union.

The gauntlet that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch picked up with their public correspondence in December has been thrown down.  The Governor announced his plans to revamp and revise education in New York with his State of the State address on January 21st, and it was accompanied by a book detailing his policy proposals.  On teacher evaluation, Governor Cuomo is delivering a massive change — and a direct challenge to community control of their teacher workforce.  If the governor gets his way, 50% of teachers’ evaluations will be controlled by students’ annual progress on standardized tests, and no teacher rated “ineffective” in either half of the evaluation will be scored higher than “developing.”   The other 50% of annual evaluations will be comprised of two observations, one by a school administrator and another by an “independent observer” in the form of an administrator from another district or a state approved outside agency.  The so-called “independent observer” observation will count for 35% of the evaluation.  Local administrators are to be restricted to 15%.

New York State principals?  Andrew Cuomo says you cannot do your jobs.  New York State communities?  Nobody in your town is qualified to evaluate your children’s teachers.  Andrew Cuomo wants to take that away for Albany.

Governor Cuomo insists that these draconian measures are necessary because only a third of New York students scored as proficient or highly proficient on the new Common Core aligned standardized examinations, and by his logic that means the teacher evaluation system, which currently weights the results of those exams for 20%, is “baloney” because only 1% of teachers were found ineffective.  However, tying a criticism of the teacher ineffectiveness to the CCSS aligned exams is flagrantly mendacious because “proficient” was never tied to “grade level” or “passing”;  it was tied to SAT scores loosely predictive of college success.

Governor Cuomo’s teacher evaluation plan is set to punish teachers for not graduating vastly more students ready to succeed in college, as measured by one test score, than currently attend college.

What can reasonably be predicted as an outcome of this?  Plenty.  And none of it will be pretty.

First, this policy will fall heavily upon districts with high levels of poverty which are tightly concentrated because of New York’s appallingly high Residential Income Segregation Index.  We know from disaggregated PISA data that schools with high levels of poverty struggle in standardized test achievement compared to schools in affluent communities. Following Governor Cuomo’s logic it is not that these schools and their teachers struggle with the long established deprivations of poverty upon their student population and would benefit from aggressive plans of economic renewal and integration; it is that their teachers are ineffective and need to be fired.

Second, no teacher in New York will be actually safe no matter how good they are or how talented their students.  The value-added models (VAMs) of teacher performance based on standardized tests are by now subject to so much research demonstrating their unreliability that using them at all is indefensible.  The American Statistical Association (ASA) warned last year that teacher input can only account for 1-14% of student variability on standardized tests, and VAM generated rankings of teachers are not stable, meaning a teacher can be in the top 20% in one year and slide below the median in a subsequent year.  If you think that your child attending a selective public school with a math teacher whose students all pass a challenging algebra examination will have that teacher spared via VAMs — think again.  Teachers who are excellent by every other conceivable model of assessment can be rated as the “worst” grade level teacher in New York City via value-added modeling.

And Governor Cuomo wants that to be 50% of teacher evaluations.

The predictable outcome of this will be an objectively worse education for nearly every student in the state.  Consequences from the No Child Left Behind law’s focus on test-based accountability include a steady narrowing of school curricula to subjects that are tested, leaving science, the social studies, the arts, and health as dwindling portions of public eduction.  Teaching to the test as is common practice in “no excuses” charter schools will become a prominent methodology in historically struggling schools, and it will grow in currently successful schools as well.  Teachers and administrators will have little choice — with so much riding on VAMs that unstable and able to find teachers of advanced students in the bottom 10% of teachers, test preparation as curriculum will spread.  Further, as experienced teachers are pushed out, the teacher workforce will become younger, assuming that New York State schools can possibly entice new teachers to start a career under these conditions.  These will be novices whose classroom skills will be on a steep learning curve for their early years, and many of them will be forced out by VAMs before reaching the point where their skills start to level off.

A less experienced teacher workforce teaching more and more to the test — THAT is the likely outcome of Governor Cuomo’s evaluation proposals.  There will also be no local measure that can preserve a teacher in his or her job because the only local component of the evaluation system – local administrator observations – will be restricted to 15%.  Are you a principal whose teachers work in underfunded facilities with students who live in poverty?  Tough.  Are you a parent whose child’s teacher works with gifted students in a curriculum accelerated 2-3 years beyond the test?  Tough.  Are you a school board member who wants to preserve the social studies, sciences, art, music, and health?  Tough.  85% of your teachers’ evaluations are outside the input of any local stakeholders; Albany will be in control.  And Governor Cuomo will hold nearly three quarters of a potential increase in aid for schools hostage unless he gets his way.

It is impossible to not connect the dots here.  Among Governor Cuomo’s most reliable donors are Wall Street supporters of charter school expansion who can turn such schools into revenue streams for private corporations using public money.  Charter schools, among whose strongest supporters at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently admitted are in the business of pushing out harder to educate children, have been turned into a way to monetize our public education budgets.  Governor Cuomo, who raised half of his $40 million election war chest from just 341 donors, owes that sector.

The only entity with enough members and resources to resist that is the NYSUT.

Most of Governor Cuomo’s teacher evaluation plans (and his other education proposals) will make our schools objectively worse places to learn with many fewer experienced teachers and a diminishing curriculum.  However, they will make the teachers’ union much weaker with an unstable and uncertain cadre of members who have less experience and no practical job security — and who will not be able to effectively resist more and more of our public schools turned over to private interests.

Everything about this is wrong.

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Filed under Corruption, New York Board of Regents, politics, schools, Testing, Unions

Exit The King….An Opportunity for Union Leadership?

Dr. John B. King Jr., the Commissioner of Education and President of the University of the State of New York, is stepping down from that position and will become a senior adviser to United States Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.  While the announcement drew praise from the usual suspects who support Dr. King’s agenda of charter schools, Common Core State Standards, high stakes testing, and teacher evaluations based on test scores, supporters of traditional, fully public, schools had harsh criticisms for the outgoing Commissioner. Education activist and director of Class Size Matters, Leonie Haimson stated:

John King was the most unpopular commissioner in the history of NY State.  He showed no respect for parents, teachers or student privacy.  Ironically, he was intent on protecting his own privacy, and routinely withheld public documents; our Freedom of Information request of his communications with inBloom and the Gates foundation is more than 1 ½ years overdue.  His resignation is good news for New York state; hopefully he will be unable to do as much damage at the US Department of Education.

Dr. King’s problematic tenure began in May, 2011, and he swiftly moved to push through the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and accompanying testing systems that his predecessor Commissioner David Steiner had committed to when Dr. King served as his Deputy Commissioner.  This editorial, appearing in the Hudson Valley paper The Journal News, summarizes Dr. King’s time as Commissioner as “tone-deaf” and characterized by his inability to listen to criticism:

Many parents and educators in this region have offered reasonable, passionate and often convincing arguments against the growing state focus on testing, data-crunching, and evaluating teachers with a formula that is easily picked apart. But King has not been willing to engage his critics. This position has enraged many and created a bizarre stare-down between the state Education Department and many school districts that are supposed to be part of the same team.

The problems with Dr. King’s governance of NYSED are multifaceted.  The EngageNY website, set up by the State Education Department as a clearinghouse of information on the Common Core State Standards and materials designed for leaders and teachers, was quickly called out for hurried and poorly designed “resources” placed on the site when it debuted.  New York Principal Carol Burris documents in this article parents who found links to inappropriate materials under “make test prep fun”, and materials posted for modules on 8th grade algebra which included links to topics that are taught in calculus.  As with many things associated with the Common Core, the rush to both develop and implement the standards has led to a “get the product out and clean it up later” mentality that is emblematic of Dr. King’s leadership and many other reformers.

Questionable materials from EngageNY might have been overlooked by many in the public, but the CCSS are tied to high stakes testing on student proficiency in the standards — and Dr. King has been moving New York at a rapid clip in that direction as well.  Predictably, those who have had close contact with the exams have noted, within the allowed parameters of a nondisclosure agreement with testing giant Pearson, how the exams are confusing and inappropriate for the age of students who have to take them, another likely effect of their being rushed to meet Dr. King’s implementation schedule.  Principal Elizabeth Philips of PS 321 in Park Slope noted earlier this year in the New York Times:

In general terms, the tests were confusing, developmentally inappropriate and not well aligned with the Common Core standards. The questions were focused on small details in the passages, rather than on overall comprehension, and many were ambiguous. Children as young as 8 were asked several questions that required rereading four different paragraphs and then deciding which one of those paragraphs best connected to a fifth paragraph. There was a strong emphasis on questions addressing the structure rather than the meaning of the texts. There was also a striking lack of passages with an urban setting. And the tests were too long; none of us can figure out why we need to test for three days to determine how well a child reads and writes….

…At Public School 321, we entered this year’s testing period doing everything that we were supposed to do as a school. We limited test prep and kept the focus on great instruction. We reassured families that we would avoid stressing out their children, and we did. But we believed that New York State and Pearson would have listened to the extensive feedback they received last year and revised the tests accordingly. We were not naïve enough to think that the tests would be transformed, but we counted on their being slightly improved. It truly was shocking to look at the exams in third, fourth and fifth grade and to see that they were worse than ever. We felt as if we’d been had.

As troubling as the quality of the exams used to assess students’ “College and Career Readiness” AND their teachers’ effectiveness is, the way that the scores were deliberately (and opaquely) engineered to rate only 30% of students as proficient and highly proficient is worse.  State officials, including Dr. King, warned that the scores from the first round of CCSS aligned testing would produce dramatically lower results, but those warnings were predicated on schools not having sufficiently aligned curriculum materials yet.  However, Principal Burris provided an in-depth analysis of how the cut scores for each level of achievement were determined, and her conclusion is troubling:  Dr. King asked for a specific analysis from the College Board on SAT scores that predict “success” in first year courses at 4 year colleges and universities, and the result of that analysis was used to determine what scores on the CCSS aligned tests would be labeled as “proficient” and “highly proficient” as the committee worked through the materials with representatives from the State Education Department.  The result was that 31% of students taking the tests scored as proficient and highly proficient — and the evidence points to the conclusion that Dr. King and the SED wanted that result.

By the way — the percentage of New York residents over 25 with a BA?  32.8%Far from finding a vast educational wasteland where only a third of students succeed, the tests found the percentage of students likely to pursue higher education.

Not that Dr. King, the Regents, or anyone from the Cuomo administration was eager to explain it that way and justifying it as a good assessment system for the entire student population.  This became painfully clear when Dr. King attempted a publicity tour of town hall meetings that erupted disastrously in Poughkeepsie  in Fall of last year.  While keeping his usual calm and soft-spoken demeanor in face of extensive and heated criticism, Dr. King also remained entirely impervious to the concerns of the gathered parents and other community stakeholders.  After the Poughkeepsie forum, he also changed the schedule, canceling meetings, and switched formats so he appeared with a number of other state officials — and despite claiming the goal was to listen to concerns, nothing has dissuaded Dr. King from barreling on at full speed.  In early April of this year, he told an audience at New York University that New York was on the right path and “We’re not retreating” from the combined reforms ushered in during his tenure. In the same talk, he essentially dismissed parents who were opting their children out of the testing by saying “they are now denying themselves and their teachers the opportunity to know how their children are performing against a common benchmark used throughout the state.”  While Dr. King’s steadfastness earned him high praise from allies like Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and reform organizations, some lawmakers in Albany noted his poor representation of his ideas and his unwillingness to listen to others’ ideas, leading to bipartisan calls for his improvement or resignation last year.  Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti (D. Westchester) noted:

“For quite some time, Education Commissioner John King has closed off all meaningful conversation with parents, educators, administrators, and elected officials who have highlighted serious deficiencies in State Education Department policies,” Abinanti said. “He has exhibited a conscious disregard for their concerns.

“He should be listening, educating where criticisms are unfounded, and adopting changes where criticisms are valid,” the lawmaker continued. “His rigidity makes him unsuited for the position of Education Commissioner. Commissioner King should resign immediately.”

Assemblyman Abinanti was joined in this criticism by Republican Senator Jack Collins and New York State Allies for Public Education, and they were joined in April of this year by the New York State United Teachers’ Delegate Assembly who withdrew support for New York state’s Common Core implementation, supported parents who opt their children out of state examinations, and called for Dr. King’s removal as Commissioner.

But being a failed education reform leader is a lot like being a failed hedge fund manager — others have to live with the consequences of your actions while you get a quiet send off to another lucrative position, so Dr. King is off the join Secretary Duncan in Washington, D.C.

Dr. King is obviously a greatly intelligent man.  His academic accomplishments, which include a B.A. from Harvard University, a J.D. from Yale Law School, and both an M.A. and Ed.D. from Teachers College at Columbia University, are appropriately described as impressive as hell.  He was born in 1975 which means that he was 22 in 1997.  According to his biography, he taught for 3 years, and joined the founding leadership team for Roxbury Prep charter school, and from there moved to become Managing Director of the Uncommon School charter network, a chain on “no excuses” and extremely high attrition charter schools in various urban communities.  Dr. King was 34 years old when he was tapped to become Deputy Commissioner of NYSED, and he was 36 years old when he succeeded David Steiner as Commissioner and became the daily leader for the 7000 public and private schools, the 270 private and public colleges and universities, the 7000 public libraries, the 900 museums, the 25 public broadcasting services, and all of the different licensed professions that comprise the University of the State of New York.  He had never led a fully public school as principal, and he had never been in the leadership of a public school district.

Dr. King is an excellent example of how experience and specialized knowledge matter.  He is an impressively intelligent man who clearly impressed some very important people with his intelligence and commitment to a set of ideas for education reform.  However, understanding the complexities of public education requires both special knowledge and experience.  Public school governance is a peculiar case study where a structure that looks like a typical hierarchical bureaucracy is subjected to multiple levels of democratic control and where various stakeholders have overlapping sets of both complimentary and competing interests.  These same stakeholders are not limited in their access to the organization by the rules of top down corporate management either, and they can access the different layers of authority and practice without having to go through official channels.  Governing such a structure, as any principal or superintendent knows, takes more than intelligence and knowledge; it takes leadership, political acumen, negotiating skills, and flexibility in the face of emergent needs and complications.  While these skills may be innate, all of them are honed by experience.

If Dr. King had been a superintendent of a complex school system for ten years when he was tapped to become Deputy Commissioner, his intelligence and knowledge may have been tempered by a proper understanding of the complexities of public education and the skills needed to leverage the various stakeholders.  Instead, he clearly had no idea how to work with those constituencies and frequently favored opacity and rigidity when implementing major changes to something both parents and teachers take incredibly personally.

With Dr. King on the way out, there is an opportunity for New York and national union leadership to leverage a difference.  The next Commissioner will be appointed by the Regents, so the next Commissioner will still be committed to CCSS, high stakes testing, VAM based teacher evaluation, and charter schools.  However, there is no need for the next Commissioner to be closed off to all stakeholders outside of the NYSED, and there is every possibility that a Commissioner with genuine school and district leadership experience will understand how to negotiate and how to adapt to changing circumstances.  A Commissioner who has led a complex school district will be more likely to understand that leveraging complex changes requires time, resources, development, and a constant process of revising plans to respond to emergent needs that are inherently unpredictable.

I have no doubt in my mind that such a leader is exactly the kind of person that Regents Chancellor Dr. Merryl Tisch has no interest in appointing. But a public campaign to explain the need to the state could pressure her to seek an appointee interested in her reform agenda but with the skills that would blunt it. That is far from perfect, but the current leadership in Albany precludes the perfect.

Last month, I wrote an open letter to AFT President Randi Weingarten, and to my surprise, she contacted me directly and responded on my blog.  She responded to my concerns that union leadership was so concerned with maintaining a “seat at the table” with policy makers that the union was failing to vigorously oppose and denounce damaging policies that were coming from politicians from the union’s traditional political allies:

To advance this mission—which is the soul of the union—we have to use every single tactic and strategy available. That means at the ballot box, the bargaining table, the town square and the picket line, and it also entails the building of community and school partnerships, devising solutions and taking the risk to try things–provided they are good for kids and fair to educators. We must always work as a democratic institution that builds the trust, the agency and the activism of our members. That’s what we mean when we say solution driven, member mobilized and community engaged.

When we have the responsibility of being the bargaining agent, we can’t walk away from the table. It is at the table where we have a legal voice—a voice that many governors, like Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin or soon-to-be former Gov. Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania, have rushed to obliterate.

More important, if we want to make a difference in the lives of our students, our communities and the wonderful people we represent, we need to be able to both fight back and find common ground. It can’t be either/or. We can’t take only one of these approaches. Which approach depends upon what will best serve our students, our schools, our profession and our communities. And while those decisions on which tools to employ and which strategies to adopt will vary under the circumstances, our values must always be firmly held. It is about keeping “our eyes on the prize.”

I won’t say that President Weingarten and I are seeing exactly eye to eye here, but perhaps we are on the same step ladder.  And while the union has been more clear of late in challenging the anti-public school rhetoric coming from Albany, the compromise of continuing to engage with the policy makers, of staying at the table, is a compromise that should give the NYSUT and its parent AFT some chips to cash in.  I hope that in the coming weeks, the Regents will hear clearly, forcefully, and PUBLICLY from the teachers’ strongest representatives that our state needs a Commissioner who understands public education, knows the perspectives of the communities, parents, students, and professionals who make up public schools, and is willing to make education reform an iterative process instead of a set of rigid commandments.

New York State’s 600,000 professional teachers and million of public school students deserve a Commissioner with these experiences and skills.  And we need the most powerful voices in the state to call for that in public.

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Filed under Common Core, New York Board of Regents, schools, Testing, Unions

Chancellor Merryl Tisch to Mayor Bill de Blasio: Drop Dead

Dr. Merryl Tisch is probably the most powerful person in the state of New York that you have never heard of.  As Chancellor of the Board of Regents for the powerful University of the State of New York, Dr. Tisch oversees a body that has all responsibility for overseeing and accrediting every educational institution in the state of New York from all public and private elementary and secondary schools, to nearly 250 public and private colleges and universities, to libraries and museums, to state historical societies, to public broadcasting facilities, to 47 licensed professions, to adult and career education services, to the official state archives.  Chancellor Tisch and her fellow Regents are appointed by the state legislature to five-year terms.  Dr. Tisch, a former first grade teacher in Jewish schools with a doctorate from Teachers College at Columbia University, has served on the Board of Regents continuously since 1996 and has been Chancellor since 2009.  With such far reaching powers and responsibilities, it is possible that the Chancellorship of the Board of Regents is the most powerful position in the state of New York that is not subject to election.

Chancellor Tisch is not adverse to taking harsh and public stances, and in 2011 even criticized the Bloomberg administration, which was never shy about going after allegedly failing schools, for not showing enough progress in the kind of numbers driven school improvement in favor today.  The Chancellor is also enthusiastic about the grinding state examination schedule that has been instituted from Albany, claiming that she “understands” the test anxiety felt by students but that the need for change is so urgent that “We have to just jump into the deep end.”  Blogger Jersey Jazzman notes that her understanding is an odd claim from a Chancellor who has never attended a school that believes in high stakes testing, has never taught in a school that believes in high stakes testing, and has never sent her own children to a school that believes in high stakes testing.

With such positions on education and reform, it should come as little surprise that Chancellor Tisch joined Governor Andrew Cuomo on the “If-It-Is-Sunday-It-Is-Time-To-Throw-Mayor-de Blasio-Under-The-Bus” parade by announcing that she wants to “aggressively” pursue more charter schools, and that the Mayor’s plan to turn around 94 of the city’s most troubled schools has until Spring before the Board of Regents moves to start closing them down.  Mayor de Blasio’s plan, which was only unveiled on November 3rd, will task $150 million over a three year period to transform most of the schools into “Community Schools” that do not simply seek improved academics, but also focus upon embedded social and community services to address many of the difficulties students face at home and in the community.  The schools will need to demonstrate improvement in attendance and academic performance, can turn over staff if needed, and may still face shutdown if they fail to improve in the given timeline.

Chancellor Tisch sounded less than impressed:

“It depends upon what they do with the money,” Tisch said. “There needs to be the capacity to manage how and where we place our teachers.”

The main issue, according to Tisch, is that the principals need leverage to fire educators if they don’t meet standards.

“It’s not just saying, ‘We’re gonna fix these schools,’” she said. “You gotta give the new principals and assistant principals the ability to hire the teachers that they want and fire the teachers that they don’t want.”

Her chosen metric of improvement appears to be how quickly the schools start to turn over staff: “From the state’s perspective, if we do not see movement with these lowest-performing schools in terms of their ability to retool their workforces by the spring, we will move to close them.” 

Mayor de Blasio outlined a three year timeline for improvement.  Chancellor Tisch says that he has about three months.  Mayoral control of the New York City Schools apparently is only for people in Dr. Tisch’s personal Rolodex.

What exactly does Chancellor Tisch mean when she demands to see such a quick “ability to retool their workforces”?  I have to agree with author of the Raginghorseblog, who teaches at one of the 94 schools in question and who writes here that Dr. Tisch mainly wants to see school administrators given free reign to fire masses of teachers regardless of their current due process rights.  Dr. Tisch is an intelligent person who fully knows that the Mayor cannot demonstrate significantly academic gains in these schools by Spring, so she is telling him that he is officially between a rock and a hard place.  If he does not move to pick a massive fight with the teacher’s union over firing large numbers of teachers without due process, then he will have a fight with the Board of Regents who will veto his school improvement proposal by shuttering the schools in question.

Doing this to a mayor who, in theory, has direct control of the city schools is stunningly disrespectful, but it has also become a popular pastime in Albany since the departure of Mayor Bloomberg.  Governor Cuomo did it last Spring by orchestrating a charter school rally in Albany on the same day that Mayor de Blasio was there to rally support for universal pre-K in the city.  The Governor did it again just before the election by declaring his intentions to make teacher evaluations even harder in the state even as Mayor de Blasio’s Chancellor, Carmen Farina, has been working to take the harsher edges off of school evaluations in the city.  Both Governor Cuomo and Dr. Tisch want to raise the cap on charter schools in the city and state and will likely pursue that with the legislature.  This is despite the growing evidence that the charter school sector, as currently regulated, concentrates more and more highly disadvantaged students into the remaining fully public schools which, unsurprisingly, continue to struggle.  The cycle, favored by billionaire Wall Street figures who donate heavily to both the charter schools and to politicians who support them, is pernicious enough that it invokes near conspiratorial overtones: declare fully public schools to be failing, close them, open up charter schools which attract families able to go through the application and lottery process, concentrate higher proportions of struggling students into remaining fully public schools, allow charter schools to push out harder to accommodate children, declare remaining fully public schools even bigger failures than before, close more of them and open more charter schools.

And for good measure, it must be noted that people are making fistfuls of money promoting this cycle of dislocation, concentration of disadvantage, and more dislocation.  It is also worth noting at this point that Dr. Tisch is married to the heir of the Loews Coporation, a diversified company involved in insurance, oil and gas exploration, and luxury hotel and resort properties, that has over $79 billion in total assets.  Her husband, James Tisch, owned, with several family members, stock worth $3.2 billion in 2012.  The people making money off of charter schools are in the same circle of financial titans as the Tisch family.

And now, it appears, Chancellor Tisch has given Mayor de Blasio, who ran as a progressive friend of New York City’s working families, an ultimatum: force a showdown with the teachers’ union and join the war to undermine what is left of American labor — or the Board of Regents will steamroll you.

I wish I could be surprised.

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Filed under charter schools, Funding, New York Board of Regents, politics, Social Justice, Unions

Dear Randi

Dear Randi Weingarten,

You do not know me, but we have crossed paths on Twitter and education blogging circles.  In fact, I think you have kindly retweeted some of my writings to your followers on a few occasions.  I am writing because I have been following your political actions for some time in this election cycle, and while I think I understand what is motivating a great deal, I am concerned that as the leader of the American Federation of Teachers’ 1.6 million members you have been too willing to accept a “seat at the table” with politicians and foundations, a seat that has come at the expense of the rank and file.  I do not believe this has been your intention, but I also think that it is necessary to question whether or not politics as usual has broken down, whether or not having a seat at the table is worth the comprises necessary to get there. I respectfully suggest that this is one of those times.

Many of the bloggers and education activists I read have been very harsh towards you in their assessments.  Those assessments are based upon what they see as a long series of actions demonstrating a willingness to play ball with so-called reformers and to negotiate for changes in matters like teacher assessment and compensation and the Common Core State Standards.  Mercedes Schneider pulls few punches in this piece detailing cooperation with Eli Broad, the Gates Foundation, and other forces in education reform who have sought to weaken unions, pushed for unregulated charter schools, advocated evaluating teachers using standardized test scores based on the CCSS, and advocated to institute performance pay using those same measures. Blogger Jersey Jazzman wrote you an open letter in 2012 about the Newark contract, making predictions that have pretty much come true.  I know other bloggers and activists who’ve openly pondered nefarious reasons for your willingness to cooperate with people and institutions that have been demonstrably disruptive forces in ways that have rarely been beneficial for schools.

I’d like to make it clear that I do not share that negative assessment.

There are two polar opposed views of how unions ought to deal with efforts like the current reform movements.  The first, which is certainly familiar to many, is best described as following the maxim that if “you let the camel’s nose under the tent, the rest of the body will follow.”  In this view, any concession given to reformers means that a constant wave of detrimental ideas will follow, so union leaders should fight tooth and nail to keep them from happening.  It probably will not work 100%, and the public relations will be difficult to manage, but if reformers keep getting bloody noses, fewer of their ideas will come to fruition.  The other perspective, perhaps more popular in the post-World War II period, believes that having a “seat at the table” is important and more valuable in the long term than constant brawling.  In this view, trade offs have to be made so that policy can be guided into less harmful directions because policy makers only listen to insiders and policy will be made with or without your input.  The stance is less viscerally satisfying, but if the seat at the table is genuine, there is potential to have actual impact without subjecting rank and file and their students to constant turmoil.

I will admit that I see the wisdom of the less confrontational stance.  Policy will be made, and we live in an era when union power has been greatly diminished by loss of membership and political figures willing to attack unions.  If the union leadership is fully shut out of the inside of the political process, then the people who will be left will be lobbyists representing corporate interests and a growing cadre of the super wealthy who have discovered that they enjoy bending politicians to their will far more than they enjoy endowing hospitals and art museums.  In the absence of union leadership with any insider capacity, politicians and plutocrats will bend everything to their will without a voice representing the rank and file even within earshot.  This is not a position of purity, but it promises to keep balance.

There’s just one problem with this perspective.  It only is operable when the place offered at the table is genuine.  If the owners of the table only plan to shoot you underneath it, then preserving your seat can no longer be a viable priority. I respectfully suggest that today is such a time, and that the only move that truly serves your members is to walk away from the table that is populated by people acting in bad faith.

The first evidence of this is the absurd and personal campaign against you by Richard Berman.  As you know, Berman is a political consultant whose preferred tactics are so bottom feeding and vicious that an oil industry executive listening to him talk felt the need to expose him for type of operative that he is.  Berman has spent most of the past year coordinating a direct assault on teacher unions generally and you specifically, relying on hyperbolic tone, misleading information, and a staggeringly personal content.  I must note that you have been dignified, forceful, and inspiring in the responses I have seen to Berman’s attacks, but I also must note that there is a lesson in the mere existence of his campaign.

Berman works for corporate interests, and although he will not disclose his donors, it is not hard to guess the kinds of people behind him.  After your cooperation with Eli Broad on some issues and after your personal efforts to support the standards side of the Common Core, it would be atrocious for his funding to be coming from Broad or Gates, but there is no lack of other corporate interests from the Walton Family Foundation to the Koch Brothers to the Rupert Murdoch to Michelle Rhee’s Students First who would be more than happy to take up the cause.  And why would any of these people and foundations be eager to engage in such a puerile attack on you?  Well, you’ve stepped out of line.  You’ve warned reformers that their obsession with testing and evaluating teachers by tests have put the Common Core State Standards in trouble with teachers and parents.  To me, this was overdue because Race to the Top had super glued testing the standards from the get go, but for your supposed friends in reform, this kind of talk about the obvious is a betrayal.  Worse from their perspective?  You have defended teachers and their union won workplace protections from the lawsuits seeking to strip them from all of our nation’s teachers, and you have been willing to criticize supporters of the suits in public.

I’ve heard and read your defenses of tenure.  They have been eloquent.  They have been factual.  They have been passionate.  And they must be unforgivable to the types of people who hire the likes of Berman. It is fairly obvious that he was hired to “soften you up” prior to the Vergara lawsuit ramping up, and he has been charged with keeping up his attacks as you’ve defended teachers since then.  What’s the lesson here?  You are only favored by corporate reformers and their political allies as long as you stay entirely within the ranks.  Take a step out of line, and well, you are on billboards as the enemy of America’s children and subject to junior high pranking on social media.

More egregious, however, has been the steady stream of betrayals of teachers and schools by politicians who have been wooed by steady infusions of corporate cash and have participated in starving public schools of funds, forcing the CCSS, testing and test based evaluations into schools, and who have promoted charter school policies that concentrate high levels of disadvantaged students into the same district schools they have starved of funds.  Worse, these betrayals have come from Democratic politicians who have traditionally enjoyed strong labor support, and who, in public, claim to be allies of school and labor.  Republican Governors like Chris Christie of New Jersey and Scott Walker of Wisconsin have been incredibly hostile towards teachers and their unions, but they have also been forthright about their oppositional stance.  Meanwhile governors like New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Connecticut’s Dannel Malloy and mayors like Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel, Newark’s Cory Booker (now U.S. Senator from New Jersey), and Kevin Johnson of Sacramento have pursued public school policies harmful to teachers and students — even if some of them go through the motions of courting traditionally Democratic Party constituencies.

Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York has perhaps been the worst.  Governor Cuomo has continued to use the Gap Elimination Adjustment to balance his budget on the back of our schools.  Districts cannot make up the difference in lost school aid with local funds due to his property tax cap.  Governor Cuomo plays favorites with charter school operations that further disadvantage local schools and then attacks those local schools and teachers for poor test performance. Governor Cuomo’s education commissioner went out of his way to set the cut scores on state exams so that only 30% of students would be rated as proficient.  His record has been so damaging that the UFT took the extraordinary step of not making an endorsement in the 2014 gubernatorial election, and while many rank and file members would have preferred a stronger stance to endorse an opponent, it was an important step to publicly acknowledge that teachers in New York have no friend in the Governor’s Mansion.

It is because of these reasons that myself, and many others, were sorely disappointed by your tepid public response to Governor Cuomo’s latest outrage that he sees our system of free common schooling as a “public monopoly” that he wants to “break” and that he believes our state’s hard working teachers do not want to be evaluated.  He signaled not only his plans to double down on the destructive path of privatizing and testing, but also his utter disregard for teachers and the public purposes of education itself.  In response, you told reporters that his statements were most likely “campaign rhetoric” and that you had sent him a private letter explaining his errors.  To call the governor’s statements “campaign rhetoric” is to suggest that he is not entirely sincere in those statements and has tailored them for a political purpose, but I have to ask what in this man’s record suggests that he does not fully believe everything he has said?

Your statement reminded me of segment on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer show on October 31st.  On it, Working Families Party co-chair Karen Scharff and actress and activist Cynthia Nixon made the case for people to vote on the W.F.P. line even as the Governor had appeared in the hour before them, implicitly insulting the Working Families Party in favor of his newly created Women’s Equality Party line on the ballot:

“We’ve formed every kind of fringe party for every kind of reason,” the governor said. “We have Democrat, Republican, Green, red, white, blue, working people, working short people, working tall people. We’ve never had a women’s party.”

Many observers believe that the Governor created the W.E.P. line for no other reason than to siphon off votes from the progressive W.F.P. and possibly lead them to lose their ballot line in the future, and they believe he did this because the party made him fight for his spot on their line.  Karen Scharff and Cynthia Nixon made the case that if people voted on the W.F.P. line, they would remain a force in state politics and keep pressure on Governor Cuomo to be the “better Cuomo that we know is lurking inside…”

The thing is that I do not “know” that there is a “better Cuomo,” and I do not believe that anyone can make such a Cuomo show up.  When he has stood for traditional Democratic Party issues they have been issues that carry almost no political risk in this state: gun control, abortion rights, and marriage equality.  While those are significant, it is very clear that when it comes to fiscal policy and our public education system, he is taking his cues entirely from the corporate financiers of his campaigns. When a sitting governor takes 100s of 1000s of dollars from the backers of a single charter school chain, then manipulates circumstances to humiliate a mayor seeking funding and support for universal pre-K, and then enshrines forcing New York City to pay the rent for those schools right into the state budget — then we know full well that he has no intention of playing fair with our schools, our teachers, and our children.

I have seen you on Twitter stating that elections are “about choices,” and perhaps you believe that the Republican opponents to these Democratic Party privatizers are even worse.  You might be right — in the short term.  In the long term, however, it will be even worse if the Democratic Party continues its head first slide down the path of mass standardized testing, invalid teacher evaluations, mass teacher firing and school closings, selling off our educational commons to charter school corporations, and the breaking of one of the last unionized middle class professions in the country.  A Republican candidate may be hostile to teacher unions as well, and may deny teachers and their representatives a seat at the reform table, but I have to ask how is that any worse than being invited to that table only to be betrayed again and again?

Elections are, indeed, about choices, and perhaps 2014 and forward is the time to choose better candidates and to actively oppose those who are eager to sell off our educational commons no matter their party and no matter how they will respond if they make into office over our opposition.  The vote is one of the remaining democratic mechanisms that can still work in an age of dark money elections and politics.  Influential billionaires may own politicians’ ears in between elections, but those same politicians have to get past the voters, and we need strong voices to roundly condemn those who have betrayed public education to forces that seek to profit from it instead of nurturing it for the benefit of all.

When the seat at the table is a farce, we still have the ballot box and the picket line.  I urge you to consider what roles they have in the years ahead.

Sincerely,

Daniel S. Katz, Ph.D.

Public School Graduate

Lifetime Educator

Father of Two Public School Children

Addendum: After I published this piece, Randi Weingarten, after a day of travel, posted this piece on the AFT web page about the “difficult choices” facing New York voters.  The statement insinuates that Ms. Weingarten will not be voting for sitting Governor Andrew Cuomo, and while she describes the problems with the Republican challenger Rob Astorino, she is very firm with the Democrat:

It’s heartbreaking to see what’s happening in New York, especially after campaigning across the country for gubernatorial candidates who unequivocally support public education, respect teachers and will fight for the investment our schools need.

But in New York, the decision is painful. I am deeply disappointed and appalled by Gov. Cuomo’s recent statement that public education is a “monopoly” that needs to be busted up. (Frankly, it’s only hedge fund millionaires, right-wing privatizers and tea partiers who would use that terminology.) Public education is a public good and an anchor of democracy that is enshrined in our state constitution. Public education needs to be nurtured and reclaimed.

Ms. Weingarten concludes her statement by saying, “It’s well past time to fund our schools, care for our children, support our teachers, and stand up for workers and working families everywhere in our state.”

I wholeheartedly agree, and I sincerely hope that this signals a willingness to challenge Mr. Cuomo much more vigorously.

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Filed under Activism, charter schools, Cory Booker, Gates Foundation, politics, schools, Unions

Andrew Cuomo Makes it Official: He’s at War With Teachers

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently sent some mixed signals on his education platform.  In late September, he declared that the teacher evaluation system in the Empire State needs “refinement” because even using standardized test scores to create value-added measures, too many teachers are found to be effective or highly effective. This month, however, the Cuomo campaign, perhaps responding to criticisms of his embrace of the Common Core State Standards, issued an ad that suggested a softer approach to education.  Featuring Governor Cuomo in a white sweater helping his similarly attired daughter with her homework at a table decorated with white pumpkins and a glass bowl of smooth pebbles, the ad promised “real teacher evaluations” and not using Common Core test scores for “five years.”  That promise, however, simply reflects an existing item in the state budget that delays including test scores in graduating students’ transcripts; it does not promise to not use the test scores to evaluate teachers in any way.  The governor’s softer, rather beige, image is an illusion.

There was no illusion this week, however.

Speaking with the New York Daily News editorial board, Mr. Cuomo emphasized his priorities on education for a second term in Albany:

“I believe these kinds of changes are probably the single best thing that I can do as governor that’s going to matter long-term,” he said, “to break what is in essence one of the only remaining public monopolies — and that’s what this is, it’s a public monopoly.”

He said the key is to put “real performance measures with some competition, which is why I like charter schools.”

Cuomo said he will push a plan that includes more incentives — and sanctions — that “make it a more rigorous evaluation system.”

The governor took a direct, insulting, swipe at the 600,000 members of the NYSUT, by saying, “The teachers don’t want to do the evaluations and they don’t want to do rigorous evaluations — I get it.  I feel exactly opposite.”

It is rare to have one person summarize, so succinctly, nearly everything that is wrong with the current education reform environment.  “Break…a public monopoly…competition, which I why I like charter schools…the teachers don’t want to do the evaluations.”  In those short turns of phrase, Andrew Cuomo demonstrates how he utterly fails to understand teachers, the corrupted “competition” environment he promotes, and the entire purpose of having a compulsory, common school system.  I personally cannot think of any statements he could have made that disqualify him more from having any power over how we educate our young people.

The governor, who expects to win Tuesday’s election by a wide margin, faced immediately backlash over his comments, but he has opted to double down and repeat the rhetoric of calling our state’s public schools a monopoly.  He has even gotten harsh criticism from the Working Families Party, whose endorsement he wrestled for this summer when the progressive party looked to ready to endorse Fordham Law School Professor Zephyr Teachout. W.F.P.’s state director, Bill Lipton commented:

“His proposed policies on public education will weaken, not strengthen our public education system, and they would represent a step away from the principle of high quality public education for all students. High stakes testing and competition are not the answer. Investment in the future is the answer, and that means progressive taxation and adequate resources for our schools.”

In return, Governor Cuomo’s campaign spokesman, Peter Kauffmann said, “This is all political blather.”  If anyone in the leadership of W.F.P. still has faith in Mr. Cuomo’s promises to them, I will be astonished.

I am going to address Mr. Cuomo’s statements in reverse order:

1) “The teachers don’t want to do the evaluations and they don’t want to do rigorous evaluations”

Mr. Cuomo bases this upon teacher opposition to the “rigorous” evaluations that include the use of students’ standardized test scores to determine if teachers are highly effective, effective, or not effective.  Not meeting the “effective” range on the evaluations can cost teachers tenure or it can initiate efforts to remove them from the classroom if they already have tenure.  Governor Cuomo is on record as believing that the current system is too lenient on teachers because under the new Common Core aligned examinations, student proficiency in the state has dropped dramatically while, in his view, too many teachers remain rated as effective and highly effective.  Presumably, the Governor wants to change the evaluation system so that administrator input is less important and so that the “rigorous” method of rating teachers by students’ test scores has more of an impact on their effectiveness ratings.  This is a fatally flawed approach, and it is fated to unleash appalling results for several important reasons.

First, as I have written previously, he has egregiously, and probably deliberately, misrepresented what the student proficiency ratings from the Common Core exams mean.  While students reaching proficient and highly proficient on the exams only reached 36% of test takers last year, the cut scores were deliberately set to reflect the percentage of students in the state whose combined SAT scores reflect reasonable first year college performance.  Unsurprisingly, the numbers of students who scored at proficient and above almost exactly mirrored the percentage of students with those SAT scores.  This cannot be construed as students and their teachers under-performing expectations, and, not for nothing, the percentage of New Yorkers over the age of 25 with a bachelor’s degree is 32.8%.

So let’s be perfectly clear: the Governor is saying that teachers in communities where large percentages of students do not attend college are automatically “not effective” teachers.

Second, the entire CONCEPT of tying teacher performance to standardized test scores rests on controversial premises and is not widely accepted by the research community.  The American Statistical Association warns that teacher input can only account for between 1-14% of student variability on standardized test performance, and they also do not believe that any current examination is able to effectively evaluate teacher input on student learning.  Further, advocates of value added models tend to make “heroic assumptions” in order to claim causation in their models, and they tend to ignore the complications for their models that arise when you recognize that students in schools are not assigned to teachers randomly.

I know many teachers who wish to improve their teaching and who would welcome a process that gives them good data on how to go about doing that.  I know no teachers who want to be subjected to evaluations that rely on flawed assumptions of what can be learned via standardized exams.

Finally, value added models tend to be incredibly opaque to the people who are evaluated by them.  For example, this is the Value Added Model that New York City used in the 2010-2011 school year:

NYC VAM

This is also the VAM that found teacher Stacey Issacson to be only in the SEVENTH percentile of teachers despite the fact that in her first year of teaching 65 of 66 students in her class scored “proficient” or above on the state examinations, and more than two dozen of her students in her first years of teaching went on to attend New York City’s selective high schools.  Perhaps worse than having a formula spit back such a negative rating was the inability of anyone to actually explain to her what landed her in such a position, and Ms. Issacson, with two Ivy League degrees to her name and the unconditional praise of her principal, could not understand how the model found her so deficient either.  Perhaps I can help.  In this image I have circled the real number that actually exists prior to value added modeling:

NYC VAMreal

And in this image, I circle everything else:

NYC VAMfake

Consider everything that might impact a student’s test performance that has nothing to do with the teacher.  Perhaps he finally got an IEP and is receiving paraprofessional support that improves his scores.  Perhaps there is a family situation that distracts him from school work for a period of time during the year.  Perhaps he is simply having a burst of cognitive growth because children do not grow in straight lines and is ready for this material at this time, or, subsequently, perhaps he had a developmental burst two years ago and is experiencing a perfectly normal regression to the norm.  Value added model advocates pretend that they can account for all of that statistical noise in single student for a single school year, and then they want to fire teachers on those assumptions.  This is what happens when macroeconomists get bored and try to use their methods on individual students’ test scores.

Governor Cuomo assumes that because teachers do not want to be subjected to statistically invalid, career ending, evaluations that they do not want to be evaluated.

2) “competition, which I why I like charter schools”

Charter schools were never supposed to be “competition” for the public school system.  As originally conceived, they would be schools given temporary charters and be relieved of certain regulations so that they could experiment with ways to teach populations of students who were historically difficult to teach in more traditionally organized schools.  In this vision, originally advocated by AFT President  Albert Shanker, charter schools would feed the lessons they learned back to the traditional school system in a mutually beneficial way.  Governor Cuomo’s idea is as far from that vision as it is possible to be and still be using the same language.

The Governor apparently thinks that charter schools are there to put pressure on fully public schools, and that the “competition” for students will act like a free marketplace to force improvement on the system.  This is a gospel that has deep roots, going as far back as Milton Friedman in 1955, and gaining intellectual heft for the voucher movement in the 1990s with Chubb and Moe’s 1990 volume, “Politics, Markets and America’s Schools.”  While vouchers have rarely been a popular idea, advocates for competition in public education have transformed charter schools into a parallel system that competes with fully public schools.  This has flaws on several levels.  First, it is an odd kind of marketplace when one provider is relieved of labor rules and various state and federal education regulations and the other is still held fully accountable for them.  Charter schools’ freedom from regulations was meant to allow for innovations that would help traditional schools learn, but instead it has become a “competition” where one competitor is participating in a sack race and the other in a 100 yard dash.  A sack race, by the way, is an entirely fine thing to participate in, but no race is legitimate when everyone isn’t required to follow the same rules.

Second, the presence of the charter sector as currently operated and regulated actively makes district schools worse off.  As Dr. Baker of Rutgers demonstrates, charter schools generally compete for demographic advantages over fully public schools.  They draw from a pool of applicants who are both attuned to the process and willing and/or able to participate in it.  Once students are admitted, many prominent charters, especially ones that get high praise from Governor Cuomo, engage in “substantial cream skimming” that results in their student populations being less poor, having fewer students on IEPs, and needing less instruction in English as a Second Language.  While charter operators deny engaging in these practices, well documented cases are available in the media.  Dr. Baker’s research confirms that when charter schools are able to do this, the district schools in the same community are left with student populations that more heavily concentrate the very populations of children that the charter schools are unwilling to accommodate.  Charter advocates then claim that they are getting “better” results with the “same” kids and protest loudly that they deserve a greater share of the finite resources available for schools, even when the costs of their transportation and building expenses are paid by the districts.

This isn’t just a sack racer versus a sprinter, then — the sprinter has slipped a couple of cinder blocks into his opponents’ sacks.  Teachers don’t mind that other schools may do things differently than they do in their own schools; they mind very much being berated for the results of system-wide neglect of their community schools, and they mind being negatively compared to schools that make their own rules and refuse to serve all children.

3) “Break…a public monopoly”

That we are poised to have a two term governor who describes New York’s public education system as “monopoly” is such a breath taking circumstance, that I am saddened beyond belief.  The common schools movement in this country was conceived of as an exercise in promoting the public good not merely in advancing individuals.  We wanted universal, compulsory, free education to serve the individual by promoting academic and economic merit as well by promoting the habits of mind and character that enrich a person’s experience in life.  We also wanted schools to promote the good of society by preparing individuals for the world of work beyond school and by preparing individuals to be thoughtful participants in our democracy who value civic virtues in addition to their own good.  For nearly two centuries, Americans have thought of public schools as the center of community civic life, something to be valued because it provides bedrock principles of democratic equality, and as our concept of democratic participation has expanded, so has our concept of plurality in schools.  From literacy for former slaves to women’s suffrage to incorporation of immigrants to tearing down White Supremacism and promoting civil rights, to inclusion of those with disabilities, to gender equality, to equal protection for LGBT citizens — our schools have helped us to reconceive our ideas of pluralism in every decade.

Schools have also stood as important symbols of our commitment to common aspects of our society that all have access to regardless of race, gender, or economic advantage.  There was a time in our nation’s history when we were dedicated not merely to building economic infrastructure, but also to building community, cultural, and natural infrastructure.  There are libraries, parks, museums, and publicly supported arts across our country that are testament to the belief that the world of knowledge, natural beauty, and the arts cannot be the sole province of the wealthy.  Public schools are part of that commitment, but to call them a “monopoly” reveals a mindset disregarding that heritage and which rejects it as a commitment to the future.  Does Governor Cuomo drive the New York Throughway and see a “public monopoly”?  Does he enter the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City whose entry fee is a suggested donation and see a “public monopoly”?  Does he want to “break up” the Franklin D. Roosevelt  and Watkins Glen State Parks?

What Governor Cuomo appears to believe is that education exists solely for the social mobility of individuals with no regard for the public purposes of education.  David Labaree of Stanford University posited in this 1997 essay, that the historic balance of purposes in education was already out of balance with current trends favoring education for individual social mobility far outweighing the public purposes of social efficiency and democratic equality.  Labaree was rightly concerned that if people only see education as the accumulation of credentials that can be turned in for economic advantage then not only will the civic purposes of education be swept aside, but also that the effort to accumulate the most valuable credentials for the least effort will diminish actual learning.  Governor Cuomo’s depiction of schools as a “public monopoly” only makes sense if he is mostly concerned with how education “consumers” accumulate valued goods from school, but discounts the essential services schools provide to our democracy.  It is an impoverished view that relegates school to just another mechanism to sort people in and out of economic advantage.

Governor Andrew Cuomo may not only be at war with teachers.  He may be at war with the very concept of public education.  If he does indeed win a second term on Tuesday, he must be opposed at every step of his distorted and dangerous ideas about our public schools.

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Filed under charter schools, politics, schools, Social Justice, teaching, Testing, Unions, VAMs

New York Gubernatorial Election 2014 – When The Other Guy Winning Isn’t The Worst Thing I Can Think Of

Barring some titanic shift in the likely voting population in the next 15 days, Governor Andrew Cuomo will be reelected to a second term in office.  Governor Cuomo leads his Republican challenger, Rob Astorino, by an average of 54% to 30% with Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins hovering below 10%.  This polling is not recent as races that have already been called do not get constant polling, but barring all undecideds breaking for Mr. Astorino and a significant portion of Hawkins and Cuomo voters “defecting” for the Republican, Mr. Cuomo is all but guaranteed reelection.

This is a galling situation for a governor who has campaigned in a manner that has utterly disdained political engagement with the public and with his rivals.  Despite having raised a $40 million campaign war chest, Mr. Cuomo has barely campaigned at all.  His choice to all but ignore challenger Zephyr Teachout, the Fordham Law School professor and expert on corruption, did not merely mean he refrained from any debates, but also he physically ignored her presence from less than four feet away:

Erica Orden of The Wall Street Journal asked Governor Cuomo if he had spoken with Ms. Teachout at the parade:

Governor Cuomo defeated Ms. Teachout in the primary, but she made a surprising showing of 35% with Democratic primary voters despite having less than $250,000 and practically no name recognition among voters.  One might have hoped that Governor Cuomo would take a surprisingly strong challenge as a message that voters want him to be more accountable, but the Governor’s dismissive attitude towards engaging in public discussion of his record in unscripted formats remains.  He has agreed to but one debate before the election, and he will have no debate where he and Mr. Astorino have the stage by themselves.  This means that voters will go to the polls in November never having seen the Governor debate a main challenger, either in the primary or the general election, one on one.  Voters in New York are more likely to see Andrew Cuomo promoting his new autobiography than they are likely to see him take the podium to discuss election issues with his rivals.

In addition to this being a shameful and arrogant slap to the role of voters in evaluating candidates for high office, Mr. Cuomo has quite a lot that he should have to answer before audiences of voters and the media.  In 2013, the Governor created the Moreland Commission to independently investigate corruption in Albany, supposedly making good on his promise to tackle the “deficit of trust” that existed between the government and the people of New York.  After less than a year of continuous interference from the Governor’s office whenever the commission got too close to his allies,  Governor Cuomo abruptly disbanded the commission.  Moreland’s birth announcement promised New Yorkers that “Anything they want to look at, they can look at — me, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the comptroller, any senator, any assemblyman.”  Governor Cuomo stated upon disbanding the commission that “It’s my commission. I can’t ‘interfere’ with it, because it’s mine. It is controlled by me.”  Despite the incredibly corrupt manner in which the Governor’s office interfered with a supposedly independent investigation into corruption, the New York electorate, while broadly accepting that it was wrong, has barely budged in its voting intentions based on the controversy.

This is tragic for New York, not only because it all but assures that Governor Cuomo can glide to reelection, but also because it indicates that voters are unwilling to factor such blatant corruption into our voting calculus.  Political scientists Dr. Martin Gilens of Princeton and Dr. Benjamin Page of Northwestern recently published a study indicating that the American political system does not fully reflect that of a democracy.  Instead they note that an elite cadre of economically powerful individuals and institutions wield the fruits of increasing income inequality to leverage policy regardless of the will of the general voting public. The New York Times’ current magazine issue has a lengthy  exposé on how billionaires, on both sides of the political divide, are wielding their financial power to become “their own political parties.”  The power of such influence on policy is supremely evident in Governor Cuomo’s tenure, especially in his taxation and education policies.

For example, Governor Cuomo does not merely support charter schools in New York. When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio sought to reign in their expansion after years of rubber stamp approval from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Governor Cuomo not only voiced his support, but also he played a direct role in orchestrating an Albany rally on the same day that Mayor de Blasio was seeking support for his efforts to make universal pre-kindergarten happen in the city.  The Governor then went on and negotiated a state budget that specifically forbids the city from charging charter schools rent.  While New York voters are not opposed to charter schools overall, it is important to note two largely hidden facts in this debate.  The first is that the charter sector which got such direct support from the governor still enrolls only a small portion of New York State and New York City students.  New York City’s approximately 83,200 charter school students represent less than 8% of all New York City public school students,  and given the sector’s penchant for winnowing out students who might be more difficult to teach or whose disabilities might lead to lower test scores, there is a built in limit even to their willingness to serve all students, no matter how much they cover themselves in grandiose promises.

Second, the Governor’s direct hand in engineering both the rally and state budget was not precisely random or driven by pure policy.  There was money, a lot of it, at issue.  As of January, 2014, supporters of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy chain alone, had donated over $400,000 to Governor Cuomo’s campaign, and Ms. Moskowitz’s own PAC had sent him $65,000.  In recent years, Wall Street money has been pouring into the charter school sector, and it has done so in no small part because money managers have figured how to use the tax code to turn charter school investments into a reliable stream of guaranteed money.  Beyond just the charter school segment, venture firms generally see America’s 750 billion a year expenditures on public education as the last public “honey pot” that they can try to monetize for private purposes.

So New Yorkers, there is your Governor: taking 100s of 1000s of dollars from the supporters of just ONE charter school chain, and jury rigging the state budget so that its investors can continue to secure more public money into entirely private hands.  And he has done this while simultaneously choking school districts across the state of critical state aid to the tune of $3-4 billion a YEAR in New York City alone.  This is the man we are poised to send back to the Governor’s Mansion for another 4 years.  No wonder students from Middletown High School in Orange County produced the following video:

Typical political wisdom at this point sighs, shrugs its shoulders, and laments that the “other guy” is even worse just before it either stays home and doesn’t vote or holds its nose to pull the lever for the incumbent.  In this case, the most viable “other guy” is Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino.  New York Republicans have done a better job in selecting a candidate than they did in 2010 when they picked the entirely appalling Carl Paladino, but there are still substantive areas where Mr. Astorino is an unacceptable choice.  Mr. Astorino opposes abortion rights and gay marriage, despite his campaign assuring voters that he will not pursue substantive changes to existing state law.  Mr. Astorino has promised to withdraw New York from the Common Core State Standards and reduce the use of standardized tests for teacher and student evaluations if elected, but his education plan also calls for vouchers that can be used to send students to private or charter schools, which does nothing to slow down the transfer of public education money into private hands.

On the other hand, I cannot say that Albany with a Governor Astorino would be that much worse than one under a reelected Governor Cuomo.  Mr. Astorino is likely correct that he could do little in Albany to chip away at social issues where he is out of touch with New York voters, although that is not to say that he could do nothing at all.  It is also true that Governor Cuomo’s socially progressive accomplishments, while actually substantive, are not precisely areas where he took political risks. In 2011, New York support for same sex marriage was comfortably above 50% while opposition hovered around 35%.  Accomplishing same sex marriage in New York was a major victory for marriage equality, but the Governor did not risk his standing with voters to make it happen.  It worth noting that despite governing a state with a 27%  Democratic Party advantage in the electorate, the most progressive thing that Governor Cuomo has accomplished beyond marriage equality is hurting Sean Hannity’s feelings.

An Astorino victory could have two very positive outcomes.  First, it would signal to politicians seeking the Democratic nomination in races that they ignore liberal voters and kowtow to the entrenched money system that plagues our body politic at their peril.  As a liberal Democrat, I can tolerate elected officials more centrist than I am, but I cannot tolerate politicians who sell out the public good at the behest of billionaire donors with little regard for our state and national Commons.  Second, an Astorino victory could possibly embolden Democrats in Albany to do more than lay prostrate at the feet of the Governor’s office.  Andrew Cuomo is no doubt a brilliant political operator even if he is without his father’s rhetorical gifts.  What he has in abundance, however, is a willingness to threaten and place statewide Democrats in fear of angering him.  Is it possible that Assembly Democrats might see a Republican governor as an opportunity to advocate for their constituents instead of meekly to line up in fear of a governor who controls their party’s apparatus?  Possibly.  Is it likely?  I have no idea, but the exercise is worth considering.

With all of that said, will I pull the lever for Rob Astorino?  No, I will not.  If the Republican were within actual striking distance of Andrew Cuomo, I might consider the possibility of voting strategically, but since he is not, I intend to vote for the candidate who most represents my values, Green Party nominee Howie Hawkins.  It is possible that this makes me a part of the problem since my disdain for Governor Cuomo’s corruption will not lead me to vote for his most viable opponent in this race.  However, there are alternative fixes that need to be considered in future election cycles.

Money is buying policy.  There can be no doubt about that, but the officials who are bought when it comes to policy still have to stand for elections, and money does not always win at the polls.  Our corrupted government could be subjected to a slow and steady cleansing if politicians who consistently let themselves be bribed for the purpose of making policy were faced with robust and moderately financed challenges that more closely represent the wills of the voters.  Zephyr Teachout, with practically no campaign financing, an opponent and media that ignored her, and little name recognition, garnered 35% of the primary vote.  Imagine what a campaign with more time and even modestly raised financing from small donors (or – gasp! – fully public campaign funding) could have accomplished, but also it would take an electorate that is finally incensed about the state’s government swimming in what amount to endless bribes.

Further, labor unions, especially teacher’s unions, should take a much more principled stand in endorsements for candidates, especially on issues that directly effect teachers, schools, and students.  Playing along to have a seat at the table is no longer viable, and the New York State United Teachers union demonstrated this in the summer by refusing to endorse Andrew Cuomo for reelection.  It would have been better to have endorsed Zephyr Teachout, but this was a step in the right direction.  However, it needs to go further.  Unfortunately, the Connecticut Education Association has offered endorsement and campaign literature in support of Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy, whose education policies have been a reflection of Andrew Cuomo’s, even seeking to change the state school aid formula in a way that would cut state funding from districts like Hartford and New Haven.  Although Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis has announced that she will not run against incumbent Mayor Rahm Emanuel as she recovers from cancer,  Mayor Emanuel only has a quarter of Chicagoans on his side on school issues, and he should face a robust challenge for the office. It is past time for unions to worry less about access to corrupted politicians and to help elect politicians who will put children and their teachers and schools ahead of the interests of billionaire profiteers.

It is at this point that some anti-union activists will scoff at the idea of cleaning up the corruption of money in politics with the assistance of unions.  After all, unions do spend money, often a lot of it, on political races, and unions collect large sums of cash from the dues of their memberships.  While true, this misses several important distinctions between union influence on politics and that of entirely private individuals.  Unions have monetary resources at their disposal, but they also have operating expenses, sometimes on behalf of memberships that number from the 1000s to the 100s of 1000s to the millions.  All of their cash cannot in practice flow into politics, while the personal wealth of a Michael Bloomberg or a David Koch stays in his bank account until it is donated.  Second, despite attempts to portray the situation otherwise, union political spending is being dwarfed by the flood of money from so-called “dark money” sources, and you have to ignore that spending to place unions at the top.  Unions regulated by the NLRB have to disclose all of their outside payments, but no such requirements exist for shell organizations set up to funnel undisclosed money into the system.  Regardless, Koch brother money alone in 2012 spent on PAC, individual candidates, and outside groups is estimated at over $400 million, which outstrips the top ten labor unions combined.  And that only reports money spent through foundations and nonprofits.  If recent patterns in spending are replicated this year, the 2014 election cycle may potentially reach as much as just under $1 BILLION in dark money.

To be sure, a reformed political system that brings the corruption of spending to bay will take a toll on union spending, but for the sake of their members and the students that they serve, the AFT and NEA must send notice that they will no longer trade a seat at the table for politicians who insist on trading their campaign contributions for sending billions of dollars of public education money into the hands of profiteers.

If voters listened, we might gain some of our democracy back — and our public education as well.

 

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