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Another Voice: To fix predictable problems, try some transparency

By Rich Ullman

Only a few acrimonious months ago, education reformers – most of whom have little or no classroom teaching experience – had the political and pedagogical wind at their backs as they forged ahead with the implementation of Common Core standards and year two of the newly created New York State teacher evaluation system.

Now, following public outcry from many teachers and parents, some administrators and elected officials, the decision has been made to implement a moratorium instead. Predictably, the strategy of the new system’s proponents is now what’s changing.

Recently, both The News editorial board and SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher stated that the new system is “not perfect and needs improvement,” and it’s now time to “work with the state’s teachers on the implementation process.” For the moment, a more productive “Perhaps experienced educators should have a seat at the table” approach has replaced the “We have spoken and this is happening” posture.

As a high school teacher directly impacted by this transition and obviously frustrated by the rollout process, permit me to say that I do not oppose modifying standards and overhauling some content and methodology. At the risk of running afoul of some of my colleagues, I don’t necessarily believe that the best way to compete with nations that may be surpassing us is to insulate students from reasonable levels of testing and rigor. However, the way in which the new standards and the performance review’s “gotcha” features were developed without teacher or public input played a major role in the largely negative reception and subsequent backlash.

For example, if these new standards are so essential, and the transition is going to mean “growing pains,” why was the hastily devised teacher evaluation system made to be immediately punitive? Why did the State Education Department install an observation component that emphasizes and encourages a progressive, student directed, content-is-fluid methodology while the student test score feature (which, if low, is designed to trump any favorable classroom observation ratings) compels most teachers to utilize a teach-to-the-test approach?

Had they been present at the creation, veteran teachers would have likely recognized this disconnect. Detached “educrats” and their corporate allies did not – or, worse, didn’t care.

So, regardless of how the construction process proceeds following this “timeout,” reformers would be advised to scrap the big us/little them approach. Not only has it proven to be (their term) “highly ineffective,” it’s professionally insulting. More transparency and teacher input just might bring about better policy and less acrimony on both sides in the months to come.

Rich Ullman of Olean has been a high school teacher in the Cuba-Rushford School District for 24 years.