At the 11th "Tell it like it is" forum for 2012-13, educators in the Rochester region, like colleagues statewide, looked to the future. Even as they shared the realities of today's classrooms, members brainstormed ways to build on the momentum of NYSUT's massive rally fighting for the future of public education.
Zach Clarry of the Pavilion Faculty Association asked: How can educators highlight problems with the state's hyper-focus on standardized testing without being accused of being complainers?
NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi said that charge cannot be leveled at New York state teachers because teachers have credibility from being part of the conversation.
"We have never said we will have nothing to do with APPR, despite the challenges and frustration it creates," he said. "Our ability to be part of the conversation comes because we were at the table and were able to say: We can build a framework that works if it includes the teacher voice."
The initial framework was well thought out, he said, but the State Education Department created "a poorly constructed foundation" within that framework that impeded implementation.
NYSUT emphasizes the importance of working with parents across the state, another way of ensuring that "we have credibility and will be heard," said NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira. "We've engaged our parents around a common cause - testing - and that has hit home," she said, noting that NYSUT will continue to collaborate with the statewide PTA and other education groups on Common Core Standards and what the public needs to know about student assessments.
Iannuzzi and Neira, along with Rochester Teachers Association President Adam Urbanski, dialogued with close to 200 members from around the Rochester region at a May "Tell it like it is" forum held in Pittsford. Joy Martin, president of the Geneva TA and a member of the NYSUT Policy Council, moderated the event.
Members shared the realities of today's classrooms, where student attendance falters in reaction to test stress; where each new state directive seems to underscore a lack of trust in educators; and where examples abound of the state's rocky implementation of Common Core Standards.
Neira said it has been her privilege to review a majority of the 12,000 personal letters educators sent to SED Commissioner John King and the Regents as part of NYSUT's "Tell it like it is" campaign.
Members are emphasizing the need for authentic assessments; the pressure and stress on students and practitioners from the state's over-reliance on standardized tests; and the ways over-testing has leached the joy from learning. A parent petition has garnered thousands of signatures of support.
Neira spoke of the challenges, "good, bad and ugly," of the last year and said how essential it is to combat those deep-pocketed forces "without a nanosecond" of experience in classroom realities that are seeking to undo public education and the union in New York state.
"What gives teachers, paraprofessionals and others so much stress, and what is impeding teaching and learning so much lately, is the result of policies at the state level," Urbanski noted, saying the changes that must be accomplished through NYSUT in Albany won't be easy, but are doable with solidarity.
"The only way we can lose is if we turn on each other," Urbanski said.
"There is not a teacher in this room who would assess first and teach later," Iannuzzi said, to appreciative murmurs of laughter; yet that is what SED has ushered in with this year's testing on Common Core Standards that have not yet been fully implemented around the state.
Lola Kelly, president of East Rochester TA and statewide representative to the National Education Association, asked about an SED memo that, in a departure from previous guidance, would have assigned teachers a zero for students who had not completed labs required to sit for Regents science exams.
NYSUT has successfully challenged what Iannuzzi termed a "totally absurd" policy.
Helen O'Connell, Tompkins-Seneca-Tioga BOCES TA, spoke of the need for an evaluation rubric designed to reflect highly effective practice in special education.
Neira said such a rubric is in development now by NYSUT and the AFT in concert with teachers of students with special needs and English language learners and will be submitted to SED upon completion.
Examples of other union-led initiatives include the NYSUT/AFT Innovation Initiative, which has piloted best practice in evaluations through six district labor-management teams; and the NYSUT rubric now in use by more than 200 districts. Momentum is growing nationally behind AFT President Randi Weingarten's call for a moratorium on high-stakes consequences from standardized testing, a position NYSUT shares. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently issued new policy guidelines on Common Core implementation.
A theme running through the dialogue was the need for members to continue raising their voices: through letters to the Regents; at the statewide rally in Albany; and beyond.
"It's about defining where we have to go," Iannuzzi said. "We can't match the corporate anti-public education dollars, but what we can do is raise our voices, in unison."
Keeping it real
With heartfelt letters filled with personal examples from classrooms around the state, nearly 12,000 educators have used NYSUT's "Tell it like it is" online link to send a flood of messages to Commissioner King and the Board of Regents.
Since the campaign began last November, NYSUT has sent 50 to 100 letters per day, with members explaining how state policies are hurting their students and offering solutions to get it right.