Monday, December 22, 2014

Chapter 55: Education Reform and the Murder of NYC Cops

My Life as an NYC Teacher

Chapter 55: The Dangers of Political and Personal Agendas

When those in authority have an agenda, those in the trenches get hurt.

Mayor de Blasio has been rightly criticized for helping to create the anti-cop atmosphere that now grips New York City.  De Blasio has positioned himself as the savior of minority America not just for the city of New York but with far greater ambitions in mind.  He’s hoping to ride his interracial family to the D.C. top.  Thus he has sided with the protestors regarding the recent grand jury decisions and clings to con-master "Rev." Al Sharpton's coat tails.  It’s ironic but no less tragic that two minority cops are the first victims of this great leader of minorities.

His agenda is his personal ambition.  In pursuit of this agenda de Blasio has either blinded himself to the realities of the street or he is callously ignoring them.

Police officers understand the realities of the street.  They are fully aware of the fact that there are criminal minded people out there for whom murder is not merely a justifiable means to their criminal ends but in some cases an actual badge of dishonor.  This isn’t to mention the evil people who kill for enjoyment or those with real or self deluded political motives who will also kill (or throw trash cans on people’s heads) to get what they think the people deserve.  Disturbing as it is to acknowledge, there are those who are beyond rehabilitation.  This is the white elephant in the room at City Hall.

Part of the problem is that we live in what I call the post-Tarantino world.  Quentin Tarantino is justly celebrated for his artistic sensibilities.  His particular artistic sensibilities, however, have gone a long way toward desensitizing the American movie going public to the horrors of real life violence.  By turning graphic violence into comedy, Tarantino has helped create generations of people who are immune to the reality of violence.  To them it is all movie screen fun, like seeing the head of a real life dictator blown to bits.  Really funny stuff!  To be sure, Tarantino has had plenty of help from video game makers, the NRA, gangster rap, the marketing of professional sports violence and his own imitators.  I single out Tarantino because of his talent.  The more artistic the violent comedy, the more dehumanizing.

As a teacher I see an analogy between de Blasio and his agenda and the eduction reformers and their various agendas.  As with the cops on the street, when there is an agenda, the people in the trenches get hurt.

Teachers and high functioning students are the people in the trenches of education.  Teachers and students are the ones suffering as a result of the agendas of the reformers.  Education reformers have agendas ranging from Pearson’s quest to monopolize educational publishing profits TO Arne Duncan’s need to satisfy the lobbyists and political cronies who installed him in Washington TO the Danielson Group and like minded parasitic consulting outfits looking to skim big bucks off the top of the public education dole TO state governors’ lust for the federal money that has been dangled in front of them TO private interests longing to cash in on public money through investment in charter schools TO the Michael Bloomberg’s who want to change public education into a free market driven business model TO demagogues hoping to destroy the public education system altogether TO those whose primary goal is to destroy the last remaining labor unions with any clout TO petty bureaucrats trying to hang onto their bloated salaries TO rabble rousing pundits who have never set foot in a classroom but who know a divisive story when they smell it.

All of these agendas blind their proponents to the realities of education.  One of the realities of public education in New York and other large cities is that there are highly dysfunctional students who shouldn’t be graduating from high school for many and varied reasons.  To brazenly proclaim that there should be a 100% graduation rate and that everyone should be “college ready” is to ignore reality.

If you haven’t walked a beat for at least five years, you shouldn’t be talking about policing, let alone setting policy for police departments.  If you haven’t been in the classroom for at least five years, you should not be talking about education reform, let alone setting policy for it.  If you haven’t confronted the day to day problems of disruptive, dysfunctional students who care little for their own education and less for that of others in the room, you don’t understand the reality of teaching in New York City.

Dysfunctional students are another white elephant in de Blasio’s office at City Hall, in Carmen Farina’s office at 65 Court St., in John King’s office in Albany and Merryl Tisch’s office at the Board of Regents and at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.  It is politically incorrect to blame students for their own failure.  According to political correctness, since these students often come from impoverished or disadvantaged backgrounds, they are not to blame for their own academic failure in spite of the fact that so many from these same backgrounds succeed against all odds.  As I’ve said elsewhere in these pages, it’s these high functioning “disadvantaged” students who suffer the most from the reformers and their agendas that refuse to track them into groups of their peers.  Instead they are placed with the dysfunctional and sacrificed at the altar of differentiation, heterogeneous grouping, peer-to-peer accountable talk and the like - educational reform drivel, all of it.

It is suicide for a teacher to blame students for their own failures because that teacher opens him/herself up to the easy accusation that the teacher is blaming the student and not accepting the responsibility of his/her job.  Most teachers won’t broach the subject for this reason and for the fear of retribution from above.  But even the most idealistic teacher knows that there are those students that they just cannot and will not reach.  That doesn’t mean they stop trying.  But they understand the reality of the situation.

There is an atmosphere of anxiety and fear among teachers because they are being blamed for things that are beyond their control.  Yet to speak out about it is to risk losing your job.  The reformers and their agendas are in positions of authority.  But it is a sure road to insanity to be held responsible for something you cannot control.  Expect a rise in the number of teacher suicides, especially among young teachers who have accepted the propaganda that they are responsible for the failure of their students, as a result of teacher “evaluation” systems that rate teachers according to the performance of students, something that is beyond the teacher’s control.

The truth is that the vast majority of students who fail not only should shoulder the blame themselves but know full well that they themselves failed, not the school or the teacher.  On occasion I’ve run into students that I failed years before.  I ask how they’re doing.  They say they are going for a G.E.D. or are still lacking this or that credit.  Sometimes they say that they got their credits or did whatever it took to pass their Regents exams and are now doing well in college or beyond.  If I remind them that I failed them, they just smile and nod their heads.  They don’t blame me for failing them.  They blame themselves.

Only the school reformers blame teachers for the failure of students.

Now there is an uproar about the fact that 91% of NYC teachers were rated as either effective or highly effective for the 2013-14 school year when the graduation rate was only 64%.  See, for example, the New York Post article dated Dec. 17, 2014, “Students can't pass tests, but teachers are 'A' OK.”  Worse still, the percentage that is ready for college hovers around 25%.  But it is disingenuous to suggest that if only 64% of students are graduating, then only 64% of teachers are doing an effective job or that if only 25% of students are ready for college, then only 25% of teachers are doing an effective job.  This is a classic and deliberate distortion of statistics.

Teachers know full well that you can lead a horse to water but can’t make him drink.  For some students the best teaching and best planned lesson make no difference at all.  We’re faced with that in the trenches in the classroom every day just as cops are faced with the possibility of real life violence in the trenches with every encounter on the street.

Those with the agendas know that data can be mined for whatever conclusion they want to draw.  That’s why today everything in education is data driven even though it’s perfectly obvious  that education does not lend itself to data analysis in the way business models do or assembly line production does or even stop and frisk statistics do.

Cops and teachers deal with people.  The only real statistic, albeit, a nebulous one, is that a certain percentage of people are crazy.  They may be violently insane, in which case the cop cannot be blamed for the consequences of their behavior, or educationally dysfunctional, in which case the teacher cannot be blamed for their academic failure.  These are the same people for whom rehabilitation and restorative justice are nothing more than licenses to continue their criminal and delinquent ways.

What’s needed are agendas that take this reality into account.


If there is an impeachment process for the mayor of New York City, let’s hope someone without an agenda gets it started as soon as possible.

    NOTE: This blog contains an excerpt of the first draft of this book.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Chapter 83: Restorative Logic: If It Ain’t Broke … Break It

My Life as an NYC Teacher

Chapter 83: Restorative Logic: If It Ain’t BrokeBreak It

A License to Harass

    I was “U” rated in an observation of a coverage of an advisory period.  I’m not kidding!  See Chap. 82: ATR Advisory.
    Once a teacher is “U” rated in an observation, the supervisor is mandated to assist that teacher in improving his/her teaching.  The supervisor has to cut and paste an individualized “plan of assistance” to address the unsatisfactory issues noted in the observation.  How else are supervisors going to justify their inflated salaries?
    In my case, this meant that I needed help in two areas based on the Oct. 17, 2014 advisory coverage observation at Mott Hall Bronx.  I was observed and “U” rated teaching a lesson on imagery in a coverage of an advisory group, classes noted for their rigorous curricula - to the four students excluded from the class trip, which was where the teacher I was covering for had gone - no doubt gleefully.
    First, I was to implement a “formal” closure rather than the oral closure that I had utilized.  Although the oral assessment is a highly regarded and valuable teaching tool, my ATR field supervisor, Annelisse Falzone, felt that such a tool was not merely inadequate but inadequate to such a degree that it rendered an entire lesson unsatisfactory.  Even if the summation (of any kind) is inadequate, it is impossible for the final 1-2 minutes of a good lesson to render that lesson “unsatisfactory.”  But the oral closing is an excellent way to end a lesson (as well as to monitor progress throughout a class).  Ms. Falzone, however, needed a justification for an “unsatisfactory” rating so she grasped at a straw.
    The other thing I needed to do to improve my teaching was to pace the lesson better.  For my advisory coverage observation I found myself in front of four unknown students - the four who had not been allowed to go on the class trip.  (Actually, three - the fourth walked in fifteen minutes later.)  I didn't even know what grade level they were, let alone what their skill levels and attention spans were.  I knew nothing at all about these students but I had a lesson in hand (Lesson Plan) that was wide open in terms of differentiation.  The fact that these students were used to spending their advisory period chatting and gossiping, as they themselves told me at the outset and as a teacher confirmed, should have had no bearing on the pacing of the lesson.  I guess.
    Add to this the fact that I was expecting to teach a normal ELA class rather than the first period advisory.  The advisory class is eleven minutes shorter - 42 minutes - than the regular class length - 53 minutes - at Mott Hall Bronx.  My lesson plan had to be supple enough to allow for either contingency.  The fact that the lesson plan allowed for such deviation didn’t seem to have merit in the eyes of the beholder, i.e., the one grasping at straws.
    In short, in terms of pacing I had to guess right about a lot of unknowns.
    Nevertheless, I got through the mini-lesson and into the group work, as Ms. Falzone’s own observation report testifies.  The students learned the material.  They did the work, which can be seen linked to Chap. 82.  There was, in fact, no pacing problem at all.  But Ms. Falzone knew that simply saying that the lesson needed a “formal” rather than an oral summation wasn’t enough to justify an “unsatisfactory” rating.  She needed another straw.  So she grabbed for another straw.  But we all know what happened to that first little pig and his straw house.  Straw observations are just as easily blown down.
    Not mentioned in Ms. Falzone’s written report was another reason for my unsatisfactory performance.  I had not sent students to the board.  Yes, she floated this during our post-observation conference as a reason for failure.  I just laughed and she didn’t use it against me in her formal write up.  I guess that straw was so flimsy that it broke even before she could grasp it.
    Although I didn’t note it in my rebuttal to this observation (Chapter 82) because it is purely anecdotal, there is a small epilogue to the story of that advisory coverage observation.  Near the end of the day I was sitting in the Mott Hall atrium, an open area at the center of the school with a sun roof that is surrounded by classrooms.  There are half a dozen small tables in this area where students and teachers can work or conference.
    I was sitting alone in this area during the beginning of 5th period (12:16-1:07) when a math teacher came out of her room, slightly exasperated, with two students.  She asked if they could sit at the table with me to do some math work.  I was happy to take them off her hands, knowing full well how the disruptive behavior of two students can scuttle an entire lesson.  I wasn’t surprised to see that these two were two of the four that I had taught during my advisory coverage observation that morning.  One was student 4, the slacker.  I guess I was doing my part in the “restorative justice” system by monitoring them as they whiled away their math class in the comfort and pleasant environment of the atrium.  Punishment for getting kicked out of class?  This was Mott Hall.
    They had math work in front of them but paid it no mind.  There was far more important gossip at hand, which they shared with every student who came by with a bathroom pass, a virtual stream in that haven of restorative justice.  I urged them several times to do the work but work was the furthest thing from their minds.  In fact, when the math teacher came out near the end of the period to see how they had done, one of them simply told her that she had already failed that course and so she couldn’t be expected to do work that she didn’t understand.  Of course, she had made no effort at all to try to understand it but there was a certain logic to her argument.  Maybe that was restorative logic.
    The reason I mention this at all is not merely to give evidence about why those students had not been allowed to go on the class trip.  I mention it because during this atrium session, while they were restoratively and judicially not doing their math work, I asked them what they remembered about the class I had taught.  I asked if they could recall the 5 academic words for sensory imagery.  They each recalled four of the words, including “gustatory” and “olfactory,” the less familiar words, but omitting “auditory” until I asked them what an “auditorium” was.  But, of course, this was merely an oral assessment and not a formal “closing” and thus would have no meaning in the DOE worldview of my field supervisor.
    My initial “plan of assistance” was delivered on Nov. 12, 2014.  It outlined my urgent need to improve pacing and closure based on the advisory coverage observation.  I was directed to submit lesson plans in advance.  It was made clear that I would have to spend time meeting with the person who was helping me and that I had to follow whatever directives were mandated by this mandated process.  Of course, it was unlikely that I would ever again teach a lesson on sensory imagery while covering for an advisory group teacher on a field trip.  Nevertheless, my plan of assistance is meant, I guess, to prepare me for such a contingency.
    But when the premise is faulty, all that follows is nonsense.  Mandated nonsense is harassment.  The “plan of assistance” is nothing more than a license to harass.  Since I disagreed with both the very idea of doing advisory coverage evaluations and with the rating itself, I refused to submit lesson plans.  I instituted my own “plan of resistance.”
    I was reminded of a comment from a 10th grade student at another high school.  Thirteen years ago I was having trouble teaching an ELA class but it had nothing to do with pacing or closure.  It had to do with the complete lack of interest on the part of the students either in learning the ELA material at hand or in passing the class.  I frequently lectured that they were the ones who needed the grade and the credit, not me.  I had already passed high school.
    Finally one student said to me, “Mr. Haverstock, you keep saying that but this class isn’t for us.  It’s for you.”
    This confounded me.  I believed that the teacher was serving the students by facilitating their education.  But that wasn’t how many of them saw it.  From their point of view, the education that I and the school were providing was of no benefit to them at all.  They saw no connection between learning about literature and getting along in the world after school.  It was the old, “How is math going to help me?” taken to the Nth degree.  How was any of this going to help them in any real way?
    But it was clearly helping me.  I was coming to work every day and collecting a paycheck every two weeks.  That was worth more than all the figurative language you can think of.  If I could have drawn a straight line from “The Monkey’s Paw” to a bi-weekly paycheck, they all would have paid attention.  The school system existed to benefit those who were making a living from it, not those it was pretending to educate.  The students were merely the justification for a system whose real, tangible benefits went not to the students but to those perpetuating it.  When I finally understood this point, it was a revelation.
    In this sense the “career and college readiness” slogan is a fraud and the students know it.  Many of them know they’re not going to college.  Many have no desire to go to college.  Others have no desire to take the risk of going to college.  Why spend years and thousands of dollars to get an education that may or may not raise your standard of living?  A school system that insists on perpetuating this lie is only pretending to be in the best interest of the students when, in fact, it is acting in its own best interest and perpetuating itself.
    Worst of all, the top third who are going to college and who are going on to bigger and better things - they know that they are not getting the preparation they need because these new reform schools place them in classrooms where 40%  of their “peers” are not going to college.  They’re not even going to graduate.  The top third is sacrificed again in the name of education reform.
    “Plan of assistance?”  Plan of resistance.
    I have refused to submit lesson plans according to my plan of assistance just as those students refused to do the work I assigned.  It’s not for me.  It’s for them.  I taught an excellent lesson under difficult circumstances and yet was rated unsatisfactory by a supervisor in need of a reason for being.  Part of the reason that I’m chronicling this episode is in the hope that other ATRs won't be put in the same situation - improperly and unethical evaluated.  (Of course, mostly, like most bloggers and novelists, I'm just a compulsive writer.)
    Field supervisors have a job to do and they are going to do it.  There are real benefits to them and if there isn’t enough work, then all that’s needed is a few more “U” ratings and you’ve got all the work you want.  And if you can create your work by “U” rating an ATR, there is the added benefit of possibly running a few of us out of the system altogether and earning your pay by saving some DOE money.  ATRs beware.
    Here’s another piece of restorative logic.  These supervisors claim that their goal is to help the teacher - but the teacher they are helping only needs help because they have decided that the teacher needs help.  It’s a scam not far removed from the scam run by Charlie Chaplin in his famous movie “The Kid” wherein the kid breaks the window so that the Tramp can happen along at the right moment and fix it.  Observe a teacher in an advisory coverage, declare him/her unsatisfactory and then earn your bi-weekly paycheck by fixing what you’ve declared to be broken.
    As restorative logic dictates - if it ain’t broke … break it.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Chap. 63: Taking Education Out of the Classroom

My Life as an NYC Teacher

Chapter 63: Pair Share Snare

One of the latest trends in the new teacher evaluation system is to emphasize student-to-student interaction.  I have been advised by principals and supervisors to take myself out of the learning process in the classroom as much as possible, to make the class student-centered, to forget about the old-fashioned idea that the teacher is in the room so that students can learn from the teacher.

How quaint that idea seems nowadays - that the teacher teaches.  How quaint and yet here we are in a new era of the one-room schoolhouse with students of all levels sitting together and the expectation that the teacher can differentiate a lesson enough to cover them all - although the standardized tests differentiate NOT AT ALL.

When the Danielson evaluator enters a classroom now, the person expects to see two things: 1) high level, "rigorous" DOK questioning from the teacher; 2) the teacher stepping out of the picture while students engage in accountable talk among themselves.

As for the first, "rigorous" is as relative as it is subjective.  What is rigorous for one is too simplistic for some and completely opaque for others.  Which group is being evaluated in a classroom where differentiation is taking place?  Only the classroom teacher who is working with those students day in and day out knows this.  An evaluator cannot make that judgement based on a single observation, much less on a 15 minute learning walk.  (The only thing that can be learned in a "learning walk" is that nothing can be learned in a learning walk.)

As for the second, I'll discuss the absurdity before pointing out the insidiousness of it.  There is one educated person in a room with 20 or 30 students hoping to educate themselves.  The teacher knows what the student needs to know.  The teacher knows how to impart what the students need to learn.  The teacher knows how to stay on task in spite of myriad distractions.

But current wisdom has this one educated person taking him/herself out of the equation.  Current educational reform demands that the teacher stand down, so to speak, in the midst of battle while students talk to each other, something that once might have been called the blind leading the blind.  In most cases the students have only 45 minutes with the expert and yet current wisdom wants to reduce those 45 minutes as much as possible. They are demanding that the educator take education out of the classroom.  What educator can honestly do that?

Current wisdom justifies this absurd state of affairs by claiming that students today simply cannot learn by traditional methods.  They must be engaged and the way to engage them is to get them talking about the subject whether or not they know anything about it.  How much, after all, can be gleaned from a 10 or 15 minute mini-lesson even by the best and brightest?  Yet better that students engage in their own conversation than that the instructor insert his/her wisdom, learning, knowledge, experience, expertise.  Full group discussion with the teacher?  Sure fire ineffective.

But there is, after all, a rationale for this absurd approach, an insidious one and insidious in two ways.  First is that the hope for these student conversations is that the top third will elevate the bottom third.  Like everything else in current education reform, the new evaluation system is aimed directly at the bottom third.  In order to increase graduation rates, the bottom third must be brought up.  In order to show "progress" in the data, the bottom third must be brought up.  In other words, in order for education reform to appear to be successful, the bottom third must show progress.

But this happens only at the expense of the top third.  The top third are those high functioning students who desperately need and want to learn from their teacher, not from their peers.  They have little to gain academically from their peers.  These are the best and the brightest and these are the very children who are being sacrificed in the name of educational reform.  They're being used by the educational reformers.  Administrators who insist that their teachers remove themselves from their classroom activities are doing a great disservice to those very students who can and should be college ready.  Teachers who go along with it in order to keep their jobs are doing the same.

Second, this is insidious because it pretends that the teacher is not the vital cog in the classroom that he/she has always been.  If the students can learn with a minimum of interference from the educator, what is the point of having an educator in the room at all?  Education reform now denigrates and devalues the teacher and, of course, the reason for that is obvious.  They want to reduce the teaching profession to low level, minimum wage work.  They want to "disappear" the influence and inspiration of the teacher like a dictator who drops his enemies from helicopters into the ocean.  Teachers who go along with this pair share snare are helping put the stake through their own hearts.

And so what we now have as a result of billions of dollars spent on education reform is an educational system in which administrators are just petty bureaucrats doing their jobs and earning their inflated salaries.  Teachers write lengthy lesson plans to ensure that they do very little teaching, but spend valuable class time making sure kids are talking about whatever they know and mediating classroom disputes through "restorative justice."  Meanwhile among those wanting to be educated the blind go on leading the blind and those who can see have nothing to look at.