March 2014
March 03, 2014

ZERO funds for teacher centers equals ZERO sense

Author: By Sylvia Saunders
Source: NYSUT United
Lorraine Poccia, a trainer for the Hudson River Teacher Center, leads an early literacy skills session for Oakside Elementary teachers. Photo by Phillip Kamrass.
Caption: Lorraine Poccia, a trainer for the Hudson River Teacher Center, leads an early literacy skills session for Oakside Elementary teachers. Photo by Phillip Kamrass.

Talk about "hands-on help."

When only 17 percent of Peekskill's third-graders at Oakside Elementary scored "proficient" on last year's state English language arts assessment, educators knew they needed extra help.

Enter the Hudson River Teacher Center, which is providing intensive on-site professional development for every K-2 teacher in the Oakside and Woodside elementary schools.

"The teachers really wanted to learn early literacy strategies that would be consistent and scaffolded from grade to grade," said program coordinator Anne Ostrowski. "We're providing everything from classroom coaching to practical strategies like how to use fingers to tap out the sounds for the children."

It's that kind of hands-on help — teacher-driven professional development — that is at the core of teacher center work around the state.

"When it comes to professional development, teacher centers are a national model for what works," said NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira. "At a time when teachers need support to transition to Common Core, we should be increasing funding for teacher centers — certainly not pulling back."

For more than 30 years, teacher centers have endured a roller coaster of funding concerns — always worried about whether the year-to-year funding will come through.
Advocates hoped this year might be different: After all, the governor's Education Reform Commission called for a significant investment in professional development, along with the state education commissioner and Board of Regents, which cited a dire need.

In highly visible legislative hearings around the state, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle spoke out on the urgent need for more professional development to counterbalance SED's disastrous phase-in of Common Core State Standards.

But when the governor unveiled his budget plan for 2014-15, advocates were shocked that state teacher center funding was zeroed out. Zero?

"This is a cut that makes absolutely no sense," said NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta, who told state lawmakers on the budget-making committees that funding should be restored to at least the state's 2008-09 levels of $40 million.

Pallotta cited a wide range of programs offered by centers around the state that support educators implementing the Common Core. On Long Island, centers provide professional learning targeting an identified need, such as algebra. Other centers conduct regional forums to promote family engagement, while others work with local higher education institutions to better prepare teacher candidates for the new standards.

Aside from Common Core transition training, demand is high for courses on how to dig into data to improve instruction and how to develop Student Learning Objectives.

Teacher centers have built valuable partnerships for the state, Pallotta told lawmakers. "They maximize resources and leverage other funding like private contributions and grants."

Pallotta noted it's critical for teacher centers to remain funded on a statewide basis serving all districts — not as a competitive grant program as the governor has recommended for so many funding streams.

NYSUT activists made a strong case for teacher centers during the Committee of 100 lobby day and will continue to press the centers' value via in-district lobbying as all sides work to negotiate a budget plan by April 1. An advocacy letter is posted on the Member Action Center at mac.nysut.org.

"Legislators recognize the value of teacher centers and have been extremely helpful in the past," Pallotta said. "We are asking for their help, yet another time, to keep them afloat again."

What are teacher centers?

Teacher centers provide professional development that is led by teachers, for teachers.

In the 1970s, former UFT and AFT President Al Shanker visited England to learn more about the concept and operations of teacher centers. The idea was successfully promoted by the AFT and the NEA, and approximately 20 teacher centers were established in New York state under federal funding.

In 1980, the federal funding was eliminated. Some centers closed and others operated on a reduced basis using district allocations.

In 1984, NYSUT's lobbying efforts were successful in getting a state law passed for the establishment and funding of Teacher Resource and Computer Training Centers (Section 316 of Education Law) to provide comprehensive, ongoing professional development and support services to teachers.

In the first year, then-Gov. Mario Cuomo and the Legislature approved $3.5 million to fund 44 teacher centers. Since then, the network has grown to 128 teacher centers providing high quality, cost-effective professional development for thousands of educators in the state.

Teacher centers are operated in partnership with school districts, BOCES and consortiums. Each teacher center is governed by a policy board, the majority of which is composed of teachers appointed by the local collective bargaining agent. Policy boards also include at least one representative from higher education, at least one parent and at least one representative of business or industry.

Funding for teacher centers reached a high of $40 million in 2008-09. The funding level for teacher centers in the current school year, 2013-14, is $14.26 million.