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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Mike Bloomberg Wants You!

NYCATR has never hesitated to criticize the UFT for its mistakes, despite the great amount of good work that it does for teachers and students.  So too, we will not hesitate from giving credit to the UFT when it hits the bull's-eye, as with the cartoon below.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

I had a dream
I had a dream a few nights ago.

I had a dream that I was together with hundreds of teachers at a Professional Development day required by the DOE.

I had a dream.

I had a dream that before lunch time, a UFT rep announced that there would be a union meeting in Room 204.  We all got up and headed for the staircase so we could go to Room 204. 

I had a dream.

I had a dream that as I climbed the stairs I was thinking of some things I would like to say to the UFT up there in Room 204.  I would like to tell them about my three years of frustration as a member of the Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR); I would like to tell them how present ATR teachers are being shuffled around their districts on a weekly basis; I would like to tell them how ridiculous it is that these teachers are now being evaluated by some macabre creation of bureaucracy called Field Supervisors; I would like to tell them that ATR teachers have been disenfranchised from voting for a chapter leader because they do not belong to any chapter; I would like to tell them how I once mentioned all this to a UFT rep who visited my school, and his answer was to repeat, like some automaton, "But we saved their jobs." 

I had a dream that my blood pressure was rising as I climbed those steps.

We all had a bit of trouble finding the room, but finally we were there.  There must have been about a hundred of us, all standing in a classroom.  A UFT representative began to speak.  She told us that we shouldn't complain about the difficulties of "differentiating instruction" because the idea was first proposed by John Dewey in 1911.  We also shouldn't complain about excessive observations or unfair evaluations, because nothing in the Collective Bargaining Agreement limits the number of times that a supervisor can observe a teacher.

Then the UFT rep began to show us a video on the classroom's SmartBoard.
In the foreground, a man stood and babbled some kind of motivational psychobabble.  In the background, there was a huge circular object, sort of like a giant Frisbee.  As the man in the foreground babbled, workers began loading hundreds of oranges into a hole in the center of the Frisbee.  

And then the man announced that the flying saucer would now take off.  There was a loud noise which seemed to emanate from somewhere underneath the huge pile of oranges and then the oranges were sucked into the saucer.

A few seconds later, streams of orange juice began to squirt out of hundreds of little holes in the sides of the flying saucer.  The orange juice created a jet stream that pushed the flying saucer up into the air and far away.

The announcer on the screen gushed with enthusiasm.  And then the dream was over, and the meeting was over.  

Comrades, what does this dream mean?  Does it mean that my mother diapered me incorrectly?  Does it mean that I lust after orange juice?

Or does the UFT Orange-Juice Flying Saucer video represent the union's tactics of distraction?
Does my dream mean that I am frustrated with the UFT for publishing big colorful pages about American citizens losing their voting rights, but nary a word about members of their own union who have lost those same rights?

Does it mean that I am frustrated with the UFT for promising continued meetings with ATR teachers to discuss their concerns, and instead gave them Professional Development sessions, to which only some of them were invited? 

How do you interpret my dream?  Do you dare to try?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Putting New York's School Reform in Perspective, by Marc Epstein

Here's another gem from the Ronin Teacher, Marc Epstein.  This one was originally published in the Huffington Post.

In case you haven't noticed, hunting public school teachers is currently the sport of choice for a passel of politicians, education philanthropists, and members of the Fourth Estate, from Maine to Hawaii.

You have the sense that if wildlife preservationists don't step in soon, the teacher may go the way of the Dodo bird.

For those of you who don't live in New York, it's likely that you haven't heard the cacophony of sounds emanating from the mayor's office, the teacher's union, and the news media, following the release of teacher rankings based on students' performance on state English and mathematics examinations for grades 4-8 spanning the years 2007-2010. 

The teacher's union unsuccessfully argued that the test results were wildly inaccurate, and releasing them could serve no useful purpose, and do much harm. Reputable testing experts confirmed those claims. The courts did not agree.

Mayor Bloomberg claimed he hadn't acted in bad faith by going back on an agreement not to release the data. The courts made him do it. 

The press demanded the results in their Freedom of Information filings, claiming the "public's right to know" transcended other considerations. Transparency was the watchword of the day.

The margin of error on the tests was as much as 53% on the English examinations and up to 35% on the math exams. Basic data collection on the numbers of children tested, class enrollment, and gender distribution were inaccurate when teachers compared the published data with their class lists.

The state admitted that the tests were poorly structured measurements of student achievement, and lacked validity. But the editorialists maintained that it was the right step in the right direction, and all things considered, should be published. Once they were published, they declared them "beyond valuable" and "beyond essential."

Perhaps sensing that Pandora's Box was about to open, Bill Gates wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, just three days before the results were made public. Gates, arguably the single most influential advocate of the movement to grade teachers with "value added" assessments, cautioned against shaming teachers lest the results be used punitively rather than as a corrective tool for improving inadequate teachers.

Throwing caution to the wind, the tabloids immediately began publishing names and pictures of the "worst" teachers in the system, at the same time claiming that the publication of the scores was designed to help these teachers improve! They must not have read Bill Gates' column.

A horse runs away from its barn. 
The blowback that followed the data dump prompted Merryl Tisch, the chancellor of the State Board of Regents, to suggest that a change in the state law might be advisable to protect the names of the teachers from public view, while still utilizing the test scores to evaluate their performance. But this may be a case of closing the barn door after the horse is out. For his part, the mayor has already indicated that he would oppose any change to the law.

Now that the "furies" have been let loose, I thought it might be useful if we stepped back and viewed this contretemps through a different lens, and place education reform in New York in its proper perspective.

For the first 50 years of the 20th century much was accomplished in New York City. Schools, subways, bridges, tunnels, airports, highways, and skyscrapers, transformed the landscape. The numbers are staggering. It included over six hundred new schools, six major bridges, and four tunnels connecting New York to New Jersey and Manhattan to the outer boroughs of the city.

When completed, the Freedom Tower at Ground Zero will have taken over thirteen years to plan and build since 9/11. The Empire State Building took less than two years. The 2nd Avenue subway, first begun in the 1970s won't complete its 8.5-mile construction until somewhere around 2050. It took less time to build over 600 miles of track and tunnels in the first fifty years of the 20th century. 

The Education Mayor soaks up some
wisdom from a noted scholar. 
When it comes to education the differences are palpable too. Instead of building schools, the "education mayor" takes pride in closing over one hundred and twenty five schools over the past decade, with promises of more to come before he leaves office in 2013.

Three hundred small schools have been located in closed comprehensive high schools, many of them landmarks almost a century old. If you work in one of those building you are reminded of what they once were, and the hollowed out shells they've become. You sense what Rome must have been like during its inexorable decline.

Despite claims of great success, remediation rates at the city colleges belie the validity of the increased graduation rates. In addition, about two hundred charters have opened under Bloomberg's tenure.

All things considered, you'd have to say that a sclerotic city has replaced what was once the nation's most vibrant metropolis, despite massive increases in public spending.

When you place education reform in this mix, a very different picture emerges. It isn't the great civil rights issue of the century. To call it that is an affront to those who fought, sacrificed, and even died to overturn racial segregation. It isn't the failed performance of the city's teachers that has led us this state of affairs. It is little more than the failure of publicly elected leaders to hire capable employees to carry out rational public policies.

Teachers didn't decree that students who make no academic progress can remain in school until the age of 21. Nor did they abolish the rigorous testing and hiring practices that existed under the defunct Board of Examiners and substitute a meaningless state teacher licensing examination process.

They didn't set policy that allows felons to go from jail to school and back to jail on a revolving door basis without establishing special programs that attempt to address soaring underclass crime rates. Teachers didn't make it all but impossible to expel a student. Teachers didn't foolishly destroy differentiated diplomas because to offer non-college bound programs to minority students was likened to racial profiling. Teachers didn't rip shop classes out of buildings. Teachers didn't dumb down the tests in order to inflate graduation rates. Neither did they invent phony "credit recovery" programs that allow students who hardly ever attended a class get credit for it by completing meaningless projects.

Large bureaucracies, which is what an urban school system is, among other things, are like an amoeba in the hands of the people in charge. Push it left, it moves left; push it right, it moves right. Split the amoeba in half and you'll have two amoebas. That is precisely what the school system has become, a socially engineered amoeba that has been pushed, pulled, and divided for decades.

The feigned outrage of politicians and reformers at the teachers, who have had their responsibilities increased over the past five decades, while their authority and legitimacy have been eroded in an inverse proportion, is nothing more than a macabre exercise in political nihilism. 

This treacherous assault on a vital public institution is little more than what Joseph Conrad described as, "Personal impulses disguised as creeds." I predict it will come back to haunt its perpetrators.

"... We but teach bloody instructions, which being taught return to plague the inventor." -- Macbeth by William Shakespeare.

Picture credits:

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The ignoble deny Nobile

Philip Nobile recently reported in these pages about his Step 1 grievance hearing, in which he attempted to prevent the DOE from sending him from his home in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn to the far reaches of Staten Island for one-week no-expenses-paid ATR assignments.  Like most Step 1 grievances, Nobile's was denied.  Here is his account of the proceedings. 

Bloomberg’s DOE is a take-no-prisoners operation with a wish list including testing around the clock, no tenure, swift terminations, an eight-page contract, public humiliation in the New York Post, closing and opening thirty-three restart and transformation schools pitting teacher against teacher in a struggle to keep their jobs, and the greatest wish of all, cleansing the city of half the teaching population. 

The Good Samaritan by Aimé Morot(1880) shows the
 Good Samaritan taking the injured man to the inn (wikipedia).
Nevertheless, the DOE had a chance to play Good Samaritan at my recent grievance regarding travel hardship, specifically sending me, an ATR, deep into Staten Island in conflict with Article 18B of the contract forbidding one-way commutes over 90 minutes by public transportation. Although ATRs are not mentioned in the contract and hardship travel was not grandfathered into the LIFO agreement that spawned our revolving weekly assignments, the DOE had no choice. 

On simple humanitarian grounds, the grievance would be granted. No teacher should be compelled to commute longer than the DOE and the UFT mutually considered too onerous. To condemn innocent ATRs to a subclass of teachers, forced some weeks to travel six or more hours, is surely beyond the hardest hearing officer’s heart. 

Then there is Lawrence Becker, CEO of the Division of Human Resources. A cold, fine-print rather than a big-picture guy, Mr. Becker reasoned in his February 10 decision that uninhibited travel was not a burden but a helping hand: 
Presumably if there was some qualifying language related to Article 18B for the weekly assignment of any ATRs, it would have been included in the ATR agreement. Alleging that the ATR agreement constitutes a hardship because the DOE is following it runs counter to the ATR agreement itself, whose intent is to try to place ATRs in positions and lower the numbers of ATRs in the system. In fact, this has been done to a degree never before reached with the number of ATRs dropping from as much as 2600 in July to below 1000 at the present time. 
This grievance is hereby denied. 

But not so fast. There is always Step 2, if the UFT goes along. The Brooklyn Grievance Committee would have to approve at its Monday meeting. Switching the gears of irony, I nudged them in an email that morning: 

To the Grievance Committee: 
The DOE's kneejerk denial of our Step 1 grievance on hardship travel for ATRs is no surprise. That's what happens in a dysfunctional school system where management and labor make war on each other. 

But it will be a surprise if your committee rejects a Step 2 appeal. The UFT has virtually abandoned us ATRs, not only brushing off our demand for full representation via chapters, but also refusing to have a second meeting in the boroughs to address our rising concerns (e.g., evaluations by field supervisors). 

I cannot even get Howie [Schoor, Brooklyn Borough Rep], who promised a follow-up meeting at the October gathering, to respond to my emails on the topic. He won't say yes, he won't say no, breaking another promise to respond quickly to ATR queries. 

This is your chance to show minimum solidarity for the least of the union brethren. Don't betray us again.
Thanks for your consideration. 


Not long after sunset, my District Representative, Tom Bennett, emailed the Committee’s decision: “The grievance committee has agreed to take your travel hardship grievance to step two. We’ll let you know what we get a hearing date.” 

Without giving away the UFT’s Step 2 strategy, it looks very promising. Becker’s reliance on the language of the ATR agreement will boomerang in next Monday’s hearing. Stay tuned.