A Clean Campaign is an Honest Campaign: When It Comes to Standing Up For Teachers and Students, Facts Matter

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The essential work of our public schools is being undermined by a “test and punish” agenda whose intent is to dismantle the teaching profession and subject our schools to free-market reforms. NYSUT has the power to lead us away from this dead-end, towards a child-centered model that empowers teachers and provides students and schools with equitable resources and opportunities for success. My experience as an educator working under the current test and punish policies and as a founding member of NYSAPE has led me to believe that in order for NYSUT to accomplish this and truly mobilize the collective power of its membership, new leadership is needed. That is why I am running for Executive Vice President of NYSUT as part of the Stronger Together Slate along with Mike Lillis (President), Megan DeLaRosa (First Vice President), and Nate Hathaway (Secretary Treasurer). We are running against a slate that includes members of the current NYSUT leadership on behalf of the Unity Caucus.

The Unity Caucus has released their campaign platform as well as pleas for a “clean campaign.” I would argue that a clean campaign does not include remaining silent when your opponent attempts to stretch the truth. This is especially true when these murky “truths” lay claim to the efforts of the parents and rank and file teachers who have spent numerous lunch hours, late nights, and weekends devoted to advocating for the needs and well-being of children with little to no support from the current NYSUT officers on the Unity slate. Even more concerning, several of the achievements highlighted by the Unity Caucus serve to perpetuate the myth that legislative tweaks have ameliorated the negative impact of high stakes testing for students when the opposite is true. And given the actions (or lack of) by the current NYSUT officers on the Unity slate, their platform on issues that impact students requires further examination.

Unity claims the following legislative accomplishments:

“Annual record-breaking increases in School Aid”

Compared to the percentage of annual increases in school aid under Governor Spitzer, there is nothing record-breaking about the school aid increases achieved during the tenure of the current Unity Slate. It should be noted that by touting this as an achievement, Unity is echoing the same set of alternate facts put forth by Governor Cuomo himself.

“Turnover of 8 seats on the Board of Regents in favor of more pro-public education candidates including the appointment of a new Chancellor.”

While this did happen, it was not due to the influence or efforts of the Unity Caucus or any of the current NYSUT leaders running for office on their slate. New York State Allies for Public Education not only researched and publicized the previously unknown process for identifying and electing members to the Board of Regents, they actively recruited qualified individuals to apply for open positions, asked them to complete surveys to ascertain their positions on critical issues facing public education, and made these surveys publicly available. In an unprecedented effort to create transparency, NYSAPE filmed the interviews for these positions and made them publicly available. Parents and rank and file teachers organized and lobbied members of the Senate and the Assembly to vote in favor of pro-public education candidates and meticulously catalogued and publicized their votes. All of this was done without the support or assistance of ANY members of the Unity Slate. And it should be noted that when NYSAPE endorsed Betty Rosa for Chancellor of the Board of Regents, Stronger Together added their support to this endorsement.

“Testing reforms including a ban on Pre-K-2 standardized testing, limits on time devoted to testing, a moratorium on the use of state tests for certain consequences for students and a prohibition on using inBloom or other third-party providers for the data dashboard.”

Let’s look at each component of this statement individually:

Ban on Pre-K-2 Standardized Testing:

The ban on Pre-K -2 standardized testing is really not a ban at all, thanks to a legislative loophole that to date none of the current officers on the Unity slate have spoken out about or advocated against. The law states that the ban only applies to tests that require the students to physically fill in a pencil and paper bubble sheet. Therefore, there is no ban on standardized tests such as NWEA, Aimsweb, and iReady in grades K-2. While the current officers on the Unity Slate did not speak out about this, I did. You can read about that here. By perpetuating the myth of this ban, Unity is hurting K-2 students who are still subjected to developmentally inappropriate testing.

Limits on Time Devoted to Testing:

Claiming any reform related to time spent on testing is extremely misleading and the fact that it is even touted as an accomplishment is very telling. While NYS did pass a law to limit the amount of time spent on testing to 1% of instructional hours, it has been clear for some time that schools are in violation of this law and the current officers on the Unity Slate have done exactly nothing to raise public awareness of this. In a report by the Benjamin Center released in 2015, researchers provide evidence that “the ‘fixed costs’ of administering the NYS tests in grades 3-8 represent 2 percent of “required annual instructional hours” for grades 3-6 and 1.9 percent for grades 7-8, and exceeds, and almost doubles, the standard set by the legislature.”

Consider the 2016 implementation of Commissioner Elia’s untimed testing policy, a policy that lacks ANY supporting research or evidence. While rank and file teachers raised a red flag about the Commissioner’s failure to maintain ANY data as to how many students utilized this additional time and to what extent, the current officers on the Unity Slate did not. Not one has ever questioned whether or not the implementation of an untimed testing policy violates the 1% cap, nor have they advocated for the study of this policy and its impact on our classrooms.

NYS tests in grades 3-8 are longer than ever and our students continue to suffer the fallout.

Moratorium For Students

Since its inception, Unity leaders have touted this moratorium as a victory, illustrating their failure to comprehend the depth and scope of issues surrounding the impact of high stakes testing on children. A moratorium on the “adult” use of these scores for decision making means little to the nine-year-old who is compelled to sit for hours and hours of developmentally inappropriate testing which will likely result in him or her being labeled a failure.

InBloom:

The law that brought down inBloom was passed before the election of the current president, Karen Magee. It is well known that this accomplishment belongs to public school parents from across the state, and in particular NYC public school parents who filed a lawsuit against the State to protect student privacy. It is shameful that the current Unity Slate would claim this achievement as their own.

Unity lists the following platforms:

“We fully support a parent’s right to opt their children out of the state ELA and math assessments, including a member’s right to opt-out their own children.”

A Unity leaflet was made public in June of 2016 calling educators supporting opt out “reckless and feckless.” The public release of this leaflet resulted in an open letter from NYSAPE, a grassroots coalition of fifty parent and educator groups, rebuking this position. Additionally, on December 13 , 2016, NYSAPE leaders met with Andy Pallotta, Michael Mulgrew, and Randi Weingarten in an effort to seek out common ground that would allow us to work together to push back against the escalating attacks on public education. We urged them to support the opt out movement as it has been the most effective means of effecting change that benefits both teachers and students. NYSAPE leaders explained that students in NYS were still suffering under the weight of high stakes testing and we urged them to take a stronger stand for our children. At a delegate assembly meeting one day later, Michael Mulgrew called opt out “dangerous.”

To date, the current NYSUT officers running for re-election have done nothing to educate members or parents about the lack of substantive changes to the state assessments in grades 3-8 and the continued misuse of these scores in the ranking and sorting of schools, teachers, and students, to say nothing of the use of these scores in the efforts to privatize our schools.

Additionally, after a resolution to urge all NYSUT members to opt out their own children was unanimously passed at the 2015 NYSUT RA, the current NYSUT officers still have not asked NYSUT members to participate in the opt out movement.

“We support full funding of our public schools and universities, including the state’s Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) obligations, and oppose any elimination of foundation aid from the school aid formula.”

While NYSUT includes a mention of their opposition in a fax to legislators from members via the NYSUT MAC, their lack of mobilization around this issue has not been lost on the teachers, families, and communities who stand to lose the most. NYSUT’s “public school proud” campaign grossly eclipses any efforts to thwart the repeal of the foundation aid formula. Many are wondering why the current officers on the Unity slate seem so intent on currying favor with Governor Cuomo at the expense of our schools.

“We will fight to completely eliminate ties between testing and APPR, permanently decoupling all testing from teacher evaluation ratings.”

We are hurtling towards the end of the moratorium on the use of test scores in teacher evaluations, and yet the Unity candidate for NYSUT president (who is also the current NYSUT Executive VP and Unity candidate for president of NYSUT) has barely mentioned this. In fact, in Andy Pallotta’ s testimony this month on the proposed 2017-2018 executive budget for elementary and secondary education opposing the receivership law, he states that NYSUT “strongly opposes the Receivership Law as it mislabels schools, students and educators based on the failed implementation of the Common Core and flawed state standardized test scores.” Despite his acknowledgement that the scores are flawed, Pallotta NEVER ONCE mentions the misuse of these scores in teacher evaluations, nor does he urge lawmakers to repeal 3012d. Nor has he engaged in any organizing efforts around this issue since the issuance of the temporary moratorium on the use of state test scores in teacher evaluations.

When NYSAPE leaders met with Andy Pallotta and other NYSUT leaders in 2014, we asked them point blank if they would be willing to publicly disavow the use of test score in teacher evaluations. They indicated that they would not.

Additionally, when Senator Todd Kaminsky introduced legislation with bipartisan support to repeal 3012d and Receivership in 2016, Unity NYSUT leaders were silent and offered no support.

“Teachers are the professionals in our schools and they should be responsible for crafting curriculum and standards in line with local goals.  We will push for local autonomy over curriculum and standard development and oppose any effort to impose Common Core style standards on local school districts.”

It is common knowledge that the draft standards released in September 2016 were for the most part nothing more than minor tweaks and changes in verbiage. While parents and communities spoke out against Commissioner Elia’s false assertion that these tweaks represent a “total reboot,” not one of the current  NYSUT officers who are currently on the Unity Slate publicly took issue with SED’s failure to address concerns.

Members of the New Paltz Board of Education undertook a detailed study of the draft standards as well as an analysis of the flaws in the methodology employed in NYSED’s 2015 Aim High Survey, the results of which were supposedly used to guide the revisions which you can read here. Their efforts and their public comment make clear the extent to which the draft revisions fail to address the concerns of parents and educators:

The draft revisions do not reflect the concerns of parents and educators as depicted in Governor Cuomo’s Common Core Task Force Report. For example, The Common Core Task Force clearly outlined the concerns of early childhood experts regarding the developmentally inappropriate expectation that all kindergarteners “read emergent texts with purpose and understanding,” yet this standard remains unchanged in the draft revisions. Out of close to fifty revisions to the kindergarten ELA standards, only three of these revisions reflect content changes. This lack of meaningful revision can be observed across all grade level standards in both ELA and math.”

And while Unity was silent, many of the rank and file were not. In 2016, Stronger Together identified the lack of assessment boundaries as an insurmountable hurdle for parents and teachers to accurately understand the standards and how they would impact students and classrooms. Stronger Together educated their members and the public on this critical flaw in NYSUT. You can read more about that here.

“We recognize poverty as a leading factor in a student’s ability to learn and grow.  We recognize the impact of generational poverty on children and communities including its affect on their health, the increase of opioid addiction in our communities, and the limited access to good jobs, affordable housing and healthcare.

Year after year, Unity has failed to raise public awareness of the fact that Common Core tests in grades 3-8 disproportionately harm students in poverty and students of color.  In 2012, 20% of students in poverty scored a 1 on the NYS tests ELA tests in grades 3-8. In 2014 and 2015 this number ballooned to 43%.

In March of 2016, Mike Lillis, Michael O’Donnell, and I pointed out that:

Between 2012 and 2015, the number of non-white students who scored a level 1 on the 3-8 assessments rose from 12% to 41%. The number of white students who scored a 1 grew from 5% to 23%.  From 2010-12 white students in the richest districts had partial proficiency (score: 2+) rates 22 percentage points higher than non-white students in the poorest districts.  With the advent of the new Common Core assessments that gap has more than doubled to 54 percentage points.  It is disturbing that rather than remaining constant over time, the rate of failure for students of color grew disproportionately larger than white students. (You can read more about that here)

Where were the current NYSUT officers on the Unity slate candidates on this? Why did they fail to organize and advocate around the connection between disproportionately and erroneously labeling vulnerable students as failures with the school to prison pipeline and a growing opportunity gap? Where were their advocacy efforts aimed at raising public awareness about the bias in these assessments? And in light of these assaults on historically disenfranchised communities, why did the current leadership of NYSUT and UNITY Caucus spend a million dollars on advertisements promoting the positive direction of Governor Cuomo’s education policies?

NYSUT also recently declined to support the inclusion of an Opportunity to Learn index in the state’s accountability plan. This action, supported by dozens of grassroots parent organizations, would shift the focus away from blaming teachers for struggling schools, and towards inequitable opportunities to learn, such as large class sizes, high suspension rates, and teacher turnover. You can read more about that here.

A commitment to to social justice and exposing the truth often requires risk. Unfortunately, the current NYSUT officers running for re-election have not been willing to share in this risk with the rank and file teachers advocating for equitable learning opportunities.

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When one looks at many of Unity Slate’s purported legislative accomplishments, especially the ones tied to the well-being of children, it is disconcerting that they are so quick to lay claim to the unpaid activism and efforts of parents, community members, and rank and file teachers – efforts that they failed to support.

The current leadership seeking re-election has failed to understand the ineffectiveness of recent policy changes, changes that they consider accomplishments. In so doing, they have damaged the reputation of the union amongst parents and communities, the very groups that we will need to join forces with in order to safeguard our public schools and ensure the survival of the Union.

While they may be able to talk a good game, their efforts do not demonstrate real leadership.The Unity Caucus has made some large claims and has little to back them up. Are these claims wishful thinking or rather a shift in thinking? In either case, it is simply too little, too late.