NYSUT's plan to reform the state's teacher certification process is gaining popularity with Regents and lawmakers, and is proceeding despite a competing plan announced by SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher.
Reform efforts by NYSUT and its two largest higher education affiliates — United University Professions at SUNY and the Professional Staff Congress at CUNY — began more than two years ago, when the unions responded to reports from teacher preparation students and faculty that new mandatory certification exams, including the educative Teacher Performance Assessment, or edTPA, were riddled with problems.
Now, the unions see real progress in a long effort to compel the state to address the entire certification process. A statewide task force on the edTPA, which started under former Commissioner John King, has been reconvened at the direct request of the state Board of Regents.
This time, however, the task force is working without King's dictatorial oversight, and has been charged to consider policy options that could replace the current edTPA-only mandate.
The Regents have also changed their tone regarding the certification process, since the departure of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch. Tisch, who stepped down in March, was openly critical of teacher education programs in New York.
Now led by Chancellor Betty Rosa, the Regents are questioning all four of the new certification exams, which have been so heavily criticized that, for the third year in a row, the Regents have passed so-called "safety nets" that allow future teachers alternatives if they fail one or more of the exams. As several Regents noted at their May meeting, if the exams have so many problems that they have to keep approving emergency plans that allow prospective teachers other ways to be certified, maybe they need to fix the exams once and for all.
As these developments unfolded, Zimpher announced TeachNY, her own plan to reform teacher education in New York, at a highly orchestrated May 18 news conference notable for the absence of NYSUT, UUP or the PSC. NYSUT had declined to participate.
Although Zimpher described SED Commissioner MaryEllen Elia as a partner in TeachNY, the effort was largely seen as being driven by Zimpher.
NYSUT immediately rejected TeachNY, saying that it ignored the major reasons for the decline of the teaching profession.
Among those reasons: the teacher certification process, which NYSUT links to a decline of more than 45 percent in enrollment in teacher education programs since 2009; the top-down approach to curriculum in public schools since the introduction of Common Core; the state's overreliance on testing; and the state's repeated efforts to link student test results to teacher evaluations without any consideration for other factors that affect student performance, such as poverty, overcrowded classes and underfunding of public education.
NYSUT President Karen E. Magee and UUP President Fred Kowal immediately appeared on major broadcast news outlets to call out Zimpher for usurping the policy-making role of the Regents. The unions' strong response to TeachNY also received extensive coverage in print and online news outlets.
"This report gives short shrift to the experience and voice of education professionals and repeats the failed top-down approach that wreaked such havoc on public education in New York State," Magee said.
"An essential lesson from the disastrous 'test-and-punish regime' is the importance of listening to those on the front lines about what's needed to strengthen public education and the teaching profession. This report fails that test."
NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino, who is the union's liaison to the Board of Regents, said: "In concert with UUP, we believe this report falls short by failing to recognize the Regents' efforts to correct the flaws in the state's certification process, the resulting teacher shortages and the lack of diversity in teacher education programs."
UUP members spent a May 24 post-budget advocacy day in Albany meeting with lawmakers. The union is still seeking lawmakers' support in the removal of edTPA as the only performance assessment for future teachers.
"There's really a complex set of problems with the certification exams," said Jamie Dangler, UUP's statewide vice president for academics. "We do need to fix these faulty exams."