National and state union leaders spent the day in White Plains recently to shine the light on what can happen when local unions and school districts work together to expand professional development and improve teaching and learning — even in challenging financial times.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi were eager to hear more about the ongoing collaboration and how educators built an atmosphere of trust, as they met with teachers, students, school administrators and board members in the Westchester district.
After visiting lively classrooms in White Plains High School and Highlands Middle School, they heard from teachers involved in professional learning communities, mentoring and a team approach to improving student test scores, including a pilot program on value-added measures.
"It hasn't been an easy road, but we're looking at how to use data best — to make sure it's the truth and not manipulated," said White Plains TA President Kerry Broderick. "We're trying to make it a collaborative piece that drives instruction, not a 'gotcha'."
Weingarten called the effort to craft fair evaluations thoughtful and collaborative. "In too many places, it's being done haphazardly and with little input from teachers, and the result is a system that isn't accurate or fair," she said.
Iannuzzi said White Plains TA members are showing how to be "part of the solution" when it comes to education reform. "At a time when it's a real challenge, you are using collective bargaining to improve professional issues," he said.
White Plains Superintendent Chris Clouet agreed, saying the district negotiated a two-hour professional development block every other Wednesday, releasing students early. "We said to ourselves, 'Why are we spending money on consultants when we have the experts right here?" Clouet said. "It was a risk, but it's paying off already."
Weingarten and Iannuzzi joined a discussion with high school students and teachers, where students talked about what they need to achieve success. Students made it clear that what they don't want are more standardized tests.
"There's a lot of stress on teachers to do their job and standardized tests make it harder," said one teenager.
"Pressure is a good thing, but panic mode for 60 days is not," added another.
"When did you start feeling that standardized tests were too important?" Weingarten asked.
"Second grade," a number of students answered immediately.
Weingarten urged teachers to take time to get feedback from students. She used to have her students fill out public and private surveys at year's end. "I learned so much from what they told me at the end of the school year," she said.
The visit was part of the AFT's "Making a Difference Every Day" campaign to spotlight educators and other public employees whose work has a positive impact on the students and communities they serve. Weingarten has visited schools in New York City, Marlboro, Boston, Newark and Peoria to spotlight reform and collaborative efforts by educators, administrators and community groups.