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For Weingarten, New York's Common Core fight hits home

Randi Weingarten has been a national union boss for over three years, but her heart remains in the state that groomed her as a labor leader. So when California recently became the latest state to alter its testing policies amid reforms to learning standards and teacher evaluations, Weingarten said her thoughts turned to New York.

“I get embarrassed when a state like California is figuring it out more than my beloved Empire State,” Weingarten said Wednesday in a speech in midtown Manhattan, where she accepted an education award from the education nonprofit Teaching Matters.

Weingarten twice referred to California, which moved a step closer to eliminating high-stakes tests for a year, while making her latest case for why New York should strip high stakes from state tests for teachers and students in order to focus on adopting Common Core learning standards. She also appeared on a panel discussion with Commissioner John King, whose handling of state education policies she has been critical of.

Weingarten headed New York City’s United Federation of Teachers for 11 years, after which she was elected in 2009 to lead the union’s national organization, the American Federation of Teachers. Her office is in Washington, D.C. and she has negotiated contracts in cities around the country, but Weingarten has stayed intimately involved in what’s happening in New York, where she still keeps a residence. In addition to a high-profile speech where she initially made her call for a high-stakes moratorium, Weingarten also actively campaigned for the UFT’s chosen mayoral candidate, Bill Thompson, during this year’s Democratic primary.

She said she’s frustrated to see New York hasn’t carried out teacher evaluations and Common Core standards in the way that she believes will give the reforms more credibility in the long term. In addition to California, Weingarten cited policy shifts in Florida, which plans to abandon a national testing group, and Rhode Island, which hit the pause button on high-stakes testing for teachers, as shining examples for New York to follow.

She even drew a parallel to President Barack Obama’s handling of the technical glitches plaguing a government web site designed to help rollout his controversial universal health care law. The White House had resisted calls to delay implementation as a result of the glitches, but announced this week that it is planning a postponement.

“Let’s figure out the adjustments that one needs to do, just like the president is doing about Obamacare, to really make sure we make this work for kids this time,” Weingarten said.

The panel was about “finding common ground” on education policy, a theme that organizers vigorously sought to convey. And though they briefly reprised their long-held positions on the high-stakes moratorium, their conversation stayed relatively tame.

“John and I actually sparred privately at the Cuomo commission far more than we are sparring right now,” said Weingarten, referring to their roles on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Education Reform Commission.

King said he agreed with Weingarten on most areas of education policy, including early childhood education and the need for more professional development. He said they even fundamentally agreed on the most contentious policies.

“When all of us agreed to this work back in 2010, the work on the Common Core and the teacher evaluation, we all understood that we would have bumps and challenges along the way,” King said. “I think that’s inherent in any effort to raise standards across 700 districts and 4500 schools.”

But he said the media tends to focus on differences and conflicts. One example, he said, was a focus on the role that state tests play in evaluations, which account for 20 percent of a teacher’s overall rating.

“If you were to just listen to the debate you would think that test scores were the dominant factor in evaluations when in fact they are not, but it’s hard to explain that nuance.”

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