Saturday, January 18, 2014

Our time is coming...

     The state of public education in New York State is concerning. Public schools, students, educators and administrators are being subjected to criticism and stress as a result of: 
  • Implicit blame for economic and employment conditions resulting from failed supply side economics
  • Evaluations based on high stakes testing centered around curriculum, standards, and the tests that are all in a state of transition
  • Lack of truth, responsiveness, and a failure to "own up" to destructive social and economic policies  from state level officials 
  • The decision to gather data on public student students and their families-personal data to be stored in "the cloud" and provided to education product vendors (companies-with no real guarantee in terms of privacy and security of that data).
These these things and more have been happening in the name of education reform (the catchy name given the intentional distractions from corporate, banking, and investment games that perpetually damage our economy and society). 

     But "reform" should make improvements that are agreed to by the majority, move an undesirable condition towards a shared goal- not impose the values and conditions beneficial only to those driving the reform. Children and their families do not depend on their community schools to focus on testing, or to collect and store personal (sometimes sensitive) data for later sale to unknown vendors. Policies that are harmful to public education are being pushed by supposed leaders in government and education with scant experience-in the classroom, and even less familiarity with the day to day existence of people who have seen their jobs and prospects continually exploited for further gains of the already wealthy. Each new step and statement has pointed us in the wrong direction. 

NY Governor Andrew Cuomo
      Now, though, there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel. Kept in the dark for so long as Governor Cuomo, state education officials, and private interests misguide policy, communities have taken interest and are starting to wake up and get involved. Parents and even the students themselves are speaking out in a way that can't be calmly smiled and nodded at, with superficial and safe "we are listening to you" responses combined with failures to truly listen or adequately respond when what you hear is the uncomfortable truth. Questions and concerns of the public need to be addressed to the public's satisfaction, and we are starting to see examples of brave educators speaking out to defend students and their schools from public officials who haven't truly seemed interested in listening. 

     For example, Red Hook (N.Y.) Principal Katie Zahedi recently gave testimony regarding a conversation she had with Chancellor Tisch, where Tisch (apparently becoming defensive in the face of concerns over misguided policies) claimed Governor Cuomo pressured her to push APPR ahead:

“She said to me: ‘How would you like to be in my position?’” Zahedi continued. “This is what she says: ‘I’m at the governor’s mansion and he shouts at me that if you don’t get this done, if you don’t get this through, I’ll put three geniuses in a room and I’ll force it down your throats.’”

Tisch differs on that conversation but whether or not the words were recalled precisely by Zahedi, the fact is that the essence of the conversation (the governor using his position to "bully" policy) remains-unless you want to believe that Zahedi is lying. And if you watch the video that link takes you to, you'll see the description of Governor Cuomo's behavior is not perceived as uncharacteristic.

NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi
Teacher unions are not exempt from some responsibility in how we have gotten where we are. Having agreed to the new teacher evaluation system, it became necessary to protect dues generating professionals. But turning education into a numbers game, especially for the most needy, ignores the market-induced ravages of poverty, and the reality that those with resources can either escape many of the reform mandates or have the economic and social stability correlated with academic success and positive life-outcomes. Union leadership in it's collaboration (albeit coerced by the funding game trap set at the federal level by RTTT ) called a play that led to a ten yard loss that we will be battling back from for some time to come.
NY Education Commissioner John King
 The most recent effort to bring transparency and collaboration into education reform comes from NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi's proposed vote of "no confidence" in the leadership of Education Commissioner John King (if he fails to enact a three year moratorium on the use of high stakes testing in New York). But  King's initial response to this "no confidence" proposal, once again, reveals dishonesty and evasiveness:

"They’re committed to the Common Core; they're committed to the evaluation system. They have to explain why they think we should change the evaluation laws that we all agreed to and all believe is in the interest of students," said King. 

You cannot pack any more careful politic-ism than that into a statement. Let's look at it more closely:

  • They’re committed to the Common Core; they're committed to the evaluation system.
Because we had to. Funding would have been withheld from the neediest if we hadn't, and threats of takeover and imposition of the governor's plan (if the deadline wasn't met) made clear the nature of what you're calling "committed" (read forced, coerced...)

  • They have to explain why they think we should change the evaluation laws that we all agreed to and all believe is in the interest of students...

See the last snippet above, and: "we all agreed to" and "best interest of students" are disingenuous statements that King is either clever enough to come up with on his own or dishonest enough to say for someone else. The "no confidence" motion being considered by NYSUT's Dick Iannuzzi is more about the continued King claims to be listening, while clearly unwilling to truthfully address what he has heard. 

      Statements like these are emblematic of the school reformer agenda, which includes denial and deflection of outside-the-school influences on student success. All it takes is a great teacher, they would say, and student achievement gaps are simply a result of bad teachers in schools that coincidentally serve a low income population. For children of the wealthy, in private schools (or "public" schools inaccesible to most), what paves the path to success for these students is their great teachers, not their comfortable homes, enriched experiences, trust funds...There has been a persistent refusal like this to acknowledge influences upon student achievement that educators have little responsibility for. 

     In May of 2012 Commissioner king responded to Frank Mesiah (President of Buffalo Branch NAACP, former teacher and administrator) regarding concerns that chronically absent students would negatively impact teacher evaluations-punishing teachers for the low achievement of students rarely in school. 

King's response:

"As educators, we cannot abdicate all responsibility for students who are chronically absent. Instead, we must work with them and their families to help them get back on track. These students have been forgotten too many times already."

This is another example of the cautious messaging coming from education reform talking heads. The fact that not being in school has an undeniable negative impact on achievement is un-examined, and instead of reconsidering irresponsible policy that causes educators to be undervalued due to influences outside of their control- double down on the blame game. Teachers are now also responsible for getting kids out of bed, dressed, fed, out the door, and on their way to school! 

As an aside: I have found no reference to Commissioner King suggesting promotions, bonuses or raises to educators who meet and or excel in their duty to get their students out of bed, dressed, fed, out the door, and on their way to school- achieving excellent attendance.

How does so much narrow minded, agenda driven, bad education policy make it's way into our lives? It must  take some mad money to convince people that your bad ideas are good.

(see here  to link to an article about this wealthy non-educator with big education opinions)

*Bill Gates, the soft-spoken philanthropist and former Microsoft CEO, was on the attack today, complaining about schools that don't teach kids and teachers who get raises anyhow.
*Speaking at the 2011 TED Conference (Technology, Education, Design), Gates sharply criticized states for the waste in American education.

"The guys at Enron never would have done this! I mean this is so blatant, so extreme that, is anybody paying attention to what these guys do?" Gates said.
     Gates pushed and paid for systems that would follow Microsoft's approach at the time, measuring employees and paying extra to those who performed well, firing those who didn't. This "stacked ranking" approach which Gates credited as the key to Microsoft's success has recently been dropped in favor of a more collaborative approach focusing on teamwork and the growth and development of it's employees. Will his push for education "reform" include this more sensible approach to the evaluation of professionals who are already doing one of the most difficult and vital jobs/callings there is? I'm not holding my breath.

     This absolute insensitivity to the realities in today's public schools and society in general might seem like a sort of Thurston Howell III stupidity born from a privileged and sheltered life; a conceited and arrogant assholery-not necessarily intentional, just hapless ignorance of other people's circumstances, priorities or feelings. But at some point, in the face of research, evidence, experienced professionals in the field you've claimed undeserved authority in (all indicating a need to rethink your direction): you would think there 'd be a pause for reflection. 

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