Teachers are masters at getting to the truth, a skill that they develop out of necessity and years of practice.  I admire a teacher who can face a room full of 13 year olds and deflect a volley of half-truths intended to throw off his/her teaching (and other students’ learning).  “I know I’m ten minutes late, but Mr. Smith said I didn’t need a pass.”  Anyone who has spent one day in front of middle school students or has supervised a study hall knows exactly what I mean.

Teaching elementary kids can be even harder than working with teenagers.  I’ve spent quite a few years working with primary school children.  Kindergarten is the best, there’s an energy in the classroom that is hard to describe.  But when things go awry, it takes a lot of patience to get to the truth.  Five year olds aren’t purposeful in their deception, in fact most of the time they don’t even know what part of their story is true.  They often operate on pure stimulus and response, firing accusations at their classmates without taking the time to find out what actually happened.  ‘He punched me’ often originates from an innocent brush heading to the line.  Kindergarteners, like a lot of adults, shoot first and ask questions later.  I make a point to tell my students’ parents, “Please only believe 1/3 of what your child tells you about what happens in school, and I’ll only believe a 1/3 of what they tell me about what happens at home.”

And so, when a story exploded on NY’s education blogosphere this week, I took the time to do a little digging and find the truth that lies behind the accusations that NYSUT’s officers were in cahoots with politicians to “pass [a] law giving them leaves of absences at full pay, all of it pensionable, and get Cuomo to sign it at the speed of light.” (Of course, “exploded” is a relative term here. The story hasn’t received any ink yet and very few local union leaders know anything about it).  The accusations stem from a blog post by retired NYC teacher Norm Scott (Ed Notes Online).  Two other bloggers piled on Scott’s narrative: Arthur Goldstein’s NYC Educator, and the blog of the Port Jefferson Station Teachers’ Assoc. (Note: both Goldstein and the president of the PJSTA lost their bid for NYSUT leadership positions in April).


New York Assembly Bill  10019 passed earlier this year and was signed into law on July 22.  The bill relates to leaves of absence for state employees and was an amendment of a previous law already on the books from 1984.  The law allows an employer to grant a leave of absence to a member of the Teachers’ Retirement System (TRS) with full salary for the purpose of serving as an elective officer of their local organization (local union) or statewide affiliate (ie. NYSUT).

Three major changes were made to the 1984 law in this amendment:

  1. A limit of four employees per organization was was omitted.
  2. The phrase “statewide affiliate” was added to the law.  Previously, this law applied only to elective officers from local organizations.
  3. Gender specific references to the employee (namely “he”) were omitted and replaced with the phrase”the employee.”

In short, elected officers of the union may request a leave of absence from their current position.  The union reimburses the local school district or BOCES for their salary and related costs including pension contributions and payroll taxes.  In the case of NYSUT, those contributions are deducted from the officer’s salary.  TRS members remain in the system, essentially buying years of service in the system, not unlike buying back years for military or prior public employee service.

The full text of the bill is available at: http://legiscan.com/NY/text/A10019/2013

The Accusations

In his blog, Norm Scott asserts that this was some sort of backroom deal struck by the new leaders at NYSUT in exchange for political endorsements (or neutrality in the case of Cuomo) and that they are engaged in a full blown coverup.  Arthur Goldstein calls the legislation surreptitious and the NYSUT officers hypocritical for not refusing the benefit. (Note: as a chapter leader in the UFT, part of Goldstein’s salary is reimbursed by the UFT under an almost identical provision).  The PJSTA calls the legislation a “scandal” and says, “This would further allow the officers to collect not only their NYSUT pension when they retire, but also a much more lucrative pension from the State than they should actually be entitled to.”  Officers would be “ensured double pensions.”  The “deal” is even linked to alleged support by NYSUT of the IDC, the Common Core, and it’s decision to not endorse a candidate in the governor’s race (none of which is supported by any evidence).

The Truth

Q:  Did NYSUT trade passage of this bill for political favors or endorsements?

A:  No.  There is no evidence that NYSUT traded endorsements (or neutrality in the Gov’s race) for the passage of this bill.  This bill has been on the books since 1984.  The amendments were a minor change to correct discrepancies in the legislation (including the statewide affiliates).  In fact, the sponsor of the bill in the Senate was Sen. Flanagan who did not receive an endorsement from NYSUT.  This amendment passed the Senate with 59 Yeas/2 Abs.  It passed the Assembly 128 Yea/6 Abs.

Q:  Who pays the salary, pension contributions, and related costs for the officers?  Does this cost NYSUT or the local school districts more money?

A:  No.  All costs associated with leave of absences, including pension contributions, are payed out of the officer’s current NYSUT salary.  The local school district and NYSUT do not incur any additional costs due to the change in this law.

Q:  Does this allow for pension “double dipping?”

A:  No.  Any contributions that the officers make to the TRS reduce their NYSUT salary dollar for dollar, so their NYSUT pension contributions are reduced as well.  Most of the NYSUT officers won’t even be vested in the NYSUT pension system by the time the next election rolls around in 2017.  If they did become vested in the NYSUT pension, they would carry two retirement accounts, but there would be no overlap in either contributions or benefits upon retirement.  Here’s the thing, in Central New York, John DeFrancisco is our State Senator.  As chair of the State Finance Committee and a longtime leader of the Republicans, DeFrancisco is known as the “bulldog,” (and he’s not a big fan of NYSUT).  He voted for the amendment and he didn’t receive an endorsement from NYSUT. I find it incredibly hard to believe that he’d vote yes on a bill that had any potential to allow pension double-dipping to occur.  It just doesn’t make sense.

Q:  Why the change?

A:  The previous version of the law did not include statewide affiliates (ie. NYSUT).  Elected officers of other unions (CSEA, PEF, UFT) are afforded this option under similar provisions.  These rules actually encourage rank and file members to take the enormous risk of running for statewide office with an uncertain future.  If this leave of absence provision didn’t exist, statewide leaderships could continue to be dominated by non-active members, retirees, or those without field experience.  This change was good for public employee unions in New York, it was good for NYSUT, and it’s good for any rank and file member who wants to seek office in the future.

Point of View

The allegations lobbed at NYSUT by Norm Scott and his allies are baseless, bordering more on self-promotion than investigative journalism.  There’s no evidence of a cover up, NYSUT didn’t trade endorsements or favors for passage of the amendment, and no pension double dipping is taking place.  This amendment does no more for NYSUT officers than was already afforded to elected officials in local unions and other public employee organizations in New York.  In fact, many local union presidents receive release time from teaching duties in their districts.  Some of their unions reimburse the district for salary costs, but few require the employee to reimburse the district for pension and payroll related expenses.

Unfortunately there is very little accountability to facts in the blogosphere.  A good teacher knows the difference between the truth and tantrums.  It would benefit us all to step back and take another look at the evidence in this case.




File this one under “non-news stories,” or “aging celebrities who don’t quite get Twitter and will do anything to get their name in print.”

This morning, a report surfaced in the NY Post claiming Former CNN anchor and tenure foe is victim of porn-related tenure attack. David K. Li, reporter for the Post, revealed that a number of Twitter accounts posted the headline to a recent Buzzfeed article about Campbell Brown’s attack on teacher tenure in New York. But, instead of linking to the Buzzfeed article, the spammers posted links to sites featuring adult content.

Those who don’t know anything about Twitter or social media should note that this kind of spam, posting a common phrase, headline, or Twitter trend with a link to an adult site, is pretty common. In fact, it just doesn’t infect social media; spam like this has been invading email inboxes for over a decade. And most people know enough not to click on the bogus links. Apparently, Brown, her spokesperson Friedman, and Post author David K. LI are not most people.

Friedman was probably searching for references to his handler on Twitter and came across the posts. Revealing himself to be a complete social media novice, he immediately jumped to the conclusion that the teachers’ union or the Alliance for Quality Education (an education advocacy group with ties to NYSUT) were behind the “attacks.” After all, the union is Campbell Brown’s number one nemesis and the root of all things evil, right?

“We hope the union isn’t behind these shenanigans, but given their sexist tactics to date, we wouldn’t be surprised if they were,” Friedman said.

Now, if the teachers’ union is behind this “attack” on Campbell Brown, they’re also behind the porn related twitter attacks on US military aid in Iraq, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, Barack Obama, and Richard Nixon. What do they have in common? They were all featured in Buzzfeed headlines that were later posted on the same twitter feed that maligned Ms. Brown, @CynthiaNips (Ms. Nips only has 130 followers, by twitter standards a very short reach).

The fact that Ms. Brown’s camp issued a press release on this matter shows just how narcissistic and desperate they are. Mr. Li and the Post should have ignored the story, and they should write a follow up recanting the assertion that this was an attack waged by the teachers’ union. Neither the union nor AQE had anything to do with the posts by Ms. Nips and others. Anyone who thinks they did is a fool.

Ms. Brown can now add social media to the list of topics she knows nothing about, including teaching and public education in New York. Her show on CNN got cancelled and now she will resort to anything to keep her name in the press on a weekly basis. Today it’s baseless assertions that she’s a “victim,” we can only imagine how next week’s headline will read.

If you’ve followed the conversation about New York’s education reform agenda in the past year (namely the botched implementation of the Common Core standards and the teacher evaluation system), you’ve likely tired of the Johnny one-note defense coming out of the commissioner’s office.  Every time John King is faced with tough question about SED policies, he and his minions respond with the same script.

King wrote a letter to school district superintendents in December of last year after his disastrous performance at public forums across the state (Reflections on the Core), again contacted them in March in anticipation of the state ELA and math exams (Round Two of Common Core Testing), and, earlier this month, penned a letter to the Times Union (Albany) defending both the standards and their failed implementation.

Time and again, the bureaucrats in Albany turn to the same well crafted talking points memo in both internal and external communications. It was no surprise to learn last fall that King and his department had enlisted the services of a well known Albany lobbyist to help them craft that message. A Cliff’s Notes version of that memo might read:

  • Our kids are falling behind our international competitors. (Actually there is good reason to call his data into question, namely whether other countries assess the same groups of kids as the US and whether those scores even matter).
  • Kids enter college unprepared and have to take too many remedial classes. (This point is based on data from CUNY and SUNY.  The data for most 4-year institutions does not suggest the same crisis in college readiness).
  • Change is hard. (No one deals with more change in their jobs than teachers who see an entire new crop of kids and parents every year).
  • The state tests aren’t the problem, we’ve actually shortened them. (This point completely ignores the impact that the teacher evaluation system is having on kids. “Welcome to Phys Ed, grab a pencil,” is a phrase that no student should hear.  Teachers and parents understand how testing expectations have exploded in the last two years. This has to change).
  • We all agreed to this. (Not really, rank and file teachers were involved in neither the move toward the Common Core nor the teacher evaluation plan to the same extent they had previously been engaged. To date, there are still serious concerns about whether educators in the field are being included in discussions at SED).
  • We must aim for higher standards. (No one is fighting for lower standards. Teachers and parents want a common sense approach to education reform in New York that doesn’t ignore the reality that kids are facing, namely an onslaught of testing and the loss of teachers and resources year after year. In fact, this week it was revealed that in 2010 New York abruptly abandoned a new set of higher standards that it was ready to implement in favor of the Common Core.  Instead of investing in New York’s future, SED chose to jump at the pot of money at the end of the Race to the Top rainbow. Now we’re paying the price).
  • Politics and rhetoric are causing unnecessary drama. (The drama is in the classrooms across New York, and it’s being caused by the failures at SED.  What’s more dramatic than kids getting sick over testing? What’s more dramatic than great teachers being driven to the brink, choosing retirement over a few more good years dedicated to public service? What’s more dramatic than parents becoming so fed up with testing and SED’s failures that they opt their kids out of the state tests? King should focus more on the drama that kids and parents are facing and less on the discomforts he’s facing in the public arena).

There are still a number of questions that have gone unanswered:

  • Why can’t teachers see the tests? (Check out the StandwithSpencerport.org petition calling for the release of the state exams so teachers can use them to actually inform instruction, not just test and punish schools and teachers).
  • Why can’t teachers score their own performance assessments? (SED has created a multimillion dollar division of test security and integrity to address a problem that statistically doesn’t exist. Schools have been forced to turn to paper and pencil tests in performance disciplines like the arts and phys ed or spend thousands of dollars on testing SWAT teams [yes, they really call them SWAT teams] to administer performance assessments. Eliminating the restriction on scoring performance assessments would go a long way to right the wrongs that have been created by the teacher evaluation testing requirements by allowing authentic assessments in our classrooms).

The good news is that John King and his team are, at the very least, acknowledging their critics (of course the politicians finally took notice, which helped a bit). The bad news is that they have doubled (and tripled) down on the same rhetoric handed to them by their PR consultants.  Every time we hear these tired talking points, we should be reminded that King is more focused on public relations than our kids.

John King and his colleagues at SED should be reminded that New Yorkers are tired of the talking points. Don’t be surprised if parents and teachers tune you out and stop listening when you turn to the script. If you really want to reach out to New York’s teachers and families, stop telling them what you think and start asking them what their concerns are.  You’d be surprised at how a little listening can make a big difference in the confidence people hold in you.

Gil Shaham performs the Gigue from Bach’s Partita No. 3.

Take a minute and 47 seconds out of your day to enjoy something timeless and bigger than the work that overwhelms you today. Your mind and soul will appreciate it.


You might be interested in a report heard on NPR yesterday about the reading habits of American teens. It just scratches the surface, but offers sad commentary on the state of literacy in American families.  Simply put, kids don’t read.

“A roundup of studies, put together by the nonprofit Common Sense Media, shows a clear decline over time. Nearly half of 17-year-olds say they read for pleasure no more than one or two times a year — if that.” READ MORE

You read that right, “one or two times a year.”  That would include the newspaper, a magazine, a novel, anything read for pleasure.  Has the idea of reading for pleasure become so repulsive to children that they engage in the act less frequently than they see their dentist?  What are American families doing to beat the love of reading out of kids?  What happened to the unbridled enthusiasm of that one year old gnawing on the corner of board books and handing her favorite read to her daddy at nap time?

I wonder if SED is planning to take into account student, and parent, reading habits in the next round of the APPR plan. Maybe teachers could pick up a few extra points if their students own library cards and use the library regularly. Five points extra if families don’t subscribe to cable or place restrictions on screen time in the home? Or perhaps it’s time to implement a performance review for parents, collecting data on student absences, library usage from birth to age five (the most critical years), and merit pay (let’s call it “parental career ladders”) for families who raise even an average reader.



Product placements on New York’s 3-8 ELA exams represent “inexperienced, shoddy work on the part of Pearson and NYSED.” It seems John King and his minions at SED see nothing wrong with this. Who knows what will appear on the math tests this week, maybe a reference to the Lego Movie’s theme song ‘Everything is Awesome.’

Originally posted on Diane Ravitch's blog:

Lace to the Top, an activist group of educators and parents in New York opposed to high-stakes testing, became curious about the appearance of certain commercial products on the state’s mandated exams.

Edith Balthazar, a New York City public school parent and freelance editor, thought the product placements were too blatant to be an accident.

The exams were created by Pearson, the giant British publishing company.

Imagine! An American Girl doll with a Pearson textbook in her backpack!

Typically, publishers’ guidelines for test development prohibit any mention of commercial products.

Members of Lace to the Top did some research and found ties between Pearson and the products placed in its exams.

Were the references to these products mere coincidence or advertising?

If their research is wrong, I hope that representatives of Pearson will contact me so I can correct the record.

View original

De Blasio says he understands Common Core protests

By Sally Goldenberg (Capital New York)

5:24 p.m. | Apr. 2, 2014

Mayor Bill de Blasio expressed sympathy today for public-school parents who opted to have their children sit out recent standardized exams that are based on the new Common Core curriculum adopted by New York State.

“I understand their frustrations,” de Blasio said. “When my children were participating in the high-stakes testing I saw the same dynamics I think a lot of other parents have seen: Kids feel very nervous, they feel overwhelmed by the process,” the mayor said during a news conference about his universal pre-kindergarten plan at a school in Queens.

He promised his administration will “do everything in our power to move away from high-stakes testing” by expanding the pool of criteria used to evaluate schools and students.

“So I think parents are keying into something that’s very real in terms of wanting to see a more balanced system,” he added.

Across the state, parents, including Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert Astorino, have chosen to protest the new exams by refusing to allow their children to take them. Some opponents say they dictate curriculum; others say they are unreliable.

De Blasio, who was broadly critical of the Bloomberg administration’s education policies, said he is “moving away from a lot of the sacred cows of the previous administration like the use of the high-stakes testing to determine a quote-unquote grade for a school. It was a process I thought was broken from the beginning.”



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