Teachers from the Rochester region shared the realities of today’s classrooms, where student attendance is faltering in reaction to test stress; where each new state directive seems to underscore a lack of trust in educators; and where examples abound of the state’s rocky implementation of Common Core standards.
A NYSUT “Tell It Like It is” forum held in Pittsford drew members from around the Rochester region to dialogue with union leaders.
Moderator Joy Martin, president of Geneva Teachers Association and a member of the NYSUT Policy Council, welcomed NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi, Vice President Maria Neira, and Rochester TA President Adam Urbanski, who served as facilitator.
“The timing for this forum obviously couldn’t be better,” Martin noted, “given the recent testing and the upcoming June 8 rally in Albany.”
“Today is about listening to you,” Iannuzzi said to members. “My role is to hear and understand your voice” as well as to inform about the union’s strategies to influence and shape policy. NYSUT gained credibility for being part of the conversation on APPR and successfully made the case that collective bargaining is essential to drive positive change, he said. The initial framework was well thought out, but the State Education Department has created “such a poorly constructed foundation” that it is essential to take the time to get implementation right, Iannuzzi said.
Neira noted that the NYSUT listening tour, which has criss-crossed the state, “was recommended to us by our policy council. It is your voice that needs to shape policy.”
She said it has been her privilege to review a majority of the 12,000 personal letters that members have written to the Regents as part of NYSUT’s “Tell It Like It Is” campaign.
Members are stressing the need for authentic assessments; the pressure and stress on students and practitioners from the state’s over-reliance on standardized tests; and the ways over-testing has leached the joy from learning. A parents’ petition has garnered thousands of signatures of support.
Neira spoke of the challenges, “good, bad and ugly,” of the last year and said how essential it is to combat those deep pocket forces “without a nanosecond” of experience in classroom realities that are seeking to undo public education and the union in New York state.
“What gives teachers, paraprofessionals and others so much stress, and what is impeding teaching and learning so much lately, is the result of policies at the state level,” Urbanski noted, saying the changes that must be accomplished through NYSUT in Albany won’t be easy, but are doable with solidarity. “The only way we can lose is if we turn on each other,” Urbanski said.
“There is not a teacher in this room who would assess first and teach later,” Iannuzzi said, to appreciative murmurs of laughter; yet that is what SED has ushered in with this year’s testing on Common Core standards that have not yet been fully implemented around the state.
Lola Kelly, president of East Rochester TA and statewide representative to the National Education Association, asked about a recently circulated State Ed directive on students who have not completed the labs required to be eligible to sit for the Regents exams. SED has taken the position that if a student lacks enough lab time to sit for a Regents exam, that child should be entered as a zero for a teacher’s student growth score. “This policy contradicts all of their previous guidance from the fall until now,” Neira noted. NYSUT is challenging this injustice through an appeal to the Regents, and will vigorously defend any members jeopardized by this unfair and “totally absurd” policy, Iannuzzi said.
BOCES teacher Helen O’Connell spoke of the need for an evaluation rubric designed to reflect highly effective practice in special education.
Neira noted that the rubric in development now by NYSUT and the AFT in concert with teachers of special needs and English Language Learners will be submitted to the State Education Department.
Zach Clarry of Pavilion Faculty Association asked: how can educators can highlight the problems without being accused of being complainers?
Iannuzzi said that charge cannot be leveled at teachers in New York State because teachers have credibility from being part of the conversation: “We have never said we will have nothing to do with APPR, despite the challenges and frustration it creates… Our ability to be part of the conversation comes because we were at the table and were able to say: We can build a framework that works if it includes the teacher voice.”
NYSUT emphasizes working with parents across the state, another way of ensuring that “we have credibility and will be heard,” Neira said. “We’ve engaged our parents around a common cause – testing – and that has hit home,” she said, noting that NYSUT will continue to collaborate with the statewide PTA and other education groups on Common Core standards and what the public needs to know about student assessments. Urbanski noted that the Rochester TA is reaching out to parents and plans to bring them in large numbers to the June 8th rally.
“Ultimately I think we can persuade the public, the parents and ultimately the authorities as we develop more compelling alternatives to what we’re opposed to,” Urbanski said.
Examples of positive union-led alternatives are the NYSUT/AFT Innovation Initiative, which has piloted best practice in evaluations through six district labor-management teams; and the NYSUT rubric now in use by more than 200 districts. Momentum is growing nationally behind AFT President Randi Weingarten’s call for a moratorium on the high stakes consequences from standardized testing, a position NYSUT shares.
Julie Mitchell of Fairport EA said it’s important to emphasize public relations to ensure that the public and members understand “our purpose and our mission.”
Special education teacher Jeff Feinberg of the Rochester TA spoke movingly of his brother, a firefighter on Long Island and a public education success story, who received a quality public education that did not push over-testing and allowed for assessments like portfolios. That is not the case now, Feinberg said.
As a special ed teacher for 29 years, Feinberg said today’s environment is one of “unimaginable stress.” He spoke of students with disabilities – many of whom have test anxiety anyway – whose attendance is faltering and who ask of the tests: “Does this count? Is this for your score, Mr. Feinberg?”
A theme running through the ongoing dialogue was the need to attend the June 8th rally in Albany to fight for the future of public education.
“This is a rally about defining where we have to go,” Iannuzzi said. “It is a rally for the 10,000 plus people who will be there and for public education and where it has to go.” Educators, parents, community members and students will all be heard.
We can’t match the corporate anti-public education dollars, Iannuzzi said – “but what we can do is raise our voices, in unison, at the rally.”
Be there June 8th!