There are moments in time, in history, a window opens; an opportunity for change and, occasionally the leadership is right and history changes direction.
After seven bloody and frustrating years we won the revolutionary war, or, to be more accurate, with the crucial assistance of our French allies, we won the key battle that convinced the British to abandon the war.
Our first government, the Article of Confederation (excuse me, I’m a history teacher) created an amalgam of states, not a coherent nation. There was no president, Congress could not levy taxes, the states, the former colonies, had separate currencies and there was no military, all decisions required the approval of all of the thirteen states. As the not yet so United States of American stumbled along the Brits were convinced that it was only a matter of time before the colonies would ask to come back to mother England.
George Washington, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton plotted. The Constitutional Convention, called to tweak the dysfunctional Articles of Confederation was used by Washington, Madison and Hamilton to craft our constitution. Large states and small states, slave states and free states, plantation owners, farmers and craftsman argued from April to September and against overwhelming odds actually produced our governing document. Madison and Hamilton, with John Jay wrote the eighty plus essays supporting the ratification of the constitution that we call The Federalist Papers.
A narrow window, incredible leaders.
John F Kennedy’s election in 1960 presaged a change in direction for the nation. The “bright, shining moment,” the Camelot years, JFK and Jackie were the “King and Queen,” however the long list of progressive legislation was languishing in Congress. Lyndon Johnson had been a conservative senator from Texas who only ended up on the ticket to woo southern voters; however, as Robert Caro’s masterful biography chronicles Johnson was the right person at the right time – he guided the Kennedy legislation, from voting rights, to public accommodation to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act through what had been a recalcitrant Congress.
A narrow window, the perfect person with the perfect skills.
At the Camp David Summit in 2000 President Clinton, Israeli President Rabin and PLO leader Arafet came within inches of a peace accord, and, months after the talks failed; Arafat launched the second Intafada. Fifteen years later the Middle East is still aflame and the Iran Nuclear Treaty will either begin a path to peace or a path to the destruction of Israel.
A narrow window, leadership failed.
With the hubris that comes with the mantel of leadership, the scepter and orb of the presidency, President Obama and his lifelong friend decided to reshape the education system across the nation, to hurdle over state education departments and school boards and unions and parents, Obama/Duncan knew what was best for children; the establishment, the “ancien regime” only stood in the way of progress, a revolution was necessary, the only way to end poverty was to create highly effective schools and the old guard had to be skirted and/or removed.
3.4 billion in Race to the Top dollars dangled, with strings, student growth score -based teacher evaluation, school choice, aka, charter schools, the erosion or elimination of tenure, full adoption of the Common Core, weakening of teacher unions, higher standards for prospective teachers, “waivers” to control state policies, and an endless array of policies and intrusions to control education from top to bottom, from Washington directly to classrooms.
John King, Arne Duncan’s surrogate in New York State jumped into the Commissioner’s chair when David Steiner precipitously resigned. In spite of a few critical voices the majority of the Board of Regents allowed King to run unchecked: Race to the Top, Common Core, growth score influenced teacher evaluation, high cut scores for the new teacher exams and the “pushed off the end of the diving board” switch to the Common Core grades 3-8 exams. It certainly looked like the Obama-Duncan education agenda had been moved to New York State, the Empire State was to be the proving ground for the new world of education reform, according to Arne Duncan.
Suggestions that the new Common Core test items should be phased in or the standard-setting should be adjusted to allow for the sea change in instruction that would be required was ignored. Randi Weingarten, in a major address before the movers and shakers, with King in the audience called for a moratorium, allow a few years for the kids and teachers to absorb the standards, no dice.
King’s “listening tour” was halted as the meetings became opportunities for communities to flail King, and, King responded by blaming “outside agitators,” further inflaming angry parents.
Cuomo’s decision to show the teachers, and everyone else, that he’s in charge, only poured napalm on already flaming embers. Embracing charter schools and their dollars, imposing yet another obtuse teacher evaluation plan, increasing probation for new teachers, only succeeded in angering the education community, not coweringing the education community.
An unintended consequence is the explosion of the opt-out movement – one in five children opted-out of the state tests – over 200,000 kids, and, a hell of a lot of angry parents, parents concentrated in middle class districts on Long Island and some suburban communities upstate – the opt outs are the sans culottes, the foot soldiers of a new revolution. The anger of the opt-outers is directed at the electeds who they hold responsible for polices emanating from the governor and the regents.
The legislature responded by dumping two of the most senior regents members, members who had not uttered a word of criticism as King rolled over the Board. Bennett and Dawson campaigned hard, to no avail.
The message from the democratic-controlled Assembly was clear – we want change – we may not be able to stand up to the governor- we want the regents to remove the anger – do what you can to pacify, mollify, assuage the angry parent opt-out voters; although we really don’t know what we want you to do.
At the Wednesday (September 15th) regents meeting the six members of the opposition caucus, the four newly appointed members (Collins, Chin, Johnson and Ouderkirk) and the members who have consistently challenged the King agenda (Cashin and Rosa) voted against the new, new teacher evaluation plan (3012-d). Each made a brief, passionate statement; the messages: growth score (VAM) based teacher evaluation plans were neither scientifically acceptable nor good for teachers and children. Regent Tilles responded, he agreed with the dissident six on every point; however, the law would deprive districts of increases in state aid if the regulations were not approved injuring the very children the six were committed to help. The motion passed and the regents asked the key question: if we all agree that the new plan (3012-d), the over reliance on growth-based (VAM) score was wrong – what next? Tilles supported creating a new teacher evaluation system without the worts of the current plan, and, the regents directed the commissioner to create such a plan by the end of the year – in time to submit to the new legislative session.
The governor has signaled; he will create a commission to review the Common Core, and, when asked about a change in the regulations to allow a teacher to appeal their growth score he had no objection.
In other words a window is open.
The governor, the legislature and the regents all want a system that will assuage the anger; however, what is that system?
Can the new commissioner, who is still hiring key staff actually “make magic”?
As the Obama-Duncan onslaught loses steam are there leaders in New York State who can come together to turnaround the misdirected current waves of senseless reform?
The Republicans have a very narrow majority in the Senate – will the opt-out voters blame the Republicans for the supporting Cuomo actions? If so, Democratic strategists might say, “Let’s not resolve anything and drive the opt-out voters to the Democratic side.” Conversely, the opt-out voters are not party-driven and may vote to throw out all of the incumbents, Republicans and Democrats, unless a “solution” is found.
How much change will the governor buy-in to? He can’t support anything that looks like a defeat.
Teachers despise Cuomo, anything he supports teacher oppose … the chances of enacting a Mayan ritual of ripping his still beating heart out of his chest appears unlikely. The elephant in the room, lurking in every corner is the property tax cap – districts all over the state are being squeezed, cuts every year in programs, layoffs of staff, with no end in sight.
Washington, Madison, Hamilton and Lyndon Johnson are only memories – is there a leader, or leaders, who can reverse the tide?
Windows open, and close.
A window opens, defenestration is an obvious choice. Real leadership in this instance would involve ceding power, allowing teachers to have a meaningful voice through their elected union reps with no pre-scripted need to create an evaluation system tied to any specific Value-Added Model or dependent mainly or solely on high-stakes standardized test scores.
Real leadership would stand up and say that we need to trust teachers to have the best interests of their students at heart. Teachers can be trusted to think about how to help students achieve high standards (Common Core or otherwise), when they are given the time and resources to help them.
Teaching requires planning time, time for collaboration with other teachers in lesson study, time to reach out families and time to understand the needs and strengths of each individual student. Teachers need time and resources to create curricula that will meet the needs of their students (and may have to recreate those curricula for the next group of students whose needs and interests will differ). Teachers, like all professionals, need to be able to practice their craft and learn from their mistakes.
If the time and resources are provided (including smaller class sizes that will allow teachers to see the students as individuals more than as a large group), teachers will strive to do their best, will learn from each other, and students will prosper.
No politician can wave his hand and ensure that all children will learn to read by the end of third grade (or second grade as our Mayor is now proclaiming), nor can any politician wave his hand and make all teachers better. Students learn to read because teachers, who understand how the skill of reading develops and what can derail the learning process, work with them to help them. Teachers (like doctors) get better when they have a chance to practice their craft and work collaboratively with other practitioners.
The window is open, and the politicians need to leap out of it and cede the improvement process to the teachers who understand what is needed.
It isn’t just politicians. They are mostly the dummies with the ventriloquists’ hands jammed into their backsides squeezing their souls dry of the good stuff, making them talk and sign legislation. Evaluations that demand some statistically pre-set proportion of teachers to eliminate comes from somewhere else.