Tom Friedman—Policy by Anecdote

These days, I carry a handy little application on my Iphone and Ipad. It lists each Common Core Learning Standard by grade and its correspondence to college and career readiness. I carry it because we are mandated to put these little CCLS numbers on our lessons plans, rubrics, and even bulletin boards in an attempt to placate the DOE’s Common Core police. However, I also have an ulterior motive for carrying this application. I like to use it against those who are now wedded to the CCLS as a new type of educational religion. Now, we have several new gospels. They are the gospels according to Saints Coleman and Saint Duncan.

I have just written to the New York Times and to Mr. Tom Friedman in particular because he has violated CCLS RI.9-10.8. This standard states that ninth and tenth grade students must “delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient. Students must “identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.” Oh, Mr. Friedman, how can you engage in such shoddy reasoning in your op ed piece. One must follow the Common Core. Evidence must not be based upon anecdote but on expert opinion. In addition, one must evaluate the expert opinion to make sure that the evidence is “valid.” A common core student review book I recently perused stated that valid evidence is evidence provided by “expert scientific opinion.” Only research that uses scientific methodology as taught by the hard as well as social sciences could validate a general hypothesis.

Based upon a little anecdote about a high school student who feels it is more important to answer his Facebook messages than do homework, we now paint every single American student with the same brush stroke. In addition, this little tidbit proves that the basketball player in charge of the DOE is correct in his opinion about the laziness of American students—especially middle class suburban kids. Mr. Friedman, for this one anecdote, I can offer another one in contradiction. I know this kid, who despite having ADHD and other medical issues, studied five hours a night all through high school and graduated with a 4.0 GPA as well as got an ACT score in the 99 percentile. This resulted in a complete scholarship to a top state university campus where he graduated Summa Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa. By the way, he also has about 800 Facebook friends. I can vouch for the veracity of this story because I am talking about my own son. I know of another young man that was diagnosed with a significant learning disability as a boy, who also worked hard despite having parents that had to work two to three jobs to make ends meet here in New York City. He studied hours a day on his own and made it into a four year college. And this student is a friend of my son.

Do my stories prove me right and Mr. Friedman wrong? No, these stories prove nothing. They are nothing but anecdotes that are nothing more than firsthand accounts that have no scientific or research validity. They are no better than those TFA stories about the superman teacher who worked day and night to get their kids from a quartile ranking one to four in a single year. Instead, one must look at valid and reliable data. Not the fake biased data of those fly-by-night nonprofits financed by our billionaire friends, but real research that can stand up to peer review at the university level. One can only accept research that is critiqued, analyzed as well as ripped apart at the seams to make sure that it measures what it is supposed to measure.

What the mainstream media is now giving us is propaganda and not journalism. Journalism is hard because one must look and analyze different points of view. One must determine if a particular point of view use either facts or research as its evidence. For example, Ravitch and others cite valid and reliable research that drill down into PISA scores to show there is no significant achievement gap between American and foreign students when you compare apples with apples. Suburban-middle class American students perform as well as or better than many foreign students on these challenging international assessments. The media does not report the fact that in America we do something that many foreign countries do not do. We include everyone in our score obviously depressing the total aggregate. Often, other countries exclude certain populations in order to skew their scores. Furthermore, many countries in this world still do not even attempt to educate certain students. There are nations in this world that exclude those who are disabled or those who cannot pass certain tests to acquire a secondary or post-secondary education. There are countries that divide students along academic and vocation tracks based upon a single assessment. I for one do not wish to emulate such countries. I have no interest in emulating a country in which one assessment determines the course of the rest of your life, such as Korea and some European countries. I also do not wish to emulate the educational system of a Communist totalitarian state (China) that rigidly teaches students to obey and not think.

Mr. Friedman should instead realize that this middle class student on Facebook may have been turned off by our educational system because of NCLB and RTTT, which has been national policy for over a decade. Psychological research shows that when students are frustrated, they give up. If one is given tasks that are too hard, one tries to escape. Special education has always taught that you start a child form where they are. Standard reading practice for the last century has always been that you work with a child at their instructional reading level. Students do not learn when you give them material at their frustration level. Most students will not rise to the task when the work is beyond their ability. When I was in high school, I hated Spanish. I avoided studying it like the plague because I had a lot of difficulty memorizing words. Only when a teacher showed me a bunch of mnemonic strategies did I become a more willing student. Imagine what would have happened if instead of giving me strategies, I was given more random words to memorize. If that would have happened, I may not have had a thirty-six year career as a teacher because a foreign language requirement at that time would have barred me from entering college to even become a teacher .

This has always been a nation built upon the ideal of giving people second chances. We gave millions of immigrants the second chance to start a new life during the 19th and 20th centuries. We have always tried to give students who failed second chances. Yes, I did fail one semester of Spanish in high school, but I recouped with some extra help from my teacher, a good friend (who was great with languages) and my parents. Good teachers always allow students to make up missed worked or give students a second chance to pass a test. We have high school equivalency diplomas that enable those who flunked out of high school to benefit from some type of post-secondary education.

However, what is happening now in this country is the attempt to create a privatized educational system that is stratified, segregated and intentionally violate worker rights. Now here I am making a general statement that needs evidence to back it up. By looking at the education budgets of many states and cities, public school funding is being cut in favor of unregulated charter or voucher-based schools that have no oversight and choose their students (Louisiana, Florida, North Carolina). Experienced and tenured teachers are fired or forcefully excessed in favor of TFA five week wonders (Florida, Louisiana, Illinois). Rich curriculums, music, art, and extra-curricular activities are all being cut in favor of charters for the sake of creating VAM testing using the Common Core. And yes, there is a good amount of child development research that shows that the Common Core violates how most children learn.

When only 30% of total students , 7% of disabled and 5% of ELL students in New York State can pass a Common Core assessment, there is no doubt that the vast majority of our students will feel demoralized. Children are not lazy when they are tested on items that have never been taught or are significantly above their ability level. One does not build an educational system upon a curriculum and assessments that only above average students can hope to pass, so that our public school system can be dismantled. Do not kid yourselves in thinking that the corporate reformers who have controlled educational policy this last decade have even an iota of altruism. Their goal is a charter-based, free-market educational system to primarily line their pockets and secondarily educate a few subservient managers and docile, non-thinking workers bullied into submission through schools that offer zero-tolerance. As for me, I want a curriculum that will teach students how to question and challenge those in authority. According to a recent blog by Diane Ravitch, Mr. David Coleman once said that no one really cares about what a student thinks and feels. What is important is writing and reading information text. Thus, the Common Core is an amoral curriculum. There is a Common Core module analyzing the Gettysburg Address. It is supposed to be done without referring to its historical context. It has to be analyzed based on whether Mr. Lincoln used “evidence” to support his points. If our 16th President would have been taught by the Common Core, we would not have one of the greatest pieces of oratory that epitomizes what our nation believes in. Abraham Lincoln had a sense of justice and the belief of what was right and wrong. That little speech has given our nation a moral compass. Those who want to force this nation to adapt a utilitarian curriculum appear to have no ethics or morality. I guess such a utilitarian view of the world makes it easy to fire teachers and remove students who do not fit into their cut throat view of mankind.

I told Mr. Friedman in my letter to him that the problem was not with us coddling parents or with educators who are trying to hold onto a tiny scrap of dignity. The problem is with those who have controlled educational policy since the Bush era. If our public school system is now struggling to survive, it is because those in power have given us body blows and have kicked our groins. If Mr. Friedman likes the reformers so much as well as the Common Core, it is high time he start measuring his skills and his own beliefs by their standards.

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Review of Reign of Error (and How to Help the Misguided)

As I was on the R train headed to the UFT for the Delegate Assembly meeting that endorsed Bill de Blasio for Mayor, I started to read Diane Ravitch’s long awaited book. It took me three days to devour information that was little surprise to me. As an avid reader of her blog, I had some idea of what she would say. This book explains in historical terms the origins of the “so-called” school reform movement. In addition, the book describes what motivates the movement, and why, even with so much evidence as to its failure, it continues to proliferate.

Interestingly, on the day I started reading the book, I got a good lesson as why these reformers are so relentless. The power of their money is even being used to convince even teachers to vote or advocate against their own interests. On Wednesday, I decided to post a video, taken from my smart phone, of a portion of candidate de Blasio’s speech to the UFT. A few hours after I posted the video on Facebook, one of my friends wrote that she would never vote for this person because he is “soooooooo liberal.” How can someone help those people who cheat on welfare and are stealing my hard earned money?” She went on to say that, she and “most of her teaching friends” who work in schools made up of the children of such families really understand what is happening. These teachers will not vote for a candidate that wants to help the poor and only cares about “stop and frisk.” He has said nothing in his speech about helping middle class people like her. She concluded by saying that she plans to vote for the Republican candidate (who plans to keep the anti-union, privatization policies of Mayor Michael Bloomberg).

Without success, I tried to change her mind by referring to Diane’s book and some of the information contained within it. She did not believe me when I said that the goal of Bloomberg and others were to privatize education. Instead of looking at profiteers who have used or (stolen) millions in public money to set up for-profit charter schools, her focus was on the weakest within this society. If she lived in the 19th century, her focus would be on the waif that stole a loaf of bread rather than a robber baron that paid slave wages to his factory workers and forced these same workers to buy goods for exorbitant prices at a company store insuring their indebtedness forever. Another one of my Facebook friends linked her to an article on how J.P. Morgan Chase stole billions by cheating their customers in violation of Federal Regulations and asked her who really was stealing public money? She gave no answer.

Unfortunately, my friend has fallen into the trap of listening to the mainstream media. As a result, she is now convinced to vote against her own self-interest. Here is a person who is in her sixties, close to retirement, and with financial problems. However, she plans to vote for someone who will possibly not give her a raise after another four years. She wants to supports a politician who will possibly close her high needs school based on an invalid school grading system, and possibly turn her into a dispossessed teacher, who, under our present contract, will be sent monthly from school-to-school, without any hope of being hired because her salary is too high. All this done by a Mayor who created a budgetary system that makes it unaffordable for any school to hire an experienced teacher. Under our present system, the central board will pay toward the salary of a dispossessed teacher to work as a monthly school substitute, but if a school picks up this experienced teacher for a permanent position, the salary has to be paid by the public school whose resources are cut, and cut, and cut at every opportunity.

She bemoans the fact that someone would prefer welfare to working. She had better look at the real world that exists in our country. On one side, there are billionaires that do not pay their fair share of taxes through “corporate welfare” while on the other side are those that try to work at minimum wage and have no benefits. Why would anyone work for a slave wage at a fast food restaurant when the dole offers more.

Later that night, I got a personal text on Facebook from someone who was probably her friend who saw her public postings and my attempt to convince her otherwise. She said that de Blasio, Ravitch and me want to pick her pocket. The poor deserve nothing. She has a class of over 40 kids that is out of control because of no parent support and that she only wants to teach kids that can learn. I wrote her back saying that her class was so large because resources that could decrease class size is being sent to charter schools. Her reply was that I was only confusing the issue and that she saw no connection between her school and charters. Again, I said Diane’s book would make everything clear. Her final answer was that she would not waste time reading dribble and garbage. It is sad when someone who is educated is so closed minded.

A lot of this has to do with the mainstream media’s attempt to marginalize this book. Here is a book made up of facts, research, statistics as well as a host of solutions ranging from prenatal care, early childhood education, wrap around services, the need to lower class size as well as a strong discussion as to what makes a rich educational environment. By the way, the educational environment Diane describes is not new. I was taught in such an environment right here in New York City when I was a child in the 1960s. However, the vultures started to circle even before the book’s publication date. Several major newspapers personally attacked the character of the author and ignored the ideas within the book while Congressman Jared Polis calls her evil and that her ideas are harming education. However, he should be challenged to say which one of her ideas are doing harm. Is it the lowering of class size? Is it the idea of having a full service educational environment? Is it prenatal care? Is it early childhood education?

Finally, here comes this so-called television program called Education Nation. Every true educator should boycott this program. How dare the producers of such a program only invite a true leader of education only as a member of the audience. What an affront to Dr. Ravitch! This program does not plan to have any real discussion. It is nothing less than propaganda and a love fest for those corporate reformers that have been using their money to control the agenda. Gates, Broad, and the Walton family are no better than those robber barons of the 19th century who bought legislatures, governors and even a president or two to preserve profit margins and prevent the passage of laws that would end child labor, sweatshops, unsafe working conditions, and allow collective bargaining. Those in government and in the mainstream media do not want a real debate on public education because they know they will lose the debate. All their evidence is nothing more than ephemeral and amorphous beliefs based upon meaningless platitudes. Platitudes will not lead to the money that is needed to really try to end poverty and truly invest in an effective public education system. Instead, public money is going to charters that discriminate and publishing companies pushing an untried as well as unproven magic curriculum. Our tax money is greasing the greedy palms of those who wish to profit on the backs of Americans children and are creating a dual educational system that, I fear, will rip apart the very fiber of our democratic society. Diane’s book needs a full public hearing and must lead to a true debate as to the nature of education in this society. Those of us who believe in public education must be heard with respect. If we are shut up, such as the woman who recently was arrested for speaking out against charters at a school board meeting, those of us who believe in this democratic institution will push back. Those who are in power had better start acting as democrats (with a small d) and not as bullies. Teachers, parents and children all have the right to be heard and play a major role in preserving a democratic institution that has served this country well for nearly two centuries.

And this brings us back to my misguided Facebook friend. It is unfortunate that she has heard only one side of the argument because those who control most branches of government and the mainstream media do not want to have a true debate. To do so is to look at the underbelly of our country. Sadly, it is ugly. It is hard to look at oneself and realize there are many imperfections. Those who control the levers of power have convinced many to blame the victim when they are the ones to blame for educational inequality and poverty. The old saying that money is not everything is a lie. It is everything and it can solve a lot of problems. Where should this money come from? For a start, I think that Mr. Gates and the Waltons have more than enough to spare. If these billionaires really wanted to help kids, they would pay their fair share of taxes so that the money can go directly to kids in public schools and not to fake foundations, AstroTurf organizations, charters that teach fairy tales in lieu of science, consultants that have never set foot in a real classroom, and the pockets of corrupt politicians.

Thoughts on My Final Year of Teaching

            Next week, I am returning early to school to set up my room and get ready for my final year as a public school teacher.  If you listen to the so-called reformers, we union teachers are a bunch of lazy good-for-nothings who only care about our high pay.  Last Saturday, I went to Staples for Teacher Recognition Day to get a few discounted items.  I ended up paying over $200 for essential supplies.  Being that our school has no budget for supplies, I had to buy dry erase markers, white board cleaning fluid, pens, pencils, index cards, extra notebooks, fasteners, paper clips, binders for my lessons and monitoring tools, a lesson plan book, etc., etc. 

            When I get to school tomorrow, I will have to move furniture, inventory my supplies, climb, tape, and clean.  It will take many, many hours to do all this.  I do this out of love and not any type of monetary compensation.  I can spend the extra week relaxing, but it would be impossible to be ready for the kids if I did not do this.  By the way, I worked all summer until Friday.  I worked in one of the special education offices for the Department of Education.  I did annual reviews for students who receive special services by the DOE, but remain in private schools at their parent’s expense.  I did over 130 cases because during the school year there are not enough people in the office I worked in to do the job.  Why do I work?  I have to.  I am grateful to have this job because if I did not earn the extra money, I could not make ends meet.  Besides me, almost every teacher in my school has to work in the summer.  However, according to the reformers, we have these fabulous summers off to lounge in the sun.

            I am starting this year with a lot of apprehension over the new evaluation system that has been imposed by our state education department.  As a special education teacher, I am very concerned.  Only five percent of disabled students passed the ELA and math tests.  Therefore, if my kids do not show enough growth on tests that play into the disabilities these students have, I may be rated ineffective no matter how effective I am rated in the classroom. 

            Recently I read in Diane Ravitch’s blog about the Common Core first grade curriculum in which six-year-olds have to learn comparative religion and the impact geography had on the development of the ancient river valley civilizations in Mesopotamia ( I kid you not).  This ELA unit has hundreds of abstract vocabulary concepts that used to be taught in middle and high school.  I have to look now at the curriculum that my fourth and fifth grade resource students will have to learn.  I hope that micro and macroeconomic concepts do not come into play for my age group or I do not stand a chance of being an effective special education teacher of learning disabled and language impaired students. 

            Seriously, I do not plan to change the way I teach my students.  I will do my best to teach them the skills that they really need to succeed.  My goals are for my student to meet their IEP objectives.  I care not one iota about this curriculum.  I will not teach them goals that are unachievable.  Whatever happens will happen.  I plan to do my “personal best” as I have done since 1978.   I know that for the last 35 years, I have been an effective special education teacher in which most of my career has been with high need students.  I taught kids that had everything stacked against them.  Yet, I do know many who have made it against all odds.  One of my students is a supervisor for the Metropolitan Transit Authority (who has a learning-disabled adolescent) and another is presently a registered male nurse in a large city hospital after spending part of his life in a correctional facility.   These former students are real people and not data driven numbers or some TFA made-up anecdote. 

            I will tell you one thing.  When I retire on July 1, 2014, I am not going to rest.  I am just closing a chapter.  I plan to begin anew.  I plan a chapter in which I will adamantly advocate for disabled children and fight to save the public education system.  We retired teachers will become an army to oppose the reformers and privateers.  We cannot be intimidated and will not be afraid to speak truth to power.