By Colin Hogan
Hundreds of teachers, support staff, administrators, parents and school board members from across the county gathered in Fulton Monday evening to send a unified message to their state leaders: leave educating to the educators.
The event, which was coordinated by the county’s teachers unions and held at Fulton Junior High School, was one of many being held in schools across the state recently. Speakers representing all the different stakeholders in public education discussed the many ways they’d like to see New York state release its grip on school curriculums and operations, and give more control back to local educators and school boards.
Among the most highly discussed topics were Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed teacher reforms, the Common Core curriculum, mandate relief and the state’s gap elimination adjustment on school budgets.
Teachers blasted the governor’s proposed reforms, which were outlined in his State of the State speech earlier this year, for being off the mark on influencing actual change, and condemned him for withholding aid from schools that don’t adopt them.
The reforms include changing accountability measures so that half of teachers’ evaluation ratings would be tied to how well their students perform on state exams. Currently only 20 percent of teachers’ ratings are based on that criteria. They also prohibit any teachers who have been rated ‘ineffective’ due to those test scores from getting an overall ‘effective’ rating, and extend the period for being granted tenure to five consecutive ‘effective’ years, up from three years currently.
Jeff Peneston of the Liverpool Central School District — who was named New York State Teacher of the Year in 2011 as well as one of Cuomo’s Master Teachers — said the governor’s plan is out of touch with the realities inside schools, and will only end up hurting students.
“Every one of the governor’s reform agenda suggestions is an experiment, and he’s suggesting that if we do this, this, this and this, and if we hold all these school boards hostage to budget issues, that somehow we’re going to solve the problem,” said Peneston. Like many of his colleagues, Peneston stressed that the decisions that determine how schools are run are being made by Albany lawmakers with no experience in the field.
He felt the proposed evaluation methods will not accurately assess an instructor’s effectiveness — an argument he said is too-easily discounted as teachers being afraid of scrutiny.
“I’m not here for the union. I’m not an angry teacher who’s afraid of losing his job. I’m not afraid of being evaluated — I don’t know anyone who’s afraid of being evaluated,” he said. “I’m afraid of being put on the bathroom scale when I know that bathroom scale’s not calibrated.”
Other speakers criticized the laying out of the Common Core Learning Standards for being a rushed process, too centered on standardized testing, and leaving little opportunity for teachers to take more creative approaches to their instruction.
“One of the biggest criticisms of the layout of the Common Core was how quickly it was rolled out,” said Barbara Hubbard, a former Fulton educator and current school board member. “The rush to implementation has impacted teaching and learning in our schools, and we must have a culture of trust and community in order to support change that is based on what will best serve our students.”
She said while standardized tests have been around for decades, the intensity of exams students now take, and the setting in which they take them, is far more daunting than it used to be.
“To be clear, testing is not new. I had to give New York state tests back in the ’70s and ’80s, but now students are taking tests over the course of many hours, over multiple days, and the tests are back-to-back on the weeks they’re given,” Hubbard said.
Hubbard said she’s been told stories of students “crying, having anxiety attacks and losing sleep over tests,” and of kids feeling “the responsibility for what might happen to their teacher because of that score,” something she called “a very unfortunate situation for our students.”
Kevin Caraccioli, a parent in the Oswego City School District, shared some of his children’s negative experiences with the Common Core, which he said “has turned our youngest generation into a bunch of nervous, self-doubting test takers.” He feels Common Core “places so much emphasis on testing and evaluation that it has lost sight of our proudest accomplishment: our children.”
Speakers’ concerns extended beyond the classroom, though, with many calling for the elimination of the state’s Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA) — a measure that was enacted in 2010-11 to help the state close its own budget gap by taking back from districts a certain portion of their state aid.
In the Fulton City School District, alone, the GEA has cost the district about $10 million in aid it would have otherwise received over the last five years, according to figures provided by Superintendent Bill Lynch.
“New York state, as we know, faced significant financial deficits (during the 2010-11 year) and in order to balance their books, they took money away from school districts. The more money they gave a school district, the more they took away,” Lynch said.
Lynch said the GEA, coupled with the state’s cap on local tax levy increases, has left school districts — particularly high-need, low-wealth districts like Fulton — with considerable budgetary challenges. He called the tax cap “a backdoor way of limiting local control” — an issue many attendance felt would be the silver bullet is alleviating many districts’ problems.
“All kids need is a little more local control. Local school district control in decision making — within state guidelines, yes. We need to be accountable, but within guidelines, not with unfunded mandates and being held hostage for money if we don’t do what we’re told,” said Gerry Hudson, a former Altmar-Parish-Williamstown superintendent who moderated the event. “We know what needs to be done for our children.”
Attendees were asked to fill out petitions that will be mailed to each of the county’s state representatives. The petitions ask those lawmakers to “advocate strongly for equitable school funding this legislative season.”
David Derouchie, a Fulton teacher who helped coordinate the event, estimated that nearly all of the roughly 350 people in attendance filled out the petitions.