Commentary & Opinion
12:31 pm
Mon April 21, 2014

Karen Magee: Let’s Hit The Re-set Button

A brief introduction is in order.

My name is Karen Magee. I’m an elementary school teacher from Harrison, and mom to three great kids — the youngest in high school.  My grandmother, Helen, was a member of the International Ladies Garment Workers … and she always told me that a woman’s place is in her union.  Earlier this month, when I became the first woman elected president of New York State United Teachers, I knew that she would be proud.

It’s a profound honor and responsibility to be NYSUT president, especially now.  This is a tough time for teachers.  And, it’s just as tough a time for parents and students.  Our children’s joy in learning is being crowded out by test prep and test anxiety.  Tax caps and layoffs are crippling our schools and public colleges are on a starvation diet.  The same testing insanity that has polluted our schools is now spreading to higher education, where the next generation of teachers is being forced to take a bait-and-switch test they haven’t had time to prepare for in order to enter our profession.

And then, to add insult to anxiety … the caring professionals who do the work — teachers, yes, but also teaching assistants, guidance counselors, professors, school nurses, bus drivers …  and I’ve only named a few…  all of us are hammered on a daily basis by politicians more interested in scoring points than in cherishing children.

This has got to stop.

Here is my guiding principle:  When teachers and parents stand up together on behalf of our kids, we will be the collective voice that can’t be ignored.

No more punishing parents who refuse state tests by forcing their kids to sit and stare.  No more teacher bashing from the bully pulpit.  No more alarmist rhetoric about failing schools.  The truth is that New York’s public schools are strong and healthy, and where schools ARE struggling, it’s because children live in poverty.  That’s something we can’t test our way out of.  But you know what?  We can teach our way out of it.  We can teach our students out of poverty … and for that to happen, kids in poor areas should have the same advantages as kids in wealthy areas.  All children deserve computers, Advanced Placement teachers, books, counselors, decent class sizes, music and art teachers, extra help, language teachers and more.  We know what our children need.

I’m encouraged by signs of recent progress.  The State increased funding to public schools and that’s a welcome step forward.  Albany is finally starting to respond to our concerns about testing.  They’ve banned standardized tests for our youngest kids.  Now our students can’t be denied promotion or graduation because of these bungled state tests.  But the job’s only half done.  If it’s wrong to use these state tests to penalize students — and it is wrong — how is it possibly fair to use them to penalize teachers?

Teachers welcome evaluations. That’s not the point.  Every parent deserves to know their child’s teacher is effective and every student deserves a great teacher. Fair evaluations help all teachers improve.  But right now New York’s teacher evaluation system is broken.  That hurts teachers, no question.  And it hurts students and parents, too.

I talked earlier about what our children need.  If you ask me about teachers, what I would say is this:  Teachers need and deserve the same things our students do -- An end to testing insanity.  The resources to succeed.  And, above all, respect.

You can’t put students first if you put teachers last.

Let’s hit the re-set button.

Karen Magee is president of the 600,000-member New York State United Teachers.

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