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?

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What’s a Teacher Unionist to do?

NYSUT Votes to Oppose and Replace College and Career Benchmarks

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At its Representative Assembly (RA) in May, NYSUT voted to oppose and replace New York’s College and Career Benchmarks. 

NYSUT must respect its resolutions and vehemently defend our students and schools against abusive standards and tests.

The resolution reads as follows:

Resolution to Oppose the Current College and Career Readiness Standards Created by NYSED and a Call for their Replacement

-Whereas, The recent release of items from the 3-8 grade ELA and Math assessments exposed how developmentally inappropriate these tests are; and

 -Whereas, These items were not there by mistake, but rather, reflect the inappropriate College and Career Benchmarks adopted by NYSED; and

 -Whereas, In 2013 NYSED, through a College Board study, set New York’s College and Career Readiness benchmark to a combined score of 1630 on the SAT, which is in the 66th percentile, and

-Whereas, This creates an expectation that all of New York’s students will do better than the top 34% of college bound students nationally, and

-Whereas, In 2013 the College Board conducted its own College and Career Readiness study and benchmarked it to a combined score of 1550 on the SAT, which is in the 57th percentile, and

-Whereas, New York’s unique and inappropriately high College and Career Benchmark serves to create a false narrative of failure about New York’s students and schools; and

 -Whereas, Thousands of students each year are inappropriately labeled not College and Career Ready, because of these standards, and

 -Whereas, Standards are necessary, but inappropriate standards can be abusive; and

 -Whereas, NYSUT members are charged with protecting their student’s health and well being, including their emotional health; therefore be it

Resolved, that NYSUT is opposed to the current College and Career Readiness Benchmarks being used by NYSED and calls for the commissioning of a panel including educators and developmental psychologists to set new developmentally appropriate standards.

NYSUT Votes to Oppose and Replace College and Career Benchmarks

The Tipping Point

The following is a speech delivered by LFT President Mike Lillis to the teachers, administrators, and board members of the Lakeland Central School District on August 31, 2015.

Good morning and welcome to the 2015-2016 school year. Will all of the new teachers and teacher assistants please stand and be recognized? Thank you. We welcome you and look forward to growing the character of our profession with you as we nurture and educate the children of the Lakeland Central School District.

In my opening remarks last year, I painted a picture of education reform on the run, with evidence such as Inbloom shuttering its doors, 65,000 students refusing the state tests, and polls showing increased opposition from parents as well as educators to the Common Core standards and high-stakes tests.

Well…a lot has happened since then.  To borrow from Charles Dickens, who would have a great deal to say about our treatment of children today, in many ways what we are seeing now is the tale of two education systems; it is the best of times and the worst of times.

Since I like to rip band aids off quickly, let’s talk about the worst of times first.  Despite the fact that high-stakes tests took a beating last year, their use in teacher evaluation being discredited by the American Statistical Association, American Education Research Association, National Academy of Education, as well as parents and educators, this April the Legislature and Governor doubled-down by rewriting the law on teacher evaluation and dramatically increasing the role that tests will take on.

Here is why I believe it is also the best of times.  Within a couple of weeks of our legislative rout, the parents of over 220,000 students said, “enough is enough” and refused to have their children take the state tests.  This level of direct parent participation is unlike anything we have seen before in New York and no, it is not because the “union told them to.”

This is a grassroots movement of parents that have tried every other means they have to protect the integrity of their child’s education.  

There are not 220,000 parents in New York that wake up daily and try to figure out which act of civil disobedience is best for them that day.  This is a movement that will grow until sanity is restored to our classrooms.  They have built a lever, and it will continue to grow until it is successful.

As you can imagine, not everyone sees this grassroots action by parents to protect their children and their teachers as a good thing.  Our new Commissioner of Education, MaryEllen Elia, recently said, “If any educator supported and encouraged opt outs, I think it’s unethical.” I am not sure how she defines support or encourage, but I would like to flesh out her use of the word unethical.

To quote Inigo Montoya, from The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”

There is nothing unethical about having an honest discussion with parents about the tests and their impact on our classrooms and subsequently on the quality of education their child will receive.  The decision to refuse a test is done on a case-by-case basis for parents, and in my experience, they seek out the highest quality information they can find. Different parents use different variables, but they always have the best interests of their child in mind. In fact, some parents will refuse the test for one child but not another based on what they think is best for each. So I do not believe that Commissioner Elia will find a case where a child refused a test because of coercion from a teacher. I agree that would be unethical as well as implausible.

Since the Commissioner would like to discuss ethics, I would like to contribute some of my own thoughts about State Education Department policies and hopefully begin a debate about whether or not they are ethical or even moral.

I do not believe that it is ethical to correlate proficiency on grade 3-8 math and ELA assessments to a score of 1630 on the SAT, a score that only 34% of college bound students achieve nationally.

I do not believe it is ethical to label students. More importantly, I do not believe it is ethical for the state of New York to label students “College and Career Ready” based on a single annual test.

I do not believe it is ethical to take students that remain on target to getting a 1500 on the SAT and labeling them not ready for college or a career, in third grade, fourth grade, fifth grade, and on and on through high school.  I believe this is state-sponsored abuse.

I do not believe it is ethical to use a formula to evaluate the state’s 3-8th grade teachers that guarantees 7% of them will be ineffective before a single student takes the tests.

I do not believe it is ethical to put a test ( a test I remind you that statistically is designed to have only the top 34% college bound students nationally pass it) and have students know that their performance will have a very real impact on the career of someone they love—their teacher.

I believe that these are starting points for a debate about ethical professional behavior and I would love to have all educators, parents, and legislators weigh in.

As a result of this debate, I believe, we will begin returning sanity to the state’s education policy and we can end the opt out wars by having a shared understanding of the value of public education.

So I welcome you to this year, even though it may be in an unconventional manner. I believe this year may be one of the most important in any of our careers.

We are at the tipping point.

The only question is, which way will we tip?  

The Tipping Point

How the Common Core and High-Stakes Testing are Sabotaging Students

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


Let’s talk about the Common Core and high-stakes testing as an experiment.

Why? There are two reasons.

First, when experimenting on people, it is important to acknowledge it’s an experiment because it has the ability to do harm.  This is a significant point because Governor Cuomo and the State Education Department refuse to acknowledge the damage being done to children.  

Second, as an experiment, it is as likely to fail as it is to succeed.  The proponents of Common Core and high-stakes tests like to immerse themselves in a lot of data and pretentious language.  Testing proponents and the State Education Department use data and complex language to hide simple realities that when exposed are indefensible.  They cannot defend a great deal of their reform agenda and it seems smarter when packaged in this way.  As comedian John Oliver points out, “If you want to do something evil, embed it in something boring”.  It keeps opposition to a minimum.  

But ultimately this is an experiment, as likely to raise a generation of students that have their psyches irreparably damaged which results in students subsequently dropping out or walking away from the pursuit of higher ed, as it is to promote a new generation of enlightened problem solvers.  The fact is, we do not know.  No cohort of students has ever received Common Core instruction K-12, let alone Common Core instruction paired with high-stakes testing.  Is it responsible to experiment with all of the students in the state?  I do not think so, but experimenting we are.

If the State Education Department saw this as an experiment, we would have an Independent Review Board (IRB) that would be tasked with monitoring the progress and protecting the subjects (our children) from unintended negative consequences.  In fact, nobody in SED is monitoring the state’s children to see if damage is being done, despite all of the accounts directly presented to the Chancellor and Commissioner during hearings across the state last year.

Anecdotally, we appear to be creating and witnessing a real crisis in childhood. There are consistent reports of increases in fragile student populations, anxiety and school phobias in younger grades, the need for medication to get through the school day and on and on.  The lack of oversight might have been understandable if the proponents of Common Core did not hear directly from parents last year, but they did, and the parents were mocked in response.  They were told by Arne Duncan that “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought it was.” This is a common reaction from proponents of education reform and it is both dismissive and dangerous.  Imagine if other professionals we entrust to protect our children acted in this manner.  Could you imagine a doctor telling the parent of a sick child, for example, “deal with it; your child just isn’t as healthy as everyone else”?  For some reason, we seem to accept harm-inducing attitudes from education reform proponents more than doctors.    

The reality is, however,  unlike in the 1980’s when Ronald Reagan called us a “nation at risk” by not monitoring our students, we are creating some very large cracks for kids to fall into and damage is being done to children who cannot speak up for themselves.  

In order to understand how this came to be, it is important to understand some of the math behind the assessments.  I will try to do this in clear, non-pretentious language, unlike the State Education Department.

They are trying to keep you from understanding what is going on and I need you to understand.

I need you to understand two numbers from the College Board and the SAT. One is a score of 1630 and the other is 66th percentile.

In 2013, the State Education Department contracted with the College Board to establish what “college and career ready” would mean in New York State. They reduced all of the complexities of why students succeed or fail in college to a single SAT score.  I know that is ridiculous and that is why colleges put little emphasis on SAT scores because they are poorly correlated with college success, but that is what SED did.

The College Board came back with a score of 1630 on the SAT, which is in the 66th percentile,  meaning that in order for students in New York to be considered college and career ready, they need to do better than 66 percent of all college-bound students across the country. “College-bound” is significant because only students who have identified themselves as college bound take the SAT.

The first problem with setting our state benchmarks to the SAT is that we’re dealing with two different populations. In New York State, all students take the Common Core assessments, but a much more selective group (college bound students) take the SAT. This skews the data to make the performance of our students look worse.

There are obvious issues with this methodology for individual students but there are also larger issues.  The score of 1630 on the SAT is most likely going to come from a student with a family income between $160,000-$200,000.  You see, the College Board, which creates the SAT, recognizes how well scores correlate with family income.  So the success students with an SAT score of 1630 have in college may be due to the benefits of affluence, and not the score itself.  A recent study of 123,000 students at 33 widely differing colleges that have SAT optional admissions policies found the difference between submitters and non-submitters to be five one-hundredths of a GPA point and six-tenths of a percent in graduation rates.  In short, the study found no difference at all.

What is important to understand also is which students do not submit SAT scores.  These are primarily students of color, women, first in family to attend, and students with learning needs.  These are the students not getting a score of 1630 but who are just as successful as those identified by standardized tests. The larger risk here is the inherent classism in tying our K-12 student success to metrics based on the SAT.  As Harvard Law Professor Lani Guinier points out: 

 The score on your SAT or other exams is a better predictor of your parents’ income and the car they drive than of your performance in college. The credentials of our testocracy legitimize a new elite, and give them an inflated sense of their worth. They believe that they are entitled to power because they got it through their individual merit. Our testocratic meritocracy has let those already at the top of the heap rule, and keep their power, without any sense of moral or political accountability.

There is real power in the education reformers’ strategy of tying school success to a 1630 on the SAT, which again is earned by only 34% of college bound students nationally.

Let me demonstrate to you how powerful the State Education Department’s strategy of hiding behind data and pretentious language is. Let’s look at a very public statement made by Cuomo to attack our schools. In the governor’s State of the State address, he said, “Only 38% of New York’s students are graduating college and career ready.” This sounds horrific and it would justifiably raise alarm, if it were true, but when you apply the 1630 and 66th percentile to this, you have the scientifically accurate statement.  Thirty-eight percent of New York’s students are on target to get a 1630 on the SAT, which is better than thirty-four percent of just college bound students, significantly better than students across the country.  This hardly works in the Cuomo’s favor which is why SED buries the information in complexity and pretentious language.  

Now let’s move towards how this has negative consequences for children.  The first thing to understand is what separates a high two from a low three on the state’s third through eighth-grade assessments. It is a benchmark tied to a 1630 on the SAT, a score, again, only 34% of college bound students nationally attain.  So a student with a 3 on the third grade assessment is on target to get a 1630 and a student with a high 2 is not.

Arne Duncan said,  “We should be able to look every second grader in the eye and say, You’re on track, you’re going to be able to go to a good college, or you’re not.”
All kids are different and develop at unique rates.  In our elementary classrooms, there are a wide range of ages and abilities based on when individual children mature.  To think that these tests are good enough to predict an outcome a decade down the road is laughable, or would be laughable, if actual second graders were not currently attached to this reality.

I teach high school physics and I know how damaging to a child a low SAT score can be.  It can take months to get that child to believe in herself again, but it happens, and she goes on to college and becomes successful.  Now we have a new reality with a new problem.  Nobody that promotes this regime of high-stakes testing can answer the following question for me: knowing how fragile the human psyche is, what am I supposed to do in the future with students to get them to believe in themselves after the entire bureaucracy of the State Education Department has come down on them and labelled them not “college and career ready” in third grade, then again in fourth, and in fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth and eleventh?  Will they understand that what we really meant to say was they were not on target to getting a 1630, and that thousands upon thousands of kids go to college and are successful every year with less than a 1630?  Will they have long ago written off prospects of college and career as ever being attainable?  Are we raising a generation of kids that will be numb to success and failure because of the inappropriate standards we forced them to chase? 

Furthermore, the new teacher evaluation law just passed adds another level to the stress that students will feel, since it makes these tests the lone student performance indicator on a teacher’s evaluation.  It is inappropriate to make students feel that their ability or inability to master new information is tied to the evaluation and livelihood of adults that they care deeply for–their teachers.  Learning is hard and when classes are taught well, students will make mistakes.  Mistakes in a consequence-free environment are learning opportunities. Mistakes in a high-stakes environment are corrosive.

In my physics class, I regularly point out that pressure builds diamonds, but it will also bring down bridges.  The environment that students learn in matters.  

Unlike traditional curriculum which starts in kindergarten and builds each successive grade on a developing and broadening base of knowledge and skills, the Common Core starts with getting a 1630 on the SAT and moves down through the grade levels.  There is a reason why first grade is the new third grade.  If you need all of your students to perform in the top 34% of students nationally, you have to get cracking early, even if the child is not developmentally ready. Kevin Glynn, from Lace to the Top, had a recent analysis dealing with released items from the third grade ELA test.  He did not analyze the passages but the questions themselves, and found that many items written for third graders were written on the 7th, 8th and even 9th grade reading levels.  This is what you must do when trying to differentiate between the top 34% and top 35%.  

When this is how students are tested, this is how they are taught.  

The SAT only tests reading, writing and math.  If you want to get all students to do better than the top 34% nationally in these subjects, that is what you will teach, and you will do it relentlessly.  This is why we are seeing less of everything else.  Less recess, music, art, science, social studies; less creativity and less sanity.  This is an inescapable treadmill for our schools, teachers and, unfortunately, students.

Nobody knows what the long-term effects will be because this is an experiment. It has never been done and nobody is monitoring it for unintended negative consequences.  We may find out too late that 1630’s are great goals but horrible systemic benchmarks.  We may marginally move test scores up, but at what cost?  If you never look for the damage, you will never find it, until it is too pervasive to ignore.

Let us remember these are children: ambitious, imperfect, fragile and deserving of our protection.


The Lakeland Federation of Teachers is a union representing the teachers, nurses, and therapists in Westchester County’s largest suburban school district

How the Common Core and High-Stakes Testing are Sabotaging Students

Refusing the Test: A Family Decision

As you are aware, NYS school districts are required to administer state exams in ELA and math for grades 3-8 and science for grades 4 and 8 in order to be in compliance with the federal “No Child Left Behind Act” and the NYS Education Dept. Commissioner’s Regulations.

What you may not know is that you have the “right to refuse” to have your child participate in the exams. Teachers who are also parents, while having to make the decision as to what is best for their child, recognize your choice as a parent. It is also important to know that there is no penalty to your child, his/her teacher or his/her school.

Should you choose to refuse the test you must submit a letter to your principal that includes the following information: 

  • Your child’s name, grade and teacher’s name
  • The specific examination(s) for which your child will not participate in taking.
    EXAMPLE: (My child __________, under my guardian and advice, will be scored as a “refusal”, with a final score of “999” and a standard achieved code of “96”, on all state testing including ELA, Math and Science as described in the 2014/2015 NYS Student Information Repository System (SIRS) Manual version 10.2 on page 63.)

Please keep in mind that although you may refuse to have your child take the NYS standardized test(s), Regents Exams are required in order to graduate and should therefore not be included in the refusal letter.

Students who have refused to take the test should plan to attend school and will be sent to an alternate location to read silently or complete other grade level, skill-based activities.

For further information the Westchester East Putnam PTA and the Lakeland Federation of Teachers is recommending the following link as an additional resource:

http://www.nysape.org.

We support a parent’s right to refuse the state standardized test(s) if a parent believes that this is the best choice for his/her child.

We hope this information helps you to form your own decision regarding your child’s educational experience.

The Lakeland Federation of Teachers is a union representing the teachers, nurses, and therapists in Westchester County’s largest suburban school district


Refusing the Test: A Family Decision