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Listen to us, teachers tell Arne Duncan in Albany

ALBANY, N.Y. — Teamwork was the watchword as U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan took his national back-to-school bus tour to Albany today.

Duncan has taken to the road to celebrate teachers, and to convince them that his reform efforts will not undercut their interests.

In New York, many teachers are still skittish of a new teacher evaluation plan that will, for the first time, allow school districts to judge them based on their students’ test scores. The state and city teachers union struck the agreement with state education officials in May, in part to improve the state’s Race to the Top application.

And so, in appearances at the state teachers union headquarters and the State Capitol, Duncan and state officials emphasized that New York’s reform policies are the result of a team effort between state education officials and its teachers unions. Those policies won the state nearly $700 million in federal Race to the Top funds last week.

“Where other states were not able to reach consensus, New York was,” Duncan said.

At the offices of the state teachers union, Duncan and New York State United Teachers Union President Richard Iannuzzi faced a panel of teachers and administrators from six upstate districts. The group shared lessons from a teacher evaluation experiment they had begun before the teacher evaluation deal was struck. They were generally upbeat about the changes, but they also sounded warning notes for Duncan.

Duncan asked the group why it’s taken so long to create momentum around creating new teacher evaluations. One reason, said Dawn Sherwood, a social studies teacher from Hempstead, is that school districts rarely collaborate.

“In the past, it felt like every man for himself,” she said. “What that led to were pockets of success.”

Julius Brown, the assistant superintendent of Sherwood’s district, cautioned that the increased attention on teacher effectiveness should extend also to principals and administrators. “The teachers didn’t hire themselves; they weren’t granted tenure themselves,” he said.

Duncan agreed. “The teaching piece is huge, but by itself isn’t going to get us all the way we need to go,” he said.

“There obviously is still anxiety around [the new teacher evaluation plan],” Iannuzzi said. “At the moment, [teachers are] not convinced it’s going to be fair.”

But Iannuzzi said that the state’s winning second-round Race to the Top application reflected teachers union input to a far greater degree than in the first round. And he predicted that if the union continues to be involved, support among rank-and-file teachers will grow.

“I think my local members will feel that it’s fair if they feel that they had a voice that was heard,” Iannuzzi said.

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