Category Archives: An Embattled Career

My Evening at the UFT Delegate Assembly

How many delegates dutifully raise their hands every month after getting the UFT's cue?

How many delegates dutifully raise their hands every month after getting the UFT’s cue?

Should I go to the Delegate Assembly or the MORE protest?

This was the question I asked myself yesterday afternoon while walking to 52 Broadway. Surely, the fervent MORE folks would be in front of UFT headquarters calling for a complete moratorium on the new evaluations. Inside UFT HQ, the Delegate Assembly would be voting on a moratorium of their own: no high-stakes testing until schools have the Common Core materials they need.

There is not any doubt that the UFT designed this call for moratorium in response to MORE, whose online petition has collected thousands of signatures in less than a month. This is a victory of sorts for MORE, since it shows they can have some impact on UFT policy. Of course, the UFT moratorium is a completely declawed version of the MORE petition that accepts tying high-stakes, Common Core-aligned testing to teacher evaluations.

Seeing as how it has been about two years since I have participated in a full-throated protest, and over 3 years since I have attended a Delegate Assembly, I opted for the latter. While I always feel guilty for missing DAs, my experience yesterday reminded me why I avoid them.

I arrived at the reception hall just as the DA was about to start. The room was overflowing with delegates. The only remaining seats were towards the front to the left of the stage on which our president, Michael Mulgrew, would be standing. Many people sitting in this area were clearly MORE members, as indicated by their trademark red shirts. Our view of Mulgrew was blocked by camera equipment, as was his view of us. It is all the same, since he did not bother to look in our direction anyway.

As Mulgrew started his opening remarks, I helped myself to a much needed power nap. There was only one available seat next to me, an aisle seat, which became occupied at some point during my siesta. It was an older man with a high-pitched voice who seemed to have something to say every 3 seconds to anyone around him who would listen. All the more reason, I thought, to continue with my nap.

I promptly came to attention once the voting was set to begin. To introduce the moratorium vote one of Mulgrew’s trusted right hands, LeRoy Barr, gave an impassioned speech about the injustice of rating teachers on exams aligned to the Common Core when so many schools around the city have not received their Common Core materials. He reminded us that we all believe in fair evaluations and the Common Core. We just wanted to make sure that the new system was being implemented properly.

At this point, it was tempting for me to mutter cynical responses to everything LeRoy Barr said. Things like “you guys believe in Common Core” and “you guys brought us these evaluations that are now being improperly implemented” hung on the tip of my lips. At some point earlier in the night, Mulgrew complained that John King’s evaluation framework was hundreds of pages long and needs to be simplified. I wanted to yell out “didn’t you say that you were fine with any plan King wanted to hand down?”

However, other people raised their hands to speak on the evaluations in the proper Robert’s Rules of Order format. One dissident claimed that we are ignoring the affects of poverty on education and test scores. She then tried to introduce a measure to call for a complete moratorium on the teacher evaluations, at which point Mulgrew imperiously cut her off. In response, a young well-dressed woman explained that she went to a summer seminar on “results based” unionism and the union’s role in bringing us these evaluations were part of getting “results”.

Meanwhile, the older gentleman next to me, who at that point noticed I was finally awake, turned to me and said the Common Core was great because kids who switch school districts in the middle of the year would be able to pick up from where they had left off. In an annoyed tone, I told him that the Common Core were standards, not a curriculum, and therefore guaranteed no such thing. I was tempted to add that local control of education has been a hallmark of American public schooling but I feared that thought would be lost on him.

The comment of the night came from a MORE member who eloquently explained why these evaluations were a bad idea. He said he has been teaching for 13 years without incident and now, all of the sudden, the union is telling him that he needs Danielson and junk science “growth” scores. His mini-speech garnered quite a round of applause. Even my new friend next to me had to acknowledge he made some good points. I was hopeful that this speech had swayed some minds before voting started.

However many minds it might have swayed, it was not nearly enough. The DA voted quite convincingly in favor of this moratorium, which was tantamount to recognizing the legitimacy of the new evaluations. Even the guy next to me voted in favor. It was at that point that I made audible reference to male bovine scatology. I turned to the sea of faces behind me and asked “are you serious?” My incredulity was returned with blank stares. I figured this would be a pretty good point to leave.

It is clear that teachers do not want this system. It is also clear that the Unity Caucus that runs the UFT gets whatever it wants passed through the Delegate Assembly. They do this by controlling the flow of debate, apparently making up Robert’s Rules of Order as they see fit. More importantly, they do this by controlling delegates. The woman who mentioned “results based” unionism was obviously a very convinced Unity foot soldier. Doubtless there is a cushy job waiting for her someday at 52 Broadway. Then there are the delegates like my new friend who are half-informed and accept anything UFT leadership throws at them. These are by far the majority of delegates. They are not Unity sycophants. They are merely apathetic. Many of the people who clapped for the MORE member’s impassioned speech also voted for the moratorium.

What these union members get from doing Mulgrew’s bidding is a bit of a mystery. My hunch is that, quite simply, they equate being a good union member with being a good soldier. Their attendance at the DA is a clue. Their passivity is another clue. As I asked them if they were serious, the blank looks I got in response spoke to a group of people quite satisfied with themselves and probably their self-images as union members.

Yesterday brought home for me the importance of being able to organize school by school. Much like the Tea Party did with Republicans they deemed “moderate”, critical and active teachers need to run against these staid delegates in the schools. The Delegate Assembly needs to be reformed one delegate at a time.

How that is done is the million-dollar question.

 

 

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The DOE’s Future and MORE’s Winning Strategy

coallitionbuildingcycle

I became a tenured teacher in 2003. Between September of 2000 and June of 2003, I would walk into the main office of my school to see my name on the list of probationary teachers. These were the teachers who had yet to receive tenure. Then, at the start of the 2003 school year, my name was off the list. I did not throw myself a party nor did my principal make any type of to-do about it.

However, I think receiving tenure in the New York City Department of Education today is an accomplishment that calls for the throwing of a party, like a Bar Mitzvah or Confirmation. In fact, I cannot remember the last time a teacher with whom I have worked has received tenure. There is an excellent and dedicated teacher at my school who is in her 4th year and, not surprisingly, got her probation extended another year last year.

This is a trend happening all over the city. Teachers are being denied tenure one or two years in a row before they are unceremoniously herded out of the system. How dedicated or effective a teacher is matters not. Principals are obviously under pressure from the DOE to deny tenure as much as possible. Even worse, tenure is not what it used to be, especially with the Race to the Top evaluation system now in place.

Many veteran teachers, myself included, have expressed outrage over the lack of ownership demonstrated by NYC teachers over their profession and their union. The vast majority did not even bother to cast a vote in the most recent union elections.

Yesterday I ran into a former colleague who retired last year. She looked very rested and happy. I saw on her face the joy she must have felt for not having to be evaluated by exam scores or implement a set of ill-conceived standards. My words to her were “you got out at the right time” and she totally agreed.

This is a teacher of the baby boom generation, that massive sector of the American workforce who is starting to collect Social Security and Medicare. Many baby boomers in the DOE must feel as if they are sprinting through a mine field, hoping to make it to retirement safely before a bad evaluation hobbles their chances of a peaceful dotage.

With the exodus of the baby boom generation, as well as the revolving door of Gen Xer and Millennials brought about by the rampant denial of tenure, we should wonder no more as to why teachers in NYC are not taking ownership of their working conditions. The fact of the matter is very few teachers in the system look into the near and distant futures and see themselves working inside of a DOE school building.

So voting in union elections, going to union meetings, attending protests of the Panel for Educational Policy and the rest of the things that activist teachers do must seem like a whole bunch of useless work to young and veteran teachers alike. They cannot be blamed for this. There surely are many young teachers who intended to make education their life’s work, or many older teachers who would have wanted to stay on just a little bit longer, but cannot do so due to the efforts of Pharaoh Bloomberg and his Queen Consort, Dennis Walcott, to turn public school teaching into a temporary gig.

And then there is that other group of younger teachers who are working on their administrative licenses. Generally speaking, they tend to teach non-core or non-academic classes, tend to not be very dedicated to what they do inside of the classroom and tend to not be very good at whatever it is they do inside of the classroom. This is just what I have seen from my experience. I am sure there are plenty of exceptions. This young crop, many of whom are more likely to get tenure if they do not already have it, may not be longed for the DOE either.

With the prospect of a Bill de Blasio mayoralty starting in 2014, many people are expecting big changes to Department of Education headquarters at the Tweed Courthouse. De Blasio has never really been a fan of Tweed. I hear stories everyday through the grapevine of Tweedies and people from the various DOE networks jumping ship to other jobs in anticipation of the de Blasio era. There seems to be a general sense that he is going to clean house once he inhabits Gracie Mansion, which is certainly welcome news to teachers who care about public education. If this is indeed the case, where will these young people with administrative hopes go?

Years ago there was a young teacher at our school who fit the description of the bureaucracy-climber described above. He taught with us for one year before getting an assistant principal’s job somewhere else. He was an AP for around one year before going off to work at Tweed doing God knows what. From what I saw of him, the only skill he mastered was the ability to kiss the right posteriors, and he mastered this better than most anyone I have ever seen. What will become of him and those of his ilk? Will the ass-kissery that is their stock-in-trade be less of an asset (no pun intended) in de Blasio’s DOE?

Chances are, the field of administrative sinecures at the DOE will greatly decrease in the near future. That means these young teachers either have to be really lucky, really connected or really dedicated to making things work as a classroom teacher. Barring these things, they will have to find another profession or another school system.

That means that the next few months and years will be a time of great flux in the DOE. Current and aspiring Tweedies are going to be jumping ship. Principals will be trying to weed out the probationary teachers to whom they have refused tenure. More baby boomers will retire once they get the chance. And, finally, if the recent Daily News and New York Post hit pieces are any indication, Bloomclot is on one last push to get those teachers awaiting termination hearings out of the door.

So who is left in the system that has the most vested interest in improving our students’ learning conditions? First, there are teachers like me, the veteran 30-somethings to whom retirement is a distant prospect. Second, there are the first-year teachers who have come out of traditional teacher education programs (that is to say, not Teach for America), whose prospects for tenure might be better in three years under a de Blasio DOE than they are now in the Bloomclot DOE. Finally, there are the teachers of the Absent Teacher Reserve, the ATRs, who generally are veterans who continue to rotate from school to school without classes of their own.

If MORE wants a shot at winning the next UFT elections, these are the groups to whom they must appeal. These are the people who will most likely hunker down in the DOE for the long haul. If recent history is any guide the younger generation, the ones who elected Obama and de Blasio and started Occupy Wall Street, will be receptive to the “social justice” aspect of MORE’s platform. Social justice, however, must ride the coattails of bread-and-butter union issues and not the other way around.

MORE must paint for teachers a picture of what the teaching profession can look like. Solid workplace protections, small class sizes, a deemphasizing of standardized testing and a respect for the autonomy of educators as professionals, these are the things that will matter in the upcoming union elections. Thanks to a crop of new principals who have imbibed the Bloomclot method of systematic workplace bullying; thanks to the budget cuts that have swelled the size of our classes; thanks to the Race to the Top evaluations that have institutionalized the standardized testing regime; thanks to the prospect of Common Core that takes so much of the joy and creativity out of education, the imprint of over a decade of reformer philosophy will be felt in our schools for some time. MORE must attack each of these things head-on with an alternative vision of what the teaching profession in NYC can be.

Doing these things will paint MORE as a stark and highly desirable contrast to the Unity leadership of our union that has been complicit in this reformer legacy. They can paint the Unity method of caving to the reformers as the stuffy old status quo. Seasoning their rhetoric with the right amount of social justice will set them up to be the next wave of civil rights leaders, much like the reformers started using the language of civil rights over a decade ago to give their destructive policies a pious sheen into which the general public bought. MORE, by properly tailoring their message what promises to be the backbone of our union in the decades to come, can become a legitimate threat to the Unity stranglehold on power.

MORE will take a step towards building this new union coalition tomorrow with the “Win Back Wednesday” rally tomorrow at 4:00 pm outside of UFT headquarters at 52 Broadway. I will be there and hope to see you there as well.

What if They Were Teachers?

Bad teacher Cameron Diaz  wonders what would happen if the shoe was on the other foot.

Bad teacher Cameron Diaz wonders what would happen if the shoe was on the other foot.

South Bronx School asks a good question: what if this was a teacher?

The Crack Team has learned that Jessica Cruz, AP at PS 154 in the Bronx… has a special
talent. She is a professional belly dancer.

And Jessica Cruz has a website dedicated to her belly dancing. On her website, one can find the following Youtube video featuring still photos of her in action:

This reminds me of the story I wrote some time ago of pictures that surfaced of Sharron Smalls, the principal of Jane Addams High School, in which she can be seen hugging a male stripper who was pouring what appeared to be ketchup on the both of them,

I will say now about Jessica Cruz the belly dancer the same thing I said about Sharron Smalls: I do not see anything wrong with these photos. Not to be snide, but I do not even see what is wrong with the following photo of Cruz that greets the visitor of her belly dancing site.

cruz8

Granted, these photos of Jessica Cruz are a different breed from the Sharron Smalls photo. In my mind, Jessica Cruz’s photos are more tasteful. I do not say this just because I am a guy and Jessica Cruz is an attractive woman. I say this because Jessica Cruz has a legitimate talent, of which she is obviously proud, and the revealing outfits are part of that talent. Sharron Smalls, on the other hand, was being doused in ketchup by a stripper.

Regardless, I do not see anything wrong with either of their photos. They are adults and are entitled to a life outside of the Department of Education. This is not about trying to smear Jessica Cruz as something she is not. This is about raising a legitimate question: What if she was a teacher?

South Bronx School cites instances in which teachers have lost their jobs for much less than this:

She has the same right to do this as did a teacher on Long Island that took his shirt off on a reality show. The same right as a teacher in Florida that was forced to resign and had posed in bikinis. Or thatguidance counselor in who posed in lingerie years before she was with the DOE and got terminated.  Or that teacher who was forced to resign because a parent found a photo of her holding a beer and a glass of wine on her Facebook page. We here at SBSB support BFF AP Jessica Cruz and her First Amendment rights.

What is particularly interesting in the above quote is the case of Tiffany Webb, the guidance counselor who was fired by the Department of Education for photos of her on the internet from her days as a lingerie model, before she was employed by the DOE.  She rendered 12 years of service to the system until these photos were discovered that magically made her unfit to counsel children all of the sudden.

Jessica Cruz is an administrator of the DOE now, as well as a belly dancer. Do you think Richard Condon’s office, the one that thrives off of destroying the lives of teachers for the pettiest of reasons, will take any action at all against Jessica Cruz?

I would not hold my breath.

Again, for the third time, this is not to say that I believe the DOE should take any action against her. They should not have taken any action at all against Tiffany Webb either.

But what does it say about the DOE that they would fire a veteran guidance counselor of teenagers for something she did in the past but do absolutely nothing about an assistant principal of little children for something that she is doing now?

What does it say about the DOE that they would hire a confirmed misogynist and bully to be the principal of Flushing High School?  This is from Chaz’s blog:

Now we find that the Chancellor has hired a man, James Brown that was sued for sexual harassment, bullying.  racist comments and retaliation against a female dean at a Baldwin middle school who won the lawsuit against him.  Notice, this was not just an accusation but a lawsuit where the preponderance of evidence presented showed that Mr. Brown was found guilty of such behavior.  The story can be found here.

While a case can be made for Sharron Smalls and Jessica Cruz, there is absolutely no defense of James Brown, nor is there a defense of the DOE’s hiring of him to lead an entire school building, let alone a classroom.

The DOE hired Brown because he is a known bully. In this day and age when every twenty-something with three years of teaching experience has an administrator’s license, it is not like there is a shortage of principals in the job market. That means the DOE likes what James Brown brings to the table. It can be the only explanation for such a move.

As a system, the Department of Education is a giant bully. They will send investigators to the house of Christine Rubino to rummage through her garbage for a post she made on Facebook that was read by no kids or parents, but they will hire a man who was found to have sexually harassed teachers in a court of law.

It is obvious that the schoolmarmish discipline code the DOE rigorously enforces applies to teachers and teachers only. If Jessica Cruz was a teacher or a guidance counselor, they would send goons to harass her at her house and tell the New York Post to write a scathing article about the derelicts who infest the classrooms to which we send our children. People would be horrified and the hypocrite lynch mob would be out in force screaming in the comments section about these people who are “unfit to teach” and “should not be allowed around kids”.

But Jessica Cruz is not a teacher, so she can gyrate and show as much cleavage as she wants on the internet. Sharron Smalls is not a teacher, so she can hug as many scantily clad strippers who pour on her whatever condiment her heart desires all she wants. James Brown is not a teacher, so he can sexually harass as many women as he damn well pleases.

Might I remind you that Francesco Portelos, a teacher, is currently fighting for his career at a termination hearing for the following reprehensible and unforgivable offenses that obviously make him a liability around children:

1. January 30, 2012– Principal Hill called and stated that Mr. Portelos hacked, www.dreyfus49.com, and took her administrative privileges away.

2. January 30, 2012– Principal Hill received an anonymous call that Mr. Portelos used an iTunes program called Fake a Message to email a student and make it appear that it was sent by the Principal.

4. February 22, 2012– Principal Hill alleges that Mr. Portelos requested that a paraprofessional work with him and other teachers on a Learning Technology Grant (LTG) after school to help his students. Principal Hill declined and Mr. Portelos apparently had him work anyway and submit time sheets.

This is just a fraction of the over 30 charges Portelos is facing for things he did not even do. They all are in the same ballpark of ridiculousness as the ones cited above.

Perhaps if he was gyrating suggestively, hugging strippers, harassing women or gyrating suggestively while hugging strippers and harassing women, they would have promoted him to principal.

The Argument Against Online Grading

Just say "no".

Just say “no”.

Sue me: I do not use an online grading program.

Engrade, Schedula, Jupiter Grades, every school in New York City has adopted their own program where teachers can post each and every grade to each and every assignment online. It is not free either, for these programs can cost the school over $1,000.

For teachers, the selling point is that they no longer have to hunch over a calculator for hours on end come report card season. All they have to do is press a button and the grades are all calculated for them, according to whatever scoring algorithm the teacher chooses.

For students, they can log on to see their latest scores. It is like checking under your pillow to find some money from the tooth fairy each and every day. An ongoing tally tells them the grade they have in the class so far.

For parents, they can closely monitor the progress their kids are making in their classes. The more involved parents can even download the assignments and/or lessons, assuming the teacher has uploaded them. An email link keeps them in frequent contact with their children’s teachers.

Administrators seem to like the idea of being able to pull up any student’s grade from a central database. From what I hear, most administrators exhort their staffs to use the school’s adopted online grading program. Some schools have even mandated that teachers use it, although I am not sure that is 100% contractual.

And here I am, one of the last teachers in the city to not grade my students online. I am the only teacher in my school who is not online, which leads to some interesting exchanges come parent-teacher night.

One teacher recently referred to my absence from the world of online grading as me “taking a stand”. I do not see it that way. For my part, online grading is not compatible with my teaching philosophy or my philosophy in general. Many teachers swear by it and that is their decision. If a teacher believes online grading helps them do their job better or more efficiently, then I certainly am not one to try to convince them otherwise. Teachers should be free to make these types of decisions based upon their styles and experience.

I understand all of the arguments in favor of online grading. Now I would like to present my arguments against it.

Teachers should make the effort to inform their students of how they are doing in class. But what does this actually mean? Is “how a child is doing” mean a number grade? I told my students on the first day of school this year that I do not want them caring about grades. They are not sitting in my classroom to earn a number. This bit of information caused many a furrowed brow on many teenaged faces. My goal for them is to gain an appreciation for history.

This is a quaint notion, especially in the era of data (!). Kids have this idea that they come to school to earn good grades so they can get a diploma so they can go to college so they can get a good job. These are assumptions that most students, no matter what their background, tend to share. This is all the more reason why they must be reminded of the fact that there is actual knowledge, actual learning, to be done inside of a school building. If on the first day, or even the second or third day, I did the standard thing by giving each student their pass codes to log into their online grade account, I would merely be confirming their deeply held assumptions that school is about numbers. There will be more than enough time for them to fret over numbers throughout their lives, whether in the form of grades, salaries or bills. For the 45 minutes or so they are in my classroom, I want them to worry about history.

At the same time, I do not see why those students who are particularly hung up on their GPAs cannot remain hung up. They get homework every evening that is returned to them graded the very next day. They get exams every two weeks that are returned to them graded, also the very next day. Their projects are graded in a timely fashion, so they have those numbers as well. For class participation, students know whether or not they raise their hands, come on time and complete the little written assignments that are required of them. In short, they have more than enough data (!) to keep track of their own grades. Those students who are grade-driven will know and remember the grades they get throughout the semester, whether those grades are online or not.

Most importantly, there are always students who I do not grade by the strict algorithm required by our department. Every year I teach a class of exclusively English Language Learners. If they were plugged into the same equations as all my other students, as most of the online grading programs demand we do, most of them would surely fail. Instead, I must use a more “holistic” grading method, as teachers like to say. There are students who come to my class speaking and writing very little English and end the year with much more confidence and skill using the language. These students have upside, meaning their English skills will only continue to improve over time. Should I fail these students if I know they would be able to make their way in the next grade, even if they have struggled in my class for most of the year? Not only would this be unfair, it would frustrate them. They would be forced to sit again for a class of which they eventually got the hang. I would be holding them back from applying their new-found English skills in the next, more challenging, stage. Would they continue to improve if they are not continually challenged? For these students, and for students in analogous situations, plugging them into a strict numerical algorithm would be doing them a tremendous disservice.

Teachers are under pressure to bring more technology into the classroom. We are told that kids are using more technology than ever in their personal lives, so we should get with the program and integrate more of it into our practice. The push to record grades online is an extension of that pressure. I see things precisely the opposite way. Since children are spending so much time with technology, they need to have daily reminders that life is not digital. Adults could use this reminder as well, which is an ironic statement coming from someone who keeps an internet blog.

Many parents seem to like how online grading makes keeping track of their children’s schoolwork easier. In an age when the American worker has to put in well over 50 hours at the office to keep their families’ heads above water, it is understandable that many of them like online grading. On parent-teacher night, many parents ask me why I have not posted any grades to the internet. This leads me to summarize to them what has been written above. Most of the parents seem to understand my reasoning. A very bare minority do not and chalk up my rejection of online grading as either laziness or Ludditism. I give them my personal email and school extension and tell them they can contact me at any time they might have a question about their child’s progress.

This always leads me to think about how my mother was able to be so involved in my schooling. She was a single parent who, at times, worked two jobs. After working, cooking and cleaning, she still set aside the time to help me study and do homework. She came to every parent-teacher conference. She came into my school even when there were no parent-teacher conferences. She received every report card and knew all of my grades, which was never a good thing for me as a solid 65 student. She interacted with me and my teachers constantly. The truth is, I would have never pulled even a 65 if it was not for my mother. If she had access to my grades online, how much less would she interact with me and my teachers? How much more would she be inclined to see my schooling as nothing more than a pile of data rather than a daily interaction between me, my teachers and my peers?

While it is tempting to have the freedom to throw away my calculator at report card time in favor of a computer program that tallies the numbers of all of my students with one click of the mouse, I kind of like punching in those numbers and seeing what comes out. A student comes out with a grade of 59? What if they tried their hardest for that grade? What about that unit when they were asking all of those questions about the Enlightenment or the Civil War, went out of their way to watch a documentary about it and then came to class the next day to tell me what they learned? Should I fail this student just because they did not surpass some arbitrary cutoff point? What if this was the first time they ever started to care about something that happened in history? With online grading, those students are locked into whatever number the program says.

This is not to say that I grade students with fuzzy math. I keep meticulous records (on paper of course), add up every single number and adhere to our department’s grading policy. Students are informed as to how their grades are calculated. In fact, as I told one parent who disapproved of me not posting grades online on parent-teacher night, I spend more time than most other teachers going over with my students how their grades are calculated. I walk them through a hypothetical student with hypothetical grades and show them exactly how I calculate during report card season. They get a handout describing in both words and in diagrams what it means for their grades to be “cumulative”. In my mind, there is more transparency in this type of grading than in online grading since, unlike a computer program, I walk them through exactly how the sausage is made.

And then, after I do all of this, I tell them that this is not the point of coming to school. These are merely numbers. Education is what goes on in class all day. It is how they are affected by history. It is how history shapes their lives.  How many online grading programs were used by Socrates? Did Plato respect him because he promptly posted his grades to the internet?

Administrators can twist my arm to go online all they want. They have their reasons for wanting teachers to post their grades to the internet. None of those reasons have anything to do with education and everything to do with the bureaucratic exercise of covering one’s behind. Administrators want to be able to say that their schools constantly inform parents. Granted, some administrators might think that going with online grading is “pedagogically” the best thing to do. If that is the case, they should share their reasoning with their staffs who should, in turn, be free to accept or reject that reasoning. However, in Bloomberg’s Department of Education, it is all about informing parents.

But informing is a one-way street. Informing means explaining to someone a policy decision after it has already been made. Instead of informing, schools should be eliciting. Instead of posting grades and sending home letters, schools should be asking parents what they need. Instead of telling parents what has already been done, schools should be working with parents in designing what needs to be done in the future. Granted, these things are not mutually exclusive. A school can both inform and elicit. Yet, instead of spending a cool grand on an online grading program, imagine a school spending that money on organizing a “parents’ night” or several “parents’ nights”? Instead of mandating that teachers hunch over a keyboard to punch in numbers, imagine schools that would encourage teachers to take a day out of the semester to knock on doors of the parents they do not get to meet on conference night. Instead of more digital interaction, how much face-to-face interaction can a school purchase with a thousand bucks?

Subconsciously, this is probably another reason I have an aversion to online grading. It has the foul stench of Bloomberg all over it. Not only does it conjure up images of Joel Klein-like characters profiting off the backs of school districts by hawking superfluous and/or useless technological wares, it is just another way to inform. One thing the reformers have done well is drive a wedge between teachers and parents, as well as between parents and parents. They have sought to atomize the “stakeholders” of the education system into its constituent parts so that it is more difficult to unite against their harebrained “reforms”. Bloomberg himself has accomplished this by making it easier for schools to inform than to elicit.

Contrary to what we are being told, education is not all about the data (!) I will remind myself and my students of this every chance I get.

How New York City Can Rid Themselves of the Race to the Top Evaluations

There is no crime against wishful thinking, although it might not be part of Danielson's rubric.

There is no crime against wishful thinking, although it might not be part of Danielson’s rubric.

Teachers at my school keep asking me: “What is the union going to do about this new evaluation system?”

My response is: “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

This new evaluation system is brought to you by our union. It was Michael Mulgrew, president of our beloved UFT, who accompanied Andrew Cuomo to Washington, D.C. when New York State was applying for Race to the Top.

It was Michael Mulgrew, as well as NYSUT president Richard Ianuzzi, who negotiated the framework that mandated 40% of our evaluations be based on standardized test scores. We were assured by UFT leadership, including Leo Casey, that collective bargaining would cushion the blow of this framework at the local level.

When collective bargaining broke down earlier this year over Mulgrew and Pharaoh Bloomberg’s inability to agree on a “sunset clause”, it was Mulgrew who signaled his willingness to abide by any system that State Education Commissioner John King saw fit to foist upon us.

Every step of the way, Mulgrew and Unity leadership were there telling us how great this new system would be. They told us it will be “objective”, thereby preventing abuse by administrators. They said it would give us valuable feedback about our teaching practices.

The bottom line is: our union has been complicit in this evaluation system. They have cast their lot in with this evaluation system. How likely will they be to do a complete 180 and say “sorry, our mistake”?

Not bloody likely at all.

Some teachers in New York City have been heartened by the prospect of a new mayor, one who promises to be more sympathetic to public workers. While all signs point to a Bill de Blasio mayoralty, which would be a major improvement after 12 years of Pharaoh, do not fool yourself into thinking that this new system is going away.

There are two reasons why I say this. First, the evaluation framework is state law, something over which New York City mayors have no say. Second, our union will not fight to get rid of this framework since they helped give birth to it.

Some teachers envision Mulgrew and de Blasio sitting down at contract negotiations next year, exchanging laughs and slapping each other on the back. They envision retro pay, a cost of living increase and an end to this evaluation system. While the former two things might happen (indeed, they might be the only things to come out of negotiations), the latter will not happen.

Michael Mulgrew will never push de Blasio to do away with the system he helped conceive.

If we want a chance to do away with this system, there is only one way to go about it: fight.

The rank and file of the union has to band together and move the Unity leadership of the UFT to change things, at least the things about this system that can be changed at the local level. We can start by signing the petition being passed around by MORE.

This, unfortunately, will not be enough. Even if we push the UFT to fight against this system, it is still state law. That means a bigger grassroots effort will be necessary.

We can start with administrators. Many administrators throughout the city are not happy with the new evaluation regime. Not only does it give them more work, those who are veteran educators generally feel demeaned by the deskilling of their job implied by the so-called “Danielson” rubric. Grassroots teachers must make common cause with administrators, even if it means holding our noses in some cases.

While we engage administrators, we also must engage parents. This will be much more difficult. Many of our parents are disengaged. Some of our parents want more testing. Most importantly, many of our most savvy and vocal parents send their children to charter schools, where this new evaluation system does not affect them. We can at least make common cause with sympathetic parent organizations, like Leonie Haimson’s Class Size Matters and the feisty Change the Stakes group.

Even if we pull all of these things off, an unlikely scenario under the best of circumstances, it still will not get the state law repealed. The reformy money wields too much influence in Albany and Cuomo is too infatuated with his self-image as a dyed-in-the-wool education reformer and a “lobbyist for children.”

So why do all of this?

Recall earlier in the year when Mulgrew and Pharaoh Bloomberg reached their impasse over the sunset clause. It looked like NYC would not have a new evaluation system after all. That is when John King stepped in and threatened to withhold Race to the Top money, as well as Title I money.

Grassroots pressure from teachers, administrators and parents will not work on the Albany crowd but it might just work on Mayor Bill de Blasio. As a public school parent, he might come to oppose all the new testing mandated by this evaluation system. Even if his son, who attends my alma mater at Brooklyn Tech, would be shielded from these tests, he might sympathize with other parents whose children come home from school with testing anxiety. With enough public pressure, he might be the one to pull NYC out of this system.

Predictably, King will huff and puff about withholding funds. Let him huff and puff. Those Race to the Top funds are only enough to pay for new testing anyway, so he can keep it. When he threatens to cut off Title I money, let him be sued by the union and every major civil rights organization with a chapter in the State of New York. Not only will he eventually be forced to fork over that Title I cash, he will ruin his own and Cuomo’s reputation to boot.

As far as I can see, this is the only formula for totally getting rid of this evaluation system. If it seems far-fetched, that is only because it is. The moral of the story is that these evaluations are here to stay until our union or our political landscape change radically.

Class Size Matters

classsize

 

Like most teachers, the sizes of my classes have progressively increased over the past few years. This year is no exception, save for one of my classes that has 22 students. As we complete the first month of the school year, the differences between this class and my larger classes are instructive as to why “class size matters“.

The class is a 9th grade Global History class that meets towards the end of the day. Anyone who has ever taught freshmen when the clock is close to 3:00 pm knows the challenges involved. It is basically the same set of challenges for any class that meets towards the end of the day, only double. After 6 hours inside of a school building, kids start exhibiting symptoms of school fatigue: fidgetyness, boredom, irritability and intractability.

Yet, this particular freshmen class exhibits none of those symptoms. All of them are motivated and attentive in their own way. By the end of the period, most if not all of the students have raised their hands and contributed to the daily discussion. The few students who straggle with the “do now” assignment I am able to quickly get on task by quietly going over to them for individual attention. Most importantly, it easy for me to get know each one of their personalities. I know them better than I know the students in my other classes.

Contrast this class to the one I teach during the preceding period. This is an 11th grade U.S. History class with 32 students. They are a good group that I enjoy teaching. As 11th graders, they are able to pick up on subtle humor and we generally have a few laughs by the time the class is over. Yet, I cannot say that I know many of them as individuals. Just like the freshmen class, there are a few stragglers during the “do now” assignment. However, I cannot get to all of them because the class is just so large. There are a few students who have not participated all year. The quieter students tend to slip through the cracks while the ones who are bold during class discussions soak up most of the attention. To be sure, there are many students who excel at class discussion, so I am able to get a fairly decent spread of participants on a daily basis. Still, I have never been able to get to everybody yet, even though I know I will by the end of the year.

The difference between the percentage of students who participate in my freshman class compared to the junior class is not merely due to differences in numbers. The smaller class size in the freshmen class makes the students feel comfortable. There is a smaller audience for them to reach. They do not have to worry as much about saying something that others might think “silly”. Furthermore, they seem to feel more comfortable with me as a teacher. Even a student who sits in the “last” row (Yes, I seat kids in rows. Charlotte Danielson will probably have my head for this.) still only sits towards the middle of the room. In the 11th grade class, a student who sits in the last row sits all the way in the back, far away from me until I make my rounds throughout the room, which I do often. The smaller class size enables me to have a better rapport with my students.

If I was one of those yelling teachers, or someone who got ticked off easily, my 11th grade class probably would have driven me over the edge in week one. This is not because they are bad kids, because they are not. This is because when you have a room of 32 teenagers, it is inevitable that some of them are going to talk, or try to sneak a text message, or fall asleep or whatever else teenagers do. I am sure things go on during that period that escape my notice. When I do notice things in that class, I only have time to stop it by saying “stop it” or throwing a glare. To be sure, no truly bad or disruptive behaviors have taken place but a teacher still has to deal with a student who talks too much to his/her neighbors or does not want to do work.

With my smaller class, I can be much more inventive with my discipline. Since I have come to know them over the past three weeks, I can understand why each student does what they do. Instead of just telling a student to “knock it off”, I can try to work a normally disruptive behavior into the lesson or buy the time to go over to the student and deal with the issue personally. At this point, I know that none of the students in that class would be disruptive for the sake of derailing the lesson or showing me up. Whatever they do is an extension of their natural personalities, which is to say they do not do things simply out of pure malice. Of course, I know this is the case for all of my students in all of my classes. But the smaller class size allows me to understand from whence certain behaviors arise. In my larger classes, I just assume that malice is not a motivating factor for disruptive behavior. That does not necessarily tell me what the motivation is.

After 14 years as a teacher, I have no doubt that I will eventually figure all of my students out. The fact that I am able to do this faster with a smaller class means I am able to build a better rapport with them earlier in the year. Every teacher knows that the beginning of the year is vital, for it forges the channels over which the rest of the year will flow. I can already foresee that I will be able to be more creative, take more risks and teach more in the long run to my small freshmen class than to my larger classes.

This anecdotal evidence should be enough to give the lie to reformers like Bill Gates and Pharaoh Bloomberg who assume class size does not matter. What I mentioned here are merely the in-class benefits of smaller class sizes. It does not even speak to the other out-of-class benefits, like being able to spend more time on grading each child’s assignment, which would enable me to provide more individualized guidance. I am an effective teacher whether there are 22 or 32 students in my room, but there is no doubt that I am more effective with 22. Any veteran teacher worth their salt would say the same.

It also should give the lie to the KIPP and Success Academy philosophy of school discipline. Even with a classroom of 32 students, I never felt the need to force them to sit up straight or keep their eyes focused on me or keep their lips sealed until they are spoken to. With a class of 22, which is closer to the class sizes that exist at Kipp and Success Academy, there should be even less of a need to do this. If a high school teacher cannot keep the attention and focus of a class that size with kindness and understanding, then that person should not be teaching. How much damage are these charter schools doing to kids with their draconian discipline codes? How many kids are learning to hate learning in these places?

Only three weeks into the school year and already we can see that class size matters.

A Look at the New Orleans Charter Experiment

What have the charter schools in New Orleans accomplished, beside forcing students to walk in straight lines?

What have the charter schools in New Orleans accomplished, besides forcing students to walk in straight lines?

As if Baye Cobb is not enough anecdotal proof about the failure of the New Orleans charter experiment, a much deeper analysis of it can be found in the Daily Beast:

But eight years after Hurricane Katrina, there is evidence that the picture is far more complicated. Seventy-nine percent of RSD charters are still rated D or F by the Louisiana Department of Education. (To be sure, some charter operators argue that the grading system in Louisiana, which keeps moving the bar upward, doesn’t sufficiently capture the improvements schools have achieved.) Sci is one of two RSD high schools to earn a B; there are no A-rated open-admission schools. In a school system with about 42,000 mostly poor African-American kids, every year thousands are out of school at any given time—because they are on suspension, have dropped out, or are incarcerated. Even at successful schools, such as the highly regarded Sci Academy, large numbers of students never make it to graduation, and others are unlikely to make it through college.

The bottom line is if a public school system was delivering the types of results as the largely chartered school system of New Orleans, Arne Duncan, Bill Gates and the rest of the reformer army would be screaming bloody murder. Instead, when these poorly rated charter schools fail, they are replaced by more charter schools:

The premise of the New Orleans charter-school experiment is that charters can educate all children. However, the experience of kids like Lawrence Melrose, another Sci Academy student, does not support that claim. Now 18, Lawrence’s life is a testament to both high levels of social dysfunction, including poverty and violence, and the inability of some charter schools to meet the needs of the most disadvantaged kids.

It is hard to know when Lawrence’s life began to spin out of control. It may have been when his grandmother who raised him was diagnosed with cancer and he began shuttling back and forth between Georgia, where the family moved after Hurricane Katrina, and his great-uncle Shelton Joseph’s house in New Orleans. It may have been during a basketball game, near his great-uncle’s house, on a hot August day of his 14th year, when another kid shot him in the back, nearly killing him. Or it may have been during his dizzying spin through half a dozen struggling RSD schools in the two years before he enrolled at Sci Academy.

But we are told that poverty and all of the problems that come with it are just “excuses”. All children should be college ready by the time they graduate. In the privatized system of New Orleans, this should be changed to if they graduate. Yet, the operators of some charters are not only making “excuses”, they are copping out altogether:

Paradoxically, as New Orleans encourages existing charters to take over the last of the schools the RSD directly runs, the charter system is finally being forced to confront the flaws in its one-size-fits-all college-prep model. Some of the city’s charter schools have begun experimenting with alternatives, like vocational programs and so-called alternative schools designed specifically to help students who have struggled in, or dropped out of, school. This spring, John White, Louisiana’s superintendent of education, in a notable departure from the state’s college-for-all mantra, unveiled a proposal to revamp high school diplomas by creating a vocational track that would qualify graduates for technical careers. Although Louisiana already has a “career diploma,” it is widely seen as a dead-end certification, because it neither prepares students for college nor provides them with specialized training.

What does it mean when privately-run charter schools, that were sold to the public as places that would make all students “college ready”, start experimenting with vocational training?  Is this not an admission of defeat?

Ironically, these New Orleans charter schools are starting to come full circle. As Diane Ravitch explains in Reign of Error, the original vision of charter schools was for them to be a laboratory for innovative instruction for students who tended to not do so well in traditional public schools. It seems that is what some of the charters in New Orleans are starting to do, albeit under private management.

To date, the charter operators cannot point to one example of how a privatized, no-excuses model of education can work for an entire school district (and not just skimming the best students off the top of that district). The closest example they have is New Orleans and it has been an abysmal failure.

“But there is so much poverty in New Orleans and families are still returning after Hurricane Katrina.”

No excuses