A teacher’s perspective: NYSED Learning Summit

I have found that one of the best parts of being a public education activist is having the honor of meeting so many amazing people from across the state.  The fight against the harmful agenda that has been enacted in New York State has allowed me to meet some incredible people from places like Buffalo, the Capital District, the Hudson Valley, and many other locations in our state.  However one of the most intelligent, articulate, and passionate people who I have had the pleasure of being in this struggle with is one of our very own PJSTA members, Melissa McMullan.  Surely her colleagues at JFK Middle School have long known what I have learned about Melissa over the past year and a half.  She is a tireless advocate for our students and a remarkable representative of our profession.

Melissa (@Refusethetests for those of you on Twitter) was able to procure an invite to yesterday’s NYSED Learning Summit that dealt with teacher and principal evaluations.  She was able to write up for us her experience.  It is a fascinating read…

Last week I learned about NYSED’s Learning Summit, that was to be held on May 7th in Albany, in order to discuss implementing the new teacher evaluation system as prescribed by the New York State Education Law enacted on April 1st with the passage of the New York State budget. This “budget” requires that student growth measures account for 50% of a teacher’s evaluation, with the remaining 50% comprised of observations (part of which would be outside observers). The law wrapped within this budget also ostensibly eliminated permanent certification, and now makes not reporting an address change to NYSED and “actionable offense” much like a sex offender. When Newsday called this a public forum, I immediately wanted to know which members of the “public” were invited. I could not find anyone. So I did the only thing I could think of, I emailed the Board of Regents, and requested an invitation.

I received no response – until three days ago. Regent Rosa emailed a response stating that she would forward my request to the appropriate party. The next day I received a response from the Board of Regents’ Secretary stating that invitations had been given to the appropriate stakeholders, there were no seats available, and I could certainly watch the event via simulcast. That night, livid, I fired off a response that indicated it was no surprise, and that, at the very least, we, as teachers, have been consistently shut out from the very process that centers upon our own work.

Wednesday, at 11:44am, I received a response from the Board of Regents’ Secretary, it read, “A seat has just become available and is available to you. Please let me know at your earliest convenience if you will attend.” Elated, I scrambled to write lesson plans for the following day, and gather my family for the four-hour drive north to Albany, searching for a hotel room as we drove. We have been in this fight for a long time. It has been nine years for me. We are not going to win back public schools for our children, without approaching from every angle and understanding the variety of positions.

Today I spent the day, as the special guest of the Board of Regents. It turns out that both Regent Cashin and Regent Rosa were fighting very hard for me to be there. The first thing I learned today, and I learned a lot, is that in general, the Board of Regents is remarkably supportive of teachers, and more importantly, the students we love so dearly. Throughout the day, I was able to hear from superintendents, principals, researchers, teachers, parents and school board members about their varying perspectives on teacher evaluation in New York State. It was an eye-opener.

An overwhelming theme today is the understanding that the New York State 3-8 assessments are flawed. It is undeniable. There is no reliability and validity testing on these tests. Furthermore, they simply were not designed to measure a child’s growth from year to year. A teacher’s growth score is actually based upon how that teacher measures against similarly situated teachers (students with the same socioeconomic class / ability). This means, every year, the distribution follows a normal distribution of scores within each group. Thus, even if every teacher in a group of similarly situated students helped their students show incredible growth, the model requires that some of those teachers are high, the majority is in the middle and some are at the low end. So we have state assessments that at best have never demonstrated reliability and validity (at worst they are developmentally inappropriate), and those assessments are being used to drive an ill-fated teacher evaluation system.

Most panelists agreed that the best component of the teacher evaluation system is teacher observations. When done right, it provides a continuous feedback loop that could ostensibly improve instructional practice. Panelists had some incongruous thought on the outside observer as prescribed by the new law. Some believe it helps provide more objectivity. However, many noted the challenge in time and money this would cause school districts, as well as the potential ineffectiveness of a teacher being observed by a stranger who would not have the kind of relationship with him / her that would support a dialogue that would improve instructional practice.

Aside from the obvious aforementioned issues with the growth score, the much larger issue is the lack of integrity of those scores. Regent Cashin brought up the fact that the American Statistical Society asserts that a teacher can vary a student’s score by 1-14%. Stephen Caldas from Manhattanville College explained that in the state’s own reporting, you will find statistical error of these scores in the 55% range in some areas. This begs the question – what, then, is the value, if any, of the state growth score in measuring teacher performance? Do we have the right to call a teacher ineffective with his tool?

What was most striking to me as a teacher was my own panel when it was introduced. Every other panel filled all six seats at the front to maximize the perspective of each particular group of stakeholders. When teachers were announced, two people went up, Michael Mulgrew, UFT President and Catalina Fortino, NYSUT vice-president. In dismay, I watched as Mr. Mulgrew had his teachers stand up in the audience, but he brought no active classroom teachers forward to discuss their needs in the APPR process. And this is what has been going on for some time. NYSED will say, “we invited them”, and I can say in this case they did, but our own union silenced us.

Those of us like me, the 200,000+ parents who refused to permit our children to take the state assessment made a tremendous impact on the Board of Regents and NYSED. It is very clear that they got the message; we know the assessments are not valid and you will not use our children in this fraudulent practice. Lisa Rudley, from NYSAPE, actually quoted Dr. Rella and said we must ask ourselves “Are the kids okay?”

Lastly, many New York State Assembly members were present. Barbara Lifton, New York State Assembly 125th district, was seated behind me. During a break, she eagerly told me she was present to advocate for teachers. I asked her if she had voted in favor of Cuomo’s budget, and she indicated she had, specifying that she did not want to, but she had no other choice. I emphatically told her a number of times that she caused irreparable harm on teachers and school children. She insisted there was no choice. When I mentioned different aspects of the law, such as notifying NYSED of address changes to avoid being treated like a sex-offender, she appeared shocked, as if this were the first time she heard this. Based upon my conversation with her, it is clear, she did not read the law before she passed it. Claiming that she is advocating for us now is like telling me you are going to find me a good doctor after you broke my leg. We must remain steadfast in holding every single legislator who voted in favor of this budget and its laws responsible for what they did by making sure they do not get re-elected.

In closing, I sat at the Learning Summit with tremendous guilt because I fought for a “golden ticket” and won, while most did not find themselves so lucky. However, I can say in total, this was one of the best days of my career. I sat with the Board of Regents the entire day, and I was given substantial time to share our plight as teachers, and the impact all of this is having on our students. I was also able to speak with Chancellor Tisch alone for several minutes, and explain soup to nuts what had transpired in Comsewogue when our district wanted to contemplate not administering the assessments (yes, the threat to fire the superintendent and entire locally elected board). I explained that we have no use for the current student assessment system, and because of our love and dedication to our students, we are seeking Middle States Accreditation and our own standardized testing that can actually be used to inform instruction.

Teachers, we are on the right track. Mulgrew said we must take back public education. We are in this mess because we allowed outsiders to craft policy for our classrooms. Enough is enough. It is becoming increasingly transparent that all of the deforms they have created are a bust. We cannot allow them to harm our students by permitting them to erode the best practices that we know work. Do not be discouraged. We made tremendous headway by being honest with parents about what we know about the fallacies of the state assessments. We need to continue on this path. Forcing children to take tests for innumerable hours that will only tell NYSED how one teacher fairs against another is an egregious misuse of classroom time. Refusing to allow it will be the undoing of all that has come to pass threatening to decimate public education.

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7 Responses to A teacher’s perspective: NYSED Learning Summit

  1. dreilly44 says:

    Melissa, You are an amazing teacher and I’m so glad you’re on OUR side! Keep up the good fight.

  2. Ali Gordon says:

    I have so much respect for you Melissa- certainly as a teacher, but most importantly as a human being. You are a role model to all of us who want to do right by our children. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  3. Jane St.Pierre says:

    As promised – an articulate teacher’s point of view

  4. Justin Williams says:

    Melissa, I would follow you, work with you, educate with you any place, any time.

    We must remind America, and the world, that at our finest, there are no better examples of humanity than those who devote their lives to the children of others. For too long, we’ve allowed our craft to be debased, simplified to the lowest, most negative common denominators by people who think they understand what we do merely because they attended schools as students. The best of us (those who are not afraid to articulate what has happened and what should happen next) must continue to step into the sunlight and be heard. My sister, for the sake of many, may your voice gain depth, magnificence, hearts and minds of the people.

    Thank you so very much. I’m inspired by you, yet again.

  5. I am so pleased you were there to represent our views as teachers. Your golden ticket was our golden ticket because your voice represented far more to us then Mike Mulgrew’s voice as union VP. His exclusion of any teacher to stand with him was emblematic of the union’s misconception when accepting the testing roll out for APPR without working out the kinks with their members.
    Thank you for bringing our voices to the summit.
    Elissa

  6. Sarah Giroux says:

    Thank you so much for going and sharing your insights about what happened!!! The system is a complete mess and no one wants to admit that we need to scrap the tests (and much of the APPR structure). I have met with Ms Lifton several times and shared many of the details that that you did, yet she continues to want to be able to support the tests/budget AND wants to be able to claim to be an education advocate. I’m so disappointed in our elected officials and don’t think they realize how serious this is. In any case kudos for all your efforts!!!

  7. Janice Strauss says:

    Thank-you, Melissa, both for going to Albany and for reporting back to us.

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