Taking a break from politics and protests, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said she was happy to be in Marlboro last month to highlight what's possible when labor and management collaborate to do what's best for students.
"We really want to be able to focus on good things, even in what is a pretty hostile national environment," Weingarten said, noting recent visits with embattled teachers in Providence, R.I., Indianapolis, Ind. and Madison, Wis. "We really want to focus on positive places like Marlboro that are out there making a difference every day."
Marlboro, in the mid-Hudson region, is one of five pioneering districts in NYSUT's Innovation Initiative that are designing and piloting a model teacher evaluation and support system, with financial backing from AFT and the U.S. Department of Education.
The comprehensive teacher evaluation and development system, which is being piloted this spring in Marlboro, North Syracuse, Plattsburgh, Hempstead and Albany, was built by five labor-management teams, with guidance from national experts. The goal is to make evaluations more meaningful, yet still fair and supportive.
As part of her "Making A Difference Every Day" national tour, Weingarten was eager to hear about the development of New York's model — and how the test-drive is going so far.
"It's been a lot of work, but it's well worth the effort," said Marlboro Faculty Association President Joe Pesavento. "And I think we're demonstrating that it's a fallacy that unions are obstructionists, or that we get in the way of education reform."
"We've had our bumps in the road, but if you have a strong sense of trust and you keep children at the forefront of your decisions, you come up with solutions that can work," said Marlboro Superintendent Ray Castellani.
It's when you have bumps in the road that you see the character of the relationship and you work your way through it," Weingarten said. "It's clear you've been working together long before collaboration was cool."
"It's also a matter of communication, with each other, the school board and the community," Castellani said. "That's what builds trust and support."
In a roundtable discussion with administrators and teachers piloting the new observation system, Weingarten asked how participants like the new model.
"It's time-consuming, but it takes the subjectivity out of the process," said Marlboro Elementary Principal Scott Brown. "It gets rid of the 'dog and pony show' that we as administrators want to eliminate."
Brown said the evidence-based evaluation rubric is more centered on what the students are learning, how they're interacting, and the classroom as a whole — not just what the teacher is doing. Teachers are judged by multiple measures, not just a standardized test score.
Brown noted the new process, which includes pre- and post-observation conferences, has led to more meaningful dialogue. "It's very exciting to me as an administrator," Brown said. "It goes way beyond talking about a test score, or what's wrong and right."
Several Marlboro teachers who volunteered to be among the first using the new protocol noted they like the fact that the observation team includes a peer teacher.
"I like the idea of having a peer, not just our bosses," said eighth-grade ELA teacher Alicia Hudak. "I remember my first evaluation was done by a principal who had never taught in a classroom."
Hudak said a peer observer, especially one who knows your content area, can offer concrete ideas and valuable feedback. "I loved that mentoring part of it," she said. "And for new teachers, it's really going to make the transition from student to teacher much easier."
NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira praised the Marlboro team's overarching focus on students, even in tough budgetary times.
"They go into a room, they roll up their sleeves and it's about the profession," Neira said. "It's not about the politics or the dollars. It's about how do we get better at what we do?"
Neira noted that what makes this model different is that it was built carefully and collaboratively by labor-management school district teams of practitioners who do the work every day — not bureaucrats in Albany or Washington.
NYSUT's field-testing work is especially timely, as the Regents and State Education Department are developing regulations for the upcoming new teacher/principal evaluation system slated to begin this fall.
"I'm proud to say we're out front doing this the right way," Neira said. "We haven't rushed this through and we're field-testing it to see how it works in the classroom."
"What's happening here is a smart, thoughtful approach to teacher evaluation, to use an evaluation system for learning, development and improvement — not gotcha," Weingarten said. "This should be a time when America cheers its teachers for trying to teach innovatively, instead of demonizing them."
Weingarten also praised the sense of shared responsibility.
"Here, administrators aren't saying: 'That's the teacher's responsibility.' They are saying: 'This is our responsibility,'" Weingarten said. "Ultimately, that's what will get results."