Alan J. Singer: MORE than Chutzpah

Jan 16, 2015 by

An Interview with Alan J. Singer: MORE than Chutzpah

Michael F. Shaughnessy – 

1) Alan, for our readers who are goyim or uninformed, what exactly does the word “chutzpah” mean?

Chutzpah is from Yiddish, the language of Eastern European Jews. Well there is the dictionary definition and my bubba’s or grandmother’s. The dictionary defines chutzpah as “shameless audacity.” My bubba would not have known what that meant. When her grandchildren said or did something she didn’t like, bubba would holler, “That’s a lot of chutzpah.” But sometimes she would also use the term affectionately. But when I described Andrew Cuomo as having the chutzpah to blame teachers for the problems of education in New York State, there was no affection intended at all.

2) Sadly, some politicians, once elected ‘forget” the promises they once made. Case in point – Andrew Cuomo. What has he done recently relative to teachers?

Andy feuded with the teachers union for most of his first term as governor. The Cuomo property tax cap has forced school districts to cut budgets impacting on teacher hiring and salaries. He fought with the union over new teacher certification exams, rushed implementation of Common Core without a curriculum in place, and supported charter schools operated by groups with a history of hostility to the teachers’ union. Last fall, NYSUT, New York State United Teachers refused to endorse Cuomo for reelection.

But when he was running for reelection, Cuomo thought it would be unfair to fire teachers whose students scored badly on standardized tests because many other factors affect student performance. Coincidently, Cuomo was also running on the Working Families line, a local political party with strong ties to unions, including the teachers’ union. But after he was reelected, Andy did not have to concern himself with teacher support, the validity of the tests, conditions that affect students living in poor communities, or the fact that an overwhelming majority of teachers in New York State, close to 95%, scored well on a ratings system that he had also endorsed in the past. He refused to sign a bill he had previously endorsed, because he decided it should be easier to fire teachers. According to the New York Times, these kinds of switches marked much of his first term in office. Oh, the chutzpah!

3) There seems to be a strange, odd, bizarre movement to make it easier to fire teachers and replace them with less competent, less qualified individuals. Where and when did this movement start?

There are a number of factors at work here. Charter schools make their profits, even so-called not-for-profit charter schools that pay administrators exorbitant salaries, by keeping teacher salaries low. The best way to do this is through temporary contracts, denial of tenure, and high teacher turnover that makes it possible to constantly pay beginning salaries. Michelle Rhee, one of the darlings of what I call the school deform movement has justified this defending the hiring of new, unqualified teachers through groups like Teach for America. However one critic writing in the New York Times described TFA as a gloried temp agency that undermines student achievement.

I think politicians like Cuomo and Arne Duncan take potshots at teachers because it is easier to blame teachers for the problems facing American schools than to find solutions to the real problems affecting student performance, poverty, disrupted families, school and neighborhood segregation, crumbling housing and infrastructure, chronic under-funding, and continuing racism.

4) Albert Shanker, sadly is dead, and I am not sure who is advocating for the good work that teachers do (other than perhaps you and me). Your thoughts?

There continue to be educational advocates that deserve recognition. They include organizations like Rethinking Schools and Badass Teachers Association, bloggers such as Diane Ravitch and Mercedes Schneider, and educators like Carol Burris, a principal on Long Island in New York who is a leader in the campaign against high-stakes testing.

I wish the problems facing schools were not just that enough people are defending teachers. Since the Reagan Presidency there has been an immense ideological shift in the United States to the right. Government and public solutions to social problems have somehow become the enemy. Even so-called liberals are no longer very liberal. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are technocrats seeking narrow tinkering solutions to major social problem. They are always looking for the magic bullet that does not exist. Obama and Arnie Duncan, his education czar, are in love with technology, data collection, and testing, as if they can provide some kind of miracle answers. Obama keeps talking about preparing students 21st century technology jobs like coding will solve everything. But there is bad news. A new approach called code containers developed by Google and a software start-up called Dockets is changing the way programmers code and will eliminate much of the demand for coding. In a few years coders may be the next group of technologically unemployed.

5) Let me state it clearly- test scores are not everything. Children learn at different rates, grow at different rates, learn art, music, P.E., science, geography, social studies and not everything revolves around math and language arts. Is Andrew Cuomo blaming teachers for students not learning material that they are not even tested on?

So far we are seeing a blanket rant against teachers because they are easy targets. Andy avoids specifics because the specifics do not support his case. Is it the fault of teachers that Obama’s Race to the Top and Andy’s Board of Regents coerced them into accepting teacher evaluations that included student performance on high-stakes tests? Is it their fault that when Andy endorsed measurements where finally calculated, almost 60% of the teachers were rated highly effective and less than 3% were found to be “developing” or ineffective?

One of the most ridiculous aspects of the current rating system is that teachers in subjects that are not tested are rated based on student performance in subjects they do not teach. Arnie Duncan actually wants to extend the absurdity. He is proposing that Schools of Education be evaluated based on the performance of students on high-stakes tests that are taught by their graduates. If this is implemented, in theory, university program could be shut down because people who had graduated twenty years earlier had students in their schools who were not performing up to expectations on standardized tests no one had ever even thought of when these teachers were in teacher education programs. And remember, if they are gym or social studies teachers, they are evaluated on how students did on math and English tests.

6) A veteran teacher sent the Honorable Governor Cuomo a letter- Can we reprint it here? Or can you provide the gist of the letter?

My friend Henry Dircks, who is a high school social studies teacher in New York, did a point-by point response to a letter sent by Andrew Cuomo’s director of state operations, to the departing education commissioner, John King, and the chancellor of the Board of Regents, Merryl Tisch, soliciting their advice on how to shake-up the school system. The letter posed twelve largely rhetorical questions that expose Cuomo’s direction. Teacher unions were described as “special interests,” but charter schools and their hedge fund supporters, textbook and test prep companies, and anti-union groups like StudentsFirst NY were all “reform” allies. Henry called the letter a political maneuver and argued that the governor’s pronouncement that he wanted to break the ‘monopoly” of public education makes it extremely difficult to believe he has the best interests of students, teachers, and families at heart. Henry entire letter is available on my Huffington Post “Andrew Cuomo has the ‘Chutzpah’ to Blame Teachers and a Veteran Teacher Responds.”

7) More chutzpah- what are they trying to do with merit pay?

In his recent State of the State address, Cuomo proposed a “Teacher Excellence Fund.” It would allow school districts to give $20,000 bonuses to teachers with top ratings on their annual evaluations, of course this would be after the ratings were toughened so a lot fewer people would qualify. Not only would this lead to favoritism, but probably to all out war. No one would want difficult students and no one would share teaching ideas. I can just see the gym teachers demanding that their students be transferred to the teachers who produced the best test takers to protect their bonuses.

Merit pay has become too politically charged. Cuomo must have anticipated the less than lukewarm reaction to this proposal because he already has a back-up plan in place. In the “letter,” Andy had his director of state operations float the idea of calling merit pay a “leadership bonus.”

8) Merit pay is a great concept. But there seems to be a disconnect between what teachers want and need, and what the powers that be are willing to give. Your thoughts?

I don’t agree that “Merit pay is a great concept.” According to Cuomo, if “You want teachers to perform … then incentivize performance with performance bonuses and pay them like the professionals they are.” I wonder if Andy also wants to pay doctors based on cure rates, police based on ticketing, sanitation workers by the pound, and politicians based on their verbiage? You could have doctors rejecting a patient because chances of recover were just too low.

9) Blaming teachers for the fact that so many kids do not learn, or learn less well than their middle and upper class peers, is, in my humble opinion, more chutzpah. Am I off on this?

It must be chutzpah on both of our parts because I agree with you. In 1990 I taught at a low-performing high school where many of our students were from the East New York section of Brooklyn. Since the 1950s, East New York has consistently had among the highest crime and murder rates in the borough. That June approximately half of the students in my academic United States history class passed the New York State American History exam. Three years later I was teaching at a school with a much more middle class student population and 90% of my students passed the exam. I can honestly say the difference was not me, it was the condition of their lives.

10) Further, blaming teachers for kids who have intellectual disabilities, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, brain injury or brain damage, health problems, and autism, is again, in my mind, more CHUTZPAH. Your input?

Special education teachers are often the most caring and patient people that I know. I could not do their job. Many work with students who have severe disabilities and they teach them how to function in society to the best of their ability and how to interact with other people. Many of these teachers are distressed because of the prevailing ideology that all students can learn in the same way and that these students should be able to meet the same level achievement as other students. We live in a society of unreality and teachers and students become the victims.

11) What have I neglected to ask?

One question that I have is why do people like Andrew Cuomo think they should be president? Maybe I have missed something, but I do not see much of a record of achievement. I also want to invite people to follow my blog on Huffington Post.

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1 Comment

  1. Avatar
    Teacher with a Brain

    I have said this for years. In my entire teaching career, now approaching 40 years (though I took about 18 years off here and there, I have noted that teachers are a huge and convenient target for all that is wrong in society. However, it is worse than it was in 1980.

    Democrats and Republicans both take aim at teachers. Some of the worst offenders today are elected Democrats and wealthy Democratic donors who promote charter schools, lobby for parent trigger laws, and generally work against the public school establishment to target teachers.

    I read an article a week or so ago written by an expat American who has found as she travels more and more well-educated, thoughtful folks asking her what makes Americans tick these days. I confess, I do not understand the ugly, angry, attack mode some of our politicians have adopted today and the ire that has been raised in average Americans who listen to this propaganda.

    In Singapore, for example, officials wanted to overhaul their nation, they wanted excellent public schools. They worked carefully and strategically over a period of a generation to make this happen. We, on the other hand, appear to be masters of short-term thinking. We quickly affix blame, inform the public we have found the culprits, adopt band-aid approaches that we promote as panaceas, taking aim at folks who become our victims. Instead, little changes (because we have affixed blame incorrectly and prescribed the wrong fixes) and we create a host of unintended consequences and more problems.

    We know that when teachers collaborate, achievement improves. Yet, the capitalists among us, convinced the human organism is wired to compete, design solutions that pit teacher against teacher. I wonder, is the human organism really wired to compete? Do/did we not find higher primates, and indeed primitive homo sapiens, living cooperatively in clans and tribes? Are 90% of us really inclined to kill/starve or beat the competition? Yes, a few are so wired, and they become CEOs who are comfortable with off shoring work, closing plants and decimating communities (far from the places they call home). Others become politicians and promote “solutions” that are inhumane and demonstrate a total lack of understanding and compassion, but sociopaths lack compassion. But, how do you understand poverty when you have never lived or worked closely with it?

    Teachers are fundamentally decent folks. We chose a profession that pays comparatively low wages, knowing we will never support our families in style, and we generally want to do our jobs. We are highly visible, we are in every community and we tend to prefer to remain below the radar, until we are backed into a corner. Thus, we are ideal targets for politicians who are trying to get votes, or to attract campaign funds to get themselves re-elected. And let us not forget that as everyday people can find strength in numbers, politicians around the U.S. are doing their utmost to destroy teachers’ unions. When we can create the circumstances where most people work hard to just get by, when we can short circuit opportunities for workers to organize, we can get away with just about anything.

    It is cheap to attack teachers and the return on this “investment” is huge relative to the actual cost in terms of political capital.

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