Answers From The New CEA President-2

We are in immediate need for dynamic leadership in public education in Connecticut. Public education is under attack. Visionary leaders who recognize that vibrant public schools are an absolute necessity for the functioning of a democracy are essential.

Those currently in power in our state are about to change. We will have a new governor, a new commissioner of education, and a new president of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. As the candidates present themselves, I will ask them the same twelve questions. I will then report their answers as a way to raise consciousness about the issues facing us as a state as well as to provide readers with detailed information for making their own choices.

The Connecticut Education Association will hold elections for a new president in May. The two candidates for president of the CEA are Jeff Leake and Robert Smoler. Jeff Leake is currently CEA vice-president, and Robert Smoler is president of the Fairfield Education Association and a math teacher at Fairfield Warde High School in Fairfield, CT. I will post two of the questions and the candidates’ answers each day this week.

The first two questions and the candidates’ answers were posted yesterday. Here is the second set of questions and answers:

Robert Smoler

3. What do you propose that will ameliorate the achievement gap in Connecticut schools?

Answer: It starts with mandatory pre-school in all communities. All students need to enter kindergarten with the same kind of enrichment that families provide their children in the wealthy communities. It doesn’t end there, though. We need high expectations for all students and when those standards aren’t met, remediation needs to be provided to get the student back on track. It’s probable that many students will need a summer school experience to learn all that their peers learn in a standard school year. There is nothing wrong with that. Not all children learn at the same speed so they shouldn’t be expected to be on the same timetable.

Currently, many districts don’t provide the type of remedial programs needed to keep students on pace. This is an area where the CEA Academy can play a leading role through the establishment of best practices in the academic, emotional and civic growth of students.

4. What is your position regarding the Common Core State Standards, both their content and the pedagogy required of teachers?

I am not in favor of the common core. The common core encourages a curriculum that is a mile wide and an inch deep. The 21st century demands students obtain and build on skills such as communication, problem solving, teamwork, critical thinking, etc. Content should just be a vehicle in which students gain mastery in these skills.   The CEA should advocate for the elimination of the common core and a change in the concept of what a graduate should know and be able to do. I envision my idea of a CEA Academy as being central to the creation of these new standards.

 

Jeff Leake

3. What do you propose that will ameliorate the achievement gap in Connecticut schools?

a. The achievement gap in CT is really a family wealth and family education gap -and we cannot expect to close this gap when children who live with poverty and/ or trauma arrive at school years behind their suburban counterparts;

b. We will begin to ameliorate the achievement gap when we address the issue of poverty in our communities – meaning a livable minimum wage and health care, and establish community schools that can address the needs of all our students;

c. School inequity and the achievement gap starts with our elected officials and we must hold them accountable.

4. What is your position regarding the Common Core State Standards, both their content and the pedagogy required of teachers?

    1. CCSS were written without real input from classroom teachers;
    2. CCSS did not undergo real field testing or pilots;
    3. CCSS are especially inappropriate for our youngest (Pre-K-2) children;
    4. I am appalled to hear this phrase: Kindergarten is the new first grade;
    5. Two quotes from Diane Ravitch are appropriate here: “Teaching and learning are dynamic, dependent on the social conditions of families and children, as well as changing knowledge of teaching and learning…I oppose the mandated use of the Common Core standards. If teachers like them and want to use them, they should. I have no problem with that. It should be up to the teachers, not to a committee that was funded by Bill Gates, promoted by Arne Duncan, and marketed as a “state-led initiative,” which it was not.

Questions For The New CEA President

We are in immediate need for dynamic leadership in public education in Connecticut. Public education is under attack. Visionary leaders who recognize that vibrant public schools are an absolute necessity for the functioning of a democracy are essential.

Those currently in power in our state are about to change. We will have a new governor, a new commissioner of education, and a new president of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union. As the candidates present themselves, I will ask them the same twelve questions. I will then report their answers as a way to raise consciousness about the issues facing us as a state as well as to provide readers with detailed information for making their own choices.

The Connecticut Education Association will hold elections for a new president in May. The two candidates for president of the CEA are Jeff Leake and Robert Smoler. Jeff Leake is currently CEA vice-president, and Robert Smoler is president of the Fairfield Education  Association and a math teacher at Fairfield Warde High School in Fairfield, CT. I will post two of the questions and the candidates’ answers each day this week.

Jeff Leake

  1. How will you be a visionary and a transformative leader?

I offer these quotes:
Great leaders don’t set out to be a leader…they set out to make a difference. It’s never about the role-Always about the goal.
The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.

 

       2. What do you think are the three most pressing problems about education facing us as a state? Please explain in detail how you would address those problems as the President of the Connecticut Education Association.

a. Resources necessary for addressing the real educational, emotional and social needs of all our students are not available in too many districts, so problem #1 is funding. We need to fix CT’s tax and funding system and provide the necessary resources for our students, with a special emphasis on our least resourced communities;

b. We need to ensure that we are preparing the next generation of teachers for the changing needs of our students and the communities in which they live, and further ensure that the profession is attractive to those wishing to become educators;

c. End the growing privatization of our public schools;

d. Expand opportunities to develop and empower teacher leaders.

 

Robert Smoler

       1. How will you be a visionary and a transformative leader?

Transformative leadership comes from a willingness to embrace change. Change starts from gaining an awareness of your environment and the needs of your constituents, the ability to plan strategically, the ability to communicate that plan effectively, and the ability to bring people together to turn the plan into a reality. Those are my skill sets. It’s what I do. I was successful doing that at Oxford Health Plans where we took a start-up company and built it into a market leader with 7,000 employees and 2 million customers. Along the way, we improved the lives of countless people. I was successful doing that with Westport Baseball and Softball where I created one of the best town youth baseball programs in the state. That program turned a bad Staples baseball team into a perennial powerhouse that has won 3 league and one state championship in 12 years.   We’ve also helped dozens of young men to get into great schools due to their baseball skills. I’m doing it right now in Fairfield where we’ve helped to elect an education friendly Board of Education, Board of Selectmen and RTM; built coalitions of administrators and parents all working toward a common goal of creating a great education experience for students: and got teachers a seat at the table when discussing important issues affecting teachers and students.  Fairfield teachers feel proud to be part of the association and half of our 1,000 teachers have done something to advance our mission.

          2. What do you think are the three most pressing problems about education facing us as a state? Please explain in detail how you would address those problems as the President of the Connecticut Education Association.

a. Problem 1: The decrease in State funding for local public schools, especially inner city schools, coupled with the siphoning off of public funds for the benefit of unaccountable for-profit charter schools.

Solution: The narrative that funding for public schools is somehow just a line item in the budget to be cut is extremely short sighted. Exceptional public schools are critical to the growth of CT as a state, essential to maintaining and growing each town’s grand list and essential to the future of our youth. Currently, Connecticut’s education system is in the top 10 in not only results, but also as a state that is favorable for teachers to work in (This is despite our major achievement gap). These facts represent an asset for the state to build on. I intend to convince all state officials and the public that investing in education is the primary way for the state to thrive fiscally, socially and from an opportunistic standpoint as we move deeper into the 21st century.

The public relations component of this is just half the battle, though. It is harder to convince people to change their minds than to reinforce current thoughts. That is why the CEA needs to make sure that we elect at the local and state level public officials that already understand and appreciate how critical our public education system is to the future of CT.b

b. Problem 2: Outside parties are defining our profession. They have established how teachers are to be evaluated (the CT teacher evaluation system), what we will teach (common core), who can teach (Relay and elimination of CEUs) and how we will measure success (standardized testing). I fundamentally disagree with each of these approaches as I believe they denigrate the teaching profession and represent a lack of understanding of what is involved in growing a child into an independent adult capable of contributing to society.

Solution: The CEA must establish the CEA Academy whose mission is to establish best practice in teaching and child development.   The work of the Academy must be research based, data driven and take into consideration the skills students will need to be successful in the 21st century.   We also need to create many types of alliances (PTA would be one example). One key alliance should be with education and leadership departments in our state’s public and private colleges/universities. Public schools and our pubic and private colleges and universities represent the continuum of education that is responsible of developing/educating the vast majority of US citizens. We need to be aligned in our approach to this development.

c. Problem 3: We are looking at a serious teacher shortage all across the country and CT is no different. CT will never be able to maintain a high- quality education system without establishing the teaching profession as a desirable field for talented individuals to enter. Attacks on public school teachers; declining wages, benefits and working conditions; declining job security, i.e. attacks on tenure; and a lack of resources and support are all turning talented people off from teaching.

Solution: First, collective bargaining and interest arbitration must be maintained. That is the only way that reasonable wages, benefits and working conditions can be maintained. We must elect state officials that are committed to this process.

Second, I would be in favor of requiring all school districts to participate in the CT Partnership 2.0 health insurance program.   Insurance has long been based on the law of large numbers. The more people covered under a single plan, the less costly the plan will be, because the risk will be spread over a larger number of individuals.   I would also encourage the state to make a retiree version of the CT Partnership 2.0 plan available as the primary program for retirees. This will provide continuity of coverage for individuals as they enter retirement. This retiree program could either be a Medicare Advantage program or a supplement to Medicare. Ideally our state or country would adopt a universal healthcare program, but until that happens, the above will have to do.

Third, CT should encourage high school students to study education in college through financial incentives.   Scholarships to CT State Schools should be available to those students, especially minority students, who are willing to commit to the education field for at least 4 years. Students who enter college on this basis should be able to graduate in 4 years with a masters in education and full certification so they can begin their teaching career right after graduation.

Lastly, the state retirement system needs to be maintained and updated. More and more teachers are retiring before age 65, often with less than 25 years of service. Many teachers in their early and mid-term ages are as concerned about having amounts of adequate life, disability and health insurance as they are with their retirement. They also have worries about putting their kids through college. Those closer to retirement are concerned about paying for very expensive health insurance after retirement if they are under age 65 as well as long-term care needs. I think the CEA needs to take a comprehensive look at the profile of a teacher at all phases of their career and perhaps suggest a program that not only includes post-retirement income replacement but also the financial needs of a teacher throughout their whole teaching career. Attracting and retaining teachers requires a comprehensive approach and it can’t all be about what you get when you retire.

 

The Second Amendment Does Not Permit Assault Weapons

The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America:

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

………………………………………

I saw what our founders meant by that amendment early one April morning on the village green in Lexington, Massachusetts. It was before dawn, about 5:30 A.M. I could hear the ominous sound of the measured beating of a drum in the distance. The sound kept getting closer and closer. The beating of the drum was the only sound in the still of that pre-dawn morning.

As the sound of the beating drum became louder and louder and was accompanied by the sound of marching feet, a few men from the houses surrounding the village green came out on the green and began shouting to one another. They loaded their muskets. They lined up in a ragtag order and stood together on the green. They were the Minutemen, the militia of the town of Lexington, mostly farmers, ready to face those who were attacking their homeland.

Over the hill, came the marchers, men in red coats, the British Army. The drum continued to beat. A shot was fired. The militia of Lexington and the British Army then opened fire on each other. And that was the beginning of the American Revolution.

What I was witnessing was a present day re-enactment of that 1775 battle. It took my breath away to feel the tension in the air on that cold morning and to see first-hand the risks the men of the militia took as they defended their emerging country. Of course, the men of that militia should have had those muskets. Of course, the protection of their fellow citizens demanded it.

Yet now 243 years after that battle in Lexington, the intention of the Second Amendment is misconstrued such that many of those who hold political power put assault weapons in the hands of citizens, assault weapons which they use, not to protect the “security of the State”, but to hunt and kill their fellow citizens.

It is insanity.

What can we do about it?

  1. Work as hard as we can to vote out of office those who support gun violence. Find  a district in which a candidate who wants to ban assault weapons needs our help and then dig in. Work remotely.  Donate. Show up.
  2. Support businesses that have taken stands against gun violence by ending preferred  treatment for members of the NRA. Here is a link to a list of those companies.  
  3. Don’t do business with companies that refuse to take a stand against gun violence  and continue to support the NRA. Here is a link to a list of those companies.

What will be my first steps?

  • I am going to email Sister District to find a candidate to support. Here is that link. 
  • I am canceling my account at FedEx and will use other sources for mailing packages because FedEx refuses to break its ties to the NRA.
  • Then, I will go to Dicks Sporting Goods and buy new workout clothes that I don’t even need because that company has decided to stop selling assault weapons.
  • And when I fly, it will be only on Delta, both in support of their stand against gun violence and in solidarity with the airline for the way the Georgia state government is penalizing it with higher taxes because of its stand against gun violence.

In taking actions to fight the gun lobby and take assault weapons out of the hands of citizens, we will be connected to those men who ran out on the Lexington Green 243 years ago. They were committed to creating a better country than the one they then had. And so now are we. We will build a stronger United States. We will create a nation that does everything in its power to prevent the slaughter of its children.

 

 

 

 

Betting on the Kids of Stoneman Douglas

John Meacham, the erudite presidential historian, was asked if he thought the protest by the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School would change the gun laws in this country. He said that, much as he admired the students, he doubted it very much.  He said that change takes a long time so, even if change happened, it wouldn’t be soon.

He gave two examples of the long time it takes to create social change.  One example was Abigail Adams, writing to her husband in 1776 to “remember the ladies” in regard to female rights as he was working with others to produce the Declaration of Independence, but it took 144 years before women had the right to vote. The other example was that the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, but 100 years later, in the 1960’s, blacks were still battling for their civil rights and racism continues to plague our country today.

Not everyone doubts that the students will produce a substantive social change. Dahlia Lithwick, who writes about the courts and the law for Slate, is optimistic about the students’ success in changing the gun laws in this country. She is optimistic because she sees ways in which the students are creating social change that are different from how adults of the present operate and how efforts of the past went down. Dahlia Lithwick says that the Marjory Stoneman Douglas students are different because:

1.     They are ignoring Donald Trump. They regard him as a symptom of the problem of gun violence and unworthy of credit or blame. They stay focused on and give their attention to the problem itself.

2.     They don’t waste time and energy arguing with people who don’t share their values and goals.  They don’t attempt gentle persuasion; they know they are being lied to.

 3.     They don’t seem hell-bent on having leaders.  They share the spotlight with one another and take turns being the spokesperson. They seem to relish the collaboration they share.

4.     They expect to win.  They don’t have the fatalism of older progressives who persuade themselves that the NRA and Republican interests are too powerful to overcome so give up before they begin.  They show us what being awake, alive, human, and compassionate actually looks like.

Dahlia Lithwick concludes that, because the students are unconstrained by our norms, they will accomplish wonders.

Diane Ravitch agrees and writes this about the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and all the other high school students across the country who stand with them:

Students care, and they are not afraid. They are idealistic. They want fairness. They want justice. They have energy. They have not been beaten down by the system. No one can accuse them of being self-interested, unless self-interest means they hope to stay alive.

I’m betting on the kids. And I’m betting on our democracy working.

The Voices Of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have forever removed three words from our language: “failing public schools”.  The critical thinking and articulateness of those 14 – 18 year old students are moving us all. There is no other way to account for the way they are changing the conversation about gun violence in this country other than to say that they have incredible intellectual skills and a work ethic that drives them to excellence.

I know what it is to experience the sudden, traumatic death of loved one. I know what it does to you when your life as you know it disappears in a moment. The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have experienced that, yet they have something deep within them that is leading them to think and to act. That something is the education that their parents and their schools have given them.

There have been other loud voices in our society who repeatedly use the words, “failing public schools”. They call themselves “school reformers” and petition state legislatures to use tax payer funds to replace public schools with charter schools. Their goal is to make money for themselves and their selling point to legislatures is that we must rid this country of “failing public schools”. These self- proclaimed “school reformers”  use the term “failing pubic schools” to convince well-meaning but uninformed parents to send their children to charter schools that increase their children’s segregation and treat their children as second class citizens, incapable of individuation and critical thinking. I am sure that state legislatures would not spend taxpayer money on charter schools and parents would not send their children to charter schools without the power of the term that the “school reformers” use: ” failing pubic schools”.

The phrase, however, is not true. It is not the public schools that are failing. What is failing is our investment in addressing issues of poverty and racism.

The voices in our society to listen to are the voices of the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Their articulate voices are saving future students from the horror that was theirs. Their articulate voices are changing our approach to gun violence. Their articulate voices will make us a better, stronger nation.

The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are showing us that they are thinkers and doers. The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are using the education their families and schools gave them in powerful ways. The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are not the products of  “failing public schools”. They are the products of public schools that helped them to grow and to learn and to mature into leaders.

I am inspired by the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, and I thank them.

Choose: Assault Weapons Or Children

This is my favorite work of art in my home.  The child’s face is full of receptivity and joy, and the mother looks at her child with delight. They are truly connected.

That painting reminds me not only of my joy in parenting my own three children but also reminds me of the joy I found in helping adolescents in my classes to fall in love with reading literature and being a writer. The painting speaks to me of nurturing. The painting speaks to me of the deep value of the kind of connection in which adults foster growth in children and delight in doing it.

But Russ Walsh, a noted educator and writer, emphatically states that we as a country do not value nurturing children, do not value that kind of connection between ourselves as adults and all the children of our country. He makes a strong argument that, as a nation, we do not, in fact, care about our children. He says:

The continued gun violence visited upon America’s schools and school children, along with the abject failure of the adults who run the country to do anything about it, leads me to one inescapable conclusion: In the United States of America, we don’t care about our children. When I say “our children” here, I am referring to children in general, not individual children. As the grieving parents in Florida today will attest, we all care about our own children. What we do not seem to care about is all the other children.

I urge you to read the whole of Russ Walsh’s piece. The three statistics he quotes will convince you of how our nation has not cared for our children. .

He goes on to say:

The only way to explain the lack of action on gun violence in the schools is that we value our right to bear arms more than we value our children. Politicians seem to be unable to even have a conversation about bringing gun proliferation under control. Our founding fathers, I am sure, did not mean for the second amendment to require that we were to remain impotent in protecting our children from guns in the hands of society’s disaffected. Surely. “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” means freedom from fear of being shot in your own classroom. Surely the right to bear arms is a limited right, just as every other right enumerated in the Bill of Rights is limited by the simple fact that the unfettered exercise of that right could endanger others. So we have no right to cry, “Fire!” in a crowded theater and no right to refuse to wear a seat belt and we have even decided to give up the right to smoke in public places. Surely we can all do without the right to carry an AR-15 around with us.

It’s time. In fact, it’s more than time; it’s way, way, way overdue. It’s time for all responsible Americans to join with the outraged students from Parkland. It’s time to show those heartbroken, articulate young people that they and their teachers matter, that the Sandy Hook children and their teachers and principal matter. It’s time to say that 239 school shootings since Sandy Hook in which 438 people were shot and 138 people killed is enough. It’s time to tell the world that the United States of America does, indeed, value everyone’s children.

A way to begin:

Please join Russ Walsh, me and educators everywhere to say that we, as a nation, will finally, at long last nurture all of our children. Come out with your neighbors, friends, and children and join the National Day of Action Against Gun Violence on April 20 (The anniversary of the Columbine shooting).

You can sign up here.

The Banning Of Books – 2018 Style

The Washington Post reported last week about the banning of two books. No it’s not the 1950’s; it’s 2018. Here’s the story:

A Minnesota school district is dropping two classic novels, “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” from its required reading list because of the books’ liberal use of a racial slur.

Officials at Duluth Public Schools say the move, which follows similar ones taken by other school districts in Virginia, Mississippi and Pennsylvania in recent years, was a response to complaints they had received in the past. The books are still available in libraries, and students can read them on their own time, but school officials will look at other novels on the same topic to add to its curriculum, Michael Cary, director of curriculum and instruction, told the Duluth News Tribune.

“We felt that we could still teach the same standards and expectations through other novels that didn’t require students to feel humiliated or marginalized by the use of racial slurs,” Cary, who was not available for comment Wednesday, told the paper.

The Duluth Public Schools have it wrong on three counts:

1. Of course, the N-word makes us all feel uncomfortable because it marginalizes people. That’s precisely why we should address that use of language: to see what’s beneath the use of that word and develop sensitivity about its use and the damage it causes. The N-word can be seen as what it is: just a word – not  a good word or a bad word – but one that has power because of how it has been and currently is being used in our society. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the word was used because that’s how people of that time talked. In To Kill A Mockingbird, the use of that word showed how prejudiced, cruel characters talked.

      2.  In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the moral center of the book is when Huck, who lives in a time and place in which African Americans are regarded as property and not as human beings, decides to treat a black man as an equal. Huck knows, from all that he has been taught by his church and his community, that he must turn in Jim, a runaway slave, so that Jim will be returned to his rightful owner, but he decides not to do that. Huck is sure what his consequence will be and says, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell.” He thought he would be condemned to hell for all eternity but could not do as his church and community dictated. He could not treat Jim as property. Why? Because he realized that Jim was his friend, his equal, not a possession. What better example of equity and dignity for all people, black and white, than The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

        3. In To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus, a lawyer in Alabama, takes a case that anyone else would regard as an open and shut case against a black man. A white woman accuses a black man, Tom Robinson, of making sexual advances to her. The all-white jury never doubted his guilt. No evidence was needed; his blackness condemned him. Atticus presented evidence to show Tom Robinson’s innocence and prevented the community from lynching him. Atticus taught his young daughter, whether it be Tom Robinson or Bo Radley, a white man in the community who was a social pariah because of his disabilities, that she should treat each person with respect, that each person has dignity. Atticus told her that she should try to understand what it’s like to walk in the shoes of others. The book offers a criticism of prejudice and of those who use the N-word.

I have been a central office administrator who receives the complaints about books being used in the schools. Each complaint always began with these words: On page…., this was said or happened ” and “On this  page, this was said or happened….. After the complaining person described precisely what had happened on those offending pages. I would ask the person this question, “Did you read the whole book?” Every time, the answer was “No”. I would then explain that reading the whole book would be a good idea. Objections to books, most often, result from not understanding the context of the objection.

Michael Cary is wrong. It’s not about finding other books “on the topic” to add to the curriculum. Both The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird are works of art. They are not replicable. We study them not because they are about a “topic”  but because they offer unique ways for students to question the human experience and to make sense of their own lives. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird offer students what no other books ” on the topic” can possibly offer.

If we didn’t have The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird, I would want to make them up.

How else could we deal sensitively and poignantly with the fact that language can hurt people? How else could we bring up questions of what it means to be hero in our society which has questions of racism at its core?  How else could we explore issues of racial prejudice? How else could we explore questions about an individual’s relationship to the norms of American society? How else could we explore questions of justice and human dignity in American society?

These questions are best generated when students read these books as part of a class. Reading on one’s own never brings up as many questions and ideas as reading in a thoughtful way with other readers. Also, reading these books in class is the way to develop students into better, more mature readers. The Duluth Public Schools, which restricts students to reading these books on their own, stands in the way of the students’ growth as readers.

The people complaining about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird and the people who made the decision to remove the books should read the whole books. And then we’ll see what happens.

Meanwhile, the rest of us not living in Duluth, Minnesota or in school districts in Virginia, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania who similarly banned those books had best make sure that our own children have the opportunity to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird, make sure that our own  children are truly educated.

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