August 27, 2008

Scratching backs, but not ours

I thought it would be appropriate to give the text of Weingarten’s speech to the Democratic National Convention this past Monday night.

Anyone who reads this blog will know that it won't go without comment.

I've also appended an important tally at the end, which has absolutely nothing to do with the Convention and everything to do with the state of our union.

"I am honored to be here representing the American Federation of Teachers' more than 1.4 million members. We work in your schools and colleges, in your hospitals and in your government agencies. And we believe that access to an excellent education is a basic civil right.

"For the children who are denied the education they need to fulfill their God-given [there’s that useful God word again cropping up where you least expect it, grrrrrr....] potential, it is a personal [and how may we ask it your personal tragedy?] and an inexcusable injustice. It's also an affront to American values and a threat to America's role as an incubator [funny, I just used that word, too, in a totally different context, of course] of innovation. This must change.

"And that requires leadership, not demagoguery [I posted something last December on how Democratic or Demogogic this woman is]. That is why we need to elect Barack Obama and Joe Biden to the White House. And why they need all of us working with them. The American Federation of Teachers is ready.

"Our number one priority is, as it has always been, strengthening our public schools to better serve our students [I won’t niggle about the split infinitive, but I will about the veracity. As far as I can see, she focuses on her own career gambits and doesn’t sweat the kids or the teachers either.] Let's do what we do in our best schools in all of our schools. Barack Obama knows that teachers must be partners, not pawns, in federal education policy. [You can read his platform here, but keep in mind how beholden he’s become to corporate money, and a fair number of those people are falling all over themselves putting education into private hands.] And federal education policy must be about a lot more than testing.

"I ask you to join us in this quest because you believe that strong public schools are cornerstones of our democracy, because our aging population depends on future generations growing the economy, because today's students will be the caretakers of tomorrow's environment, the sparks igniting our innovations, the tenders of our global relationships, the guardians of our prosperity and the creators of our arts. And simply because every child has a right to a fair and hopeful start in life.

"When those children walk through the doors of our classrooms, they bring us their dreams, their potential and their trust. And sometimes they bring empty stomachs, untreated ailments, and life experiences that can chill you to your core.

"America's teachers take them all in their fullness, and we do all we can to help them reach great heights. Good things are happening in our public schools: teachers and para-professionals who work tirelessly to inspire their students [until, of course, they get older or if they teach one of those expendable subjects (like art or typing), when the not-so-secret campaign to save money and get them out of the system has brought harassment and marginalization to an all-time high]; students who struggle, yet strive and succeed; communities that value education and ensure students have what they need.

"I can't tell you how proud I am when I visit those schools [I must have missed something: I know of individuals here and there who make a difference and kids who succeed, but I don’t know of any Utopian schools of the kind you describe in any of the five boroughs. Stop obfuscating.] Barack Obama and Joe Biden will champion and challenge the people entrusted with our children's well-being, and we welcome it! We are ready to work together to usher in a new era of excellence in America's public schools [I’ll settle for non-educators to stop meddling and give teachers back the autonomy they need to get things done.] We can do this. We must do this. And it starts with electing Barack Obama as the next President of the United States."

SOURCE 2008 Democratic National Convention Committee


The length of the school day and year

Seniority transfers

Excessing rights

Cafeteria duty, hall and potty patrol

An adequate grievance procedure

Principal’s presence at Step II and III

Arbitrations compromised by selectivity and delay

Rubber room abuses (unnecessary teacher removals, appalling conditions, extreme delays, misuse of financial penalties, etc.)

Merit pay

Teachers’ Choice reductions

Car permits

The appointment of an uncertified, non-educator chancellor with no teaching experience

One-way accountability (us, not us and them)

Oversized classes at all levels

Salary increases that don’t keep up with inflation

Gross violations on teacher autonomy

New funding formula that encourages 2-for-1 hiring

Patronage hiring

Enforced methodologies that do not work in all classrooms or for all children


Inordinate amounts of paperwork and testing

One-size-fits-all professional development

School closings and reshuffling, involving mass shake-ups and the dislocation of staff and students

Charter schools

August 24, 2008

A failed chancellorship, in scientific terms

One of the intellectual feats Tom Stoppard achieves in the best of his plays is how he juxtaposes virtual tectonic plates of human thought one upon the other.

He does this, for example, in Arcadia, which is at bare bones a love story about a couple of exceedingly clever young people, one a tutor of just about everything to the other. How Stoppard manages to flesh out these two delightful creatures against a background of Newtonian physics, thermodynamics, geometretrical equations, Chaos mathematics, Information Theory, archival research and scientific drone work, and cultural predilections of the past two centuries is as miraculous as it is inspiring.

And challenging. It’s made me want to throw some of all that up against what’s been happening in NYC schools under the chancellorship of Joel I. Klein.

I’m telling you right up front that I’m intending to riff on some loose analogies during the course of this blog. Just so you know.

A commentary on Arcadia that caught my attention this week (written by Paul Edwards, a professor of English at Bath Spa University: “Science in Hapgood and Arcadia,” 2001), led me to refresh whatever memory I ever had about the laws of thermodynamics.

The first one, relating to the conservation of energy, goes something like this:

It's about the two ways energy gets transferred in a closed system, by heating (or cooling) and by mechanical work, and is one of the most secure laws in all of science. It remains at this moment unquestioned.

If you’re a teacher, your mind may run at this point to the boundless energy, positive and negative, that young people bring into the classroom each period, not to mention the stamina it takes to get them on task for as long as you have them. That “closed” system mentioned above is analogous to a classroom, where changes in energy and work levels are expected. Whether the energy is exciting and productive or of the bad-ass kind, and regardless of how it any of it gets dispersed and transformed during the course of the period, one thing is for sure: none of it’s going anywhere until the bell rings.

I’ll extend this analogy even further, to the Second Law of Thermodynamics (really more of a theorem than an actual law):

In an isolated setting (which I admit is tighter than a closed one), once energy starts transforming, some of it will become “unavailable”: useless for the purpose of work, and unfortunately from our analogous perspective, unrecoverable. You can actually measure how much of it is unavailable. In fact, the unavailable amount tends to increase over time, and the only way you can get more energy into the setting is to inject it from the outside — which is the problem here in New York, and why I'm really getting ticked off by the misguided ideologies of this chancellor and mayor.

Physicists call the measurement of unavailable energy “entropy,” and if you can wrap your head around this, the higher the entropy, the less energy there is that can be used to good purpose.

(You can check out an artistic version of this concept later if you want, in the song "Use What I Got [to Get What I Need]".)

Carrying the analogy a bit further, a corresponding entropy has been discovered in the domain of Information Theory. Here, entropy is a measurement of Chaos and amounts to informational “confusion,” or “noise.” Chaos results from too many variables, missing information. Things are happening way too randomly, and the underlying patterns, structure, and order in things are not visible through this “noise.” You can’t make sense of things. Entropy is in this domain a measure of disorder: the higher it is, the more chaotic things feels.

This is not rocket science. Well, maybe it is, but I’m pressing on anyway.

Good teachers figure out in time how to regulate the energy in the room and turn as much of it as possible into the positive, usable kind, that can produce work. Low entropy is desirable.

Good teachers figure out how to streamline their lessons, explain things better, and turn confusion into quality thinking. There are way too many variables in our classrooms to be able to control them all: the kinds of families and cultures kids come from, their language, personalities, and how healthy or hungry they are. There’s the physical aspects of the classroom, intruders and unexpected observers, the weather, or even the bad sushi you ate last night acting up just at the wrong time. Tons of variables, and some you can eliminate, like making sure everyone has a desk and a chair, a piece of paper and something to write with. Again,
low entropy is desirable.

Both the mayor and the chancellor have notoriously and shamelessly sought to place the blame for ineffective education on teachers, but it seems to me that the essence of what has got in the way of productive learning here in New York boils down to two things:

1. What these two ed impersonators have been doing to keep entropy levels up so high, and

2. What they’re putting into the system to bring it back down.
As to the first issue, the BloomKlein team, which with little or no personal teaching experience of its own makes all the major legislative, executive and judicial decisions relating to education in this city, has managed to circumvent — and in some cases exacerbate — practically all the problems that leach good energy out of our classrooms. Their misguided directives have resulted in confusion and noise on a very grand scale.

Not only have they restructured the system ineffectively three times, class size has not been reduced enough to make a difference, state mandates are ignored, and specialist instruction and services to all kinds of kids (including those with special needs) are cut out. They've created an environment where incidents are best not reported, minimal effort is often rewarded (credit recovery), and kids are not only deprived of learning time by an inordinate call for high stakes tests, but judged with manipulated and otherwise flawed standards.

Klein’s minions at lower administrative levels play havoc with the contract, busing, supplies, and buildings. They’re allowed and maybe even encouraged to insist on procedures and methods that make little sense when applied across the board and don’t even necessarily work in restricted environments (e.g., the “no textbooks” directive, the trend towards illustrated and easy-read materials, the workshop model, wall clutter, and weird instructions on how to mark papers of all things). Principals write up template-like evaluations that are often less than truthful and sometimes illiterate.

Instead of being expansive places for the mind, many schools are incubators for the kinds of negative energy that can never produce good work. Parents and teachers have felt the brush-off, even the back side of BloomKlein's mean-spirited, untrained hands.

As for no.2 above, I can’t actually think of any programs this chancellor has initiated to nurture the talents of kids and teachers and bring the level of chaos down citywide. (I’m not including his cell phone project, because bribery is basically immoral. This plan is not only an inappropriate mechanism for bringing about academic success, but materialism itself is an unacceptable educational outcome.) Those that do come to mind, like such ancillary programs as robotics and arts programs, were in place in some form or other before Klein took the job. Even the small schools initiative began earlier: his own biography says he just expanded it. (Poorly, though. These schools not only service a selected portion of the population, but displace other schools in the vicinity and draw off too high a proportion of the funding.) Average kids from average families are not getting an education that will land them a good job. New, inexperienced and not fully licensed teachers-in-training man hundreds of classrooms, union-busting is a high priority. Everyone is being lied to, and a whole department of PR people are working 24/7 to make sure no one finds out. Destructive social engineering has reached catastrophic levels.

I’m glad to have re-read Arcadia this week and once again marvel at Stoppard’s erudition. (Love you, Tom!) But I’m even happier to have had the chance to revamp my disgust for this chancellorship and the mayor who gave him one very long green light.

Teachers have used megawatts of energy preparing for and executing their life’s work. Inner-city kids do the best they can to get by with the cards they’ve been dealt; if anyone thinks we could do any “better,” we haven’t really walked in their shoes, have we?

Joel Klein has only brought an already simmering pot up to the boil, and we stand by furious, watching all that energy everyone's bringing into school each day bubble up and out, to be rendered useless – irrevocably so – in a system full of plain hot air.

ATR links — Part III: update

REVISED Mon. noon (mostly in the dark purple paragraphs below but also the additional item at the very end, Aug. 7). "ATRs" are all those excessed teachers that haven't yet been placed in positions this term and will become full-time subs.

For some ATRs, this contract has been a career breaker. The DoE is required to try to get them placed, and for the most part just hasn't bothered sending them around on inteviews. The union, which could have protested loud and long at the DoE's failure to do this seems to have had better things to do than fight for the contract — like slathering all over the Democratic candidates for a year and accessing the top rung of the AFT ladder.

For the vets who've been excessed, age and salary do not work in their favor.

THIS IS THE RESULT OF Weingarten's negotiations with the DoE, and don't tell me she didn't know what she was doing. She built a contractual mallet to end some really decent careers.

THERE AREN'T MANY UPDATES, it seems. At least not from the horse's mouth.

You would think that three days away from the start of term, at least someone at the executive end of the UFT, if not the president herself, could have sent a message of encouragement and camaraderie to all the unplaced ATRs asking them to take heart and hang in there.

This is not a good sign. When the Prez is not talking to us and pretending we don't exist, and no one's saying anything about holding onto tenure in the next contract (a year or so from now), you know they're not going to keep fighting for us ATRs too much longer. Why should they: they've got our dues, and the tenure issue is just another bargaining chip.

You want proof?

Look at Weingarten's welcome wagon for the Teach for America recruits, written up on p.35 of the current NY Teacher and online here. Not too many of those guys care about tenure, since most of them didn't sign up to stay in this job more than a couple of years anyway. What do they care about tenure. Weingarten knows that. She tells them, according to Isaac: "We have won a 43 percent raise over six years [that's a $$$ issue], but we have been fighting not only for pay and benefits [again $$$] but also for working conditions and the respect that make our profession more attractive and teaching more satisfying." Like I said: no mention of tenure, which has always been right up there near the top of the list for most people who don't see this profession as just a jump start to a corporate career.

I'm sure I'm not the only ATR who will still be subbing come September, and I'm sure I'm not the only senior ATR who's got a measly 4.5% return on my 22 applications in the year I've been without a position. This summer I did get asked in for one interview, by the way. I didn't have the guts to follow up on it, though, after reading a blog about the school telling all applicants to stay away from the place. I think the word they used was "career buster."

Weingarten seems to care enough about certain kinds of staff — potential or otherwise — to give them some real friendly greetings:

As the city’s newest teachers prepare for their first classes, the UFT is reaching out to de-mystify the path ahead and provide answers to their questions to help ensure their success. (Natalie Bell, NY Teacher, Aug. 11)

I wish someone would start ensuring my success a little. And I hate to mention it, but these people are not even "teachers" yet, in spite of what she's calling them. Heck, they're not even paying dues at this point. Certainly not the 20 years' worth I've laid out.

I don't know whether to laugh, choke, or vomit, but I don't have the time for any of that, since Prez W. seems to have so much more to say to these recruits. In a message to them on p.2 of the same edition, she begins: "You are at the start of what I hope is the most rewarding experience of your professional life: becoming a teacher in a New York City public school," and it gets worse from there. She's got the compassion to tell them not to lose faith, going on and on in this vein:
As you navigate the road ahead, remember that your union is here to support you throughout your career as an educator in New York City. We want to help you be the best teacher you can be and make sure you have the respect and salary and benefits you deserve.
Lordy, lordy. "Support"? "Throughout your career"? "We want to help you"? "Make sure you have the respect . . . you deserve"?
And we want you to stick around. [Waiting for you to prove it.] We’re tired of seeing so many promising teachers get discouraged and leave [but hope that the older ones, who have spent their careers fulfilling that promise, will get the message and leave as soon as possible.] It’s bad for our profession and it’s bad for kids [so they tell me, but I have no real first-hand experience of such matters myself].

This is really hard to take. In any case, I veer from my intention, which was to update the two compilations I made earlier this summer on what people are saying about the ATR crisis.
Part I — What the union has to say

Part II — Teacher reactions
June 9, 2008: The Evidence Free Zone of the NYC DoE and its New Teacher Project, by Leo Casey in Edwize:
"In an article 'City and Teachers’ Union Disagree on Reserve Pool' Saturday’s NY Times reported on the UFT white paper and the controversy over the NYC Department of Education and the New Teacher Projects attacks of displaced teachers in excess [aka ATRs] . . .

"For some time, the NYC Department of Education has gotten away with offering sheer assertion, unsupported by evidence, about these matters of education policy. Once again, this is their latest tack. But it is increasingly wearing thin. It is worth reviewing here just where we stand." Continues with a point-by-point response.
June 10, 2008: The Endgame: Comity or Conflict, by Peter Goodman in Edwize:
"This year the Teacher Union and the 'Keep the Promises' coalition are fighting to restore budget cuts, and Randi Weingarten and Joel Klein are dueling over the 'ATR Crisis,' in fact, comity has evolved into a rather nasty fight between the public school forces on one side and Klein, Tweed, some foundation types on the other."

He asks: "What programs will be cut/reduced? Will teachers be excessed? And, how will this impact the 'ATR Crisis'? Will the 'ATR Crisis' force the Teacher Union to negotiate changes in their contract?" and gives a recap of the back-and-forth tussle between the union and the DoE.
July 2, 2008: Delegates Tackle Excess of Excessing, by Michael Hirsch in the NY Teacher:
"In her report [at the DA], UFT President Randi Weingarten, after observing that 'excessing is the contractual word for displacement, not for layoff,' assured delegates that 'anybody excessed [is protected by] a contractually mandated Department of Education obligation to have a job. Members’ jobs are secure.' . . .

"This year’s large number of excess notices — particularly prevalent in the middle schools — is an expression of 'the human cost of the budget cuts,' Weingarten said, adding that the number of those excessed was 'one more human indicator of the magnitude of harm the proposed budget cuts will cause,' a fact the union used in making its case against the cuts to the City Council. . . .

"A flier distributed at the meeting noted how “at worst, the DOE will place the excessed person as an ATR [absent teacher reserve] either in his or her school or another school in the district. Unless the member hears otherwise,' the flier continued, 'the member should report back to his or her school on Aug. 28. Members who received excessing letters also have the opportunity to seek other positions through the Open Market Transfer plan if they wish.' Any member who believes he or she has been excessed wrongly was urged to file a grievance.

" 'The worst thing that can happen is, we get it wrong,' Weingarten said. 'I’d rather people file and be protected than not file.' "
August 3, 2008: With Apologies to Martin Niemöller
In an earlier post (May 20th) NYC Educator said he thought Weingarten was holding tough on ATR negotiations for the moment and hopes she would continue to do so. In this post he offers a revision the well-known Niemöller lines on governmental purges.
August 7, 2008: ATRS Meet, anon. article on p.27 of the NY Teacher
It's only a paragraph long and I mentioned this June 2 meeting already, but for what it's worth, here's all of it:

"About half of the 665 members in the city’s Absent Teacher Reserve pool, representing all titles covered by UFT-Department of Education agreements, were assured at a June 2 meeting that the job security that all members enjoy is in no way lessened or threatened by their status as ATRs. 'ATRs cannot be terminated. They are protected by their union contract and that contract is fixed, secure and closed,' said UFT Executive Assistant to the President Michael Mendel. After his presentation, Mendel and a number of other experts on staff at the union remained for more than two hours to answer every individual question."

That's true. They did hang out answering questions. But no one's promised any protection at the end of the current contract.

August 4, 2008


Two great new posts by the indefatigable Norm Scott over at Ednotes.

The first for the picture — "Three Amigos"— and you'll have to see who these nasties are for yourself, since I've cut their heads off here. (A metaphorical pleasure, it turns out.) Then do what he says and let the NYC Parents blog connect the dots for you.

The second is Scott at his best, taking shots at BloomKlein, Tweed, McCain, Sharpton, the widening achievement gap between white/Asian and other populations, the decrease in the number of minority teachers, and the contemptible non-transparency and stonewalling of this chancellorship that gives "reform" a very bad name — all in under 400 words.

It's like watching a pit bull do its thing.