Tag Archives: Race to the Top

What Might This Mayoral Election Mean?

Is Bill de Blasio a symbol of an age of political transition?

Is Bill de Blasio a symbol of an age of political transition or is he something else?

The post-mortems on the New York City Democratic mayoral primary have been pouring in, despite the fact that the election is not over yet. Democratic voters had choices from Christine Quinn (Bloomberg’s 4th term), Bill de Blasio (a city liberal of the old mold), Bill Thompson (who staked out a third way between Quinn and de Blasio) and Anthony Weiner (who might have had a chance if not for his personal foibles, which are many). A de Blasio victory in these primaries might presage a new era in American politics.

In 1977, a Democrat named Ed Koch won his party’s nomination and then the general election running a campaign promising law and order and fiscal responsibility. Three years later, Ronald Reagan was elected president after running a campaign that touched upon similar themes. The late 1970s up until today has been an era defined by Reagan’s program, a program ratified by Clinton and the New Democrats of the 1990s and continued by Bush and Obama in the new millennium.  Both Koch and Reagan appealed to young voters. Teenagers and 20-somethings of that era had come of age at the moment when America’s great experiment in liberalism, the New Deal, was falling apart. The era of Vietnam, urban riots and dishonest government was ripe soil for a new generation of voters receptive to something different, something that repudiated the programs that gave birth to the rotting world in which they had been raised. In 1977, it was the voters of New York City who were the bellwethers of a changing national mood bent towards conservatism. In 2013, many on the left are hoping the same scenario is playing out conversely here in NYC. (This article is a compelling read of this prospect.)

The general election will, presumably, feature the Democrat Bill de Blasio against Republican Joe Lhota. Lhota will be a tough candidate, especially if Bill Thompson is able to secure a runoff election. A Democratic runoff is already conjuring up memories of 2001, when Bloomberg won his first term as Pharaoh partially due to the internal wars of city Democrats. But runoff or not, Lhota’s strategy against de Blasio will be predictable: paint him as an irresponsible liberal who will return the city to the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s. The message will certainly resonate with older New Yorkers, not to mention the younger business-minded voters on Wall Street.

But political futures are not made on old voters, a lesson the Republican Party nationwide has been slow to learn. De Blasio has tapped into the same vein of young voters as Obama did in both of his elections. The late teen and early 20-something of today is more likely to be part of a minority group and tolerant on social issues like gay marriage and marijuana than the young voter of 35 years ago. They also have been coming of age in the world of the conservative revolution and that world is just as rotten as the liberal world of the Koch and Reagan ascendancies. Their overall liberal views on issues of class and culture make them less susceptible to the fear of class and culture warfare preyed upon by conservative candidates. In short, the past 10-15 years have been ripe soil for future voters who reject the Reagan Revolution.

Perhaps a Bill de Blasio mayoralty will be a laboratory for a new national political program, a role New York City has played many times in its history. A good way to discern how much of a laboratory the city might be with de Blasio is to look at what he does on education. Many educated people are hoping and predicting that the de Blasio victory means that Democrats at least reject Bloomberg’s corporatization of public schools that has erroneously been dubbed “education reform”. Their hopes have some foundation considering de Blasio’s generally friendly history towards labor in the city, not to mention his out-and-out rejection of most of Bloomberg’s legacy as the “education mayor”. He consistently took the most anti-Bloomberg stance whenever he was asked about education policy, famously saying that “there is no way in hell that Eva Moskowitz should get free rent” when asked about charter school co-locations. Those types of quotes were probably good enough to pry many teachers away from Thompson and give heart to the defenders of public education, me included.

However, promises in the primaries and promises in the general election are two different things. And promises in general compared to action while in office is something else entirely. Education reform has been a sharpening stone on which politicians of both parties, but especially Democrats, have honed their credentials for national office. Cory Booker and Andrew Cuomo have become up-and-comers largely owing to their school reforms, which included taking on unions and injecting the private sector into education. In order for Bill de Blasio to truly set himself apart from the rising New Democrats (who are not so new anymore) in the Clinton/Obama mold, he must keep singing his current tune on education throughout the general elections and then in office. As mayor of New York, de Blasio would be in the national eye. Bold leadership on his part might point the way to a new path in American politics. Will he sacrifice a bold education policy that respects schools as public institutions to bold reforms in other areas on which he might make more headway? If he does this, the new road he paves will make corporate school reform a reality for at least another generation. This is why Democrats can be much more dangerous to the American left than Republicans.

Just as instructive as keeping an eye on de Blasio’s education policy in the coming weeks and months is keeping an eye on how the UFT reacts to him. The union endorsed Bill Thompson early in the campaign season, mostly because he seemed like the only potentially successful alternative to Christine Quinn. This was back when de Blasio was polling in the single digits and Quinn was presumed to be the nominee. As usual, the UFT backed the person who did not win, although all of the money and resources they poured into Thompson’s campaign surely helped in smacking Quinn down to the three spot, where a runoff is out of reach for her. However, they continue to back Thompson even when it is clear that he would not win in a runoff, a runoff that would do nothing but allow Joe Lhota to consolidate his resources for the general election. Perhaps Mulgrew is pressuring Thompson behind the scenes to concede. The sooner the Democrats get behind Bill de Blasio, the better it will be for them come the general election.

If de Blasio does become mayor, will he cap charter schools? There are billions of reformy dollars coursing through this city and they could launch a massive propaganda campaign against education policy that threatens their share of the increasing education “market”. If it really does come down to a case of the reformers vs. de Blasio, I am not at all sure where the UFT would stand on most issues. If the UFT feels that de Blasio might lose in a propaganda war for the hearts and minds of New Yorkers, they might cast their lot with the Rhee crowd just so they avoid the “obstructionist” label that unjustifiably dogs them. In short, the question might come down to: will the teachers’ unions be on the front lines of a new leftist direction in American politics or will they try to temper any such development? This will not be the first time this question is asked in NYC, the 1968 strike especially being a moment when the UFT actively stood against a leftward turn in education policy.

But the teachers I know and read on the internet are hopeful that a de Blasio mayoralty will mean a new contract and a renegotiation of the evaluation system. The real dreamers have hopes for retroactive pay and an opting out of New York City from the state’s inclusion in the Race to the Top program. These are the issues by which teachers will largely judge Bill de Blasio. We hope that he is able to recognize how deep the Bloomberg school reforms go. It is not just about charter schools. It is also about the deskilling of the profession and the autocratic line of command that runs through the system. A complete dismantling of the Bloomberg Way in public schooling in favor of a more democratic approach would certainly be a major blow to the nationwide school deform movement.

We cannot be sure if the left here and around the world is resurging or if this is just a tempest in a teapot. We can only be hopeful. In that hope, we have to be mindful that we are living in exciting times where things are shifting and do what we can in our own lives to help shift it in the right direction.

How the Race to the Top Evaluations Look So Far in NYC

You don't have to work with machines to be a factory worker.

You don’t have to work with machines to be a factory worker.

The first week of classes in New York City public schools will be in the books by the end of the day today. To say this is not an ordinary year does not really capture the mood. We are entering our first year of a new teacher evaluation system, which has been the cause of much confusion over the past week. On the horizon looms the Common Core in 2014. Both the evaluation and Common Core are still largely question marks whose implications are only starting to be felt now.

To summarize what the new evaluations look like (much more specific stuff can be found here, here and here) the old system of “Satisfactory” and “Unsatisfactory” ratings for teachers is out the window in favor of a four-point scale ranging from “ineffective” to “developing” to “effective” to “highly effective”.

60% of our ratings will be based upon a “scientifically-based” rubric mandated by the federal Race to the Top program, the reason for these evaluations in the first place. In New York City’s case, we are using Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching. The term “Danielson” has become a commonplace shorthand on the lips of everyone in every school building city-wide, carrying with it a pall of fearful uncertainty.

20% of our evaluations will be based upon our students’ performance on state-wide exams. For elementary and middle schools, this means new and more frequent testing of their students at the rate of at least one exam each year. For high school teachers, this means being tied to the Regents exams in various subjects. Even teachers of gym, art, music and other enrichment classes will be tied to Regents exams in other subjects that have very little to do with the content of the courses they teach. For these teachers, the principal will assign the Regents exam to which this 20% of the evaluation will be tied.

The final 20% will be based on how each teacher’s students do on what are called “local measures”.  Each school district around the state got to choose some form of assessment that does not necessarily have to be an exam, although it will certainly be an exam in most cases. In New York City, each school had a choice as to whether they wanted this 20% “local measure” to be some form of DOE-generated and DOE-graded assessment or to simply be the exams used for the 20% state measure counted in a different way (this to be explained below). For both the state and local measures, the absolute score of a teacher’s students on these exams does not matter as much as how much the scores of the students improve over the past year. Improve over what you might ask? On what exams will this and future year’s baseline scores be based? The answer to that question is a bizarre kaleidoscope of exams and quasi-exams, each depending on the grade and/or subject of each teacher’s schedule and roster of students. It is impossible to find anyone who has mastered the permutations of which exams will be used to determine baseline scores for which students in which grades, mostly because it is quite apparent that the state and especially the city do not even know yet.

That means that the way teachers are evaluated here in New York City over the next few years will vary somewhat from school to school. It also means that there are some unsettling question marks surrounding this new evaluation regime. This past summer, each school had to assemble a team of 4 people chosen by the principal and 4 people chosen by the union chapter leader who then would advise the principal on their recommendation(s) on what should count as the school’s 20% “local measure”. As chapter leader at my school I was part of this committee What follows is an account of how this new evaluation process has unfolded in my school since that summer meeting up until now. For such a relatively short amount of time the changes for everyone in our building have been marked and instructive.

Without getting into petty details, our committee of 4 teachers and 4 administrators had a relatively harmonious meeting about local measures. We decided essentially to go with what has been dubbed the “default measure”. That means that all of the scores on all of the assessments used for the state measures at our school will be averaged into one overall score. That overall score will apply to every teacher in the school. The growth of that score over a baseline score (How is this baseline determined? We don’t fully know.) from the previous year will determine our local 20%. Considering the circumstances, I believe this was the best possible choice we could have made for our school, students, teachers and administrators included. This option precludes us from having to give more exams, which I think is its most important virtue. Also, by uniting all teachers under one score it maintains that all-important atmosphere of collaboration vital to any school staff. Instead of teachers being divided by departments, all of us sink or swim as one. Administrators do not have to waste time and resources on organizing more test dates, which includes altering schedules, assigning proctors and everything that comes with ensuring proper testing protocol is followed.

Our committee also had a choice between using a “goal setting” or “growth model” process for our local 20%. In “goal setting”, the DOE issues baseline scores (based on whatever) for every teacher’s students. Then, at the start of the year, each teacher must meet with their administrator to determine how they think their students will do on the local assessment (whatever assessment that was chosen by the committee) given at the end of the year. The over-under of that prediction is essentially what constitutes that “20%”.

We chose the “growth model” formula where the growth in our students’ scores will be compared with the growth of “similar” students’ (demographically speaking, for the most part) scores from around the state. Our students tend to do very well on Regents exams for the most part, so we had the confidence in them to go with this choice. It precludes us from having to guess (and guess blindly in my opinion) how our students might perform on exams 10 months from now.

While a good portion of this past summer was spent discussing exams, the first portion of this school year has been all about “Danielson”. Exams are relatively far in the future (June is always a decade away when you are in September) but Danielson is knocking on our door now. In fact, we have already opened the door and Danielson is hanging up her coat and taking off her shoes to stay for dinner.

To simplify things, the Danielson rubric has 4 “quadrants”. Quadrants 2 and 3 deal with what happens in the classroom and, between them, count for 3/4 of our Danielson rating. Quadrants 1 and 4 deal with what we do outside of the classroom (professional development, preparation, etc.) and count for 1/4 of our Danielson rating between them. Between all four quadrants there are 22 individual points we must hit by the end of the school year. Our administrators will come in, observe us and literally check off which parts of Danielson they saw in our lesson. For those areas that are either unobservable in a classroom (because they fall under quadrants 1 or 4) or that the administrator has yet to check off, we can submit up to 8 “artifacts” a year to our administrators. These artifacts can be lessons, units, exams, certificates of completion for professional development sessions, phone logs for parent calls or basically anything that shows what you do as a teacher. Based upon those artifacts, our administrator might check off more Danielson boxes on our evaluation, or they might not check off any.

It all has the feel of a video game where we are collecting “easter eggs” or completing little missions or jumping to grab coins hidden in bricks. We have to make sure to get all of the coins by the end of the game or we will not be able to save the princess. In this case, the princess is an “effective” rating and losing a life means getting an “ineffective” rating, which puts careers on thin ice no matter how tenured or how great the teacher is.

This has led to an epidemic in my school of what I call “artifact fever”. Teachers are busily making copies, gathering records, exchanging notes and asking each other about what constitutes an appropriate artifact. The more studious teachers have already started handing in artifacts and, in a Danielson rubric posted in their brains, have already started checking off the quadrants they have fulfilled. Some teachers have the beginning of artifact fever, whose initial symptoms include confusion and disorientation at all of the hustle and bustle of their colleagues. The next stage is a feeling of delinquency because they are not gathering artifacts and so they better start soon lest their colleagues beat them in some race that nobody is really having to begin with. There are a few like me who refuse to allow some asinine evaluation system to put a bug in their ear about them being bad teachers unless they get their artifacts in. We will get them in, but we will start to do so only after we get the more important tasks of getting to know our new students and preparing them for the school year out of the way first.

And therein lies the biggest problem with this process. Here is where we see how this new evaluation regime is bad all around. My colleagues are doing what they honestly believe is right, especially since they are starting to feel the first tingles of a career in jeopardy. They might not be explicitly thinking this but lurking behind all of this to-do about artifacts and Danielson is the prospect of being rated “ineffective”, putting them on the path to termination. I would even go so far as to say that most teachers are making an effort to fulfill both Danielson and what they think good teaching is based upon their experience. This assumes on my part that Danielson and good teaching are mutually exclusive, which I firmly believe they are.

These teachers would have been hustling and bustling anyway at this time of year. They would be preparing lessons, homework assignments and decorations to start the school year off on the right foot. Their efforts are being diluted by the advent of this new rubric, this Danielson, that tells them “yes, but you must at least do this.” We grade the first homework assignments of the year while that Danielson voice goes off in our heads saying “it is nice you are grading homework but Danielson says you must at least do this.” So then we run to the store to buy more decorations so our “classroom environment” looks welcoming and educational (because that is what Danielson says) and nothing screams education like a cartoon poster of Winnie the Pooh saying “history is fun”. That of course is an exaggeration but that is more or less the nature of the pull that all NYC teachers must be feeling. Not only must we do what we know is right by our students, we have to make sure Danielson is being fulfilled and that we will achieve all 22 check marks by the end of the year.

There are some that might argue that this might make us better teachers. My response to that is you do not know what makes a teacher better. Teaching is an art, not a science and not an assembly line process. New teachers grow and flourish by getting in there and practicing their craft under the guidance of an experienced mentor who knows how to develop that teacher’s natural strengths and use them to help overcome their weaknesses. Experienced teachers grow by guiding younger teachers since it enables them to reflect on their craft and the assumptions they make about it.

But teaching is a dirty word. It is only valid when it is guided by a “framework”, which effectively perverts teaching into pedagogy. It perverts art into pseudo-science. The university education professor’s 100-year crusade to be taken seriously as a person of “science” has resulted in a “rubric”, this Danielson, that crystallizes in laymen’s terms much of the superficial babble that qualifies as “sound pedagogy” in the halls of education colleges nationwide. Sure, one might argue that if it is so superficial then it should not be a problem for a skilled teacher to easily fulfill the Danielson rubric. My response to that is a skilled teacher has deep reasons for doing the things they do and a rubric that does not speak to those reasons is not a rubric for teaching. How can there be such a rubric in the first place?

In the end, what the new evaluations are doing to New York City schools is giving them more work to do on top of the work they have already been doing. It is just that too: work. It is not a journey of professional self-discovery for teachers and administrators. It is a highly pressurized atmosphere which is causing teachers to do things they would not otherwise do mostly for the purpose of getting a few tick marks checked off so they do not end up getting fired. It is an evaluation system that was born in a culture that sees teachers as union thugs and burnouts and school administrators as middle managers whose jobs largely consist of making the little union thug dogs bark. Neither teacher nor administrator are assumed to have much knowledge of what it takes to help children learn. Instead, the experts are faux pedagogues like Charlotte Danielson and the good people at Pearson. Our jobs during the school day are considered to be those of bureaucratic functionaries who must demonstrate the appropriate outward behavior. What lies on the inside in terms of professional depth or experience is irrelevant. Worse, it is unwelcome.

In short, things do not augur well here in New York City schools

WHY IS THE DAILY NEWS SO WRONG ABOUT SO MUCH?

dailynews

I think we can all agree that the New York print media leaves a stadium parking lot to be desired. At the bottom of the pile is the New York Post which is little more than a daily snuff flick set to words. At the top is the New York Times, the supposed paper of record, whose coverage of current events is as deep as a kiddie pool. Somewhere between the two is the New York Daily News: half snuff, half fluff and all puff.

Take the Daily News’ coverage of the teacher evaluation fiasco between the UFT and DOE for instance. It hasn’t merely been bad or biased in its usual way. It has been downright uninformed. The unnamed author of this opinion piece, entitled Doomed to Fail, seemed to go out of their way to avoid doing even the most basic research on what the UFT and DOE were negotiating, why they were doing so and who played what role.

“What?”, “Why?” and “Who?”, as we were taught in grammar school, are three of the five basic questions journalists set out to answer when writing a story. The fact that the Daily News got 60% of it wrong is nothing short of a disgrace.

What’s worse is that Gotham Schools linked to this piece in yesterday morning’s “Rise and Shine” section. Am I just expressing sour grapes over the fact that Gotham Schools has never, not once, linked to my blog or otherwise acknowledged my existence? Yes it is but I will fry that kettle of fish another time. Much like my banishment from DOE broadband I take Gotham Schools’ derision of this website as a badge of honor.

But back to the appropriately named Doomed to Fail, which could just as easily be a description of the unnamed author’s efforts to write an intelligent piece about a basic bit of education news. The ignorance starts from the very first sentence:

The futile head-butting that passed for negotiations between United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew and schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott on a state-mandated teacher evaluation deal laid bare the fatal flaw in Gov. Cuomo’s approach: letting districts and unions negotiate their plans rather than imposing one from the start.

“Letting school districts and unions negotiate their plans” was not “Gov. Cuomo’s approach”. These negotiations, along with all of the other evaluation talks across the state, are mandated by the federal Race to the Top program.  New York State applied to the federal government for Race to the Top money. One of the conditions that must be fulfilled before receiving this money is the institution of new teacher evaluations. At least part of these evaluations must be agreed upon in collective bargaining (see: negotiation between unions and school districts).

Therefore, it is not Governor Cuomo’s approach. It is President Barack Obama’s and Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s approach. This is the “who?” that the Daily News embarrassingly gets wrong. (And Gotham Schools thought worthy enough to hyperlink.)

Third sentence:

Because while the governor set up a basic framework — teachers to be ranked on a four-tier scale based on student test score gains and other performance measures; professional help for those rated poorly; the boot for those who couldn’t improve after two years — he left it to the districts and their unions to work out the details.

Wrong. The governor alone did not set up the basic framework. The framework was agreed upon in collective bargaining between the State of New York (which includes Cuomo, State Education Commissioner John King and State Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch) and New York State United Teachers (which includes NYSUT President Richard Ianuzzi and United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew).

Again, the Daily News gets the basic “Who?” wrong.

Furthermore, the framework does not provide for giving “the boot” to “those (teachers) who couldn’t improve after two years.” Instead, teachers who don’t “improve” after two years would be subject to a 3020 (add the “a” to that number if you’re in NYC) hearing in which an arbitrator would decide whether or not to terminate said teachers. A teacher whose incompetence has been vouched for by an independent validator will have the burden of proof at the hearing to show they are not incompetent. A teacher whose incompetence has not been vouched for by an independent validator will have to be proven to be so by the school district.

This is a “What?” the Daily News gets wrong in this case.

Fourth and fifth sentences:

Which, as everyone knows, is where the devil is. Especially given the chronically obstinate UFT.

Sure, Mulgrew says he supports better evaluations. But at negotiation time, he’s all elbows.

Um, Mulgrew was one of the parties that agreed to this framework for “better evaluations” in the first place, a framework that has already been made official in most other school districts in this state. Is this the work of someone “chronically obstinate” or “all elbows” during “negotiation time”?

Essentially, the Daily News is accusing Mulgrew of torpedoing an evaluation framework that he helped create in the first place. Does this count as a “Why?” the Daily News gets wrong? I say it does.

Sentences six through nine:

Even so, it looked like a deal was in reach until early Thursday — hours before Cuomo’s deadline. Then, Mulgrew insisted on a two-year sunset on the evaluation program that would pull the plug just before the worst of the worst would get the ax.

Not to mention brand new arbitration procedures above and beyond the hard-won streamlined process currently in place.

I presume the “hard-won streamlined” arbitration process currently in place refers to the supposed abolition of New York City’s infamous rubber rooms. Whoever wrote this article has never heard of Francesco Portellos who has been languishing in a rubber room for the better part of a year.

Mulgrew could not have possibly insisted on “new arbitration procedures above and beyond” the system currently in place. The procedures in place now, as tepid as they are, require the school district to prove the incompetence of a teacher. As we have seen, Mulgrew already agreed to a basic framework with New York State that effectively short-circuits this by placing the burden of proof on the teacher. In short, he couldn’t have proposed anything to make terminating teachers more difficult than it is now since doing so would have violated the basic framework to which he already agreed at the state level.

Again, when it comes to the “Why?” of the failure of these negotiations the Daily News gets it wrong. Hey, at least it was good enough for Gotham Schools.

The rest of the article:

How could a mayor committed to school reform ever accept a system that purported to elevate teacher quality but would vanish before it could actually do some good? He couldn’t. Mayor Bloomberg had no choice but to say no.

Amazingly, some 90% of the approved plans negotiated by the 682 districts around the state sunset after one year, not two — a provision that Bloomberg dismissed as a sham.

He’s got that right.

Perhaps those districts merely felt the need to reevaluate in a year’s time, not go back to the drawing board. But in the city? Don’t count on it.

Here — with contract talks looming and a new mayor set to take office in January — it’s a sure bet that, had Bloomberg buckled, no teacher would ever be let go under tough new standards.

So, here we are: The kids lose. The teachers lose. The city loses. Only Mulgrew, able to say he stood up to a tough-guy mayor, thinks he wins.

Bully for him.

Right. This is your opinion and you’re entitled to it.

Why should your opinion matter when you fail to get the most rudimentary aspects of these negotiations straight, aspects that you could have gleaned from a simple Google search? Moreover, why should you get space in a major market newspaper when you obviously have not been following this story? Finally, why should Gotham Schools find this uninformed drivel poignant enough to hyperlink when there were easily dozens more insightful articles out there to highlight about this and other New York City school matters?

The answers are “it doesn’t”, “you shouldn’t” and “they shouldn’t” respectively.

The NRA’s Opposition to Bloomberg and its Implications for Education Reform

Members of the National Rifle Association criticized Lord Michael Bloomberg at their annual conference in St. Louis this past Friday. Bloomberg has been outspoken in his support of gun control. While I have little sympathy with the NRA, their criticisms put a finger on something important:

“I think Mayor Bloomberg is the epitome of the nanny state, of the elite executives that want to control everything and control people’s lives,” he (an NRA member) said.

A statement Bloomberg made in February illustrates the arrogant and out of touch way he handles sensitive issues:

“The NRA’s leaders weren’t even interested in public safety,” Bloomberg told The News this week. “They were interested in promoting a culture where people take the law into their own hands and face no consequences for it.”

That is a thick and curious statement. To be sure, “Stand your ground” laws are reprehensible. However, I think the goal of the NRA leaders is to prop up the weapons industry. Saying that they want to promote “a culture where people take the law into their own hands and face no consequences for it” falls short of the mark. The talk about “consequences” feeds into criticisms about Bloomberg’s association with the “nanny state”. He is all about using his power to hold people “accountable” for doing things and making choices with which he does not agree.

The states that have Stand your Ground laws are, by and large, those with a healthy streak of mistrust for the state. In a perverted way, the voters who support these laws do have a concern with public safety. They do not trust the government’s ability to protect them from crime, so they will protect themselves. That is not to say lawmakers and lobbyists believe it. Their goal is to keep guns rolling out of factories. They have clad these Stand your Ground laws in a cloak of rugged individualism as a way to sell them to voters.

Gun enthusiasts are fond of quoting the second amendment, not to mention isolated passages from Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers. The belief is that the Second Amendment allows people to bear arms as a way to protect against the tyranny of the state. Indeed, when you couple Bloomberg’s support for gun control with his support for stop and frisk and his statements about the NYPD being his own personal army, it would seem the gun enthusiasts are onto something.

But it is pretty clear that the second amendment was a way to preclude the need for standing armies. The Founders saw standing armies as tools of monarchal tyranny. Having citizen-soldiers in the tradition of Greek hoplites was seen as the proper way for a republic to defend itself. It seems this is what the Founders meant when they portrayed the citizens’ right to bear arms as a defense against the tyranny of government.

The fact is that, in 2012, we do have a standing army. We also have militarized police forces like the NYPD. No matter how many automatic weapons the populace owns, it will not prevent an organized and well-armed military force from having their way if the time comes.

The fact of the matter is, the government does not need to impose martial law or send tanks down Main Street to oppress us. They are doing a good enough job of that through legislation, executive orders and Supreme Court rulings. While the state has become more draconian over the past 35 years, they have done so at the behest of the corporate. Through the control of the media, finance, technology and every other facet of human life, corporations have organized society in such a way that martial law becomes unnecessary.

So when members of the NRA talk about Bloomberg’s association with the nanny state, they put their finger on something. His support of gun control, his education policy, his quality of life initiatives all represent an arrogant paternalism. However, it is not the paternalism of the state exclusively. It is the paternalism of corporatized government. It is the idea that people cannot run their own lives and need business to organize life for them. That is what charter schools are all about. That is why Bloomberg stops short of criticizing the role of gun manufacturers in the NRA.

People on the correct side of the education reform debate may have to make some strange alliances. One of those alliances will have to be with the states’ rights part of the electorate. As more states promise to sign on to Obama’s Race to the Top we will see more blowback from people, mostly in the south and west, who oppose it on grounds that it is a gross federal overreach. We have seen this play out in South Carolina’s rejection of RTT.

The common ground between advocates of public education and members of the political right is the belief in community input into public schools. The tragedy of mayoral control in New York City is how far it has taken us from democratic oversight of education policy. Since the 1960s, local communities in NYC have been prevented from having any say in the schools that serve them. The last vestige of democracy was the popularly elected Board of Education. That was done away with when Bloomberg created the Panel for Educational Policy, the majority of whose members vote the way Mayor for Life Bloomberg wants them to.

Race to the Top represents the paternalism of mayoral control writ large. The fact that states have to sign on to the program is a subterfuge. It gives the illusion of respecting the idea of states’ rights and the traditional role state governments have played as leaders of their own education systems. In truth, once a state signs on to RTT they have abdicated all control of education policy to Uncle Arne in Washington. They must open up more charter schools and evaluate teachers based on data-driven nonsense, or else they do not get federal funding.

America’s schools have never been so top-heavy before. Starting with the president but working its way down to governors, mayors and principals, school systems have been given over to increasing centralization. This runs counter to every educational tradition in the United States. These are the points we must make in order to reach across the aisle to those on the political right. We all want to give communities more control over education policy, since each community knows best how to serve their unique student population.

This is an alliance fraught with difficulty. It has the potential to founder on issues of class and race. Libertarian-minded voters might not mind the corporate aspects of education reform and all of the million-dollar contracts it entails. Community control in places like NYC means giving mostly minority communities a say in education policy. However, areas of the south have used the concept of local school control as a way to bar minorities from equal educational opportunities. These are the major fault lines that would develop in an alliance between us and the political rights.

It is still an alliance worth exploring. The movement known as education reform has so much traction because it is bipartisan. Only a bipartisan counter-attack would have a chance of standing up to education reform. There is room for such a counter-attack if we stick to the themes that unite us for now.

Reasons to Listen to the Radio

Tonight, Mind of a Bronx Teacher’s guest will be Peggy Robertson of United Opt Out National. The Opt Out movement has been gaining traction recently, especially with Race to the Top metastasizing across the country. Those of us who wish to guide the teacher unions down a more democratic path would be well served to make common cause with United Opt Out. It has the potential to be a powerful tool of civil disobedience.

Check here for how to tune in tonight’s show:

South Bronx School

Then, this coming Thursday (March 8, 2012), I will be a guest on the Mom Madness show at 3pm on Harlem Talk Radio. The discussion will revolve around the new teacher evaluations for New York State and how they might impact the parents of New York City. Arne Duncan was a guest recently, so I hope to balance out the propaganda he spouted about Race to the Top.

You can listen to Harlem Talk Radio online here:

Harlem Talk Radio

The Myth of Budget Cuts in American Education

The question mark is the biggest education cut of all.

Here is a thought that flies in the face of common sense: there is no budget crisis in education, even in the age of the Great Recession.

Sure, we in New York City are seeing more and more schools being shuttered. Bloomberg has closed over 100 schools in his 10 years as mayor, including 33 this year alone. Schools that have not been closed have seen their budgets drastically slashed, eliminating art, music and after school programs across the city. Students, teachers and parents get the same excuse from the Department of Education every year: a bad economy means we all have to tighten our educational belts.

Experienced teachers are a particular target because they have higher salaries. The public perceives them as making too much money, having too much job protection and being too lazy to provide a quality education to children. Average citizens who have been laid off scratch their heads in wonder over why these dead wood teachers are able to keep their jobs. There have been renewed cries to do away with teacher tenure, despite the fact the new New York State teacher evaluation agreement promises to do just that.

While students and their teachers are being squeezed, there has been more money flowing through the education system than ever before. President Obama’s most recent budget promises an influx of federal education funds. Legions of non-profit groups have showered money on certain schools and think tanks. Businessmen who were never involved with education before are joining the fight for education reform, using their fabulous wealth to impose their vision of what reform means.

On the local level here in New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has run a Department of Education known for handing out hundreds of millions of dollars in no-bid contracts. Between 2006 and 2009 alone, Bloomberg’s DOE handed out nearly 300 such contracts to select companies, an unheard of number in the history of New York City’s school system. This includes $83 million to Joel Klein’s Wireless Generation to operate the Achievement Reporting and Innovation Systems (ARIS) program, formerly run by IBM. This is despite the fact that half of the DOE’s staff has never used it and much less than that use it on any regular basis.

The new teacher evaluation agreement promises to pour gasoline on this no-bid contract wildfire. At the very least, we know that New York State will administer exams to every student in every grade for every subject. This is a tremendous expansion of the current regime of intermittent statewide testing. These tests will be devised and graded by outside contractors. Principals will also have to use a standardized rubric to evaluate teachers. This will allow principals to enter simple ratings for many different categories, a system that lends itself perfectly to more data mining by outside contractors. To top it all off, there is still the danger that a citywide exam will be part of the evaluations, which would require the city to place an order for another few million exams.

All of this is in a manic quest to evaluate teachers. Not one cent out of all of these millions of dollars that promise to be spent will go to educating a single child.

The State of New York created this state of affairs when they signed on to Obama’s and Duncan’s Race to the Top program. For the past few months, Duncan harangued New York to come to some sort of agreement on teacher evaluations or risk foregoing $700 million in federal education funds. Now that an agreement is in place, it is tough to imagine even one of those 700 million dollars going to the children of New York State. Duncan’s threat basically amounted to “come to a new teacher evaluation agreement fast, or else you will not have any money to pay for a new teacher evaluation.” The students, parents and teachers of New York have been had.

This is par for the course in education reform. The road was paved by Bush’s No Child Left Behind law, but it is being completed by Obama. Chances are that a Republican leader would not be able to get away with such a blatant handover of tax money to private interests. It would be decried for the cronyism it is. Only Democratic leaders could gain the type of public trust required to accelerate the privatization of the education system. Obama, Duncan, Michelle Rhee, Andrew Cuomo and even Mayor Bloomberg are all Democrats (Bloomberg only became a Republican after Rudy Giuliani had become “America’s Mayor” during 9/11. It allowed him to ride Giuliani’s coattails into office.) They are able to clothe their agendas in a concern for poor children. In reality, it is the poor children who are being squeezed the most.

The most blatant example of this is the charter school wave. Another part of Obama’s and Duncan’s Race to the Top is the opening of more charter schools. Bloomberg’s shuttering of over 100 public schools has been followed by the creation of more charter schools. Despite having much lower ratios of students with learning disabilities and English language learners than public schools; despite being able to “counsel out” disruptive students, unlike public schools; and despite their use of non-unionized teachers, charters have less than a 20% chance of outperforming public schools, and more than a 40% chance of underperforming.

Yet, these charters are able to advertise to parents using glossy mailers and subway posters. They are usually able to slap a fresh coat of paint over what used to be a public school. They have nifty corporate logos that inspire confidence in parents. Someone is getting a lot of money from all of this and it certainly is not the child who attends the charter school. In fact, chances are that children will end up paying regressive fines as punishment for acting up in class, like they do in Chicago.

Where does this money go? Just ask Eva Moskowitz, owner of the Success chain of charter schools here in New York. She pulls in nearly $400,000 a year, despite the fact that her schools are located inside the carcasses of shuttered public school buildings.

While Eva and people like her make boatloads of money from a burgeoning privatized schooling industry, there is still plenty of money to be made inside public schools themselves. Bloomberg’s drive to replace large high schools with smaller high schools has given rise to the need for more administrators. In NYC, even the lowliest administrator starts out at six figures. With the proliferation of small school academies, there has been a proliferation of six-figure salaries all over the city. There are people who get into teaching now just so they can get the minimum number of teaching years under their belts to become administrators. This includes graduates of the Leadership Academy, which costs over $70 million to operate. Needless to say, people cut from this cloth have very little knowledge of teaching and very little ability to improve the quality of instruction of their teachers.

As you can see, there is very little evidence of any budget crisis in education. The money is flowing into the system more furiously than ever. Yet, tenured teachers are being fired and their pensions are being squeezed. Children are losing their public schools, their enrichment programs and their sports. The neediest students and the lowliest workers in the education system are seeing their benefits disappear under the guise of necessary budget cuts in a weak economy. At the same time, principals, charter school operators and private contractors are receiving boatloads of government cash.

It is the education world’s version of Reaganomics. Reagan oversaw a vast and naked transfer of wealth upwards from the poorest people to the wealthiest. In the same way, education reform shakes down the most vulnerable people in the system in order to enrich the already enriched.

It has always been a mistake to say that schools are separate entities from the real world. Schools are a part of the real world, subject to the same socioeconomic forces that shape society at large. Just like the Great Recession in which we remain mired has seen a coagulation of wealth in the top tax brackets, the education system has seen a coagulation of wealth at the leadership level. Just like in the economy, education fails when resources do not flow throughout all levels. The education reformers are right: our schools certainly are failing, and it is they who are failing them.

Who will be the Franklin Roosevelt that brings a New Deal to the children of the United States?

It certainly will not be Obama, Duncan, Cuomo or any other so-called Democrat. Their push to force all children (except their own) to take bubble-in exams for 13 straight years will serve to turn learning in the United States into a series of decontextualized bits and sound bites. As Chris Hedges so eloquently writes, it is designed to ensure that our children go on to be non-thinkers and passive vessels, ever ready to be directed by their higher ups on what to do next.

There is no better way to solidify the savage inequalities that currently exist in our society than to create an education system that replicates those inequalities. There is no better way to perpetuate those inequalities than to train the poorest children among us to not be able to think past the next bubble to fill in.

Education reform is about training children to accept injustice as a fact of life. It is about training students to ignore that inner part with which we are all born, the one that looks at the world for what it is and has the audacity to say “something ain’t right.”

Something certainly is not right. The economy is so bad that the poorest schools have to cut their art and music programs, yet there is $83 million for the ARIS program? Teachers are harassed as lazy, tenured do-nothings, but Eva can make $400,000 a year for making glossy fliers and kicking out children she does not feel like educating?

Yes, education reformers seek to install moral blinders on children so they become incapable of seeing injustice when it is so blatantly in their faces. I am sure they would love nothing more than to give all the students who show up to protest Bloomberg’s school closings a few more bubble exams so they become as vegged out and amoral as most adults.

Towards A New Activism

History does not often repeat itself. While the gap between the wealthy and the poor has widened to a degree not seen since the Gilded Age, the reasons for those gaps each arose out of their own peculiar circumstances. This means that it is tough for those who want to fight back against what is happening today to look for historical models. Instead, a totally new approach must be conceived.

Start first with President Obama’s payroll tax “holiday” from this past Friday. Even though it does not destroy Social Security, it shows the way to its destruction. Social Security has always been self-funded. The only problem it ever faced was that it worked too well, causing the federal government under mostly Republican administrations to raid its surpluses in order to pay for the bonehead policies of today, like tax cuts for the wealthy and imperialist war. This “holiday” will temporarily cut off the revenue stream to social security, necessitating that Congress approve the funds to make up the shortfall at a later date. This gives Congress the authority, if they so choose, to deny those funds. In essence, it sets a precedent of putting the continuation of Social Security in the hands of Congress. The supposed “firewalls” that protected the program are being chipped away.

The fact that a Democratic president oversaw such a plan is blasphemous. Social Security is one of the last bulwarks of the New Deal, put into place by a president who shaped Democratic values for generations to come. Now we have a Democratic president who has sold those values out every chance he has gotten. It is tough to see what new values he has put in their place aside from those of the Republican Party.

The public schools in New York got another taste of Obama’s values this past Thursday with the new teacher evaluation agreements. These agreements arose out of New York State’s application for Race to the Top funds, the school reform program instituted by President Obama. Despite Obama’s assurances that RTT is a break from the Republican No Child Left Behind Act, it is merely an acceleration of its standardized testing, charter school-opening vision. The closing of 23 public schools in New York City will surely give birth to more privately run charters. The new teacher evaluation system will give rise to a massive testing and rating regime handled by private corporations.

That has been the common theme of everything Obama has done as president. Whatever benefits the corporate is good. What is good for workers, including the working poor, is destroyed.

Part of the condition of New York receiving RTT funds was that it had to institute new teacher evaluations. As of Thursday’s agreement, those evaluations will be based 40% on the test scores of their students. Subjects and grades that do not currently have testing will need to have them, a boon to the testing companies. The ratings of each teacher will need to be calculated and compiled by outside companies, like Rupert Murdoch’s Pearson, which will surely turn educational statistics into a new boom industry. This is the real Obama stimulus package: sell off parts of the public sector in order to create new industries in the private sector.

Despite the fact that only 40% of teacher ratings will be based on test scores, a teacher will be rated ineffective overall if found deficient on that 40%. Two ineffective ratings will be grounds for termination. You read that correctly. Thanks to Obama, not only is Social Security on the road to extinction, but tenure for New York teachers has been effectively destroyed. Seeing as how New York usually serves as a template for the rest of the country, this will surely mean the destruction of tenure for teachers in other states as well. Obama did what Scott Walker in Wisconsin was trying to do for so long. All Walker needed was a Democratic president to help him.

But of course, Obama could not have done any of this alone. He faces an intractable Republican opposition that has veered so far to the right that Mussolini himself would be jealous. In New York, his RTT could have never destroyed tenure the way it has done without the active complicity of the teachers’ unions. It was Michael Mulgrew, head of the UFT, who lauded the new teacher evaluations as a great deal. What he got for his teachers in that deal remains a mystery. For teachers in New York City, he agreed to allow only 13% of teachers rated ineffective to have access to any sort of due process. Those lucky teachers will most likely be chosen by the union, allowing the Mulgrews of the world to destroy any teacher that challenges the hegemony of his Unity caucus over the UFT.

The Democratic Party and labor unions, institutions that were supposed to have the backs of workers through thick and thin, have put a giant knife through those backs instead.

There really is no precedent for any of this in American history. Those of us who wish to fight back cannot look to historical models to guide a current plan of action. At a fundamental level, the protestors at Occupy Wall Street sensed this. They were not all about marching in the streets like the radicals of the past. Instead, they built a community from scratch based upon open debate, enlightenment and sharing of resources. Their method was an opting out of the profit system. As the walls close in on the American workers all around us, opting out is becoming their only option.

For teachers, a national opt out movement against standardized testing is already afoot. In their book Tinkering Towards Utopia, David Tyack and Larry Cuban sought to explain why so many education reforms of the past have failed. Their conclusion was that these reforms never had the support of classroom teachers. Even though laws were passed and policies were instituted meant to bring about reform, they went nowhere once they filtered down to the classroom level. Either they were impractical or so removed from reality that teachers had no choice but to opt out of them. This, I think, is the only hope of the new teacher evaluation regime being defeated.

The new regime promises to put all curricula and all ratings (students, teachers and schools) in the hands of private companies. Instead of ceding this type of power to the Murdochs of the world, what if teachers threw their bodies on the gears, so to speak, and said “No”? What if they refused to prep their children for standardized exams in favor of teaching kids how to think? What if they told their students and parents to stay home on test days? What if, instead of building the data factories that Obama has mandated, teachers turn their schools into the types of places of learning that they want to see? What if the testing companies had no answer sheets to scan and, therefore, no way to compile data on “effective” and “ineffective” teachers?

Something as bold as this cannot be done through the union. They will never allow teachers to organize communities to this end. Instead, teachers must work outside of the union. They must build their own apparatuses and institutions that allow a grassroots type of organizing. They must build a regime within a regime, one more in touch with the needs of students, teachers and even administrators, so that the union itself becomes irrelevant. Throughout the past 35 years, the Democratic Party and labor unions have been shaping circumstances that leave workers behind. The only solution is for workers, starting with teachers, to shape circumstances of their own in order to leave the people who have sold us out behind.