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.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Summer Randomness

Summer's here, and in keeping with the general laziness of the 95 degree day, I decided I'd post some random thoughts rather than some long screed.

First off, I am going to miss the DOEnuts blog. Although it is continuing with a new blogger at the helm, I will sorely miss the wit and wisdom of the original.

NYC Educator wrote a piece I was thinking about the other day on not letting retirees vote. When I researched the idea, however, I discovered that the UFT actually still charges dues to retirees--albeit half the rate of teachers and based on their actual retirement allotment. While this amount is way less than most teachers pay (figure about 1200 a year to maybe 300), if retirees are paying in, they should have a voice. Contracts and UFT leadership are matters that do affect them. It's not the fault of retirees if only 17% of teachers can be bothered to vote. What if, on the last day of school, those who vote get their paychecks at noon, and the apathetic get theirs after the usually scheduled extended day? I bet we'd get a lot more votes then.

There's a lot of buzz about the Badass Teachers Association (BAT) on Facebook.  Their mission is: "...to engage in discourse that improves our profession." Really? Does the word "Badass" in the name really help us engage in discourse or improve our profession? It sounds more like we're looking to pick a bar fight. Picture the debate on MSNBC's Education Week: "Today, the president of Students First will debate one of the founders of the Badass Teachers Association". We lose before we start. Also, on an even more petty note, shouldn't the acronym for "Badass Teachers Association" be BTA, or if you count "ass" as a separate word, BATA? I guess those aren't as badass.

I've spent a LOT of hours this vacation playing the PS3 game The Last of Us, which is about a post-apocalyptic world overrun by infected humans (who are NOT zombies, although you wouldn't know by looking at them). This game is like a great movie, except you get to be in it. You play it mostly as Joel, whose teenage daughter was killed when the epidemic began and who is tasked, 20 years later, with escorting a 14 year old infected girl named Ellie across the country in the hopes of using her DNA to find a vaccine. It is easily the best game I have played in the last decade--maybe ever. It totally sucks you in by forcing you to make an increasingly troublesome set of moral decisions about survival as you try to protect Ellie and keep yourself alive. I mention it because in the post Common Core world, I'll probably never get to discuss this game with my students. But it had the exact kind of story they would care about. I would love to get the graphic novel versions of this tale and let them debate the moral decisions they would make.

Bill Thompson? Really? I mean, if you're losing by a fairly wide margin to a guy who sent pictures of his johnson to random women on Twitter, you're in trouble. Might be time for Thompson to break out the Viagra and cell phone cam to see what he can come up with. Christine Quinn is on her own.

George Zimmerman is going to walk. Or at worst, get hit with the lowest manslaughter charge Florida allows and be sentenced to time served. This is 'Murica.

I am shocked that more people are NOT shocked at being spied on by PRISM and President Obama.  But judging from my real life Facebook feed, there's no shortage of people willing to share their most intimate thoughts and deeds with the world at large. Maybe they're just happy that someone is reading their status updates at all.

Campbell Brown seems to think that an unproved allegation against a teacher should be grounds for dismissal. I have to wonder why she doesn't rant about Kevin Johnson, who paid a $230,000 settlement to a 16 year old girl who accused him of molesting her. It might be that he's married to ed reform rock star Michelle Rhee, while Campbell herself is married to another ed deformer, Dan Senor.

Since New Yorkers seem hell bent on punishing "perv" teachers but equally determined to elect perv politicians, I'm surprised that Kevin Johnson hasn't thrown his hat in the ring. He could give Weiner a run for his money, and if elected, he could make his wife chancellor. While the idea makes me shudder as a teacher, as a blogger the "Weiner vs. Johnson" puns would almost make it worth while.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Of Double Standards, Billionaires, and Pencil Boxes

An incredibly smart and sweet girl I've had the pleasure of teaching for two of her three years at my school just recently graduated as valedictorian. She is headed to Stuyvesant. Just yesterday, she handed me a card in which she thanked me profusely for helping her become a better writer and for being a good English teacher. These are the kinds of things teachers live for.

Along with the card came a present--a nice pencil box inscribed with a quote by Hemingway. It will look great on my desk, assuming I decide to keep it.

You see, there are rules in this city for employees. I'm not supposed to accept any gift over a certain amount, but the actual amount for teachers is vague. Under Klein, the amount was $5 per student. Here's what I found when I searched it:

A gift can only be accepted from an individual if the gift is of primarily sentimental value. This means that it should not be very expensive. Cheap scarves, homemade crafts, cards, baked goods, and the like are probably OK.

This gift was clearly primarily of sentimental value. But I don't know its dollar value, and it could well be over $5, although it certainly can't be much more than that. So which rule prevails--sentimentality or dollar value? Am I supposed to return it? Ask for a receipt verifying the price? Ask the girl if she was feeling sentimental when she handed it to me?

I wouldn't even bring this up if not for two articles that caught my eye today. The first involved two sanitation workers who were fined $2,000 each for accepting a $5 tip for hauling away a lot of trash.  This is in violation of the rules of the Conflict of Interest Board (COIB), which handed down the fines. If they got fined 2 grand for five dollar tip, what might happen to me if the COIB discovers I accepted a $10 pencil box? Fine me $4000? Have me keel hauled? What if it's worth more? Will they have my eyes pecked out by birds?

Of course, these rules only apply if you are a city worker. If you are the mayor, you are exempt. For example, if you're Bloomberg, and you have a pet project such as changing gun control laws, it is perfectly OK for you to take the tax money of NYC residents and lobby for changes to gun laws in Nevada. Yes, this is the same mayor who has an estimated worth of $27 billion but feels its much better to spend YOUR hard earned money on his pet projects than to use his own massive wealth. This is also the same mayor who has claimed time and again that there is no money for raises for teachers, apparently because the money is earmarked for political plunder.

The mayor's goon spokesperson claimed that this was all fair and aboveboard, because "seeking sane gun laws in other states . . . help(s) reduce the flow of illegal guns to New York", thus keeping everyone safe. As you are doubtless aware, many mobsters routinely go to Nevada for guns, because it is much closer than, let's say, the south.

On the other hand, if I accept this pencil box and its value exceeds $5 or the equivalent sentimental units, it will mean the end of civilization as we know it. Violence will rule the streets and anarchy will prevail. If teachers start accepting $10 Dunkin' Donuts gift cards, the next thing you know they'll be headed off to Nevada to purchase illegal guns. We have to have rules.

Unless you're the mayor. Or a billionaire. Or especially if you're both.

But it's nearly the end of school, and I refuse to insult this nice young lady by returning her gift. If you want my pencil box, Mr. Mayor, all I can do is borrow a quote from all those really dangerous Nevada to NY gun runners:

"You can have my pencil box when you pry it from my cold dead fingers."

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Chancellor Walcott Should Fire Himself

If you want to judge schools by data, as this administration so desperately wants to do, you can only conclude that Chancellor Walcott has failed our children and should be fired immediately. Since he's the boss, I want him to publicly fire himself. Yes, I know he can just resign, but self-immolation would be so much sweeter.

I'm here today to accuse Walcott of extremely poor performance based on his own measures. I'm talking specifically about quality reviews, which are designed to measure how individual schools are performing. If individual schools are performing more poorly overall, then the system itself is failing, and its leader has failed to add value.

My school just recently got its QR score, and it wasn't great. Me, I'd tell you that it IS a great school--with excellent teachers, a solid administration, and high test scores. But Walcott would tell you that data doesn't lie. And what's good for the goose is good for the chancellor.

You don't need to be a great statistician (because I'm certainly not) to prove that Walcott stinks. Just do what I did and download the QR scores for the entire city since 2005. Yes, I know it sounds boring, but I'm not going to ask you to read any actual data. All you need to do is scroll the spreadsheet and you'll see what I mean.

Start at the top, and scroll down the first two years, which are the 2005/06 and 2006/07 school years. Notice anything? Almost all the schools are considered either Well Developed (WD) or Proficient (P). Then a strange thing happens as you scroll to 2007/08. The number of WD schools mushrooms to mythical proportions. I'd venture a guess (because I am too lazy to do the math) that at least 65% of schools were Well Developed that year. It was such a great year that they developed a whole new level--Outstanding (O)--which was only in effect that year. There was a big drop-off the next year--in fact, you can tell when the 08/09 school year begins because all those WDs suddenly disappear as you scroll.

So, if you believe that data, it is possible for about 2/3rds of schools to be well developed. Walcott has had two years at the helm to return us to those halcyon days, but he has failed miserably. If you keep scrolling to the end of that spreadsheet, you can see that in the two years of Walcott's tenure, we have fewer WDs than ever. In fact, you start seeing a LOT of D's for Developing and a smattering of U's.

So let's do to Walcott what he'd like to do to us with the new evaluation system he touts so highly. In this system, teachers get two years to show they are competent, and if are deemed ineffective based on the data, can be summarily fired.

In Walcott's two years, the data clearly show that our schools have gone downhill. FAR downhill. Where we once had 65% of schools considered well developed, we now have roughly 10% (again, this is based on my lazy visual inspection of the spreadsheet). The data conclusively prove that Walcott has been ineffective for two years and should be summarily fired.

Of course, we can give him the same consideration he gives us, and let him prove that he is competent despite the numbers. I'd love to hear how he'd explain these numbers away.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Congratulations on my Retirement!!!

Yes, it's true. I've been receiving tons of congratulations from my colleagues lately on my coming retirement. Which is normal, I suppose, except for one thing.

I'm not retiring. I'm not old enough and I don't
have enough years in.

So you may be wondering why people have been congratulating me. I'll give you a hint--it all started when I returned to school Monday.

Yep. I've been getting pats on the back all week because of the new evaluation system, because while I am not retiring, I will be eligible to retire well before the end of the 2015 school year, which is when the new system will start lopping the heads off any teachers rated ineffective two years in a row. So even if they hoist me into the tumbril and cart me off the the guillotine, I can narrowly escape and head off into the sunset at Boca Raton.

To be clear, I have no intention of retiring for quite a few years, because I love teaching and I still think my best work is yet to come. And besides, where would I get material for this blog?

My point is that it just goes to show you the extent to which people are afraid of this new evaluation system, and I think justifiably so. The fact that people are congratulating me on retirement years in advance shows me how much those people believe they will not make it, as I have.

They may well be right. A teacher with 10 years in will have to go at least another 17 without getting two consecutive ineffective ratings. If you're brand new, you'll have to survive a full 27 years of junk science VAM evaluations, and you'll have to survive a number of principals (I have survived six, so far) and admins who may not think you're the cat's pajamas (jeez, I am old).

Unless things change, you can expect that this evaluation plan will mean that before long, no one will reach retirement (and after all, isn't that what Bloomberg wants, anyway?). Once geezers like me are gone, we'll have to think of new things to celebrate, such as one consecutive year without an ineffective rating. Teacher who get vested should receive a gold watch.

A lot of the folks who congratulated me also told me that they are working on their resumes, or looking for other careers. That, of course, is the other thing Bloomberg wanted--a transient, temporary work force that will be young enough not to need many benefits and too inexperienced to climb up the pay scale.

Me, I'm just basking in the glow of all the congratulations. I may go out this weekend to buy a straw hat, some Bermuda shorts, and some sandals to go with my knee length black socks as I contemplate getting out of this system and heading to Florida. I hope to see you there one day. But I'm not banking on it. It'll probably be just me and Mulgrew.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Email From Mulgrew Regarding APPR Decision

My fellow UFTers,

I'm delighted to tell you of the total victory we emerged with today by wisely allowing John King, whose cup of coffee as a teacher gives him wide ranging knowledge of education, to decide the fate of the 75,000 teachers we threw under the bus represent.

There will, of course, be plenty of time for you to get to know the details of this plan as you stand on the unemployment line, but here are some highlights:

  • You will be judged on all 22 elements of the Danielson Framework. The city tried to cheat us and evaluate us on only 21 of them, but we insisted. Win!
  • You will be observed from 4-6 times per year, as opposed to the previous two. Obviously, we wanted more observations because teachers asked for them. In a recent poll of teacher preferences conducted by New York Teacher, 52% of teachers said "I want to be observed three times as often." None of the other choices, such as "I want my scrotum stapled to a moving roller coaster" garnered even half as much support.
  • If you teach ELA or math, only 20% of your score will be based on value-added measurements (VAM, aka junk science). Or 25% if the Regents changes its mind. Oh, and if your kids don't do well, it will count for 100%. But it'll only be 20% as long as you don't have to teach any kids with learning disabilities, limited English, or behavior problems, which, as we know, is reflective of the majority of classes in NYC.
  • If you teach science or social studies, we have even better news! We know that many of you have been bemoaning the fact that you don't get to teach to high stakes state tests like other core subjects, but those days are over! 20% (or 25%, or 100%) of your evaluation will come from a new set of tests designed just for the city! No siree, we didn't forget you in this system!
  • As a bonus, you will also have the unheard of opportunity to be evaluated by your students. Yes, student surveys will now contribute to your overall score. If you thought being evaluated by an admin with only 3 years of teaching experience was fun, imagine how you'll love being graded by children who've only been in school for three years! Many of them still eat library paste!
  • Mayor Bloomberg wanted an evaluation system that would never sunset, or run for a million bajillion years, whichever comes first. We, of course, wouldn't stand for that. In a stunning victory, we made sure that the law would sunset in FOUR years! True, the rest of the state will sunset in two, and we got four, but you have to admit that's not even close to a million bajillion! If that's not a victory, we don't know what is (no, really, we don't).
  • The DOE wanted to ability to fire any teacher rated ineffective two years in a row. To be honest, they did get that, but hey, you'll get up to a full four hours to prove that you are competent before you are fired. What more could you ask for? To make it even sweeter,  13% of teachers will actually get a semblance of a real hearing instead of a kangaroo court. So if you're a chapter leader loyal to Unity, or willing to sleep with a chapter leader loyal to Unity, you may just end up being one of the lucky few.
  • For those of you worried about getting tenure, we have something for you, as well. Now that teachers can be fired for two years of ineffective ratings, tenure no longer matters anyway! All teachers will enjoy exactly the same protections, or lack thereof.
We just wanted to get the word out to you ourselves, before the press and the DOE get their spin on it. Remember, if you have any questions about the new APPR, don't forget to contact your DOE representative. You can be sure that he or she will always be there to answer your questions, because they are not subject to this evaluation plan and therefore can't be fired.

Yours in appeasement,

Michael Mulgrew

Monday, May 27, 2013

Fighting the Wrong Battle on Teacher Evaluations

Let's start with the obvious: Agreeing to allow value-added scores (VAM) to be part of the teacher evaluation system was a mistake. VAM is wildly unreliable as an indicator of teacher quality; as I have frequently pointed out on this blog, I went from being one of the worst teachers in NYC one year to being one of the best the next year if you go my my TDA rating, which is based on VAM. There were no consequences to my initial low score, as the new evaluation system was not in place at that time.

Had it been in place, my low single digit TDA score would have placed a target on my back. Admins simply can't (or more accurately, won't) ignore it when teachers are poorly rated no matter how good the teacher is, because they know a second poor score will lead to a 3020a hearing for that teacher. Worse still, it's likely that the new evaluation system will make it mandatory for teachers with low VAM scores to be rated ineffective.

And that's all bad. But it's not really THAT bad.

You see, admins have always had the ability to give you a crappy evaluation if they wanted to. I've seen many fine teachers rated U for consecutive years and sent off to incompetence hearings. Usually it happened because the teacher was involved in union activity, or went against the administration in some way. I have seen teachers falsely accused of sexual or verbal abuse because admins wanted them removed from the classroom (I know of one case where the admins coached a child to lie about a teacher. The teacher was found not guilty, but nothing happened to the admins).

So teachers have often been targeted, and the new evaluation system won't change that. What's really wrong with the new system is that it will likely allow for a teacher to be removed after two consecutive ineffective ratings regardless of the validity of the charges.

According to the new system, if a teacher is rated ineffective two years in a row, whether due to VAM or politics or because the principal doesn't like the fact that you wear jeans on Fridays, the onus will fall on that teacher to prove he or she is not ineffective. And good luck with that, considering your principal will have two years of phony data or trumped up evaluations to show that you stink.

Imagine our criminal justice system working this way. Instead of the current due process system in which the accused must be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, let's instead assume a teacher-evaluation model system in which anyone arrested two times would be automatically found guilty unless he could establish his innocence beyond a reasonable doubt.

Burden of proof is the real issues in teacher evaluations, but it's one that the union isn't even bothering to fight for. We have already conceded. The right to a fair hearing with due process is the entire point behind tenure; without that, tenure is meaningless and all of us are one rogue admin away from losing our jobs.

Why isn't the union fighting to retain meaningful tenure and due process rights? A clue lies in one of the other proposed provisions in the new evaluation system--that 13% of cases chosen by the union will be heard by a more independent tribunal. The union will almost certainly choose to protect its own--i.e., chapter leaders loyal to Unity. The rest of us can whistle.

Why would the union choose to protect only 13% of its members and not the other 87%? Well, just follow the money. It costs the union money to defend teachers under attack. This system will give them the ability to throw most teachers to the wolves while protecting their own, and save money to boot. They will spotlight a few high profile cases in New York Teacher and claim they are fighting the system, but the truth is most accused teachers will lose their jobs with no meaningful representation. They will be replaced by other teachers who pay the same amount in union dues every year. The union loses nothing.

Don't expect the UFT to engage the city on this--the real battle we should be fighting. Instead, they will blame VAM or Danielson or Bloomberg for teachers getting fired in droves. They will not blame themselves for agreeing to an evaluation system that eviscerates the tenure system that currently protects teachers from vindictive principals. No one at UFT headquarters will be adversely affected by this and the dues will keep rolling in.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Jimmy Kimmel Nails It

Watch for yourself:

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Another Privileged Teacher Advocates Larger Class Sizes for OTHER People's Children

Here we go again. The New York Times has seen fit to publish yet another opinion piece advocating larger class sizes, this time by one Sara Mosle. And surprise! Ms. Mosle turns out to be a hypocrite.

In her piece, she claims there is only one study showing that class size matters, which sounds like the NYT fact checker must have been on vacation. Beyond that, she argues that teachers should compromise and allow larger class sizes in exchange for more money blah blah blah reformer blather here.

A quick check on Ms. Mosle reveals a few things. First, she received $850,000 dollars for a book proposal some years back. She is a Princeton grad so one can assume that she most likely did not attend an overcrowded public school herself. She is also one of the original members of TFA. These facts do not bode well for her objectivity on class size.

Most damning of all, as it turns out, Ms. Mosle, in addition to her writing ability, is also a teacher. That seems great, until you learn that she is teaching at the Philips Academy, a charter school. While there's nothing wrong with that in and of itself, it turns out that this particular charter caps its class sizes at 21.

I don't even know why I'm blogging about this. It's pretty typical, when you think about it. A privileged, Ivy Leage TFA alum makes a bundle and teaches in a plum school while advocating worse conditions for the rest of us. It's pretty much par for the course for the Times and ed deformers.

What's troubling to me is the gullibility of the Times and other news outlets. They spew this garbage as gospel and it eventually becomes the truth. I've never heard a single teacher with a class size of 35 in a disadvantaged school advocate for larger class sizes. Yet if the media is to be believed, most of us are clamoring to have even more children stuffed into our classrooms in exchange for a few bucks. It's a disgrace, and I'm sick of it.

Ms. Mosle should be ashamed, but as long as the Times posts her garbage and publishing houses write her exorbitant checks, there's nothing to stop her.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Just How Much Instruction Is Lost Due To Testing?

It's been a grueling two weeks for teachers across the state, as we administered farcically long state tests to children who were unnecessarily spooked by all the warnings that their grades would plummet. There is no question, I think, that these were two lost weeks--weeks that could be been dedicated to real instruction, but were sacrificed to the billionaires who believe that testing is more important than learning.

Losing two weeks of instruction is bad enough, but it's not the whole story. Many, if not most, ELA and math teachers will be gone for a week or longer to help grade these tests. That's at least another week where our students will be sitting around, doing worksheets or puzzles or whatever the subs can cajole them into doing in our absence. So now we've lost three weeks of math and ELA instruction.

Add in the test prep that almost all of us are required to do. I spent comparatively little time on test prep myself, mostly because I believe it to be a waste of time and the amount of prep I do has zero correlation to the evaluation I receive (staunch readers will recall that I was at the very bottom on my TDAs one year and at the very top the next, so I have that all important "data" to back up the fact that test prep is bullshit). Even so, I spent about two weeks doing little else besides prep, and I imagine most of my colleagues did the same. So now, we are up to five weeks of instruction lost.

There are variables that are difficult to quantify, as well. For example, so much of the school year is dedicated to these tests that students (perhaps rightly) feel that not much else matters, especially now that the tests are history. It's inevitable that students will slack off a bit now, for the remaining two months of the year. How much they'll slack off depends on their usual dedication to learning, their teachers dedication, and the school culture, but even in the best case it is hard to imagine that students will be working as hard in the final eight weeks as they did in the first thirty two. Let's be generous and say that this slacking off will only be the equivalent of losing one week of the remaining eight.

In total, that's six weeks worth of instruction lost to testing, at a minimum. The mind boggles at the thought of how much more learning will evaporate once the new evaluation system is in place and students are tested in every subject, in every grade. (And you can assume that when that happens, teachers will be spending a LOT more time on test prep knowing their jobs may be on the line.)

But let's be generous once again, and assume that we will only lose the six weeks we currently lose. That means that a child starting in NYC public schools next year in first grade and graduating from a NYC high school can expect to lose--wait for it--a whopping SEVENTY-TWO weeks to testing mania.

Seventy two weeks. And remember, that's assuming that things don't get worse when we start testing every subject.

Given that there are 40 school weeks in a year, that totals nearly two years of instruction lost to testing. Is it any wonder our students are continuing to fall behind? Rather than teaching them things, we are testing them on things that we simply don't have enough time to teach.

Of course, the reformers will say we need to be accountable. To which I reply, why aren't the reformers accountable for all the instructional time they are stealing from our kids?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Mr. Talk Returns

It's been a while since I have posted. There are reasons, none of which are earth-shattering, but I have been feeling too busy and overwhelmed to do much blogging. I hope neither of my readers missed me. (In truth, when I checked my blog stats today, it actually appears that my readership has grown significantly since my last posting over a month ago, so either people are checking in to see whether I am still alive or some people prefer to read my blog when I haven't written anything.)

Some of you know I was writing for MORE and doing some other stuff for them, but lately I fell down on that job as well, for which I apologize to those people. I don't know what the results of today's election will be, but I can honestly say that I was honored to work with the people from MORE, and I would have been proud to see them snatch a victory here. As unlikely as that is, I think we made a real dent in this election, at least to the point where people are talking about how the UFT does things. And that is all to the good. A democratic union can only work where there is a legitimate opposition, and I truly believe that MORE has established itself as a major player in this union, regardless of the outcome.

That's all I really wanted to say. Hopefully, I can get myself back to some kind of regular posting schedule as I have much to belly ache about.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Julie Cavanagh of MORE Schools John Gambling on UFT Issues

Here's a great interview of Julie Cavanagh on the John Gambling show. Julie sets the record straight on MORE's positions. I especially love the part where she discusses evaluations and how good leadership in the schools is what's needed, not more ways to evaluate teachers through junk science.

It's music to my ears. Have a listen.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Some Legal Questions

You've probably heard that a judge barred Governor Cuomo from stealing $250 million from NYC schools to satisfy his ego. The judge correctly ruled that children should not be punished because the city and UFT failed to reach a deal. This, to me, brings up a question.

Why isn't the UFT using the courts to prevent Cuomo from imposing an evaluation system on NYC teachers? Obviously, I'm a teacher and not a lawyer, but it seems to me there's a strong case here. Our contract, which was collectively bargained, is still in force and there is no provision in it for a new evaluation of any kind. Since when does the state have the power to unilaterally alter a contract because it doesn't like the terms? The few law courses I took emphasized the fact that contract law is pretty solid in this country. Has that changed? How can the state, which has a stake in the outcome of this dispute, simply choose to override a valid contract signed and agreed to by both parties?

Furthermore, any evaluation system imposed on us would be in direct opposition to the Triborough Amendment to the Taylor Law, which states that a collectively bargained contract must stay in force until a new contract is signed. How can the governor just vacate that law? If he does, would that invalidate the rest of the Taylor Law as well, and allow teachers to strike without penalty?

If Cuomo can force this contract alteration on us, what would stop him from passing a law mandating a 50% cut in salary for all city workers if he wishes to? It's the same thing. Collective bargaining itself is threatened if the state decides that it can simply alter contracts it doesn't like.

I'd appreciate the opinion of any lawyer out there on these questions. I think the courts would enforce existing contracts and tell the Gov. to stick his power grab. So, how about it?

Monday, February 11, 2013

MORE Channels Ronald Reagan

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you probably can guess that I did not vote for Ronald Reagan for president. I'm not a fan of a union busting Republican like him. Yet, you have to admit he was a savvy politician. When he asked voters during his presidential debate in 1980 "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?" he struck a chord with voters. It helped turn the tide in his favor.

MORE shows its own political savvy by asking the same question of teachers as we approach the UFT elections. The blog post "Are you better off now than you were three years ago?", the MORE caucus examines Mulgrew's tenure and finds it wanting.

In almost every way, from the classroom to the paycheck to the community to the future, Unity has left teachers in a bind. From mayoral control, to a non-existent contract, to charters, to ATRs, to Teacher's Choice (phooey), to support of RttT, to the crappy evaluation deal, MORE lays out all the ways that Mulgrew and his crew have let us down.

Read it yourself and ask yourself honestly--ARE you better off now than you were three years ago, when Mulgrew took the helm of the UFT? I know I'm not. My paycheck has shrunk, my job security is about to go up in smoke, my class sizes have grown every year--it's a mess. If you agree, you should at least consider a change, before you literally have nothing left to lose!

Saturday, January 12, 2013

A Seat at the Table

Let's face it--the new evaluation deal is a done deal. The Unity leadership really can't oppose it, because they partnered with the DOE and the state in designing the thing in the first place. In their rush to support the Race to the Top application, the UFT took their usual "seat at the table". That's a phrase made popular among the UFT brass by erstwhile president Randi Weingarten, who often used that phrase to convince teachers that it was better to be involved in our own demise than to have it done to us. It's sort of like giving a condemned prisoner his choice of a last meal--it doesn't prevent the inevitable, but it makes it a tiny bit easier to swallow.

The only hope for teachers is if the DOE somehow blows up this deal and blames the UFT (which is a possibility) and the membership decides to throw the bums out and vote for the MORE caucus, which opposes any evaluation system based on standardized test scores. That's a slim hope, but it gets fatter if teachers like you discuss it within your schools.

If that doesn't happen, then the only way Unity should sign a deal is if it includes, at the very least, the 4+4% the city already owes us, a raise for the next year as well, and a contract that takes us all the way through the Bloomberg era.

Let me be clear--I would oppose such a deal. No amount of money is worth surrendering tenure, which is what the APPR effectively does. I would vote against any deal that includes standardized testing and the junk science VAM as a component. I say I would vote against it, but I can't, because the Unity stuffed delegate assembly decided, in their infinite wisdom, that teachers shouldn't be allowed to vote on an issue that fundamentally alters our contract and our working conditions.

In other words, the Unity brass always want to have a seat at the table, but they are going to deny you one. The only seat you're likely to get from Mulgrew is the electric chair, as Unity straps you down and pulls the lever on the new evaluation system. And make no mistake--this evaluation system will mean the death of thousands of careers in the first few years.

You won't even get a last meal.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Contract Buzz

Can you hear it? The low, droning sound that indicates a contract may be near?

I've heard it. I have no idea if it's true, but I remember there was a buzz last time the UFT was about to pull the trigger on a deal, and it turned out to be true. Many younger readers may not have even been around then, as the last time we actually signed a contract, it was 2007. But the buzz was there.

And it's back. I'm hearing it in my building today. I emailed a friend of mine in another building to find out if he heard it, and he had. The buzz is all over.

Of course, it may mean nothing, but I can tell you this. Both my friend and I got the old "wink wink nudge nudge" from our CLs. Is the UFT hinting to chapter leaders that they should prepare the membership for a deal?

Let's face it. Mulgrew wants a deal. The city wants the evaluation system. Sooner or later, they will have to come to terms. Why not now, while there is $250 million on the table? It might be too much for Bloomie to pass on, and he may not get it absent a contract.

I have no idea what the alleged terms are, other than it's not going to be the 4+4% other unions got for nothing. It may be spread out over time. It may not include retro money. Who knows?

The only thing for certain is that if there is a deal, it will include the awful VAM portion that will end up getting a lot of teachers fired. A raise won't do you much good on the unemployment line.

If the rumor is true, my vote will be pretty simple. I will vote no on any contract that doesn't give us a full 8% plus retro that we are entitled to, and I will vote no on any deal that includes VAM, no matter what the money terms are.

Of course, that won't matter, as any contract that offers any kind of pay increase will be voted in with 90% or more in favor.

You heard that buzz here first.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Why Does the UFT Sounds Like E4E?

This piece on the MORE caucus blog, entitled No Deal for Teachers or Students, makes it clear that the UFT is sounding more like an arm of E4E these days than it is an organization standing up for teachers' rights.

Mulgrew's people and E4E both want to put in place an evaluation system that uses value-added junk science as a major chunk of a teacher's score. This means that if you fail the junk science part two years running, you can be terminated in 60 days:

A teacher who fares poorly on the 40% of the evaluation that includes VAM test scores cannot be rated effective, regardless of how effective he or she is deemed to be by administrator evaluations.

This is utter nonsense. Our union should be trying to stop this, not looking for ways to implement it.

MORE in unequivocal on this issue. They oppose any evaluation system based on this crap. You should, too.

The only way to stop Mulgrew from selling off our rights is to make it clear that we will vote against him if he sells us out on this bogus system. Tell your CL and especially your colleagues that MORE is fighting for a better way.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Bloomberg Supports Gun Owners While Bashing Teachers

Bloomberg is one of the leading advocates for gun reform in this country. In fact, this is about the only thing on which I agree with the little emperor. We do need ways of keeping track of who owns an AK 47 and who's out there buying enough ammunition to wipe out a small town (or a school).

So you would think Mayor4Life would support the idea of publishing the names of gun owners in the papers. After all, this is public information that can be obtained legally elsewhere, so why would gun owners object? But when asked, he said, "My instincts would be no..."

Really? Suddenly this mayor is against publishing information in the papers? He certainly wasn't against it when it came to trying to publicly humiliate teachers by publishing flawed Teacher Data Report scores in the papers, even though his hand picked chancellor promised in writing that he would publicly fight against the release of the data, even if it meant going to court to support teacher privacy.

Of course, that didn't actually happen. What did happen was that the TDRs were FOILed, and the city actually pushed for the data to be released, even though they had promised not to allow it and even though they knew the data was horribly inaccurate.

And this mayor is so intent on making sure teacher data gets published in the papers that he is willing to walk away from the $250 million the city would get from a new evaluation agreement because he wouldn't be able to "hold teachers' feet to the fire".

So why not publish the names of registered gun users, Mr. Mayor? You certainly never promised the NRA that you'd never do so.

It can't be because the data would be inaccurate. I'm sure gun permit records are quite accurate in NY. Even if the data was wildly inaccurate, the mayor should object, since he supported the release of TDRs that varied more than 90% in a year.

Could it really be that Bloomberg hates teachers so much that he'd rather defend people building personal arsenals that could wipe out a school or a theater full of people in minutes?

I think it could.