Newsday’s Survey and What it Means

A Newsday editorial piece today reporting on the results of their survey about opt-outs contained a very interesting finding:

Of those whose kids skipped the tests, three-quarters said the biggest reason was not wanting the tests tied to teacher evaluations.

Some observations:

First, we need to be careful not to read too much into this. We know that polls are unreliable, and we can’t pick and choose results that confirm what we want to hear. The article itself acknowledges that the survey is unscientific, there were only 300 respondents (and they were skewed toward opt-outers), and (as one of the commenters complains) the closed-ended choices for listing reasons were limited and did not allow for parents to provide their own reasons for opting out.

That said, even with all those caveats, it is heartening to read that there are parents out there who recognize that basing teacher evaluations on student test scores is not just bad policy, but policy bad enough to warrant standing up to. We hear this from local parents, but it’s good to know it’s a feeling that’s shared across the Island (again, even if this survey can’t tell us the true number).  There is a constant refrain that teachers unions are looking out for teachers at the expense of the children, but of course, as this issue shows, what’s right for us and what’s right for our students are not in opposition, but in synchronicity. It benefits no one – not the students, not the communities, and obviously not teachers, to have good educators fired (or living in fear) due to the zip code in which they teach or due to statistical anomalies beyond their control.

If you look at the page of reader’s letters on opting-out, quite a few contain disclosures like “the writer is an educator” or “the writer’s wife is a teacher.” A cynical reader could extend this further and wonder if perhaps most of the respondents who named teacher evaluations as their main reason for opting-out were, in fact, teachers.  To which I would respond, that’s probably not true, but so what if it is?

The folks in the anti-teacher crowd frequently lose sight of the fact that teachers are parents, taxpayers, and are the people who are most knowledgeable about the field of education. The refrain is constant – we are supposed to stay on the sidelines in this argument because we are too biased. And how do we respond to that? All too often by giving in and staying on the sidelines. That has to end.

Despite the doubtful validity of this data, we can, and should take this as an important sign. We can – and should – leave the opt-out part of this debate with the parents, but we ALL must be part of the larger picture battle. We have to be united against the forces that are trying to destroy public education and that means making public statements. Yes, we need to continue to send emails, and faxes, etc, but we need to be out there in public –  supporting the parents, supporting our students, and supporting each other.

There will, no doubt, be more rallies this year. Please, make a commitment to attend at least one .

More on the Regents, APPR, and Testing

As noted, previously, the Regents approved extending the temporary APPR rules at yesterday’s meeting.  As reported in the Democrat and Chronicle, The new regulations “add an appeals process for teachers whose students showed poor growth on last year’s state exams but performed well the previous year. In order to appeal, the teacher much have received a positive rating — either ‘effective’ or ‘highly effective’ — on the observation portion of their rating.”

The law also requires NYSED to re-examine “the statistical tabulations used to calculate student growth on the standardized tests” and to “require state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia to craft a letter to Cuomo and lawmakers, outlining the various areas of the evaluation law that are ripe for improvement.”

Additionally, as reported in the New York Times, (via Perdido Street School) Commissioner Elia announced at the meeting that they will be reducing the length of the tests: “some multiple choice questions would be shaved off the math assessments and a number of passages would be cut from the reading exams taken next year. A spokeswoman for the Education Department said that the tests would be shortened for students in each grade, and that they would be trimmed further in 2017.”

Once again, these are all good things, but they are all-half measures without any real teeth that don’t address the underlying issues.  As the Times article says:

The announcement on Wednesday on test length, however, seemed unlikely to quiet critics.
“Half a disaster is still a disaster,” said Loy Gross, a co-founder of the parent activist group United to Counter the Core, who added shortening the tests was just tinkering around the edges of a very large problem.
“And no,” she added, “it’s not going to appease parents who will continue to opt their kids out of tests.”

Painting it Red for Public Ed

Hundreds of parents and teachers turned out at rallies around Long Island to make a statement in support of teaching and against testing.

SWRTA was represented at a couple of locations –  although with smaller numbers than we usually bring (let’s try to turn it back up again at the next event).

The events were covered by Newsday, News12, and other local media. This short video clip of a parent nicely encapsulates what it was all about.  Assemblyman Dean Murray, who serves on the Assembly education committee, was at the Patchogue rally and expressed strong support –  “We have to get back to real teaching not just teaching to the test.”

We’ll have to see if that statement is followed up by actual legislative action – but remember the more pressure we apply, the more likely they are to respond.


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News Update

APPR Regulations

According to a Facebook post from PJSTA President Beth Dimino, a majority of the Regents voted to make the new APPR regulations permanent. Beth also reports that “they will draft a resolution tomorrow with changes for the Senate to consider.” For updated info, see this post.

APPR Appeals

In an interview on Monday, Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch announced that they will be moving toward a process that will allow teachers to appeal their rating if there appears to be an aberration in their score. Governor Cuomo has voiced his support for this as well.

As it stands, teachers have virtually no recourse to challenge their ratings (they must prove the rating was fraudulent), so this does represent progress. Of course, it’s hard to cheer too hard at this news, since it’s Cuomo and Tisch who are putting teachers in this position in the first place. It’s akin to throwing someone overboard in the middle of the ocean and then making a big show of tossing him a life jacket as you sail away. We’ll see what happens with this, but it’s hard to see this as anything more than a cynical ploy to appease critics without making any substantive changes to the the primary issues.

The main point is, the pressure that the NYSED and the Governor are feeling is pushing them to react. Right now, they are hoping that with a little smoke and some mirrors they can diffuse the situation just enough to keep things they way they want them. We need to make sure we keep the pressure on and let them know we will not accept half measures. The system is deeply flawed and harmful and it needs to go.

Big Issues in Two Long Island Districts

Last November we reported on the situation in Locust Valley, where the BOE is attempting to undercut the Triborough Law and deny teachers step increases.  There’s really no update, but as this article in the Oyster Bay Guardian shows, the situation seems no closer to resolution. The resolution of this situation has TREMENDOUS potential ramifications for all teacher contracts and, potentially all public sector unions in New York State.

You may or may not have heard rumors about the fiscal problems that the Sachem school district is currently facing, but it seems that they are reaching a fever pitch, with talk of drastic mid-year cuts. Superintendent James Nolan responded to the rumors with a statement saying, in part “no decisions have been finalized on potential sources of revenue or potential cuts to reduce expenditures. We are working in synergy with many folks to develop a short-term and long-term plan.”

According to NYSUT Regional Staff Director Peter Verdon,   “The primary factor which has brought Sachem to this point, is the culmination of the State’s punitive and flawed school funding policies – state aid cuts, failure to eliminate the GEA, the tax cap and its undemocratic super-majority requirement.  The repercussions impact all of our members in the public sector- teachers, school related professionals as well as public library employees and those working in other municipalities.

So I fear that Sachem is not merely a cautionary tale, but rather is a “canary in the coal mine.”  If legislative changes are not made we could see more situations like this in the future.  These are changes that NYSUT has sought and which we must all continue to fight for. “

Seattle Teachers Strike

School will begin tomorrow in Seattle public schools as the union reached a tentative agreement with the city. Key terms of the agreement include cost of living increases, increased pay for a longer school day, and that test scores will no longer play a role in teacher evaluations.

Contact the Regents

Please Contact Regent Tisch and the at-large* Regents

As noted previously, the Regents will be voting on September 16th -17th to make the new evaluation rules permanent. Roger Tilles, the Regent for Nassau/Suffolk, has indicated that he will join the majority in voting in favor – despite his longstanding opposition to using test scores to evaluate teachers. Tilles is taking the perspective that it was the duty of the Regents to come up with the best plan that met the requirements of the 2015 Education Law, regardless of how bad that law is, and that’s exactly what they’ve done.

As such, there’s no point in contacting him to complain that the system is flawed. He knows that. Rather, we need to remind him that his duty is not only to follow the guidelines given by the legislature, but also simply to do what is right for the education of the students of New York State. In a case such as this, where there is a conflict between those duties, conscience should always win. And Tilles, as demonstrated through his own words, knows what the right choice is.

Nobody knows what will actually happen if Tilles and two or more other Regents flip sides and vote no.  Diane Ravitch wrote that “If three Regents change their votes, the ill-considered and harmful law will go back to the legislature for deliberation and revision.” The best case scenario is that the legislature bows to pressure and attempts to undo some of the damage – worst case is that, under pressure from Cuomo, they revise the law to simply cut the Regents out of the equation and give the Governor everything he wanted. This seems unlikely at this point, but it really is anybody’s guess.

In any case, it’s important to reach out to Regent Tilles now to let him know how you feel. While you’re at it, please feel free to send a message to the four “at-large” Regents and let THEM know that evaluating teachers on faulty data is not good for students, teachers, or anyone.

Regent Roger Tilles -(516) 364-2533

At-Large Regents

Chancellor Merryl Tisch – (518) 474-5889

Regent Lester Young – (718) 722-2796

Regent Wade Norwood – (no phone on regents website)

Regent James Cottrell – (718) 270-2331

*at-large refers to members who do not represent a specific region

Three big stories

Three big stories related to Common Core and testing hit within the last day or so. While they all are being presented as progress in the fight against the reform agenda, a little scrutiny reveals that it’s a little early to celebrate anything.

  • Regent Roger Tilles, speaking at Port Jefferson’s Superintendent’s Conference Day, was reported as reversing his perspective on the use of tests scores for teacher evaluations.
  • Governor Cuomo is calling for a commission to reevaluate Common Core.  According to Newsday, “The governor’s statement was seen by some as a signal that the test boycott movement finally had gotten its message across.”
  • A Newsday editorial piece by Joye Brown was headlined “Change is in the Wind on Teacher Evals,” implying that their might actually be movement coming on the APPR nightmare.


Regent Tilles

The remarks by Regent Tilles are nice to hear, but they aren’t really news. At a forum at SWR High School back in February, 2012, he expressed similar views. This past March he was quoted as saying “Fifty percent? I, for one, would suggest zero percent. There are better ways to evaluate teachers.”

But back in June when seven Regents signed a position paper calling for the state to revamp APPR and saying that they would vote against implementing the new regulations, Tilles expressed support for the concepts of the letter but would not sign on, saying that that board “does not have the authority to override requirements imposed on it.”  And now, as the Regents are about to vote to make the evaluation rules permanent, Tilles has indicated that he will, regardless of his feelings, vote in support of the evaluation rules.

Without a doubt, Tilles is technically correct. The Regents don’t have the latitude to change the law. What would happen if the Board simply refused to permanently codify the plan that the law directed them to make? Nobody knows. But it would be nice to see Tilles take the same stand that some of his colleagues have. Until then, the nice words he spoke at Port Jefferson are just that.

Cuomo’s Common Core Commission

It is clear that this is nothing more than an attempt to try to mollify irate parents – maybe as a response to his poor poll numbers, or, more likely, an empty promise designed to take some of the wind out of the Opt-out movement’s sails.  How do we know? We can start with the obvious – that if it’s coming from Cuomo it must be BS. But moving beyond cynicism, first and foremost, it does not address APPR or school receivership, which means from the perspective of teachers worried about irrational evaluations, this news is completely meaningless. And of course, since the current APPR law is so heavily test-based,  changes to the testing regime would be superficial at best as long as APPR is the law.

And, as the Perdido Street School blog points out, “Cuomo Is Rigging His New Common Core Panel Just The Way He Did The Old One.”  The new commission would be a representative group from his previous Common Core Commission, which accomplished exactly nothing and was described by an insider as “a sham.” For more, here’s NYSAPE’s response to Cuomo’s announcement.


It’s nice when we come across that rare Newsday article that doesn’t demonize teachers, so in one sense this article is news. And one of the main points of the article – that if change isn’t enacted legislatively it will be forced through the opt-out movement seems true enough, especially as evidenced by Cuomo’s pandering described above.

But nothing in the article gives any reason to believe that change is coming soon. Commissioner Elia is quoted as saying that she doesn’t control the laws regarding evaluation. Like Tilles, she’s saying it’s out of her control, but unlike Tilles, nothing in her history or her pubic comments implies that she would change it if she could. So the article’s point that Elia does have the ability to push for change seems a bit off the mark.

Likewise the discussions of legislative action. Assemblymen like Carl Marcellino have been pushing against the test based evaluation system, but the Democrats in the Assembly and Republicans in the Senate (e.g. Croci, Lavalle, et al) are showing no signs of taking on Cuomo, so unless something changes drastically, a legislative solution is a pipe dream, and the only hope is that the continued growth of the opt-out movement starves the beast of the data it thrives on.

But again, we as teachers need to stay on the sidelines. Opt your own kids out, but be very careful about public comments and make sure not to suggest opt-ing out to your students or their parents. Opt-out began as a parent-led movement and it needs to continue as such in order to succeed.

An update on testing and opt-out

As we are working on negotiating a new APPR plan per the revised education law, it’s time to take a look at the state of state testing that underpins the whole thing. Here’s a quick summary of some of the stories and blog posts from the past few weeks.

Test Results

The state released test score data mid-August. Reports that there was some growth in ELA scores only served to highlight how mathematically deficient most news outlets are. Increases of 1-2% are simply not statistically significant. As Carol Burris noted, “At this rate of increase, it will take about 70 years for all New York students to meet both New York Common Core proficiency cut scores.”

(If you’re curious how SWR did, click here for Wading River and here for Prodell – but seriously, why bother? It’s truly meaningless data)

Even more telling (and not the least bit surprising to anyone who actually works with children), is that as inappropriate as the testing is for the general population, it’s far worse for our most at-risk students; the achievement gap for special ed students and minority students is widening.

Opt-Out Results

The final tally showed that about 20% of all 3-8 students in NY State (roughly 200,000) opted out of one or both tests. While that fell a little short of NYSAPE’s goal of 250,000, it represents a growth of 400% vs. the year before. Within this number are some huge disparities. In NYC, which accounts for 40% of the state in terms of 3-8 students, only 2% opted out.

The Response to Opt-Out

NYSAPE is pushing hard to make sure that that this coming year’s opt-out numbers will be even stronger. They are encouraging parents to get their opt-out letters in now. On the other side, Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia is trying to do everything in her power (and some things out of her power) to stop the opt-out movement. She initially had said she was going to try to withhold Title 1 funding from districts with high opt-outs. Fortunately, Governor Cuomo threw her under the bus and said he didn’t think districts with high opt-outs should be sanctioned, and after the USDOE stated they would leave decisions about penalties to the states, Regents Chancellor Tisch announced that districts with high opt-outs would not lose funding. (as a side note, it is insane that that this was even considered – taking funding away from the neediest students when, in most cases, those students are least likely to be the ones who actually opted out?????)

Commissioner Elia is not giving up, however. She has been a vocal opponent of the opt-out movement, calling it “unreasonable”, and although she recently did acknowledge that parents do have the right to opt-out, she is putting together a “tool kit,” (or as Assemblyman Jim Tedesco calls it, a “goon squad“) for Superintendents to implement to combat opt-outs. Most notably, she has signaled a desire to go after teachers if opt-out continues: ““I am absolutely shocked if, and I don’t know that this happened, but if any educators supported and encouraged opt-outs. I think it’s unethical.” More on that below, but first a few other responses to the Opt-out movement.

  • Assemblyman Al Graf has started a petition to have MaryEllen Elia fired.
  • Carol Burris responds to Commissioner Elia, saying it’s unethical NOT to speak out.
  • Melissa McMullan, Comsewogue teacher and SWR parent points out that if there are ethical violations here, they are on the part of NYSED
  • Regents Chancellor Tisch, who has previously argued that opting out was a terrible mistake and likened opting to refusing vaccines, nonetheless says  “If I was the mother of a student with a certain type of disability, I would think twice before I allowed my child to sit through an exam that was incomprehensible to them”
  • Just prior to the start of school, Pat-Med Superintendent Michael Hynes sent a letter to all of his teachers telling them he didn’t care one bit about their test-based APPR scores. He followed that with a letter to parents informing them of their right to opt-out and making sure they know there is no penalty for refusing the tests.

What Next?

It will be very interesting to see how this plays out. Commissioner Elia has a lot riding on stemming the opt-out tide. Now that she’s acknowledged she can’t force parents to allow their kids to take the tests, her only option is through educators. Her use of the phrase “I think it’s unethical.” is very telling ethical violations are one path to a 3020A hearing and her choice of words was no accident. Does she plan to have NYSED go after individual teachers or superintendents who are accused of promoting opt out? It seems unfathomable, as the backlash would likely be huge, but so far NYSED, the Regents, and the Governor have not hesitated to demonize teachers without worrying about the impact.

The bottom line is this: As a parent you can opt your own kids out (and NYSUT supports your doing so) but as a classroom teacher you should avoid discussing opt-out in any form in your classroom and should not, at any time, say anything that can be construed as promoting it to your students’ parents.