October 2010 Issue
September 26, 2010

From the President's Desk: Courage in our classrooms

Author: Dick Iannuzzi
Source: NYSUT United

When Education Secretary Arne Duncan's bright blue tour bus pulled into NYSUT headquarters in late August, it was impossible to miss the message emblazoned on its side: "Courage in the Classroom."

That was the theme of Duncan's back-to-school bus tour — an apt metaphor for how teachers must react each day to the challenges they face, and an apt metaphor for how all in education must address the ongoing challenge of always striving to improve teacher effectiveness.

Duncan's 90-minute visit to NYSUT clearly validated our role as a union representing educators, in crafting a comprehensive new law that changes the way the state's 220,000 teachers will be evaluated.

Duncan's visit underscored that when evaluating teacher effectiveness, what's most important is that evaluations focus on a teacher's professional growth and continued improvement, and that evaluating a teacher's effectiveness must recognize that multiple factors influence student success.

Going forward, those multiple measures will include, for the first time, student performance on standardized tests.

According to Secretary Duncan, supporting the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations took "amazing courage," but in reality it's common sense — as long as it is done in context.

After all, if teachers are to rightfully accept credit when student test scores rise, then we must also accept the converse. When standardized test scores fail to improve, it stands to reason that teachers should be asked to reflect on why; to examine those factors they can influence; and to strive to improve teaching practices that address those factors.

But, most importantly, what we in New York did right was to put test scores in proper perspective. Working together — SED, the union and lawmakers — we recognized that many factors go into student learning.

Acknowledging and accounting for those factors will be supported by the work of a year-long SED Advisory Task Force where NYSUT made sure practitioners had a major voice; and tailored at the district level by local unions and administrators working in collaboration.

This is in stark contrast to a recent piece of shoddy journalism by the Los Angeles Times in which isolated student test scores from a state database were linked to roughly 6,000 elementary school teachers.

Ignoring all the outside factors that go into student performance and the warnings of all the statistical experts, the L.A. Times then came up with a ranking system, identifying so-called effective teachers — and stigmatizing all the rest.

By seeking shock headlines and ignoring the very real fact that students and teachers are humans, not data points, the L.A. Times' irresponsible series demonstrated cowardice, not courage. In many ways, the L.A. Times' misuse of data set real reform back instead of moving the needle forward.

In contrast, New York's comprehensive new law on teacher and principal evaluations properly puts student test scores into context, and recognizes outside factors that contribute to and inhibit student success.

At the same time it focuses on professional growth and the use of data to inform instruction and improve teacher effectiveness. 

By some standards, that took courage and we thank Secretary Duncan for the recognition — but for most of you, the practitioners, it was simply the right way to proceed.

After all, everyday courage in the classroom is part of the art of teaching.

Note: Your comments on this column or any issue you wish to share directly with me are welcomed. E-mail your thoughts to dialogue@nysutmail.org