Saturday, March 8, 2014

A Tale of Two Bills and One Andy

Ever since the snow day that wasn't, I've heard lots of teachers grumbling about Mayor de Blasio. It's as if teachers were just looking for a reason to carry on the mayor bashing that became so fashionable in the Bloomberg years. For the record, I think de Blasio should have closed the schools that day, but he at least made an attempt to make an early call. It was the wrong call, but it was better than waiting until 6 AM like we used to have to do with Bloomberg.

I have been a supporter of de Blasio from the beginning, when he was considered a non-contender for the mayoral race and Mulgrew was trying to make a "king" out of Bill Thompson, the man our fearless union leader failed to support the last time around.

One of de Blasio's problems is that he is an actual progressive, not a liberal in conservative's clothing, like Governor Cuomo. When Bill takes progressive stances, he is killed in the billionaire controlled press. His biggest transgressions so far seem to have been his sneaux pas, and allowing his security people to run a stop sign.

If you only read the Post, you'd think that's all he's done. But in reality, he's championed many of the causes he said he would when he ran, despite the political price:

He stood up to Eva Mosowitz and her program of manifest destiny for charter schools. That was the correct thing to do--the only problem was he was undercut by phony Democrat Cuomo who bravely stood up for Eva and her charter school cronies who have spent freely on politicians who support them. Cuomo would probably have stood up for Hitler given enough Deutsche marks.

He pushed hard for his pre-K plan, and looked to fund it the right way--by tapping the super rich who have benefitted so lavishly from government largesse. Cuomo, of course, undercut him again, because our governor can not stand the idea of his rich pals paying even one more cent to help the downtrodden in NYC. However it turns out, it's clear that without de Blasio's passion for Pre-K, nothing would have gotten done.

He has proposed 200,000 affordable housing units to be built. He has said he would require builders to put aside affordable housing, rather than merely suggesting it, as his predecessors did.

He promised to end stop and frisk profiling that has been a blight on this city for years. He kept that promise the other day by dropping the appeal Bloomberg filed to keep stop and frisk in place. In doing this, de Blasio has gone a long way toward healing the rift between minorities and police.

He is keeping his promise to end horse carriage rides in NYC, an issue near and dear to animal advocates such as myself.

In short, de Blasio, who won an overwhelming majority of the vote while running on a progressive platform, is now being crucified by many for actually carrying out that platform.

I have no idea how our contract will turn out, but I suspect that in the end we will get something close to the 4+4 that we are asking for, along with retroactive pay in some form. That other Bill that the UFT supported--Thompson--was on record as saying the city could not afford such raises. Does anyone think we had a chance of getting them in a Thompson administration? Would that other Bill have carried out the progressive plans that de Blasio has? I doubt it. Do you think Andy Cuomo will come around and support public school teachers the way he supports Eva Moskowitz, who makes FIVE TIMES as much as the most senior teachers without ever having taught a class?

So, if you're a teacher, you should be supporting de Blasio. As a true progressive, he will not look to bust our union the way Bloomberg did, nor undermine us as Cuomo does. For those teachers who have taken to bashing de Blasio, let me ask one question. Who do you think will be a better friend to teachers? The other Bill? Sellout Andy? Joe Lhota?

I understand many of you are still honked off about having to go to work during a snow storm. Get over it. We've got a mayor who supports public schools and looks to end charters. He's union friendly. He's looking to improve education through universal Pre-K.

If teachers don't get behind de Blasio in a big way, you may just have four years of Mayor Moskowitz to look forward to soon.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Of Blessings and Health Care

I haven't been around much, I know, but it's not because I've stopped caring about education issues. It worse.

I rarely get personal here, but I wanted to give my readers and the friends I've made on this blog an explanation, and use this opportunity to vent. 

Someone very close to me has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Since he has no one else, I have become his primary caregiver. It's an exhausting job, and doesn't leave me much time to gripe about my own problems or the problems of our union, which seem infinitesimally small by comparison, at least at this time.

If you've ever cared for someone with terminal cancer, you know the deal. The weakness, the excruciating pain, the drugs, the sorrow, the hope, the million could-have-beens and never-will-be's. This person happens to be my brother, and his doctor has chosen, for whatever reason, not to give him the full prognosis. He's the only one who doesn't know he is dying. Just the stress of wearing a cheerful face when I know the ending of this story pains me more than I can say.

While I hope none of you know this from experience, the health care system in this city and country is an absolute mess. My brother had not been able to work for months prior to his diagnosis. He did not know he had cancer--he thought he had a pinched nerve that was causing him shooting pains. He couldn't find out because unemployment had forced him to drop his health care and he couldn't afford to go to a doctor. When the pain finally became too much, he asked me for help, and I brought him to the doctor. While there, an X-ray revealed the awful truth. 

He spent months in pain prior to getting diagnosed because he could not afford health care. Those months might have made the difference as to whether his cancer was terminal or treatable. Our non-existent health care system in this country made sure that he'd have to wait until his tumor became inoperable.

What I have discovered during this short and tumultuous journey is that the government doesn't care about you or me or anyone else. If you are unemployed or have no coverage in this country, the powers that be would just as soon let you die than give you help. I have spent countless thousands of dollars helping my brother simply survive because the government won't.

It took him two months to get on Medicaid. That's two months in addition to the two months he couldn't afford to get to a doctor. Those four months surely made a difference in his prognosis. If I and my wonderful wife had not been there to house him, feed him, and pay for his medications, he would surely be dead already.

It will take him 120 days to get on SSI, even though he will obviously never work again, and possibly not survive to see it. The government will get to keep all the money he contributed to Social Security in his lifetime. 

I shudder to think how many people in this country die a slow and painful death because they can't afford medications. Or how many others die because they become malnourished due to the paltry SNAP allowance--a pittance that the Republicans wish to take from the neediest of sick people. Or how many end up homeless because their disease keeps them from working but the government won't help them pay their rent.

It's a national disgrace.

I can't help but think how different things might have been if we'd had a single payer health system in this country. My brother would have gotten the treatment he needed when he needed it, and be well on his way to recovery rather than on the way to his demise.

All that being said, it had been heartening to see that there are some wonderful people in this world. I can't say enough about the wonderful people at God's Love We Deliver, a charity that helps those without income by bringing them meals. While I am of course helping my brother with food, he doesn't want to be a "burden", and so these amazing people bring him healthy, nutritious meals. Today, they delivered two Christmas meals. If you feel so inclined, please donate to them here. There have also been some awe-inspiring nurses and pharmacists who have helped immensely. I will be forever grateful to them for their care and humanity. 

While I hate to be schmaltsy here, I encourage all of you to think a bit harder about the special people in your life this holiday season. Cancer has smacked some perspective into me, and I am only beginning to appreciate the fragility of life and the importance of clinging to the people you love. Hug everyone just a bit harder, and think of how blessed you are.

My best to you all.


Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A Sacrifice to the Testing Gods

Lately, I've been feeling that I haven't been teaching much, because I haven't. It seems like all I ever do is give tests or grade tests.

I decided to calculate exactly how much time we have sacrificed already this school year to the testing gods. While this may vary from teacher to teacher and from school to school, I think the following is a pretty accurate representation of the real cost of testing in New York public schools.

Today is the 36th day of instruction. By the 40th day, this is what I (and many others) will have lost:
  • 1 day for our unit pre-assessment
  • 1 day for writing a baseline essay
  • 3 days to give the MOSL (Measures of Student Learning) exams in ELA, Science, and Social Studies (remember that these days are SOLEY to measure teachers as part of the new evaluation system--while lip service is paid to gathering data from these tests, in reality, they are meant to rank teachers)
  • 1 day pulled from class to grade MOSL tests
  • 1 day for our unit mid-assessment
  • 1 day for a reading assessment in our computer lab
  • 2 days for our unit post assessment
That is TEN days of testing out of a total of forty days so far. 

TWENTY-FIVE percent of instructional time has been sacrificed to assessments so far this year. To be completely fair, if left to my own devices, I would have probably given tests on three of those days: the pre, mid, and post assessments of the unit I am teaching (although frankly, I'm not so big on pre-assessments).

Is it insane that 1 day of 4 so far this school year has been used for testing? Of course it is. But this is the DOE, where testing is the order of the day, and accountability trumps instruction.

And don't forget, teachers will be evaluated based on how much "value" we have added to our students' educations. How much value can we be expected to add when 1/4 of our instructional time has been given over to testing?

Some may say that this is an anomaly due to the start of new school year, but I beg to differ. I documented in this post last April just how much time the average students will lose due to testing and test prep. At that time, I estimated that the average student, in the course of NYC public school career, will lose 72 weeks of instruction.

Now, it's even more.

Will the testing gods ever be satisfied?

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Punishing Teachers

Way back when I started this blog, nearly five years ago, I wrote a series of posts called "Fixing the Schools in Five Easy Steps". Some of it was tongue in cheek, and some not. Some of it I have changed my mind about, and some not. One thing I still hold to is my post on discipline. I still feel that most schools lack proper discipline, and fail to act (or are constrained from acting forcefully) when something happens. That still needs to change.

In the course of my career, I've been spit on, cursed out, had a marble fired at my head from a sling shot, and been shoved by a student who sneaked up behind me and tried to knock me down. You might infer from this, if you knew little about NYC schools, that I am a poor disciplinarian. You'd be wrong. Just about every teacher who has worked in what is euphemistically called a "challenging" school has similar tales to tell. To be fair, all the above incidents took place at my previous school, which was hardly a nirvana.

My tenure in my current school, which is much less "challenging", has been highly uneventful from a discipline standpoint. In all my years here, I have never so much as sent a child to the dean. Not once. Until today.

This boy started school about a week late because he was still serving the suspension dished out to him last year. He'd been mostly manageable until today, when he got annoyed because I wouldn't let him do something he wanted to do (I'll let you speculate on the details). In any case, after I walked away from him, he got up and got in my face, not once, but twice. He was trying to physically intimidate me (which is impossible because I am a rather big guy and the only thing the student would have accomplished, had he tried to hit me, would be a sore hand). He chose not to take a swing, but walked out of my room.

So what was the upshot? He's being removed from my class for a few days. He'll sit in the suspension room while I am teaching his class, and then he'll be returned to his regular classes as if nothing had happened.

I, on the other hand, had to spend an entire period writing the incident up and talking to the dean and principal. Then, because this child was suspended from my class, I had to spend another period submitting work that he will undoubtedly not do while he is suspended from my class. From the way things turned out, you would think I was the guilty party, because I am the only one suffering any consequences.

I know full well that there are many of you out there who suffer the same and worse on a daily basis, so please know that I fully sympathize. It's impossible to teach effectively when you are being physically threatened, or when one child holds a class hostage to his or her recalcitrance.

Bloomberg will claim that he's made schools safer but teachers know that is nonsense. What he's done is made suspensions part of a school's report card grade so principals are often loath to report anything but the most serious infractions. Rather than help clean up the schools, he's swept problems under the rug.

Is it really any wonder that half of all teachers leave within 5 years? In bad schools, it's a wonder anyone stays five minutes. Does anyone really believe that education will improve when we're doing nothing to ensure that the vast majority of students, who come to school to learn, are shielded from the antics of those children who just don't give a damn and who can act out with impunity?

Last week, I blogged about my own ambivalence about leaving the school system now that I can retire at the end of the year (or sooner, if I wish). Perhaps by the end of the year I'll be thanking this student for edging me towards the door. I'd almost made up my mind to stay another year, but I'll be rethinking that now.

I've been able to deal with the paperwork hassle, the evaluation hassle, and just about everything else thrown my way. I'm not sure I want to deal with another discipline hassle.

Sorry for venting. If anyone wants to vent in the comments, I promise to read them.

Friday, September 27, 2013

A Trying Year

In a way, this is a gut-wrenching school year for me. It has nothing to do with evaluations, E4E asshats, our puny Teacher's Choice allocations, or any of the other issues you'll frequently hear me moan about on this blog. It has much more to do with the fact that this year, for the first time, I will be eligible to retire.

I know some of you may think this is cause to sing Hosannas, but I am completely ambivalent. Part of me wants to go, and another part wants to stay.

On the plus side, I truly love my school, and my colleagues are great. Even my supervisors are top notch (that's been my experience--the mileage of others may vary). On the minus side, I am tired of the MOSLs and RttT and the thousand other slings and arrows that make teaching such drudgery these days.

My school, along with many others in this city, I am sure, has just spent the last three days administering tests in three subjects so that teachers can be evaluated by them. THREE DAYS of instruction LOST at the very beginning of the year.  In addition to that, all of us will be pulled from our classrooms for an entire day to grade these assessments, so that makes four days lost. None of this has anything to do with the kids--it all has to do with the mania to hold teachers "accountable".

How are we ever going to teach these kids anything if we do nothing but test them?

I'm sure some will claim that I have burned out, but I have not. I could go on teaching indefinitely if not for the massive amounts of meaningless paperwork and testing we have to do. In truth, I want to TEACH, not to be a professional proctor or a data entry collector.

For about the first week of school, I was convinced that this would be my last year. After two PD days filled to the Plimsoll mark with Danielson, MOSL, and IPCs, and a week of baseline essays to administer, I swore this year would be it. And then something happened.

A girl I taught in 6th grade two years ago was crying in my 8th grade class the first day of school this year. I don't know why. I asked her if she was upset at being in my English class again. She look up at me quizzically and her tears stopped. She said, "No, Mr. Talk, of course not. You're my favorite teacher. You've been my favorite teacher since the 6th grade."

I'm still not sure if I should be happy that I can still make a difference in the lives of kids like this girl, or mad at her for giving me a real reason to stay on.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Reign of Error: A Short Review

Diane Ravitch was kind enough to send me and a number of my fellow education bloggers an advance copy of her outstanding new book, "Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools". My review of the book should appear shortly in another, far larger venue under my real name.

Rather than rehash what I said there, I'd like to just briefly recommend this book to teachers everywhere. The book is a thorough excoriation of the reform movement. Starting with who the major players are and how they stand to benefit financially from their "reforms", Ms. Ravitch unravels, one by one, all the myths spun by the corporate raiders looking to cash in on public education dollars. She lays bare the truth about all the favorite tropes of the reform movement, such as test scores, the achievement gap, PISA, high school and college graduation rates,
merit pay, and many others.

Readers of this blog will likely delight in a chapter dedicated to the self-aggrandizing Michelle Rhee. Ms. Ravitch dubs her the "face of corporate reform" and then proceeds to slap that face with a broad hand. She exposes Rhee's deceptions about her alleged test score triumphs and the devastation wreaked by Rhee's IMPACT teacher evaluation system.

Perhaps even more important than her expose of the reformers themselves, Ravitch points the way forward. She devotes 100 pages to proposed solutions to what ails public schools, all of which make perfect sense. From pre-natal care to wraparound services, Ms. Ravitch offers common sense solutions that move us away from the blame game so beloved by reformers. She clearly sees teachers as part of the solution, rather than the problem.

I love the fact that his book is coming out at the same time that Bill de Blasio seems poised to become mayor of NYC as the "anti-Bloomberg". It may just be that the pendulum, which has so long swung towards the reformers, may at last be swinging its way back to teachers, students, parents, and other real stakeholders in the education system.

If the reform movement sputters and dies, as most teachers hope it will, we will have no one to thank more than Ms. Ravitch, who has stood up for teachers when most others, including so called democrats such as Obama, have willingly abandoned us in favor of the elite.

You should buy her book, read her blog, and thank your lucky stars that someone of her stature is on our side and the side of the children we teach.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

So Much Reading, So Little Time

Every summer, I try to set myself a reading goal. A few years ago, I immersed myself in the novels of Dickens, and it was one of the best summer's worth of reading I've ever spent. This year, I decided to focus on satire, and as a result have spent many happy hours reading Heller, Vonnegut, Roth, and if I can get to it, Cervantes. As an English major/teacher, I have, of course, read all these authors before, but I try to set some time aside in the summer for in depth reading because only then do I have the leisure to savor the work--the artistry--that make these authors great.

Ostensibly, that is what the Common Core is designed to do--to get students to examine a text deeply, to savor the word choices, the imagery, the techniques authors use to evoke emotion from readers and to persuade them to a point of view. That is the reading portion of the Core. On the writing side, the hope is that students will emulate some of the techniques they have read to produce coherent, well designed arguments about the reading.

Accordingly, one would think that any assessment of students aligned to the Common Core would focus on these things, as well. It makes sense that a CC test would afford students time to reflect on what they have read and to construct cogent arguments based on thorough analysis.

So that, of course, is the exact opposite of how students are actually assessed.

Rather than giving kids the time they need to savor and digest text, as they are instructed to do all year, the NYS Common Core tests crams copious amounts of complex text deeply down their throats and asks them respond in a rapid fire fashion.

The 8th grade test is the one I administered, so I'll show what I mean using that. The test takes three days, but the most egregious part is day two. On that day, students were asked to read three passages and answer 21 multiple choice questions. Following that, they were asked to do a second booklet that contained two different passages and required them to write three complete paragraphs and a full length essay.

The total time allotted for this amount of work? 90 minutes. So much for deep reading.

I taught some very bright kids this year, and my biggest challenge was not to get them to think deeply, but to get them to write quickly. Smart kids like to be thorough and original in their writing, and when I gave them a practice test of similar length prior to the real thing, I immediately noticed that not one of them finished it. Not one. Using that as my "data" I set about teaching them how to write quickly. As a result, on Day 2 of the actual test, 31 of 32 students finished the exam. In some other classes, virtually no one finished. So did I do my students a favor? I have no idea. I'm sure they passed, but I'm not sure I taught them much in April other than how to game the test.

In the final analysis, higher level students had to jettison all their best writing skills in order to finish the test on time. Struggling readers simply had no chance.

The irony is that teachers are being evaluated on how well we teach kids to think, but when test time comes, students (and now by extension, teachers themselves) are being evaluated on how quickly they can answer ridiculously long assessments.

Speaking of my own summer reading once more, I must mention that in my study of satire, I discovered a gem. It's the EngageNY Guide to the 8th Grade CC ELA test, and it contains this nugget:
The 2013 Grade 8 Common Core English Language Arts Test is designed so that most students will complete Day 1 and 2 testing in about 70 minutes and Day 3 testing in about 50 minutes. While it is likely that most students will complete testing within these times, students will be permitted 90 minutes to complete the test each day. This design provides ample time for students who work at different paces.

Let's see Cervantes top that.