The New York Times Weighs in on Carmen Farina!

Dear Commons Community,

The New York Times in a featured article and an editorial weigh in on the appointment of Carmen Farina as the new New York City schools chancellor.  While commending her experience (unlike the chancellors of the previous twelve years), the authors of both pieces are trying to put brakes on any enthusiasm that she might bring to the office.  They are cautioning her and soon-to-be Mayor Bill de Blasio on making major changes to standardized testing, teacher evaluations, and the Holy Grail of neo-liberal thinking, charter schools.  Here is an excerpt from the editorial:

“Mr. de Blasio, who takes office on Wednesday, may soon find that his powers are constrained. The strict testing regimen in reading and math that has irked some parents and students across the city is for the most part enshrined in state and federal law. While Mr. de Blasio has sought to slow the growth of charter schools, he will not have the power to block their creation.

More broadly, Mr. de Blasio and Ms. Fariña, a longtime city educator from Brooklyn with a reputation for bluntness, will confront a national political environment on education that has shifted during Mr. Bloomberg’s tenure.”

The mandate of de Blasio’s election in November was a call not just for New York City but for the rest of the country that the school reform policies of Washington, D.C. under Arne Duncan and his predecessor, Margaret Spellings, have been failures.  Their policies have promoted an uncreative, humorless, and dull agenda of reform that bashes the teaching profession while subjecting children and their parents to a plethora of tests and data that have resulted in no significant gains in student outcomes. Please Mr. de Blasio and Mrs. Farina maintain your vision and enthusiasm and take back our public schools for children, parents, and educators.  Let Washington cater to the politicians, corporate interest groups, and lobbyists who have come to dominate national education policy.



Are We Creating Walmarts in Higher Education?

Dear Commons Community,

The Atlantic has a featured article entitled, “We Are Creating Walmarts in Higher Education”, that comments on the push to graduate students and to reduce costs as leading to water downed academic programs.  As described in the article:

“Under pressure to turn out more students, more quickly and for less money, and to tie graduates’ skills to workforce needs, higher-education institutions and policy makers have been busy reducing the number of required credits, giving credit for life experience, and cutting some courses, while putting others online.

Now critics are raising the alarm that speeding up college and making it cheaper risks dumbing it down. “We all want to have more students graduate and graduate in a more timely manner,” says Rudy Fichtenbaum, president of the American Association of University Professors. “The question is, do you do this by lowering your standards?

About 100 university faculty-members from all over the country plan to meet in January in New York under the umbrella of the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, a national movement that aims to “include the voices of the faculty, staff, students and our communities—not just administrators, politicians, foundations and think tanks—in the process of making change.”

The group says the push for more efficiency in higher education often leads to lower quality, and that reforms are being rushed into practice without convincing evidence of their effectiveness…

Meanwhile, to save money, more conventional classrooms are filling up with part-time faculty, often hired two or three weeks before they’re due to begin teaching, according to research by another organization, the New Faculty Majority Foundation.

“We are creating Walmarts of higher education—convenient, cheap, and second-rate,” says Karen Arnold, associate professor at the Educational Leadership and Higher Education Department at Boston College.

Steven Ward, a sociology professor at Western Connecticut State University and the author of Neoliberalism and the Global Restructuring of Knowledge and Education, likens the new world of higher education to another American business known for its low prices. Ward calls it the “McDonaldization” of universities and colleges, “where you produce more things, but they’re not as good.”

The article also comments on online learning technology and specifically MOOCs as part of the McDonaldization of higher education.  The meeting in New York in January mentioned in the article is being hosted by CUNY’s Professional Staff Congress.


It’s Official: Carmen Farina is the New NYC Schools Chancellor!

Dear Commons Community,

As speculated earlier, Carmen Farina has been appointed chancellor of the New York City schools by Bill de Blasio.  As reported in The Huffiington Post:

“With just days before he begins his term as New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio (D) on Monday named longtime educator Carmen Fariña to lead the nation’s largest school system. The mayor-elect made the announcement at a press conference at Brooklyn’s William Alexander Middle School, where his two children attended.

The job gives Fariña, 70, a broad mandate to remake one of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s signature sweeping changes to the city of New York.

Fariña, who met de Blasio early in his career, has long been the frontrunner for the job. A retired veteran educator, she most recently worked as deputy schools chancellor of New York City’s Department of Education under Bloomberg. In that capacity, she served as instructional chief, and she has been described as someone who connected teachers with Bloomberg’s technocrats and consultants.

Before that, Fariña taught in Brooklyn, worked as a principal in Manhattan and oversaw a group of schools as a regional superintendent. She was Chancellor Joel Klein’s No. 2, but would later come to criticize her boss’s policies.”

After leaving the NYC Department of Education, Ms. Farina was indeed a vocal critic of many of Joel Klein’s policies.  A seasoned school teacher and administrator, she is an excellent choice and we wish her well!


Carmen Farina to be Next New York City Schools Chancellor!

Carmen Farina

Dear Commons Community,

Several news outlets are reporting that Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio will name Carmen Farina the New York City schools chancellor today.  As reported in the New York Times:

“Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio will appoint Carmen Fariña, a former top official of the New York City Education Department, as the next schools chancellor, a person with knowledge of the decision said on Sunday.

Ms. Fariña, 70, the daughter of immigrants from Spain who fled the Franco regime, is a veteran of the city’s school system, having served as a teacher, principal and superintendent of a Brooklyn school district. She retired as a deputy chancellor in 2006.

The choice reflected Mr. de Blasio’s desire to depart radically from the educational policies of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, including his emphasis on data and his policy of shuttering low-performing schools. The choice is also in keeping with Mr. de Blasio’s pattern of appointing people with deep governmental experience.

As a principal and superintendent, Ms. Fariña gained a reputation as a stern manager. She worked briefly as a top official in the Education Department early in the Bloomberg administration, overseeing teaching and learning, but departed amid philosophical differences.

Last year, when he was a Democrat in a crowded field of mayoral contenders, Mr. de Blasio said that candidates for chancellor should receive “serious public screening,” criticizing the way Mr. Bloomberg had appointed Cathleen P. Black, a publishing executive, as chancellor in 2010. She resigned after three months.

As the leader of the nation’s largest school district, with 1 million students, Ms. Fariña will also face a host of thorny issues, including calming tensions over a new set of academic standards, rolling out a plan to charge rent to charter schools and negotiating a contract with the city’s teachers’ union, which is demanding billions of dollars in retroactive raises.

Mr. de Blasio has spoken often about his desire to break with several hallmarks of the Bloomberg era, including its support of charter schools. He has said he will decrease the emphasis on standardized testing and give more input to parents.

Ms. Fariña shares Mr. de Blasio’s skepticism of standardized testing and his focus on early education. As chancellor, she will help shape his proposal to expand access to preschool and after-school programs.”

The appointment of Farina would be a very good move for the NYC schools and its children.  Michael Bloomberg accomplished many things during his twelve years as mayor but his appointments of Joel Klein and Cathie Black, neither one of whom had any public school experience, were problematic at best.


Illinois Teachers Challenge Cuts to Pensions!

Dear Commons Community,

It what is likely to be a more common occurrence in the months and years ahead, a group of teachers and public school officials filed a class-action lawsuit last Friday in state court seeking to void Illinois’ new pension reform law on grounds the cuts to pension benefits violate the state constitution.  As reported in The Huffington Post:

“The lawsuit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court in Chicago, claims that changes to current and retired teacher pensions passed by the Illinois General Assembly and signed into law by Governor Pat Quinn earlier this month violate protections for public sector worker retirement benefits in the Illinois Constitution.

With the state’s finances buckling under a $100 billion unfunded pension liability, the controversial measure reduces and suspends cost-of-living increases for pensions, raises retirement ages and limits the salaries on which pensions are based.

The lawsuit names Quinn, Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka and the Illinois Teachers’ Retirement System’s (TRS) board of trustees as defendants and seeks preliminary and permanent injunctive relief. It was filed as a class action, representing retired and active members of TRS, who are not currently members of any teachers’ labor union.

It is also only the first shot of litigation against the law, which a coalition of public labor unions has vowed to fight. Anders Lindall, a spokesman for the coalition, We Are One Illinois, said the group is consulting with attorneys “to prepare to bring the most effective suit possible.”

Brooke Anderson, Quinn’s spokeswoman, said while litigation against the law was anticipated, the reforms are expected to meet constitutional scrutiny. Spokesmen for Topinka and for TRS declined to comment.

The reforms, which take effect in June, are expected to save the state $160 billion over 30 years, while immediately reducing the unfunded pension liability by 20 percent. The law offers workers and retirees some sweeteners, including a reduction in contributions toward pensions and a method for ensuring the state fully makes its contributions.”

A number of towns, cities, and states across the country face serious funding issues for their public employee pension systems.  What is happening in Illinois will likely be repeated again and again in the near future as pension funds require greater contributions from municipal and state operating budgets to keep them solvent.



Unemployment Benefits Ending for 1.3 Million Jobless Americans!

Dear Commons Community,

The emergency unemployment federal program that acts as a lifeline for 1.3 million jobless workers will end today, drastically curtailing government support for the long-term unemployed and setting the stage for a major political fight in the new year. This progam, in place since the recession started in 2008, provides up to 47 weeks of supplemental unemployment insurance payments to jobless people looking for work. Its expiration is expected to have far-reaching ramifications for the economy, cutting job growth by about 300,000 positions next year and pushing hundreds of thousands of households below the poverty line. As reported in the New York Times:

“An extension of the unemployment program did not make it into the two-year budget deal that was passed just before Congress left on its winter recess. When the federal program expires, just one in four unemployed Americans will receive jobless benefits — the smallest proportion in half a century…

Democrats on Capitol Hill are pushing for an extension of the program, though the constrained fiscal environment makes its reinstatement somewhat less likely, aides said. Members of the Republican leadership have indicated that they might be willing to extend the benefits, but only if Democrats offset the new spending with other cuts.

On Friday morning, President Obama called Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, and Senator Dean Heller, Republican of Nevada, to extend his support for their proposal to extend emergency unemployment benefits for three months.

“The president said his administration would, as it has for several weeks now, push Congress to act promptly and in bipartisan fashion to address this urgent economic priority,” said Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman.

As the last payments are distributed, Democrats have initiated a campaign aimed at shaming Republicans — particularly those in leadership and in swing districts — for letting the program expire over the holiday season.

“I don’t know if our colleagues who have opposed passing the unemployment-insurance legislation know or care about the impact on families,” said Nancy Pelosi of California, the House minority leader. “The impact is very, very strong. It hurts the dignity of a family, of a worker.”

Americans United for Change, a liberal group, is running an advertisement on cable television stations. “You know who had a Merry Christmas? The richest 1 percent, that’s who. Republicans in Congress made sure of that, protecting billions in taxpayer giveaways,” it says. “For those facing tough times? Republicans stripped 1.3 million Americans of jobless benefits — folks who want to work, but cannot find a job — kicking them to the curb during Christmas.”

Republican aides said they remained willing to negotiate. “Why didn’t they offer a plan that met the speaker’s requirements — fiscally responsible, with something to create jobs — or any plan, for that matter, before they left for the holidays?” asked Michael Steel, a spokesman for John A. Boehner of Ohio, the speaker of the House.

Some Democrats have suggested that continuing the program for three months, with the estimated $6 billion in spending offsets coming from agricultural subsidies in the farm bill…

 “I do support unemployment benefits for the 26 weeks that they’re paid for,” said Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky on Fox News. “If you extend it beyond that, you do a disservice to these workers. When you allow people to be on unemployment insurance for 99 weeks, you’re causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed group in our economy.”

The loss of benefits is expected to drain billions in consumer spending from the economy next year. People losing their federal benefits — often benefits they expected to continue to receive for weeks or months into 2014 — described cutting back on Christmas, driving less, turning off the heat, draining retirement accounts, applying for food stamps, readying to move in with relatives and missing mortgage payments.”

We hope for a compromise soon after the New Year when Congress reconvenes!


AFT Speaks Out on MOOC Disrupters in Latest Edition of “On Campus”!

AFT MOOC Disruptors

Dear Commons Community,

On Campus, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) periodical on higher education, is devoting the current edition to “MOOC Disrupters”.  The articles examine the major issues (scale, social stratification, affordability, venture capital) from the AFT’s point of view.  Below is the Editor’s Note on this edition.



MOOC Disrupters

On Campus
Winter 2013-14
Editor’s Note

MOOCs for the masses? Not so fast

Since massive open online courses burst on the scene two years ago, MOOCs have been heralded as a disruptive force for innovation in higher education that will magically solve the large policy challenges we face as a nation: How do we get more Americans to attend college and complete their studies? And how do we bring down the costs?

In California, where the two leading MOOC-based startups, Udacity and Coursera, were launched in 2012, a powerful Democrat in the state Legislature jumped onto the bandwagon earlier this year, introducing SB 520. This was a bill that would have forced the state’s 145 public colleges and universities to accept lower-division course credits from low-cost online college alternatives. It passed in the state Senate, but was put on hold when an experiment at San Jose State University, where Udacity was hired to provide remedial math courses, revealed how poorly served at-risk students are by massive online learning. Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun now says he sees that his courses can be “a lousy product.”

Florida is the only state whose romance with MOOCs has produced legislation. Earlier this year, the Legislature passed HB 7029, a bill allowing corporations and vendors to design, teach and grade courses that public institutions can accept credit for. As United Faculty of Florida President Tom Auxter has observed, “When commercial vendors replace online courses faculty now teach with courses designed by the venders, they stand to make windfall profits at the expense of student learning.” That won’t happen in this incarnation of the law, as UFF and faculty bodies managed to block some of the worst elements in the final version of HB 7029. They are fighting to protect the integrity of public higher education offerings.

Right now, no one is making money on MOOCs, but some see them as a gold mine. As Susan Meisenhelder shows in “Follow the Money” on page 7, venture capitalists are sinking millions into new startups. Even Moody’s Investor Service is bullish on MOOCs—both as a business and an asset that will boost the PR profile of elite nonprofit universities.

The articles in this issue capture the reservations faculty and educational staff have over massive, one-size-fits-all education. On the one hand, teachers are open to new tools that expand teaching and learning options in the classroom. Michael Feldstein describes how adaptive learning technologies, for example, hold great possibilities for tailored learning (see page 17). On the other hand, faculty and staff are wary of silver bullets imposed by outsiders with vested interests that have little to do with what works best for students and their teachers. MOOCs open the door to even greater exploitation of a contingent academic workforce and a reduction of the faculty role in governance, their academic freedom and intellectual property rights, and their control over the curriculum and their jobs.

Hanging over all this is the concern that MOOCs, with their as-yet unproven utility for the majority of students our members serve, could actually stratify our students and society in ways antithetical to the promise of education in a democracy, argues Richard Kahlenberg in “The Politics of Online Learning” on page 4. AFT members are working for just the opposite—to reclaim the promise of affordable, high-quality education in the United States that provides equal opportunity for all.

—Barbara McKenna

Chiara de Blasio Discusses Alcohol/Substance Abuse and Mental Health Issues (VIDEO)

Dear Commons Community,

On Tuesday, December 24th, Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s daughter, Chiara, made a youtube video about her personal battles as a teenager with alcohol and substance abuse.  I was not sure what to make of the carefully scripted video at first especially since it was coming one week before her father assumes office.  The timing of it I presume was to nip in the bud any “expose” of her problems that might appear later on in the tabloid press.  However, I watched and listened to it a second time and regardless of the motive, I have come to the conclusion that Chiara has used the social media to deliver an important message to young people especially those who are having a problem with alcohol or substance abuse.  Furthermore, she makes a genuine plea to those suffering from abuse to seek professional help and uses her own experience as an example of what to do and how to get back on track with your life.  I congratulate her honesty and candor in going public with her story.

Well worth a view!



FBI Considered “It’s a Wonderful Life” Communist Propaganda!

Dear Commons Community,

We have been inundated during the past year by stories of the U.S. government surveillance program that maintains files on its citizens.  Here is a surveillance “blast from the past” compliments of Will Chen (Wisebread) regarding an FBI file on the director (Frank Capra) of the seasonal holiday film, It’s a Wonderful Life starring James Stewart, Lionel Barrymore, and Donna Reed.  In 1947, the FBI considered the anti-consumerist message of this film as subversive Communist propaganda and that it smeared American values such as wealth and free enterprise while glorifying anti-American values such as the triumph of the common man.   The FBI specifically commented on the way Mr. Potter (banker played by Barrymore) was portrayed:

“The casting of Lionel Barrymore as a “scrooge-type” resulted in the loathsome Mr. Potter becoming the most hated person in the film. According to the official FBI report, “this was a common trick used by the communists.”

The report goes on to comment how the film maligns the upper class in American society.

It’s a Wonderful Life is not one of my favorite holiday films but it did not deserve to be branded communist propaganda. We can take great comfort in knowing that such activity would never happen today. : – j

Happy Holidays!