Tag Archives: education

Everyone is an Expert at Everything

Frank Bruni on the phone with the New York Times.

Frank Bruni on the phone with the New York Times.

There are so many good takedowns of Frank Bruni’s New York Times piece supporting the Common Core that I did not bother to read it for myself until yesterday. I was glad I did. It gave me a bit of masochistic pleasure, like when you pick at a scab or push on an aching tooth. Bruni the food critic demonstrates the same thick assumptions and caricatured impressions of public schooling shared by many Common Core advocates. One only need to read the myriad comments under the article heaping praise upon him for confirming their own uninformed biases about youth, education and parents to get a glimpse of the armchair education expert parade in action.

Bruni introduces the Common Core thusly:

“The Common Core, a laudable set of guidelines that emphasize analytical thinking over rote memorization, has been adopted in more than 40 states.”

You can see Bruni contrasting the Common Core to some old, stuffy classroom where students practice mere “rote memorization”. Perhaps Bruni in his youth was forced to memorize state capitals or other such drudgery, so he assumes that most schools in most places today do the same thing. The only problem is, rote memorization is not the stuff of schooling today and has not been for some time. Teachers are being trained to “facilitate” discussion in groups and provide “inquiry-based” projects to their students. If he were to take a walk through any public school hallway in New York City, he would see bulletin boards filled with projects that required anything but rote memorization. We are no longer in the 1970s where students stood up at their desks to recite the state capitals or the elements of the periodic table while their spectacled female teacher sternly looks on brandishing a long wooden pointer. Education has not looked like this for some time.

Then there is the assertion that Common Core emphasizes “analytical thinking”. If one considers a mindless exercise in pulling ideas out of text in order to bubble in the correct answer on some exam “analytical thinking”, then Common Core does plenty of that. What it does not do is encourage kids to inquire, wonder, predict, question, investigate or understand the world around them. It does not link learning to life, past to present or education to citizenship. It is a ham-fisted impression of what some ivy-leaguers who never taught children consider “rigor”. But their version of rigor is not what most of them would recommend for their own children. This is a rigor designed for “those” children. “Those” children do not need actual joy in their learning. They need to stop the playtime and get back to basics. That is what Common Core is all about.

Bruni continues:

“Then there’s the outcry, equally reflective of the times, from adults who assert that kids aren’t enjoying school as much; feel a level of stress that they shouldn’t have to; are being judged too narrowly; and doubt their own mettle.

Aren’t aspects of school supposed to be relatively mirthless? Isn’t stress an acceptable byproduct of reaching higher and digging deeper? Aren’t certain fixed judgments inevitable? And isn’t mettle established through hard work?”

The answer, of course, is no. Since when did digging deep into a new topic entail “stress”? I got a degree in history because I love the subject. Never did I consider the papers, research or readings I had to do to learn my subject “stress”. Ever since college, I have been a voracious reader of history, philosophy, literature, economics, science and sundry other topics I never liked in school. Not once did I ever put the book down, wipe my brow and say to myself “wow, this is really stressful”. Learning is a joy. Gaining a deeper understanding of the world is empowering. Education should be about teachers who love learning imparting that joy to their students. How an educator does that is the art, the very essence, of teaching. It is an expression of this joy, and everyone expresses this joy differently. This is what makes teaching and learning an art.

Imagine walking into the classroom of a teacher who knows the activity they are mandated to teach by the Common Core will be “relatively mirthless”. How slow will the time go by? How much drudgery will be involved? The fact that Bruni and many others believe it is ok for learning to be stressful and mirthless speaks to the anti-intellectual mindset that pervades the United States. These are people who never really enjoyed learning. These are people who see education as something separate from the “real world”, as something that one must just “do” for the sake of doing it. What misery it would be if people like this ever became teachers. What misery it is for people like this to be making education policy for teachers and students.

Part of this is because Bruni seems to think the children of today are too “coddled”:

“AT a middle school near Boston not long ago, teachers and administrators noticed that children would frequently return from a classmate’s weekend bar mitzvah with commemorative T-shirts, swag that advertised a party to which many fellow students hadn’t been invited.

So administrators moved to ban the clothing.

They explained, in a letter to parents, that ‘while the students wearing the labeled clothing are all chatting excitedly,’ the students without it ‘tend to walk by, trying not to take notice.’ What an ordeal.”

Here is the oft-repeated bellyaching of old fogies against the idea of “self esteem”. Old people complaining about this perceived “self-esteem” craze is just the normal complaining all old people do, including even me from time to time, about how the youth of today are spoiled and somehow inferior to the best generation of youth to ever grace the planet, which is always somehow the generation of the person doing the complaining. “Back in my day, we didn’t get trophies for participating in soccer”. “Back in my day, we didn’t have internets and smart phones.” “Back in my day, my parents beat us with the switch and we were better for it.”

If one really spends time with young people, then one begins to see that not all youth have the same experience. Nor do youth have it “easier” than the rough and tumble youth of yesteryear who had to get their information from the library rather than Google. Try telling the youth who come home to an empty house everyday because their mother works 14 of every 24 hours that they have it “easy”. I bet “back in your day” you had a kiss on the cheek and a warm meal on the table waiting for you when you stepped through the door. Try telling the youth who have to walk home through crime-ridden streets everyday that they have it “easy”. I bet “back in your day” you had a car or a bus to shuttle you safely from door to door.

The fact of the matter is the youth of today do not have it any easier than we did growing up. This cult of “self-esteem” has been on the wane for quite some time now. Even when self-esteem was a big thing, youth still had to put up with a world that was in many ways crueler and more unfair than the world in which the old fogies complaining about self-esteem were raised. Try this on for size: childhood poverty has been on the rise for the past 35 years. Children of all colors in all areas have been losing ground, partially due to policies invented by out-of-touch elitists who thought their mommies were being coddled with government “handouts”.

In fact, Bruni’s major justification for the Common Core is that it is high time children stop being coddled. It is quite disturbing that we have reached an age in which thick, stereotypical impressions of what old farts think life is like for children can be used as a basis for major educational change. Bruni even defends Arne Duncan’s remarks about suburban white moms. However, suburban white students, not to mention wealthier white students, have not been losing ground at all. Their test scores and their academic achievement stack up quite well to students in other developed nations. Neither Bruni nor Duncan ever mention this very obvious fact.

One of the main problems is that Bruni, Duncan, David Coleman or Bill Gates have never been educators. One of the main problems is that every Tom, Dick and Harry who went to school believes they are qualified to make education policy. They are supported by other Toms, Dicks and Harries in the general public who also went to school. Bruni specifically is a food critic, yet he gets space in the so-called “paper of record” to wax stupidly about a subject he obviously knows nothing.

Does this mean that because I cook and eat food that I can be a food critic as well? Does this mean that I can be a critic of food critics?  How would Bruni respond if I supported a program to make food criticism more rigorous because these damned food critics get coddled all of the time when they go to restaurants? After all, all of the cooks and wait staff go out of their way to accommodate the high and mighty food critics when they enter a restaurant. Back in my day, the wait staff barely paid attention to me and the cooks left hairs in my soup. How will food ever get better in America if these critics keep getting a skewed version of what food is all about? Our cuisine is falling behind other nations. We must catch up to France!

And, come to think of it, I use computers every day, which makes me an expert in computer policy. Why does my version of Windows start running slow a week after I install it? Those lazy bums at Microsoft refuse to get off their duffs and do their jobs to protect my computer from viruses and adware. Microsoft should be split into smaller companies so designers can give individual attention to each computer. That way, the computers will never get a virus and Microsoft can compete with Apple in the 21st century. And to ensure these lazy designers do their jobs properly, I will fund merit pay schemes to reward the designers who can make the most bug-free operating systems. The ones who cannot can go dance for nickels on the subway for all I care.

See, it is easy to base opinions on thick assumptions and biases. Too bad these are the things on which education “reform” today is based.

What’s in a Test?

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Supporters of the Common Core have to reckon with one immutable truth: testing does not measure everything. Whether or not it measures anything important at all is up for debate. The fact that it does not measure everything is beyond dispute.

Last year I had a student in my 11th grade United States History class. Let us call her Tammy, which is not her real name. Tammy’s grades on homework assignments and exams were not the lowest and not the highest. From September until June she maintained a fairly average grade. I do not recall her bombing any exams or missing an appreciable amount of homework. She was consistently in the middle of the pack.

Tammy is a fairly typical student as well. She is into the same teenaged things that her peers also enjoy: the urban slang, the fashion, the music and everything else right on down the line. She strikes me as a student who, typically, sees school as something that people just do. I would imagine the prospect of going to school every day does not necessarily fill her with joy, nor does it fill her with dread.

In other words, Tammy is what you might call a kid who flies under the radar.

By the end of the year, however, she did break away from the pack in one important respect. Like many other history teachers, I try to infuse some current events into each lesson. Usually, this means shedding light on a particular modern-day problem which is a holdover from the past. This is a way to show students that history, especially American history, is not a neat straight line from barbarism to civilization. Not everything that happens is a step in an enlightened direction. Martin Luther King once said that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice. While this might be true, this arc is made up of small zig-zags and dead ends. These are the things to which I try to draw my students’ attention.

As time went on, Tammy seemed to really start to care about the problems that comprise the zig-zags and dead ends of the moral arc. She would ask questions that demonstrated this. Hers were not questions meant to clarify what was going to be on the next exam. Instead, she asked questions that showed she was starting to plumb the depths of the problems of the world around her. She seemed genuinely interested in injustices like poverty and racism that still dog the United States today, despite the portrayal in most textbooks that we have reached the end of history where these problems really no longer exist. Her mind seemed to be opening up to the world around her, which is always my number one goal for my students.

When it came time to take the United States Regents Exam in June, Tammy passed quite easily with a good grade. The only problem was that she had never passed the Global History Regents Exam from the previous year. She took it at the end of 10th grade, then in the summer between 10th and 11th grade, then in the middle of the 11th grade and then at the end of the 11th grade and she failed each time. In each case she got a grade in the lower 60s, which is to say that she barely failed.

The Global exam is a little tougher than the U.S. History exam. It tests a two-year curriculum as opposed to the one-year curriculum in U.S. History. It also demands a little bit of knowledge about every place in the world, as opposed to U.S. History that demands knowledge about one country. Students generally receive lower grades on the Global exam than the U.S. exam.

Unfortunately for Tammy, the Global exam is a requirement for graduation. She has completed every other class and Regents test required for graduation except for this one. This past summer, as she was waiting to take the latest version of the exam, I saw her in the lobby of the school with flash cards. It was obvious that she had been studying. It was also obvious that the exam was weighing heavily on her mind. She seemed genuinely concerned that she would not be able to graduate due to this test. She has two more cracks at this exam before she is scheduled to graduate in June. It would be a shame if one silly exam in one subject held her back from moving on.

Tammy’s situation is a perfect example of what is wrong with the obsession over standardized testing. Thanks to the Common Core and the Race to the Top teacher evaluations, students in each grade stand to be tested several times a year. These tests do not exist to help schools or students. They only serve to punish them. Students will be left back and teachers will be fired if kids fail these exams. It is the stick of education reform promising to beat us all over the heads.

How can you test the fact that Tammy started to gain an appreciation for American History? How can you test the fact that she started opening her mind to the world? In 5 or 10 years, Tammy might become deeply involved with some cause or dedicate her life to bettering the human condition in some way, all because of a seed that was planted in high school. There is no way to test that.

The corporate purveyors of standardized exams and the Neoliberal cheerleaders of Common Core do not care about any of these things. One can only surmise that they do not want teachers to plant seeds. Testing will do nothing but turn schools into test-prep centers. It will encourage no other goal than gaming the next exam. Despite their claims of preparing kids for the “21st century”, the Arne Duncans and David Colemans of the world only wish to prepare our kids for the next round of bubbles to be filled in. They only wish to encourage the type of myopic, short-term thinking that led to the Wall Street crash in 2008.

Just like the Common Core encourages kids to do, the Wall Street banksters who tanked the economy never looked beyond the slips of paper that were in front of them. Context and how their actions might be affecting the wider world did not register at all. The types of seeds their greed might have been planting were irrelevant to them. The education reformers, many of whom are straight from the financial world, wish to train the next generation to be exactly like them.

I sincerely hope Tammy is able to eke out a passing grade on the next Global exam. She should know that the fact she has not been able to reach some arbitrary cut-off number on a three-hour exam does not speak to her ability as a student or as a human being. It speaks to the twisted incentives put in place by those who run our education systems. She has done her part by coming to school, studying and waking up to the world around her.

Unfortunately, this testing craze is just beginning to heat up. The reformers are salting the earth to ensure that no seeds will ever be able to grow again.

Exclusive! My Interview with Arne Duncan

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sits down with the Assailed Teacher to answer the questions we all want to ask him.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sits down with the Assailed Teacher to answer the questions we’ve all wanted to ask him.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is facing some heat for his “white suburban moms” comment. As part of his public relations damage control, Secretary Duncan agreed to an interview with me. Below is a transcript of the interview in its entirety.

AT: Good evening Secretary Duncan and thank you for agreeing to this interview.

AD: Thank you for having me. I must say, you are much more overweight and slovenly than most other public school teachers. Perhaps you should come down to Washington so you can get in a few rounds of basketball with me and the President, fat boy.

AT: You know, it is comments like this that have gotten you into hot water lately. This past Friday you claimed that some critics of the Common Core Standards are “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — [are discovering] their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.” Would you care to elaborate on this Mr. Secretary?

AD: Certainly. See, some mothers just cannot bear to hear any negative news about their perfect little cherubs. Women, by nature, are irrational creatures with an overly optimistic view of their offspring. It takes someone like me, a man from the masculine financial world who now walks the halls of power in Washington, to tell them the reality. I made sure to look at the scores of the children of every single white mother who opposed the Common Core. Guess what? They are all from the suburbs and all of their scores suck. What I said might have been a bit brash, but it was true.

AT: Whoa! Let’s unpack that statement a little bit. First, I must say that your comments just now came off as incredibly sexist.

AD: So? Sexism is part of life. We want to prepare children for the 21st century. Guess what? Sexism exists in the 21st century. Look at Michael Bloomberg. This is a man who treats the women who work for him as his personal harem. He has been the mayor of the largest city in America for the first 12 years of the 21st century. Children need to learn that sexists can do anything, including become Mayor of New York or Secretary of Education.

AT: But your comments were incredibly racist as well. I mean, are there no minority mothers in the suburbs? Are there no white mothers in the cities? Are there no minority mothers anywhere who oppose the Common Core?

AD: Don’t be so quick to play the race card, fatty. Remember, I was appointed by the nation’s first black president and play basketball with him every morning. Everyone knows that these Common Core Standards were created to help minority children. In fact, all bold education reformers today care about minority children, unlike you fat, lazy teachers. No, no minorities anywhere oppose the Common Core. They all love and support it. Don’t you understand? With these standards, minority children in urban areas will have to be taught the same thing in the same way as white children in the suburbs. This ensures that all children, no matter their race, get a quality education. We don’t have to worry about ameliorating urban poverty or proving adequate resources to urban schools. It is enough for us to mandate every child get taught the same thing and, voila, equal education for all. It is so simple, I don’t know why we didn’t do it earlier.

"Perhaps you should come down to Washington so you can get in a few rounds of basketball with me and the President, fat boy."

“Perhaps you should come down to Washington so you can get in a few rounds of basketball with me and the President, fat boy.”

AT: From my understanding, we intend to determine if children are meeting these standards by subjecting them to standardized tests every year. In fact, your “white suburban moms” comment shows that you measure intelligence and the success of schools by test scores. Don’t you think testing only measures a very narrow conception of “intelligence”? Are you not afraid that the obsession with testing will cause teachers, parents and children to do nothing more than test prep for the 13 years they attend public schools?

AD: As I have said many times before, we are competing with the rest of the world. We live in a globalized economy. China is going to be kicking our butts soon if we don’t do something. That means we have to be more like China. Chinese students take many exams. They have a government that treats their people like disposable cogs in a machine. The only civil rights they have are the ones the Communist Party allow to exist. Those who protest or speak out against the government are systematically jailed, beaten, monitored or worse. These are recipes for success. Testing and test prep will ensure that public school students obediently follow orders. Reading informational texts, as the Common Core mandates, will destroy critical thinking and imagination. Why do we need those things in the 21st century? We don’t. Those things only lead the next generation to want to “Occupy Wall Street” or something. We want to prevent more Occupy Wall Streets in the future so we don’t have to have a Tiananmen Square. Do you catch my drift? So, yes, I concede the point that testing and Common Core narrows imagination and civic engagement. So what? Those are not necessary skills for the 21st century. Shut up. Fill in the bubbles. Believe everything that is written and don’t let your mind run too far. That is what our country needs to be successful. We will out-China China.

AT: And yet, by those very same measures you just mentioned, those white suburban children you criticized as being not so smart outperform children in most other nations. Our wealthy and middle class children do quite well on standardized exams when compared with the rest of the world. So what exactly do you mean that these white suburban moms are mistaken about the intelligence of their own children?

AD: Public schools are failing and that is that. I don’t have time to disaggregate test scores according to socioeconomic status. I am a busy man. In a few minutes, I am getting a massage paid for by the good people at Pearson. This weekend, I am going on a vacation funded by the good people at inBloom. Let the eggheads worry about things like statistics and research. I don’t have the time to go into which schools are failing and which schools are not. They are all failing. Everyone knows that. People on the right and left have all bought into the idea that public schools are pathetic failure factories with lazy unionized teachers like yourself. They need to be shut down and given over to the private sector. Pearson and inBloom and Michelle Rhee and the free market know how to run schools better than the government. I know because they told me. They told me with their money. They are all wealthy. You don’t get wealthy by being stupid. People with money are smarter and better than everyone else. Therefore, they should run the school system. If they did, then they could teach everyone to be wealthy and all of our problems would go away… Don’t look at me like that. I know what that look means. You think that my cozy relationship with the privatizers is causing me to say all of this. My response to you is: why do you hate America? Don’t you know the idea that our schools are failing is the one thing we can agree on as a country? Democrats and Republicans have been fighting it out on every single issue from climate change to healthcare to taxation. Are you not happy that we have this one thing that unites us all? Why do you want to cause division by casting doubt on the narrative that public schools are failing? They are failing. End of story. This message was brought to you by Pearson… Sorry, I get $100 bucks from them every time I say that.

"Shut up. Fill in the bubbles. Believe everything that is written and don't let your mind run too far. That is what our country needs to be successful. We will out-China China."

“Shut up. Fill in the bubbles. Believe everything that is written and don’t let your mind run too far. That is what our country needs to be successful. We will out-China China.”

AT: So, you do not believe that cushioning the ill effects of poverty or providing schools in poor communities with more resources before you heap irrational standards upon them is a more humane way to reform education?

AD: What kind of socialist garbage is that? Poor schools, poor communities, poverty in general, those are all excuses. Those are excuses poor people use to blame the system for their own failures rather than themselves. Those are excuses fat teachers like yourself use to explain away your own laziness and failures. This negative attitude and finger-pointing is exactly what is wrong with America. Turn that frown upside down. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Believe in the American Dream.

AT: So, you are saying that the rise in poverty that has taken place over the past 40 years is due to millions of Americans all of the sudden becoming lazy and negative? How about the stagnant wages and disappearing middle class? What about the fact that the average American worker is more productive now than ever before, yet also poorer now than ever before?

AD: See, this is an example of Americans being spoiled. Look at all of those fast food and Walmart workers who are trying to unionize. They don’t know how good they have it. I have traveled the world. I have seen people in other continents who live in houses without roofs, cities without sewage and countries without governments. All of these poor people in America who are complaining have roofs over their heads. They have access to public transportation. They can go to a hospital for healthcare. They urinate and excrete into toilet bowls. The fact that many of them excrete at all demonstrates that they all have food in their bellies, especially you fat boy. How great is America that everyone has the ability to excrete waste? How great is it that we can do so into a porcelain bowl? You can walk into any Starbucks and use their toilets. For absolutely free of charge, you can sit like royalty on one of their toilets and read the newspaper while doing your business. Heck, 99% of the time, it has free toilet paper, soap and water so you can clean up. You want to complain about poverty in America? You don’t know how good we have it here. You don’t know how good all of us have it here.

"How great is America that everyone has the ability to excrete waste? How great is it that we can do so into a porcelain bowl? You can walk into any Starbucks and use their toilets."

“How great is America that everyone has the ability to excrete waste? How great is it that we can do so into a porcelain bowl? You can walk into any Starbucks and use their toilets.”

AT: Should that really be the standard? The fact that people here don’t live in mud brick huts and use a hole in the ground as a bathroom seems like an awfully low standard. I thought you were all about raising standards? Why does that only apply to students, parents and teachers in public schools? Why does it not apply to the American way of life in general?

AD: You don’t get it. We are competing with the rest of the world. There are countries out there where people live like absolute paupers their entire lives. Americans should expect to do the same. You don’t see people in those countries complaining about their living conditions? They get by with what they have. We must imitate their model. That is what Common Core will do. It will train Americans to keep the “what ifs” out of their minds. It will prevent them from asking pesky questions. Don’t you know that most of the nations of the world have horrendous poverty and inequality caused by a greedy ruling class who only want more for themselves? We have the same thing here, only that there are people who want to unionize and “Occupy Wall Street”. We will never be able to compete with the rest of the world if the people in this country don’t accept their miserable lot. That is what Common Core is about. That is what Race to the Top is about. America will only race to the top once Americans accept the fact that they will always be at the bottom.

 

How the Common Core Closes Minds

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History does not repeat itself. Those who forget the mistakes of the past might not be doomed to repeat them.

Each historical era is its own world. It is fertile soil out of which the next historical era will grow. What one means by “era” wholly depends on what one is investigating. History is valuable not because it teaches sobering lessons, but because it explains the world in which we live today. In doing so, it might help point us to the future.

This means that every word that has ever been uttered, every action ever taken and every thought ever written cannot be properly understood without understanding the world out of which they grew. Some people might call this “context”. Certain philosophers might call this “structure”. Whatever one calls it, it is necessary to at least try to understand it in order to appreciate the events of the past.

That is why literalist interpretations of any historical text is the stuff of folly. Biblical literalists worship words written down during the 2nd century Roman Empire, and translated during Elizabethan England, without bothering to understand either of those worlds. Inevitably, they invest in these words meanings that only someone from 21st century America could comprehend. Another way of putting it is that Biblical literalists tend to plunder scripture in order to justify some previously arrived at bias.

It is probably even worse for people who fancy themselves Constitutional literalists. Typically, people who claim to only follow the letter of the Constitution keep some shadowy notion of 18th century America in the back of their minds. It is ironic that, whenever these literalists reveal their impressions of the Founding Fathers, the Fathers seem to hold the same exact biases as the literalists. Constitutional literalists plunder the Constitution and American history to justify positions conjured up in their 21st century American gut.

The historian Jack Rakove warned against literalist interpretations of the founding documents in his book Original Meanings. In his depiction of the Founding Fathers, he demonstrates that many of them said and meant different things at different times. Sometimes this was due to changes in their opinions. Most of the time, it was due to altering their message to gain approbation with whatever audience they were addressing at the moment. In terms of the Constitution, they realized they did not have everything figured out about how a republic such as the one they were making was supposed to work. For example, Article III, which deals with the federal court system, was vaguely short because they did not have a solid idea about how it would function or what its powers were. They left plenty of grey area in the Constitution in the faith that future generations would figure it out.

The Founding Fathers knew they did not have all of the answers. Unfortunately, many of us alive today are not smart enough to know that. They assume the Founders carefully placed in their words some definite and eternal meaning for ensuing generations to discover. The fact that the Founders wanted to leave enough room in the Constitution so their progeny could apply it to the unforeseen circumstances of the future is a sinful idea in literalist circles. To them, every word in the Constitution has a definite meaning by which those of us who live in the present must abide.

If the designers of the Common Core get their way, the next generation will be nothing but literalists. Take these standards from 11th and 12th grade social studies:

1) ” Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.”

2) ” Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.”

3) “Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.”

And it goes on like that. To the Common Core-istas, the text is everything. The audience for whom the text was written, the historical circumstances out of which the text arose, training the reader to recognize their own biases when reading the text, does not play a role whatsoever. As a teacher of history (not social studies), I know this is a myopic and plodding way to analyze any historical text. It is one of the most low-level exercises in which students can be engaged. Sure, we want students to be able to understand the meaning and structure of text. However, this understanding is just a preliminary point on the way to explaining why a particular text made sense within a particular historical moment. After this comes the questioning of the text. Not only do we wish to question the veracity of the text, we wish to question its place in history.

History teachers do these things with texts because we know it helps students recreate the past. We help students recreate the past because we want them to understand the present. We want them to understand the present because we want them to be engaged citizens. Revealingly, the word citizen does not appear once in the Common Core. There is much talk about primary and secondary sources and analyzing structure and providing evidence. There is nothing about civic values or engagement with the wider world. If we were to teach these things to students, they might start understanding their own places within our society. Heck, they might start writing texts of their own.

This seems to be the biggest fear of the Common Core crowd. This endless consumption of text is aimed at killing imagination. David Coleman, the man assumed to be the granddaddy of the CCSS, is notoriously repulsed by children using such squishy things as imagination and emotion. Apparently, there is no room for these things in the 21st century for which we are preparing our children. We want to train our children to be locked into the text. We want to train our children to be consumers of text.

But who will be writing the texts that our kids will read when they grow to be 21st century adults? What will be the veracity of these texts? Whose purposes do these texts serve? Why are these texts being produced at this particular historical moment?

The Common Core is silent on these questions. It is silent because they want our children to remain silent. The Common Core is designed to make silent consumers out of future generations. Only those who come from families with the wealth to avoid a Common Core education will be encouraged to innovate.

Danger: The Common Core Conspiracy

conspiracy-theories

The internet has enabled a whole new generation of kooky conspiracy theories.

As a student of history, I enjoy a good conspiracy. If we take the elastic definition of a conspiracy being a plan hatched between two or more people, then history is filled with them. However, modern-day conspiracy theory is the stuff of fantasy. The Illuminati, 9/11 “Truth” and practically every theory uttered by Alex Jones is part of this fantasy world. Conspiracy theories serve a valuable purpose for the power structure. They take people’s righteous anger against injustice and redirect it towards dead ends. In this way, they serve to deflect real challenges to the system.

Last year, I was reminded of another valuable purpose of conspiracy theories. I made a comment on a friend’s Facebook page about 9/11 being used as an excuse to attack Iraq. This, I assumed, was more or less an established fact. Yet, someone I did not know retorted that I was one of “those” crazy conspiracy nuts. Rather than try to explain myself out of a corner, I dismissed the person’s comment for the drivel it was. However, it was a reminder that conspiracies serve to delegitimize substantive criticisms of the existing order.

Part of the reason why people like Alex Jones are so appealing, and so dangerous, is that there is a certain amount of truth to what they say. There are many facts interlaced within Alex Jones’ phantasmagorical rants. The problem lies in the way he arranges and interprets those facts. If Congress starts debating gun control in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, then it must mean that Newtown was a “false flag” operation designed to give the government an excuse to infringe on 2nd Amendment rights. Furthermore, the sweep of what people like Alex Jones say is more or less true. Our rights are being eroded. Our democracy is getting weaker. The Average Joe is losing ground. The future for many of us does look bleak. People have a visceral sense that something is wrong with our country. Alex Jones and others prey upon that general feeling to paint a simplified version of a much more complex reality, while enriching themselves in the process.

Existing on another conspiracy plane are the Glen Beck types. Instead of an all-powerful Illuminati controlling everything, he believes there is some vast liberal conspiracy to take over the world. In this version, Obama is the leading edge of a Marxist intellectual elitist liberal socialist Muslim radical plot to destroy the United States. There is a pronounced streak of conspiratorial thinking in the entire Tea Party movement.

Unfortunately, the Glen Becks and Tea Partiers of America are making it difficult to oppose the Common Core State Standards. Featured in the Huffington Post’s Education section is the story of Janet Wilson. Janet Wilson is a mother from Upstate New York who helped start a protest where parents will keep their kids home on November 18 to show their disapproval of the Common Core. The Huffington Post makes much of the fact that the woman is a Christian who sees it as her God-given duty to stop the Common Core. The piece goes on to point out some other critics of the CCSS:

Wilson is part of what she sees as a growing movement of parents speaking out against the Common Core Standards. Groups like Americans For Prosperity have sponsored previous anti-Common Core efforts, but Wilson is operating on the grassroots level.

Later in the article is quoted a supporter of the Common Core:

Petrilli, who has come out in favor of the standards, said that in his experience some of the most vocal Common Core opponents do not have their children in public schools. Notably, Wilson said that she is going to home-school her child, who is not yet school-aged.

The inference that the Huffington Post makes in this article is undeniable: critics of the Common Core are fringe right-wing kooks and idiots. Reasonable people on the right and left support it.

Judging from the comments, the article had its desired effect. Here are just some of the reactions of Huff Po’s left-leaning readership to Janet Wilson:

“the US is currently ranked in the mid 20s in education globally the common core curriculum is a necessity at this point …and these ppl are def part of the reason for are terrible educational ranking”

“No wonder why they remain uneducated…”

“Without a doubt, this lady has not once looked at the Standards themselves. She is simply following the hysteria from the talking heads.

Anyone who 1) Is rational and 2) is honest would look at those standards and say they are good and reasonable. They may be tough to teach at some grade levels, but one needs to start somewhere!

Being able to read in context, express ideas, accurately describe the way an idea is communicated — those are very good things.

But the Fundamentalist community hates and fears education. For them, education which teaches children to think, to question, to analyze, and to investigate is dangerous. They want to teach children to memorize, to accept rules blindly because they are the rules, and to never investigate otherwise. To do so is to question authority.

Education teaches us that our parents — and even our teachers — can be wrong and often are wrong. As parents and teachers, we should want our children and students to understand what we are teaching them, but also to go beyond, to create knowledge and understanding in better ways. Those who do not want that have missed the point altogether.

The more I look at the Common Core, the more I like it. It is not perfect, but it is an improvement over the chaos that rules state curricula.”

“Rational” folk all support the Common Core. Being against the CCSS means being against “high standards”. It means being anti-intellectual. It means being a wing nut, Christian fundamentalist, homeschooling, evolution-denying troglodyte.

Glen Beck himself has contributed to this impression that people have of CCSS’s opponents. Beck began one of his criticisms of the Common Core by saying “it is how every Marxist utopia begins.” In his mind, Common Core is “indoctrination”. Of course, the implication is that it is indoctrination into a Godless Marxist frame of mind that will brainwash the next generation with sinister values.

At one point I believed that it would be useful for educators to make common cause with Tea Partiers against the Common Core. However, the twisted logic of people like Glen Beck can only serve to hamper our efforts. Like most conspiracy theories, their ideas can only delegitimize our own very real and very substantial fears about the Common Core.

Sometimes all that matters is that two groups who otherwise disagree on most other things can make common cause against a perceived evil. In this case, the reasons why many people on the right oppose the Common Core can be toxic. They run the risk of making any criticism a laughing stock. Educators need to distance themselves from these people immediately. We need to expressly say that we are not with those people over there who believe that the CCSS is some evil Marxist plot.

That is not to say we cannot make common cause with people on the right. I am sure there are plenty of conservatives who oppose CCSS on the grounds that it violates some sacred wall of federalism. While we do not have to agree with their reasoning, at least this line of thinking is not totally guano insane that it will make anyone associated with them look like members of the tin foil hat club.

Not only are these kooky fears about the Common Core dangerous in and of themselves, they are dangerous when contrasted with those who support the Common Core. President Obama, Republican governors and leaders in business and government are all on board. Anyone not familiar with education policy can look around and draw the conclusion that all of the reasonable people are for it. Hearing the likes of Glen Beck would only confirm their suspicions that it is nut jobs who oppose such a common sense thing as “raising standards” for students.

I see a real danger in the Tea Party opposition to Common Core. They are the axle grease on public opinion preventing educators from gaining any real traction with building widespread opposition to CCSS. We need to point out how CCSS is developmentally inappropriate for young children. We need to point out how CCSS exalts a very narrow interpretation of “understanding”. We need to point out how the CCSS is married to standardized testing. These will differentiate us from the Glen Becks of the world.

Most importantly, we need to tell the history of national standards. In the 1990s, the movement for national standards was tied to the movement for equitable school funding. It was a way to improve education in states that suffered from the legacy of Jim Crow, as well as de facto segregation. In short, national standards used to be a movement for social justice. However, we have discarded the prospect of equitable funding to the point that it is not even part of the discourse anymore. All we are left with are a bunch of poorly thought out, developmentally inappropriate “standards” that will do nothing but narrow the curriculum and institutionalize a two-tiered education system: the wealthy get a broad curriculum and the rest get Common Core.

We must hammer this point home every chance we get. More than anything else, it will differentiate us from the Tea Party conspiracies. It will put us back on the right side of the debate. It will win over so-called “liberals” and people associated with the “reasonable center” (the gooey center, in reality).

Sometimes it is not productive to take on strange bedfellows. We might wake up the next morning with regrets.

What the New UFT Contract SHOULD Look Like

Michael Mulgrew attentively listens to my suggestions for a new UFT contract while also plotting how to kill me in my sleep.

Michael Mulgrew attentively listens to my suggestions for a new UFT contract while also plotting how to kill me in my sleep.

Talk of what a new UFT contract negotiated with Bill de Blasio will look like is rampant. Teachers have a sense that, finally, we can deal with a mayor who negotiates in good faith. At the last Delegate Assembly our fearful leader, Michael Mulgrew, alluded to a contract filled with dollar signs. My advice to New York City teachers is: DON’T FALL FOR IT.

I know we are all poorer than we were three years ago thanks to stagnant salaries and a skyrocketing cost of living. It is easy to salivate over the prospect of a wage increase that can keep up with the rent. For my part, having to move several times in the past few years and family issues have put me squarely in the pauper’s house. I will gladly remain a pauper and forgo loads of money in exchange for a contract that restores some form of dignity to the teaching profession. Below are just some of the things for which the UFT should fight in the next contract.

1. Anti-Bullying Clause

Every school now seems to have signs warning people against bullying behavior. At the same time, many of these schools have seen systematic harassment of teachers at the hands of administrators. It is not just that administrators face no repercussions for bullying teachers. It is that there are some administrators who believe that the more teacher heads they deliver on platters, the more brownie points they win with Tweed. Any anti-bullying campaign is meaningless without a clause in our contract that protects us from the bullying behavior of administrators. The UFT should make their vast legal department available to teachers who wish to file lawsuits against administrators who discriminate based upon age or race, or who sexually harass members of their staff with impunity. Schools should no longer be fiefdoms where petty bureaucrats wield absolute power.

2. Complete Opting Out of Race to the Top

Some school districts have already started opting out of New York State’s involvement in the Race to the Top debacle. We should look to these school districts as examples. First, opting out will protect sensitive data about our students from being the plaything of private corporations. Second, it will get rid of the ridiculous evaluation system that requires administrators to check off boxes, students to fill in bubbles and teachers to be rated by test scores of students they never taught. Third, it will prevent the horror that is Common Core from overtaking our schools. Kindergarteners will not have to learn fractions, teachers will not have to worry over whether or not they are using enough “informational texts” and some semblance of joy can be preserved in teaching and learning. Finally, opting out of RTTT will help stem the charter school craze that was a hallmark of the Bloomberg Administration. If Bill de Blasio wants to solidify his credentials as a true progressive, opting out of Race to the Top is the easiest way for him to do it. The only question is: will the UFT even push for this at the negotiating table?

3. No More Circular 6

Circular 6 has been the bane of many-a-teacher’s existence for some time now. This is the provision that requires teachers to do meaningless make work during certain times of the day instead of grading or preparing lessons. Cafeteria duty, hallway patrol, bus duty and the rest have enabled administrators to cut back on deans and other support staff. This might be good for slashing budgets but it has helped erode discipline and school tone. Circular 6 is one of the largest morale-crushers in the DOE and it will not be missed by anyone aside from administrators who enjoy making their staffs jump through meaningless hoops.

4. Restore the right to grieve letters in the file

The “letter in the file” is one of the most popular disciplinary tools administrators have at their disposal. There was a time when administrators reserved letters in the file for rather serious infractions. This was partially due to the fact that teachers had the right to grieve them, which could end in getting the letter removed. Ever since Randi Weingarten negotiated away the right to grieve letters in the file, administrators have seen fit to write teachers up for things like talking at staff meetings, smoking near (not within) the 100 feet from school grounds required by Chancellor’s Regulations or any other silly “infraction” dreamed up in the minds of petty bureaucrats. It is important to note that Randi negotiated this right away in exchange for more money. This contract should totally reverse Randi’s blunder: sacrifice the money for the protection.

5. Restore the integrity of the 3020a and investigation process

One of the dirty big secrets of Bloomberg’s DOE has been the exponential growth of the teacher trials unit. There are more lawyers, arbitrators and investigators employed by the DOE than ever before. All of these people have one job: to destroy the careers of teachers. The stories of Christine Rubino and David Suker should be proof enough for the union that the 3020a process needs serious reform. First, Richard Condon must be fired. He is the Special Commissioner of Investigation and is responsible for sending the goon squads over to the houses of teachers to rummage through their garbage and stalk their teenaged daughters (both of which have happened). SCI’s staff needs to be cut at least in half, if not more. Second, the rule that any teacher under investigation must be taken out of the classroom and reassigned needs to go. That rule was originally put in place for teachers who were accused of things that potentially made them dangerous to children. Now, as the case of Francesco Portelos proves, teachers can be reassigned for any infraction, even if none of them have to do with children. This is one of the most lethal weapons at the disposal of administrators and SCI and has ruined the careers of too many good educators. Finally, the arbitrators need to be properly vetted and qualified. DOE arbitrators used to have reputations of solid gold. Now, many arbitrators do the bidding of the DOE knowing that they run the risk of not getting paid if they do not. Arbitrator salaries need to be reduced and guaranteed so they cannot be cowed to do the DOE’s bidding.

6. Placement of all ATRs

The other dirty big secret of the DOE is the Absent Teacher Reserve. Teachers who managed to not get fired after being hit with frivolous SCI charges or teachers who were given the axe when Bloomberg saw fit to shut down their schools have been forced to rotate schools month-to-month in a sort of teacher purgatory. Since reliable statistics about ATRs do not exist, we do not know exactly how many of them are in the system and what their age and racial makeup are. It is amazing that in the era of data, do data on ATRs is available. Is this because these statistics would leave the DOE and UFT open to all types of discrimination lawsuits? All ATRs should be placed in schools with openings immediately. Furthermore, an investigation into how many ATRs are over 50 and/or minority should be conducted so that teachers can join in a discrimination lawsuit if they so desire.

7. Iron-Clad Contract

It needs to be clarified that contracts that have been collectively bargained have the force of law that can only be abrogated by another collectively bargained contract. This would prevent another set of laws from passing the state legislature like the ones passed to bring New York into compliance with Race to the Top. The Race to the Top’s laws regarding teacher evaluations and tenure rights effectively changed provisions in the existing contract. This set a dangerous precedent. Something like this should never happen again. The union needs to maintain the integrity of collective bargaining. They failed to so the first time around. Let us see if they can get it right this time. As an addendum to this, the nature of “binding arbitration” should also be clarified. Arbitrators need to be independent and neutral, meaning they cannot be part of management at either the city or state level. This will prevent another John King-imposed evaluation debacle that was the result of the UFT’s failure to defend their collective bargaining rights. Again, how likely is it that the UFT will push for this come contract time? The fact that they have so willingly compromised the integrity of collective bargaining, which is the fundamental right of all labor unions, should be a cause of concern to every teacher in NYC.

8. Rational Path to Tenure

New teachers are being denied tenure at a ridiculous rate. It has become the unwritten policy of the DOE to deny tenure to as many teachers as possible, the so-called “four-year-and-out” rule. The entire portfolio system needs to be scrapped. If an administrator needs to see a portfolio to determine if a teacher who has worked under them for three years is deserving of tenure, then they are not much of an administrator. Tenure needs to be based on administrator observations and possibly the observations of veteran teachers. Over 60% of the teachers currently teaching in NYC came in under Bloomberg, which speaks to an absurd rate of turnover. We need to retain dedicated and capable people. Systematically denying new teachers tenure makes as little sense as systematically granting them tenure.

These are just some of the things for which I would forgo money in the next contract. Of course, many of these things depend on reforms that need to be made in the DOE itself, which is a matter for another post. Sadly, my biggest worry is that our union will not even fight for these provisions. It is a shame because Bill de Blasio could score some political points if he could turn to the media and say he did not give teachers a fat raise or retroactive pay. He could avoid accusations of being a squishy, union-coddling liberal. At the same time, the UFT could strengthen their own position with all of these provisions. Most importantly, these changes would restore some dignity and independence to the teaching profession. This would end up improving education for all children in NYC, which is what really matters in the end.

 

The Power of Opting Out

There is always a choice.

There is always a choice.

This piece was originally written for Schoolbook who did not see fit to pick it up. Why let it go to waste? 

Opting out is becoming a form of educational civil disobedience.

Certain school districts in upstate New York are starting to opt out of the new teacher evaluation system mandated by Race to the Top. A group of courageous parents in Washington Heights recently opted their children out of a standardized exam that was being given for no other reason than to evaluate their teachers. A nationwide opt out movement has been afoot for some time as a response to the testing mania that has accompanied the current wave of education reform.

Opting out is empowering because it shows the rest of us, whether we are parents, students or educators, that we still have choices in an era of so much top-down control of our education system.

Teachers should take heart from these examples. I teach history in a solid public high school with wonderful students. The new Race to the Top evaluations are subjecting my students to more testing than ever before. It breaks my heart to see them spending so much time filling in bubbles when they can be in a classroom engaged in actual learning.

As teachers, our ratings and livelihoods hinge upon how our students fair on these exams. On top of this, our administrators have to observe our teaching more than they ever have before. Many of my colleagues have been scrambling to bring their teaching in line with the new evaluation regime. For my part, I have decided to opt out.

Sure, I cannot prevent my administrators from walking into my classroom to observe me. I cannot prevent my students from wasting their time taking exams. But I can prevent myself from scrambling to conform with a system that I know for a fact to be odious and destructive.

Teaching is the only career I have ever had. All of my teaching years, 14 to be exact, have been spent in New York City’s Department of Education. My methods have been informed by the veteran teachers who took the time to mentor me when I was green. My style has been shaped by the countless students who have let me know, one way or another, what works and what does not work. If not for my colleagues and my students, I would not be the teacher that I am today.

This is why I have decided to make no compromises with the new evaluation regime. I will not allow the regime to change a single thing I do as a teacher. I owe it to my colleagues to opt out in this way in order to give them hope that we do not have to give ourselves over to this new system. I owe it to my students to shield them, as much as possible, from the odious effects of this so-called “reform”.

This does not mean that I will not take risks with new materials, assessments or approaches to teaching. It is quite the opposite. A good teacher modifies and refines their style all of the time. What it does mean is that the changes I make will in no way be informed by the new system. Instead, I will continue to listen to my colleagues and students the way I have been doing for the past 14 years. This is what opting out means to me.

Bureaucracies, especially one as unwieldy as the Department of Education, have a tendency to make us feel as if we do not have choices in what we do. There are always choices. Sure, all of us have to make certain compromises in order to get along in the system. I have made the decision to make as few compromises as possible when it comes to the quality of education my students receive. This new system requires too many unacceptable compromises of me. Therefore, I will merely opt out of this system by pretending it does not exist in my classroom.

If this results in me being rated “ineffective” then so be it. At least I can sleep at night knowing I did right by the students I serve.

The Gooey Center: More Goo Than Center

This is your brain on education reform.

This is your brain on education reform.

I happen to believe that Americans who consider themselves political “centrists” are the intellectual midgets of the electorate.

Centrists and Democrats love to decry Tea Party types as the dumb ones. Sure, they show up to rallies with misspelled signs and tell the government to get their hands off of their Medicare. Obviously, their ideas are force fed to them by Fox News, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Definitely, they have been voting against their own interests by electing Koch brother-funded troglodytes to local and national office. Worst of all, there is a streak of understated fascism in everything they say. Their vitriol against President Obama is punctuated by dog whistle racism. However, there is one thing that recommends them to me better than self-professed centrists: their vile ideas at least have conviction.

That is to say, Tea Partiers do not delude themselves into thinking they are open-minded. Many might even tell you they are proudly close-minded, which might be synonyms to them for being simple or traditional. At least one knows where one stands with them. Someone like me in their eyes would be just another big city, northeastern leftist who drinks lattes and wants to redistribute other people’s wealth. I respect this characterization, especially considering how it is not totally inaccurate.

Centrists, on the other hand, live in the delusion that they are fair and rational. They believe that listening to “both sides” and taking a little from each is Solomon-like. The past does not exist to these people. The notion that political discourse has been manufactured in such a way over the past 40 years that today’s Democrats were yesterday’s Republicans and today’s Republicans were yesterday’s frothing crypto-fascists does not exist in their world. Obamacare to them is a liberal program, despite the fact that it was created by a Republican think tank and implemented first by a Republican governor. To today’s centrists, the past does not exist and the present is merely an exercise in splitting the baby.

There is no other area of public concern in which centrists have run amok more than education policy. My favorite poster child for this type of centrist is Andrew Rotherham, a centrist Democrat who runs the Eduwonk blog and a reliable cheerleader for the cause of education reform.

Yesterday, Rotherham linked to an article from Politifact that ham-fistedly claimed Diane Ravitch’s interpretation of the NAEP scores in Reign of Error was “mostly false” .  Diane herself ably destroyed this claim. Both Rotherham and Politifact pride themselves on being rational centrists. Unfortunately, their attempt to split the baby of education policy does nothing but put them squarely on the side of education reform. It is unfortunate because education reform, as it is understood today, is a wholly radical endeavor.

Nothing captures the self-satisfied  attitude of education centrists than the comment left under Rotherham’s link:

” I completely agree about the confusion. I heard Ravitch speak last week in DC and found her rhetoric though inspirational at times, mostly divisive and combative, I have seen the same dramatics from hearing the reformers speak as well. I feel that the idea of proving one side right or wrong by cherry picking which test scores to use and which school systems to look at is almost completely missing the point. We aren’t in politics, we are in education. And as educators we need to do what we preach, work together, to find a solution.

I will continue to be optimistic and hope that one day Ravitch and Kopp will start a campaign to simply get all passionate educators talking to work together. That’s my two cents.”

This sounds like a laudable goal until one digs beneath what the commenter is actually saying. He essentially wants all educators to “work together”. Under the label of “educator” he includes Diane Ravitch, a professor of education, a former cabinet member in the Department of Education and someone who specializes in researching the history of education. On the other hand, he includes Wendy Kopp, a woman who wrote a thesis in Princeton on education, got millions of dollars to put her thesis into action and has been busily peddling her money-fueled program to school districts all around the country.

This is the first problem with education centrists. Anyone who has an opinion on education automatically becomes an “educator”. All opinions are valid, no matter the credentials, experience or motives of the person offering the opinion. Diane Ravitch is put on a par with Wendy Kopp or Michelle Rhee or anyone else who has jumped into the world of education policy without spending any appreciable period of time in a classroom teaching students. In this way, education centrists are just like political centrists who put Fox News, MSNBC and CNN all on the same par and believe the truth lies somewhere in between them.

Just like Fox News represents what used to be considered a radical brand of conservatism, Kopp, Rhee and others who have made millions from dabbling in education policy are arms of a decidedly radical brand of reform. Much like Fox News, their radicalism is a radical capitalism or, more specifically, radical corporatism.

Kopp and Rhee essentially advocate for a temporary, low-skilled and low-paid work force of teachers. Trade unionism and professional experience to them are not only antiquated notions, but notions antithetical to the types of reforms they wish to institute. It is the educational equivalent to the state of peonage to which big chains like Walmart reduce their own workers.

This type of workforce is in itself a reflection of a radicalized form of capitalism. Add to this the private charter and online schools that are hallmarks of education reform. Add to this still the standardized exams for students and prospective teachers created by private corporations. Finally, to top it all off, throw in private education data companies who wish to compile all types of sensitive information on children. What you have is a neat program of privatization punctuated by a creepy type of corporate surveillance. It is a wholly radical scheme.

Karl Marx rightfully saw capitalism as a revolutionary force. It seeks to turn everything into a commodity, whether consumer products, the natural world or education. Left unchecked or, even worse, aided by the power of the state, capitalism has the potential to dominate every facet of human life and civilization. The move to privatize education is of the same ilk as the move to privatize prisons. Both of these developments are part of a wider historical epoch that has seen the growth of massive multinational corporations. Education reformers are revolutionaries who champion the growth of unaccountable private power.

This is why people who strive for some sort of gooey center in education policy effectively turn out to be education corporatists. They accept the underpinnings of education “reform” and then expect its opponents to meet them halfway. However, there is no meeting a revolutionary force halfway. Once one accepts its legitimacy, one automatically rejects any opposition. Indeed, that is the very definition of revolution. It is major, historical change. One is either with it or one is against it.  This is the decision that the privatizers of education have forced people to make. Those who consider themselves part of the gooey educational center have already cast their lot in with the revolutionaries.

Yet, centrists in both politics and education serve the purpose of making the opponents of revolutionary radicals seem like nutty, fringe characters. Political centrists today accept the legitimacy of the far right that has masked itself as modern conservatism. This means that radical leftists, or even legitimate liberals, are off the political spectrum and not part of civilized political discourse. They locate themselves within a very narrow range of political thinking that goes from far right crypto-fascists to centrist Democrats. This basically gives the field over to the political right.

This is why education centrists see people like Diane Ravitch as “divisive” or “radical”. They have already accepted that education reform is true reform and not revolution. They fail to see the greater revolutionary force of which education reform is a part. In so doing, they have inoculated themselves from seeing the validity in any of Ravitch’s, or any other public education advocate’s, ideas. To them, it is only a matter of total reform or less reform. If they were alive during the French Revolution, they would be debating over whether Robespierre should behead 100,000 people or 20,000 people and think of themselves as fair minded if they believed he should only kill 50,000. Whether anyone should be beheaded at all, or if Robespierre should even be in power, they would consider the talk of divisive fringe characters.

Education centrists, much like political centrists, should be disregarded as the vacuous tools they are. They do not have to be won over because they have already internalized the assumptions of a radical ideology. Instead, true defenders of public education should speak to the vast majority of Americans who have not been steeped in the doublespeak that passes for education policy in this day and age. This is the audience that Reign of Error seeks to reach, which is why it is scaring so many reformers.

Do not aim to be a centrist in anything. Instead, take a peek under the accepted paradigms and figure out whose purpose it serves.

Small High Schools are Better, Say Small School Advocates

Economists are the priests of capitalism, and education reform.

Economists are the priests of capitalism, and education reform.

Both the Daily News and New York Post touted a study carried out by researchers from MIT and Duke that found Bloomberg’s small high schools to be more successful than their larger counterparts. As someone who has worked in small high schools, the findings of this study do not have the ring of truth. So, I decided to slog my way through it to see what it says for myself.

The researchers at MIT measure “success” by Regents scores and college admissions. This means that they have a myopic focus on the core subjects. The fact that the arts have been disappearing from all high schools, especially the smaller ones, does not register a blip anywhere in this study. They also make no mention of the dearth of enrichment programs at smaller schools, a dearth caused by their small size. Smaller schools do not have the pool of talent and resources that larger schools used to have to build things like debate or football teams. The study makes much of the idea that smaller schools have “themes” but never assess whether or not these themes truly reflect what goes on in these schools. It is just taken as an article of faith that schools with “technology” in their titles teach students technology, or schools with “leadership” teach leadership and so on. While this faith is troubling, one must keep in mind this study was carried out by economists, probably the most faith-based of all the social sciences.

One glaring shortcoming of the study is that it does not measure the scores of students with special needs in smaller high schools. This includes English Language Learners. According to the paper:

“Students who were special education and limited English proficient were manually placed into programs that could accommodate them and were therefore  not always subject to assignment based on lotteries. As a result, no students who are special education and limited English proficient are in the lottery sample.”

The “lottery sample” to which they refer makes up the bulk of the small school students that are being measured. On the other hand, they did not exclude a similar proportion of special needs students and English Language Learners from their sample of students from larger schools. To say this might end up skewing the results of this study is an understatement.

One of the findings of the study is that students and parents felt safer in smaller schools according to the Learning Environment Surveys. They do not mention the percentage of students and parents who fill out these surveys, which is typically a very small amount of the overall population. Is it really reflective of the overall attitude towards the school if 5% of the families who attend it feel safe?

If the learning environment is so good in these schools, then how can this be explained?

“Small school teachers often had to take on administrative roles given the reduced staffing at small schools, and additional work requirements may have lead to higher turnover rates (Hemphill and Nauer, 2009). The estimate in Table 3 implies that 28% of teachers were not teaching at schools attended by offered complies in the following year, while 19% of teachers were not teaching at schools attended by non-offered compliers in the following year.”

So, the yearly turnover rate at these small schools is between 19 and 28 percent and the researchers backhandedly chalk this up to teachers at these schools having to take on administrative roles. This puts a shiny gloss on a much uglier reality. New teachers being unprepared for the classroom, systematic harassment, denial of tenure and expectations by administrators that teachers work overtime for free are not mentioned anywhere in this study, although they are pervasive problems throughout the system. This calls into question the rigor and objectivity of this study.

And what of the fantastic gains of the schools that were studied? According to the Daily News article:

” Researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Duke University found that city students who attend small high schools established by Bloomberg are 9% more likely to receive high school diplomas and 7% more likely to attend college, compared with students who attend older, larger city high schools.”

Therefore, these schools in which the scores of special needs students and English Language Learners were not counted, were a whopping 9% more likely to graduate students and 7% more likely to have graduates who attend college. These numbers should be put into perspective.

First, many of the large schools to which these smaller schools were compared have become little more than dumping grounds for the Bloomberg administration. As is the case with Long Island City High School, many of the larger schools have much higher numbers of special needs students and higher rates of overcrowding. It has been the DOE’s tactic to set large schools up for failure in this way so that they have an excuse to close them down, chop them up and, in many cases, move in charter schools. Furthermore, as the study states, many of these smaller schools benefit from the largesse of philanthropic organizations like the Gates Foundation. The study did not take these funding disparities into account.

Therefore, after all of these advantages, and after all of the ways this study skews the playing field in the favor of small schools, they are still only 9% more likely to graduate students. They do this without providing the type of enrichment activities that were possible with larger schools. This makes these smaller schools little more than diploma mills, and not very effective ones at that.

Rising graduation rates or college admissions is in no way a measure of success. It is usually more indicative of lower standards, which we see in the increasing number of incoming CUNY freshmen in need of remedial classes. It is interesting that this study does not delve into which colleges the graduates of small schools are accepted. Are these two-year or four-year colleges? Are they being admitted to Hostos or Hunter? These are things that would have given a more accurate picture of the types of graduates coming out of the small schools.

The worst part of this study is not the obvious bias in favor of small schools. It is how the miniscule gains it finds in these small schools, gains in a very limited scope of categories, is seen as success. There is no attempt to put things into context. There is no attempt to ask the question: was killing off most of the large high schools, firing hundreds of teachers, shuffling around thousands of students and bringing in countless unqualified administrators all worth these 9% gains in graduation and 7% gains in college admissions? Or how about: was the destruction of the enrichment activities that came with larger schools worth it?

These are the types of questions that must be asked when assessing Bloomberg’s legacy for New York City’s public schools. Given the advantages heaped upon the small schools in this study, it is more likely the case that so-called “achievement” of New York City students is no different that it was 12 years ago. The study itself gives an indication of this when it mentions that SAT and PSAT scores, the only statistics not open to manipulation by the Department of Education, have remained stagnant.

That means the Bloomberg legacy is one of aimless destruction. It means that Bloomberg subjected the children of NYC to never-ending upheaval in their schools for what purpose? There are more administrators in the system than ever before. There is more teacher turnover than ever before. There are more no-bid contracts in the DOE than ever before. When all of these factors are put together, it means that Bloomberg oversaw the creation of a pliant teaching force under the thumb of unqualified administrators who helped institute a program of privatization in our public schools. He turned education in NYC into a gold mine for his billionaire friends.

The scariest part about all of this is that it only promises to get worse. Even if Bill de Blasio is the progressive white knight that many people think he is (which is quite doubtful), he can still do only so much to undo the damage of 12 years of Bloomberg. He still has to contend with reforms coming from the state and federal level over which he has very little control. Those reforms only promise to exacerbate the damage done by Pharaoh Bloomberg.

Economists all too often act as lickspittles for the moneyed elite. This study is just another example of that.

 

 

A Case for Teacher Tenure: The David Suker Story

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PART I (Lessons from a Bureaucracy)

David Suker is a New York City native. When it came time for him to choose a college, this young white man opted for Howard University, one of the most prestigious black colleges in the nation. He disliked the de facto segregation in the schools he attended here in New York, so he placed himself in a completely different educational setting when he got the chance.

This type of awareness is rare for someone so young. It is even rarer for someone so young to allow this awareness to guide him in making such a major life decision. Two decades later, it would be this awareness and courage that got David Suker terminated from his position as a teacher in the New York City Department of Education.

Shortly after graduating college, David returned to New York as a newly minted history teacher. He sought to make an impact on the school system that was so repugnant to his sense of justice. It was 1998 and New York City’s school system was called the Board of Education. By that time, the Board had earned a reputation as an inefficient and incompetent government bureaucracy that had outlived its usefulness in the private sector worshipping decade of the 1990s.

But David Suker’s problems with the Board of Education were not born out of impatience with the fact that it did not operate like a sleek corporation. His problems stemmed from being a first-hand witness to the injustice it perpetuated. The booming economy of the 1990s caused a teacher shortage, which meant that David could have plied his trade in almost any school he desired. What does it say about his character that he chose to start his career at a juvenile detention center in the Bronx, a place even the most fearless teachers dare not tread? While the education reformers were meeting around oaken conference tables scheming over how to remake the school system in their own image, David Suker would be meeting with the most forgotten children in the city to help them remake themselves.

It did not take long for him to witness as a teacher the types of injustices in the school system that had so repulsed him as a student. The children he was teaching in the detention center were being routinely brutalized by the corrections officers. When David questioned why this was being tolerated, he was promptly reassigned to an offsite office in order to shut him up. A week later, a principal named Robert Zweig picked him up off the scrap heap, so to speak, and hired him as a teacher for a program known as Offsite Educational Services. He would help children in places like housing projects and drug rehab centers get their GEDs. Once again, David Suker would help give the forgotten children of New York City one last chance.

Like most teachers, David started hitting his stride after his fourth year or so of teaching. The students with whom he worked had been written off by the rest of the school system. They had one last shot at some form of graduation by getting their GEDs. David Suker prepared his students for their GEDs not through rote test prep but by helping them appreciate the art of learning. Instead of drilling them in how to game an exam, he helped them navigate the New York Times in order to demonstrate how reading helps make sense of the wider world. In a program that routinely helped a mere 15% of students get their GEDs, David Suker was able to help 100 students get their equivalencies in a span of 3 years. By 2004, David Suker had arrived as a teacher.

Unfortunately, he was not the only one who had arrived. As David was giving his kids one last chance at a better life, Michael Bloomberg was getting his first chance at killing New York City’s public schools. Bloomberg did away with the clunky Board of Education and replaced it with a supposedly streamlined Department of Education headed by himself. To ensure this new system would run like a corporate machine, he installed middle management types in supervisory positions all over the city. Principals, superintendents and even his chancellor, Joel Klein, would institute Bloomberg’s reforms without dissent or delay. For David Suker’s “district” of forgotten children, known as District 79, Bloomberg installed Cami Anderson as superintendent. Anderson was a darling of Joel Klein. She would later use the slash-and-burn method of school reform she learned here in New York City with great effect as Newark’s schools chancellor.

In order to establish her reformer credentials, Anderson sought to shake up this “failing” district. The children of District 79, the children who were reared first under “Giuliani Time” and then under Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk duchy; the children who had seen their neighborhoods gentrified; the children who had their social services cut year in and year out; the children who had been the biggest victims of Bloomberg’s crusade to turn New York City into a playground for billionaires; the children to whom David Suker had dedicated his career apparently were not making “adequate yearly progress” in filling out the correct bubbles on standardized exams. District 79 was ripe for “reform”.

The reform of District 79 could not follow the template that had been established in other districts. There were no charter schools looking to co-locate there. Charter operators like Eva Moskowitz do not exactly clamor to take on the types of students with whom David Suker worked. Instead of co-locating, Cami Anderson would “reorganize”. She consolidated the various incarnations of Offsite Educational Services into a handful of programs in order to run them on the cheap. To save even more cash she required every teacher in the district to reapply for their jobs, including David Suker. This was a way of circumventing tenure to get rid of expensive veteran teachers. Since the quality of David’s teaching was never in doubt, since he was not quite an expensive 15 or 20-year veteran and since Teach for America wunderkinds were not knocking on the door to teach in District 79, David was rehired by an independent panel of administrators, teachers and parents. This gave David a front-row seat to Anderson’s criminal shakedown of the forgotten children of District 79.

Helping Anderson shakedown the district was none other than Robert Zweig, the principal of Offsite Educational Services who had hired David Suker back in 1998. Zweig was Anderson’s inside man. He helped Anderson turn Offsite Educational Services, a typically utilitarian Board of Education moniker, into “GED Plus”, a typically Madison Avenue Department of Education moniker. It was an open secret that Zweig was in line to be promoted to Deputy Superintendent for his role in helping Anderson “reform” District 79. This meant that Zweig and his school were on the bureaucratic radar. Everything he did was being watched by Anderson, Joel Klein and possibly even Bloomberg himself.

This news did not bode well for David Suker. Part of being a great teacher is being an advocate for one’s students. If he did not have enough resources for his students, Zweig would hear about it. If students did not have access to proper facilities, Zweig would hear about. Other teachers at OES or rather, “GED Plus”, would also hear about it. David was a textbook example of the type of teacher tenure was designed to protect: the one who did not allow administrators to shortchange his children. His courage was a thorn in Zweig’s side, as Zweig would remind him every year by writing him up for one petty infraction or another. There was that time in 2004 when Zweig gave David a “U” rating for the year for being absent 11 times when the contractually allotted number of absences is 10. 11 absences hardly constitutes a case of gross absenteeism, and Zweig knew the 11th absence was due to David’s plane making an emergency landing on another continent, but he took the opportunity to give him a “U” anyway as a friendly reminder of who called the shots at OES.

However, friendly reminders were not enough anymore. Zweig had to show Cami Anderson that he inoculated his teachers against opposing her reforms. Instead of just being a schoolhouse rabble rouser, David Suker became a liability, someone who threatened Zweig’s coveted climb up the bureaucratic ladder. In 2007, when OES was in the process of being rebranded “GED Plus” and half the teachers stood to lose their jobs, the staff had an end-of-year meeting with Zweig where they applauded his many years of service. This applause was music to Zweig’s bureaucratic-climbing ears. Of course, only one teacher questioned the applause. Only one teacher asked why his colleagues were being fired for the “failure” of the program while the principal stood to be promoted. That teacher was David Suker.

At the last graduation ceremony for OES before its rebranding, some students hung up scathing cartoons they had drawn criticizing the program’s administrators. It was doubtless the students had been feeling the pressure of Cami Anderson’s reforms as well and were not happy about them. Principal Zweig saw the hand of David Suker behind this, since David was both a critic of these reforms and a popular figure among the students. Zweig had the assistant principal question David about it. Nobody in the administration bought David’s denials. It was clear that David would be a marked man when he returned next school year to work in GED Plus.

But nothing happened that year. In fact, the 2007-2008 school year was the only time David was not written up or given a “U” rating. Instead, Zweig was being investigated by the DOE for having an affair with one of his assistant principals. This assistant principal was also under investigation for a Youtube video that had surfaced of her rolling around on the floor in front of her students in an ambrosia-induced haze, ambrosia in this case being a cocktail of liquor and cannabis. These investigations meant they were too preoccupied to harass David Suker. By the end of the school year, Zweig learned he would not become Anderson’s deputy superintendent after all. Instead, he would get the special title of “Assistant” to the Superintendent and remain the principal of GED Plus. The uncovering of his schoolhouse love affair led to the dissolution of his marriage. One can imagine the type of mood Robert Zweig was in at this point. Someone was going to pay come next school year.

PART II (When the Conscience Calls)

In the summer of 2008, the Democratic Party was set to nominate its first black candidate for president at their convention in Denver, Colorado. Ever the history teacher, David Suker was there. As he was taking in the mountain scenes from the highway on his motorcycle, a big rig clipped him and sent him crashing onto the side of the road. The accident broke his jaw and gave him a serious case of road rash. Five days later, the school year started for teachers back in New York City. David Suker showed up to work that day with his jaw wired shut and covered in bandages from head to toe. His colleagues and doctors exhorted him to take some time off work so he could properly heal. A teacher without the ability to speak is like a major league pitcher without the ability to throw. So David placed himself on the disabled list until he was able to get back into the game.

Little did he know that his motorcycle crash was an adumbration for what would become of his career. David Suker turned the corner alright. Unfortunately, this corner led to a dead end.

Upon his return from the accident, David encountered a principal Robert Zweig with little appetite for controversy. Instead of allowing David to teach students, where he would surely find something else about which to complain, he put David on sentry duty in a stairwell of GED Plus. He would only be allowed to work with kids again once he passed a physical and mental evaluation by DOE doctors. David passed these evaluations, at which point he went back to work with the children of GED Plus. However, as soon as he was put back in the game, he was taken right back out again. David Suker was served notice that he was to report to the rubber room.

Why David Suker was rubber roomed at the start of 2009 was a mystery at first. Teachers in his position rarely discovered the allegations against them before they went to a termination hearing, the dreaded 3020a. Only later would David discover the supposed “misconduct” for which he was rubber roomed. It had to do with the way he dealt with two different students on two separate occasions. One was a troubled girl who started cursing out David Suker while filling out her GED application. David took her application away, threw it in the garbage and invited her back to try to fill it out again when she was in a less belligerent mood, which the girl eventually did. The second incident involved a girl who had threatened to kill any gay people in the room. She used her fingers to resemble a gun and started yelling “buck, buck, buck”. Not sure if there actually were any gay students in the room at the time, and not willing to take his chances, David asked the girl to leave so she could work on her own, which she did. These were the charges for which David Suker was rubber roomed for over a year. Even by the DOE’s malleable standards, these were frivolous accusations. This is why he was eventually returned to work without having to go through a 3020a hearing. This time he was sent to work at a site with more direct supervision, another “last chance” facility for students known as Bronx Regional.

David Suker was horrified at what he saw at Bronx Regional. Students who, by state law, were entitled to extra education services because they had learning or emotional disabilities were instead required to sign away their rights to those services. There was no library or independent study area for students who wanted to prepare for their GEDs. The administration had effectively segregated the school by race: students from the Dominican Republic occupied the 2nd floor and black students, both African-American and African immigrants, occupied the first floor. There was no investment by the school or district in curricular materials, which meant each teacher was on their own to teach whatever they saw fit in their subject areas. In short, these neediest of students were not provided with anything with which to make good on their last chance. It was as if the system was shutting the last door that was open to them.  This is what Cami Anderson’s reforms had wrought upon District 79. It was never easy for David Suker to remain silent before. It would be impossible for him to do so now.

So David did what he knew was right. During a panel sponsored by National Public Radio, he accused the DOE of “educational genocide”. The racial segregation he witnessed at Bronx Regional as a teacher was the flipside of the same segregation he saw in NYC as a student. The more things had changed, the more they remained the same. The only difference was that resources were dwindling and corruption was increasing in Bloomberg’s DOE. David would bring these points home to chancellor Dennis Walcott himself many times during his appearances at the Panel for Educational Policy. Appearances like these were part of what put David Suker on the DOE’s radar. The event that truly caused a blip, however, was Occupy Wall Street.

David’s trenchant stance against the DOE’s reforms was part of the dissenting spirit in the air of those days of Occupy. Towards the start of the 2011 school year, a handful of protestors started sleeping over in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park. On their third evening of protest, well before what they were doing had caught on, they were joined by David Suker. Over the ensuing weeks, David became a conspicuous figure in many of Occupy’s marches. As the Occupy movement grew, so did the skittishness of the NYPD. The police’s tactic of “kettling” peaceful marchers led to a surfeit of arrests. Among those arrests was David Suker himself. Expectedly, his name and face were plastered in the local newspapers more than a few times. These articles were printed on Friday, November 4. By Monday, November 7, David returned to his school to find out the DOE was, once again, placing him in the rubber room.

They were not going to release him this time. For all of the trouble he had caused during Cami Anderson’s shakedown of District 79; for all of the times he had accused the DOE of “educational genocide”; and for all of the times his name was printed in the media, they were going to make David Suker finally pay. While he was sitting in the rubber room, the DOE thatched together a bunch of minor unrelated charges. They were hoping the aggregate of these charges would result in his termination.

The first set of charges was in step with the DOE’s tactic of piecing together disparate frivolities to make the teacher out to be a menace:

“SPECIFICATION 1 : On or about September 16, 2011 Respondent followed teacher Yanira Rodriguez into the guidance office saying, in a manner causing her to feel threatened, words to the effect of may it be the last time you talk about me behind my back.

SPECIFICATION 2: On or about October 3, 2011 , Respondent acted in a disruptive manner during a staff meeting by leaving the room twice while a colleague, Guidance Counselor Jackie Rangel, tried to address a comment Respondent

made and making comments to the effect of

a. I do not appreciate people talking about me.

b. We have to protect our jobs. There are  administrators looking to get people out.

SPECIFICATION 3: Respondent was arrested  on November 2, 2011 and failed to report the arrest in a timely manner as required by Chancellor’s Regulation C-105.”

The DOE did not stop here. Usually at 3020a hearings, the charges are broken up into individual “specifications” of varying degrees of seriousness. But in the case of David Suker, the DOE came up with separate groupings of specifications, as if his transgressions were so heinous and frequent they defied a single list. However, the likelier scenario was the DOE looked at the charges above, decided they were not enough to warrant termination and invented more. With David languishing in the rubber room, the DOE dredged up their second set of specifications:

“SPECIFICATION 1: Respondent was excessively absent in that he was absent on the following dates:

a. September 15,2011 – Thursday

b. September 21 , 2011 – Wednesday

c. September 22,2011 – Thursday

d. September 23, 2011 – Friday

e. October 5,2011 – Wednesday

f. October 17,2011 – Monday

g. October 25,2011 – Tuesday

h. October 27,2011 – Thursday

I. October 31 , 2011 – Monday

j. November 3,2011 – Thursday

k. November 4,2011 – Friday

SPECIFICATION 2: On or about October 24, 201 1 Respondent, at Town Hall meetings held in the auditorium of the Bronx Regional High  School:

a. Acted in an unprofessional and disruptive manner by causing students to make excessive noise and be uncooperative

during a presentation provided by the  New York City Police Department.

b. Questioned publicly why the police were  in the building.

c. Publicly noted his dislike of the police.

d. Said that he had been arrested and beaten by the police.

e. Showed a scar on his head that he claimed came from being beaten by police.

f. Stated words to the effect that the school practices segregation.

g. Exchanged high-fives and raised fist gestures with students.

h. Brought his students to attend two periods of the Town Hall meetings instead of just the one as directed.

SPECIFICATION 3: Respondent was arrested on November 6, 2011 and failed to report the arrest in a timely manner as required by Chancellor’s Regulation C-I 05.

SPECIFICATION 4: On or about February 13, 2009, Respondent threw Student LG’s* GED test application into the garbage can and directed her to leave the room when she refused to participate in a game of Jeopardy. (*Students’ names to be provided prior to trial.)

SPECIFICATION 5: On or about February 15, 2009, Respondent refused to allow student LG to enter his classroom requiring her to work alone.

SPECIFICATION 6: On or about the dates below, Respondent directed Student EB* to work independently and did not permit her to remain in his class:

a. February 27, 2009

b. March 3,2009″

This grouping of specifications reads like a what’s what in the defiant career of David Suker. Everything for which the DOE had already harassed him were in there, from “excessive” absences to failing to report his arrests in a “timely manner”. Even the accusation regarding the two students for which he had already been rubber roomed resurfaced, a blatant case of double jeopardy. The cherry on top, however, was his supposed “disruption” of a “town hall” meeting. The meeting was actually an assembly in which the students of Bronx Regional listened to lectures from NYPD officers on the pitfalls of violence. This violence was the result of Bronx Regional’s segregation of Dominican and black students. The DOE alleged that, during the assembly, David Suker questioned why the police were in the building. He even displayed a scar he had received as a result of a beat down from a friendly NYPD officer. He then supposedly committed the most treacherous act of which a teacher can be accused: he exchanged “high fives” with his students. It is amazing how such vile behavior went unreported by the New York Post, complete with a picture of David Suker sporting devil horns.

Yet, these evil deeds still were not enough for the DOE. With David Suker languishing in the rubber room, they continued scrambling to find things that could get him out of the door once and for all. Even with a 3020a process incredibly skewed against the teacher, there still might not have been enough at this point to terminate him. Then in January, three months and 9 specifications into David Suker’s rubber room stint, the head of the Administrative Trials Unit (the group that brings charges against teachers), Theresa Europe, sent a letter to DOE investigators. The letter revealed that David Suker had a daughter who attended an exclusive public high school in Harlem. Apparently, the address that David listed was not where his daughter really lived. This was the basis for the final set of charges:

“SPECIFICATION 1: On or about 2001 to present, Respondent submitted false documents to the Department of Education which listed addresses where neither he nor his daughter, a student attending Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering, lived.

SPECIFICATION 2: On or about December 1, 2006, Respondent submitted false documents to the Department of Education with the intent to

defraud the Department by improperly obtaining admission of his daughter into the Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering.

SPECIFICATION 3: On or about October 4, 2001, Respondent submitted false documents to the Department of Education with the intent to defraud the Department by improperly obtaining admission of his daughter to a school she was not zoned for.”

These charges were an incredible stretch. High schools are open to students of all 5 boroughs of the city. David listed his daughter’s address as in the Bronx. These facts alone should have been enough for the hearing officer to dismiss this set of charges out of hand. However, the DOE went through the trouble of sending investigators to follow David Suker’s daughter. Investigators noted that she lived with her mother in the Bronx. They even noted the exact route she took to get to the train every morning. Stalking a young girl sounds like a charge over which a teacher would terminated. Yet, DOE investigators maintain their employment with the same exact type of behavior.

After this third set of specifications was drawn up, Theresa Europe’s office expedited David Suker’s case directly to the 3020a. The hearing officer was Eleanor Glanstein. She listened to the arguments of the DOE’s lawyer, Nancy Ryan, and David’s union-appointed lawyer, Steven Friedman. It turned out to be the usual kangaroo court. Glanstein gave Nancy Ryan tremendous latitude in bringing in last-minute “evidence” and witnesses, a practice that went largely uncontested by the union lawyer. Any reporter, pundit or reformer who believes teachers are protected by an impregnable wall of tenure should sit in on a few 3020a hearings. DOE lawyers act like schoolyard bullies. Arbitrators act like indifferent monitors who permit the bullying to take place. When the hearing ended in May 2012, David Suker knew he did not have a chance to keep his career.

The school year ended soon thereafter. David started summer vacation not knowing if he was going to have a job come next school year. The ante was especially high at this point since David’s wife was pregnant. It was a real possibility that, even before his son took his first breath, David would have no way to provide for him. Then, just as the 2012 school year was set to begin, David Suker learned his fate: termination. Glanstein’s written decision went through every one of the charges. She found David Suker guilty of the vast majority of specifications. The lynchpin of her entire decision was the matter of David’s daughter’s residence.

Needless to say, he was not about to let this decision stick. Like so many other wrongfully terminated teachers from the DOE, he took his case to the New York State Supreme Court. Throughout most of its history, the New York State Supreme Court has been reluctant to overturn the decisions of labor arbitrators for fear of compromising the arbitration process. Over the past few years, however, the courts have been overturning these decisions with unprecedented frequency. Even with terminations that get overturned, it is rare for a justice of the Supreme Court to question the DOE’s investigation. They assume arbitrators are correct in what they deem to be the facts of the case. They also assume that the teacher is guilty. At most, all a teacher can hope for is a ruling that the arbitrator’s penalty is “shocking to the conscience”. Fortunately for David, his case would be heard by a justice who saw through the entire witch hunt that comprised his termination.

Justice Alice Schlesinger’s decision is a devastating takedown of Glanstein’s termination, her guilty verdicts and the entire DOE investigation. The start of Schlesinger’s ruling (towards the bottom of page 11) suggests the not-so-impartial nature of David’s supposedly impartial DOE hearing:

“The ALJ recommended the penalty of termination. In doing so, she first summarized the number of charges for which she had found Suker guilty. She noted that they involved excessive absenteeism, unprofessional conduct toward a colleague, inappropriate and disruptive behavior at a school assembly, failing to follow correct procedures in dealing with two students in 2009, and failing to report one arrest in a timely manner. A necessary query here is whether the ALJ would have recommended termination if these were all the findings, in other words, findings related only to an assortment of unrelated conduct involving a politically charged assembly, an incident of rudeness to another teacher, taking too many days off without obtaining formal permission, failing by a few days in not reporting his arrest at a demonstration, and failing to follow correct procedures regarding two disruptive students almost three years before the Charges had been brought and which had earlier been investigated. I suggest the answer would have been no and that a lesser penalty would have been imposed, particularly since none of the above findings had anything to do with the quality of Suker’s teaching. If the penalty had been termination simply on these findings, it truly would have shocked the judicial conscience as being harsh. Even the very zealous attorney representing the DOE in her closing statement acknowledged this fact…”

In other words, the first two groups of specifications alone were not enough to terminate David Suker. They were a string of petty, unrelated charges that would have truly “shocked the conscience” if used as the sole grounds for his termination. The charges involving the disruptive students back from 2009, aside from being an example of double jeopardy, alleged that David merely did not follow the school’s ladder of referral for dealing with such students, hardly an offense for which a teacher should have their license revoked. This is a fact the DOE themselves realized when they released him from his first rubber room stint without penalty.

Instead, the arbitrator based her termination on the supposedly fraudulent address David Suker listed for his daughter. Schlesinger noted that the DOE lawyer’s plea for termination based upon this one charge took up seven pages of the hearing’s transcript. The lawyer characterized Suker’s conduct in this regard as “criminal”. Schlesinger, on the other hand, characterized these charges, and the termination upon which they were based, as a violation of his tenure rights.

The fact is that David did put down an address at which his daughter did not live on her application for elementary school. This was in 2001. The fact is that David did put down a false address for his daughter on her application to middle school. This was in 2006. He did this for various reasons, not the least of which was he did not have a stable residence. For David, it was a matter of picking an address and going with it. However, all of this should have been irrelevant to the DOE. Even if David had put down these addresses to intentionally deceive, he still should not have been charged for them. He could not be charged for them because the tenure law for NYC teachers states that the DOE cannot bring charges for anything more than three years old. The last time David provided an address at which his daughter did not live was 2006. These charges were drawn up in 2012.

At this point, David’s daughter was already enrolled in high school. Where David Suker or his daughter were living at that point were irrelevant since NYC high schools are open to students in all five boroughs. If this is the case, why in the world did DOE investigators stalk his daughter in the Bronx? Her place of residence did not matter at the time of the investigation. Perhaps these investigators should be brought up on charges of their own and required to be part of some sort of registry so their neighbors can know what types of creeps are living amongst them.

Justice Schlesinger summed up her decision with what she perceived were the real reasons for David Suker’s termination:

“As this Court stated earlier, the school’s leadership did not want petitioner Suker to remain there as a teacher. They did not like him or approve of his actions. They believed he was insubordinate, that he did not conduct himself properly, that he was getting arrested too often, and probably that he was not a team player. It is possible that much of that is true. But with the exception of the two episodes involving disruptive students, which had occurred almost three years earlier in 2009 and had not resulted in discipline, no one has claimed that David Suker is not a good and/or effective teacher.

Finally, it should be noted that the conduct spelled out in Charge 3, regarding a false address for his daughter, never involved Suker’s own school and never would have been discovered but for the DOE’S decision to target Suker to see if an investigation could find something to be used against him, which it did. But that “something” should not be a basis for terminating this tenured teacher, for the reasons already discussed.”

These words, and the entire David Suker story, encapsulates perfectly the reasons why all teachers everywhere need solid work protections. David stuck up for his students his entire career, even if it meant drawing the ire of his supervisors. He is the type of person determined to do the just thing, even if that thing is unpopular or dangerous to his livelihood. When his students were being beaten by corrections officers, he spoke out about it and was duly punished. Instead of being cowed by this experience with bureaucratic backlash, he continued to be an advocate. He was an advocate for kids who had no other advocate. When the reformer Cami Anderson came to town to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic that was District 79, she caused untold damage to the lives of the kids and their teachers. David Suker was not silent about these acts of education reformer criminality. For this, he paid with his career.

Education reformers are fond of saying how much they love poor children and how they want to help them. By the time David Suker was terminated, the DOE was thoroughly in the grasp of the reformers. Even though Anderson was off destroying the schools of Newark by 2012, Bloomberg acolytes still occupied every position of consequence within the system. They accomplished a feat by sucking resources away from the most underserved kids in the city. David Suker was systematically harassed when he protested against this. So while David is a textbook argument in favor of teacher tenure, he is also a textbook example of why reformers nationwide have made teacher tenure their biggest target. The reformers know what they are doing to our schools is an exercise in unmitigated brutality. Because of that, they need to shut teachers up so they can go about destroying the communities of poor people unabated.

We need to thank teachers like David Suker who refuse to lay down so the jackboots of school reform can trample over them. We need to thank them for using their own resources to lawyer up in order get their terminations overturned in an actual court of law, where a measure of justice can be served. We need to support them in their ongoing struggle against the witch hunts conducted by the Department of Education.

In the thick of last year’s holiday season, the DOE moved to discontinue the unemployment they were giving David Suker. They also sued him for the unemployment they had already given him. His son was born at that point. If not for the paychecks brought home by his hard-working wife, there is no telling what type of childhood their son would be having now. This is reminiscent of the Christine Rubino case, where she had to sell the house in which she was raising her two young children thanks to a wrongful termination by the DOE. They also tried discontinuing her unemployment. This is another reason why the DOE motto of “children first, always” is a cruel example of reformer doublespeak.

The battle is not over. The DOE is appealing Schlesinger’s decision. Let us hope it turns out like the DOE’s appeal of the Christine Rubino decision, where 5 justices saw through the charade of a sham DOE investigation and termination. Stay tuned…