Parents across the State of New York are mobilizing against a series of education reforms being championed by Governor Andrew Cuomo.
The Governor's plan was unveiled in the final hours of the State Budget negotiations, on March 31. It tied adoption of a new teacher evaluation system to increased state aid for schools and passed the Democratic controlled legislature within hours of being made public.
Groups as varied as teacher's unions, school administrators and Parent Teacher Associations have come out in opposition. The New York State PTA is advocating a Time Out as an act of peaceful civil disobedience.
On Friday, the PTA Council in the Mamaroneck Unified School District, in suburban Westchester County, New York, is asking parents at the District's four elementary schools to stage a sit-in after morning drop off. My children attend one of those schools.
Parents are being ask to sit with their children outside the school building until the bell signaling the start of the school day tolls, then collectively call for a Time Out, by making a 'T' sign with their hands.
The aim is to get the politicians in Albany to stop the process of reform that is on track to be implemented this year, and delay any changes until the start of the 2016-17 school year. The PTA Council wants an extended period of public debate in the hope that the reforms can be modified.
That will be the real battle.
In his State of the State address in January Gov. Cuomo signaled his intention to tackle teacher evaluation by calling a system, in which less than one percent of teachers were rated as ineffective last year, "baloney."
His solution was to reduce the weight of principals' observations to 15 percent of a teacher's rating. The judgment of an independent evaluator from outside the school would make up 35 percent, while half would be determined on students' performance in state test scores.
But many district's, including Mamaroneck, complain they have implemented reforms to the teacher evaluation system, known by its acronym ARRP, Annual Professional Performance Review, and the Governor's proposal is a wasteful power grab.
In a recent blog post "How To Fix Public Education in New York State" Dr. Robert Shaps, the Superintendent of Mamaroneck Public Schools likened the current reform process to a Monty Python movie.
Dr. Shaps and I were unable to arrange an interview for this story on short notice. To call him cautious or calculating would be too negative, but he is definitely a man who thinks before he speaks. So it is no surprise he didn't leap at the chance to be in the media spotlight.
Since arriving in Mamaroneck in 2010 he has set about implementing a new ARRP. School principals and district administrators conduct a minimum of six unannounced mini-observations of each teacher every year. Feedback is given to the teacher soon after.
In a February article in the Lower Hudson Journal News "Stern: Schools can grade teachers without Cuomo's help" Dr. Shaps framed the evaluation process as a partnership with the teachers.
"We have established a norm that people will walk into your classrooms, but there is a trust that comes with having a professional dialogue," he told the Journal News.
While the classroom observations are unannounced the goal is to help the teachers improve, and relies on a level of trust built between the staff and the administrators. To that end everything is documented. Teachers are told what is expected of them and given ample opportunity to meet their goals
The point is that an outside observer couldn't develop the trust and the intimate knowledge of each classroom required to pull off such a detailed teacher evaluation. The Mamaroneck School District makes over 3,000 visits to nearly 500 teachers a year; is the State really going to invest that much time and money in teacher evaluation?
Advocates of reform like to portray district-level ARRPs as the rubber-stamp of the status quo. While that might be true in some cases, Mamaroneck is not one of them. Teachers have been denied tenure. It happened in my children's school last year. As Dr. Shaps told me in the aftermath of some parent dismay at that particular termination, the tenure system puts the onus on him to make the right decision. He gets one shot and is totally invested in making an informed choice.
Kerry Roberts Sneyd (pictured), President of the Chatsworth School PTA, who is one of the Time Out protest organizers says, "The district has spent considerable time and effort creating a culture of collaboration in the classroom, that seems to be working."
Her concern is that the governor's approach would be more judgmental and would result in a step backwards towards a higher anxiety classroom environment that is too focused on testing and outside evaluators.
Roberts Sneyd shied away from any policy prescriptions, calling instead for all interested parties to get together and explore what is working in terms of teacher assessment in different districts around the state in a less-rushed manner.
"There is a real risk to the joy of learning. Why not explore teacher accountability around the state and see what works?" she asked.
Mamaroneck is not an underperforming district. Nor does it have a particularly activist parent body. Student opt-out rates on the 2015 state test were well below ten percent, much lower than some districts. The district's students performed "extremely well" compared to the state-wide averages on the 2013-14 state tests according to Debbie Manetta, the District's Director Public Relations.
While parents and administrators have some concerns about the reliability of the tests, their opposition to the proposed reforms is not driven by the fear of being given a failing grade.
Their motivation is to come up with the best solution for their child's schools. If that means defending an effective local system from the heavy hand of Albany, they will raise their hands in a 'T' and call for a time out.
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