litmus tests

As NYSUT endorses testing opt-outs, city union holds back

PHOTO: Justin Weiner

It wasn’t long before Karen Magee, the feisty leader of the state teachers union, steered the conversation on a radio program this week about the budget brawl in Albany to testing.

New York State United Teachers, along with its national and New York City counterparts, has made no secret of its problems with standardized tests. The required annual exams, which New York students will take this month, stress out children, warp instruction, and fuel unfair teacher evaluations, the unions say.

But as a rising number of parents decide to register their opposition to the tests by keeping their children from taking them, the unions have stopped short of endorsing the boycotts, saying only that parents should have a right to “opt out.” On Monday, Magee vaulted over that invisible line.

“I am saying that I would urge parents at this point in time to opt out of testing,” Magee said on the show Capitol Pressroom. (“Wow,” host Susan Arbetter replied.)

Last year, tens of thousands of students across New York sat out the state exams, as did more than 1,900 in the city — a tiny fraction of the 410,000 students who took the tests, but a 450 percent increase over the previous year. In addition to their loathing of standardized tests and how they can dictate what is taught in schools, many of the boycotters are also driven by their opposition to the Common Core standards that the tests measure and the teacher evaluations that rely on their results.

All that has forced union leaders, who back the standards and the need for student assessments but worry about over-testing and unreliable evaluation systems, to take increasingly nuanced stances on testing. The city’s United Federation of Teachers has managed to juggle those positions while at the same time mobilizing parents and teachers who are hostile to high-stakes testing, all without endorsing test refusal.

The union has been able to do that since members who openly back the opt-out movement are still in the minority. But with Magee’s comments coming as advocates predict record opt-out numbers this month, union leaders face new pressure to embrace exam boycotters.

“It’s really frustrating for those who are fighting the good fight to be turned down” by the unions, said Nancy Cauthen, a parent member of the city opt-out group Change the Stakes. “It seems like a little too much energy goes into maintaining their seat at the table,” she added, “rather than worrying about their membership and kids.”

Magee, who won control of NYSUT last year by pledging to take a harder line against state education policy, made her comments this week as state lawmakers battled Governor Andrew Cuomo over his plan to increase the weight of tests in teacher evaluations. In an interview with Chalkbeat, she said the union decided to encourage parents to opt out because of a “groundswell” of support for the movement among teachers and parents.

But in separate comments Monday, she suggested that a massive number of boycotters could undermine the evaluation system. “Statistically, if you take out enough, it has no merit or value whatsoever,” she told reporters. Her comments drew rebukes from a top state education official and Cuomo, who called them a “political tactic.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers, of which NYSUT and the UFT are both affiliates, quickly jumped in. She posted online that she would boycott New York’s tests if she had children in the public schools, and that she understood “why @NYSUT and parents are calling for an opt-out.”

Laura Scott
PHOTO: Sarah Darville
UFT President Michael Mulgrew and AFT President Randi Weingarten attended a rally against Gov. Cuomo’s education policies at P.S. 10 in Brooklyn last month.

The influential historian and education blogger Diane Ravitch was quick to praise Weingarten for “personally endorsing” the opt-out movement. Other observers were more skeptical, asking if the AFT would now direct resources to the cause.

In an interview, Weingarten offered a nuanced take on testing, but stopped short of backing Magee’s decision to encourage test refusal. She said parents should have the right to opt out their children from the tests, and that teachers should have the right to “give parents both the pros and cons” of skipping the exams.

But she added that teachers are not necessarily protected if they refuse to administer mandated exams. And she said her union would not “run a campaign” advising parents to boycott the tests, as Magee implied she plans to do.

“There’s a difference between supporting a parent’s right to opt out and playing a leading role,” Weingarten said.

Unlike Weingarten, UFT President Michael Mulgrew did not rush to respond to Magee’s opt-out remarks. In an interview, he noted that he has previously said he backs parents’ right to boycott the exams and that his union is affiliated with NYSUT.

“That’s what the state president has said,” he said, referring to Magee’s comments. “We support our state union.”

Mulgrew represents a different membership than Magee, whose members hail from suburban and upstate districts with far higher opt-out percentages and some school boards that endorse test refusal. He also works closely with city schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who takes a middle-of-the-road stance on testing similar to his. (Fariña told principals in a memo Tuesday to “reiterate the value” of tests to parents and students, but also to respect their decision to opt out.)

UFT President Michael Mulgrew and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña have both called for a reduced emphasis on testing but avoided endorsing the test opt-out movement.
PHOTO: Jessica Glazer
UFT President Michael Mulgrew and schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña have both called for a reduced emphasis on testing but avoided endorsing the test opt-out movement.

Still, some city teachers have partnered with opt-out groups, discussed the movement with interested parents and sometimes encouraged them to join, and even pledged not to administer the tests. As they do, they are looking to their union leaders for support. Lauren Cohen, a fifth-grade teacher at opt-out-friendly P.S. 321 in Park Slope, said Magee’s comments this week made her wonder if the UFT would follow suit.

“Does this mean I can say what I really feel now and the union will protect me?” said Cohen, who is a member of the union’s Movement of Rank and File Educators, or MORE, caucus. 

Cohen introduced a MORE-sponsored resolution at a UFT meeting last week calling on the union to back parents who boycott the tests, to protect teachers who speak out against testing and “conscientious objectors” who refuse to give the exams, and to distribute opt-out materials. The measure did not get enough votes to be brought before the full membership, which some attributed to resistance from the union leadership.

Mike Schirtzer, a MORE member who helped write the resolution, said the union should conduct polls and host forums to gauge how many members support test refusal. Schirtzer, who teaches at Leon Goldstein High School for the Sciences in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, said he believes the number is larger than the leadership may realize.

“There is a huge groundswell of teachers getting behind opt out,” he said.

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call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”