Every teacher knows what a "project table" is - some have even used one for student projects! In my teaching career, I've sat on the edge of a project table in many a classroom. Sometimes opposite a student, a parent or a peer - but never a governor!
On Nov. 19, that's the opportunity I had - sharing a project table with Gov. Eliot Spitzer in a Buffalo elementary school, just moments after he brought together leaders from the education and political communities to announce the official approval of his much-anticipated Contracts for Excellence (see NYSUT's media release here for more information and complete New York Teacher coverage here). The governor had graciously agreed to sit down with me to discuss his agenda ... and ours.
No topics were off limits - the achievement gap, charter schools, higher education. Most of the time we agreed. Some-times we didn't. But Gov. Spitzer's passion for education came through in his responses to some thorny questions. He had been described as the "education governor" by several speakers just a little earlier and, as we chatted, it was increasingly clear the description might just fit.
There we were, so intensely focused on issues important to our state and our union that we almost didn't notice when we were unexpectedly joined by about a half-dozen children from the Grabiarz School's after-school program.
The students slipped into the classroom we were using as an impromptu meeting room, plopped down around us - a bit bewildered but very polite - and watched as we continued.
I thought to myself: how appropriate.
Amid all the policy talk, the political considerations, the bureaucratic give-and-take, that's why we're here: for the children.
A good beginning
The Contracts for Excellence are a significant step toward ending the achievement gap.
Their emphasis on reform, results and resources is essential to enhancing student achievement. Teachers have long been dedicated to implementing research-tested reforms that make a difference in the lives of children most at risk. Now, the Contracts provide the funding and other tools to do just that.
We know what works and we're glad to see that strategies we support - smaller class size, professional development, mentoring, early educational opportunities - are some of the same strategies a majority of the 55 Contract districts have selected for their plans from those mandated in the Contracts for Excellence language.
Of course, it's critical to the success of the Contracts for Excellence and to the students they are designed to help for our members to be part of the process as these contracts are implemented. Our local leaders must monitor their implementation and push for corrective action when districts stray from their original goals. We look forward to next year when, by law, teachers and parents must be an integral part of the process. I am confident that, then, weak plans will be weeded out and good plans will become even better.
Still, though we continue to proceed with caution, we move into the new year with hope and optimism. Gov. Spitzer's sincere commitment to improving education through both investment and action bodes well for NYSUT, our members and, of course, the students and families we serve. If you haven't done so already, I invite you to read the interview. The governor understands that a first-class public university system is essential to New York's economic well-being.
He understands that access to quality health care is vital to academic success. He understands - as he demonstrated when he officially designated SRP Recognition Day which we celebrated last month - that all of us have an important role to play in educating our next generation and training the nation's future work force.
Yes, Gov. Spitzer gets it. As a result, we have the foundation for another significant step toward ending the achievement gap.