Sunday, December 23, 2007

HR Connect – or does it?

The BoE’s relatively new $30,000,000 info-system, announced with great pomp and circumlocution at Klein’s September PEP meeting and touted on their website as a “single point of access for all human resources-related information,” actually offers a remarkable range of other phenomena: incorrect and tangential answers, rudeness, and a deep ignorance of the Chancellor’s Regulations.

I’ve already written about the first encounter I had with this functionally challenged service when I called them to ask how the position I was excessed from was listed on Galaxy. As important as that piece of information was to my own status, ongoing grievance, and job prospects, it was too much for HR Connect to handle, as I knew very well it would be. The super-trained operator did not have an answer for me.

This week I had occasion to use the system again when a question came up about whether teachers could tutor students privately after school. I had remembered seeing a conflict-of-issue statement about tutoring at some point, but couldn't find it through a quick search on the BoE website. HR Connect could surely answer this one, I thought, so I called them again and asked:

The first person I spoke to pretty swiftly re-shaped my question into something of her own invention and proceeded to answer that new version by telling me how I could apply to be a BoE tutor. When I cut her off to remind her that that wasn't my question at all and that I had no desire whatsoever to become a BoE tutor, she said something about that's the information she had. This prompted me to ask where I could find such a regulation on the BoE website so I could read the language for myself.

“You can't access it. It’s on our system,” said she, in so many words.

Granted I started to raise my voice at this point.

She put me rather abruptly on hold to fetch a
supervisor, who was rather inclined to answer from the identical script. This time, though, there was that “special tone” in the voice that reeked of condescension and annoyance.

After a bit of a tussle, she too got frustrated with my persistence in wanting my original question answered and hit me with: “Go ask your principal,” to which I responded that my principal’s opinion on this issue would be entirely irrelevant. Either a conflict of interest is stipulated somewhere or it is not.

Weakened but still on the ready, she parried with: “Then go ask the UFT," whom everyone and his mother knows does not make the rules.

Being that Accountability and Grades are so much the rage over there at Tweed, I’m taking the opportunity to grade HR Connect on my two experiences with them. In fact, I’ll break it down this way:

By way of an epilogue, I still needed to have an answer to my original question, so I asked a colleague later in the day if they had ever come across any ruling on the issue of private tutoring.

“I do remember something on this,” the person said, full of easy energy and comprehension, and proceeded to find it online in the Chancellor’s Regs in under one minute and at no cost whatsoever. (It's C-110, by the way.)

So much for HR Connect, which as far as I’m concerned, is not only down for the count, but as hodge-podge as anything else ordered up by the BoE in recent memory.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Zen of being an ATR

Sayeth the Fool in Shakespeare's King Lear, man
"Must make content with his fortunes fit,
For the rain it raineth every day."
and similar words speaketh the fool Feste in Twelfth Night.

And so it goes with us who have been excessed, that the rain hath raineth, and doth raineth every day, and yet it behooves us to make peace with this situation because it ain’t going to get better any time soon.

To describe to the uninitiated what it is like to be an ATR, a day-to-day sub, at the very prime of one’s career is something I never imagined I’d be in a position to do. I had assumed in my salad days that the natural course of a teaching career would involve a good deal of preparation at first, then a long stretch, perhaps a couple of decades, of becoming really good at the job, then mentoring in the latter years and retiring gracefully at a time of one’s own choosing.

Alas, such was not the case for me or for the more than 700 other ATRs whose careers got truncated when the UFT leadership dropped the ball and unceremoniously “Fool-ed” us when they signed onto the last contract. In the words of Enid Welsford, Lear’s Fool — just like us ATRs — became “a vagabond caught in a storm, outside gates which men have most effectually shut against him.”

As I make my way through one incomprehensible classroom moment after another, experiencing not only the challenges of dealing with hordes of unknown and inscrutable pubescents for mere moments of time but also the diabolical stupidity of it all, I take comfort that Shakespeare and his Fools knew all about the vicissitudes of life 400 years ago. Feste had the ability, says one commentator, "to stay detached from the emotional and self-motivated acts of others," which is more or less the way I've been feeling these days.

But, detachment can take many forms, and I find myself returning to all these miracles of human thought, in Shakespeare and even further back, to the teachings of the Zen masters. And somehow the burden is lifted.

Detachment means being passionate about your work but dispassionate about its rewards.

Detachment is the perspective that allows us to enjoy the journey of life.

Be alert in the present moment, where all fulfillment occurs.

When our energy is in the present, we are in the presence of life energy.

We are the quality of our attention.

Success and fulfillment come from inside, and it is only inside that matters.

We achieve peace of mind only when we accept the wisdom of uncertainty.

Enjoy the journey.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Accountability — a mantra for spinmeisters

I’ve pretty much been staying out of the school scores discussion, because as an arts teacher I don’t have hands-on experience in the subjects that do get a lot of test prep (and a lot of tests!) and because there are others, like Eduwonkette, who are really good at peeling back the layers of KleinLieb with precision.

But, I have joined in on a couple of occasions, because this whole “progress" issue has such a stink to it that even an electives teacher like myself is under a moral obligation to look where it’s coming from.

What I can do, and have done already, is ask some questions, and I can also be grateful for the responses and happy that I have a site where I can post them.

The first question I asked was on a couple of listservs was this:
I've been hearing a lot of parents and teachers saying their school got an A or a B or a D, and I'm not sure they've understood that these letter grades are assigned to percentiles, not scores in the way we use them every day to grade papers.

In the DOE school grading system, an "A" does not mean 90 or above, but rather that a school is in the top 15%, and so on thus:
85 or above = A
85 - 45 = B
45 - 15 = C
5 - 5 = D
Below 5 = F
This table is from a printed report called "Educator Guide: the NYC Progress Report", and it was given to me by a teacher trainer who takes administrative classes with superintendents. She got it there. When we checked the online version today, this table does not appear. Another table is used, on p.29. It gives rather:
67.6 - 100 = A
48.8 - 67.5 = B
35.1 - 48.8 = C
28.9 - 35.1 = D
0 - 28.9 = F
Apart from the fact that neither of us [editorial comment: nor a reporter who subsequently contacted me about this] can understand why one table appears in the printed version and another online (maybe one version is for HS and another for another level, I'm not sure), I am very troubled by the ambiguity the DOE has created by using LETTER grades in the first place. The general public looking at a letter grade does not think of statistics and percentiles. They see what they are used to, that A is usually in the 90s, B in the 80s, C in the 70s, D in the upper 60s, and F below 65, or failing. I am sure a less ambiguous system could have been used so that no one could possibly confuse the percentile groups they've labeled A - F with the normal and widespread meaning of letter grades.

More obfuscation and confusion on top of the contortions of the computations themselves.

The teacher trainer also told me this also: "The progress report is an attempt by the DOE to show NYS that NYC is meeting the mandates of NCLB. Thus the huge number of grades that seem above average (A's and B's) but are actually pretty darn low."

I do admit to not knowing a whole lot about this whole grading project/fiasco, but my reaction is visceral, that I believe there is a purposeful effort on the part of the DOE to misinform the general public. Can someone tell me if I am at least getting the facts right, or is there something I am not understanding?

One response came from Gary, who not only linked to a parody he had just written, but drew my attention to Leonie Haimson’s 2004 testimony that included a section on “Creative Confusion.” Very helpful in understanding the general ideology, but not specifically dealing with the weird use of letter grades that represent sets of percentages far different from what the hoi polloi are used to, like A=90s, B=80s, etc.

I asked another question in November, this time on comparisons of test grades from a long time ago to the present. I was basically interested in finding out if there’s been a measurable “dumbing down” of the population over time.
Has anyone ever administered a test, let's say for 8th grade math, written in the 1960s to a current 8th-grade class to see what kids now and what they knew 40 years ago?
This led to some back and forth on how some tests are somewhat comparable over time (e.g., the Long-Term Trend NAEP, explained by Ravitch) while others (like the city and state tests) are not. I looked at the NAEP site as she suggested and found you still cannot get very accurate long-term comparisons, since accommodations were allowed in some years but not in all.

Yesterday I read a post on NYCEducator that brought to mind some other questions about testing and the obfuscation thereof:
Kids taking a certain exam this year, say, will be different from the kids taking the same exam next year, right? So what is the point of comparing this year's scores against next year's scores in the first place? Different set of kids means different set of test-takers. What good does it do comparing one set of test-takers against a later set?

Shouldn't progress be measured by comparing how well the same set of kids do from one year to the next? I know that's not really possible, so what's the point of these comparisons anyway?

And here are some of the answers to those 5 questions, first from xkaydet65:
If you deal with the Elem and Int schools you can follow a kid's progress. Does he go from a 2 to a 3 or vice versa (BTW a change of 2 mult. choice answers can change a high 2 to a 3 and a low 3 to a 2)

For you HS folks there is no way to compare results. The tests are different and the kids are different. Yet some people try to do that and they don't work for Bloomklein. Colleges trumpet increases in the SAT scores of their frosh classes from year to year even though the exams change. This is probably the paradigm that the DoE is working with.
Then from Schoolgal:
Elementary and Jr. HS students can be tracked. And it is true how one wrong answer can be the difference between a 2 and a 3.

However our principal informed us that the report card measurement will no longer look at the grade as much as the raw score. So if a child got a high 3 or high 4 two years in a row, they will see it as zero improvement rather than meeting or exceeding the standards. That is why schools with very high scores are getting Bs or Cs.

What is a teacher or principal supposed to do with this crazy method?

Schools in the high 80s are pressuring their teachers to bring scores up will only be hurting themselves in the future once they hit the ceiling. Yet the most violent schools got As because their low scores showed some improvement. If I knew how to spell in Yiddish, I would say this was one cockamayme plan. (my apologies to the Yiddish-speaking readers)

[editorial note: the alternative spelling is kakameyme, which brings up an unfortunate comparison between cock and kaka.....]
And from 15 more years:
This business of kids not improving from year to year is a big crock of hooey. If they were taking the same exact test every year, then yes, as they go from 5th grade, to 6th, and onward, then you naturally would expect a child to show growth. BUT, plenty of kids top out in 5th or 6th grade. The ELA in 7th grade is much easier than the ELA in 8th grade –– so it is almost expected for a child to remain static, if not drop a bit if he is a struggling student to begin with. And what if a child is sick the day of the test? There are so many variables to consider, the concept is ridiculous and ill-conceived.

The mantra coming out of Tweed these days is “accountability,” and Bloom/Klein have made much of testing and test score comparisons to convince people that they know how to make schools accountable.

But it is clear that from almost every possible angle – different tests, different test-takers and what side of the bed they woke up on, different amounts of accommodation, different degree and quality of prep, different testing conditions, and even different morality in marking – comparisons of test scores do not stand up to scrutiny or further the cause of accountability.

Test score data is useful for one thing only: Spin. And that’s the farthest away from accountability you can get.

What are they really trying to do with our schools and with our kids?

New link!! Thanks to Ednotesonline, here's a Test you can take, put out by Prof. Celia Oyler of Columbia TC, on the KleinLieb school grading system. Find out if you already know all there is to know about this colossal boondoggle and if it will ever in a hundred million years be an accurate, fair, or relevant tool for judging NYC schools.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Democracy or demogoguery, that is the question

There’s a disclaimer on one of the local education blogs that recently caught me up short:
[This blog is] a place where members, public education advocates and others can express opinions in an effort to establish an agora of informed commentary on public education and labor issues. The views expressed here are not necessarily the official views of the UFT .....
If you haven't identified the source, it’s posted on, the official blog of Unity cau—, oops, the United Federation of Teachers.

I’m not really sorry for confusing the two, because they want you to confuse the two.

It’s an interesting word they’ve used in the first sentence of this disclaimer: “agora,” which of course means marketplace. So, I guess in one sense the blog is being fairly honest about what it’s setting out to do, which is to “sell” the Unity line. That makes it a lot easier for the leadership to go about selling off pieces of the contract.

While some of those “others” they talk about will indeed be allowed to express their opinions, a whole bunch of other “others” might just as well go out bowling, at least when they try to post a comment about Unity’s role in the demise of the profession.

A couple of us in the cyberworld have already noted that our more critical comments to various Edwize posts have been taken down pretty quickly. In fact, I suspect the whole purpose of the column on the right, the one that gives snippets of the most recent comments, is to make excision even more efficient. It only takes a nanosecond to spot a comment critical of Weingarten, Leo Casey, Zahler, et al., and a few seconds more to remove it, and I mean entirely, because unlike a lot of monitored blogs that actually tell you when something’s been removed, in Edwize it’s just gone. Poof! Didn’t happen. No one disagreed with us. Yeah, democracy!

Maybe I'm wrong. After all, here's Leo Casey in August 05:
Our friends at EDUWONK express some astonishment that the UFT would produce a blog with a comments sections, allowing readers to express disagreement, as well as agreement, with the UFT and its policies. They chuckle that we will regret such a choice. Maybe that’s because they still haven’t figured out that teacher unions are democratic institutions, and that we consider dissent a necessary component of democratic conversation. There are no guarantees, of course, that a particular dissenting voice will be thoughtful or constructive, but space for the expression of dissent is necessary so that those voices which fit this description can be heard. . .

Our advice to EDUWONK: Democracy — Try It. You might like it.

Democracy or demagogery, that is the question.

If the leadership cared enough about BOE discrimination against members belonging to employee organizations to protect them contractually (Article 2, Fair Practices), why should we get something less from the union itself?

I realize there are two different kinds of discrimination here, one relating to an adversarial relationship between boss/employee and the other to treatment at the hands of supposed ally whom we are paying with our dues.

But, that’s just the point. The UFT is not much of an ally anymore. They’ve gone down too many wrong paths with their compounded givebacks, charter schools, merit bonus schemes, etc., and their mistakes actually hurt us and decimate the ranks. When we post harsh criticisms of their positions, they remove them and pretend nobody really feels this way.

One could make a case that Edwize is accessible to the blogosphere and members shouldn't be airing their differences in public. (Keep up a strong front, that sort of thing.) But, one could also take the position that people outside the union don’t have to be given access to the site at all, so that we could confront the leadership on political, tactical, controversial and strategic issues in private. Unity obviously doesn't want that, it’s not really in their interest, to which I’d have to respond: then call it a Unity blog and stop with all this democracy blather.

As for the column of links on the left of Edwize, glaringly missing are the sites and blogs of non-Unity caucuses (like ICE, ICEblog, ICE listserv, TJC), as well as the ones of individuals associated with them (like EdnotesOnline, Norm’s Notes, this one), teacher advocacy groups (like TAG and NYCoRE's listserv), and critical individuals (like Round Deux). That list should be pretty comprehensive, if this were a democratic union. That it is not speaks volumes.

Unity feeds on our willingness to tolerate its unilateral presence, and the censoring of critical remarks on Edwize reinforces that imagery. But no matter how many times Weingarten brandishes the mantra “Because we are a democratic union” (how that woman doesn’t choke on her own words is beyond me), it doesn't make it true. Manipulated, outnumbered, cowed, kept in the dark on a regular basis, and virtually powerless, yes, but not democratic.

N E W ! E X P A N D . Y O U R . K N O W L E D G E
on all things Leo and censorship.

See great posts on same at LeoGate (EdnotesOnline), which includes an analysis of what passes for Unity elections and also refers you over to another Leo story at NYCEducator (where censorship is mentioned in the comments section).


Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A chancellorific letter

The "Chancellor" has apparently written a letter to all the city's teachers, according to
Democrats for Education Reform. They say it was sent out the day of the Candlelight Vigil outside of Tweed this week to protest the new Teacher Performance Unit.

For the record, I didn't get a copy, and for the sake of accuracy, I feel obliged to put quotes around the word Chancellor, since not only is there any reason to believe that this statement was put out by something other than a PR firm, but because it is widely known that the man holding this position has never been qualified for the job in the first place. (Getting a state waiver only makes it legal. He'll never actually bother to learn what he's missed, or even lose sleep over it.)

Saying all this, it's probably worth giving this letter a moment of your time, if you're not already put off by the first two words: "Dear Colleagues."
November 26, 2007

Dear Colleagues,

I am writing you to honor your extraordinary work on behalf of the children of New York City. Over the past several years, because of your dedication and talent, our students have made real progress. Graduation rates have risen significantly, as has virtually every other indicator of increased student learning. These are not just numbers. They bear directly on the life outcomes of children, from future employment and earnings potential to health and even incarceration rates. You are changing lives for the better every day. I can assure you that Mayor Bloomberg joins me in offering his deepest gratitude for all that you are doing, and have done, to contribute to our students' progress.
Apart from the fact that I'm not really convinced that Klein thinks of any of us out here as his colleagues, I can't figure out if these letterwriters are speaking to the entire membership (all 200,000 of us that work with kids) or just the teachers (74,000). And do they really mean to compliment the whole lot of us, even the ones they're trying so hard to get rid of? Everything after the words "I am writing to you" is entirely misleading, unsubstantiated or factually incorrect.
[para. 2]
As we move forward together, I take great pride in knowing that that all of us - UFT President Randi Weingarten, the Mayor, and I - share a common appreciation of the importance of your work. Indeed, the research on this point is overwhelming. As the UFT recently reaffirmed, the single greatest factor in improving student learning, especially for our neediest students, is the quality of the teacher in their classroom. Students who are blessed with teachers who have an established record of improving achievement prosper - indeed, so much so that researchers have suggested that our shameful racial achievement gap would narrow dramatically if all our students were fortunate enough to be in their classrooms. But, not surprisingly, the opposite is also true. When high-needs students find themselves taught by teachers with a history of poor success in improving student achievement, the gap widens, and many students never recover.

Yes, Weingarten did recently say in her Jan. 25th testimony on the proposed DOE restructuring plan that the single greatest factor in improving student learning is the quality of the teacher in the classroom. But, she continued to say that
This proposal will totally reverse everything we’ve accomplished. It will deprive more and more of our kids of an experienced, highly-skilled teacher. In the short run it will do that only at schools that now have a relatively senior staff, but in a few years it will hit all schools, whether they serve middle class or poor children. Because of the incentives and disincentives built into the formula, schools with many senior teachers will have to reduce the number of those teachers or sacrifice programs that made them successful.
People who read this blog know that I far from agree with everything Ms Weingarten says or does, but her words are clearly taken out of context here. She's saying the DOE tacticians have been reversing attempts to improve teacher quality (whatever that is, since no one has ever developed a fail-safe way of measuring it). The Klein letter says that kids taught by teachers who have "an established record of improving achievement prosper." If a substantial percentage of the teaching force has already been driven out by these people, and something like 50% (could that be right? it's what I heard) don't even have full certification or a Masters, it's getting harder to find teachers that have an "established record" of anything at all, good or bad.

What's clear is that the "Chancellor" and his underlings are making it harder and harder for professional teachers to stay in the job. You get to be a professional after you finish your grad studies and your internship, not while you're in the middle of doing this preparatory work. Even if the figure is not as high as 50%, we do know that a substantial number of the young adults Bloom/Klein has attracted with offers to pay graduate tuition and intermediate kinds of certification leave the job anyway in a couple of years, or go where they're better appreciated. Which leaves me to wonder whom in particular is this letter complimenting for their "extraordinary work"?

I'm not even going to get into the statement that virtually aligns poor student achievement with race, as if only people of certain races can be "high-need students," but I really hope you all caught it.
[para 3]
That is why we are so committed to attracting, supporting, and retaining the best teachers in the nation. Since Mayor Bloomberg took office in 2002, we have increased teacher salaries by 43%. Last month, UFT President Weingarten joined the Mayor and me in announcing an innovative school-wide performance bonus plan to reward teachers in high-needs schools that are succeeding for students. But, even more important than financial considerations, we are committed to providing the professional support and ongoing training necessary to enable every New York City teacher to be successful. Since 2002, for example, we have invested billions of dollars in professional development and mentoring for our educators. But we also know that factors related to school environment are critical to teachers. That is one reason we are committed to class-size reduction. This year alone we expect to have more than 1,300 additional teachers in our classrooms.
Wading through the sludge in paragraph 3, with its pompous and self-congratulating remarks on the new merit pay scheme (that's what it is), the "billions" spent on professional development, mentoring and the like (saying you've invested billions into something sounds great to some people), and how they're all trying to enable teachers to be "successful" (definition of success missing, but no matter, as it wouldn't be an educator's meaning for the word anyway), we get to where they tell us how they are committed to reducing class size. The veil of untransparency will get pulled back from time to time by sources that go the extra mile to get some facts out, in this case NY1:
The report, released Tuesday by the watchdog group, Campaign for Fiscal Equity, finds the city will still need to create another 866 new classrooms to meet class-size standards. That translates to the DOE being somewhere between 19,000-20,000 seats short.
Correction: you will not have 1,300 additional "teachers" in your classroom, you will have maybe 1,300 additional grad students in your classroom learning as hard and as quickly as they can how to become teachers.

After a couple of paragraphs of more of the same, it continues:
[para 7]
...I was disappointed when a recent effort to expand our capacity to address this issue was so badly misunderstood and mischaracterized. Last year, only 10 out of 55,000 tenured teachers were removed from their position for incompetence. That's two tenths of one percent. I do not believe that anyone can responsibly defend this miniscule percentage as appropriate. Given the research that children's lives are profoundly and negatively affected by truly poor instruction, all of us have a moral duty to address this issue honestly and openly.
SLICK! They make a real point of saying that only 10 out of 55,000 tenured teachers were removed for incompetence. They mean fired, out of the system. The number of people "removed from their positions" is more like 1,500, since Weingarten told us just last week that there are now 800 ATRs and 700 sitting in rubber rooms. If you subtract those 10 who got really terminated, it means roughly 1,490 people (which, by the way, does not include all the ATRs that have already been placed) were removed from their positions for a whole bunch of other reasons than incompetence, including whistleblowing, excessing, restructuring, age, high salaries, and rubbing the principal the wrong way.

Are they taking us for fools? These people have institutionalized the marginalization and criminalization of teachers and think it's just business as usual.

The last paragraph really needs framing, cause the red bits are both priceless and defenceless.
I regret the confusion and concern that the public conversation on this issue has caused and, specifically, our role in it. At the same time, I hope you have the same confidence in yourselves as professionals as I do. As I said at the outset, all but the tiniest minority of teachers are doing good, and often outstanding, work. Our teachers are heroes, one and all, and I am deeply grateful to them. Let's move forward together to continue to make the great strides for all our students that your talent, dedication, and hard work deserves.


Joel I. Klein

Oh, heck, let me put it all in red and be done with it. Then go read Tom Paine or something useful.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The lady doth protest, but for real?

After a summer of intense pressure on the union leadership, Randi Weingarten finally moved on the rubber room and ATR situations — too late for the most part, since careers were already severely damaged (or ended) and givebacks already contractualized.

Nevertheless, she seems to have gotten the message that the membership is fairly disgusted with her milquetoast response to the DOE’s continuously rotten treatment of its employees.

(Bravo, TAG and all the others who’ve been in her face on these issues for months now.)

Regardless of her motives for being somewhat dispassionate about the DOE's brutality for the past couple of years, Weingarten is now making a show of outrage by joining the Candlelight Vigil mounted by a disgusted teacher who was determined to “To Mourn the Death of Civil Rights and Due Process for New York City's 100,000 Dedicated Teachers,” even if he had to do it on his own. That’s how he announced it, and that’s what she couldn’t resist: the chance to look as if she really had our interests at heart. She quickly jumped on board and called everyone out to the Monday demonstration at Tweed “to protest the DOE’s creation of the Teacher Performance Unit and to call for respect for city teachers.”

Respect. It reminds me of the armbands campaign some years back calling for respect, and the brainstorming session on the same topic. (Was there more than one session? I didn't get invited back after the one I went to. Maybe they dropped it.) In case you ever thought so, you can't get respect just by demanding it.

We have called Weingarten a dissembler before, and we shouldn’t be fooled by her public indignation now. Most veteran teachers have seen her do this dance many times over, the making nice to the powers that be, and then the playing at being tough. She even said as much at the ATR meeting herself, when she talked about the periods she’s friendly with Klein alternating with the times they piss each other off.

If you want members to believe you're for real, you can’t do games. Your job is not to be nice or considerate, or collaborate with the bosses. Your job is to advance the interests of your members, and failing that, prevent a deluge of contractual givebacks and protect them legally and through protest from egregious administrative behavior. She's actually not done much of any of this.

If Weingarten were playing it straight with us, she’d have been standing up publicly to this chancellor all along and not waiting for us to call, nag, email, blog, or prod her, much less expose, parse, and debunk her public explanations and excuses every time he fires off another round of abuse. After all, this is the man who has pushed children, parents and staff off the board in the devilish game of monopoly he’s been playing with his corporate buddies at the expense of public education. If Weingarten were playing it straight with us, you'd feel her support in your bones.

Veteran members — not, of course, the Unity people, who have something tangible to lose if they don’t swim with the pack — have come to see Weingarten’s thrusts and feints for what they are: maneuvers to enhance her personal political position. It’s the newer members, and the passive ones, who have to listen up this time and not get sucked into thinking she is working for them.

Weingarten works for herself. She’s stayed in power so long because she’s a political animal who’s deft at what she does.

And what she does, as Norm Scott says in “UFT: Masters of Deflection,” is:
deflect people from taking action on their own or ... in concert with others... The goal is to stop anything from getting organized, and if the threat is serious enough, they may actually do something (or give the impression they are doing something).
Weingarten cancelled a long-planned rally in May that had the support of parents and community groups (see Kolodner’s account in The Chief). Why should we believe she’s being honest with us now at the Monday vigil when she sacked her own demonstration last spring and nixed an attempt by chapter leaders soon after to reinstate it? According to Kolodner, those people had been planning a protest against the reorganization even before the May 9th demonstration was announced. Where was Weingarten and the full force of the union presence then?

This the the key. Weingarten will do what is in Weingarten’s interest. She’ll make sudden announcements, move venue, call emergency meetings to push through her agenda, twist Roberts Rules, plant supporters to make her case, demean adversaries, or talk deep into the delegate assemblies to reduce the question period. She’s learned how to do all that, and she does it well.

What she hasn’t done is organize this union into a force to be reckoned with. And she hasn't figured out a way to tune into our anger and despair and use all of it to put this misanthropic BloomKlein machine back on the right course.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Sacrificing the learning years — Why?

When you’ve made a career in a classroom because you enjoy teaching and all its challenges, you can’t help drawing some conclusions about how kids learn, and whether they learn.

I have come to believe that three phenomena do the most damage to young minds: porn, violence, and the workshop model.

The first robs children of their innocence and the chance to discover the deepest secrets of adult life at an appropriate pace, the second makes them numb to inhumanity, and the third deprives them of a suitable environment for absorbing a ton of information and learning the techniques of just plain thinking.

Forces within our society, including the right of free speech, have failed them on the first two, and the DOE’s rigid and overreaching directives have failed them on the third. What we have is a generation of highly aware and over-exposed students, most still quite innocent when you come down to it, who know a whole lot about the darkside, but feel decidedly uncomfortable when asked to learn, reason, memorize, reflect, or practice any of the other cognitive skills.

According to the NY Teacher (Deidre McFadyen, Feb. 17, 2005):
The workshop model is the brainchild of [Carmen] Farina ... and Lucy Calkins, the founder of the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University’s Teachers College, which has received more than $10 million in training contracts from the Department of Education in the past two years. The model is premised on the belief of “progressive” educators that the best way to encourage deep and enduring understanding is through “discovery learning” in a small-group setting, where students puzzle out problems and acquire knowledge on their own.
One of the features of the workshop model is that desks are arranged in small groups, often of four.

It is obvious and well known that two things happen the minute you turn four desks with kids at them in on each other: (a) each student has to deal with the three other personalities around the table at the same time he has been instructed to think, and (b) the only person in the room who has a really decent handle on the subject is not one of those three. The teacher, who has mastered the subject and internalized the knowledge, is on the outside of that huddle and generally has to be fairly aggressive to make his presence known.

Cognitive skills are private. It is your brain that is acquiring them, and it’s the obligation of an educational system to give you a proper space and a decent amount of time to learn them in. Processing speed, memory, logic, reasoning, attention skills – all those good things that allow you to be really functional in the world when you grow up – are your skills, not your neighbor’s, or those of the kid across the table from you.

A lot was written about the workshop model a couple of years ago when teachers realized how insistent the DOE was about steamrolling it into our classrooms. (See McFadyen’s article mentioned above and a Liz Ditz post on Sept. 10 of the same year that quotes from other NYC ed writers. Or do some googling.) Neither I nor anyone else is suggesting the workshop model should never be used, only that it should never be used tyrannically, exclusively, or injudiciously.

It’s time to look at this methodology again, now that high school teachers are dealing with classrooms of students whose ability to learn has been stunted by way too many years of workshop modeling in inappropriate and downright unworkable settings.

Here’s what we confront with the incoming 9th graders:

The preponderance of talking, with few having the self-control to monitor themselves. I'm speaking about good students as well as strugglers. Students of this age simply talk, a lot and loudly and with a limited awareness that they are interfering with the learning space of others.

The frequency of going off task. Their social habits and needs pull them greatly in other direcctions.

The migration of desks set up in L-shapes or short lines turning in on themselves as students gravitate into the small groups they've grown accustomed to.

The marginalization of the teacher, who often has to plead for silence and attention.

The non-compliance of the marginal students who simply cannot work on their own until the teacher has the chance to put them individually back on track.

By the last years in high school, some of the frivolous behavior is dropped, but by then it’s too late. The precious cognition we always had wanted for our students is no longer within their grasp.

It is time to take a hard look at what has been wrought upon a generation of students in this city by businessmen and ed contractors, many of whom lost their credibility a long time ago. You can’t give back the “learning years” to kids who’ve been sacrificed to a gross and heavy-handed experiment that has not worked.

It is time to return teaching to the teachers, who for the most part, are the only ones who have any hands-on experience with the populations of kids they have made it their life's work to nurture.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

At winking and nodding, Weingarten excels

A person named Nat had this to say about UFT president Randi Weingarten:
"Any objections Weingarten has to the school grading system, or the school system itself, are done with a wink and a nod."

She's really good at winking and nodding. Here's the opening paragraph of the statement she put out on New York City's new grading system:
First, we congratulate the schools that have done well on the school Progress Reports. Not surprisingly, schools with more collaborative relationships between teachers and administrators received higher grades.

Weingarten clearly buys into the Bloom/Klein grading system, and not once but twice.

Despite a groundswell of disdain for the new system in the past two weeks, which is dishonest, educationally unsound, and meaningless to its core,
her first sentence actually congratulates the schools that got a good rating. She proceeds in her second sentence to make a gratuitous and entirely unfounded connection between good grades and what she calls a "collaborative relationship" in these schools between teachers and administrators.

Weingarten, thus, supports the grading system de facto. If she didn't, she wouldn't be congratulating anyone or offering an explanation of why these schools got the good grades they did.

She starts wiggling around in paragraph no.2, where she says that the union has always supported accountability systems that strive to get clear and accurate assessments, and that she knows "that this is what was intended" by the Department of Education.

Weingarten has known all along what kind of grading system Klein was designing and carrying out. It's no secret that it's been built around test scores, faulty surveys, and an extraordinary lack of input from experienced rank-and-file educators and parents. Only when the grades have been published and the horrendous stupidity and evil of the thing is there for the whole world to see does she feel the need to jump on board and speak out against it.

Weingarten can't have it both ways: You either support the grading system (her para 1), or disavow it from the start, for being corrupt of vision and limited on truth. She'll say all right that she's always been against unfair, unclear and inaccurate assessments (para 2), but her interminable lack of response on the issues involved here show her for the fabulous winker and nodder that she is.

Ever the maneuverer and political hack, Weingarten dissembles to suit her personal agenda. She's been mum for years, some would even say complicit, as Klein takes apart the teaching profession piece by piece. She's so willing to collaborate with the movers and the shakers, the very people that are running public education into the ground, that I suspect she doesn't even recognize anymore how two-faced her written statements have become.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

WMDs at the Board of Education

If anyone thinks that experienced educators – which includes administrators, principals, classroom teachers and service providers – believe for one minute that the new grading system for schools is anything less than another Weapon of Mass Destruction, they’re delusional.

You cannot CALL yourself an educator and spend a career getting better at what you do without caring deeply about kids and their academic, physical, and sociological environments.

The only people who can throw a school system into chaos with such bravado and seeming lack of genuine respect for the people they service and the people they employ are men and women who do not come up through it.

Michael Bloomberg and Joel Klein use public office to position themselves politically and economically. Students, parents, and staff are so many pieces on a board, and when this game’s over and all the pieces are fallen, they’ll just walk away. There are plenty of other games to get involved in with in their circles.

Show us one way that these people actually care. Here is a short list of their weapons, for mass destruction or otherwise:
Restructuring the system (to no helpful purpose and many times)
Diminishing parental involvement
Closing special districts
No-bid contracts
Refusal to address class size issues
Incomprehensible school grading systems
Charter schools and corporate alliances

We suspect that everyone at the highest levels of this administration knows what’s going on and won’t speak up. Their jobs depend on their silence as much as anyone else’s all along the chain of command, from the untenured teacher to the principal to the superintendents. At some point it is going to be too hard to stomach and too hard to stifle.

We shouldn’t be surprised how dire this situation is now, because we were being warned all along. What we could not have envisioned is the extent to which corporate America has been able to destroy education for a generation of children in this city and elsewhere and undermine the values of professional educators.

Here are a few reminders about what the Times has written about Klein and his appointees.

On July 30, 2002, Jennifer Steinhauer reported Klein would need a waiver to take the job:

Although a news release on Mr. Klein described him as possessing “considerable experience in the field of education,” this experience seems to have been limited to studying education for a bit and teaching math to sixth graders at a public school ...

Because Mr. Klein lacks the professional education credentials required by state law, he will need a waiver from the state education commissioner, Richard P. Mills, before taking his post.
In an editorial on the same day, the Times editorial page said Klein would have to assure the state education commissioner and the Board of Regents that he would be
.... surrounded by top-flight educators. His second in command should have the knowledge and experience in education that the new chancellor lacks.

That would be Diana Lam, and more below on her.

On July 31 Steinhauer reported on what Bloomberg thought he was getting in a non-educator chancellor:
A former prosecutor with few education credentials may seem to be a surprising, if not odd, choice as the New York City schools chancellor. But the pick was business as usual for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg ...

Mr. Klein is an outsider unencumbered by prior alliances in New York City's political world, a man whose previous role in municipal government was limited to a short stint as a public school teacher.

Mr. Klein's name was never posited by supporters ...

And by several accounts, Mr. Klein shares Mr. Bloomberg's desire to build a fiercely loyal team and then let underlings take the credit [or blame] for most successes [or failures].

... it is clear from Mr. Bloomberg's remarks and from those around him that the mayor was most personally comfortable with Mr. Klein. Often, clicking with Mr. Bloomberg over a hot dog is more important than a résumé.

''He wanted the person that he was comfortable with,'' Mr. Walcott said...

While many experts had expected the mayor to appoint someone who ran a school system elsewhere, his aides said that he was more interested in finding someone who had fought big battles in disparate industries ...

Like Mr. Bloomberg, who brags about being fired from a Wall Street firm only to start his own company, Mr. Klein has often sailed against the tide in his world...

''It's a lot easier if you're the head of an agency to enter into a settlement and have everybody think you're reasonable than it is to hang in there and get a result that you think is right,'' said one former Justice Department official. ''Joel stood up in the face of that and didn't blink.'” ...
The waiver was granted, as James Devitt reports in the Columbia News (August 5, 2002):
Klein will become the first Schools Chancellor appointed under the new school governance legislation, which gives the Mayor control of New York City's 1.1 million-student public school system. Like the Police and Fire Commissioners, Klein will report directly to the Mayor. On August 1, Klein received a waiver from State Education Commissioner Richard Mills to take the post.

New York State requires school superintendents to have at least three years of teaching experience and graduate work in school administration, including an internship or similar experience. However, since 1970, the state's education commissioner has been allowed to waive these requirements for "exceptionally qualified persons" who have "training and experience" that are the "substantial equivalent" of the formal requirements. Mills' decision was backed by an 8-3 vote of an advisory panel approving the waiver.
And according to Bob Herbert (March 22, 2004), Klein did, I guess, surround himself with “top-flight” educators. The deputy chancellor he appointed gave new meaning to the word “flight”:
Since Mr. Klein did not have a background in education (he was given a state waiver to hold the chancellor's post), his choice of a deputy chancellor [Diana Lam] to oversee instruction was considered crucial ...

Ms. Lam was forced to resign two weeks ago...

On March 19, 2004, Andrew Wolf wrote in the NY Sun about Lam's replacement:
Robert Kolker of New York Magazine wrote about the Lam affair this week describing the process that brought her to New York: “Klein had hired her to be a change agent, offering her the job after just a few meetings not because of her educational philosophy but because they clicked. ‘I liked her style,’ he told me last year. Did he know anything about the educational programs she used? ‘No,’ he admitted.”....

But Ms. Farina certainly knew that the remarkable gains made at P.S. 172 long predated the introduction of Month-by-Month Phonics, but rather took place during the time the school was using “Open Court,” a phonics-heavy reading program much despised by whole-language enthusiasts. Ms. Farina became a key participant in this deception...

In the wake of the Diana Lam scandal, the least the public and the children are entitled to from the Department of Education is full honesty and candor. By selecting someone who was an active participant, along with Ms. Lam, in the deceptions surrounding the curriculum scandal, the exact wrong message would be sent at this most critical moment.

It is up to Mr. Bloomberg to restore accountability and honesty to the system now. The public appreciates decisive action, even if it means admitting past missteps.
There has been more of this, with Deputy Chancellor Christopher Cerf's conflict of interest problems going under investigation (as reported in the Post on March 5, 2007):

City investigators have launched a probe into recent financial dealings of Deputy Schools Chancellor Chris Cerf, the former president of Edison Schools Inc. who hastily dumped his equity stake in the company last month, The Post has learned.

Sources with knowledge of the inquiry said investigators are examining whether Cerf's holding on to Edison stock after he was named deputy chancellor in December, and while a paid consultant of the department last year, was a conflict of interest.

How incredibly naive we were just a couple of years ago to think that it was in Bloomberg's nature to "restore accountability and honesty," as Wolf says.
We need outrage and courage to turn this whole thing back and rebuild what's left of the system. Schools are only businesses in the sense that they manage money. They should not be mucked up by the degenerate values of corporate climbers, whose singular goal is to blast public education to smithereens.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Q&As on the Q&As

Another Q&A appeared in the NY Teacher this week, this one on the new Schoolwide Bonus Program leadership negotiated us into while we were looking the other way. It's downright creepy how this plan was sprung on us at the Delegate Assembly, cunningly connected to the 55/25 pension plan they've been working on at the same time.

There's a kind of Cheneyesque darkness to the thing, not only for the secrecy and precipitous unveiling of this plan, but for the unsettling feeling that we're being asked to
sacrifice a bit of our professional ethics to something quite foreign to us: venality.

Smothered in legalese is also a satanic bargain, that s
chools voting the bonus plan down will get a mark against them:
A school’s agreement to participate in the bonus program shall be considered, along with other criteria, as a positive factor in determining whether the Participant School is to be phased out or given a year’s moratorium on a possible phase-out. Nothing herein alters applicable law with regard to school closings. [Memorandum, Oct. 23, 2007, no.6]
To make that connection — rejecting a bonus plan means you endanger the existence of the school itself — is absolutely immoral.

You just can't sell something as smelly as this, and leadership knew they'd have to pitch it to us big-time. Unfortunately, their fuzzy Q&A leads to a lot more Qs than even their PR department could handle, and here's why.

From their Q&A:

How does it work?
“... the DOE will make a lump-sum payment to that school to be distributed among its staff.”
New Q: The whole staff?

A: Well, no, not really. Just the UFT members, which means nothing for the aides or the custodians. Gee. I was under the impression that all staff have the potential of contributing to the success of a school, not just the members of our union.
How much money will the educators in the school receive? “The school's total award for 2007-8 will be calculated by multiplying the number of full-time UFT-represented educators ...”
New Q: What about the people teaching or providing services in more than one school?

A: I dunno.
How much money will the educators in the school receive? This must be done fairly” [They say a “compensation committee” will be formed annually, of 2 UFT members, the principal and a designee, and the money will be divvied up by consensus.]
New Q: Has a committee ever been able to achieve “fairness” across the board?

A: Practically unheard of, actually. Congress has been trying for 218 years and it hasn't got things "fair" yet. Optimum fairness, if such a thing were even possible, would be assigning equal shares to everyone, but then who’d need a committee at all? As for consensus, the threat of forfeiting the whole sum puts an awful lot of pressure on any dissenter in the group.
How do we know this will be done fairly? “... this is an experimental two-year pilot program that will be subject to a comprehensive independent evaluation.”
New Qs: What would you be evaluating, divisiveness? coercion? If the test scores went up after the cash was given out, do you really think you could connect one with the other? What if the scores went down even though the teachers got their bonuses and worked "harder"? Does that mean the project failed? Who picks the evaluators, and who determines how “independent” they are?

A: As with most projects with hidden agendas, a “comprehensive independent evaluation” is smoke and mirrors, might even end up in yet another no-bid contract.
Where does the money come from? In the first year the funds will be privately donated."
New Qs: What do these private donors expect in return? And more to the point, could better use be made of these funds than bonuses to individuals?

As to the first question, it's hard to know, but they won't be donating from the goodness of their little corporate hearts. As for better uses of this money, it's so obvious, it's painful. Start with smaller class sizes, textbooks, equipment, and after-school programs, then go from there.
Is this just the first step toward individual merit pay? “It is a positive program to strengthen schools. It focuses and provides a benefit to high-needs schools. It promotes teamwork rather than divisiveness, makes the voice of front-line educators equal to that of administrators, and is available to all.”
New Qs: But what does it mean that the program will “strengthen schools”? Where is the benefit to a “high-needs school” that teachers get a bonus? (I thought they were already taking their jobs seriously.) Does it really say the plan promotes teamwork rather than divisiveness, in spite of the friction caused by the elections, or the fact that some subjects involve high-stakes tests and others don't, or that we know already that some staff have a rather cozy relationship with the principal and the designee? Will the front-line educators really be equal, equal, equal to administrators? And as far as the plan being available to all: I thought committees have the right to shut out anyone they want to from these funds. It can't be available to all if they decide to carve some people out of this pie.

Um ...... uh ........

Will this ratchet up the exclusive focus on test scores? “The scores are pivotal in deciding when a school closes or must be redesigned....”
New Qs: But, why are scores so pivotal? How did we get here, that schools are closed and restructured based on tests? Why does the leadership buy into bureaucratic definitions of success?

The Big Q: Why does leadership keep selling out?

Sunday, October 28, 2007


I didn’t feel the education world was filled with clutter until the early 2000s, when two directives came down the pipeline to teachers of all subjects:

“Put a word wall up in your classroom”


"Hang up your students' work."

What started out as a couple of new bits of pop-methodology developed over time into fierce mandates. The absence of a word wall or displayed student assignments soon resulted in letters to the file and became in some cases a piece of hard evidence that a teacher was, in Klein's DOE, showing signs of incompetence.

Actually, I have nothing against word walls or hanging up some examples of great student work. These are not new ideas, and each certainly has its use. I’ve been putting up these things for as long as I can remember.

What I object to, apart from anyone mandating how I teach or that I set my classroom up in a specific way (especially administrators, most of whom don't know much about my subject at all), is the sheer verbiage on the wall. It’s clutter, pure and simple.

And would it have stopped there, with the word walls and the student work, but in the past couple of years, mandated wall items have most definitely proliferated. (Whether they're a sign of teacher quality is for another discussion, though they certainly do say something about the quality of inspection check-off lists.) In any case, here are some of the more recent mandated items:
Class rules
Class goals
School goals
School grading policy
Rubrics for assessment
Descriptions of what the assignments are supposed to achieve

Of course, these are all in addition to the fire drill posters and ongoing announcements for clubs, fund-raising campaigns, student council meetings, summer camp, bell schedules, and the like. You do feel guilty when someone tells you “Post this, please” and you deep six it. Thus, some of these papers do find their way onto the walls one way or another.

If you are on the “outside,” please try to use your imagination for a minute and put yourself inside a classroom looking at the walls.

You can’t actually read any of these things from a distance unless the lettering is over two inches tall. What you are able to see from your seat is poster after poster, paper after paper of messy or indecipherable lettering, patches of color with squiggles on them plastering much of the entire room, even the glass windows.

How can this possibly improve education?

It can’t, and it doesn’t.

The kids tune out ALL of it, and with any luck, so do I. Otherwise, how could I keep my mind clear enough to talk extemporaneously for 44 minutes, or respond to questions without getting distracted by the chaotic visuals, or get the kids to focus on their texts and their writing, or in essence: how could I do my job?

This stuff is supposed to foster a “text rich” environment. Instead, it results in two very simple and very obvious things: frustration that you can’t read much of it from your seat and a kind of numbness to the entire panoply. It reinforces one thing only: that the written word doesn’t mean much after all, so why bother worrying about what’s up there. And of course, students don’t worry about it. They don’t read it, and they couldn’t care less.

Just like they walk past a dozen signs up and down the hallways saying "No hats, No electrical devices," all the time sporting hats on their heads and checking messages on their cell phones. Signs become meaningless after a while.

A cluttered visual environment is the same as a cluttered aural one. I can’t even begin to teach music unless I first teach kids the difference between sound and silence. It takes a lot of skill to get them to make a sound (like clapping) for, let's say, 4 beats and be completely silent on beat 5. They never get it the first time, or the second. The class clowns will then screw up purposely for another five or six shots at it, but at something like the seventh attempt, when everyone miraculously achieves that precious instant of perfect silence at exactly the same time: wow, what a feeling. Broad smiles all around, sometimes with applause as well for their own collective achievement.

Visual clutter is the same thing as noise, and educators should be raging against it. It does nothing for the mind, which needs to be quieted to learn, and since most posters and papers have no artistic skill, there’s not a shred of aesthetic pleasure from much of it. It certainly does nothing to improve reading skills, since you mostly have to put your eyeballs into the wall to even see the stuff, and who has time for that rushing from class to class.

The ugly chaos we see on so many classroom walls is a kind of environmental contamination, and it shores up an insecure reader’s defense mechanism against written language altogether.