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New York Unions Target State Chief Over Common-Core Testing

New York's teachers' unions are demanding that state Commissioner John King work to establish a three-year moratorium on using common-core-aligned test results for judging schools, students, or teachers—and imply that they will join calls for his removal if he doesn't.

The New York State United Teachers and its United Federation of Teachers affiliate, which represents New York City, argue that the state has rushed common-core implementation before all teachers had new curricular materials to match. They call this situation unfair to teachers, whose evaluations are based on student peformance on the exams. They also complain that much lower test results in the state have parents up in arms as their children for the first time qualify for remedial aid, fail to get into advanced programs, and face the possibility of not passing graduation exams.

The unions' three-year timeline is the most specific since discussions about a "pause" on the use of tests related to the common core began. (The U.S. Department of Education's  No Child Left Behind "double-waiver flexibility" for instance, allows states to push back teacher-evaluation consequences for only one year.)

NYSUT is an affiliate of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers; UFT is an AFT affiliate.

The teachers' unions have been particularly upset by the integration of such tests into teachers' evaluations, which they say has led to many teachers not passing muster on the the evaluations. In Syracuse, 40 percent of teachers received lower scores on the new reviews.

The tensions apparently boiled over at forum for parents on the common standards that King spoke at earlier this week. During it, he was screamed down by parents, some using vulgar language. His subsequent decision to cancel the remaining forums has earned him editorial rebukes, and his charge that "special interests" were behind the disruption, a phrase he hasn't explained, has led to blowback by the teachers' unions and calls from at least two lawmakers for King to resign, reports Capital, an online news service covering state politics.

NYSUT and the Alliance for Quality Education, an advocacy group it funds, plan to host more parent forums. The state education department says it's committed to other, smaller events to explain all the moving parts to parents. 

But the real suprise is that NYSUT President Richard Iannuzzi hinted in a statement that the union might support the call for King's ouster if he isn't willing to support a moratorium: "If Commissioner King doesn't understand that NYSUT's call for a moratorium is not a distraction but rather a genuine call for a course correction, then we need someone who does."

In an intervew, Iannuzzi said the language was born out of the union's sense that King won't budge on the timeline.

"We're raising the heat on these consequences," he said. "We're supportive of realizing the potential of the common core, but the implementation plan that New York came up with has really gone awry."

The union is also lobbying state legislatures to craft legislative language calling for a pause in tying consequences to the tests. 

Testing Context

To an extent, the anti-testing bent precedes the common core. At its 2012 convention, the AFT —in which NYSUT and UFT are dominant political forces—took a strong stand against the use of test scores for judging students and their teachers. 

Meanwhile, the union's recent tactics have earned it criticism from those who think that a pause in evaluations would ultimately spell a death knell for the newer, more-rigorous systems. Tim Daly, the president of the teacher-training group TNTP, penned a highly critical blog post in which he compared the unions' tactics with those that tea party-affiliated Republicans used to force the recent federal government shutdown.

Overall, it is unclear whether the unions' call to delay testing could have unforseen effects. Among the groups pressing for King's ouster is the New York State Allies for Public Education, a new advocacy group whose main organizers are educational progressives opposed on principle to the idea of the shared standards, as well as the new tests. Elsewhere, at least one state representative, Al Graf, has introduced anti-common-core legislation.

Queried about those elements, Iannuzzi made clear that his union's demands are not aimed at undermining the common core.

"It's the testing and implementation that's got teachers and parents angry," he said. "If we don't address them, if we do nothing, those who feel that the problem is the common core will win." 

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