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Archive for 2006

Tough Talk, Mushy Thinking [Part I]

Recently a new education report, Tough Choices or Tough Times, was published to great fanfare.

Tough Choices is the work of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, which is in turn sponsored by Marc Tucker‘s National Center on Education and the Economy [NCEE]. [The New is italicized because the report is actually the second NCEE document in this vein: its original Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce produced an earlier report in 1990.] It is no secret that the NCEE and a number of commission members would like to promote Tough Choices as a twenty-first century A Nation At Risk. It remains to be seen, however, if it will garner even a small share of the influence its famous predecessor possessed.

For starters, there is the little matter that while Tough Choices features rather prominently the argument that American education must respond to the challenges of the new global economy and technology, NCEE insists upon the rather retro, old economy practice of forcing readers to buy print copies to read the entire report, as Sherman Dorn tellingly pointed out. Only the Executive Summary of the report is available on-line, unlike every other significant education report in memory during the last few years. Given plans to discuss the report here on Edwize, I felt compelled to shell out the $20 to read the whole document, but I am probably part of a rather small group in this regard. I was looking for a more grounded case for the Commission’s recommendations, with some compelling supportive evidence; the Executive Summary operates at a frustratingly high level of generality, in an argument of broad, sweeping assertion after broad, sweeping assertion. That search was in vain: save your $20, and read the Executive Summary. You won’t be missing anything by skipping the larger report.

A great deal has already been written on Tough Choices. Check out the AFT’s thoughts here. Sympathetic commentary came from Eduwonk’s Andy Rotherham and New York Times columnist and globalization enthusiast Thomas L. Freidman. On the more critical side, take a look at Michael Klonsky’s Small Talk blog and at a new up and coming education blog in NYC, Ed in the Apple. And from the far right, the Cato Institute’s Andrew Coulson opined that the proposal does not go far enough in its calls for incremental educational privatization. There is a great deal more commentary out there, but these pieces will give you a representative selection of responses to Tough Choices.

Even if it fails to resonate nationally, Tough Choices should be of particular interest to New York City educators. Department of Education Chancellor Joel Klein was one of the individual members on the Commission, and there is a close correspondence between a number of the recommendations advocated in the report and policy proposals recently put forward by Klein. Klein was unsuccessful in introducing a number of these proposals into the latest contract, but he is proceeding apace with others outside of the collective bargaining framework. This report provides us with a map of the places where he would like to take New York City public schools in the last years of his tenure – and if for no other reason, it is worth a close look.

Given the complexity of the issues raised by Tough Choices, we will divide our analysis into three separate posts. In the remainder of this first post, we will survey a number of the report’s recommendations which are not currently live issues in New York City, either because they were not included in the last contract despite Klein’s best efforts, or because they focus on an area where there is a broad consensus among educators and educational policy thinkers. In the second post, we will look at the report’s recommendations in an area where Klein is preparing a major initiative — the privatization of the management of New York City public schools — which would cross a major line in the sand for public education advocates and teacher unionists. In the third and last post, we will examine the report’s general contextual argument for making the changes in American public schools that it recommends — what one might call its argument from economic globalization — and show why that argument is based on flawed premises.

Here are the particular issues.


Teacher unions agree with the report’s recommendation for establishing high quality, universal pre-kindergarten. Early formal education is a key to later success, especially for children living in poverty.


Teacher unions have been in the forefront of the struggle to provide full, necessary and equitable educational resources to high needs schools serving poor communities, and we embrace without reservation the Tough Choices recommendation to achieve that goal.


Teacher unions identify with the report’s desire to professionalize teaching and improve the aptitude of those entering the American teaching profession, and accept its analysis that teacher salaries will have to be raised to meet these goals. However, we find that there is a serious disconnect between these goals and the means the report proposes to achieve them – raiding teacher pensions and teacher health coverage to put more money in salaries for entry level teachers. This “robbing Peter to pay Paul” scheme allows Eduwonk’s Andy Rotherham to commend Tough Choices as “serious” because it does not call for an increase in overall funding to education. [Klein sought to make inroads in this area in our last contract, but was turned back.]

Tough Choices misdiagnoses the problem we face as solely one of the recruitment of high aptitude teachers, and ignores the fact that teacher retention is by far the more serious part of the problem – here in New York City, and more generally throughout America, we lose 1 of every 2 new teachers by their fifth year. [For in-depth analyses of this retention problem, see the study of Susan Moore Johnson and the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers, Finders and Keepers: Helping New Teachers Survive and Thrive in Our Schools and the reports of Public Agenda, A Sense of Calling: Who Teaches and Why, and the Public Education Network, The Voice of the New Teacher.] The ‘retention’ crisis is particularly acute among the very type of high aptitude teacher Tough Choices says we need to attract: new teachers in the NYC Teaching Fellows program leave at a greater and quicker rate than other new teachers. This means that we are losing all too many new teachers, and more of our best new teachers, at the very point where they are just beginning to master the skills of teaching, and after we have invested significant resources in their professional development. Pace Tough Choices, the problem is not so much attracting new teachers with great potential, as it is keeping them in education.

Their reasons for leaving, these beginning teachers tell us, are more the teaching and learning conditions in their schools than it is their salaries, although they clearly think those salaries inadequate for the labor they do. Leaving novice teachers complain of disorderly, unsafe schools; of the lack of curricula and programs of study that are proven and work; of a lack of support from their school administrators and district officials; and of a disregard for teachers’ professional voice and judgment. Insofar as they play a role in new teachers’ calculations on the future, defined benefit pension plans and quality health care are actually incentives for them to stay.

This retention crisis is part of a longstanding structural problem in American schooling, as Richard Ingersol’s “Is There Really A Teacher Shortage?” argues. American education has been built around policies that keep teaching “a lower status, easy-in/easy-out, high turnover occupation,” in order to minimize its costs and to hamper the development of teacher solidarity. The professionalization of American teaching requires a reversal of those policies, yet Tough Choices’ recommendations move in the opposite direction, exacerbating them.


Too many American students do not graduate high school, or do not graduate it ready to do post-secondary work, and far too many of these students live in poverty and come from communities of color. A generation ago, this was not as grave a problem as it is today, since those who did not pursue their education could still find decent, middle class jobs in largely unionized industries such as automobiles and steel. Today, those jobs [and the once great industrial unions] have been decimated by the global economy, and some measure of post-secondary education is necessary for middle class employment.

But as Thomas L. Friedman recognizes in his commentary, what is important here is not simply the attainment of further formal education, but the development of the habits and skills of creative, critical thinking which are so central to the emerging global knowledge economy. What Friedman does not seem to understand, but what educators can not avoid recognizing, is how the Tough Choices recommendation of instituting a national standardized test at the end of the tenth grade to determine college readiness moves American education further away from promoting such creative and critical thought.

Under the regimen of standardized testing that has come in the wake of NCLB, American schools have increasingly lost the proper balance between teaching and learning, on the one hand, and the assessment of what students have learned, on the other hand. Education has been more and more crowded out of school days turned over to test preparation, and the curriculum has narrowed significantly, with less and less attention paid to the creative and critical thought which can not be captured on standardized, multiple choice tests. Yet one more standardized test – this time, for every high school student in the nation – can only make an increasingly bad situation worse. Moreover, rather than moving students capable of doing more advanced work out of high school earlier, what American education needs to do is dramatically rethink secondary education.

If America is truly serious about achieving the goal that all students graduate high school, ready to do post-secondary work, we must jettison the notion that all students will move through their middle and high school years at the same pace. We need to develop a differentiated course of study that allows schools to support and stick with at risk students who take longer to master the standards, at the same time that students who rapidly achieve proficiency are given more challenging work. Developing that sort of secondary education will be hard, but necessary and essential, work – and a universal standardized test is no short cut around it.

Happy Holidays

From all of us to our readers.

A Convenient Gift

Paramount Pictures was set to provide 50,000 copies of “An Inconvenient Truth” to science teachers through the National Science Teachers Association. NTSA refused to send out the film. Laurie David, one of the film’s producers, talks about NSTA’s refusals to send out the film to science teacher at the Huffington Post. Participate.net is now making copies of the film available to teachers for free.

Aside from The Wire – Who is Concerned with Middle Schools?

The Department of Education is targeting “overage and undercredited” kids with their “Multiple Pathways” initiative and Klein trumpets the creation of yet another 200 small high schools. The just released Workforce Report points to early childhood education and a scheme to move kids after the 10th grade to college or vocational programs.

Does anyone care about the kids in middle schools? The only national debate on early adolescence, the middle school ages, is on the HBO series – The Wire!!!

For the last few years middle school structure has been debated back and forth – should we “abolish” middle schools by moving towards K-8 or is the answer creating 6-12 models?

Early adolescent years are difficult years for children. They are emotionally fragile, susceptible to fads and bullying, to the “craze” of the moment, and think of themselves as “immortal.” They oftentimes make bad choices.

Parents, and teachers wring their hands when it comes to dealing with those moody, recalcitrant evolving adults.

Too many middle schools are more concerned with “command and control” issues than education. Self-contained 6th, and sometimes 7th grade classes are created to keep the kids in their rooms!! The primary role of the school is to maintain order: education takes a back seat.

The most recent middle school State testing data is scary – kids fall further behind each year they are in a middle school.

The Department of Education mumbles and simply closes large high schools and sees small high schools as the nirvana. Unfortunately when middle schools “graduate” kids who have not met State Standards in English and Math and fail to achieve Chancellor’s Promotional Standards the high schools are doomed.

Should all “new” high schools be opened as 6-12? Frequently middle schools are burdened with proprietary programs (i.e., America’s Choice, etc.) that are mindless, and boring both to the teachers and their students.

Should the DOE create Empowerment Networks made up of middle schools? How do we support newer teachers in middle schools? Is the teacher turnover rate in middle schools as abysmal as I think it is? Should we concentrate guidance and social services in middle schools?

I read with compassion the “cries” of our newer middle school teachers who are writing on Edwize … perhaps the popularity of The Wire will force decision-makers to take a look at the world of the twelve year olds!!

Supporting Goodyear workers

It’s certainly difficult to get good information about a strike out generally but more than 16,000 Goodyear workers are currently on strike. Michele is right that Goodyear is certainly acting like a grinch. If you’d like to support striking Goodyear workers the AFL-CIO has the details.

“Seat Time Credit” And Other Creative Forms of the Corruption of Education

In the last few months, teachers in New York City public high schools have begun to hear a new term from the lips of school principals and assistant principals, “seat time credit.”

Here at the UFT, we first heard the idea of “seat time credit” at a meeting with Department of Education officials early in the fall. They were explaining to us why they were closing down the night schools, and replacing them with school-based extended day programs. The exchange went something like this:

DOE: Schools know their kids the best, and they can put together programs which address their kids’ real needs, rather than sending them off to night schools where no one knows them. Schools are also more creative in designing these programs to fit the needs of their students.

UFT: How so?

DOE: One of the things our small schools discovered is that students need two things to receive credit for passing a course — seat time in a class and a passing grade. When a student attends a class regularly, but fails the course because he has low grades on tests and projects, he has still completed ‘seat time.’ He doesn’t need to retake the whole class to get credit. He can now do an independent study, or some special project, and get credit for the class that way.

UFT: Are you seriously telling us that a student who couldn’t master enough of the course material to pass the class when he attended it every day and had the benefit of direct instruction from the teacher is now going to learn that material on his own in an independent study?

Let’s just say that the DOE quickly changed the topic of discussion to the less than sterling passing rates in the night schools.

These days, many New York City high school teachers are receiving memos with passages such as the one below, written by the Principal of Wings Academy in the Bronx:

Concurrent options is a concept that is not new, however, it is based on what is commonly known as seat time. This means that if a student has taken a class for a whole semester, yet has been unsuccessful in their endeavors to achieve success (credit accumulation) in that time period, the class can be extended (i.e. a college incomplete) until you (the teacher) feel the student has met the class requirements to move on. This can be done in a number of ways: projects, readings, tests, independent study, et. al.

Even if you were not aware of the educratic hanky-panky around the idea of “seat time credit,” such a convoluted, edu-babble description of a student failing a course should immediately raise one’s suspicions that something less than complete rectitude was at work. That’s the import of George Orwell’s argument that bad political writing is invariably “the defense of the indefensible.” [Politics and The English Language]

Creativity does not stop with “seat credit time.” The Principal of Bronx Aerospace Academy has an intervention ready before the failure grade is even recorded. A memorandum to her faculty includes the following passage:

Provide failing students an opportunity to make up work by completing a project over the vacation. Projects should be comprehensive enough to award students a passing grade if they complete the assignment. If students are attending your class every day, they should be given the chance to pass.

For the non-teachers, let’s be clear about what this memorandum means. Johnny Aerospace has come to my Social Studies class everyday for the past four months. With a few weeks left in the term, he has not handed in a single homework, much less the class term paper, and his highest grade on a class exam has been 40%. As his teacher, I am now supposed to devise a vacation project that will give him the same course credit as a student who has completed his homework and his term paper, and has class exams averaging 85%.

So while the Mayor and the Chancellor preach about how they have eliminated social promotion from New York City schools, the DOE has a tacit policy of giving away credit to students who have failed a course.

UFTers At Rally For Justice

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New York Charter School Association, Completely Bought and Paid For

Long time readers of Edwize may recall that on a number of different occasions, we have written about how the UFT and Randi Weingarten have reached out, in public and in private, to the charter school community in New York. [The discussion is summarized here.] We offered to support an increase in the cap of charter schools for New York City, provided that it was accompanied by labor rights for teachers working in charter schools, so that they could freely choose to be represented by a union. We even suggested ways in which charter school issues such as full funding could be addressed.

If lifting the cap was truly the objective of charter school advocates, here was a path for how it could be achieved — and it was a path laid out in public, so there would be no turning back. All that we required in return was that teachers in charter schools have the ability to exercise the right guaranteed in the first article of the New York State Constitution — to organize into a union and bargain collectively. Here in New York City, we have seen charter school teachers fired for discussing such matters as salary and missing pension contributions, and we have seen charter schools where an entire faculty had signed up to join the UFT one Spring, only to be “union cleansed” the following Fall. That is not acceptable in a state that proclaims the inviolability of labor rights in its Constitution, much less in a free and democratic society.

Our offer had the virtue of putting the question into a form where the response of charter school advocates would make it clear what their true objective is — the lifting of the cap on charter schools, or the power to run non-union schools, supported with public money, where teachers work “at will” and can be fired on the whim of The Man in charge.

Many of us on the teacher union side hoped against hope that New York charter school advocates were men and women of their public word, but we have been sorely disappointed by those who control NYCSA. These days it is not possible to read the puerile, tabloid prose of the New York Charter School Association blog, The Chalkboard, without being hit over the head by the message that their prime objective is charter schools where management exercises absolute power over teachers, that labor rights must be avoided at all costs. Lifting the charter school cap clearly comes in second, a goal only worth achieving if it can be done on NYCSA’s terms — schools where teachers have no labor rights.

The story here, like that in all too much of American public life, is one of the corrupting power of money and the undue influence of those with large amounts of it. Three significant, rather flush entities of the anti-union, far right wing — the Walton Family Foundation of Wal-Mart fame, a network of foundations and corporations connected to the corporate raider and junk bond dealer Carl Icahn, and a network of foundations and corporations connected to ultra-conservative Richard Gilder — give massive amounts of money to NYCSA, to allied organizations and to their political campaigns. [Closely connected to Gilder in his charter school advocacy and political work is the Hickory Foundation of Virginia Manheimer, Gilder’s former wife.]

Between 2000 and 2004, the Walton Family foundation and the Gilder Foundation gave over $900,000 to NYCSA. Over the same period of time, the two foundations gave over $1.5 million to the New York Charter School Resource Center, an organization that has shared the same address and a number of the same principals [most prominently, Gerardo Vasquez and Peter Murphy, a particularly venomous foe of teacher voice and teacher unions] as NYCSA. Walton and Gilder also give large sums of money to other foundations, such as the Robin Hood Foundation, which in turns funded charter school activities in New York and elsewhere. Icahn sponsors his own charter school in New York, and funds it and campaigns of New York charter school advocates.

According to tax returns and corporate filings, NYCSA shares a single address [Four Chelsea Place in Clifton, NY] not only with the Charter Resource Center, but also with the Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability [FERA], the Brighter Choice Foundation, and the School Choice Scholarships Foundation.

FERA is the successor to the ultra-conservative Empire Foundation and is part of the right-wing State Policy Network, a coordinating body of anti-union right wing state foundations. It was an affiliate of CHANGE-NY, a now defunct anti-tax, hard right wing umbrella group in New York. FERA’s 2004 tax return includes a $200,000 contribution from the Gilder Foundation [Richard Gilder and Virginia Manheimer sit on the FERA board] and a $170,000 contribution from the Charter Resource Center. FERA President Thomas Carroll, often in the news with attacks on teacher unions and on labor rights for teachers in charter schools, is also the founder and chairman of the Brighter Choice Charter Schools. Caroll and Gilder sit together on the board of School Choice Scholarships Foundation.

And there’s more. Roger Hertog, publisher and financier of the New York Sun, also sits on the board of School Choice Scholarships Foundation. [Now you know why Carroll’s byline appears regularly in the Sun, and why the Sun editorialized that the UFT’s two charter schools should be closed down, simply because we wouldn’t agree to an increase in the charter cap without accompanying labor rights — so much for caring about creating good schools for kids.] Hertog, Manheimer and Brian Backstrom [Charter School Resource Center Treasurer, FERA Vice-President and Brighter Choice Foundation Vice-President] all join Gilder in the Club for Growth, a national anti-union policy organization dedicated to laissez-faire economic principles.

He who pays the piper calls the tunes, and the anti-union troika of Walton-Gilder-Icahn has NYCSA and its allied organizations doing their bidding. NYCSA is completely bought and paid for. The anti-union, right wing economic agenda comes first, and charter schools and the students their serve come in a poor second.

It was this anti-union agenda that led NYCSA to play a central role in facilitating the introduction of the notorious union-busting law firm, Jackson, Lewis and its Atlantic Legal Foundation, to New York charter schools. In the past, Edwize wrote extensively about an Atlantic Legal Foundation conference specifically organized for New York Charter Schools on the subject of union busting; in addition to helping facilitate this conference, NYCSA has had the Atlantic Legal Foundation sponsor workshops at its annual conference.

Desperate to make a case — any case — against labor rights for charter school teachers, Chalkboard, the NYCSA blog, has now twice referred to events in Broward County, Florida. In fact, the events in Broward prove exactly the opposite of what the Chalkboard claims. The local teachers’ union signed up a majority of the teachers at the seven Pembroke Pines Charter Schools, only to have the County Commissioners renege on an agreement to recognize the union as the collective bargaining agent once a majority of teachers signed authorization cards. The ostensible reason? The wording on the card was “ambiguous,” so teachers did not understand what they were signing. Once the teachers were signed up, a full court pressure campaign was launched to stop union recognition, and a couple of teachers were pressured into endorsing this claim.

There’s only one problem with this scenario: teacher unions don’t get to put any old deceptive wording on an authorization card — this is an area of labor law which is tightly regulated by the government, precisely so there is no question about the intentions of the individuals who sign them. And because the signers were teachers, we are talking about individuals who have, at a minimum, a four year college degree. To believe the story of teachers being misled told by the Chalkboard and the usual anti-union forces [Michael Antonucci of EIA and the State Policy Network, to which FERA is affiliated], you would have to start from the premise that college graduate charter school teachers are unable to comprehend the most straightforward and simple written English.

What we have in the Pembroke Pines Charter Schools is precisely the problem that has led American workers to increasingly turn to ‘card check recognition’ in union organizing drives. Rather than recognize unions once workers have indicated their desire to have one, anti-union employers engage in long, drawn out campaigns to destroy the union that go on for years, with the introduction of professional union busting operations that refuse to negotiate contracts, that harass and fire union leaders, that tie up union victories in elections with court challenges, and that use intimidation and pressure to coerce individual employees to withdraw their support for their unions. The New York Times article “Who Drove Out A Union? South Carolina Factory Provides a Textbook Case.” [$] fully documented one particular vicious iteration of this sort of campaign by the very law firm that NYCSA brought into New York, Jackson, Lewis. Immediate recognition of the union in the Pembroke Pines Charter Schools would have made that sort of campaign impossible.

Being from New York, it is hard not to think of the old folk definition of chutzpah when reading The Chalkboard these days. Chutzpah, the saying goes, is exemplified by the defendant who kills his parents, and then begs the court’s mercy because he is an orphan. If any blog fits that definition, it has to be NYCSA’s Chalkboard. NYCSA puts itself in the pay of Walton, Icahn and Gilder, brings in notorious union busters like Jackson, Lewis and the Atlantic Legal Foundation, and then calls NYSUT a gorilla and a thug. They spurned the UFT’s offer to fashion a compromise that would help charter schools, because they were intent upon forcing legislation that would continue to deny charter school teachers labor rights. Now that they have been turned back at that effort, not once but twice, the playground bullies with the bloody noses are telling everyone how they were victimized. Their tale evokes as much sympathy as Donald Rumsfeld’s forced retirement from public life.

But there are real losers in this story — charter schools that understand their mission as serving needy kids, and that want to attract and retain the best teachers to that end. They are being terribly ill-served by a NYCSA that places an anti-union agenda of its funders and of dogmatic ultra-right ideologues like Carroll and Murphy above the needs of their students, their teachers and their schools. How long can they continue to let a NYCSA which is bought and paid for speak in their name?

I am indebted to the AFT’s Ed Muir for much of the research cited in this piece.

Winter Issue of the American Educator

The winter issue of American Educator from the AFT hits on a whole slew of issues regarding teaching and unions. It’s certainly one of the best education magazines in publication anywhere.

The Skills Commission released a report yesterday on recommendations for changes to the American Education system. AFT Vice-President Antionia Cortese released a statement in response to the report. More »

New Contract Ratified [UPDATED]

With 78,000 UFT members voting, the new contract was ratifiedtoday, with 90% of those voting — over 70,000 — supporting ratification.

“We are very pleased about the overwhelming number of members who voted and the overwhelming support for this contract,” UFT President Randi Weingarten said. “It provides real stability and certainty for educators and the students they serve and a much-needed raise for all our members that gets our most senior teachers to a milestone $100,000.”





Acohol/Susbtance Abuse




Attendance Teachers




Guidance Counselors




Laboratory Specialists








Psychologists & Social Workers




School Nurses




School Secretaries




Sign Language Interpreters




Supervisor Nurses/Therapists
















DMI’s Year in Review

The Drum Major Institute, NY’s progressive think-tank, has released it’s 2006 year in review.

Nibbling at the Toes of the Emperor: High School Admissions Policy

If you wanted to fill a school auditorium for a parent meeting, just put “zoning” on the agenda. For parents the ideal zoning would be Pre-K through Medical School in the same building, about three blocks from their house.The NYTimes reports on how a coalition of City Council members derailed a plan to build an educational campus that included small high schools, in the Mott Haven section in the Bronx.

The imperial Bloomberg/Klein administration doesn’t take the time to “create” policies with input from all stakeholders. They “rule” by ukase and determined, focused press campaigns. The Klein High School Admissions program is a prime example.

In the seventies the BOE created a complex high school zoning pattern. Neighborhood schools could create educational option programs, basically schools within schools to attract youngsters from outside of their zones. Other schools also created theme programs to keep students who lived within their zones. It turned into an entrepreneurial system: some schools did it well and received thousands of applicants while others attracted few applicants.

Unfortunately it was a “leaky” system, the BOE didn’t monitor it closely, “deals” were made, and, High School Superintendents were allowed to “dump” low achieving and/or discipline problems into “less favored” schools.

We now have 200 small high schools with another 200 in the pipeline. The encyclopedic High School Directory is virtually incomprehensible. The High School Fairs are bazaars with each school flacking it’s wares.

The Klein High School admissions system is based on the premise that kids should be able to chose the school that they want to attend: a noble goal, however, there is no advantage to local parents. The system does allow parents to “rank” schools, however, the plan is a lottery. If you live across the street from a school you have no advantage, you have to take your chances with everyone else. The small high schools are limited to entering classes of 100 students.

If a parent calls their local City Council person and asks whether they can help them to get into a local school the answer they get is: “The DOE doesn’t acknowledge the existence of local legislators.”

The new admissions plan could have carved out seats for local kids, but the plutocracy at Tweed knows better, and, they are deaf to the lessons of history.

When Morrow high School opened after over a decade of parent advocacy the school had a creative three-tiered zoning plan. Kids who lived in a small area around the school had first priority, the school district that surrounded the school had the next priority and then kids from the borough. It was the result of many meetings with the stakeholder community and was accepted by all the “players.”

Democracy is a lengthy and ofttimes fractious process, (I can show you my scars!) but it’s worth the effort. Crafting policy from the bottom up builds constituency. For Tweed it’s a lot easier to hire “experts,” aka consultants, and release the “policy” with fanfare and a well designed public relations campaign.

The anger is bubbling in homes around the city. Parents are increasingly angry. Elected officials are tired about being “taken for granted.”

It will be fascinating to see whether the emperor realizes that for many parents, he has no clothes.

Math failures – haven’t we heard this before?

Roberta M. Eisenberg is chair of the UFT Math Teachers Committee.

As controversies rage about the best way to teach math and whether students should be allowed to use calculators — incidentally, the State Education Department on Dec. 1 declared that calculators will now be considered teaching materials, like textbooks, and schools must provide them to students — the real question is why children in this country are not better at learning math. Is it the curriculum? Is it the equipment? Is it the tests? And, haven’t we heard all this before?

In 1957, the Russians sent up Sputnik, stealing a march in the space race, and the United States decided that something had to be done, in a hurry, about math and science instruction in this country. Thus were born National Science Foundation grants to teachers of math and science so that they might get master’s degrees in their subjects rather than in education. A generation of teachers excitedly brought their advanced knowledge back to their classrooms.

Also in the early ’60s, the so-called New Math was influencing curricula across the country. The result was an emphasis on concepts to the detriment of the basics. Naturally, there was an eventual backlash when parents could no longer understand their children’s homework.

By the ’70s, teachers in middle and high schools were noticing that students were getting weaker on their recall of times tables and other basics. This could not then be blamed on calculators because there were no calculators yet in general use.

In the ’90s there was growing concern that lack of math skills by American kids would reduce us to a third-world economy. A few weeks ago, an article in The New York Times said essentially the same thing. In “As Math Scores Lag, a New Push for the Basics” (Nov. 14), Tamar Lewin stated, “For the second time in a generation, education officials are rethinking the teaching of math in American schools.”

This was not the second time nor was it only in one generation. Changing the curriculum has been going on for at least 150 years. At one time, the math skills needed by the citizenry were mainly arithmetic and practical geometry. Carpenters knew about rectangles and squares in order to produce cabinets with right angles in the right places. Very few people went to college, and therefore very few needed to know algebra and more advanced math.

It is instructive — and funny — to read some of the old tirades against slide rules and typewriters. They were blamed for students’ loss of ability to do times tables, and it was even claimed that students would no longer be able to write legibly.

Every advance in technology has brought about changes in curriculum. The State of New York has been very slow in permitting and then requiring calculators on high school Regents exams — finally allowing basic calculators. In 1989, graphing calculators began to appear. As teachers got excited by the new technology and began to change the way mathematics is taught, they also began to push the SED to require these calculators on math exams. Finally, for the past few years, they have been allowed on the Math A and required on the Math B Regents.

Now New York math standards are changing again in reaction to outcries from parents and teachers after disastrous results on the Math A Regents a few years ago. Math A and B are being replaced after a short-lived, unsuccessful life. No one knows what the new Regents in algebra, geometry and intermediate algebra and trigonometry will look like.

So why have student skills gradually deteriorated over the decades?

Is it the fault of the curriculum? There is no national curriculum in any subject. In New York State, since the introduction of Math A and B, we have the completely illogical situation of standards and assessments without any curriculum. The UFT and NYSUT have followed the AFT’s call for a grade-by-grade curriculum. Teachers need to know exactly what to teach and in how much depth. Students and parents must know what is required on each assessment (as exams are now called).

Is it the fault of calculators and other technology? Students learn much more exciting mathematics and can literally see things with graphing calculators that were never really seen before, not even by authors of calculus textbooks. The types of questions asked have necessarily changed as the technology has improved. In fact, with a graphing calculator — and simpler calculators at lower levels — the math that students do is much harder than without them.

So why are students not learning math and comparing unfavorably with students in other countries on international tests? Around 1990, Al Shanker cited a statistic that was shocking to hear but realistic upon reflection. He said, “Sixty-five percent of high school students in our country never do any homework. Never do any.”

Parents and the public don’t expect excellence to occur, nor even passable skills, in sports and music without lots of practice and repetition. How can they expect less from academic subjects?

Related to this is a public belief that it’s OK not to be able to do math. Parents often tell their kids that they themselves could “never do math” either. As Nicholas D. Kristof stated in a Times Op-Ed piece (“Watching the Jobs Go By,” Feb. 11, 2004), “The broader problem is not just in schools but society as a whole: There’s a tendency in U.S. intellectual circles to value the humanities but not the sciences. Anyone who doesn’t nod sagely at the mention of Plato’s cave is dismissed as barely civilized, while it’s no blemish to be ignorant of statistics, probability and genetics.”

He concluded, “In 1957, the Soviet launching of Sputnik frightened America into substantially improving math and science education. I’m hoping that the loss of jobs in medicine and computers to India and elsewhere will again jolt us into bolstering our own teaching of math and science.”

The hard part is not the teaching but the changing of attitudes in a country.

Math through English Literacy

The writer is a former NYC teacher math teacher now teaching in Westchester county.

In the past week, we have been using material from “SpringBoard,” a College Board product, to teach our middle school students about scientific notations.

Let me preface this with the fact that as classroom teachers at the school I am currently teaching, we have no choice. The principal of our school, if not the school district supervisor, has decided that SpringBoard is the way to go. On the surface, the SpringBoard program sounds good-its proclaimed mission is to prepare students for college success. More specifically, its stated objective is to “build the critical thinking skills in reading, writing, and mathematics that lead to success in Advanced Placement courses and college.” This should not come as a surprise. After all, we are dealing with the College Board people. But does every child have the aptitude and the motivation for advanced placement classes and college? Or am I asking too many questions?

Let’s assume for the moment that aptitude and motivation are not the problem. Let’s assume that every child is college-bound. Is the SpringBoard material effective in preparing students for college?

I have used SpringBoard material for teaching 7th grade and 8th grade math. I must say that I am not impressed at all. Take, for example, this current unit called “A Traveler’s Tale.” It uses the characters from Jonathan Swift’s tale, Gulliver’s Travels, in an attempt to make things more interesting for kids. Because there are midgets and giants in this story, the “educators” at SpringBoard think that it is ideal for introducing very big numbers and very small ones. For example, one of the questions in the unit asks “if Gulliver consumes more food than 103 Lilliputians do, how many Lilliputians does this number represent?”

Does the usage of this classic tale really make things more interesting to the students? Hardly. I found that most of my students have not read Gulliver’s Travels. Even if they had, I seriously doubt that the introduction of these fictional characters will spice things up. Scientific notation is simply a way to express astronomically big or microscopically small measurements. It is a very dry topic in itself. But the concept itself is not difficult. Students simply have to learn to express extraordinarily big or extraordinarily small numbers as the product between a number which is between 1 and 10 and an exponent of 10. Because the subject matter is boring by nature, it is best to simply introduce the concept quickly and then move on. In fact, that was how I learned about scientific notation years ago when I studied math the traditional way. Alas, the authors of SpringBoard decided to make this “Traveler’s Tales” unit a week long ordeal.

This is not my only complaint. The authors of the SpringBoard series also have an awkward way of asking questions. For example, another question in this unit asks” “In terms of Gulliver’s height, use scientific notation to express the height of an insect if the insect is 10 times smaller than a person from Lilliput.” I wonder how many adults understand what is being asked here. And what is “10 times smaller”? Wouldn’t it be much more straight forward if we say that the height of an insect is 1/10 that of a Lilliputian?

Perhaps the College Board people are not entirely to blame. Throughout the movement called “Literacy Across the Curriculum,” there is an attempt to integrate all content areas, including math and science, with to literacy. The practice of encouraging students to read and write in a math class is part of that effort. That’s why you see literature being used as a springboard to the teaching of mathematical concepts.

The integration of math with literacy may not be a bad idea in itself. But we must be very clear about our priorities. In a math class, the priority is to effectively teach the math concepts and skills as required by the curriculum. The “literacy” part should not become a distraction to our basic goal. But what I keep hearing from other teachers is that the more “creative” ways of teaching math actually make it more difficult for students to learn. In contemplating any policy change, it helps to bear in mind the principle of “first do no harm.”

Quite honestly, American school children already have enough problems in math due to poor basic skills. If it were up to me, I would use any extra time to re-teach certain basic concepts and skills. The introduction of this “literacy” component is not only foolish, it is unconscionable.

Labor Friendly Holiday

Still trolling for that perfect holiday gift? The AFL-CIO runs an online store offering a wide selection of items that can meet all your holiday shopping needs. Included is a black T-shirt, with fire-engine-red lettering reading, “Kicking Ass for the Working Class” that is perfect for all those hard-to-dress-for occasions. The site also offers a slew of first-rate books on labor history—a pretty good list in itself— and makes available an extensive selection of quality fiction, too. Visit the Union Shop Online at On that same topic you may want to visit the union friendly book seller Powell.com for your holiday gifts. And, check out Shop Union Made for those holiday gift item from union friendly merchants and manufacturers. You can also check out the AFL-CIO’s union label site to see which products and companies are on the labor’s do not buy list.