A flood of arriving NYSUT members created a brief bottleneck inside the door of Cicero-North Syracuse High School as unionists from a six-county area lined up to sign in for the "Tell It Like It Is" dialogue with NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi and Vice President Maria Neira.
The event started with an endorsement of NYSUT's upcoming rally June 8 in Albany. Moderator Kevin Ahearn, president of the Syracuse Teachers Association, pointed to a button on his lapel proclaiming that he would be in Albany June 8 to fight for the future of public education. "We are really looking for a tremendous turnout for this," Hearn said. "It's really time - I think you can all feel it - to turn up the heat."
And that's exactly what speakers did throughout the evening, sharing their concern, frustration and overwhelming anger over the State Education Department's obsession with standardized testing.
John Kuryla, president of the North Syracuse Education Association, framed the discussion by saying that practitioners should be front and center in taking the lead on educational issues. "We carry the vision of what education should be and now it's about putting it into action," he said. "June 8 is the beginning of our groundswell of action. Our kids cannot continue to function in the environment State Ed is requiring."
"The voice of the practitioner" is essential," Iannuzzi agreed. "That is our message."
NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi and Vice President Maria Neira. Photo by Steve Jacobs.
Throughout the evening, members embodied that message by sharing specifics of the debilitating effect state testing policies have on students.
Jon Langstaff, Baldwinsville TA, unfurled a banner about testing made by his third-grade students. "One of them wrote, 'Small kid, big test,'" he said.
The auditorium was silent listening to the account of a gifted student - an incredible thinker - who burst into tears at the words, "Pencils down," because she hadn't had time to finish the last essay. Minutes later, she was still "walking down the hallway with tears streaming down her face. And she's 8."
Beth Chetney, a ninth-grade English teacher and president of the Baldwinsville TA, said, "Some of my members wanted me to share with you the amount of time that our neediest kids have missed with their teachers. Reading specialists have been missing anywhere from a quarter to a third of classroom time because they are testing, pre-assessing and post-assessing kids."
A counselor spoke about the waves of parents contacting her about their children's anxiety, while a school psychologist shared similar concerns. A foreign language teacher pointed out that the essential study of languages is in jeopardy across the state.
One teacher told of an overwhelmed special education student who simply wrote the word "CAT" on the tests. That was all the student could do.
Jennifer Moore, president of Sherburne-Earlville TA, listed the actions her members have taken on testing: They've written "tell it letters," presented to the school board on testing, are developing partnerships with parents and are planning a bus trip to Albany for the rally.
Iannuzzi noted NYSUT's role in leading these initiatives and in promoting continued advocacy to address the cost, time and impact of over-testing and to promote diagnostic, not high-stakes testing. Iannuzzi alerted the crowd that he also expects to see stepped up advocacy at the national level in the near future as well. Iannuzzi summed it up by saying the time is now to take back public education.
"A collective voice," he said, " is the voice that will make a difference."
Neira noted that it continues to be a high priority for NYSUT to partner with and communicate with parents to amplify common cause on testing and other educational issues.
Neira and Iannuzzi welcomed the members' suggestions and reaffirmed that their non-stop advocacy, "daily phone calls to the Regents and the commissioner" are strengthened by members' voices, stressing that the rally "is not the culmination, but the beginning of ratcheting up our efforts."
Pre-school teachers talked about the state's flawed emphasis on replacing developmentally appropriate play with testing and scripts, with one teacher said that's why she retired this year from the profession she loves.
In affirming the call for action, Angie Hargreaves, president of Port Byron TA , said: "Great teachers are leaving the profession. " Others are suffering from anxiety and other mental health issues caused by stress. "This is the reality of teaching."
Two teachers said that if a documentary could be made about the climate of testing run amok, showing what it's like for children, the visuals would have the public up in arms.
Even as momentum builds toward the June 8 rally, Phil Cleary of North Syracuse EA offered an immediate opportunity to act. "If you're angry... if you're sick of other people telling you how to do what you were called to do - teach - join us for in-district Committee of 100 lobby days."
"A collective voice," Iannuzzi said, "is the voice that will make a difference."
Heather Hunter, Phoenix Central Schools TA, was one of the closing speakers in an evening that stretched well past its two-hour scheduled time. Noting that Common Core standards have potential, she said, "I think that was evidenced by my seventh- and eighth-grade students. They tried their hardest, and when it was all said and done they offered insightful comments.
"The comments they made were about the inequities by the state, the unfairness of the formatting. For example, they said a lot of time was wasted flipping back and forth among the pages."
Hunter said the students told her they needed more time to read the passages, time to demonstrate their critical thinking."
"They said they feel like they are living a real life example of The Hunger Games," Hunter said. "They would willingly do cannonballs into the deep end... but we can't be tying rocks to their feet."