Education rally draws thousands to plaza

Thousands of teachers from around the state rallied Saturday afternoon on the Empire State Plaza to

Thousands of teachers from around the state rallied Saturday afternoon on the Empire State Plaza to amplify their concerns with the state’s new common core curriculum and implementation of teacher and principal evaluation systems.

The rally was sponsored by the New York State United Teachers union, which organized more than 200 buses from all corners of the state. There was also a large local contingent, including teachers from Gloversville, Schenectady and Bethlehem.

Schenectady second-grade teacher Katie Ferguson, the state’s 2012 Teacher of the Year, said the event was a chance for the state’s thousands of teachers to have one voice. With that voice, she said, they were trying to let people know children aren’t getting the education they deserve because of demands from the state.

“We hope that we can get [the state Education Department] to listen and reconsider some of the things they’ve put in place this year and slow down the implementation of the common core and rethink their standardized testing measures,” Ferguson said.

The event stretched beyond the planned two hours, as more than a dozen speakers delivered their message from a large stage set up on the plaza, with two large screens sharing the visual with the crowd, which was densely packed for about 50 yards and continued to a sprinkling of people at the other end of the plaza. Many teachers, parents and students wore shirts and held signs that indicated what school district they were from.

Buttons, signs and banners lambasted the teacher evaluation system, called for an end to common core, vilified Gov. Andrew Cuomo and private test creators, remembered a student who took his life because of standardized testing, criticized the state’s tax cap and just offered the plea of “Save our Schools.”

This spring was the first to include testing under the new common core curriculum in English and math. The curriculum is supposed to identify knowledge students should have by the time they graduate.

Clint Wagner, a seventh-grade social studies teacher in Gloversville, said a common curriculum across the state and country is an important change. He said the problem has been in the implementation, which hasn’t made sense, noting a lack of alignment between subject areas.

The hope from Saturday’s rally, Ferguson said, is that there can be some tweaks to the testing associated with the new standards. She said giving teachers advance copies of the test so they can have clear objectives to teach would be an improvement.

“And if possible,” Ferguson said, “I hope they could make the tests shorter, with fewer passages, fewer responses and more age-appropriate in terms of the amount of time these poor children have to spend working hard on tests.”

Students have six days of 90-minute testing sessions in the common core system. She said the time demand should be scaled back, with second-graders only taking 30 minutes for a test, becoming incrementally longer for higher grades.

Wagner estimated 27 teaching days were lost to the standardized tests administered to students. NYSUT estimated students spend five times more time taking standardized tests than they did nine years ago.

Also coming under fire was the teacher and principal evaluation systems championed by Cuomo. Wagner said some sort of accountability is important, but the testing associated with the evaluations seemed ill-conceived, especially considering students had no stake in the outcome.

“I think testing can be used, but I think that testing has to be in the right form,” he said, adding that almost every teacher wants accountability measures.

In the days leading up to the rally, there was some criticism raised of the event, with accusations it was just about protecting teachers. Schenectady City School District Superintendent Larry Spring, who said he doesn’t always agree with NYSUT, stressed Saturday’s rally wasn’t about union concerns and was focused on educational policy.

Wagner said he was familiar with the attack, which made it important for students, parents and politicians to carry on the message after the rally.

“Teachers aren’t really listened to by [state officials],” he said. “We’re ignored because people think it is just about our self-interest, but it’s for the kids.”

Because stakeholders are being ignored, Spring contended poorly conceived policies are coming from the state Education Department. He hoped decision-makers would take note of the discontent voiced Saturday and react appropriately.

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