A PUBLICATION OF THE PLAINVIEW-OLD BETHPAGE CONGRESS OF TEACHERS
DECEMBER 17, 1996
By Morty Rosenfeld
As President of the PCT I have tended to avoid using the Pledge to offer my
personal views on issues affecting the work we do. I've confined my remarks to
policy positions established by the Executive Board or the Membership. The so
called school reform debate has caused me to question this approach and to
consider writing some "thought pieces" for our paper in the hope of broadening the
discussion of ideas that may be influencing the work we do for years to come.
Last week I attended a workshop on Portfolio Assessment. Whatever doubts I
had about engaging the Membership in the reform debate vanished as I confronted
this latest threat to academic standards and literacy. I have always been
fascinated by the human being's powers of self-delusion. While common sense
would tell us that teachers know more about their subject and how to learn and
understand it than students do ( That why we call them teachers.), an army of
seemingly well intentioned professionals and policy makers appear to have
convinced themselves and others that such is not the case. Students are best able to
decided what they will learn and how they will learn it Really?.
Participants in the Portfolio Assessment workshop I attended were able to
examine the results of this delusion. The presenters of the workshop, an English
department chair and a teacher from a Suffolk district, permitted us to examine the
portfolios of 11th grade honors students. These were photograph albums filled
with photos cut out of periodicals (without attribution), the student's reading list,
pressed flowers and assorted artsy-craftsy things and a number of pieces of the
students' writing, all alleged to have been organized around a theme -" My Journey"
was the title of one.
These "products" (Students don't write papers and take tests anymore.) were
done in English classes in which the teachers do very little of what I understand as
teaching. Several periods per week are devoted to silent reading based on the belief
that the reason students don't read is that they don't have time. The other days they
write with the teacher occasionally intruding on their privacy to give a mini-lesson
on some grammar point or other.
If I fit the popular image of the labor leader who seeks to have his/her
membership do the least work possible for the highest rate of pay, I'm sure I would
have been enthralled by what I saw, an opportunity to make seventy or eighty thousand
dollars a year to do essentially nothing. What a system! The students pretend to
learn and the teachers pretend to teach.
As I read through the work of these honor students, the shame of it all dawned
on even my jaded mind. Any competent and experienced English teacher could tell
that the makers of these portfolios were capable of more - much more. Their raw
ability was as apparent as the unwillingness of their teachers to engage them in
serious academic work to stretch and discipline them to read, think and write as
well as they might. Their uncorrected work, replete with serious errors, was
substantially denigrated by their teachers who could only muster, "I'm glad you
shared this with me." This is not teaching. We have to demand to be more!
LIBRARIANS' CONTRACT SETTLED
At the start of this school year, representatives of the Plainview-Old Bethpage
Library Association (POBLA) met with some of the officers of the PCT to request
their help with a contract dispute at the Plainview Library that had been going on
for over a year.
From that time PCT President Morty Rosenefld and High School
Vice-President Cindy Feldman have been meeting with the librarian's union to help
them achieve a fair contract. The Pledge is pleased to report that at about 2:00 AM
on Tuesday, December 10, 1996 agreement was finally reached with the Library
Board on a new four year contract.
With the contract yet to be ratified, details cannot be released at this time, but
we can report that POBLA succeeded in their goal of taking significant steps
toward catching up to their colleagues in other public libraries on the Island.
The PCT has also been talking to POBLA about having them affiliate with the
PCT. These talks appear to be headed towards having POBLA become the newest
functional unit of the PCT along with the Clerical Unit and the Substitute Teacher
Unit. Both organizations understand the natural fit between out unions and how
we might both gain from the proposed affiliation. Watch the Pledge for further
PCT PAUL RUBIN SCHOLARSHIP
The final push in our union's drive to create the PCT Paul Rubin Memorial
Scholarship is well under way. The PCT Executive Board has authorized a second
and final round of collections in which every PCT member is asked to contribute
$20.00 to the fund.
Prior to the start of this drive, the fund had collected almost $20,000 of the
$30,000 necessary to establish the scholarship on a self-sustaining basis. The
income from this principal amount will enable us to award a $2,000 scholarship
each year to a graduating senior of our high school.
The three-fold purpose of the fund is to honor the memory of Paul Rubin, past
President of the PCT, to encourage young people to work for progressive causes
and to project a positive image of our union in the community.
Members are asked to help us reach our goal by the end of the first semester by
making their $20.00 contributions now. Please give your SRC Rep with a check
made out to the PCT Paul Rubin Memorial Scholarship Fund.
CONSUMER PRICE INDEX DEBATE
You may have noticed in the press that the Congressionally-appointed taskforce
appointed to find biases in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) has - lo and behold -
found some. The press is filled with statements such as "most economists believe
that the CPI overstates inflation." Of course, most economists have never looked at
the CPI's methodology and at most vaguely remember something from grad school
about substitution effects (which empirically are not all that important).
The politics behind all of this are simple enough. Social Security benefits are
indexed to the CPI, as are income tax brackets. Anything that makes the CPI rise
more slowly cuts "entitlements" - mainly Social Security - and raises taxes, thus
reducing the federal deficit. If all this can be done by pressuring govt. statisticians,
Congress does not have to undertake unpleasant policies. Hence, you will find
bipartisan statements of support for the taskforce's findings. (An
added attraction to some is that because CPI components are used to estimate real
output, productivity, and real wages, sluggish growth in these measures can be
made to vanish from official data. The electorate, officially at least, will always be
better off than it was 4 years ago.)
Sadly, there are many things wrong with the idea of tweaking the CPI to achieve
political goals covertly. The first is, of course, that we should not play with
official data to achieve political goals. Any time it wants to, Congress can adjust
tax rates and social security benefits. We are starting down a very slippery slope
here if in fact diddling with the CPI takes place. You can already see the results.
The taskforce's views were in fact made public months ago. It announced that it
thought the CPI overstated inflation by around 1% per annum. The Bureau of
Labor Statistics (BLS) came back with a statement that in its view the bias was only
a couple of tenths. In effect, we have a kind of public bargaining already set in
Congress/taskforce: "We demand 1.1%."
BLS: "Sorry, we can only afford 0.2%."
Since Congress controls the BLS budget, however, the bargaining parties are
not evenly matched. In any event, the entire process fails the famous "smell test"
that should be applied to public policy. Second, the notion that the indexing
must be done precisely implicitly assumes that the base to which the index is
applied is somehow perfect, precise, and optimum and will therefore be distorted if
perfect indexing is not applied. But this is ridiculous. Social Security benefit
formulas and tax rates are essentially arbitrary political decisions. They could have
been higher or lower than they are. The idea that these levels are sacred and must
be precisely preserved in real terms is absurd. If there is anything imprecise in the
process, it is the determination of base tax rates and benefits, not the comparatively
minor impact of indexing with an imperfect CPI.
Third, the CPI is filled with anomalies. And not all of these bias the measured
inflation rate up. Example: If auto manufacturers are mandated to put pollution
controls on their factories, and they raise car prices as a result, those price hikes are
included in the CPI. But when the govt. mandates the placement of a catalytic
converter on the car itself, the resulting price hikes are not included. If you went
line by line through the CPI, you would find lots of such oddities. There is no
perfect inflation index in the real world. (By the way, a BLS study a few years
back found that if you were to construct a CPI for retirees under Social Security,
you would have to put more weight on health services. Since health service prices
have historically risen faster than other prices, the official
CPI can be said to be biased down for purposes of Social Security indexing.)
Fourth, the purpose of indexing is to guard against the impact of sudden inflation
shocks, e.g., middle east oil crises. If inflation were perfectly predictable, why
would we need indexing? So the question to be asked is whether, in a reasonable
way (not a perfect way!), the CPI inflation rate will jump up (or down) when there
is sudden inflation or dis-inflation. The taskforce worried about such things as
quality adjustments and locations of purchase. But since we don't have sudden
shocks in the quality of goods and services or the kinds of stores from which
consumers buy, these considerations are irrelevant.
There is lots more to be said about U.S. official statistics in terms of quality,
responsiveness, and efficiency of administration. But on this matter, the message
should be "HANDS OFF THE CPI!"
Daniel J.B. Mitchell
Professor at UCLA
Anderson Graduate School of Management
School of Public Policy & Social Research