February 24, 2008

Doing what comes naturally, or not

It is fascinating to watch bonobos in the Nova documentary Ape Genius make and use tools, copy tasks from other bonobos or humans, and work together to achieve goals they could not accomplish on their own, activities I had thought were pretty much reserved for our species alone.

The researchers were looking for why the human brain at some point “took off,” while the ape’s has remained incapable of the same kinds of complex cognition. Apes, they tell us, are like humans: they have culture and can learn from one another.

What experiments show, however, is that apes cannot teach. They have neither the passion for it or the mental skill. “Teaching locks in progress. There’s a cumulative quality over generations,” and this causes a “ratcheting up of complexity” in the mental processes.

The program has scenes showing a human mother teaching a young child something about a new object. A triangular connection is established between the mother, the child, and the object itself. Both the mother and child point to or touch the object, talk about it, and share the wonderment of it; perhaps they incur an emotional response to the learning experience itself. Ape mothers do not have these moments with their offspring. Learning seems to go as far as copying, but no further.

The online interview with cognitive scientist Rebecca Saxe fills this out a bit:
Picture a parent and a child sitting together playing with blocks. In order to build something, both of them are adding pieces to the same structure. And they're negotiating about it. Which piece goes where? Does the tower go here? Does the door go here? And they're doing this project together. They have to negotiate it, and they have to play with each other at the same time that they're both playing with the blocks. That's the kind of coordination that humans do naturally. Two minds work together, watching each other and watching the object that they're playing with. That's the kind of thing apes don't seem to do.
Teaching someone a new trick, she says, is complicated:
One reason may be that you need to work out which parts of what you're doing need to be taught. So what's the difficult bit? How do you show it? How do you slow it down? You need to have enough awareness of what you're doing yourself to slow down the right parts in the right way.

Another possibility is that it's hard to work out the coordination of your attention and the other person's attention on this third thing — the task you're trying to teach. You have to pay attention to all three elements continuously. . . . There's this other thing, which is wanting to teach. That may be even more critical. You need to understand that somebody else can't do what you're doing, and also have some reason, motivation, desire to help that person learn it. That desire to teach seems to be really pervasive in humans and may be mysteriously missing in apes.

The ability and desire to teach may be innate to the human species, but the people running the school system, from BloomKlein at the local level right up through to the NCLB Congressional crowd, are gassed up on another evolutionary characteristic: the instinct for class and cultural dominance.

These people have the means to take their own progeny right out of this system and put them elsewhere, in smaller, better-funded settings where the kind of teaching that separates humans from apes can actually take place.

In our apathy and fatigue, we at the lower end of the feeding chain allowed them to get into office, where they can design, promote, and install all kinds of educational programs that have no track record whatsoever and will allow only a minimalistic kind of achievement in much of the population.

I’d like to sit Joel Klein down in front of this show on apes to remind him that TEACHING in capital letters is a time-consuming, labor-intensive activity at which only humans excel. It involves a willingness and commitment on the part of the teacher and the learner to focus together on something new, to marvel at it perhaps, to evaluate and thoroughly absorb it. It needs the intimacy of smaller learning environments and a good amount of time to pass information effectively from one member of the species to another.

All the massive amounts of misappropriated cash into PR firms, high-end administrator jobs, test-making companies, and other self-serving money pits, all the scripted lessons and the pseudo-accountability systems will not add one whit to the skills of a good teacher or the success of a kid who has learned something. These come from the innate qualities of both, which get nurtured in the right settings.
It might be that what's different between humans and other animals is the quality and complexity and richness of the innovation.
As long as the people who manage this system are engaging in class wars and dominance strategies, what happens in our oversized, micromanaged, hypertested and time-wasting classrooms is not going to even approach the solutions to teaching that humans as a species have evolved over millions of years.

See also a relevant blog just posted Feb. 28th on Ednotes:
"There's a major story here in NYC that the national press, in it's fantasy of the phony reform movement wants to ignore. It is about the immense failures of Bloomberg and Klein."

February 20, 2008

Ed-oligopolism, here we come

Norm posted a great article Monday on how the public is being pried out of public education in a massive kind of way. It's a summary of Steven Miller and Jack Gerson's report on "The Corporate Surge against Public Schools."

Miller and Gerson refer back to a response they had written a year ago to a report funded by the Gates Foundation et al., which had called for some pretty nasty things when you come right down to it, like replacing public schools with charter schools, eliminating the power of school boards and teacher pensions, slashing health benefits, and forcing poorly functioning kids out of education altogether.

That these people can sleep at night is beyond me.

Once you start breaking down local systems of education and turning ideology, management, and finances over to corporations and pseudo-philanthropists with national influence, you get ed-oligopolism. The super-rich supply the theories, and everyone else buys into them.

From Miller and Gerson:
They would leave education policy in the hands of a network of entrepreneurial think tanks, corporate entrepreneurs, and armies of lobbyists whose priorities are profiting from the already huge education market while cutting back on public funding for schools and students. . .

Essentially, this is a fight of and for the common man. The authors put it this way:
The struggles of the Civil Rights Era made people realize that quality education was a right that everyone deserves. Education today, whether public or private, is a social policy. We make choices about how far it is extended, what the purpose is, what quality is offered, and to whom. Now that wealth is polarizing in this country, corporate forces are determined to create a social system that benefits the “Haves” while excluding the “Have-Nots”.

Privatizing public schools inevitable leads to massive increase in social inequality. . . If the corporate privatizers succeed in taking over our schools, there will be neither quality education nor civil rights.

The system of public education in the United States is deeply flawed. . . .The solution is not to fight backwards to maintain the old system. Rather it is to fight forward to a new system that will truly guarantee quality education as a civil right for everyone.

Central to this is to challenge [emphasis mine] the idea that everything in human society should be run by corporations, that only corporations and their political hacks have the right or the power to discuss what public policy should be. As Naomi Klein stated so well in The Shock Doctrine, privatization “will remain entrenched until the corporate supremacist ideology that underpins it is identified, isolated and challenged”. (p 14)

The real direction is to increase the role and power of the public in every way, not eliminate it. If we can spend $2.5 billion a week for war in Iraq, we can certainly build quality schools. It’s not a matter of money. The issue is who will benefit and who will control. Should schools be organized to benefit the super-rich, or should they be organized to benefit everyone?

Read Eduwonkette and
all the comments in "It's a small world after all" on the interconnectedness of some of the players in this big ballfield. Listen to Chomsky's lecture "Class War: the Attack on Working People." Read The Shock Doctrine, Gerson and Miller's "Education and Commodity," William Cook's Unencorporating Education, and anything else that makes connections for you, so you can get a handle on this intellectual, political and class war. Just because you don't necessarily feel it yet doesn't mean it's not already all around you.

It's the struggle of our lifetime, really, because the outcome will define the way we think, the way we interact with (and maltreat) certain sociological groups, and the way we educate schoolchildren for years to come.

February 18, 2008

UFT management: on hold or just plain AWOL

When the people who run this union (I gave up the word leadership last week) seem to get blindsided by one BloomKlein directive after another, we have to ask them to stop the Hillary campaigning for a moment, stop the job-hunting for national office, and focus right here:
On us.

Because come June, there’ll be people still in excess for a year, and they'll be wanting to know what other arrows boss Klein will be pulling out of his bottomless quiver to shoot off in their direction.

As I understand it, ATR salaries in the first year are paid by central, so we're an expensive kind of sub in the whole system, but come real cheap to the principal who's using us as a sub for the year. The next year, when administrators start sharing the financial burden of our salaries with central, paying half from their own budgets, they're going to want to put a lot more pressure on us to cash in our chips.

The UFT’s Know Your Rights says under "Job Security" that teachers may remain as ATRs "in or near their old school at full pay until an appropriate position becomes available." In the old days, of course, the BoE used to find excessed members their next jobs, and I never met a person back then who remained in limbo for more than a few months. I am wondering how much longer Klein will tolerate a couple of hundred of us subbing on full salary. Hardly likely it will be indefinitely.

I would like to know whether the ATR's assignment for year two will automatically continue at the same school, or could these people be airlifted someplace else, and at whose whim. We were originally told that ATRs are not going to be moved from place to place, they'd be assigned to one school, but since a whole year will have passed by June, does this rule still hold? UFT management needs to tell us if they've developed a position on this point, whether there is a ruling that ATRs in the second year of excess can be re-assigned somewhere else, and if so, is the UFT going to object.

More uncomfortable for the ATR is the possibility of getting a U-rating. With principals breaking contractual stipulations all the time (this from first-hand experience as well as from conversations with other ATRs), it can be expected that some will create negative documentation to encourage ATRs to go away. UFT management needs to tell us whether they've developed a plan to thwart attempts by principals to stain the records of teachers using frivolous, inaccurate, or false documentation, or are they just going to let the non-existent grievance process for letters in the file run its course.

Whether there's documentation or not, some tenured ATR teachers are going to get that U anyway, even though some of them have been S-rated their entire career. UFT management needs to tell us whether they're going to stick with their glib remarks, like "Don't worry about it," "It doesn’t mean anything," and "You still have your job," or whether they are coming to the opinion that perhaps one, two, or three U's in a row might really spell doom for the ATR.

Last May, Richard Farkas wrote in the NY Teacher:
The union has retained its right to grieve the DOE’s unilateral change in the open-market transfer plan if the transfers this spring show evidence of bias against senior teachers.
Well, I haven’t heard anything about whether the union grieved this or not, and since there has certainly been enough time to evaluate any such evidence, UFT management needs to tell us whether they've filed such a grievance — or whether they’re even planning one.

It seems as if UFT management has just plain forgot about the issue of per session money. ATRs lose the opportunity to earn per session when they get excessed, since they have no standing at the school and can be told on a dime to pack up and go elsewhere. Even if an ATR does land a new job after the term starts, it'll often be too late for him to apply for per session work; also, retention rights might prevent him from securing one of these jobs anyway. Since per session not only means more pay and more pension, there's a real parity issue here. Teachers holding real positions have the chance to apply for and work these hours, while ATRs, mostly through no fault of their own, are barred from them entirely. UFT management needs to tell us whether they're looking into the discriminatory treatment of ATRs, who have as a group lost the chance to boost their salaries and their pensions through per session pay.

Some people are wondering whether UFT management has tried to secure a hiring freeze until the ATRs get placed, or whether ATRs are going to get first crack at the vacant jobs resulting from a 55/25 exodus. Others want principals to put in writing why they are not hiring ATRs who are working in their schools. UFT management needs to tell us whether they’ve developed a position on any or all of these points.

I guess I'm asking for a pro-active union. Maybe I'll settle for a less secretive one.

This is term two since Klein has changed the way salaries are going to get paid, and come June things are going to get worse for the excessed teachers without positions.

UFT officials need to keep us informed. They can do it any number of ways, of course, but writing to us or telling us to come down to HQ for updates and Q & A sessions spring to mind immediately. Apart from the single meeting they called a couple of months ago, these people have been mute and we've been pretty much in the dark.

Unless the UFT takes some new initiative in the next couple of weeks, no one really thinks this management has the will, or the clout, to forestall any future corpocrat belligerence.

February 12, 2008

A matter of public record

Someone sent me this link a few months ago, but I only just thought of putting it up on blog this evening. I had never run across it before, but others may well have.

It's the NYS Department of Education site for verifying a person's certification.
You don't have to feel like you're snooping. It's a public site.

You can look up your own name first, just to make sure the state recognizes you and the computers are working. Then try a friend's name, someone whose certification you're pretty sure of, and if it's still going okay, you can start checking all the administrators in your school who are giving you a hard time.

The ornery principal of someone near and dear to me, for example, doesn't show up at all. Isn't that a kick? Nor does one of the APs in that school, who I'm told is a lovely person, have a permanent administrator's certification. Gee, there's no "Acting" anywhere near his title. Can he be a real AP without state certification?

It says Joel I. Klein has a School District Administrator Permanent Certificate granted in September 2002. I thought he was waivered in. Apparently, at the state level being waivered in is the same thing as being given a real Permanent Certificate without having to go through the trouble of earning it. In my book, it's one thing to get a waiver and a totally different thing to get a legal document telling the world you completed something you didn't even start.

These results brought to mind a whole lot of questions, and I'd be grateful if anyone reading this blog can clarify any of this for me.


Most importantly, where you can check out a person's
city certification? And can you be city-certified and not state-certified these days?

Let's say you have a seniority or licensing issue with one of your colleagues and he doesn't show up in a search, is computer error a possibility? Does this happen frequently or are the state computers pretty up-to-date? Obviously, the more people who try out a few searches, the more we can see what kind of errors are cropping up.

If that colleague's certification cannot be traced on the computer, how would one go about verifying that the person actually holds a state license?

What if an administrator isn't showing up in the state system: Can I walk into their office and ask to see their license? And if they are reluctant to produce this document, how can I find out whether they are certified to run the school? If their info is not out in the public domain as ours is, would it be FOIL-able? Taking this a step further, if they are not state-licensed, does it mean they can legally observe us? Can they legally be in charge of children? Can they hold the position at all?

If anyone has answers to any of these questions or has some of their own, please send them in. To tell you the truth, I'm not trusting much of what anyone tells us these days.

February 10, 2008

Union leadership, euphemistically speaking

If a leader follows the hearts of the people, then yes, he really is their leader. If, on the other hand, he wilfully choose NOT to read their hearts, then he disqualifies himself de facto. Which is, of course, what’s happened at the UFT.

Apart from salary, the things that really mean something to teachers have not been on this “leadership’s” top-10 list for a long time.

Smaller classes, autonomony in the classroom, mini- instruction on ed methodology and technical equipment as needed (not staff development, because people with an MA and tenure have already been developed enough for a lifetime, and they’re no less capable than other professionals of finding refresher courses on anything they like if and when they think they need them), proper alternative environments for resistant and angry students who destroy learning for dozens of others in each class, a workday at school that really takes into account the amount of stuff that has to be done at home when you do the job properly, a full summer vacation, a way to fight back against lies and injustices without going to the crap-shoot of arbitration, and the kinds of things that put the art of teaching back into the hands of teachers. Yikes, I didn’t think the list was that long.

I’m swearing off the term "leadership" from now on. These people have proven time and time again that their sole mission is damage control, and I don’t call that leadership.

But, please do not go to the people to tell them whom you’re going to back in an election and expect them to follow you, like when you know you’re on your own political quest (see the posting "Hillary calling", which has the audacity to imply the senator’s phonecall at the DA was not pre-planned). Do not go to the people artificially, like when you set up the public governance meetings being held this month (announced here) on whether to support mayoral control when it runs out in 2009: that’s four months after you already held task force meetings on this subject in the early fall to pretty much figure out your position, no? Do not pretend that protests were formulated in your own offices, like the candlelight vigil in late November, which you first rejected, then jumped on board with
when it suited your purposes (back story in Ednotes here and here). Do not go to the people after another caucus proposed a resolution and try to pass it off as your own, like ICE’s resolution on letters in the file, which you co-opted at the last DA.

The UFT is not being run by a leadership. They're merely controllers:

Controller: “One who, or that which, controls or restrains; one who has power or authority to regulate or control; one who governs."

Put in this light, we can’t depend on any of our current union “leaders” to keep our interests at heart, just like you wouldn’t expect anything from a principal. Maybe we should stick with the old term for these kind of people, the union “boss,” with all its negative connotations:

The thing about Weingarten — apart from the slimy, covert things she does (which is of course no small thing) — is that she also has no gravitas. When she’s standing in front of an audience and pretends she’s clarifying things for us, she’s actually just sandbagging. We follow her words, sort of, but they don't seem to ring true. When she thinks she’s scoring rhetorical points, her voice rises to squawking-pitch, her hands fly about, and it all seems like a con job, conceived in self-promotion and poorly executed. It is uncomfortable to watch, and it is just no good for building union.

Leadership should not only be dignified, it should mean something more than damage control.
Leaders have a real idea of whom and what they represent. They feel the pain from the inside, and they build a machine to take on all comers.

To stand up to this chancellor and all the rest of corporate America who want the public to shut up and just go away, a leader has to know how to read the winds at his back, then run with them. More importantly, he has to really want to.