Indian River teacher Cheryl Smith opened the dialogue at Tuesday's "Tell it Like it Is" forum in Watertown with NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi by reading from Terrible Things, a children's book about the Holocaust by Eve Bunting. The message: "You have to stand up for what you know is right... If you look the other way, terrible things can happen."
She urged her colleagues to stand up for what they know is right and push back against the State Education Department's obsession with standardized testing and rushed implementation of Common Core testing. "What they are doing is hurting kids and offending us as professionals," she said.
"You've clearly been through two weeks of hell," Iannuzzi said, referring to the last two weeks of state assessments. " That's why it's so important for us to keep pushing back and make a powerful statement on June 8."
Iannuzzi was referring to the upcoming rally in Albany when activists, parents, students and community are expected to arrive in the thousands to fight for the future of public education.
Nearly 200 educators from around the North Country attended the forum at Case Middle School, the ninth stop on the statewide listening tour by NYSUT leaders. Educators lined up at microphones for more than three hours to offer poignant examples of how the recent round of English Language Arts and math state assessments were hurtful for students and teachers.
They said the tests were too long and that students were frustrated because they had a difficult time finishing them. Joy Seymour of Lyme Central Schools said it was ridiculous to schedule the exam weeks back to back, right after vacation - and to make them even longer with additional field test questions. "I'm offended by the word standardized, she said. "It's not standardized. It's Pearsonized."
Heather Streeter, a Belleville-Henderson TA member, spoke as both an educator and the parent of a kindergartner. "Continuing to participate in a process that hands down changes, with very little thought on its impact, no training, no support, and no answers is no longer acceptable," she said. "We don't have to stand for this."
The obsession with testing and severe budget cuts are narrowing the curriculum and "warping" education. She worries about her daughter's future: "Will she learn more than English and math? Will there be art, music programs, or extracurricular activities of any kind?"
Several teachers spoke out about the SED's new policies that teachers cannot grade their student's tests and that they were forced to sign confidentiality statements. "It's time to stop bullying our teachers and trust them as professionals," said Copenhagen TA's John Cain.
Adirondack TA's Jim Chase said he is being forced to give final exams in May because teachers can't grade their own exams, creating a logistical problem.
"They've created a situation where less teaching is being done, and in some cases it's up to a month," he said.
Iannuzzi said the two policies show how far from reality SED has drifted.
NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi
"Once again SED is demonstrating a lack of trust," he said. Not allowing teachers to have access to or discuss test questions prevents them from knowing what students need to work on or how they should adjust their instructional practice, Iannuzzi said.
He said the new confidentiality agreement was part of the contract with Pearson to save money by keeping questions secure. "What SED did was make a business practice decision that takes away from good teaching practice," he said.
If tests are destroyed, some teachers expressed concerns that there would be no evidence of results.
Iannuzzi said NYSUT continues to push for this year's state exams to be used on a pilot basis only - and not to be used for high-stakes decisions for students or teachers. Earlier in the day, Iannuzzi attended an event in New York City with American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who called for New York to place a moratorium on any negative impact on students or teachers until Common Core implementation is done right.
"She said let's put our foot on the brakes when it comes to high stakes," he said. That will be one of several rallying cries at the June 8 event, Iannuzzi said. He also urged educators to reach out to parents, community members and labor groups. "They are just as frustrated as we are with this obsession with testing."