The Signal – Highlights

March 2014

The President’s Message

Dear Members,

And now, the rest of the story…

The sole purpose of the STLE 3 grant was to develop a career ladder for effective and highly effective teachers where advancement must include the use of state evaluation/ APPR results. Teacher observation and APPR data was also to be used to develop long term eligibility criteria for all positions in the proposed career ladder utilizing evaluation data from the district’s APPR (Attachment V) including the identification of novice teacher candidates (p. 7). We know the current assessments are not a fair and accurate measure of student learning. We want to be evaluated using measures that are accurate, reliable, and fair. A teacher career ladder is best developed and implemented through the process of negotiations which serves the interests of all members, strengthening the collective bargaining unit.

This STLE 3 grant would hire 9 full time instructional coaches to provide support through one-on-one and small group interactions, analysis of student work, and classroom modeling of Common Core lessons (p.9). This grant would not provide much needed instructional personnel to reduce class sizes and additional support service providers to address student needs.

The grant does state that these positions would be posted and applicants interviewed (p.9). It goes on to state however, that teacher “placement in high needs schools will be emphasized” (p. 10) and that “filling these positions may involve moving those coaches to lower performing schools” (p. 4). Should additional funding become available for positions of teacher instructional coaches, “applicants will be interviewed, selected, trained, and assigned to a single school by September” (p. 4). There are times when involuntary transfers are necessary such as when limited certification issues need to be addressed. However, our contract language is clear (Article 7:04) and reliable regarding this topic and not subject to APPR results.

I maintain that the single goal shared by the teachers of this district regardless of their APPR rating or participation in a STLE grant is to address student achievement and the success of each child. We are the teacher leaders currently present in every one of our schools, making the difference for students and fellow members by serving on school and district committees, quietly mentoring each other, and keeping up-to-date of the newest instructional strategies. This is what we do every day to support one another in our best efforts to meet the needs of our students.

We need to move on.

We also need to continue working collaboratively; all members of the UTA, District, BOE, City of Utica, parents, and elected officials, presenting a single unified message to ensure that every child in this community receives an equitably funded, quality public education.

In Solidarity,

February 2014

The President’s Message

Dear Members,

Would you purchase a new car sight unseen without a test drive? Secure a home mortgage for property you had never walked through and examined for hazards? Probably not and yet this is the circumstance under which the district initially requested I sign off on the STLE 2 grant in July 2013. Then after critical review, there were numerous concerns with the grant application which are stated below:

— The grant proposal submitted for review was incomplete.
***The word “blank”, ###, ______, ??? were used to indicate omitted information. Sections were also scratched out.
***Section D: Budget Forms was not included (specifically what the monies are spent on).
***Appendix B: Career Ladders: Goals and Measurable Outcomes was not included. This section still had the application directions on what the district should include and how the section should be filled out.
— The grant proposal stated that the UCSD would employ “eight part-time instructional coaches…four at the elementary buildings and four at the secondary buildings.” This program design directly implies Job Sharing. Although past UTA Contracts have included language that addressed the terms and conditions of this employment status, the current UTA Contract does not.
***In response to this concern, the district later explained that they also recognized the flaws with this program design and made changes to the application the same evening I was reviewing it.
— The proposed Sustainability Plan included practices that should have been presented to the UTA for consideration prior to inclusion in the grant request for proposal, not to be negotiated after the grant had been awarded to the district.
***Merit pay which NYSUT does not support.
***There is also the implication of involuntary transfer of instructional coaches when they “will likely relocate to buildings that have no qualified applicants for the position.”

You should also know:
— State funded grant monies cannot be dumped into the general fund to be used as supplemental district income. They are to be used specifically as they are dictated in the grant application budget.
— These grant funds cannot be used to fill the gap created by the years of unequitable funding by state and local governments.

The purpose of the STLE grants, according to NYSED, is to develop and implement a career ladder for members that includes equitable distribution of effective teachers dependent upon the implementation of the APPR. It is however, a disguise for merit pay which demoralizes the workforce and undercuts the goals of a school system by pitting member against member and is based upon the flawed APPR evaluation system.

Finally, I requested in August 2013 that the district and the UTA develop a collaborative approach to completing such grants through the following statement from my official response letter: A grant application warrants an intentional and planned approach with adequate time for review by all invested parties. Time should be allocated for suggested modifications and a second review before the grant requires the necessary signatures for submission. This process allows for UTA and District concerns to be addressed in a collaborative environment sharing the intended goal of receiving the award. I welcome the opportunity to discuss with you further, the development of such a procedure. The district has not responded to my invitation.

The STLE grants do not support solutions for the serious educational issues our student’s face every day such as much needed instructional personnel to reduce class sizes and additional support service providers to address their needs. The real culprit is the consistent underfunding of public schools in New York State and its devastating effect on the children we serve.

In Solidarity,

Volume 39, Issue 8 May 2012

In Our Opinion

I know I’ll be preaching to the choir once I get started, so if you’re sick of hearing gripes about the New York State testing system, feel free to quit reading now. This past month, our students were once again subjected to the grueling testing schedule that accompanies the New York State English Language Arts and Math examinations. We are constantly told in professional development that we need to ‘switch it up’, vary activities, etc. Because, after all, a student’s attention span is approximately their age plus or minus two minutes. Why then, does the state choose to test students in blocks of NINETY minutes for three days? Oh, and if those three days weren’t tiring enough, they tack on another three! I know our kids, at the seventh and eighth grade levels, were exhausted. Now think about the poor third graders. The State, in its infinite wisdom, must have thought about how long ninety minutes is for a kid – after all, they were kind enough to build in a break so students could get up and stretch. But it was only included in the directions for one day. That’s logical.
The time spent administering the test is not the biggest problem though. This year, there were multiple inaccuracies. On the math tests, one grade had a question with two correct answers and another grade had a question with no correct answers. The math issues were realized beforehand, thankfully, and the state instructed teachers who were administering the test that had a question with no answer to warn the students. However, teachers administering the other (the one where a question had two possible answers) were told not to point it out unless a student asked a question. Imagine how much time a student could lose in that situation: knowing that they shouldn’t have two answers and assuming they did something wrong. On the ELA, some of the multiple choice questions were so ambiguous it was difficult to figure out which answer was ‘best’. I was reading over the seventh grade exam, and I know that I puzzled over at least one of the questions. I sat there, berating myself. After all, like most teachers, I have two college degrees. I should not be puzzling over a seventh grade test question. I felt a little better when the 8th grade story about the pineapple was leaked over the internet and Ken Jennings (of Jeopardy fame) found the questions to be unclear and unanswerable. And those problems are just with the test itself. The grading of the exam opens up new issues. Rubrics are vague, the exemplary pieces provided by the state contain contradictions, and most scores are at the mercy of interpretation.
Millions of dollars are spent each year on the development of these tests. Millions of dollars in a state that is underfunding school districts. And for what purpose? Iknow, I know…no child left behind! Blah, blah, blah. It sounds good in theory, doesn’t it? We want them all to succeed (although the title doesn’t say that – to me, it really says ‘Hold back all children to wait for a few to catch up’), and we must measure that success with expensive, poorly written tests! We must also make these tests mandatory and schools should be rewarded for exemplary scores! This will be great! Is that really what’s going on? Why, then, do I picture Mr. Burns from The Simpsons drumming his fingers together and muttering, “Excellent. Another school in need of improvement…make those tests more ridiculous, Smithers, and we’ll never have to give another school a dollar again!” (Insert maniacal laugh here.) I joke, but sometimes I wonder. The only result I have seen in the past few years is an increased focus on teaching to the test, stress over getting students to pass this (have I mentioned it’s lousy?) wonderful measurement of their abilities, and a decrease in state aid to schools who ‘fail’. It seems to me that, with this current evaluation system, the children are EXACTLY the ones that are being left behind.

In solidarity,
Kirstin Vivacqua

Volume 39, Issue 3 November 2011

In Our Opinion

My brain is empty. I cannot figure out how this is possible considering all I have to do. Grades are due tomorrow, lesson plans, the Signal pieces I need to prepare. How is it possible that nothing is on my mind? Maybe it’s because I’m in my usual last minute craziness. Like my computer after the kids have over-clicked, my brain is frozen. It’s actually kind of a welcome change. I have experienced far too many emotions this year already, and it’s just barely November. I feel Anxious as the deadlines loom, knowing that my workload gets larger while my work time gets smaller. I feel Bitter as I think about the negative attitude toward teachers that is becoming more prevalent every day. I feel Capable as I prepare to really teach my students what they need to know now, not what they should have known when. I feel Disorganized every time I walk into work the morning after another late afternoon to see my desk piled with various things that need to be done. I feel Efficient when I manage to get my copying done (despite broken copiers galore) days before I need the work. I feel Frustrated by the many ways we are trying to improve education by placing more responsibilities on the shoulders of teachers while constantly lowering the expectations for students and their families. I feel Giddy when I see that teaching phonics to seventh graders is actually making a difference. I feel Hopeful that some day, at some point in my career, I will again be considered an expert and allowed to teach the way I know my students need to be taught. I feel Irritated when students don’t get the appropriate punishment for the level of offence. I feel Jealous of people with office jobs, sure that their jobs don’t continue into the evening and weekend like mine does. I feel Knowledgeable enough to put anyone in their place that disagrees with the decisions we have made about our reading curriculum. I feel Lucky, so lucky, to have a job, no matter how annoying it may be at times. I feel Misunderstood when people see my venting as complaining instead of an outcry for solutions. I feel Negative when I think about the new ‘strategies’ that are yesterday’s spoiled meat in a shiny new package. I feel Overwhelmed by the expectations put in place to make teachers better at their job that only serve to make the conscientious teacher more so, and the slacker teacher still slack. I feel Passionate about the future of education, and the success of my students. I feel Qualified to teach any age student how to read, if given the correct materials and appropriate time. I feel Realistic, knowing that 17 students is far too many for a true reading class, but that we are doing the best we can with what we have. I feel Scared that teachers may be penalized for students’ attitudes and effort on an arbitrary exam. I feel Tired. I feel Useless when I hear stories about home lives that I can’t change. I feel Victimized when I’m painted to be an uncaring, tenure wielding miser. I feel Willful that no one will stop me from doing my best anyway. I feel Xanax may be a viable option for this roller coaster of emotions. I feel Yearning for a campaign promise about education to actually be kept. I feel Zany whenever I get carried away in my class and my students join right in. When that happens, and I’m laughing, and they’re laughing and learning, nothing else matters.

—Kirstin Vivacqua