Sincerely, A Teacher
By: NY BAT Eric Olson
I'm writing this email to inform and update folks about what is happening to public education in New York State and across the country as a whole. Let there be no mistake about it, there are a few very wealthy people who are trying to destroy public education for their own gain and teachers must educate and inform themselves, stay on top of what is happening, and begin to act before it is too late.
The attack on public education has been going on now for over a decade (some would say it goes back to the 1983 "A Nation at Risk" Report), gained steam with the 2009 Race to the Top initiative, and has now gone to an entirely new level in the past few weeks.
Since the New Year alone, Andrew Cuomo has threatened teacher pensions (he tweeted, "Albany has been too concerned with protecting the pension rights of teachers and not enough with the future of students"). He has attacked teacher tenure by stating, “I understand the union’s issue; they don’t want anyone fired, but we have teachers that have been found guilty of sexually abusing students who we can’t get out of the classroom. We have a process where literally it takes years and years to get a bad teacher out of the classroom.“ Obviously, this is a lie - there are no convicted sex offenders teaching in classrooms. He has initiated a new call to change the new APPR system that we have all worked so hard to put in place and carry out. Many believe his comment about pensions is an empty threat - who knows with this guy - but the APPR threats are very real, I'm sorry to say.
Cuomo believes the current APPR system is too lenient. He points to the low percentage of teachers that received an ineffective rating last year. He sees a problem with the fact that most teachers are effective or highly effective while just over 30% of New York's students are not meeting the new Common Core Standards as measured by 3-8 tests in ELA and Math tests. He doesn't mention, of course, that the cut scores are actually set AFTER the tests have been scored and calculated. In other words, the state decides, after the fact, what percentage of students will be deemed as performing at grade level making these tests and their results invalid. He also doesn't mention that testing, in general, is a poor measure of a teacher's effectiveness.
More alarming is what Regent Chancellor Merryl Tisch is proposing in response to a letter sent by Jim Malatras, Cuomo's state director of operations, that expressed Cuomo's disappointment with the APPR system. Tisch's response suggested that, instead of the current 20/20/60 breakdown, the state tests should count for 40% of the evaluation, thus eliminating the local 20%. Even worse, she is proposing that if a teacher is rated ineffective in the 40% test score component, the 60% based on observations and "other measures" doesn't matter. The 40% state test score trumps all and the teacher will be rated ineffective. As if it couldn't be worse, she is also proposing that a teacher that receives "ineffective" for two years in a row will be automatically fired. As it stands now, if a teacher receives an "ineffective" rating for two years in a row, they MAY be subjected to an expedited removal process, but that is at the discretion of the local District/School Board. Tisch's proposal would effectively take local school boards out of the picture. You can read more about Tisch's proposal here.
Most agree that the recent attacks by Governor Cuomo (along with Regent Merryl Tisch) are a result of NYSUT's decision to withhold its support for the second time in the most recent election. Although NYSUT did not support another candidate (which many members believe it should have), Cuomo is angry and is now in full attack mode.
On the heels of what has happened to public schools over the past few years, this is more than alarming. APPR, increases in High Stakes Tests, Common Core Standards, raising or even removing the cap on charter schools, reductions in funding, the Gap Elimiation Adjustment (GEA), the Tax Cap, lawsuits recently filed in New York trying to end teacher tenure, threats of merit pay, and other attacks are all working in concert to end what Governor Cuomo calls "one of the only remaining public monopolies." The attacks are many and come from all angles.
Why am I sharing this at this time? Because teachers need to commit themselves to staying abreast of what is happening with this "deform" movement as I have no doubt that we will all be called on to act in the near future, in some way, to fight off those that want public education gone. I don't know what that "call" will be, exactly, but we must be prepared, with information and knowledge, for whatever that action is.
I am being completely honest when I say that I'm uncomfortable asking fellow teachers to be politically active. The last thing I want to do is seem on a soapbox or make people feel guilty - that is not my intent. I do not write this to pressure anyone, I write this to encourage, and I sincerely hope that it comes across that way.
Many teachers say "I'm not political so I don't get involved in that stuff." Unfortunately, we can't say that any longer. Our profession is inherently political!!! Our profession has been thrown into the political arena by a few who are trying to profit from a system that, in the history of this country, has mostly been off limits to those that simply see a bottom line. There is $700 billion spent on education in this country every year and they want access to it - and often at the expense of our kids. Textbook Companies, educational product vendors, Software companies, hedge fund Managers, shadow groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and other profiteers are destroying public control of schools while jockeying themselves in position to get their slice of the pie.
The teacher's unions (NYSUT, AFT, NEA) are a major barrier to their plans, of course, so they are a major focus of the attacks. Unfortunately, they have also been bribed - NYSUT accepted $500,000 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2012, so you can all think about what kind of influence that might have. Although I have been personally assured that NYSUT will no longer accept Gates money, I am concerned by NYSUT's response (or lack there of) up to this point. There are other forces out there, though, that are calling for increased action in the near future and I think NYSUT may come around and join the call to fight back more aggressively. Either way, again, we need to be ready to act when the time comes.
I do not think that whatever we are called to do will be one big thing - I think it will be a lot of small actions. My favorite historian, Howard Zinn, once said, "Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world." My hope is that when we are called on to act, 129 Tamarac educators will do just that.
What can we start to do now? I think we begin by educating ourselves. I know we all have very different levels of knowledge when it comes to the political environment surrounding public schools but wherever you are on that spectrum, I would suggest the following to all teachers:
Buy a copy of "Reign of Error" by Diane Ravitch and read it. Diane Ravitch is an educational historian and the leading figure in the resistance to the corporate takeover of public schools and her book provides a well-written, in-depth, well-researched investigation of the attempt to profit from public schools and provides a great foundation on which to build, no matter your current level of knowledge. I believe all teachers have a responsibility to read this book so that's a good starting point! I also recommend reading her previous book, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System," as it provides even more background. "Reign of Error," though, is a bit more recent and therefore the best place to start. Again, someone with no knowledge of what is happening can become a very informed person by reading just one book. I would also suggest following her blog that will keep any reader up to date on the day to day developments in almost real time. (I'll also add that our former Superintendent, Teresa Snyder, was featured a number of times on her blog).
All teachers should visit the New York Allies for Public Education's (NYAPE) website. Their recent press release in response to Cuomo's "misguided agenda" is a good place to start. This group is becoming a powerful player in the efforts to resist the corporate reform movement. Visiting this page on occasion will go a long way on keeping up to date on the methods being used to fight back.
For me, the best place to keep up on what's happening on a day to day basis is through the Facebook group "New York BATs" (along with a few other groups). This is a private group of 2,300 (and growing) very active and informed teachers who ALL support the movement to resist the corporate takeover of public schools. If you are not yet on Facebook, I would highly suggest that you join. I know, I know, many think that Facebook is where people post, "I just ate a bagel" or "look at me, look at me.' Sure, there is some of that but it is much more - it is a powerful tool for organizing the type of movement that will be needed to resist the profiteers. It is also a great newsfeed if the correct groups are joined. Although I am no expert on Twitter, I also get much of my information from that medium and use it as a way to contact legislators and others as well so I would suggest making an account.
If you have doubts about the power of social media, just realize that movements like the Arab Spring that led to the overthrow of Egyptian President Mubarak and other Middle Eastern dictators was started and sustained by Facebook. The Occupy Wall Street Movement was also initiated and organized largely through social media. There is no more efficient way to stay up on what is happening in public education than Facebook and Twitter. There is also a "Tamarac Teachers" Facebook group that can be joined. It is a secret group (no one on the outside can see the posts) that includes 73 current and former Tamarac Teachers. There are occasional education posts in that group and I expect there to be more in the future. Contact me if you would like to be admitted to the group.
As far as political action goes, although it may not be the most powerful form of protest, signing many of the petitions (which are also emailed/faxed to legislators) is an easy way to act. Attending demonstrations/protests are another way we can act. Although that can seem intimidating if you have never gone to one, be assured, nothing is expected of you when you attend. Maybe you make a sign, maybe you join in on some of the chants, maybe you just stand, listen, and learn, it doesn't matter - you do whatever you are comfortable with. What matters is that the decision makers see that there is a growing number of people that are unhappy with what is happening to public schools. It is also refreshing to look around and see so many teachers that are as angry and care as much as you do. All people leave demonstrations invigorated.
What most in the movement see as the best way to fight back is to have your own children, if you have them, REFUSE the 3-8 ELA and Math tests. You can go to the United Opt-Out website or NYSAPE's "Refuse the Test" page to find forms to submit and information about what it means to refuse the tests. There are many more resources to help with this decision and I will be happy to answer any questions as my own daughter has refused all High Stakes Tests for the past two years and she will continue to do so until 9th grade (you can't refuse Regents Exams, obviously, since they are required for graduation). A few other teachers had their children refuse the tests last year also. Last year, over 60,000 parents in New York State refused to have their children take the tests, up from only a few thousand the year before. Some schools had more than 50% of their students refuse the tests last spring and I have no doubt the movement will grow this year. Test refusals are increasingly being seen as the most effective way to cripple the corporate reform movement. A good video about refusing the tests can be found here.
There are some other actions that are in the early stages of discussion. Parents, who are essential to this fight, need to know what is happening to public education and discovering ways of informing them is an emerging question. Within the past few days some are beginning to talk about teachers demonstrating before or after school with signs that can begin to inform community members about what is happening. I'm keeping my eye on this...
Finally, it is important that we all keep in mind that, although the media and "deformers" are trying to make it seem that teachers are "acting up" out of pure self- interest (If I have to hear one more time that teachers are against APPR because they don't want to be evaluated...), nothing could be further from the truth - we speak out and act on behalf of our students. Andrew Cuomo said in his State of the State Address a few years ago that he was "the student's lobbyist." He is full of it!!! We, the teachers - the people who have dedicated their lives to the growth of children of all ages - are the student's lobbyist. We are the defenders of education and I have no doubt we will be asked to fulfill that role in the months and years to come. We can be effective in that role if we do those things I've mentioned above along with many others. Please begin or continue to do those types of things.
If you have read this far, I thank you for your time. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions please contact me.
I don't like being an alarmist, but we are in trouble, folks, unless we do something about it...