May 30, 2009

ACES sounds like ICE

If you had a chance to read Randi Weingarten’s speech at the May 9th UFT Spring Education Conference, you might have thought the union president was preparing to run on the ICE ticket in the next election.

Because it's bits like these that have been central to ICE discussions for years, that problems in the schools have to be addressed within the context of larger social communities and that teachers should never be scapegoats for problems over which they have very little control:
It’s time for a new strategy — one that of course focuses on instruction, but also aims at the root causes of chronic school failure, one that addresses the needs of the community and its families. . . .

What would happen if we not only acknowledged that there are conditions in children’s lives that make it harder for them to learn, but actually did something about it?
The learning process itself depends first and foremost on the smarts and sensitivity of the teacher – the teacher who must discern how each child learns and have at her fingertips a panoply of strategies, materials and resources to provide just the right combination that will get through to each child. . . .

And that’s why, for reforms to be successful, they must be developed with teachers, not imposed on them.

But many influences merge in that moment the teacher reaches into her bag of tricks (actually, her reservoir of accumulated skills and knowledge) and comes up with just the right instructional solution.

Some of these influences are out of the teacher’s control. . . .

Teachers alone cannot cure a child’s asthma or repair a stormy family situation.
In fact, Weingarten's new “comprehensive school turnaround model to serve our neediest children in our most challenging educational settings” — she’s calling it ACES, Active Communities Enabling Success — smacks of the election platform ICE wrote back in 2004.

That document was put together by more than twenty dedicated, politically savvy educators with enormous classroom experience in New York public schools. I’m not going to post the whole thing here because there's a link to it on the ICE website in the left side column.

I don't want this union leader to go one step further casting herself as a visionary of ed reform without making it clear that the essential points of the program she’s introducing originated not in her own Unity caucus, but in the opposition — the same opposition she's taken great pains to marginalize and deride in the past few years. For proof, just look at the way she wrested the HS seats from ICE/TJC in the last election and the way she manipulates procedures at the delegate assemblies to get the votes to go her way.

So when Weingarten says that smaller class size is one of the things “we are still fighting for today," let’s remember it took her many years to make class size a real priority. In 2004, ICE not only pushed smaller classes in its platform, but criticized the Unity strategies that undermined them:
Small classes are the underpinning of an effective classroom, and are especially crucial where children have low performance levels and special needs. . . .

Our union leaders continue to undermine the fight for lower class sizes by:
— Not successfully tying class size to learning conditions.
— Adopting the strategy that a referendum was the only way of lowering class size. . .
— Continuing to support out-of-classroom positions which in fact contribute to large class size because it diverts money for pedagogical personnel away from the classroom. Included in this are the thousands of facilitators, mentors, staff developers, coaches, and teacher center personnel.
— Supporting currently mandated programs and strategies from the DOE, multiple grouping, balanced literacy, and the new math program, which are impossible to implement with class sizes over 18 to 20.

Our union’s position on class size should be:
— Class size limits comparable with other districts in the state and capped by contract
— No half-class size loopholes, and no excuses in overcrowded buildings where classroom teacher-student ratio can still be lowered.
And when Weingarten trumpets the importance of teacher input and skill in statements like these:
The learning process itself depends first and foremost on the smarts and sensitivity of the teacher — the teacher who must discern how each child learns and have at her fingertips a panoply of strategies, materials and resources to provide just the right combination that will get through to each child. . . . And that’s why, for reforms to be successful, they must be developed with teachers, not imposed on them. . . .

Teachers would be allowed to unleash their amazing creativity.
she not only hasn't protected us from the micro-management of our classrooms, but has for the most part condoned it. (Has anyone ever won a grievance under Article 24 for interference in the way we want to teach? That thing has absolutely no teeth in it, and she knows it.) ICE had to remind Weingarten in 2004 that she could be doing a lot more to protect us from zealous administrators trying to make their bonuses:
Basic trust in the professionalism and knowledge of teachers. The current school “reform” is premised on a distrust of teachers (as well as any independent-minded local school leadership) with change to be commanded from the top supervisory levels. Our union leadership is allowing the DOE to violate Article 24 of our contract, which states, “The Board and the Union agree that professional involvement of teachers in educational issues should be encouraged”, and provides procedures to work out differences between teacher and administrative judgment. With the DOE model, decisions about instruction are made prescriptively and through packaged programs, and place enormous restrictions on a teacher’s ability to service the needs of individual students.

— Teachers must have a say in what goes on in the classroom, a contractual right that is presently violated by the DOE.

— Teachers’ own practical knowledge should be the basis for change, rather than one-size-fits-all program.

— Planning for instruction and curriculum reform should be arrived at through respectful relationships among all staff.

On testing, Weingarten says that the ACES network she's proposing
would not shy away from accountability. But it would seek broader metrics than just test scores and graduation rates to measure its success. It would ask such questions as: Is the school safe? Do children come to school every day? Are they healthier, more engaged? Are they critical thinkers and problem solvers? Are they involved in community service? Are their parents active in the school?
Come on. ICE and many others have made this point all along — not to mention the fact that whenever she's given credence to test scores and school grades, she’s buying into the DoE’s corpothink. And she gives credence to these all the time (see here, for example). Here’s ICE in 2004 on testing and long-term education goals:
Ending the misuse of city- and statewide tests, which increasingly distort the curricula and misrepresent true academic performance. Standardized test results can be a tool for evaluating instruction and pointing out where extra resources should be focused. But the current accountability model with its simplified goals and objectives results in students and teachers alike becoming prisoners of the achievement numbers game. This model also ignores any accountability for long-term learning goals or the kinds of learning that might give educators and students cause for satisfaction.

Good teachers develop an awareness of how children actually learn. The premise that children will learn more when they are subjected to weeks of teaching-to-the-test methodologies, that they become more successful students when strict standardized levels are set for them, or that they respond positively to threats and punishment are ideologically driven beliefs, contrary to what we know as experienced educators. An additional consequence of high stakes testing is that those children most in need become a liability to a school which then leads to an attempt to pass them off to another school instead of addressing their needs. . . .

— Teachers must play a primary role in judging student levels and progress from elementary school through high school.

— Students should have the opportunity to demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways.

Weingarten is now envisioning schools as hubs of community involvement. I guess she was unaware how much ICE has been advocating broader services for kids and fostering strong relationships between schools and the communities they serve:
Our long-term teachers could be a valuable resource in reaching out to the community and together formulating models for success.
Using teachers’ knowledge of their students’ communities as a basis for building successful schools. This includes the culture, history, experience and knowledge which the families and communities bring to this process. Neither the DOE nor our union leadership has an appreciation for how spending years, or even decades, working in the same neighborhood might yield valuable knowledge. Union leaders support the assumption of the school system managers that teachers are replaceable parts and will be fine with that as long as they have transfer rights and the guarantee of a job . . . somewhere.
Remember this was written way before Weingarten negotiated a contract that allowed for the ATR debacle.

Weingarten has always pushed PD, oblivious to how inappropriate so much of it is. In this speech she says teachers “would help shape the professional development they need" and help deliver it.

Sorry, but ICE already called for that years ago:
Meaningful professional development. Presently new and less experienced teachers are not allowed to grow into good teachers. They are not given the opportunity to try strategies and take risks. Ill-prepared and poorly trained administrators, coaches, regional personnel (some still politically appointed), have reduced professional support to a checklist with the intention of instilling fear and intimidation. The UFT has allowed these methods to distort teacher training and leave teachers open to attack.

— The UFT should be demanding school-based professional development determined by teacher need.

Lastly, does Weingarten think she’s saying something new when she concludes that:
As a community, we can let teachers teach and managers manage, but we can also help one another. We can make all our schools work for all our kids by pitching in together, not walking away and leaving the hard work to others.
I hope not. Because ICE laid it all out quite clearly five years ago.
Our union must stand up to the scapegoating of teachers for the problems of our school system. It must work to build coalitions of teachers, parents, active community members at the school and citywide level, and employees of other city agencies so that we can’t be played off against one another by the mayor and Department of Education.

We need a union that will lead and fight for an education system that meets the needs of all the students in our city, an overwhelming number of whom are poor and of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. It would take enormous changes and massive resources to correct the inequities in our society, but well-run schools with well-trained staffs, good programs, supportive services and small classes can bring about improvements for all children. To think that communities with vast economic and social differences can succeed with identical monetary resources is a mistaken notion and a popular political ploy.

The union leadership must be ready to expose such lies and not allow failures in our society to fall squarely on the backs of teachers and our union. Our union must also challenge all the various schemes to destroy public education by diverting money to private schools through vouchers, to DOE-funded charter schools or by hiring private companies to run public schools, which can only further polarize both our educational system and our society.

I challenge anyone to claim that Weingarten is forging new paths with her ACES proposal.

There only two innovative thoughts in this whole speech: that Bloomberg has ever been willing to take responsibility for the troubles in the schools ("In fact, even the UFT admired Mayor Bloomberg’s willingness to take responsibility, and many of us still do") and that this mayor and this chancellor are ever going to enter into any "collaborative, coordinated, comprehensive school turnaround model" with the union, educators and school communities any time soon.

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