N.Y. Local Showcases Labor-Management Collaboration

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Nestled in the Hudson River Valley of New York state is a prime example of what is right with American public schools. There, AFT president Randi Weingarten met on March 4 with educators in the Marlboro public schools to explore their approach to raising student achievement in an era of tight resources, starting with how to make labor-management collaboration the norm.

President Weingarten speaks at an informal luncheon meeting, Marlboro Intermediate School.

"Where you have high levels of collaboration, you have a better chance of making a difference in the lives of kids," said Marlboro Faculty Association president Joe Pesavento. Marlboro is one of five pioneering districts in the state that are developing new ways to evaluate teacher performance, with the union and administrators working as partners under an AFT Innovation Fund grant through the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT). Among other things, the evaluation systems focus on mentoring teachers, especially those who are struggling.

The visit opened with an informal meeting and luncheon at the Marlboro Intermediate School with local president Pesavento and school administrators, followed by a visit to the classroom of fourth-grade teacher Mary Guerriero, herself a product of the Marlboro schools. Then the AFT guests were escorted to Marlboro Elementary School, where Weingarten visited the kindergarten classroom of Gail Minard, the local union secretary and a member of the innovative design team.

The AFT president's next stop was Marlboro High School, just a short drive away, where highlights included a visit to the school planetarium and a roundtable discussion with local AFT members who have played an important role in implementing the local Innovation Fund grant.

"What I've seen today, in these Marlboro schools, was remarkable. I am in awe of what you do," Weingarten said. "You know the budgetary pressures we've all been under, but Marlboro has said, 'Let's figure out how to do this together'—a continuous improvement model for instruction with the resources we have."

The AFT president noted that good working relationships take time, that the union and the district have "been doing this collaboration stuff for 15 years, since before it was cool." Finally, she reinforced the importance of using reliable information. "Evaluations shouldn't be about 'gotcha,' " she said. "They should be collaborative and based on multiple measures. Marlboro actually has meat on the bones for multiple measures."

The afternoon culminated with a press conference and an interview with NBC Nightly News for a segment on teacher evaluation systems to be aired March 7.

Weingarten's interview came on the heels of a speech last month, in which she outlined a proposal to improve teaching and learning by aligning teacher evaluations with due process systems. (See related story.) The AFT proposal has three steps: comprehensive teacher evaluations based on clear standards, a time-limited improvement and support plan for teachers who do not meet the standards, and a hearing/administrative process that can take no longer than 100 days to determine whether the teacher should leave the profession.

President Weingarten with kindergarten teacher Gail Minard, Marlboro Elementary School.

Maria Neira, first vice president of NYSUT and an AFT vice president, praised the Marlboro collaborators' focus on students. "They go into a room, they roll up their sleeves and it's about professionalism. It's not about the politics or the money. It's about how do we get better at what we do?"

Marlboro school superintendent Ray Castellani and assistant superintendent Michael Bakatsias said collaboration can be hard in tough economic times, but the answer is to keep the conversation going. At the afternoon news conference, Weingarten agreed, lauding the Marlboro team. "This should be a time when America cheers its teachers for trying to teach innovatively, instead of demonizing them," she said. "Here, administrators aren't saying, 'That's the teacher's responsibility.' They are saying, 'This is our responsibility.' " [Annette Licitra, Ruthanne Buck, Barbara Pallazzo; Photos by Michael Weisbrot/Video by Matthew Jones and Brett Sherman]

March 7, 2011