Friday, June 29, 2012

Making "Stupid" Official Education Policy

When you read the Texas GOP's platform, you might understandably think you are reading a piece from the satirical website "The Onion". Sadly, you would be mistaken.

The Daily Kos points out that the platform promotes some of the more common but wacky GOP talking points, such as privatizing Social Security and gay bashing. But they also slipped in something that even the GOP has yet dared to broach.

They want schools to stop teaching kids to think.'s right there:

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

In other words, the Texas GOP is saying, "We gotta keep them durn schools from edumacatin' our children. If we let the young'uns learn how to think, next thing you know they might believe Adam and Eve didn't ride dinosaurs!"

We shouldn't be surprised, really. The entire education "reform" movement has, as its primary unspoken goal, an eventual dumbing down of our kids. Teach them literature? Screw that--we have the Common Core! Teach them to analyze what they read? No way---we have tests to bubble in and they'd better get those bubbles right or teachers will get fired!

Is this kind of institutionalized stupidity coming our way? Don't kid yourself--it's already here. Charter schools are mostly test prep mills, and our public schools are not far behind (yes, I know the charters claim to be public schools, but I have the critical thinking skills to know they are not). The Common Core wants our kids to read almost nothing other than boring non-fiction because literature contains ideas. Writing portions of exams reward students who simply regurgitate what they have read and penalize original thought because it can't be found "in the text".

While Barack Obama is no friend of teachers, I shudder to think what will happen to education should the republicans gain control of the White House. Texas has long "led the way" in education because of the stranglehold they've gained over textbook publishers. Would Mitt Romney make stupidity official education policy? I have no doubt of it. The GOP has long been a party that embraces stupidity--think G.W. Bush, Michele Bachmann, and Sarah Palin.

"Stupid" would be the new smart. On the plus side, you could ride a government subsidized T Rex in a Jesus themed amusement park. The choice is yours.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

How To Spend Your Teachers Choice Bonanza

This blog (i.e., me) has always had a bug up its ass about Teacher's Choice. I hate the program. I won't rehash all my arguments here; if you are interested, you can read my past rantings about this ridiculous program here. Suffice it to say that my main argument against TC is that classrooms should be adequately supplied at all times--Mayor4Life would never dream of running any of his businesses without supplies, so why would he run schools that way?

Of course, this is a mayor who is trying to install a room air conditioner in his chauffeured SUV because he hates getting into a hot vehicle, while teachers and 1.1 million students sweat out a prolonged heat wave.

As you are probably aware, Teacher's Choice went from $260 a year at its high point, down to $150, then $110, until it was finally eliminated. At its height, the program was woefully inadequate; at its low point, it was a slap in the face to teachers and students alike.

Now, according to Gotham Schools, Teacher's Choice is making a comeback. The City Council is going to give NYC teachers a whopping $40 a year to supply our classrooms. So if you have 100 students a year, as I typically have, you will receive 40 cents per child.

I spent more than that on candy for my students for the last day of school.

The total spent on this failed program will be 3.75 million. Compare that to the 900 million that the city spent on computer contractors last year. Obviously, what this city cares about is making sure that the pockets of business people are lined with cash, while teachers' pockets remain empty. 

Here's what I plan to do with the money, and I urge you to do the same. Buy a ream of paper, a box of envelopes, some mailing labels, and 40 stamps. Then write a letter to Mayor4Life telling him how insulting it is that he refuses to support public schools with proper supplies. Print 40 copies and 40 mailing labels, and send one copy of the letter to City Hall every week starting in September and every week for the 40 weeks of the school year. If every teacher did this, we could dump 75,000 letters on the mayor's desk every week for a year.

I can't think of a better way to thank him.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Another Loss for the UFT and Teachers

Before the ink is even dry on the bill, the UFT is going out of its way to frame today's teacher evaluation disclosure agreement as a win. It is nothing of the sort. It is a total loss.

Let's remember how this all happened. The UFT agreed to a "pilot" program to evaluate teachers solely on test scores, with the stipulation that these rankings would not be released. Joel Klein promised to fight against the release of these scores should they be FOILed. They were, and he didn't. Simply put, he lied to teachers yet again, and actually fought for the scores to be released to the papers, which they eventually were.

And what did the UFT gain from giving this to the DOE? A new contract? The same 4% raise that was given to other unions without having evaluations made public? No, all they got was a lot of teachers' names in the papers, and a lot of humiliation for a lot of people.

Remember, no other union has their evaluations published. Now, we will. The UFT will claim that only parents will get to see this info, but there is nothing to stop parents from sharing and publishing this information themselves. This will lead to more teachers being vilified due to faulty evaluations with a margin of error of more than 80%.

The UFT should have pitched it thusly: We played ball once, and we got crucified when the TDRs got published, so we are NOT going to allow it to happen again. Teachers will agree to allow our evaluations to be made available to parents as soon as police evaluations are made public to all citizens in a precinct--in fact, as soon as ALL evaluations are made public, including the mayor, governor, and all of their staff.

Instead, our union has once again agreed to allow its members to be humiliated and targeted. Again, no other union has its evaluations made public in this way. Only the UFT could suffer a loss that no other union has, and still tell its members that it scored a victory.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Dennis Walcott, Debunked

In an Op-Ed in the NY Times and featured prominently in the Times' Schoolbook section today is a piece by Chancellor Walcott calling for the state to grant him the authority to fire teachers for alleged sexual misconduct, regardless of the outcome of investigations and arbitration. It's so full of holes that it needs to be rebutted, so here goes.

It centers around a predictable ploy, the argumentum ad populum that we need to rid ourselves of sexual predators in the schools. Of course, we do--no one would argue against that other than perhaps predators themselves. The question, however, is not whether we should do this, but how.

Walcott begins by discussing two cases in which teachers "stand accused" of sexual misconduct. He never goes deeper than that, hoping that the reader will assume that the accusations are true. I don't know whether they are or not, but I do know that teachers are subject to arrest for such actions if there is sufficient proof, and subject to an arbitration trial for dismissal even if charges are never brought. This is as it should be; even if there is insufficient evidence for a criminal proceeding, there needs to be a mechanism to remove teachers who may not be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, as the courts require, but may appear guilty by a preponderance of the evidence and removed via arbitration.

This isn't enough for the chancellor. He wants the ability to fire accused teachers regardless of whether there is any substantial evidence against them. He wants to fire teachers who were never criminally charged, and who were found not guilty through arbitration. In other words, he wants the power to fire teachers based on an accusation, even if the courts and an independent arbitrator find no merit to the case whatsoever.

He bases his need for this power on two ideas: That arbitration doesn't work, and that teachers receive protections that no one else has. Let's tackle both of those assertions.

First, Walcott says, "An arbitrator knows that if he makes a ruling that disappoints either party he might be barred from future cases. This interest in pleasing both sides can lead an arbitrator to “split the baby,” for instance by offering some punishment (in hopes of pleasing the school district) but also some leniency (in hopes of pleasing the teachers’ union)."

Think of what Walcott is really saying here. He is saying that an independent arbitrator, who believes in his heart that a teacher is guilty of sexual misconduct against children, will nevertheless return that teacher to the classroom to prey on students again just to please the city and the union. It's an outrageous statement on the face of it. Furthermore, if the city really believed that arbitrators were knowingly sending sexual deviants back into the classroom, why on earth would they continue to hire those arbitrators? Remember, both the union AND the city must approve arbitrators, so if Walcott is correct, what he is saying is that the city knowingly agrees to hire arbitrators who send sexual predators back into the classroom. And since he is in charge of the DOE, the buck must stop with him. He is as guilty as anyone of what he claims is true.

His next argument is that teachers receive protections in this area that others don't. He says, "As it stands, public school teachers accused of sexual misconduct enjoy protections that no other city employee has." While this may be true, the question really is "What other city employee needs such protection?" How many sanitation workers and toll booth clerks get accused of sexual misconduct each year? Very few, I'd wager, as they don't come into contact with children in the same number or manner as teachers. It is all too simple for a child to make an accusation against a teacher because they got a bad grade or got yelled at. I have also personally seen cases in which teachers were set up by principals and children were coerced into making statements that they later recanted. So we need that special protection. We don't need bullet proof vests like police officers, nor fireproof uniforms like firefighters, but we do need, like those professionals, to be guarded from the particular hazards we do face.

To complete his attack on teachers, Walcott just plays fast and loose with the facts. For example, he used the case of a teacher accused of touching an 8 year old girl today to claim that he needs the authority to fire teachers accused of sexual misconduct. What he does not say is that the city already has the power to fire teachers who are arrested and convicted of such charges, so if this teacher is indeed guilty, he will never see the inside of a classroom again, and certainly will never face an arbitrator. He will be in jail. That is how the system is supposed to work.

Walcott's power grab reminds me of how GW Bush pushed through the Patriot Act and justified torture and two wars following 9/11. Bush tried to scare people into believing there was a terrorist on every street corner, and if we didn't cede our rights to the federal government, we were just begging for another terrorist attack. Likewise, Walcott is using a small number of incidents to scare parents and the legislature into giving him unprecedented power--not to "punish" the guilty, as he claims, but to go on witch hunts against teachers who were not only not criminally charged, but cleared by arbitrators hired in part by the DOE itself.

I did a little research to see if any of Walcott's histrionics were justified. Schoolbook claims that there have been ten arrests of school employees (not just teachers) this year. That is 10 arrests per 120,000 employees. That, of course, is unacceptable--even one is unacceptable. But according to the US Department of Justice, that number is actually low. For example, in large cities like New York in 1995, there were 80 arrests per 100,000 people for rape or other sexual offenses. Yet your don't hear Walcott or Bloomberg calling for a suspension of due process for the general population. As far as they are concerned, teachers are the villains--first, last, and always.

Is it really surprising though, that Bloomberg would support this power grab? His "stop and frisk" policies are right out of the fascist playbook, effectively making being black and mobile a crime in NYC. Mayor4Life doesn't believe in rights for anyone but himself. While you can't drink a 20 ounce Coke or defend yourself against baseless charges in this city, the mayor can buy himself an illegal 3rd term and land his helicopter wherever he pleases.

Dennis Walcott seems to have embraced all the Napoleonic leanings of his boss. And the teachers of NY are the ones who have to pay.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Ray Bradbury Dead at 91

Ray Bradbury, master of science fiction and fantasy, has died at the age of 91.

I don't think Bradbury is fully appreciated for the literary giant he really is. Most people recognize Fahrenheit 451 as a masterpiece of dystopian fiction (even though Mr. Bradbury himself denied that the book was about censorship at all). Many are familiar with The Martian Chronicles, as well.

While I love those books, I think what often gets overlooked when discussing Bradbury are his short stories. Can anyone who has ever read "The Veldt" forget it? How about "The Illustrated Man"? I have no idea how many short stories Bradbury wrote in total, but I do know that I have one of his short story collections that could be used as an anvil. And almost every single story is a gem.

I've taught Bradbury, as well. While his vocabulary can be challenging for younger teens at times, his sense of wonder and astonishment at the world as it as and the world as it could be enthralled many of my students.

He never won the Pulitzer prize, which is a shame. Still, I think his stories will live on far longer than those of many prize winners. Now that he's gone, scholars can consider his place among the giants. They'll see a lot of writers sitting on his shoulders.

R.I.P., Mr. Bradbury.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Teachers Are Not Numbers

The other day, a student I had never seen before stopped me on the street as I walked to my car.

"Hey, I know you," she said. "You're Mr....uhm...Mr..."

"Mr. Talk," I prompted.

"Oh yeah," she said, with a look on her face that said she wasn't entirely convinced of my identity. "I saw you in the papers."

As you can imagine, I was a little taken aback. Had she confused me with some criminal whose mug shot resembled me? "In what paper?"

"The Times," she replied. "You're a 98*."

"Excuse me?"

"You're a 98. You know, that's what you scored."

The fog cleared away. She was referring to my Teacher Data Report (TDR) score.

"You must be a great teacher," she said, smiling.

I thought about offering a rebuttal--of saying that TDR scores are meaningless and that in the previous year I had scored at the bottom. But I knew it wouldn't make any difference. "Thanks."

This student--whom I'd never met before and who didn't even know my name--knew my TDR score. By that number alone, she made a snap judgment about who I was and how I did my job.

I wonder how the conversation would have gone had it taken place a year earlier. Would she have approached me to say "You're an 8*. You must stink"?

There's still talk going around about whether teacher evaluations should be made public, available to parents only, or part of a teacher's personal record that is not shared with anyone. I've always fallen into the third camp because I do not believe that student scores are any kind of indication of teacher quality.

I am even more firmly in the third camp after that conversation. If that one girl knew me by my score, how many other children and parents make the same hasty judgment based upon a number with a huge margin of error?

If turning teachers into numbers is such a great thing, why not do it with the children, too? Students could wear a 1, 2, 3, or 4 depending on how they scored on their exams. Heck, we could make parents wear those numbers when they came in for parent teacher conferences, as well. Maybe we could get Bloomberg and Walcott involved--they could wear their approval rating numbers whenever they visited schools.

Of course, such public shaming is reserved only for teachers in this city. If you are a teacher, you are a number. Unless the powers that be in Albany see the light.

*not my real numbers, although they are close. The numbers have been changed to protect the innocent (namely me).