Teachers and school administrators meeting with the nation's top education official didn't just have a seat at the table: They led the discussion with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan about what's needed to advance public education.
In a historic stop at NYSUT headquarters during his 800-mile back-to-school tour, Duncan was every bit the student as he took notes and listened carefully in a wide-ranging roundtable discussion with two dozen educators from around the state.
Duncan called educators "voices of courage," as they passionately made the case for more early childhood education, programs to boost attendance and realistic ways to help our neediest students.
Labor-management teams from Albany, Hempstead, Marlboro, North Syracuse, Plattsburgh and Newburgh showed they have the courage to take risks and lead the way when it comes to meaningful education reform.
Educators talked firsthand about their collaborative work on the NYSUT Innovation Initiative, funded with an American Federation of Teachers grant and dedicated to transforming traditional teacher evaluation and developing a strong system of ongoing professional development.
Duncan also heard about a blossoming professional learning community from Newburgh educators, using a National Education Association grant to revamp curriculum and work as a team to improve teaching and learning.
"What this group is exhibiting is amazing collective courage," Duncan said, noting that's why New York came out a winner in the Race to the Top competitive grant program. "And the fact you're doing it together makes it less scary" and more likely that it will succeed.
Duncan thanked NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi, Vice President Maria Neira and the assembled teachers, administrators and other partners for their "tremendous courage, tremendous leadership and a real commitment" to do what's best for students.
What follows are excerpts from the one-hour roundtable discussion. For a video, photos and media coverage of the Aug. 30 event, go to www.nysut.org.
NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi: I'm very proud to welcome two guests —two very special guests. One of them is Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who is here to be part of the great discussion, and the second is all of those around the table today — leaders, superintendents, practitioners, principals — all involved in the very challenging work of looking at teacher effectiveness and understanding what it takes to create great teachers in every classroom. … That's what we're here to talk about today … When you have an effective teacher you simply will have effective and high-performing students. … We understand fully that there are factors outside of our control, such as poverty and mobility, dealing with special needs, dealing with English language learners, but we also know that within our control is our own effectiveness in the classroom and being part of measuring that effectiveness is important to us.
NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira: Secretary Duncan, as you are aware the union has taken a lead in defining excellence as it relates to teacher effectiveness and student learning. ... We have the opportunity through NYSUT's Innovation Initiative … to create what we consider a comprehensive model for teacher development and evaluation, led by five collaborative labor-management teams. … [The] perspective of those who do the work on the ground every day is what is informing the work. The model focuses on several elements, the most important one being teacher standards, multiple ways of assessing our students learning and teacher effectiveness. All built around a strong professional growth system, which will then be reviewed by well-trained evaluators who include principals and peers. … Our goal is to scale up models that engage us collectively to ensure that together we improve student learning and outcomes.
Karen Rock, Plattsburgh TA: Our school district design teams have created an evidence-based evaluation system by developing clear, uniform and measurable teaching standards. Crafting a teacher evaluation tool that utilizes multiple measures to assess the art and science of effective teaching and creating an assistance and development model helps strong teachers get better and struggling teachers improve. … The lack of working models has challenged us to think innovatively. For example we are collecting survey data on teaching and learning conditions to promote student learning and foster school improvement. We are working with teams of teachers across various grades and subject areas and we are creating an online resource of rigorous and comparable classroom assessments to determine student growth.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan: Your leadership can really help to shape the national dialogue, whether it's the Race to the Top Fund or the Investing in Innovation grant. We're investing because of your collective leadership, your collective courage, your willingness to take on these tough issues, and I couldn't be more proud of what this state is doing.
Sylvia Matousek, North Syracuse EA: Thank you for your recent public support of what we're doing, and I want to reinforce the point that the support is critical to us. … New York state has always been a bit ahead of the curve and we intend to remain there.
Rod Sherman, Plattsburgh TA: Mr. Secretary … thank you for keeping the promise you made us last year at the AFT QuEST [when] you said you'd work on this issue with us and not to us. … That collaboration is central at the national level, the state level and the local level. As a local president for 37 years, knowing that you're working with our leaders, [that] our leaders listen to us and now you listen to them gives me that comfort zone I need [so we can] develop a good teacher evaluation and peer assistance program.
Duncan: It's tough work. Thanks for your courage.
Marylou Megarr, Plattsburgh TA: We have preschoolers and kindergarten children who come to school sometimes [many] levels behind their peers. It takes a great deal of collaboration with our teachers to try and make those gains. Sometimes we're at the little tip of [making up] a year and a half or two years worth of gains in one year's time. So by third grade, fourth grade when our standardized testing is there, those kids are already failing. We work vigorously with them, but they are still behind and need more time. … So I would ask you to really continue the dialogue with us, the professionals, with the people who are in the trenches.
Dawn Sherwood, Hempstead TA President: The Innovation [Initiative] has been instrumental in providing us with a critical lens through which we can now reevaluate our roles and responsibilities as public school educators and leaders. And its been particularly important for districts like ours that have struggled as a low-wealth district … It was very important for us to be in on this process because we saw it as a way of helping. … I think the innovation process has led us to see that we not only need to reevaluate what we do as educators, we also need to reevaluate how we can work together for success.
Julius Brown, Hempstead Assistant Superintendent: Something that I've come to recognize [is] that teachers didn't hire themselves. Teachers did not grant themselves tenure. Teachers did not give themselves the evaluations that were not congruent with practices. … In essence, school managers responsible for instruction have to be given the same opportunity to do the same thing we're asking teachers to do. Principals and managers have to have an understanding of what their instruction is and how to recognize the characteristics of effective teachers. … We're challenging everyone to get that.
Patricia Van Duser, Newburgh TA: We're a large inner-city school district. We service 13,000 students, 1,100 teachers, 200 teaching assistants and 17 buildings. We're losing our children to the streets. But through NYSUT and NEA, we had the professional learning communities grant where we brought in administrators, teachers and teaching assistants and [discussed] what we are doing. … We have developed building level teams. We [are] talking about different formative assessments, how we can help our evaluations, and how we can be part of a team that looks at education not as a "gotcha" type of formula but to rethink what education looks like.
Duncan: This group is exhibiting amazing courage. Your collective leadership and courage are going to help change students' lives. Taking [this] on in an honest and forthright way, putting the tough issues on the table, working through it together is what our country desperately needs. It's inspiring to be here.