Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Matt Polazzo Responds

Followers of this blog know that I have been having an email conversation with Matt Polazzo, who advocated that the UFT contract be ripped up in an opinion piece in the Daily News. I asked him to write a guest blog, and he consented, on the condition that I drop my usual snark. So I am presenting his email verbatim, minus my norman vitriol.

My greatest takeaway from this exchange is that it reminds me why we have Democrats and Republicans in this country. As a Democrat, I can not, for the life of me, understand why middle class and working class people vote Republican, and nothing I can say will change their minds. The same applies here. Even after reading Mr. Polazzo's response, I can not understand why he thinks the way he does, but there's nothing I can do about it. 

I do believe that he is sincere in his beliefs, however, which is why I agree to post this. I do believe it is important to know how the other side thinks. So, without further ado....

Dear Mr. Talk,

Though I did make a foray into public remarks with my article for the Daily News, I generally prefer to keep a low profile--actually part of the reason why I maintain a low profile is because of all the threats and opprobrium I received as a result of the article!

Anyway, you noticed that my daughter had been accepted into the new Success Academy at Cobble Hill and implied that this was due to my anti-union piece in the Daily News.  I wrote back, explaining that she actually was not accepted--we were waitlisted and got in extremely late in the game.  This acceptance was probably due to the fact that that zone has some extremely well-regarded schools like P.S. 29 and P.S. 261.

Anyway, in the course of my communications to you, I questioned your choice to remain anonymous and you sent me a detailed explanation of your reasons for for doing so.  You also challenged some of my beliefs, and so I took you up on your invitation to put a guest post on your blog.

I should note that I don't want this to be an endless back and forth--I'm going to say my piece and then I'll be gone.  I also am not going to read or respond to any comments; with the new school year starting, I don't have time to debate with commenters--no matter how thoughtful they may be. I know that those of you who read my remarks probably disagree with practically all of them, but I'm not afraid to say what I think.

My method will be to respond to your missive line by line.  Your remarks are in italics.  

The irony in my anonymity, if any, lies in the fact that I am a tenured teacher whose views might end up getting him fired if his name became known. I have told the truth about Bloomberg, Klein, Black, Walcott, and other power brokers in the DOE. They do monitor my blog, and it would be foolish for me to disclose my identity. Tenure is supposed to protect me and give me the freedom of speech that an educator should have, but it does not. I have heard of at least one blogger who was U rated after her identity became known. She is now out of the system. You would have it that tenured teachers can not be removed. That is nonsense. I know outstanding teachers who have run afoul of admins and were fired for their troubles. This includes union leaders who were fired for their involvement with the UFT.

I have to say that I don't really buy this defense.  There are many many pro-union bloggers who are teachers and the response that they have gotten does not resemble the harsh crackdown that you implied.  In my own school, Gary Rubenstein is a spirited critic of education reform and is an active updater of his blog. These views have earned him lots of hearty handshakes and as far as I know, no horse head has been delivered to his bed.  He is not an exception.  Here's another blog.  Here's Peter Goodman's blog.  And there are many more.  I have to say that blogging anonymously has its uses.  But if you are using your blog to attack others--especially people who don't have any real power, it strikes me as somewhat unethical.  It's true, I wrote that piece for the Daily News so I guess I asked for it, but I would prefer attacks on my ideas, not on my person.  If you are going to insult my character, then you owe it to yourself to emerge into the daylight.

You took a poke at this blog, alleging that few people read it. While "few" is subjective, you can see that I have 72 followers, and  have received more than a half a million hits. One post of mine reached 150,000 readers. Quite a few of your own students have been here, if you care to read the comments in the posts that feature you as their subject. Perhaps you're just hoping that no one hears how real teachers feel about your blatant betrayal of you colleagues and your union?

I'm sorry if I understated the response to your blog.  These remarks were based on the fact that many of your posts seemed to have no comments, or at least very few.

You asked me quite a few questions about my personal life, which I decline to answer, once again for the sake of anonymity. You seem to think using your name makes you more courageous than me, but followers of Kim Jong-un who praise their dear leader aren't showing courage. You are likewise showing no courage by sticking up for the billionaires who would steal the jobs and pensions of hard working teachers. 
I don't recall asking you specific questions (they were sort if idle inquiries), but I am curious about your own experiences.  I can say that I've taught in NYC schools for 14 years and my father did for over 30.  I currently teach at Stuyvesant HS, but started out teaching middle school at IS 143M.  I have three children, and I expect them all to be educated in the public schools--though you might not consider a charter school to be a legitimate public school. I'm a lifelong NYC resident and I still live in Brooklyn today, in Bed-Stuy. It's hard to say what your experience is.  You say you are a teacher with tenure.  I have no reason to doubt this, but also there is no reason to believe it.  As an anonymous blogger, your audience has to take it all on faith--again I urge you to come forward. 

Your point about Kim Jong-un (who is actually the Great Successor, if you must know) is obviously hyperbole, but really?  An entity that murders millions is comparable to the desire to reform education in America?  I don't think you are doing your cause much good by using this comparison.  And, as I mentioned, bashing the union while in the union is not an easy thing to do.  You may disagree, but try it some time and see what response you get.

In your letter, you claim to be anti-union. Don't you find it in the least hypocritical that you rake in the benefits of union protection while trying to tear it down? As a 14 year teacher, presumably with a master's plus 30, you earn at least $80K a year. Do you think anyone would be paying you that without your union negotiating on your behalf? When you go to the doctor, are you thankful for the health benefits that the contract affords you, or do you wish you could rip up the contract and pay your medical bills yourself?
I do have a masters, but I'm not at +30.  Actually, I came in on the (now defunct) PPT license and was able to string out the process of getting a masters for as long as possible.  In the process, I cost myself a lot of cash, but it was all an effort to avoid taking awful ed. classes.  After much drama, I ended up getting my masters at CUNY Grad Center, which was where I wrote that anti-union piece, which was submitted to the Daily News which started this whole discussion.  But the point is this: I don't believe that I need the union to give me my benefits. 

I'm confident in my abilities as well as that of most of my fellow teachers.  The idea that, without a union, we'd get zero dollars doesn't make sense to me. I know of no employer who can survive without offering their employees health care or competitive salaries.  It might be the case that I would get paid less than a teacher who can teach BC Calculus and I might get paid more than a Phys. Ed teacher.  So be it.  I was (IMHO) an excellent teacher in Washington Heights and I believe I am an excellent teacher at Stuyvesant. If your point is that since I receive union benefits, I can't criticize the union... well, that doesn't sound particularly democratic to me.

Imagine that I made you the head of a business that was struggling.  Then I said, "by the way, you can't fire any employees (or if you do, get ready to run this gauntlet), you can't change any of their pay, and those who have been here the longest get paid the most.  And if these employees keep their noses clean for three years, they get essentially a lifelong sinecure." (It's true that now tenure granting is less automatic, but now most applicants automatically get tenure after four years or five).  Is it any wonder that such an entity would struggle?  

Exactly how much do you think Eva Moskowitz would be paying you? What job protections would you have? Do you think you'd perform as well teaching poor inner city children as you seem to teaching the brightest kids in NY at Stuyvesant? If you are so anti-union, quit it and go work for Eva. You want to talk the talk, then walk the walk. Then I'd have respect for your position, if not agreement.
I don't think I buy your point that I can't criticize the union unless I teach in a tough inner city school.  I did teach in one for two years and my departure was mostly the result of (what I perceived as) a capricious administrator.  Good thing the union was there to protect me!  Or not. I had no tenure yet and they were too busy defending other teachers, like the one who slept at his desk and the one who actually dragged a kid down the stairs by his ankles.  I'd still be there today, but the principal and I had differing educational philosophies and I ended up at Stuy.  

But let's get back to this idea that I can't critique inner city schools unless I teach in one (leaving aside the fact that I did).  I live in a neighborhood that could be characterized as inner city. Because the school there is so bad, I felt I had to leave the zone and apply to a panoply of other programs. The result is an onerous commute every day for drop-off.  A related point: I think that there should be a 2nd Avenue subway in NYC. I totally support it.  But digging that tunnel is a dirty and dangerous job.  According to your logic, I cannot criticize any elements of the project since I am not a sandhog.   By this logic, I can't criticize our military policy because I don't serve in the army.  You see why I find this argument pernicious?

Speaking of which, it's extremely easy for you to ask for the contract to be ripped up when you teach at a school like Stuyvesant. Those kids are self motivated, and even if you sucked as a teacher, they would still do quite well. Why don't you try teaching in a high poverty, gang-riddled neighborhood as I did for 20 years and see how well you do. Perhaps that experience might make you more aware of the issues involved in good teaching. Perhaps then you might appreciate the job protections that your union affords you, especially when your class in NOT a group of Harvard bound seniors, but a bunch of kids who are lucky if they manage to scrape through high school.

I notice you say "did" and not "do," which presumably means you are also no longer in the game, so to speak.  Are you still teaching in that gang-riddled neighborhood? 

Be that as it may, I spent my childhood going into those schools, which is where my father taught (in the South Bronx and East New York in the 1970s and 1980s).  I also was a teacher up in Washington Heights myself.  There were great teachers in all of the those schools, just like there are some mediocre teachers at Stuy.  Obviously evaluating teachers in different environments is an important factor to take into account.  Why not, for example, test kids twice--once at the beginning of the year and once at the end?  I do agree that these are not easy issues to solve, but I don't believe that they are unsolvable. Learning is a pretty complex process and yet we stamp numerical grades on students year in and year out.  I don't see why teaching should be any different.  Even to this day, you could be Socrates himself (or maybe Plato) and the best mark you can get on your ratings sheet is "S" for satisfactory.  

You claim that the article in the News, in which you vilify your union and your fellow teachers, was not submitted by you. So what? You clearly gave your consent once you found out that they wanted to publish the piece. Was your 15 minutes of fame worth selling out your colleagues?
Totally.  I take full responsibility for the piece.  I just wanted to clarify that I wasn't bombarding the Daily News with union bashing pieces.  As to "selling out your fellow teachers," that sounds something like omerta or the thin blue line.  Part of being in a respectable profession is being willing to call your peers to account when they fail to live up to their obligations. My "15 minutes of fame" was more like 15 minutes of being bashed all over the internet and being sent lots of hate mail.  And this was what I expected--I certainly did not imagine I would get any sort of professional advancement and none was forthcoming.  As to selling out your fellow teachers; well, your blogs weren't exactly polite to me--a fellow teacher. But no hard feelings!

Regarding your daughter winning the lottery for Eva's school: You claim it was fortuitous that the reporter for the Daily News just happened to be there when you were and just happened to ask you questions that showed Eva in a good light. Perhaps so, but this is the same newspaper that used you once before to strike out at your colleagues. It's entirely reasonable for anyone to be suspicious when you suddenly appear in the same paper, lauding a charter school while you work for the public schools. 

Fair enough.  That's one of the reasons I wrote to you initially.  I also suggested that you could have reached out to me and asked me directly, but there it is.  Still, most all papers have one guy who writes the editorials and a staff of other people who do reporting, and the Daily News is no different.  I suppose you could suspect that this is not true, but I can't believe that you buy into the conspiracy that this alternate telling would imply.

What concerns me most about your efforts to sabotage the UFT is that you have no skin in the game, and that you offer no solutions. Your skin is safe in Stuyvesant--as I said, whether you are a good teacher or not, your students will perform. More concerning is your lack of solutions. You advocate throwing out the UFT contract but say nothing about what would take its place (if anything). How many teachers might lose their jobs unjustly if the contract disappeared tomorrow? How many excellent teachers would be fired because they could be replaced by two newbies? Maybe if your job was at stake, as well as your ability to provide for your daughter, you might think twice before advocating that others be fired without due process.

Here, I think, is the most valid of your points.  It is true that I have not specified exactly what I think should replace the current system.  I have some inchoate ideas, but they might not work. For what it's worth, I think that lockstep pay and first in last out is a lousy way to run a school.  The way I'd like teachers protected is this: an administrator would be under constant pressure for results.  Good teachers, who deliver those results would be essentially guaranteeing the AP's job.  

But here's the thing: if this plan doesn't work, we should be able to try something else!  Let a thousand flowers bloom!  If school A guarantees teacher jobs and pays $60,000 and school B offers no protections but pays $100,000, let's try them both.  Let's try things that I haven't thought of. The contract prevents experimentation like this in conventional public schools.  To quote FDR: "The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation." Of course he was referring to the Great Depression, but I think is point is apropos to the discussion.

You can attack this scheme and it is vulnerable to attack.  Still, good teachers produce better results. There is no question that home life plays the biggest role, but the city can't go home with the kids.  Here's an excellent Q&A with Stanford Professor Eric Hanushek that deals with these issues.  

I mean, weren't you a student at one point?  Didn't you have amazing and inspirational teachers? Didn't you have some who where totally forgettable? Didn't you have some that were awful? Haven't we all?

An old joke: two men are running away from a bear.  The second guy says to the first guy "how are we gonna outrun this bear?"  The first guys says "I don't need to outrun the bear--I just need to outrun you." The status quo is the equivalent of being eaten by the bear.  This leads into your next point:

Finally, you claim that education is in "crisis" and that we need to do something. I suggest you read Diane Ravitch, who knows more about this than anyone else in America. She would tell you that American students are actually doing better than ever in the PISA tests, and that if we adjust for poverty of our students, we perform as well as any nation in the world. So the "crisis" is a crisis of poverty, and you will never solve it by attacking teachers, any more than Bush solved the problem of terrorism attacking Iraq. You solve a problem by attacking the things that cause it, and not by randomly attacking the easiest target.

Regarding the crisis in education, I have a couple of remarks.  The first is that I agree--poverty is a major problem in America.  So, hey, let's end it!  Easier said than done.  Look at the attempts by Lyndon Johnson and his Great Society--to end poverty as we know it.  

It's still here.

I would suggest to you that lack of access to quality education is the main driver of poverty in the United States.  You (and maybe even St. Diane?) mixed cause and effect.

Things weren't as bad in 1960 when a high school diploma could still get you a fairly decent gig.  But globalization and automation have ended the era of low wage manufacturing jobs. The only reliable path out of impoverishment is education.  I agree that parents are often the main issue here--I used to walk down 182nd Street at 11pm on a weeknight and all my sixth grade kids were hanging out. Their parents were good people who really did value education, but only in the abstract.  Still, at school the kids who had good teachers were still capable of achieving great things.  But the ones in the class with the teacher who called them "a bunch of disgusting animals" failed to thrive.

I'm not saying that creating better schools is the only way to tackle poverty, but it's a powerful tool and should not be discarded lightly.  

As to your PISA post, here is an excerpt from Shanker Blog (no ed reformers, they): "I want to make it very clear that U.S. PISA results are not good enough by any stretch of the imagination, and we can and should do a whole lot better." 

The author then goes on to note that we are not awful--merely mediocre.But here's the thing; poverty is real, and I still submit that it is at least partially a result of bad schools. Look at New York City. Our graduation rate is floating around 65%--and this is trumpeted as good news! This alone is disgraceful. But if that weren't enough, those that do graduate are often lacking even the most basic skills. I'm sure you are familiar with the 2009 study that showed half of all NYC graduates attending CUNY schools needed remediation before they could attend basic college level classes. Here's a piece in the NYTimes about the flood of remediation. This also might be a good time for me to note that I carry no water for Joel Klein, Cathy Black or Dennis Walcott. I disagree with a ton of what comes out of Tweed--the cell phone ban is just one example of many. Just because I criticize the union doesn't mean that I agree with all of its other critics on everything. I don't think you actually accused me of this, but I want to be clear.

Getting back to it, nobody wants to kill and drill or just teach to the test. But look at this 4th grade ELA test.  Are we really saying it's okay for students not to meet this level?  Every year, I grade the US and Global History Regents. These tests are jokes.  There is a multiple choice section that is vaguely challenging and then there are essays in which they actually give students the answers.  And if they look like they are failing, just run their scores through the conversion table (PDF), which will almost always yield passing results. And yet despite all this, students were still failing the Global in droves--so much so that they almost ended the exam. (Apologies for linking to the NYPost...) 

To me, these are major problems that need solving.  I don't think it's right or fair to wait for a white knight to swoop in and end poverty.

You attack on the union was Bush-like, and bush league. If you really want to help children, you'll advocate for an end to poverty, and not take a sledge hammer to your colleagues.
Bush like and Bush league, eh?  I suppose I could say that you're shanking it like Shanker, or that your logic has been ravaged by Ravitch... but that wouldn't be nice... :)

Let me conclude with a couple of basic points.  I see the need for unions in jobs which are dangerous or deadly.  If you are a coal miner, the more coal you mine, the sicker you get.  If you are a longshoreman, the more boxes you heave, the closer you get to a career ending injury.  But we are not miners or longshoremen (though I certainly have much respect for them).  We are professionals, like doctors or lawyers.  Both have managed fine without union protection and are considered (I would say unjustly) to be more prestigious professions.  I know the UFT motto is "A Union of Professionals," but I find that to by an oxymoron--professionals don't need a union. 

Additionally, unions in the private sector are moderated by the fact that excess demands can lead to the destruction of their industry.  No such danger exists in the public sector.  Let me quote FDR here "The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service." He also wrote "I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place... A strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government." 

Again, you might accuse me of bashing my own kind.  But I think that the problem that bedevils America is that too few people are willing to attack their own perks--perks that threaten to turn us into a rentier state in which all are concerned with growing their share of the pie at the expense of others and not with growing the pie overall.  The mortgage interest deduction is a great example--it benefits homeowners like crazy, but it's terrible policy because it basically puts a tax on (generally poorer) renters.  Yet no politician can call for its end. Indeed any politician who calls for any tax raise can kiss his career goodbye (see Mondale, Walter).  

We are teachers and there is a third party involved here--the students who, rich or poor, need us to be the best we can be.  

You might say I am teacher-bashing, but I believe that teaching is the most important profession that there is.  I know full well how many amazing teachers there are, but here is the problem: they do so out of a spirit of altruism.  How can altruism be a problem? The problem is what to do with those who are not altruistic.  A system predicated on people doing the right thing has no way to deal with those who do the wrong thing.  And the system indirectly encourages people to do the wrong thing!  If I give my students a lot of homework and tests and personal responses to their writing as a young teacher, there's a chance I will flame out of the profession.  But if I take it easy and give lots of high grades without giving a lot of work or exams then I can float on through and watch my salary go up and up. This model makes little sense.

I have many problems with the world of business and industry, but in that environment people do their jobs because if they do they are rewarded and if they don't they are fired.  We have created a system with neither the carrot nor the stick--small wonder that our field has suffered and that so many people who choose to major in education are at the bottom of their classes.

In conclusion, Mr. Talk, I want to say a couple of things. First, though my remarks were sometimes pointed, I hope you take them in the context of a reasonable and spirited exchange of ideas.  I feel relatively certain that you and I share many goals. I imagine we both want what's best for the students and teachers of New York and the United States--though we obviously differ in how we think we should proceed.

I also want to thank you for posting this on your blog.  Writing this has been cathartic for me, and I hope its receipt was not too painful/annoying for you.  

Best of luck in your future endeavors,


Matt P.

7 comments:

Arthur Goldstein said...

Without union, we would be like Walmart employees. Merit pay has never worked anywhere, and the notion that someone like Mayor Bloomberg actually wants to reward good teachers is outlandish on its face. In fact, he wishes to base such rewards on test scores, yet another thing that has never been shown to work, and one that has led to teachers judged excellent by administrators labeled as the worst in the pages of the NY Post.

Teaching is a path that can lead students like those I serve to the middle class. Teachers inspire, and one way they do so is by pulling themselves up to a better life. Removing an avenue to that like via nonsensical things like test and punish, encouraging short-term replaceable teachers, and using junk science to drive, of all things, education, is unconscionable.

And the fact is that industry would love to Walmartize education. Any teacher who believes otherwise, especially any teacher who's been reading Gary Rubinstein, has made a serious miscalculation.

No one wants to see bad teachers. However, there is not an epidemic of bad teachers in NYC or anywhere. The alleged crisis is manufactured for a number of reasons. First, it diverts attention from real problems, like poverty. It's certainly easy to ignore the absolute fact that so-called failing schools contain large numbers of high-needs kids.

And it would certainly be valuable to crush the last bastion of vibrant unionism in these United States. For anyone who hasn't been paying attention, that is us.

We are living the interesting times of the apocryphal Chinese proverb and we must prevail. It behooves us, as teachers, to think this through, to consider the facts that shatter the propaganda, to organize, to inform, to get the message out---in short-to teach.

Michael Fiorillo said...

"... I don't believe that I need the union to give me my benefits."

One simple sentence, yet such a deep reservoir of cluelessness.

Three points:

1. Who obtained those benefits to begin with (or the weekends, vacations, pension, etc.) if not the union? If the union were to cease to exist, does he really think he'd keep them? 

If he doesn't need the union to give him his benefits, here's a proposition: let him resign his position with the DOE, apply for a job at a well-funded charter school, and negotiate as an individual for the defined-benefit pension that he is now entitled to receive as a UFT member. I'm sure Eva Moskowitz would be very receptive, since Mr. Polazzo is clearly exceptional.

2. The "competitive" salaries that "no employer" can avoid paying are based on union scales established in the contract. Charter school salaries are pegged, usually at a lower rate, to union scales. The statement shows complete ignorance of that basic economic fact.

3. The union doesn't "give" him his benefits, he receives them as the result of collective bargaining that was itself only won after years of struggle by teachers. His using such a prominent venue to attack core union principles,  while enjoying the benefits of the contract his writing undermined, is a hypocritical affront to his colleagues.

Philip Habecker said...

There's too much to respond to here.  Just too much.

First off, Mr. Talk.  Stay anonymous as long as you can.  Mr. Polazzo, it's brave of you to put your name out there - and it definitely forces one to cut down on the snark, but Mr. Talk I understand the necessity of anonymity as well.  There are certainly teachers who take to the blogs successfully using their names.  (This is actually my teacher blog... I don't use it for much else these days.  It's only occasionally that I take on topics that involve more than those in my class...)  But I also know 2 other teachers who were outed, and things didn't turn out so well for them.

I do believe that it is easier to give your name and bash the union than give your name and bash the administration/DOE.  You don't have to be in the union.  We all need jobs.  (Once again, I'd like to thank both my union and my administration for being so great.)

Philip Habecker said...

Huh... my pic/profile didn't show up, yet it shows up as following you.

Name: Philip Habecker.

Augustus Talk said...

Might be a glitch in Discus, which manages the comments.

hasoonax96 said...

It's been said that when one believes in something or a side on an issue, he believes in it emotionally before he does so logically. What I see here is not an opinion that is unintelligent or an opinion that seems to indicate the reader has no sense of reality, its a well-informed opinion. What Mr. Polazzo is protesting is a system that breeds incompetence. I'm actually a student and I have seen too many teachers who've been teaching for 10+ years who can not teach. Some have no sense of organization, some (like Mr. Polazzo stated earlier) simply give high grades to anyone. What is the result? The result is America's current educational system. Today, we do not value teachers that actually teach, we value teachers who have survived in the system for the longest time. Furthermore, anyone with a basic knowledge of how economics works will affirm that unions for professionals are not much needed. Doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers and professional careers often have competitive wages, and would not find anyone willing to work in conditions that we often see present in non-professional jobs. The catch is, unions were first made for non-professional jobs, ones where the employer can easily dictate terms that were unfair for the employee and still hire tons of people because of the sheer supply of people willing to work at those prices and conditions. However, such is not the case with professional jobs AND employers would not find it in their best interest to simply hire teachers who will work for low benefits, but will want at least mildly skilled teachers because in the line of professional work, there is a range of "output" (for lack of better words) that a professional can produce. Consider a taxi driver, the margin of difference in "output" is small, a taxi driver is a taxi driver and brings little if anything unique to any taxi. However, a teacher brings experience and style. I also must point out that Mr. Polazzo is one of the best teachers in my school. He is not afraid to challenge the common opinion simply because it is that.

hasoonax96 said...

It seems to me that we do not seek to protect and help the students, but help the teachers.