Tag Archives: education

The First Day of Philosophy Class

bullshit

 

As some of you might already know, I’ve been teaching an elective philosophy class at my school for the past 8 years. We meet every Wednesday afternoon for 8 weeks. After that, the students choose another elective and I get to teach a whole new group. Our first class of the year this past Wednesday reminded me why I chose to teach philosophy to high school students in the first place.

I came in that morning to find the roster for the philosophy class in my mailbox. Not surprisingly, my eyes started to scan down the list of students to get an idea of the type of class I could expect. Only students in grades 10 through 12 get electives (that is to say, no freshmen), so chances are I would know most of the names even if I never previously taught them. It was a relatively huge roster. There were exactly 30 students listed even though our electives usually top out at around 20. Out of those 30, 25 of them were students to whom I had taught history in years past. At least I would not have to spend too much time introducing myself to them and catching them up on class rules. It was a class I was looking forward to meeting.

What was especially heartening was the fact that many sophomores I taught last year as freshmen had signed up. This was the first time in their high school careers that they had the opportunity to choose an elective and they chose philosophy. What did that mean? I was probably going to start to find out once class started.

The bell rang and they started filing into the room. At this point it would be my usual practice to direct the kids to take seats towards the front. I did not even bother this time because practically every chair in the house was filled before the late bell rang. There was a thought question on the board for them to answer: “what do you think philosophy is?” There were many great answers that I listed on the blackboard. As we wound up this initial discussion, I noticed a look of disappointment on some of their faces when I informed them that the point of philosophy was to ask better questions. I told them that if they left this class thinking they know the meaning of life, then they are doing philosophy incorrectly. Instead, they should leave here knowing which questions are appropriate to ask. This bit of advice seemed like a bitter pill for some of them to swallow.

They started to perk up however when I told them that our first lesson of the year was going to be about how to make people look stupid in a debate. That is how I sold it to them anyway. This is my usual springboard into the lesson on how to construct an argument. We took a tour through the usual introduction to philosophy fare: syllogisms, premises, conclusions, deductive reasoning, inductive reasoning and straw men. While all of these are powerful concepts, they seemed to really take to the discussion we had on the difference between lies and truth.

One of the syllogisms we studied was: “Paul never lies when he speaks. Paul is speaking. Therefore, Paul is speaking the truth.” I asked them whether or not this was a valid argument. Practically everyone agreed that it was. As they thought the case was closed and sought to move on to the next syllogism, they sensed that I was not totally buying their answer. I asked them why this argument might not be valid. When a senior raised her hand to say “just because Paul is not lying does not mean he is speaking the truth”, one of those “a-ha moments” on which we teachers thrive rippled through the room.

It was at this point that we started discussing truth. Can there not be a rather large space between lies and truth? What is more: is this not the space that most of us (and the rest of the world) occupy? This was their first encounter with philosophical grey area. I informed them that the philosopher Harry G. Frankfort might call this space “bullshit“, a tidbit that never fails to cause chuckles. We went through a few daily examples of bullshit that they would know well, like commercial advertising or when teenagers try to deceive adults. Many knowing grins lit up across the room once the kids heard an example of bullshit with which they were able to identify. If we had time we could have even discussed the quote from the great diplomat Talleyrand (one of my favorite historical figures) that “speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts.”

Towards the end of the period we started discussing hidden premises. Most arguments they will encounter in real life are not going to be cut-and-dry syllogisms. People are always injecting their biases into things, and these biases are their assumptions. They seemed to be taken with the idea that they might be able to learn how to recognize someone else’s assumptions. However, what I really believe they learned was the fact that assumptions existed. The bell rang just as we were going to go in depth on the matter. I suppose this is what next week will be for.

I believe this particular class taught me a thing or two about today’s teenagers. They seemed to genuinely appreciate the discussion on bullshit and hidden assumptions. This can probably partially be explained by the fact that they recognized themselves and their own thought patterns in these things. However, I think they also recognized that the world around them, the world of school, pop culture and Facebook, is laden with hidden biases and outright bullshit. They have a general sense that they are being lied to but have not been able to really pinpoint how. By the end of the class, I believe they started to stir with the idea that they might end up being able to expose the world around them for what it really is.

These students have spent most of their school careers in Bloomberg’s Department of Education. They have been bombarded with standardized exams and sanitized curricula for most of their lives. School to them has been a series of fill-in-the-bubble exercises. They have to fill the bubbles in on exams. They have to carry out the appropriate work units in their classes to get good grades. If their grades are lacking, they just ask for extra work units that will help them fill in the gaps until they reach a number with which they are satisfied. On their own time (and even on school time), they fill in the bubbles on their Facebook profiles, Twitter updates and text messages.

All of their time has been spent on exhibiting the appropriate outward behavior. They have learned that certain types of behaviors yield them certain rewards, like good grades or enhanced social status. The obsession with “achievement” and “success” in Bloomberg’s DOE is echoed in society at large. People only seem to care about what they do. However, philosophy reveals to them what they are.

Most importantly, philosophy is one of the only times in their school careers when they will honestly be challenged to question everything. Why are you required to do certain things? Why do you believe you have to do certain things? Why do you believe school/society wants you to do these things but not other things? It is an exercise in critical thinking. It is an exercise that is dangerous to the people in charge.

The overwhelming turnout for this first philosophy class of the year was a sign. Their general enthusiasm on the first day of philosophical discussion was a sign. How they received the ideas of bullshit and biases was a sign. Our children thirst for something higher. They thirst for it because they have never been encouraged to explore it. The school system is doing a bang-up job of extracting the curiosity, the thinking, the discovery and the fun out of learning. The reformers of the world want our children to be disengaged students because disengaged students become disengaged citizens. They are being molded into non-citizens.

By the end of this philosophy course, I hope the kids are able to discover why questioning is much more valuable than answering. Perhaps instilling within them a knack for questioning now will keep a fire burning within them that no amount of bubble-in exams can extinguish.

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The Bullying Problem

bully

It looks like it has happened again. Another teacher has taken her own life after being bullied in the workplace:

“The stepfather of a Bassett High School art teacher who committed suicide in July has announced plans to file a wrongful death suit against the district after claiming his stepdaughter’s death resulted from bullying by administrators.

A series of incidents led to Jennifer Lenihan taking a stress leave, which left her in such financial turmoil that she took her own life July 1, the day her mother went to give her money to help with rent, according to Manuel Jaramillo, her stepfather.”

Bassett High School is part of the Bassett Unified School District in Los Angeles County, California. You might recall that another bullied teacher who took his own life, Rigoberto Ruelas, taught in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Southern California, much like the rest of the country, does not seem to treat their teachers very well.

The tragic case of Jennifer Lenihan’s suicide seems to have certain things in common with the suicide of Mary Thorson. Both teachers reported regular harassment by administrators in front of students. Both teachers took their own lives while on leave from their positions. Both teachers’ families pinpoint the toxic work environment as the main reason why their loved ones were pushed towards suicide.

As someone who has had a front-row seat to the systematic bullying of teachers by administrators, I know the psychological toll it takes on the victims. Like most victims of bullying, they start to internalize the message that they are somehow flawed human beings. As some sort of hybrid of Stockholm Syndrome and a Manchurian Candidate, they begin to identify with the agenda laid out by the bullies that they are not deserving of a career teaching children. Jennifer Lenihan and Mary Thorson took their own lives while on leave from their schools. The timing might not just be mere coincidence. The fact that a teacher is not inside the classroom is solid proof that the bullies are correct about their fitness to teach. A teacher not in the classroom has all the minutes and hours to think, to allow that message to sink in, to internalize it and, eventually, to lose all hope entirely.

The bullying of teachers has sort of, by default, become my pet cause. It was the reason why I created this website in the first place. It is a particularly insidious form of bullying because it takes place inside of places that are supposed to be safe havens for children. The media, government and school districts have exerted much effort recently to stamp out the bullying of children in schools and on the internet. We know that children who are bullied wind up with deep emotional scars that could take a lifetime to heal, if they heal at all. While children should not be bullied at school or anywhere else, we will never be able to eliminate it if the adults in the building are bullying each other. How can the adults create a bully-free environment for their students if they do not know what it looks like?

Closer to home, we are witnessing another case of bullying with Francesco Portelos. I know Francesco and his case. He is currently locked in a heated 3020-a hearing, the procedure that tenured NYC teachers must face before having their licenses revoked. The charges against Francesco read like a sad comedy. Even by DOE standards, the infractions with which he is being charged are frivolous. One only has to look at the attempted hatchet job done on him recently by the New York Post to see this. Usually, the Post calls teachers perverts, incompetents, child abusers and drug addicts. But the worst the Post could throw at Francesco was this:

“Portelos, 34, allegedly made life hell for colleagues at the Staten Island middle school by slapping papers out of people’s hands, mass-e-mailing complaints and making false theft claims.”

Assuming this is all true, which it certainly is not, should this be grounds for termination?

But it is not true at all. If Francesco made “life hell for colleagues”, why would those colleagues elect him chapter leader while we was languishing in a rubber room? I cannot speak for all teachers but I certainly would not vote for a guy who slapped papers out of my hand.

The Post even went on to reveal, unintentionally of course, the real reason why Francesco is being victimized:

“Portelos was relegated to a succession of rubber rooms more than a year ago, after complaining that Hill broke DOE rules permitting parents and staff to review the school budget.

The technology teacher claims he was a “whistleblower” — and got back at his bosses by writing a scathing blog and streaming live video from rubber rooms to which he had been exiled.”

Heck, they even tag the article at the bottom with the term “Whistleblowers”.

The event that is Francesco Portelos is a product of the systematic bullying of teachers taking place in schools nationwide.  He is doing what everyone should do with bullies: fight back. It is easy for teachers to be cowed when they are written up by administrators for frivolous things or hit with retaliatory charges or have investigators come to their homes and ransack their garbage (which was done to Christine Rubino). But both Francesco and Christine fought back and both are winning.

It should not have to come to this. Teachers should not have to come to work in fear of what lies in store for them once they go through those schoolhouse doors. Not only does it distract from the already difficult job of teaching, it creates an environment of fear that automatically gets passed down to the students. We should not have to be put in a position where we have to waste time and brain power protecting ourselves against bullies. No person in any line of work should have to endure those circumstances.

While we can be heartened by the examples of Francesco Portelos and Christine Rubino, their stories are offshoots of a toxic climate imposed on our schools by the Bloomberg regime here in NYC and similarly odious school regimes nationwide. Now that Bloomberg is slinking out of office and a friendlier administration seems likely to take the reins, it is time for our union to take action.

That action needs to be in the form of an anti-bullying clause in the next contract. Bloomberg has allowed us to languish without a contract for the past four years, which means a new contract will be one of the incoming mayor’s priorities. I and many other teachers would forgo retroactive pay (which we probably will not get anyway) for solid protections against bullying. Administrators should face serious consequences for harassing teachers. Teachers should have viable avenues of protection if they become victims of administrator bullying. Schools should no longer be isolated fiefdoms where principals wield absolute power and destroy people with impunity.

This will take some organizing on our part. Something tells me our union leadership is not too keen on making this an issue at the next contract negotiations. I smell a petition brewing.

Speaking of petitions, here are a few you can sign right now over the internet:

Petition calling for Bassett Unified School District to do a thorough investigation into the bullying of teachers.

Petition to reinstate Francesco Portelos to the classroom.

What IS the Common Core?

What is the Common Core? It certainly is not just this.

What is the Common Core? It certainly is not just this.

Here is an admission I am loath to make: I do not know what the Common Core State Standards are.

I have read them. Not only have I read the parts relevant to the grade and subject I teach, I have been slogging my way through the entire thing as well. I have read the blogs and the papers and the speeches. Not only have I been interested in how the CCSS might impact my classroom, I have been interested in how it was conceived and adopted. All of these elements, combined with its purported aims, constitutes what the Common Core is.

There are people, very intelligent people, who speak about the CCSS strictly in a vacuum. They look at its content and judge its merits based strictly on what is in black and white. Our old friend Leo Casey did something along these lines recently in his latest post on the Shanker Blog. Overall, Leo is in favor of the CCSS because he believes it has the potential to help equalize the quality of schooling across districts. His major bone of contention is with the way it has been implemented so far which, in his opinion, has been too much and too fast. Along the way, he labels some of the most vocal opponents of the CCSS as cranks and conspiracy loons. He quotes people who he dubs “fringe” characters on both the right and the left as a way to contrast them with the reasonable center who accept the merits of the CCSS, a center which he assuredly occupies.

For example, Mercedes Schneider is a conspiracy theorist because she has written articles that trace the money fueling the CCSS movement. Leo does not necessarily refute what she, or any of the “cranks” he quotes, actually say. Instead, he infers that these people are caught up on irrelevancies that merely distract us from the task at hand, and the task at hand is figuring out how we can use the Common Core to erase over 200 years of educational inequality in the United States. As a student of rhetoric, I do appreciate and respect what Leo Casey set out to do in his piece. It is a rhetorical sleight of hand that would make the likes of Roger Ailes over at Fox News proud indeed.

Yet, it is not just Leo Casey who attempts to put a velvet rope around the content of the Common Core. I have been in meetings with teachers, administrators and even savvy parents who get into hair-splitting discussions over the letter of this or that particular standard. However, the way my mind works will not allow me to separate what is in the CCSS from how it was conceived, ratified and implemented. To me, all of these things are what Common Core is.

The Rosetta Stone for deciphering the Common Core is its mission statement:

“The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.”

Like many things that pass themselves off as “school reform” in this day and age, the assumptions that lie underneath this statement are downright reactionary. The goal of public schooling is to prepare students for “success in college and careers” so that we can “compete successfully in the global economy.” In this view, our schools are not so much civic institutions as they are places in which to develop the nation’s human capital. They are places that cater to the needs of the marketplace rather than promote the free association of citizens in a democracy.

After reading the mission statement, one can either turn the page forward to learn about the standards that are necessary to keep America economically competitive or turn backward to learn about the interests that have concocted and promulgated such a mission for our schools. For those who are interested in the former, you can immerse yourself in the Common Core State Standards by clicking on the link to its website. For those interested in the latter, you can read the accounts of people far more erudite than me.

Leo Casey does mention the abortive movement in the 1990s to implement national standards for our schools. American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker had been a major proponent of national standards as a way to equalize the quality of education for all students while also introducing a new form of accountability for school districts that had long neglected their most underserved children. In this he was joined by several progressives who wanted so-called Opportunity-to-Learn Standards whose goal was to de-link property taxes from school districts. Instead, school districts would be funded equally across the nation. Proponents of OTL believe that raising standards must be accompanied by providing more resources to poorer school districts. In the end, the national standards movement of the 1990s was defeated in Washington mostly by Republicans who saw it as a violation of federalist principles.

While many Republicans still oppose the Common Core on the same grounds today as they did in the 1990s (Leo Casey labels all of these Republicans “Tea Partiers”), enough leaders of both parties support it so that it has become a reality in 45 states and the District of Colombia. So what changed between the 1990s and today?

The first thing that changed was our president. While the Clinton Administration was toying with a program that would merely foist national standards on the states, the Obama Administration came up with a scheme that helped many states’ rights advocates overcome their compunctions about violations of federalism. That scheme is Race to the Top and it has worked by tying federal funding of public schools to participation in, among other things, the Common Core.

The second thing that changed was that the Common Core is a completely different animal than Opportunity-to-Learn Standards. Common Core aims to raise standards without even hinting at equalizing resources across school districts nationwide. It does not leave itself open to shrill denunciations of “socialism” from the right like OTL did. Politically, it plays well with a certain segment of the population that not only abhors so-called “socialism” but also believes that “those” children who go to public schools have been coddled for far too long. Instead, all “they” need is a swift kick in the pants so they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. No excuses.

Third, the litany of textbooks, exams and other classroom “resources” aimed at getting schools ready for the CCSS has been a boon to the McGraw-Hills and Pearsons of the world. It is another case of public dollars flowing into corporate pockets. This sits well with politicians on both sides of the aisle, since many of those bucks will eventually come back to them in the form of campaign contributions. It is a win-win if you are a politician or a publisher, lose-lose if you are anyone else.

Finally, faux progressives of the 21st century like Barack Obama and even Leo Casey himself can freely support the CCSS whilst brandishing their progressive credentials. Leo Casey makes much of the idea that the Common Core will help bring some form of equality to public schooling.

It is a curious equation. By mandating that all teachers in all schools teach to the same “standards”, teachers will somehow magically do so, accomplishing equality of education for all. It does not matter that the standards are generally nebulous. It does not matter that school budgets are shrinking. It does not matter that childhood poverty is out of control. It does not matter that our children’s brains are pickled in pop culture, Facebook and text messages for most of the day. A few black and white standards will do the trick. The Common Core is the “no excuses” mantra writ large. It is an expression of the vapid “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” trope that has been used to avoid serious solutions to inequality for the past four decades.

Yes, I am loath to admit that I do not know what the Common Core is. However, I know what it is not. It is not a recipe to bring equality to schooling in America. It is not a way to make participation in our democracy easier. Leo Casey accuses the critics of Common Core of ignoring its content in favor of tinkering around its edges. Yet, it is Leo Casey and the rest of the Common Core’s supporters who are tinkering around the edges. A focus on the content of the Common Core State Standards turns our gaze away from the material issues of poverty and inequality that have been proven, time and again, to be the biggest determinants of “success” in school and the job market. Any type of school “reform” that ignores these material issues is not really school reform at all.

As far as what the Common Core is: it is much more than the sum of its parts. Aside from being a list of standards for different grades and subjects, it is also a political program that helps Democrats pass themselves off as progressives and Republicans as friends of market-based school reform. It enshrines in law the idea that schools are nothing more than factories for human capital whose widgets exist to serve the imperatives of corporations. It is an exercise in self-serving lip service for the likes of David Coleman and Bill Gates who believe that standards can be raised without the messy work of raising material conditions.

I might not know what the Common Core is, but I do know that it is impossible to understand it without examining its antecedents.

Did the DOE Just Do Something Right?

Did the blind squirrel find a nut? Not so fast.

Did the blind squirrel find a nut? Not so fast.

The New York City Department of Education did the right thing this past Friday by discontinuing its contract with McGraw-Hill. You might recall the debacle into which the scoring of the Regents exams descended this past June. Despite the DOE’s attempts to pin the blame on teachers, the public realized that the blame rested exclusively with McGraw-Hill and the DOE.

The annual scoring of Regents exams was one of the only fairly smooth undertakings of which I have been a part as a DOE employee. Our entire history department would get together with the assistant principal to “norm” the exam, which is a sort of self-training aimed at helping us understand the scoring rubrics in the same way. After we were all “normed”, we would split into pairs and grade piles of exams. We knew each other and we knew the students, making the process relatively painless. Each student would have their grades within a week, meaning they would know where they stood in terms of promotion and graduation.

However, the DOE feared a cheating scandal a la Georgia or D.C. They scrapped the decades-old system in favor of a convoluted scheme that resulted in a big fat contract for McGraw-Hill. The scheme involved having students take the exams, then having the school package the exams in an extremely specific manner (God help a school or a teacher that flubbed this part of the process) and putting those meticulously packaged exams on a truck bound for Connecticut where they would be scanned into a central database. At the same time, certain teachers were pulled from their schools and told to report to central grading sites around the city. These sites were generally larger schools that had enough computers for everyone to use. The process was an absolute train wreck for everyone involved, especially the students.

As one of the lucky teachers assigned to one of these grading centers (Stuyvesant High School to be exact), I had a front-row seat for when this new procedure went up in flames. Not only did the norming process take forever, we had to learn how to use the computer grading program and internalize a whole bunch of new protocols. These were small hurdles compared the biggest obstacle in our way: the gross incompetence of McGraw-Hill.

It would be but a few hours of grading essays before we received a pop-up message on our computers that read something along the lines of “the RIM for this exam is full”. We never fully figured out what RIM stood for but we knew it was McGraw-Hill’s way of telling us that they had not scanned all of the exams. They could not even scan the exams fast enough to keep up with us grading them. This meant that there were many-a-day when we ran out of essays to grade and had to be sent back to our schools. While this was a small matter for me who works within walking distance of Stuyvesant, it was quite the inconvenience for those who taught anywhere else in Manhattan. The big losers in this debacle were the students, especially those who needed to know their results for graduation and did not receive them, which led to students either being deprived of the right to walk down the aisle or being allowed to walk down the aisle with the proverbial “asterisk”. There were teachers who were stuck in grading centers who were deprived of the opportunity to watch their students graduate. All of this thanks to the good people at McGraw-Hill.

This coming June, teachers will still have to report to centralized grading centers but this time they will be graded by hand. The philosophy behind this effort is that teachers should not be allowed to grade their own students’ exams.

There are many things wrong with this philosophy. First off, high school teachers never really graded their students’ exams to begin with. Sure, we graded parts of their exams but the way it works in most schools is that all teachers in the department grade at least one part of all the exams. We are mostly grading students in other teachers’ classes, a practice that both online scoring and centralized paper scoring does not change.

Most importantly, I did absolutely nothing different when scoring the exams of kids in other schools via computer. I graded them the exact way I have graded students in my own school, which means giving them as many points as the rubric would allow. There was not a single teacher who I met that did not do the same. Bloomberg and Walcott really do not give themselves enough credit. They have created such an atmosphere of fear inside school buildings that teachers would be daft to risk their careers on out-and-out scrubbing of exams. There was really no need for such an expensive and inefficient program to prevent a non-existent problem.

At least the DOE has got it half-right for the 2014 Regents exams. We will still be shuffled around like cattle, albeit without having to deal with a lousy computer program. It is in step with the idea that teachers cannot be trusted. However, is it also not a tacit admission on the part of the reformers that testing does in fact skew incentives? It is merely a surface concern of a thoroughly rotten regime that revolves curriculum, instruction and “standards” around exams that not only determine whether or not a student graduates, but now will determine the ratings of teachers. If they think they have to create all of these hoops through which we all must jump for these exams, then perhaps it is a sign that there is something wrong with the way these exams are being used.

This McGraw-Hill fiasco should be Exhibit A against the well-worn argument that the private sector is more “efficient” for education, or anything else for that matter.

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

A GENERAL STRATEGY?

Perhaps this might help with surviving the school apocalypse.

Perhaps this might help with surviving the school apocalypse.

Two of the keys to victory in this amorphous war over public education are being religiously practiced by the progressive Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.

The first key to victory lies in their website. Every paragraph is festooned with reformy language. Their aims seem to be indistinguishable from those of Students First or any other privatizer-friendly “research council”. By speaking in glittering generalities in order to hide their agendas, the reformy crowd has thrown out the rope by which they will eventually hang.

Everyone is for “improved outcomes” and “bridging the achievement gap”. The incessant need for reformers to assure us of their genuine desire to accomplish these things have made these terms tropes with no real meaning. Any group, organization or movement can slip snugly under the covers of this rhetoric to hide their own respective agendas.

The public has become so accustomed to these terms that no organization who hopes to truly affect education policy can afford to not use them. “Closing the achievement gap”, for example, is an idea that a deft rhetorician can use to mean equalizing resources among all schools around the country, just like the reformers usually use it to mean boosting test scores.

In the end, all it really takes is for us to repeat and aver the purity of our intentions  using these terms as frequently as the reformy crowd.

Of course, this rhetorical approach should be coupled by truly progressive action. Annenberg recently kicked off an initiative called A+ NYC aimed at lobbying the mayoral candidates in the name of what parents want for public schools. They recently sent a battered school bus around the city to reach parents who wanted to share their voices.

Not surprisingly, the biggest concerns turned out to be the disappearance of extracurricular activities and over-reliance on testing. This is a far cry from the manufactured clamoring of parents for more charter schools. It goes a long way towards explaining why Eva Moskowitz and her ilk have to get signatures of out-of-district parents to petition for charter schools.

What really needs to be done, and what Annenberg seems on the verge of suggesting, is the creation of the idea of parents as voting blocs. Parents are used to having their names invoked whenever one group or another wants to push some sort of privatization or censorship. Yet, they have never truly been framed as a voting bloc.

A voting bloc needs to be united behind at least one common idea. For parents, “great schools” are not enough, since that is a trope and not an idea. This is where the reformers fail and from whence the next great school movement has to start. Parents as a voting bloc must be connected to the idea of a “better school day”. An idea like this, on which the Chicago teachers put their fingers during their strike, is general enough to unite a wide swath of parents while having enough specific connotations to mean something.

And these specific connotations would be decidedly at odds with the reformy agenda. Instead of equalizing “outcomes”, the focus needs to shift towards equalizing resources. What will be important is what we as a society put into the schools, not what we can get out of the schools in terms of trained labor, higher test scores and no-bid contracts.

Who would be able to argue against an idea that wants great schools for all children?

Discarding the vapid terminology utilized by the reformies is a mistake. Instead, true public school advocates have to flay the reformer beast and walk around wearing its skin.