Statement to the LFT Concerning the Resignation of Dr. Lyons

Members of the Lakeland Federation of Teachers:

As you are aware, the school board voted to accept the resignation of Dr. Lyons as superintendent at a special meeting on Saturday morning.  This is a highly unusual turn of events and I feel that you are owed some context as I am sure you have many questions, and there will be very limited information shared through other channels.  While I do not feel it benefits anyone to swirl in the eddies of the past, I believe some background will help prevent any misunderstanding of what transpired.

With such an unprecedented departure, it is natural for people to think that there was a significant issue or “skeleton in the closet” that forced the departure.  This is simply not the case.  I can best describe the issues as a failure to connect.  There was no connection with teachers, but there was also no connection with any of the stakeholders in the community.  I do not have to go into these failures for you, as you were all on the receiving end, but I do want to share the effect your frustration had on this decision.

Granted, last year was exceptionally complicated, but that only made the communication deficits that much harder to bear. As our frustrations grew last fall , the school board took the unprecedented step of surveying the teachers to see how we were handling this difficult situation.  That survey, early in Dr. Lyons tenure, spotlighted how vividly teachers felt the lack of leadership had become. It was anonymous, so I have no idea who said this, but it was burned into my thinking all year: “I no longer feel like I work in a high quality district.” That sums up much of what teachers felt in November.   It was hoped that things would improve, but by the end of the school year, at the time of the second survey, it was clear things had deteriorated significantly.  While some may ask how it could have been allowed to go on so long, all I can say is that some things take time.  In my opinion, the BOE acted in the best interests of the school community throughout.  It was reasonable to expect a difficult start could have had many reasons, and that given time and awareness things could have improved. Unfortunately they did not.  

Last year was difficult for me knowing that the membership wanted me to meet and hear their frustration first hand, and more importantly, share my views, but my concern was that as soon as I spoke publicly on this, the views of teachers shared on any survey could have been easily invalidated as simply teachers saying what the “union” wanted them to.  Throughout the year I was aware of how seriously the school board was taking teacher concerns and no further amplification was necessary. 

This is ultimately my purpose in writing this.  As difficult as the last 14 months have been, they are indicative of a school community that cares deeply about its schools.  It is natural when working with a communication challenged administration to become cynical, and indeed there was much of that reflected in this spring’s survey.  I am asking you to shed your frustrations and know that the system worked.  It worked in private and in confidence, but that was the best way for it to work.  Know that your frustration was felt, and joined with frustrations from stakeholders throughout the district as the school board deliberated.  

As I said earlier, I do not think we should swirl in the eddies of the past and I would like to put this chapter behind us.  In that vein, I look forward to Thursday’s school board meeting when an interim superintendent will be appointed, and I am confident the appointment will be followed by a message to all of you delineating a vision for a path forward. 

In closing, please extend a thank you to your LFT officers and building representatives when you get a chance. They have worked tirelessly to provide clarity and ensure a smoother passage through this turbulent time.      

In Unity,

Mike Lillis
President, Lakeland Federation of Teachers  

Statement to the LFT Concerning the Resignation of Dr. Lyons

A Statement from the LFT on the Recent Changes to the District’s Re-entry Plan

To the Members of the Lakeland Federation of Teachers and the Larger Lakeland Community:

Like many of you, I was dismayed to see the response to the district’s decision to delay in-person instruction until October 13. The responses on social media were immediate and unlike anything I have seen in my 26-year career in Lakeland.  I will not give them more life by repeating them, but they were ugly and a direct assault on the integrity of the teachers in this district.  

I would like to believe that these comments were born from an incredibly frustrating situation and not a reflection of reality – for this has been incredibly difficult. The leadership of the Lakeland Federation of Teachers has been telling the district since the beginning of July that we were going to face a staffing crisis and that we would not be able to hire our way out of it. The hybrid model requires 100% of staff to be present every day to safely supervise and instruct students.  We have not started any of the last several years fully staffed, and it was wishful thinking to believe we would this year.  

Yes, there were medical leaves, but it is important to know that teachers do get sick and some get very sick, and we often show up for work regardless. Allow me to personalize this for a moment.  On June 8, 2019, I suffered a massive heart attack while on a bike ride.  My friend’s quick thinking saved my life. I returned to work a week later because it was important to me for my students to see me standing tall in front of them before they graduated. My doctor didn’t like it, but he let me go. Now my doctor says I am in the highest risk category for Covid-related complications and I should not be in a school.  Am I going to take a leave? Yes. Does this mean I should retire, resign, or be brought up on 3020-a charges? Absolutely not. My illness and others like mine were known. Though they did not know all the specifics, the district knew we would have to hire leaves.  

Yes, there will be childcare leaves. This also contributes to our staffing crisis, but it was also known. These are not leaves for preschool-aged children; there is capacity in the community for that. These are leaves for teachers who, like so many parents, have school-aged children and communities have no capacity to meet the need. There is no surplus capacity in any community for a teacher looking for a space to care for a second-grader. If you are a teacher with a second grader and your home district just moved to a remote or a hybrid model, your decision, in many cases, is to teach or care for my child.  I would hope we could agree that caring for your child is every parent’s primary purpose.  

The issue is not that there needed to be leaves – everyone looking at the situation knew this.  Rather, the issue is the administration waited until the last minute to recognize that we could not hire enough staff for these leaves; this was also known and communicated early in the process. We are in the middle of an acute teacher shortage. Though the problems were known, this crisis was the result of when the decision was made to act. The community could have been told at multiple points that there were still significant hurdles to cross and we would only open in-person instruction when we could guarantee sufficient staffing.

The Lakeland Federation of Teachers has always sought to work with the administration to ensure that we provide for the needs of students and staff. These issues are not unique to Lakeland, and as I write this, another of our neighbors has announced the decision to move to a remote start. Some districts have been able to alleviate the leave issue by granting telework options or creating fully remote cohorts of teachers and students, both of which we encouraged here. The Lakeland Federation of Teachers is currently engaged with the district to try and solve the childcare issue by expanding capacity in our community. 

As always, the Lakeland Federation of Teachers remains committed to our students, their families, and the community. We strive to provide the best and safest possible education for our students.  

In Unity,

Michael Lillis
President, Lakeland Federation of Teachers


A Statement from the LFT on the Recent Changes to the District’s Re-entry Plan

An Open Letter to the School Communities in Westchester and Putnam Counties

Common COVID-19 symptoms in kids include fever, cough, red throat


An Open Letter to the School Communities in Westchester and Putnam Counties from the Leadership of Teacher and Staff Unions

We feel compelled to write to you in a shared voice, as there are universal elements to our concerns about re-entry into the schools this September.  It is important to note that this is a discussion about re-entry, not re-opening.  The education of children has always been our top concern.  One truth that cannot be ignored as a necessary precursor to any successful model of instruction is a safe learning space.  Though we will open this September for instruction, the only question is the modality of that instruction.

All districts in New York were required to create a re-entry plan that addressed three options: full virtual, hybrid, and full in-person instruction.  The hybrid model is the most popular one for re-entry this September, but it poses significant risks.  The hybrid model requirement gained traction in the state early on, but unfortunately, most of what we have recently learned about COVID-19 and children calls the safety of this model into question. These risks are not a reflection of inadequate efforts by any district or administrative team in protecting the children and staff in their schools.  Rather, they are inherent inadequacies when a system designed around instructing students is tasked with creating learning environments that will protect children and teachers during a viral pandemic.  Additionally, there has been a failure in state and federal governments to ensure that adequate testing, PPE, and HVAC filtration systems are readily available. The requirements for the district plans were provided by the Governor’s office and the State Education Department in the middle of July and they were to be completed by July 31.  The Governor even added new testing and contact tracing requirements in the first week of August.

To create truly safe re-entry plans, districts would require more time, direction, and resources. It is telling that neither the state nor federal governments have provided additional resources to help ensure a safe re-entry; districts have been on their own.

Educators approach every task with a “can do” attitude.  Throughout the months of July and August, teams in each district leaned in and got the job done.  The plans were made and it is truly impressive work.  The problem, however, is that they are plans to meet government requirements for safety; they are not necessarily plans to make the schools as safe as they can be.  The limits of these plans hit close to home this summer when the Greenburgh-North Castle school experienced an outbreak of COVID-19, despite meeting or exceeding all Department of Health guidelines and having a very small student population. As anyone with any experience planning school events can attest, even the best plans on paper never match what happens once actual students are brought in.  Every plan assumes a well-behaved student body that will follow all directives and maintain masks and social distancing, even during hall passing.  Plans assume we will be able to hire enough leave replacements, substitutes, and monitors to supervise students in the next three weeks.  This will not occur.  When schools reopen with the potential of being understaffed, it will make an already unsafe situation even worse.

In every survey conducted about re-entry, the most important condition people require is that the schools be safe.  The phrase “Maslow before Bloom” is never more applicable than the current situation.  It is irrational to expect students will be able to learn in any reasonable manner when their teachers and administrators are constantly conveying the need for vigilance in mask- wearing and social distancing.  The constant need for vigilance cannot help but be internalized as fear and anxiety.  At best, schools will be more similar to a well-meaning prison than an actual rich learning environment where thoughts can be shared and joy can be expressed.

Before we can return to schools, we must be sure that every reasonable precaution has been met in order for schools to be safe.  The goal cannot be to just mitigate risk, but to create the safest possible learning environment.  Many of these requirements go well beyond the capability of an individual school district and require action at the state or federal level.  We may feel powerless to secure what is necessary; that, however, does not change the reality of its necessity.

To ensure that in-person instruction begins safely, every school district should be putting into place the following measures that create the highest health and safety standards for our students, teachers, and staff:

1.  All building-wide HVAC systems must be upgraded to a minimum of MERV-13 filtration, and if existing systems cannot be upgraded, portable units with HEPA filtration must be available for all indoor spaces.
2. There must be uniform standards for COVID testing that help monitor asymptomatic spread. COVID testing must provide accurate and reliable results within 24 hours in order to monitor asymptomatic spread. The current wait time can be as high as 12 days, which is not adequate to help prevent the spread of COVID by asymptomatic individuals infected with COVID in our schools.
3. Supply lines for PPE must be prioritized to deliver all necessary PPE to schools in a timely fashion. All schools must have an adequate supply of PPE at all times, including enhanced PPE for students and employees who require it.
4. School districts must be able to guarantee that there is sufficient staff to supervise students and provide instruction, even as individual staff members are absent for illness or quarantine, child-care, or personal leaves.
5. There must be a 100% virtual option for teachers and students who are medically compromised.
6. Plans should require a minimum 14-day shutdown once closed for COVID-19 issues.

Last year was the most challenging instructional year any teacher experienced.  There is no teacher who looks forward to beginning the year using remote instruction. Everything about teaching virtually is more complicated.  For educators, their classroom is their space.  It is where they conjure children’s dreams and give them the tools to fulfill them. Computers are sterile imposters that rob the experience of the richness of our relationships with our students.  Educators and students need to not only feel safe but must actually be safe in their working and learning environments.  Districts and governments need to strive to meet these expectations.  There is too much at stake to fall short of the safest possible model.

Additional Resources

Hybrid Model Risks:


New Information on Children and COVID-19:

Co-signing Presidents

Marcia Heffler, Dobbs Ferry United Teachers
Edward Caperna, USWOM
Michael Lillis, Lakeland Federation of Teachers
Nate Morgan, Hastings Teachers Association
Vanessa Vaccaro, Ossining Teachers Association
Tom McMahon, Mahopac Teachers’ Association
Jennifer Maldonado, Hendrick Hudson Education Association
Elisa Rosen, Hendrick Hudson Education Association
David Wixted, Scarsdale Teachers Association
Anthony Nicodemo, Greenburgh North Castle United Teachers
Mary Claire Breslin, New Rochelle Federation of United School Employees
Samantha Rosado-Ciriello, Yonkers Federation of Teachers
Brenda O’Shea, Somers Faculty Association
Andrea McCue, Haldane Faculty Association
James Groven, Irvington Faculty Association
Judith A. Kelly, Teachers’ Association of the Tarrytowns
Chris Tyler, Harrison Association of Teachers
Jeanne Whelan, Tuckahoe Teachers’ Association
Roseanna Cutietta, Hawthorne Cedar Knolls Federation of Teachers
Rick Tivnan, Brewster Teachers’ Association
Carene Domato, Mt. Vernon Federation of Teachers
Melissa Barreto, BOCES Teachers’ Association
Jeff Yonkers,  NYSUT ED 16 Director
Sean Kennedy,  Yorktown Congress of Teachers
Lisa Jackson,  Carmel Teachers’ Association
Janet Knight,  Mamaroneck Teachers’ Association
José Fernandez, Peekskill Faculty Association
Amy Geiger,  Katonah-Lewisboro District Teachers’ Association
Kathleen Fox, Edgemont Teachers’ Association
Miriam Longobardi,  Chappaqua Congress of Teachers
Jennifer Cole, Greenburgh Eleven Federation of Teachers
Jim Nolan, Mount Pleasant Cottage School Teachers Association
Kara McCormick-Lyons, White Plains Teachers’ Association
Alyson Tina, Ardsley Congress of Teachers
Ryan Odell, Putnam Valley Federation of Teachers
Catherine Armisto, United Staff Association (PNW BOCES)
Vincent Kennedy, Katonah-Lewisboro Support Staff Association
Jennifer Moore, Croton Teachers’ Association
Melinda Merkel, Rye Neck Teachers’ Association
Jim Agnello, Bronxville Teachers’ Association
Kevin Budzynski,  Elmsford Teachers Association
Clare Delongchamp, Eastchester Teachers’ Association
Vanessa Van Deusen, Graham School Federation of Teachers
Virginia Campbell, Mount Pleasant Teachers Association
Michael Groarke, Bedford Teachers’ Association
Sparrow Tobin, Board of Directors NYSUT ED14
Laura Beck, Orange-Ulster BOCES Teachers Association
Ray Hodges, Monroe-Woodbury Teachers Association
Theresa Uhelsky, Minisink Valley Teachers Association
Chris White, Middletown Teachers Association
Jon Wedvik, Clarkstown Teachers Association




An Open Letter to the School Communities in Westchester and Putnam Counties

Food Pantry Update

The members of the Lakeland Federation of Teachers have shown their commitment and compassion in so many ways over the years, but the work we are doing with the Community Food Pantry at St Mary’s Mohegan Lake is truly exceptional.  Like so many food banks, they are experiencing unprecedented demand.  Prior to the pandemic, the food pantry was servicing 85 families a week; now they are servicing more than 400 a week. The families in our community are experiencing food insecurity in unprecedented numbers.  Our sustained efforts are critical to ensure that no child in our community goes to bed hungry.

We have been able to provide $2000 a week for each of the last 4 weeks.  Thanks to BJs, we have been able to take the food needs identified by the Pantry and efficiently purchase the groceries with minimal contact.   

As we approach the end of the school year, it is imperative that we redouble our fundraising efforts to guarantee that we can continue our donations through the summer.  As a reminder, we are asking for a contribution of $50 a month or $25 a pay period.  We seek to sustain this effort while social distancing.  Therefore, there are two ways to donate to the food drive.  You can Venmo your donation to @RobertTorrieri (you must use your real name), or you can send a check to:

Rob Torrieri
P.O. Box 593
Shrub Oak, NY 10588

Please make your check out to the Lakeland Federation of Teachers, and write “food relief” in the memo section.

While there is a great deal we cannot control right now, we can make sure no child goes to bed hungry in Lakeland.

I couldn’t be more proud of the efforts that the members of the Lakeland Federation of Teachers have shown in coming together for this drive. Thank you for your commitment to the well-being of our school community.

Mike Lillis
President, Lakeland Federation of Teachers

Food Pantry Update

Food Pantry Appeal


Ralph Reeder Food Shelf / Donate

Dear Member,

Dr. Stone’s recent appeal from St Mary’s Food Pantry is another sign of the difficult realities we face. Daily, we are being bombarded by problems that are simply beyond our capacity to help.  While social distancing is helpful, it is not the same as taking an action when you are confronted by so much need.  

The success of the St. Mary’s Food Pantry deserves our full attention at this moment. The Food Pantry is a direct insight into the stresses that our students experience daily.  Food security is absolutely a necessary precursor to all that we hope to accomplish with our students. The fact that the food pantry is servicing 200 families a week and growing tells us everything we need to know about the real economic need in our Lakeland community.  We may be helpless in the face of so much that is occurring, but we can make a commitment to do what we can to provide food to our families.  

The Lakeland Federation of Teachers will be raising funds in an ongoing manner to purchase food donations to the St. Mary’s Food Pantry.  Though we may not be able to make a dent in many of the issues we read about in the news, together we can help put food in front of our students each day. There is no doubt this effort will help our students and their families weather this storm. We realize that everyone’s finances are under stress right now, but we ask that you please contribute whatever you can to make a difference in the lives of families who face the greatest challenge any family can face – food insecurity. Our regular contributions to this effort will also help accelerate an end to this crisis and provide people with one less thing to worry about.  If every member were to give $50 a month, we would be able to put an extra $25,000 in food on the table of people truly in need.        

We seek to sustain this effort while social distancing.  Therefore, there are two ways to donate to the food drive.  You can Venmo your donation to @RobertTorrieri
(you must use your real name), or you can send a check to:

Rob Torrieri
P.O. Box 593
Shrub Oak, NY 10588

Please make your check out to the Lakeland Federation of Teachers, and write “food relief” in the memo section.

The union movement was built on a commitment to the idea that together we can improve the lives of families and working people. This is exactly the type of action where our collective efforts can make a real and lasting impact in the lives of so many of our children.  On behalf of the Lakeland Federation of Teachers, I once again thank you for your commitment and hard work, and any donations you can make to this cause. 

Mike Lillis
President, Lakeland Federation of Teachers 

Food Pantry Appeal

Thoughts on Grading During a Pandemic


Expert Offers Practical Advice to Manage Your Coronavirus Anxiety ...

By Mike Lillis
President, Lakeland Federation of Teachers 

We all received guidance from Dr. Gagliardi yesterday for grading in the third
quarter/trimester. Both quarters/trimesters and grades have always been structural
milestones in education, one measuring time, the other performance. Both time and
performance have become fluid and untethered from our norms as we attempt to “flatten the curve” of this pandemic.

In education we have our part to play, it is not as traumatic or dramatic as our brothers and sisters working in the medical field, but we are still expected to be there, to provide some normalcy to our students, normalcy in a world completely devoid of normal.
It is to our brothers and sisters in medicine that I think we should be looking to guide us in our approach to grading. The same Hippocratic oath that guides them should guide us as well:  “Do no harm.” We all can see how that works in medicine during this crisis, but none of us have ever lived to see what it would mean in assigning grades to children.

What performance metrics apply when schools have been closed for weeks and may not open again this year? In addition to the isolation and fear of the pandemic, the lives of our children are complicated by loved ones becoming ill, parents becoming a part of the recently unemployed, and the overall turmoil of living with parents negotiating the stress inherent in watching the health system and economy strain to the breaking point.

In short, we simply have no idea what so many of our children are processing right now.
Now what does all of this have to do with grades? We simply cannot approach grading as we have in the past. We have been given a significant amount of latitude in grading the third quarter and we should be sure to use it so as to to do no harm to our students. Under the normal order, grades, tests, and assignments are controlled to challenge, but not to crush. We must recognize that this is not the normal order – we must give up some control. Just as the Regents have surrendered control in cancelling the 3-8 assessments and then went on to cancel the Regents exams yesterday, we are also expected to give up some control.

I simply cannot see how a student would fail to get a passing grade for the third
quarter/trimester. Additionally, I cannot see how a student will end up with a third
quarter/trimester grade that is significantly lower than their average during the first and
second quarters. The normal data stream has been interrupted and interrupted so
significantly we simply cannot say for sure whether a student would have or could have.

We can make assumptions that a student would not have done this assignment or made up that late work. We may have policies that speak to how late work is handled, but all such policies were made with an assumption that we would see students daily for the ten weeks of the quarter, that we would not be looking at depression era rates of unemployment, and that children would not need to see people put on masks and rubber gloves to leave the house. In short, the process of making grading decisions about students is as disrupted as every other aspect of our lives.

Here are my suggestions on how to proceed:
-Average the first and second quarter/trimester grades together to see approximately
where each student’s baseline is.
-Average the score earned from February 3rd to March 10th and see where the
student stands.
-Look at all subsequent work submitted online and see how it can help the student’s
-Missing work cannot be held against the student, whether before or after the March
10th decision to close.
-Under normal circumstances, the lowest third quarter grade is a 50, in this case I think
it is prudent to make it a 65; it would be a mistake to use this moment to put a student
at a numerical disadvantage to passing.
-With respect to report card comments, it might be best to adhere to the rule, if you
don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

This quarter represents about 1/50th of a student’s K-12 life. There will be and have been
times to teach students about the need to get assignments in on time, set high expectations, and commit to quality. This is a time to teach students about other aspects of our humanity. This is a time to demonstrate to students our compassion as we confront pain and flexibility and process the shifting sands of education in a pandemic.

On behalf of the entire Lakeland Federation of Teachers leadership team, I would like to thank you for all your efforts during these trying times.

Thoughts on Grading During a Pandemic

An Open Letter to the Future New York State Education Commissioner

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By Michael Lillis
President, Lakeland Federation of Teachers 

Dear Future New York State Education Commissioner:

Welcome and congratulations on being hired for such an important position.  We wish you the very best success, as the hopes and dreams of millions of school children, their parents, and their teachers hang in the balance.  

You are inheriting a department which has operated without the transparency, respect, or responsiveness stakeholders deserve.  No area represents this debacle more than the issue of the 3-8 Math and ELA assessments. It is important that you quickly become familiar with this problem, and we do not believe that you can rely on your staff to inform you of the most salient issues. This is partly because the source of the problem goes back to 2013, and the State Education Department has had incredible turnover which has disrupted crucial institutional memory. There has also been a significant lack of interest among the assessment staff in SED in having an honest discussion with stakeholders to address the serious assessment issues we face.  

Issues concerning standardized tests are complex, and it is even debatable whether we should be using annual tests, grade level bracketed tests, or any tests at all. Though the issues concerning the state’s 3-8 assessments are vast – and we encourage you to cast a wide net as you seek input from across the state –   we will focus for now on a single aspect that is crucial to fostering equity within our classrooms – the testing benchmarks.

The cut points determine who will receive a 1, 2, 3, or 4 on the test, and they are based on benchmarks established by NYSED. The benchmarks behind the cut points are the most complicated for the general public to understand, and they reveal NYSED’s deeply flawed metrics hiding behind complicated statistics and pretentious language. These metrics do real damage to children because the results are misinterpreted by parents and educators who assume that a score of 3 means “performing at grade level”, which it does not. To parents, the most important question is whether or not their child is developing at grade level. Our 3-8 tests could have measured this, but as you will see, NYSED chose to go in a different, more detrimental direction.  

To begin, how do we define what a score of 1,2,3, or 4 even means on these assessments? The most recent technical report we have was issued in May of 2019 and it is for the 2017 assessments: 

Student performance is classified as Level I, Level II, Level III, or Level IV for the Grades 3–8 ELA and Mathematics Tests. The definitions of performance levels are as follows:

  •  NYS Level I: Students performing at this level are well below proficient in standards for their grade. They demonstrate limited knowledge, skills, and practices embodied by the New York State P–12 Learning Standards for English Language Arts/Literacy or Mathematics that are considered insufficient for the expectations at this grade.
  •  NYS Level II: Students performing at this level are below proficient in standards for their grade. They demonstrate knowledge, skills, and practices embodied by the New York State P–12 Learning Standards for English Language Arts/Literacy or Mathematics that are considered partial but insufficient for the expectations at this grade.
  •  NYS Level III: Students performing at this level are proficient in standards for their grade. They demonstrate knowledge, skills, and practices embodied by the New York State P–12 Learning Standards for English Language Arts/Literacy or Mathematics that are considered sufficient for the expectations at this grade.
  • NYS Level IV: Students performing at this level excel in standards for their grade. They demonstrate knowledge, skills, and practices embodied by the New York State P–12 Learning Standards for English Language Arts/Literacy or Mathematics that are considered more than sufficient for the expectations at this grade.
    The performance level cut scores used to distinguish between Levels I, II, III, and IV were established during the process of standard setting in Summer 2013. The process is described in detail in Section 8 and Appendix P in the 2013 technical report (NYSED, 2013). (NYSED, page 2)

There is a lot to unpack here, but if we simply focus on the difference between a 2 and 3, the point becomes clear.  The descriptor of a 3 indicates that students are “proficient” in the standards and are subsequently “sufficient” to be performing at grade level.  This is simply too sloppy to be unintentional for a group of psychometricians to use in a technical report, and it gets to the heart of the matter at hand.  The definitions of these terms are widely understood among testing specialists and they cannot be used in this way unless the intention is to confuse.

The Webster definition of proficient is “well-advanced”,  while its definition of “sufficient” is “meets the needs.” A student who meets the needs of performing at grade level cannot automatically be considered proficient or well-advanced at grade level.   

So which is it? Are students scoring a 3 well-advanced, or sufficient to be at grade level?  The source of the confusion goes back to the 2013 Technical Report, as that is where the actual definition of proficient was established and it has been indefensible ever since, which is why psychometricians have been forced to confuse readers with contradictory language.  

Here is the methodological summary of the study conducted by NYSED to establish the definition of “proficient”.  In short, NYSED hired the College Board to do the work and the College Board came back with a study that indicated a student who is proficient would score at least a 1630 on the 2013 SAT (in 2013 the SAT was out of 2400 points).  In 2013, this score was in the 66th percentile. Therefore, a student who gets a low 3 is on track to perform among the top third of SAT test takers and a student with a high 2 is not.  When one applies this definition of proficient to the SAT, NYSED is saying that any SAT test taker not among the top third of SAT test takers is below grade level. This is obviously a ridiculous statement, but that is the exact standard we are applying to our 3-8 graders.

To understand how deeply flawed this study performed by the College Board for NYSED was, one only needs to review the study the College Board did to advise colleges and universities about interpreting their own test scores.  For its own purposes, in 2013 the College Board defined “college and career readiness” as a score of 1550. Inexplicably, this was the same year it defined college and career readiness as a score of 1630 for NYSED.  The difference is a 9 percentile point increase in expectations for students. This discrepancy has no justification and is a significant contributor to both the confusion and mismeasurement on our 3-8 assessments.  

Much has been made in recent years about the degree to which teachers have participated in the test construction and development process, but again when we look at the language of the technical reports, we quickly see that all of this participation has been on the appearance of the tests, but teachers were structurally prevented from changing the cut points, or test difficulty, in any meaningful way. Teachers simply have had no way to change these tests to make them more developmentally appropriate or accurate to grade level expectations.    

Page 8 of the 2017 Technical Report defined the role of teacher participants as:

New York State educators are actively involved in ELA and Mathematics test development. New York State educators provide critical input throughout all stages of the test development process, which include rangefinding, educator item review, operational forms construction, passage selection, item writing, and a “Final Eyes” meeting (a final review of the test books prior to printing).

Noticeably absent is any teacher involvement in setting cut points or discussions of overall grade level appropriateness of the exam as a whole.  You simply cannot have meaningful input into a test’s difficulty by looking at each item in isolation; you must look at the test overall and examine the cut points. Page 16 of the 2017 Technical Report explains that the cut points were established in the 2013 process, and teachers have had no input into the cut points since then:

In Summer 2013, after the operational administration of the 2013 tests, a standard setting meeting occurred in Albany where 95 New York State educators went through a rigorous process, guided by the best practices indicated by this intensely studied process, to recommend performance standards for the new tests measuring the CCLS. These recommendations were presented to the Commissioner and the Board of Regents, who, in turn, adopted the recommended standards set forth by the committees. For additional details, see Section 8 and Appendix P in the 2013 technical report (NYSED, 2013).

Here is a link to the relevant Technical Report from 2013 Appendix P begins on page 237.  Appendix P reads as a manual on how to manage a committee for a foregone conclusion. A summary of the process is Pearson psychometricians and NYSED staff generated Performance Level Descriptors (PLDs) based on the flawed College Board study cited above, and then a panel of educators were brought in to select test items that would correspond to these PLDs.  These educators were not selecting items that they, as professionals, thought were grade level appropriate items, rather, they were being tasked with finding test items that correlated with what NYSED and Pearson thought were grade level appropriate.  

There was one final stage where educators were given some freedom to adjust cut points, and it is the most insulting and damning insight into the process NYSED created.  In hundreds of pages of technical reports from 2013 through 2017, the only place where teachers could make an adjustment to the test cut points is on page 244 in Appendix P of the 2013 Technical Report, where vertical articulation is discussed.   The extent of teacher input on cut points is in Step 5, which reads: “If adjustments were deemed necessary, participants were provided constraints on how much they could move the cut scores (This was 4 raw-score points, which was the rounded overall test’s standard error of measurement)”

Teachers have had their input on cut points, or test difficulty, limited to be no more significant than the variables NYSED deemed so insignificant it could not be bothered to control for. This sentence summarizes much of what is wrong with both the tests and the relationship between NYSED and the state’s teachers.

It should be clear to you as the new Commissioner of Education that our 3-8 tests have generated significant controversy, perhaps the largest controversy your office confronts.  What should also be clear after wading through these technical reports is that we have a testing regimen that is highly reliable, but deeply invalid.  

The lack of validity is not new, and unfortunately no longer shocking.  You cannot find a district in the state that has alignment between the 3-8 test scores and the scores earned by those students on high school state exams.  All systems of measurement have error, but there is an extra burden that should exist when what is being measured are children, especially young children. We have a system that annually mismeasures hundreds of thousands of children as not being “sufficient” at grade level performance, when we know that they will be on track to pass their high school exams.  It should not need to be stated how harmful it is for NYSED to tell parents in 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th grade that their child is below grade level. It is all the more damaging if that statement is, in fact, inaccurate.    

NYSED has never conducted an external validation study to determine if any of the assessments conducted since 2013 actually measure what is intended to be measured.  There are two relevant studies that were conducted by the Benjamin Center at SUNY New Paltz. The first is a serious critique of the assumptions that went into the initial College Board study that set New York’s cut points.  The second is an analysis of the dramatic increase in students receiving a score of 0 on test items since the new cut points were changed in 2013.  Combined, both studies paint a stark picture of the issues with having a system of assessment that has erroneously high cut points through solid data.  Additionally, the Hechinger Report did an analysis of every state’s test benchmarks and found New York’s to be the highest. Note that it did not say it was the most accurate: “I found that 26 states set expectations that were three or more grade levels behind the eighth-grade standards of New York State, the state that had set the highest expectations back in 2013, as an early adopter of Common Core.” 

The majority of the country has expectations for eighth graders three or more grade levels lower than New York.  The fact that New York’s standards are the highest is not what makes them inaccurate – it’s the fact that they are so much higher and that they in no way correlate with actual student success in high school.  That is what makes them inaccurate. 

Fixing the test benchmarks is not the only change that needs to occur, as there are many others, not the least of which is the test length.  However, it is impossible to salvage any benefit for children, parents, or educators if the results remain in their current invalid state. We are required to administer 3-8 Math and ELA tests annually, but we do not need to administer these tests.

It is our sincere hope that you help us work toward a more beneficial future for students in New York, and not cling to the flawed approaches of the past. 


An Open Letter to the Future New York State Education Commissioner

Janus Is As Meaningful As We Make It


By Michael Lillis
President, Lakeland Federation of Teachers

Well, it happened.  

On June 27, the Supreme Court rendered its decision in
Janus vs AFSCME.  As expected, the ruling was 5-4 against the unions.  But what does this mean? Some believe this was a case about members having their free speech violated because of union political endorsements.  That was not the argument in this case, however, as money that goes to politicians comes from voluntary contributions, not dues. In NYSUT, these are called VOTE-COPE contributions.  

The argument Mark Janus and his attorneys made was that he should not be compelled to pay dues because the union was fighting for higher salaries and better benefits –  and he did not want either. This is obviously a ridiculous position that was contrived solely to bring a union-busting case to the Supreme Court. With a Supreme Court that leans conservative, his argument prevailed.  

So where does this leave us?  We are now in an era where public sector employees have the ability to opt-out of paying dues.  In other words, they have the ability to pick fruit from the poisoned tree.

Declining to pay dues is not staking out a neutral position – there is no neutral position. Declining to pay dues means that you accept the Mark Janus argument that the union should not be negotiating for better pay, pensions, and working conditions. Additionally, not paying dues will erode the union’s ability to fight for those same benefits. We therefore face a true existential crisis.

It’s no coincidence that the morning after the Janus decision, teachers across New York State received an email from a group funded by Betsy DeVos which informed them of their newfound ability to not pay dues.  Why so quickly, and why New York? The reason is New York has demonstrated the value of teachers standing together and collectively fighting to improve salaries, benefits and pensions. A recent Edweek study revealed that teachers earn less than a living wage in half the country. This is what the sponsors of Janus want for us, and this is why Betsy DeVos is flooding teacher emails with solicitations to decline to pay dues.

This will be successful unless we set aside our natural reluctance to be confrontational and engage anyone we know who is tempted by the fruit of the poisoned tree.  Family members, neighbors, and colleagues must understand that anyone who chooses not to pay their dues is declaring that they do not want their union fighting for higher salaries, better benefits, and secure pensions.  

A possible silver lining in the Janus decision is that it does not limit any activity that unions can do for their members.  Instead, the opinion is a cynical one – that people would rather pocket their dues and continue to get all the benefits they have grown accustomed to.

The decision to opt-out is an individual decision which threatens all of our livelihoods and yes, even the profession itself.

But we have the power to make this decision meaningless.  

I have not found despair in Janus, because it will only impact us if we let it.  

Janus Is As Meaningful As We Make It

Failed Tests and New York’s Looming Graduation Crisis

Bianca Tanis, Founding Member, New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE);Michael Lillis, President, Lakeland Federation of Teachers; and Michael O’Donnell, Trustee, New Paltz Central School District Board of Education

(This article reflects the views of the authors and does not construe an official position of the New Paltz Central School District Board of Education.)


The New York State Common Core tests are almost upon us and promises of sweeping changes to NYS tests and standards are rampant. The NYS Education Department is urging parents to opt back in and the media has reported that education officials are “bending over backwards” to address the concerns of parents and educators.

While the State has made some minor changes to this year’s tests (and promises more in the future), the fact remains that young children will still be subjected to reading passages years above grade level, test questions with more than one plausible answer, tests that are too long, waste valuable resources, and worst of all, tests that engender feelings of frustration, failure, angst, and confusion in our youngest learners.

Manufactured Crisis

Claims that untimed tests will alleviate stress on children are unfounded and misleading to parents. Giving a child more time to struggle with an inappropriate test rather than just fixing the flawed system is misguided and will create a logistical nightmare for the schools forced to accommodate this band-aid solution. Teachers will be pulled from classrooms to monitor student conversations during lunch breaks to ensure that 8-, 9-, and 10-year old students are not talking about the tests. At a time when our schools are being starved of funding, this is a gross and needless misallocation of resources.

In fact, very little has changed for children, and these damaging tests continue to threaten our children now and into the future.  How much damage?  A quarter million students are being labeled, annually, as failures.  The transition to “college-ready” graduation requirements in 2022 will result in the loss of more than 100,000 graduates per year.  Use this calculator to assess the impact on your school district:

Unless we demand an immediate paradigm shift, many students will not only be labeled failures at 8-, 9-, and 10-years old, they will not graduate. We are not just talking about struggling students and students with special needs facing a graduation crisis.

New York has touted its testing program in grades 3-8 as a means of predicting whether or not a child is on track to be ready for career and college. However, NYS’s attempts to align test scores with a college readiness benchmark have been rife with problems and volatility. Subsequently, the use of these flawed benchmarks to determine who is proficient and who is not and  who will and will not obtain the necessary “college ready” test scores to earn a diploma jeopardizes the future of hundreds of thousands of students in NYS. Despite promises of sweeping change, the Governor’s Common Core Task Force completely ignored these deeply flawed college and career benchmarks, which must be met by all students to graduate starting in 2022.

Why are we here?

The most compelling justification for the State’s implementation of the Common Core Learning Standards and CC tests aligned to a state benchmark for college readiness has been data indicating the numbers of students that enter 2- and 4-year colleges and subsequently require remedial coursework.  From the Common Core Task Force Report, “According to The State University of New York, each year about 50 percent of first-year students at two-year colleges and 20 percent of those entering four-year universities require basic developmental courses before they can begin credit-bearing coursework”.

This is a  significant point and clearly more needs to be done to help these students both before and after entering college to help guarantee their success.  But using these data to assert claims of a public education crisis and to justify the current state testing regime has several major problems.

  • The majority of the two year schools are community colleges, which are non-competitive in their admissions.  Many of these students are already identified during K-12 instruction as needing remediation, and schools should be given resources to continue these efforts. Many educators have argued that a focus on testing and test-driven instruction makes it more difficult to meet the needs of struggling learners and may actually result in more students requiring remediation post high school.
  • There are no standard assessments or criteria used to determine which require remediation upon entering college.  Several studies have found placement exams to be poor indicators of college readiness.
  • There is a financial incentive for colleges in placing students in remediation and financial incentives for the corporations that create the placement exams.
  • The SUNY system only represents 42% of New York’s college population.
  • These figures ignore Independent Universities which make up one third of the collegiate population and have a very low remediation rate of 5.6%.

In addition to claiming that large numbers of students are leaving high school unprepared for college, New York State has made the claim that CC aligned grades 3-8 Common Core assessments are valid indicators of college and career readiness. Considering the sweeping judgements and policy decisions that are made based on these test scores, it is critical that this claim is scrutinized.


In 2013 New York contracted with the College Board, producers of the SAT, to develop a metric that could be used to identify student readiness for college.  This number would set the thresholds for proficiency on all Math and ELA tests down through third grade.  The College Board, based on SED’s guidance, determined a student would need the following scores on their SAT in order to be considered “college ready.”

Critical Reading 560
Writing 530
Math 540
Total 1630

A score of a 1630 on the SAT is in the 66th percentile, which means that only 34% of test takers attain this score or higher.  The College Board uses a score of 1550 for its own benchmark, a score in the 57th percentile.

This process should have raised concerns, as it reduces something as complex as whether or not a student is ready for college down to a single test score.  Were it this easy, no school would have an admissions office – a computer could make admissions decisions.

Using a single benchmark aligned with the SAT for all students presents a significant problem. All but the most severely handicapped students take the NY state tests, but only students that have self-identified as going to competitive colleges take the SAT.  If you plan on going to a community college, no SAT is required. So New York expects all but its most severely handicapped students to be doing as well as the top 34% of college bound students nationally.  In fact, the graduation requirements for the class of 2022 (current 6th graders) will deny a diploma to any student not meeting this benchmark, or, in other words, doing as well as the top 34% of college bound students nationally.

We must also ask the question, is the SAT good enough at predicting success in college that New York should use it, exclusively, to benchmark its tests?   A 2014 study looked at 33 colleges that had SAT- and ACT-optional admissions policies.This study looked at 123,000 students and found that there is no meaningful difference in these two populations in terms of college graduation rates and grade point average. Those who did not submit SAT scores were more likely to be the first in their family to attend college, female, a Pell grant recipient, or a person of color. These individuals represent some of our most vulnerable student populations – they are the least likely to overcome the damage of being labeled unprepared for college based on a test score. Yet these students are just as likely to be successful in college when we consider other, more valid and predictive indicators of post high school success.

We also know that SAT scores are very closely tied to income.  A student who scores a 1630 on the SATs likely comes from a home with an income upwards of $160,000. We also know that SAT scores are a relatively weak indicator of student success in college – high school grades and success in higher level math courses are much better predictors of college performance. But despite the evidence, NYS has chosen to hang its hat on a weak indicator that is known to favor students who come from affluent, college-educated families. By correlating success with a measure that favors privileged students, are we reinforcing the existing class structure and promoting a biased instrument that does more harm than good?

Proficiency vs Home Value

Aligning the NYS college-readiness benchmark with a norm-referenced test like the SAT also ensures that many New York State students will be labeled failures. Norm-referenced tests compare test-takers to other test-takers and rank them by performance. On a norm-referenced test there must be test takers whose performance is considered below average, average, and above average – even when all test takers have demonstrated mastery on a given skill. These tests are intended to stratify students along a predetermined distribution and will always yield below-average scores for a substantial population of test-takers.

Criterion-referenced tests are tests that measure a student’s performance in terms of a specific set of skills or content. The Common Core State Standards are descriptions of specific skills, and, therefore, it would have made more sense for the state to have chosen a criterion based system of 3-8 Math and ELA assessments.  All students should have the ability to demonstrate proficiency independent of the performance of others in their cohort. The use of a norm-referenced test is highly questionable.

The Achievement Gap

While the SAT-based college-readiness benchmark created by New York does not correlate with the actual experience of New York’s students, it does appear to have a disproportionately negative impact on our non-white students.  Rather than helping to close the achievement gap, it is making the gap larger.

Proficiency vs Ethnicity and Economics

In 2012, 13% of economically disadvantaged students scored a 1 on the grades 3-8 assessments. In 2013, this number ballooned to 44% with the introduction of the CC aligned assessments and NYS college-readiness proficiency benchmarks . In the course of one year, we more than tripled the number of students living in poverty who were deemed “Below Standard.”

Vulnerable Populations below Standard

Between 2012 and 2015, the number of non-white students who scored a level 1 on the 3-8 assessments rose from 12% to 41%. The number of white students who scored a 1 grew from 5% to 23%.  From 2010-12 white students in the richest districts had partial proficiency (score: 2+) rates 22 percentage points higher than non-white students in the poorest districts.  With the advent of the new Common Core assessments that gap has more than doubled to 54 percentage points.  It is disturbing that rather than remaining constant over time, the rate of failure for students of color grew disproportionately larger than white students.

Income vs Below Standard

Rhetoric vs. Reality

We know that NYS CC tests aligned with this benchmark yield data that do not correlate with what we know about the post-secondary success of NYS students and even more importantly, disproportionately labels vulnerable students as failures. To date there has been no evidence to indicate that these assessments actually hold any predictive value yet they continue to be used to make graduation determinations and to judge the efficacy of our schools and teachers.

When we compare the actual readiness data – 51.6% based on non-remediated college enrollment – with the results of the state assessments, we find that NY is falsely labeling 240,000 students annually.  The parents of these students will receive a letter from State Ed explaining how their son or daughter is not on track to be ready for a college or a career, when if compared to historic trends, we know they are.  The prospect of incorrectly labeling a child (or 240,000 children) not college- and career-ready from third grade through twelfth, then denying them a diploma, has very serious implications.  To see the effect on your district, click here:

False Picture of Readiness

These contradictory data are not simply academic; there is real damage being done to children as a result.  The Class of 2022 (current 6th grade) will need to pass Regents exams at these new, artificially elevated thresholds that align with the NYS definition of college readiness.  Graduation rates will plummet from 78% to approx. 26%, resulting in the loss of 110,000 high school graduates, 50,000 of which were fully prepared for college success.


It is telling that the Governor’s Common Core Task Force completely skirted the issue of the test benchmarks.  The Governor and Commissioner of Education have made much of their efforts to improve the State’s tests, but in reality, the 21 recommendations cannot meaningfully address the manufactured proficiency crisis New York students face.  In standardized testing, the benchmarking process is the key to all outcomes.  None of the Task Force’s 21 recommendations require State Ed to develop a new college and career readiness benchmark, so we can be sure the future tests will be producing the same flawed results.  Whether the tests are Questar or Pearson, created by teachers or non-teachers, shorter or longer, they will ultimately produce the same results for our students.

The outlook created by the CC aligned tests in grades 3-8 assessments is bleak. But it is important to remember that other measures for college readiness, including non-remediation, 2nd year persistence, non-remediation and persistence in combination, college graduation rates, the NAEP, and SAT and ACT benchmarks for college-readiness – all paint a better picture.

Until New York State revises its flawed college readiness benchmarks, there is no escape from pending graduation requirements that will deny thousands of students a diploma. 21% of proficient children, statewide, are being falsely told they are not at “grade level” and will not be ready for college. Will your child fall into the pool of children? Can you wait to find out? Refusing the NYS tests in grades 3-8 remains the most effective tool for demanding change and ensuring that ALL children have the opportunity to graduate and experience success.

If we acquiesce to these fundamentally flawed tests, our children will pay the price now and they will pay the price later.

Failed Tests and New York’s Looming Graduation Crisis

What’s a Teacher Unionist to do?

By Michael Lillis
President, Lakeland Federation of Teachers and ST Caucus Hudson Valley Coordinator

What’s a teacher unionist to do?

It’s clear that nothing will be the same in education after last year’s budget vote that completely redefined teacher evaluation in New York, followed by a tidal wave of test refusals.  As a result of this budget, we are expected to negotiate “in good faith” to develop local teacher evaluation systems that are compliant with the law.

I have been president of the Lakeland Federation of Teachers for 13 years and I understand the benefits of good faith negotiations. We have used them to keep education moving forward in Lakeland, despite the fact that we still receive less state aid than we did in 2009.  Putting leaders together in a room to have good faith discussions of what is best for the students, teachers and taxpayers is a very effective way to run a district.

Issues arise, however, when we are expected to negotiate in good faith to comply with a law that is a bad faith attempt at teacher evaluation.

The new teacher evaluation law, 3012-d, operates in bad faith.  For the last few years, I have served on the New York State Commissioner of Education’s Teacher Advisory Committee, which meets three times a year to discuss education issues.  We had our first meeting with Commissioner Elia on October 14, 2015. To the commissioner’s credit, it was a very genuine and rich discussion.

Here is the first issue for me.  During a discussion of teacher growth scores, I brought up that from my experience as a local president, the state’s growth scores lack validity because they do not correlate with teachers who are under-performing.  In my capacity as president, a year has not gone by where I do not counsel a tenured teacher out of the profession because the teacher has not responded to remediation efforts. However, not once since the state has started calculating growth scores has anybody asked, “What is the teacher’s growth score?” The reason for this is simple: nobody cares. Nobody believes growth scores are valid, and low growth scores simply do not correlate with ineffective teaching in the same way high growth scores do not correlate with effective teaching.

The second issue is the state’s growth scores lack reliability. They fluctuate wildly from year to year for individual teachers.  A teacher can receive a 3 out of 20 one year, and a 17 out of 20 the next.  These numbers appear to be the result of a random number generator. None of this is new and it will sound very familiar to any local president.

The shocking thing was the commissioner’s response to this issue. Commissioner Elia agreed and said based on her experience in New York, the growth scores appear to be “random” in nature.

Though I give Commissioner Elia tremendous credit for her honesty, where does this leave teachers?

I am still expected to negotiate in “good faith” an evaluation system that will increase from 20 to 50 percent the role of a number that is “random.”  If I do not, we lose our increase in state aid.  How can we have sunk so low in our treatment of children and educators? We are holding school aid hostage to adopting a teacher evaluation system that is equal parts teacher observation and a random number.  Who does this serve?

So I ask again, what’s a teacher unionist to do?

What’s a Teacher Unionist to do?