October 2010 Issue
September 28, 2010

Neira: Taking the courageous path

Source: NYSUT United
nysut vice president maria neira

Research confirms that a teacher's effectiveness is the single most important factor in student achievement. That's why measuring teacher effectiveness has become the silver bullet. We know there is more to making an evaluation meaningful: Providing ongoing professional development and improving learning conditions are at the heart of teacher effectiveness.

For nearly a year, NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira has been leading the union's Innovation Initiative with several school district labor-management teams to build and pilot a comprehensive teacher evaluation model — from the ground up. We talked with her about the union-led project and its progress in taking the lead to improving teaching practice and student learning.

NYSUT United: Measuring teacher effectiveness is controversial. Why did NYSUT get involved in negotiating the new law?

Maria Neira: NYSUT has long believed that in order to take charge of our professions, we must be at the table defining and shaping the changes and debate. No one believes this will be easy to accomplish. Using collective bargaining as a tool for educational changes, we can shape a fair and effective system that is not overly reliant on student test scores and includes multiple measures for defining teaching excellence. Keep in mind that the State Education Department wanted student test scores to be more than 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation. We were able to ensure that student test scores are just one factor among nine criteria. The new law caps student growth based on state tests at 20 percent (of a teacher's evaluation score) and 25 percent when it has a value-added system. We know the current assessments have limitations. In an ideal world, we'd have new standards, curriculum, then a new generation of tests.

NU: We know the implementation of this sea change is complex. What are the steps in the process?

Maria: I serve on the Regents Task Force on Teacher and Principal Effectiveness, along with six practicing teachers nominated by NYSUT. In addition, we have United Federation of Teachers representatives and other practitioners. We will review all the issues that will be addressed in the state regulations, including the growth model, standards for locally developed assessments, multiple measures of teacher effectiveness and teacher standards. We fought hard to make sure the practitioner's voice is well represented on the task force. In addition, we will seek input from the field through NYSUT's Board of Directors and local meetings. While there are timelines, our goal is to have thoughtful deliberation.

NU: It should not surprise us that there is a lot of frustration, anxiety and questions about how this will evolve. How will NYSUT support locals through this critical change?

Maria: We are committed to providing local union leaders with guidance every step of the way through an internal work group, including field staff from NYSUT regional offices. We have already prepared factsheets, including sample contract language, to help guide initial work. More materials will be provided as the work of the task force advances. We also have the expertise of our locals involved in NYSUT's Innovation Initiative to inform this work. The Innovation Initiative work started before Race to the Top and changes in the state law. The group's work was recognized when the federal government awarded AFT an i3 grant to help us field-test our ground-up evaluation model.

NU: You have mentioned the complexity of embarking on this courageous path. What are NYSUT's expectations for our professions?

Maria: It's important that reform efforts are done with us, not to us. It is our collective charge to define and lead our profession. We need to keep our eye on the future so that five years from now, we have a research-based evaluation system that is fair to teachers and improves student learning. I hope that five years from now, our members will say, "This new system is better than the old one because it actually supports and provides real feedback to inform my work." This moment belongs to us — the practitioners — as we navigate one of the most critical crossroads in our profession.

Note: Your comments on this or any other issue you wish to share with Maria directly are welcomed.

E-mail your thoughts to dialogue2@nysutmail.org.