Archive for December, 2013

John King’s End of the Year Message to New Yorkers: I Serve Another

December 31, 2013

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Through the fall and early winter of 2013, New York State Education Commissioner John King held twenty “forums” in various parts of the state to discuss and explain both the mysteries and the miraculous qualities of the Common Core States Standards. With two exceptions, in each and every “forum” King was met with fury and disgust from an outraged citizenry that included both parents and teachers. These encounters with actual people affected by the Common Core were, in fact, so universally negative and hostile that King initially attempted to cancel the entire project — essentially a public relations campaign designed to alternately sweet talk or buffalo the rubes into acquiescence — and skedaddle back to the safety of his cosy office in Albany where untested experiments on other people’s children are far better received. King’s reaction to the anger at the imposition of the Common Core only served to reveal how far removed he is from the policies he imposes. After one such event in Poughkeepsie where the crowd grew raucous after King’s interminable lecture on the Common Core, the commissioner made the astounding statement that the rebellion had been orchestrated by “special interests”, presumably parents.

The two exceptions to unmitigated hostility and rejection were the “forums” that were held in Brooklyn and lower Manhattan respectively, the former was allowed to be commandeered by Michelle Rhees’, who were let in early and signed up for 44 of the 45 speaking slots; the latter was attended by many of the same paid advocates of SFNY, allied with the Gates-funded Educators 4 Excellence. Both groups did their best to turn the events into creepy cult like love fests for the Common Core and who, for good measure, at times equated the experimental idea with nothing less than a civil right. In short, these two “forums” were a cynical farce bearing no relation whatsoever to the people’s reaction to the Common Core imposition and all that goes with it.

So what did King learn from his eighteen encounters with a furious public whom he ostensibly works for and who pays his considerable salary?
Judging from his December 30 epistle, after “reflecting and evaluating,” what King has learned is a whole lot of nothing at all. Not from us, in any case if, arguably a great deal from his fans in SFNY and E4E.
As has been the practice of its devotees from before the Common Core was even completed, King, employing the pronoun “we”, continues to speak of the untested experiment as if mountains of evidence supported its miraculous powers and the only bump in the road to a “college and career ready” army of youngsters is a faulty implementation, due in part to limited resources.
“We understand, writes King, ” that implementation of the Common Core and teacher/principal evaluation in a time of limited resources has come with significant challenges.”

As if speaking of the incontrovertible flatness of the earth or the inevitability of death, King pronounces with utter certainty the “ essential” importance of the CC only to go on mixing
corporate speak (“moving forward”) with the outright, if often repeated, lie that the CCSS is the work of teachers and education experts, and not education entrepreneurs such as David Coleman and testing companies backed by and propagated by the Gates Foundation. ( For information on who really is responsible for the Common Core see the excellent work of Mercedes Schneider. )

Declares the King : “We know that moving forward with the Common Core is essential: study after study shows that our students lag behind in the knowledge and skills required for their future. The Common Core standards, designed by teachers and education experts from across the country – and shaped by many New York State educators – will help us do better.”

The humble King does concede that the Core (as we like to affectionately call it ) “didn’t invent good teaching, ” only to then boast that the “ CC is the first set of learning standards back-mapped grade by grade from what students need to know and be able to do in college and the workforce,” weaseling past the fact that, as Carol Burris has noted, kids don’t learn backwards, and as others have noted, other than menial jobs, we have no idea what the “workforce” of the future requires or will even look like.

But “we” know, somehow, that said workforce needs the Common Core.

King goes on and on and on about said need using the usual language about “rigor” and challenge, ” his way to saying, let the public be damned, “we” are doing what we will. One might conclude from King’s letter following his recent experience that John King, a highly educated and intelligent man, is incapable of learning. But to reach that conclusion one would first have to believe that John King was appointed to his position so that, against all evidence, he might serve the people of New York State; that King as commissioner would genuinely listen to and humanely react to the pained complaints of millions of parents and thousands of teachers so harshly affected by the policies he, himself, has championed. Like many others, I have reached a different conclusion: that the powers that put King in the position he now holds have no intention whatsoever of changing anything at all about the Common Core and King will serve them, not us, until he can do so no more.
Let the heavens fall but they will get their way.
And that is the real meaning of King’s end of the year message.
We need to prepare ourselves.
This struggle has yet to even begin.

We Have a Chancellor: Press Announces That De Blasio Has Chosen Carmen Farina

December 30, 2013


After weeks of hopes and fears and endless internet speculation, it now appears that Mayor Elect Bill De Blasio has selected Carmen Farina, an experienced educator to lead the New York City Department of Education out of the debacle created by twelve years of the reckless experimentation, ceaseless union busting and privatization efforts by Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

She has her work cut out for her. Farina is very well thought of by many activist teachers. The mere fact that she is an educator — not a former federal prosecutor (Joel Klein ) or a magazine publisher
( Cathy Black) or a political appointee ( Dennis Walcott) — is, as absurd as it sounds, a major move in the right direction.

It is, I think,
impossible for someone who has not taught in the NYC public school system in the past decade or so, to grasp how deeply and insidiously Bloomberg ( with help from his fellow “reformers” up to and including Obama ) has degraded the lives of students and cheapened, almost beyond recognition, the noble and ancient vocation of teaching and the very idea of education itself.

May amateur hour be finally and mercifully over.

Godspeed, Carmen. You’ll need it. And the teachers and the kids and their parents need a real leader who knows of what she speaks and what she does.

Without a Bang or a Whimper: Dennis Walcott and the Banality of Shilldom

December 26, 2013

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Unless I missed something, contrary to the hagiographic sendoffs to Joel Klein, New York City Department of Education Chancellor Dennis Walcott has passed into history with barely a peep from an often all too adoring media. Of course, given Walcott’s actual accomplishments, this is exactly how it should be but, as so few things in education reform are reported as they are, the absence strikes me as odd if morally apt. In any case, Dennis Walcott seems to have ended his days as the accidental chancellor of the largest school system in America with neither a bang nor a whimper.
It could not have come sooner.
I don’t know how many of Mayor Bloomberg’s Nicolae Ceaușescu-like Panel of Education Policy (PEPs) I attended while Walcott presided, but I could never see the man (or what was left of him after years of working under Bloomberg) without thinking of Robert Musil’s terrifying existential masterwork, The Man Without Qualities. This was true even if Musil’s work took place in the last days of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and Walcott’s reign occurred in what may well prove to be the beginning of an outright American plutocracy (and as a result of that plutocracy.) There he would sit in silence in the center of the stage, squint-eyed as if in contemplation, long slender fingers against each other as if in prayer, displaying one of his two true talents: appearing to be thoughtful and concerned without actually being so. There he would sit in silence as speaker after speaker, teacher after teacher, parent after parent, student after student would argue, beg, scream and sometimes weep that their school not be “co-located” or shut down altogether which they always were. There he would sit in silence, surrounded by other handpicked shills, *surrounded in turn by the NYPD, haughty to the public, obsequious to Bloomberg, the perfect corporate Yes Man, the Ultimate Shill, the Man Without Qualities.

When Walcott did speak, at events or for the TV cameras, it was always with the same calm, subtly condescending tone, always employing the same exhausted-at birth-slogans (“college and career ready,” “ competing in the global economy, ” “data driven,” “accountability “) disguised as policies over and over and over again as if he were an automaton. Which in a sense he was.

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Incredibly, as with all of three of Bloomberg’s chancellors, Walcott was not an educator but a career political appointee — a mandarin — who knew when to speak, when to be silent, and how to take orders. Above all, he knew how to please the king. At this he excelled. From a teacher’s perspective there was something grotesque about taking orders from a person whose pedagogical qualifications would not allow them to enter a classroom without the presence of a certified teacher but, of course, part of the whole corporate reform project is to destroy the self worth of teachers at the same time you praise them. As with his two predecessors, Walcott’s lack of qualifications did not in the least stop him from pontificating about education as if he knew exactly what he was talking about. In this way did Walcott play his part in the wholesale de-professionalization of education in America, “ from the Grand Coulee Dam to the capital” as a poet once sang.

Walcott, of course, was an accidental chancellor, thrust into the role following Bloomberg’s insane decision to replace former prosecutor Joel Klein with magazine publisher Cathy Black. It took poor Cathy but ninety days — ninety days of slow motion self destruction and public spectacle — until Bloomberg unceremoniously threw her under the bus and about ten seconds after that for Cathy Black to become” Cathy Who? ” in the vicinity of Mike Bloomberg and City Hall.
It’s safe to say that Bloomberg was the only man on earth, perhaps the only man in human history, who thought people like Black and Walcott were somehow qualified to run(or pretend to run) the largest and most diverse school system in America.
Black was an absurd figure in a way that Walcott was simultaneously too empty and too calculating to ever be. But, for all her failings, Black was not a shill in the way that Walcott was. Black was her own person and one who seemed to (fatally) believe that she was going actually to be chancellor somehow, rather than to play dummy in Mike Bloomberg’s ventriloquist act. That belief, as much or more than her spectacular incompetence and foolish comments about birth control and the like — is precisely what got her into trouble and brought on Walcott.

In his twelve year reign, no act was more emblematic of the delusional world of Mike Bloomberg than his appointment of Cathy Black and no act more desperate than his replacement of Black with Walcott.

In a way, Walcott’s ascension, though reckless and irresponsible, was easy. At least for Walcott. What happened ? Walcott went from the concerned looking guy in the back of the photo opportunity with Bloomberg to the concerned looking guy in the front of the photo opportunity with Bloomberg. And yet his position, he knew, remained exactly the same.
Walcott’s years standing behind Bloomberg looking concerned taught him something that a Cathy Black never learned: Walcott knew that his job was to discern Bloomberg’s will and make sure it was done. His job, that is, was to be a human appendage.

And so he was. And one that was particularly skilled at Walcott’s other true talent: concealing his subtle viciousness. This viciousness was ever present in Walcott’s very attitude towards teachers — U rating appeals reached a level of almost 100 % rejection under Walcott, a scandal worthy of Federal investigation — but perhaps found its purest expression in the DOE’s relentless persecution of Francesco Portelos, a teacher who had the temerity to stand up to a corrupt administration and has been paying for ever since.

Meanwhile the city has grown so politically and morally degenerate under Bloomberg that Walcott’s open, undisguised and clearly illegal politicking for Bloomberg on the public dime in a public school to public employees was not only not scandalous, but happily reported by the NY Times, which, too, seems to have degenerated in somewhat similar lines during the Bloomberg era.

Extremely skilled at appearing to be thoughtful.

Extremely skilled at appearing to be thoughtful.

Years of tip-toeing around Bloomberg left Walcott no doubt as to the proper decorum to use in pleasing the tycoon knowing that the pleased tycoon would ensure his personal comfort till the ends of his days.
For a handful of Americans, and Dennis Walcott is one of them, one of the wonderful benefits of living in a nation that allows individuals like Bloomberg to accumulate the wealth of nations is that those who serve such kings are well compensated for their service. Rest assured Walcott will be.
I will not miss him for there is nothing there to miss. And I am not alone.

Meanwhile, four days before he is sworn in, Mayor Elect Bill DeBalsio has yet to announce a new chancellor. This has unsettled many a NYC teacher and for excellent reason. Unquestionably, the pressure on DeBlasio from the hydra headed billionaire backed corporate reform groups and personages (like Bloomberg) are relentless. Equally unquestionable is the wholesale demoralization and worse of the NYC teachers profession and the school system as a whole if DeBlasio dose not stand up to them and do the right thing.

I do not even wish to imagine what is bound to happen is he does not.

*With the exception of the noble and brass-balled Patrick Sullivan.

Christmas in NYC: “Peace to all People of Good Will”

December 25, 2013

9:35 Christmas morning: Men awaiting breakfast at the Catholic Worker where, in the spirit of Christ and Dorothy Day, it is served for the hungry all year round. Christmas in NYC

John King’s Flying Circus Lands in Lower Manhattan

December 12, 2013

Teacher Peter Lamphere speaking before a deeply engaged John King and Meryl Tisch

Teacher Peter Lamphere speaking before a deeply engaged John King and Meryl Tisch

Unlike the authentic and enraged voices of parents and teachers that Commissioner John King encountered in every corner of the state he dared show up in to peddle his wares on our dime, many of the voices King heard on the past two nights in Brooklyn and Manhattan respectively have been melodious indeed, if also largely synthetic and out right obsequious. For this King can give thanks to the machinations of billionaire funded corporate education fronts groups Students First NY and Educators4Excellence.

Even if they were thwarted from hogging almost every one of the 45 two minute speaking slots, as they had in Brooklyn on Tuesday, the confederacy of corporate shills and paid operatives ( many of whom spoke at both “forums”) did successfully put on a show of obeisance to the Common Core State Standards that was sure to please their masters even as it bore no relationship whatsoever to 99.9 % of working career teachers who loathe the thing and all that comes with it.

Unwittingly, the corporate advocates also provided not a little bit of entertainment, albeit in the form of black humor. Take for example the E4E guy who proclaimed to all and sundry that he was “a good teacher” before the implementation of Common Core but now, due to the miraculous intercession of Common Core he had become “a great teacher.”
Poof! Just like that!
This, mind you, was not presented as wicked, guerilla satire.
Then there was the teacher from John Adams High School who strode down to the mic with seven students in tow only to ask that all eight of them be allowed to speak, as somehow they constituted one entity. For some reason, this was allowed. And it was the defense of this break from protocol that merited the only words that Meryl Tisch spoke all night.

Hey! Nice work if you can get it!

The teacher then went on to tell the crowd that he taught a class in “critical thinking.”
By way of explanation he actually said, “We get together and critically think.” The insinuation was that “critical thinking “ did not exist or was wholly unknown in the public school system ( and perhaps to homosapiens in general) before the advent of the Common Core. This insulting and absurd sentiment, to one degree or the other, was echoed by the E4E contingent all evening, a bizarre position, indeed, for an organization that obliges new members to sign a what amounts to a pledge of allegiance to its corporate dictums.

At any rate, if the man’s students are any indication, the sorry guy does not even know what the words “critical thinking ” mean. One student after another strode to the mic only to recite words that sounded to all the world like nothing more than Common Core press releases.
Poor kids.
A crisis in education, indeed!
One wonders how such people ever got to be teachers. Or why.

In fact, listening to these folks, a stranger would be forgiven if you concluded that standards themselves were non-existent before the coming of the Common Core. As if, that is, before the Common Core and corporate fronts like E4E and StudentsfirstNY, teachers and students did little more in school than kind of hang around, looking out windows or watching game shows on TV.

But, for the moment at any rate, at least these speakers were, in fact, active working teachers. Not so the three twenty something know-it-all “ ex- teachers”, whose love for the Common Core Standards is exceeded only by their love for their former students — even as they forsook the teaching profession after two or three years to save schools from bad teachers and raise expectations as paid operatives of StudentsFirstNY. (One understands their affinity with King as, like them, it only took King three years of teaching to know everything there is to know about it.) Indeed, it seems the further removed one is from actually working under Common Core the more rhapsodic one grows about it. Consider “ex – teacher “ Miranda Cohen who rose to declare the she was behind CCSS not merely 100 % but “150%. ”

And who is this “ex teacher?” Nothing other than a staffer for Students First NY working tirelessly and selflessly to raise expectations, ferret out “bad teachers,” and instruct those remaining on how to do their job.
Herein her story from the StudentsfirstNY website: “As a 9th grade teacher at a failing school, Miranda was driven to provide her students with the same excellent instruction and guidance that she herself received in Massachusetts.
After teaching for two years, Miranda moved back to New York to begin a Community Organizing Fellowship with StudentsFirstNY, as she sought an opportunity to have a meaningful impact outside of the classroom. Miranda is deeply committed to raising the level of expectations that communities have for both their teachers and schools.”

“Meaningful” indeed! Well, it beats working!

There was even a speech by a young lady who presented herself as a member of E4E at the same time she was a chapter leader for the United Federation of Teachers (UFT.)
This is a vomitous and incoherent combo if there ever was one but also one that has to be some kind of wet dream for E4E sugar daddies Whitney Tillson and Bill Gates!

Then, for good measure (and a bit of diversity) we heard from a lawyer couple from the Upper West Side — we know they were a lawyer couple from the Upper West Side because they made sure we knew they were a lawyer couple from the Upper West Side — who spoke separately to insure that their four year old and two year old children would be educated under the Common Core Standards.

I swear I’m not making this up.

One thing that was noticeably and gratefully absent, despite the fundamentalist fervor of the shills, was the obscene and horrific (if politically manipulative) notion that reportedly dominated Tuesday night’s forum in Brooklyn: the idea that, somehow, the implementation of Common Core was nothing less than a matter of civil rights and all who opposed it did so because they are racists who sadistically wish to condemn children of color to the ignorant underclass for perpetuity.

In between and after this exercise in self-righteousness and farce were many statements from parents and teachers that moved from the wise to the poignant to the heartbreaking.
One mother spoke of her child experiencing suicidal ideation that she attributed directly to the demands and stress of the Common Core.
An hour or so later, a similar statement was made by yet another mother.
King and Meryl Tisch answered both statements with silence.
Several experienced teachers spoke of dividing the Common Core, in which they found merit, from the high stakes testing, from which they found none.
This too was answered with silence.
Leonie (“ The Lioness”) Haimson of Class Size Matters challenged King directly to explain the legality and purpose of the data mining of InBloom, data mining which has already been rejected by many states due to parent pressure but not in New York.
King danced the watusi, the twist, and the bossa nova but never came anywhere near answering Haimson’s query.
Leonie was not surprised.
One mother offered the insight that the problem is that the “ state begins with the premise that kids don’t want to learn and teachers don’t want to teach.”
More silence.

Testing expert Fred Smith called for a moratorium on testing due to the shabbiness of their production offering example after example of the shoddiness of the work.

Parent activist Noah Gotbaum spoke passionately and personally about an entire array of DOE policy failings, including the fact that the Common Core barely even acknowledges the existence of, never mind the realties of, special needs children.

Not a word in reply.

Members of the MORE Caucus of the UFT, myself included, made their presence felt and heard through the long, weird night.

Perhaps the most challenging question of the evening was asked by a middle aged African American teacher who spoke poignantly of his upbringing in the South where he was raised by his grandmother and was an excellent high school student, only to discover that he was far behind his peers when he reached college. He declared himself a Common Core agnostic but asked a crucial question: if not Common Core, what?

It is a question that opponents of the Common Core must answer. Indeed, we ignore it at our peril.

For King who is somehow “completely convinced of the power the Common Core has for our students ” the Common Core is the solution not the problem.
For King and his subjects in StudentsFirstNY and E4E, we are the problem, not the Common Core.
The Common Core said King, offering no evidence whosoever, will “ create a “ citizenry ready for the 21st century.”

It was declarations such as this that led to my own question, the second to last of the night.
I told King and Tisch and all present that I am in awe of the Common Core, not as an educational tool, but as a political phenomenon. How a thing that was funded by Bill Gates and created by creepy entrepreneurs like David Coleman and Pearson Inc in a secrecy akin to that of the Manhattan Project could become signature educational policy of a Democratic president, applauded by both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, is mind boggling and without precedent in American history.

Furthermore, as the effusive praise and cult like mantras of the untested experiment gave evidence, I am equally in awe of Common Core as an exercise in mass perception management and public relations. But I wanted to know this: as the proponents of the Common Core were so unconscionably reckless as to impose the thing on a nation (spare me the “adopted in 45 states” line), where was the evidence to back up all these magical expectations? Or put another way: why was my child, as was every child in the nation, being used as a guinea pig in their experiment?

My question, like all questions of substance, was ignored. Very tactfully. Answering questions, after all, was not at all what the “forum” was about.

Addendum: Herein an uncommonly frank account in the main stream media of what transpired at King’s and Tisch’s New York “forums” and why.