Thursday, February 12, 2015

Chap. 68: Long Term Absolution (LTA)

My Life As an NYC Teacher

A Tribute to the LTA - Long Term Absolution

Chapter 68: Addition by Subtraction

     Riddle: When is a negative of greater value than a positive?

    I remember the first time I met a particular principal.  It was my first day assigned to his school.  I was resigned to teaching there.
    I thought he might want to know something about my qualifications or experience as a teacher.  More important to him, however, was the one question he asked me.
    “Do you make phone calls?”
    Not wanting to create an adversarial relationship on the first day, I gave him the answer he was clearly looking for.  “Of course.  No problem.”
    “Okay.”  He went back to his work.
    With that I became a member of his faculty.
    The phone call that the NYC teacher is expected to make has one of two purposes.  Either it is to implore the parent to help curtail the student’s outrageous behavior in the classroom or it is to implore the parent to make the student attend school.  The answer to the riddle above is found where these two purposes intersect.
    One of the main components of an NYC school’s quality review is its attendance.  The higher the attendance, the better.  The lower the attendance, the worse.  Therefore it is in the interest of the school to increase attendance.
    I’ll point out a few of the flaws in this reasoning.  First, a school is an educational institution staffed by people trained in imparting knowledge in various subject areas.  It is not a gestapo with the resourses and training to penetrate the various “ghettos” and goose-step people to where they are expected to be.
    Second, the percentage of working telephone numbers supplied by students to schools is roughly equivalent to the graduation rate - 50%, the recent uptick to 62% notwithstanding, given that such a number is the result not of increased learning but of increased paranoia on the part of school administrators needing to show “progress.”  How does a teacher call home if there is no working phone number?  Maybe you have to see it to believe it, but I’ve worked in schools where the likelihood of a phone number leading to a parent or guardian is about 25%.
    Third, calling home isn’t necessarily the answer.  I knew a teacher who attempted to call students’ homes on a daily basis.  No one made more of an effort to contact parents.  More than half of the time the number had been discontinued.  More than half of the rest of the time, no one responded.  On one occasion, however, he got through to a "parent" and the conversation went something like this:
    “Hello, I am the teacher of so-and-so.”
    “I’m calling to tell you that so-and-so hasn’t been doing his work and ….”
    “Listen, teacher.  If you bother me again, I’ll come down to that school and I’ll be looking for you.  Got that?”
    Needless to say, that teacher never made that phone call again.
    You don’t have to be in the DOE long to witness child abuse at parent-teacher meetings.  I’ve seen parents slap cowering students across the face in front of multiple DOE employees and I’ve seen that such “discipline” is more likely to create more disruptive behavior and academic failure than to improve it.
    But aside from the many flaws in the teacher - student - parent relationship, the greater flaw is in the very idea that a school ought to be evaluated on its ability to increase attendance.  In the majority of cases, the school is better off without the LTA - long term absent - student.  The school shouldn’t be attempting to increase attendance.  The school should be attempting to lower attendance to include only the students and families who are actively seeking an education.
    The addition of a student on the attendance roster who has no interest in education is a subtraction for the education of those students who are there to learn.
    At the end of any school day, any teacher will tell you that they were very happy that so-and-so didn’t show up for school that day because it meant that they were able to cover more material for the functioning students than they otherwise would have covered.  Teachers won’t admit this publicly because the school reformers insist that they are reforming education and reaching those students who were previously being left behind by "failing" schools although it isn't the school that is failing but the student who is supposed to be taking advantage of a free public education who is failing.  Like objecting to the idea that a person should be evaluated on the performance of another person - see Chap. 66 -  teachers are threatened with toeing the line on attendance.  Get those disruptive students into your classroom or else!  Destroy the possibility that your highly functional students will learn as much as possible OR ELSE!
    The truth is that it is in the interest of all to decrease attendance rather than to pretend to increase it and to pretend that students who aren’t learning are.  In spite of what I said to that principal, I have often refused to make phone calls to try to lure students into my class who would do nothing but make teaching and learning impossible.  I admit that I have frequently been happy - joyful isn't too strong a term - when certain students didn’t show up for school because that meant that more learning could take place in my classroom.
    Any teacher will also tell you that it only takes 2 or 3 highly dysfunctional students to render a highly effective lesson “ineffective” in terms of how much learning took place.  But they will only tell you this off the record.  On the record, they are doing everything they can do to get those highly dysfunctional students to start attending school, to suddenly acquire those study habits that have been missing for the past 10 years, to miraculously become a person who can sit in a traditional classroom, listen to the lecture and discussion going on around him/her, think about these in terms of their own experience as well as the texts they've devoured at home, and be transformed into something they are not.  That’s the lie / line that teachers have to spout / toe.  It's a thin but potentially fatal lie / line.
    Many teachers are, in fact, shooting themselves in the foot by making genuine attempts to get those dysfunctional students into their classrooms.  These are the ones who are in denial about the likelihood of changing the behavior of a 16 or 18 or 20-year-old whose environment weighs far more in his character development than a few strange looking people standing in the front of classrooms or anything those strange looking people might have to say - even if they could hear it over the blare of the larger cultural and familial environments.  These are the idealistic “Freedom Writer” teachers who hold pseudo-religious beliefs about the absolution of everyone or who fervently believe that they’ve been put on this earth to turn around the lives of the disadvantaged or who just like people so much that they can’t give up no matter how many times they are disappointed.  I can’t help admiring them while at the same time wondering what it is that makes them try to change the world from a tiny teacher pulpit.
    Many teachers realize that such a mission is futile and opt to try to focus on the kids who truly are redeemable, the highly functioning students who deserve the best that a teacher can offer but who frequently have to sit through the frequent and continual admonishment to the class about how to behave or the threats to call home or to put in failing grades for disruptive participation or the calls to the dean to remove the truly incorrigible.  Do they really want to invite that student back to their classroom?  How many chances does someone deserve?
    If education is the purpose of the school, then subtraction becomes addition.  It’s better to remove the dysfunctional than to add them.  It’s better not to make that phone call, even given the slight chance that it will go through, than to waste time that could have been spent preparing a better lesson for those who will appreciate it.
    If in these my last months in the DOE I were to meet that same principal, the interview would go something like this.
    “Do you make phone calls?”
    “Why would I try to get into class someone who is going to disrupt it and diminish the learning that might take place?

     “So you don’t make phone calls?”
    “The students who deserve the education I can give them are the students whose homes don’t need to be called.  They are in class and waiting to learn.”
    To the school reformer “LTA” means long term absence -  a student who is bringing down the “data” in the Quality Review.  It’s the school's responsibility and the teacher’s responsibility to get those phantom kids into the building.
    To the teacher, whether they admit it or not, “LTA” means long term absolution from kids who will do nothing but cause them grief, take up their time in disciplinary proceedings and disrupt the learning of the “TCB’s” - my term - the truly college bound.  That is truly taking care of business.

Answer to Riddle:    When the subtraction of a positive is different from the addition of a negative.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Chap. 67: Cuomo, Part 3: The Weiner Defense

My Life As an NYC Teacher

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Part 3: Why Politicians Should Be Excessed from Education

Chapter 67: Education Reform Lies:  The Weiner Defense

Riddle: What do you do when you run out of mustard?

    As reported on page 2 of the Feb. 10, 2015 New York Post, N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s latest attempt to shield himself from the same sort of scrutiny that recently brought down powerful Albany colleague Sheldon Silver is to resort to the Weiner defense.

 If Anthony Weiner shows his private parts, do you blame Obama …  What would you have me do?

    According to the Post’s Carl Campanilo, the governor was making an analogy to the Silver criminal case.  Cuomo made this reference to Weiner

… in a New Yorker profile, speaking of former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who faces charges of taking millions in kickbacks.

    First the education analogy.  Then the politics.
    Governor Cuomo has called for public school teacher evaluations to be based 50% on the performance of students.  But students, like prominent politicians and newscasters, have a tendency to act in their own worst interest.  I and every teacher I know have spent countless hours pointing out the obvious to students - that it is in their interest to study, to learn, to get good grades and to graduate from high school with the option of going to college.  Frequently we discover that student behavior is based less on logic than on impulse.
    Anthony Weiner’s blowing his own horn, so to speak, was nothing if not impulsive.  Brian Williams’ need to become the news he was reporting was something but it wasn’t logical, ethical or in his own best interest.  These are two of the most recent and best known self destructively impulsive acts.  History is littered with them.  If history teaches us anything it's that we don't learn from it.
    Students fail.  It’s not in their own best interest but they fail and they fail in large numbers in places like the Bronx.  No one knows this better than the high functioning Bronx students who spend their entire academic public school careers being interrupted by impulsive behavior.  Unless it’s counselors who are trying to get these kids the credits they need to graduate … or the principals who are trying to keep their schools off the SURR (and related lists) … or the parent coordinators who are trying to get the parents of these kids to come in for conferences … or the teachers whose very careers now depend on the impulsive behavior of dysfunctional students.
    Yet Governor Cuomo wants the performance of teachers to be based at least 50% on the performance of these students, many of whom acquire the designation “LTA” - long term absence.  You can’t even lead the horse to the water if the horse is at home asleep … or worse, out roaming the wild range.
    Yet this same Governor Cuomo, who thinks he should not be held responsible for the behavior of his legislators, thinks that teachers should be held at least 50% responsible for the irresponsible behavior of their students.  Gov. Cuomo thinks that Obama shouldn’t be held accountable for the impulsive behavior of Anthony Weiner and prays that no one holds him accountable for the behavior of Sheldon Silver.
    This, of course, is the Weiner defense.  Why should the governor or the president be held responsible for Weiner’s wiener?
    I propose that a new governor evaluation system be put in place wherein the governor is held 50% responsible for the impulsive behavior of all of the politicians in his state.  That would make Gov. Cuomo 50% responsible for the photos of Weiner’s wiener sent out by the impulsive politician under Cuomo’s watch.
    Weiner may only have one wiener, but given that he has two balls, this makes the calculation of the DATA used to evaluate the governor fairly straight forward.  Gov. Cuomo ought to be deemed “ineffective” for at least one of Weiner’s balls - whether the right or the left will be left to further unpacking of the data.
    Fair is fair, Governor Cuomo.  If you can rate teachers “ineffective” on the performance of their most dysfunctional students, then politicians ought to be rated just as “ineffective” based on the performance of their most dysfunctional elected officials.  You see the logic.  It's not much different from the logic you used in declaring that if only 38% of students are "ready," then only 38% of teachers should be rated "effective."  [See my new TWERC teacher evaluation proposal.]
    But enough about the governor's ideas on education.  What about politics?  Maybe Gov. Cuomo’s Weiner defense has another purpose.  Could it be that he would like to redirect the attention of the media and the public from his relationship with his other highly dysfunctional student, the one who rose to the head of the Albany pay-to-play class?  Could it be that Gov. Cuomo really just wants us thinking about the flow of knowledge rather than about the flow of money in state politics?  Particularly the money that comes delivered in paper bags and nondescript envelopes?

Answer to Riddle:    Ask the Wiener Himself


Friday, February 6, 2015

Chap. 66: You Make Your School Reform ... You Lie in It.

Chapter 66: Teaching Shelly Silver

The Latest Lie in Education Reform

You make your school reform … you lie in it.

    Riddle:    Does a sleeping dog lie?

    A lie transmitted through the moneyed corridors of power is truer than the truth.
    And let's not forget that if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, that tree is still on the ground.
    The dogs at the DOE do, indeed, lie and they keep out of the sun as much as possible although at times the sun shines so brightly that even they, as the Luv Guv discovered, can't hide.  Go no further than the nearest public school building where it may not be pronounced outside of union meetings, but pronounced the lies are.  Teachers can feel it in their bones.
    But “lie” is a strong word.  I don’t know if it’s libelous to call someone a liar without backing it up with empirical, logical and anecdotal support, as the common corps(e) calls for.  But when you’re told that black is white and threatened with loss of job if you point out that black is not white, then are you a sleeping dog?  (Note that lap dogs go to Albany or into retirement along with Dennis Walcott and Cathie Black.  Panting still?)
    Governor Cuomo has called for a new teacher evaluation system on which 50% of the evalution is student performance on standardized tests.  This is only step two.  Step one, of course, was passing legislation in early 2014 creating an “evaluation” system for teachers, 20% of which was based on student performance.  There is nothing in Albany but lap dogs and they were lapping it up at teachers’ expense.
    So let’s lay out the ultimate plan:

Step One:    20%
Step Two:    50%
Step Three:    100%

They may find it politically expedient to insert an interim step between two and three at 75%, depending on how long it takes NYC Mayor De Blasio to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps and appoint Rachel Noerdlinger Chancellor of the New York City public school system.  Platform heels, after all, lead to the next step - except, perhaps, in the case of Sanford Rubenstein's accusor.
    In the news is another analogy - the expanding lies of NBC news anchor Brian Williams.  What started out as a little white lie - we were all shot at  - became an orangish lie - the helicopter in advance of us was hit - and then a violet lie - we were all on the same mission - to finally the scarlet letter lie - the helicopter I was in was hit by enemy fire.  Maybe Brian Williams' descent into self enfatuated fantasy qualities him as a new reform schooler - a job he may soon need.

    Teacher evaluations should be based 20% on someone else’s performance.
    Teacher evaluations should be based 50% on someone else’s performance.
    Teacher evaluations should be based 75% on someone else’s performance.
    Teacher evaluations should be based 100% on someone else’s performance.
    Teachers' livelihoods and sense of well being should depend 100% on the performance of their most dysfunctional students.

    I’m reminded of the great Alfred E. Neuman, who pointed out that math scores will improve when students finally give 110% effort.

    The latest lie of the education reform schoolers is that you can base one person’s performance on the performance of someone else.  It’s absurd on the face of it.  Yet we know that the bigger the lie and the more often you tell it, the truer it becomes.  When you have everyone from the president of the U.S. to his hand-picked lackey Arnie Duncan to the slate of slimy state governors wallowing in race to the top money to every lower level school superintendent and administrator whose job depends on perpetuating the big lie, it takes on a reality of its own.  It becomes a fatal fallacy.
    You cannot judge one person on the performance of another.  It’s that simple.  Yet the big lie insists that you can and rather than simply reject the lie on the face of it, the lie is accepted.  A lie transmitted through the moneyed corridors of power is truer than the truth.
    Even many teachers have accepted this latest lie unquestioningly.  Thanks to Michael Bloomberg, there is now a coterie of corrupt school administrators, who believe that shoving this lie down the throats of their faculty is their mission in educational life.  Many of them were spawned by the despicable Leadership Academy, a lie in itself as are most of the new school names and reform acronyms, that was created for this very reason: to perpetuate this particular lie and to strike fear in the hearts of newly hired teachers.  Spout the lie or be rated “unsatisfactory” or “ineffective” or, even worse, “dubious.”  There was such a category, believe it or not.  This person’s ability to spout the big lies is “doubtful.”  Termination almost recommended. No wonder they got rid of that one.
    A lie transmitted through the moneyed corridors of power is truer than the truth.
    What teachers need to remember is this: teachers teach and learners learn.
    I can remember  a time (1960’s) in Massillon, Ohio, which is just up I 77 from West Virginia - no offense to West Virginians because I feel the kinship - when teachers felt it was very important to teach the difference between “teach” and “learn.”  But it wasn’t that teaching was being confused with learning.  It was that learning might be confused with teaching as in, “I’ll learn ‘em somethin’.”  We learned that that was incorrect.  The correct expression was, “I’ll teach ‘em somethin’.”  I learned the difference between teach and learn, obvious as it was, but it turns out to be a very important distinction now that it is been subverted in the (under) hands of the new school reformers.  Some of the advances in 1960s education are being eroded by the new reform schoolers.  Maybe - God forbid! - some of them are from West Virginia and Ohio.
    Teaching and learning are not the same thing.  Teachers teach.  Learners learn.  If a teacher teaches an effective lesson but no one learns anything, the teacher is nevertheless effective.  The lesson is no less effective even if not a single learner learns.  It’s the learners who are “ineffective,” not the teacher or the lesson.  Conversely, if a learner learns effectively but the teachers are ineffective, the learner is nevertheless judged “effective” in spite of the teaching, which is a separate issue.  That learner should be congratulated.
    Teachers teach and learners learn.  Trees fall whether anyone other than the nite owl hears it or not.
    Now let’s apply this obvious distinction to the new teacher evaluation proposals.
    Teachers teach.  The evaluation of teachers ought to be based on nothing more than their performance as teachers.  Surprising as it might seem in this age of reform schoolers, that was precisely how it was done for more than a century, so obvious was it that a person should be evaluated on his/her performance and on nothing else.  It was as obvious as the apple in apple pie that a teacher, like anyone else, ought to be evaluated on his/her performance of the job.  If the teacher teaches good lessons, the teacher ought to be rated “good.”  If the teacher teaches bad lessons, the teacher ought to be rated “bad.”  Notice that nowhere in this does the learner play a role.
    The learner ought to be evaluated in the same way.  If the learner learns well, the learner gets an "A."  If the learner learns poorly, the learner gets an "F."  Notice that nowhere in this does the teacher play a role.   Teachers come and teachers go but the learner is nevertheless responsible for his/her own learning.  For more than a century this obvious truth - as opposed to the big reform lie - worked.  If a teacher performed well, that teacher was rated effective or ineffective based on the evaluation of a supervisor who was in a position to observe first hand that teacher’s performance.  It had nothing to do with whether or not the learners were doing their job well.
    As for those learners, they, too, were rated successful or unsuccessful based on their own performance whether or not their teachers were rated effective or ineffective.  Learners should be evaluated on their own performance as a learner, not on the performance of their teachers.
    Teachers teach.  Learners learn.  The latest reform school lie is that teachers are responsible for BOTH the teaching AND the learning while the learner has no responsibility at all.
    Don’t let them get away with it.
    Everyone ought to be evaluated on their own performance - not on the performance of someone else.  What could be more obvious.  So let’s apply this latest reform lie to Albany and Governor Cuomo’s administration.  If a teacher should be evaluated at least 50% on the performance of his/her students, then a governor ought to be evaluated at least 50% on the performance of his/her legislators.  After all, if teaching is learning, then governing is legislating.
    Move to the head of the class Shelly Silver!  But it wasn’t an apple that this student gave to the teacher.  It was millions of dollars of bribes and kickbacks (allegedly at this point in the legal process) that took Shelly to the head of his class.  Where was Mr. Cuomo during all of this?  Was he polishing that million dollar apple that Shelly gave him?
    By his own criteria. Gov. Cuomo rates at least 50% INEFFECTIVE.  Based not on his own performance but on the performance of those under his command, Gov. Cuomo doesn’t make it through  his probationary first year in office.  He doesn’t even rate a “doubtful.”
    Gov. Cuomo campaigned on the promise of cleaning up corruption in Albany.  Yet when he got close to the real corruption, he shut down the Moreland Commission.  In educational terms that is akin to a principal noticing that attendance has dropped below Quality Review levels and suddenly discovering that all of those LTA's aren't really on the roster after all.  In reform educational terms that is akin to a principal noticing that the graduation rate is likely to dip precariously below 60% and suddenly finding that some of those 19-year-olds with only 14 credits are better off in a GED program.  It's akin to a principal promoting the best of the juniors to graduate with the seniors in the great graduation Ponzi discussed in an earlier chapter. It's akin to telling Regents test takers to leave blank the questions they don't know so that "graders" can fill them in later, as happened (allegedly) at one Bronx school where the principal found herself ousted but only to land in an even sweeter consultancy position - ehtical consultant, no less but we won't name (Lynn Passarella) names.
    By now most of us are too cynical to believe a politician’s promises when running for office.  But a lie transmitted through the moneyed corridors of power is truer than the truth.  The governor is counting on this.
        Maybe Preet Bharara should be the next NYC schools chancellor rather than Rachel Noerdlinger.  Or maybe Tawana Brawley is looking for a job.  At least,“Brawley” is how most NYC teachers feel at the end of the day.

Answer to riddle:    All dogs lie (in the shade).