Thursday, May 10, 2007

Sol Stern and Social Justice


"Admit it! You and Joel Klein are on the same side." Thus spat Sol Stern at me when we ran into each other at the radical math conference a few weeks ago. Sol is the Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow and contributing editor to the right leaning City Journal who writes on education, solidifying his reputation with critics of unions and advocates of vouchers - the idea of offering competition to the public schools. Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice.


In an interview with National Review Online in 2003, Stern said, "I started writing about education in 1994 when my kids were in the New York City public schools and I realized that the teachers' union contract was a big impediment to school improvement." His experience with his kids and the fact that the union contract allowed an incompetent math teacher to transfer into the top-level Stuyvesant from the low-performing Seward Park HS seemed to be enough for Sol to make a general assessment that the contract and it's allowance of a few hundred teachers each year to take seniority transfers was a major cause of the ills of the NYC school system. (Sol has accused me of making some of this up but I've heard him tell this story numerous times.)


One would expect a natural enmity towards Sol from the teachers unions and the UFT in particular. And in the early years of Randi Weingarten's tenure she did attack Sol at various UFT functions as our enemy. And there was some sniping from some of her minions at me for writing favorably about some of Sol's ideas, though I can't seem to remember any of them offhand at this time.


I got to know Sol years ago through Education Notes when asked to be added to my mailing list and we have had a number of battles (friendly) over the years arguing education policy. He is very sharp (and funny) makes one really defend their position and my understanding of my own point of view (that it is more correct that I thought) has benefited from these discussions. I also benefited from the invitation to Sol's book release at the Harvard Club where I got a yummy meal (why wasn't I surprised to find a UFT staffer like Joe Colletti there too?). I did get to ask him a question as to why he wasn't happy that the poor kids at Seward Park HS got to benefit when that math teacher went to Stuyvesant.


I know, I know. Everyone wants to get rid of bad teachers though I don't hear the same enormous outcry about bad doctors or cops, who can actually kill you instead of causing a slight disruption in your knowledge of calculus. And the argument that bad teachers cannot be gotten rid of is part of the principals propaganda machine where they claim that - poor babies - they actually have to document why they want to remove a tenured teacher instead of being able to fire them instantly for reasons like they don't like the color of their tie. Or because they don't bow and scrape before them.

Joel Klein has made many of the same arguments on seniority as Sol. Sadly, UFT president Randi Weingarten seems to agree as she joined Klein in gutting the entire seniority structure that has protected senior teachers.

Ah! Sol, Randi and Joel on the same page. A perfect alignment of the stars. But here it gets complicated. In a perfect ideological world one would expect it to be Joel and Sol vs. Randi. But it turns out to be Randi & Sol vs. Joel. On paper at least. As you know by now, Randi plays every side against the middle and I urge you to follow my golden rule -- watch what she does, not what she says.


It seems that Joel's move to use what Sol calls the progressive curriculum have made Sol and his allies like Diane Ravitch and columnist Andy Wolfe of the right leaning NY Sun big-time critics of Joel. There are other issues, of course, but the attacks on Joel by Sol have driven Randi and Sol into the same camp. Sol even got some nice space in the NY Teacher recently. Nice. Anyone but actual teachers like people in ICE and TJC who represent 20% of the working teachers should be able to get space in our paper.


Thus we come to Sol and the radical math conference. Sol has been writing about social justice in education as it relates to teachers' beliefs and to what extent they might be imposing them on their students. The recent controversy over the Beacon School student trip to Cuba has generated much press in the NY Post and the NY Sun. When a group of NYC teachers decided to hold a math conference (www.RadicalMath.org)
they got a tremendous response from all over the nation and over 400 people registered.


Sol Stern was one of them, obviously looking to upgrade his skills so he could do his own taxes. Knowing full well they were not exactly going to get a fair and balanced viewpoint, the organizers handled Sol with aplomb.


I went to the conference as a volunteer, not a participant. I was a left-leaning teacher and I was open about presenting what I thought on issues to my classes because I felt kids want to know where you stand as a teacher. (I did try to avoid issues of religion though because the kids were involved with churches and I was an atheist, though that didn't stop me from having great holiday decorations going on in my classroom). I also tried to give them both sides but in today's world how does a teacher who is vehemently anti-war give the kids a fair presentation of that idiot - er - I mean - President Bush point of view? I and other volunteers were there to show these teachers some support for their activities.


Sol attended the Powers to the People: Unit Projects for Algebra 2 and Pre-calculus workshop with Erica Litke, a teacher at Lower East Side prep.


In this interactive session, participants will explore mathematics projects from Algebra 2 and Pre-calculus that integrate the curricular objectives of upper level mathematics with real-life social justice themes. With a focus on mathematical modeling, projects will include topics such as linear inequalities, exponential functions and logarithms, and regression analysis of a set of data. Participants will work through the mathematics of the projects, examine student work and brainstorm projects for other topics in the Algebra 2 /Precalculus curriculum.


I spoke to Erica after her workshop and she said Sol asked a few questions. Probably about the logarithms. Or maybe regression analysis. And those linear inequalities - here is a clear case of a teacher using math to influence students, always raising the issue of inequalities.

I ran into Sol after Erica's workshop. That is where he accused me of being aligned with Klein. "Joel Klein has created more schools with social justice themes than any chancellor in history," Sol said. Finally, Joel has done something right. If only he hadn't ripped the school system apart by shoving all these schools into larger ones. Well, one out of two on this one.

Well, people are waiting to see what Sol writes about his experience. Will Erica be condemned for unduly trying to influence her students? Or will Sol decide that he would rather have Erica teaching his children than that teacher who transferred into Stuyvesant?

The right wing attacks on teachers who use social justice themes in their teaching to engage their kids will continue. Instead of being defensive, they are striking back. Sally Lee of Teacher's Unite starts with her letter to the NY Sun followed by a reprint of an article in City Limits about the conference. You can read some of them at my other blog, Norm's Notes.

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