August 30, 2010

Duncan: Innovation partners take the courageous path to improve public education

Author: Sylvia Saunders
Source:  NYSUT Newswire
Caption: NYSUT officers welcome U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to the union's Latham headquarters. Left to right: Vice President Maria Neira, President Dick Iannuzzi, Secretary Duncan and Vice President Kathleen Donahue. Photo by Steve Jacobs. More photos at

Complete Audio: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's roundtable discussion at NYSUT with teachers and education stakeholders:

The words emblazoned on U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan's Back-to-School tour bus said it all: "Courage in the Classroom: Honoring America's Teachers."

In a historic stop at NYSUT Headquarters on the third day of his back-to-school tour, Duncan thanked NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi, Vice President Maria Neira and assembled teachers, administrators and other partners for their "tremendous courage, tremendous leadership and a real commitment to changing the status quo" to do what's best for students.

VP Maria Neira; President Dick Iannuzzi; Secretary Arne Duncan. Photo by Steve Jacobs.

At a roundtable with two dozen representatives of six labor-management teams from Albany, Hempstead, Marlboro, Plattsburgh, North Syracuse and Newburgh, Duncan heard firsthand about the educators' ongoing efforts to transform traditional teacher evaluation, develop a system of ongoing professional support and collaborative work to raise standards and improve curriculum - work that, as Neira pointed out, started before New York received a Race to the Top grant and is essential to the union's mission.

Iannuzzi, who joined Duncan on the "courage bus" to travel from a Capitol press conference to NYSUT headquarters, said the education secretary's commitment to educators "is validation that it is essential to have practitioners at the center of our collaborative efforts to advance public education." Among the topics they discussed en route, Iannuzzi noted, was the importance "of broadening these conversations with practitioners to include higher education faculty on how best to strengthen the preparation of teachers entering the profession."

The presence of dozens of TV. crews, photographers and reporters underscored that this union-led dialogue was indeed an extraordinary occurrence as media, including 60 Minutes, CNN, the New York Times, B.E.T. and many others, thronged the room, capturing the discussion and interviewing Iannuzzi and other local leaders before and after the event.

Neira emphasized that NYSUT's Innovation Initiative is led by labor-management teams of educators "who do the work on the ground every day and are not afraid to take risks." She said their collective work is to pilot a model professional growth system that is built from the ground up.

"The lack of working models has challenged us to think innovatively," said Plattsburgh teacher Karen Rock, who is participating in the Innovative Initiative. "We are confident that our groundbreaking initiative will help fill the research void on 'what makes some teachers more effective than others,' a critical step on the path to providing children with a strong academic foundation and a promising future."

Duncan took notes as Rock explained that the Innovation Initiative group will be creating an online resource of rigorous and comparable classroom assessments to determine student growth, as well as collecting survey data on teaching and learning conditions to promote student learning and foster school improvement.

"We in education have seen all kinds of fads and said 'this too shall pass,'" said Plattburgh Superintendent James Short. But building a strong professional development system is simply the best way to make sure that every child has the highest quality teacher, Short said. "That's what's motivated me, and my Plattsburgh team to come to the table."

"What this group is exhibiting is amazing collective courage," Duncan said. "And the fact you're doing it together makes it less scary" and more likely that it will succeed.

It was exactly that courage and collective commitment to real reform that helped earn New York a $700 million Race to the Top grant, Duncan said, as well as the $5 million federal innovation grant through the American Federation of Teachers that will help train evaluators and build a model evaluation-and-support system in New York.

"The national spotlight is on you," Duncan said, noting New York's work to create a comprehensive teacher evaluation/support system could have national implications. "These lessons aren't just for the states. They are for the country," he said.

The stop at NYSUT headquarters was part of an 800-mile bus tour that will span eight states to honor and listen to teachers, meet with parents and students, and highlight success.

Duncan began last week in Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana and on Monday swung through New York to stop at the state Capitol and NYSUT headquarters, followed by visits in Springfield, Mass., and an evening meeting with prospective teachers and faculty at Keene State College in New Hampshire.

Duncan listened carefully as teachers and administrators passionately talked about a variety of issues. Plattsburgh teacher Marylou Megarr urged him to focus more attention and resources on early childhood education, saying the dropout problem doesn't start in ninth grade. "It starts in pre-school and kindergarten, where children come in three years behind," Megarr said. Duncan agreed, and said the administration is seeking $300 million in additional funding in the coming year to expand early childhood quality and access.

Hempstead educators Elias Mestizo, Dawn Sherwood and Julias Brown. Photo by Steve Jacobs.

Hempstead teacher Elias Mestizo made a plea on behalf of English language learners, urging testing and accountability to be fair and equitable. Duncan acknowledged that rules for testing ELLs and special education students will have to change when ESEA is reauthorized. "We need to challenge students, but be realistic," he said. 'Under the new ESEA, we want to get that right."

Hempstead Assistant Superintendent Julius Brown called for greater investment in principal and administrative leadership. "Teachers did not hire themselves. Teachers did not grant themselves tenure," he said. "School managers have to be given an accountability system that works."

"Whew, it's a really thoughtful group," Duncan nodded to NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi.

Plattsburgh Teachers Association President Rod Sherman. Photo by Steve Jacobs.

Plattsburgh Teachers Association President Rod Sherman thanked Duncan for keeping a promise he made last year in an appearance at the American Federation of Teachers convention. "You said you would do it with us, not to us," Sherman said. "Thank you for keeping that promise." Sylvia Matousek of North Syracuse said Duncan's recognition of public schools and his support for the innovation initiative through a $5 million grant "has been and will continue to be essential."

Sherman said when leaders listen to educators, there is "more of a comfort zone" to work together - even in "dangerous territory."

Iannuzzi said Duncan's visit recognizes the work practitioners are doing every day and underscores the continuing need to work together. "We can do it because we have partners in Washington, in Albany and in the classroom," he said.

"In the past, we felt like it was competition - every man for himself," said Hempstead TA President Dawn Sherwood. "Working with the Innovation Initiative has taught us we are stronger than one, together."