In the effort to position New York in contention for Race to the Top competitive federal grants, David Steiner, state education commissioner, recently unveiled an aggressive reform agenda to move the state forward toward improvements in educational opportunity and effectiveness.
Among the issues Steiner looks to tackle is state testing and the so-called ''teaching to the test'' educators are often forced to do in an effort to prepare students for the evaluation.
''Testing must be what it is supposed to be - a set of assessments, not the curriculum,'' Steiner said. ''We will ensure that the state's tests become less predictable and more comprehensive.''
At the same time, Steiner said that the state education department hopes to build a comprehensive data system linking student performance data to educator effectiveness.
''We believe teaching well is a deeply complex professional activity,'' Steiner said. ''Thus, the evaluation of teachers must take place along multiple dimensions, but the ability of a teacher to raise the academic performance of her or his students is critical, and that ability - better supported by new models of professional development - must form part of our evaluation system.''
Dave Eggert, regional staff director for New York State United Teachers, said the teachers' union has a myriad of concerns with the state testing system that must be addressed before student performance can be used accurately as a measure of teacher quality. Among other concerns, Eggert said state testing is not always consistent and does not evaluate student skills including critical thinking, creativity and teamwork, nor can it measure a love of learning - all of which are instilled by good teachers.
''The more we can broaden tests to take into account a broad range of learning, the more tests will be able to really measure overall learning,'' Eggert said. ''That's a good direction, as far as we're concerned, but it's a hard thing to do.''
In addition, Eggert said, many factors can influence how well a student does on a standardized test. Socioeconomic background and personal problems can affect a child's performance dramatically, for example.
''All those factors that influence how well a student does in school aren't easy to measure in terms of tests, so we do get very concerned with how test scores could be applied to either teacher evaluation or to teacher pay,'' Eggert said.
The U.S. Department of Education has set aside up to $350 million to be awarded to states that are leading the way with plans for coherent, compelling and comprehensive education reform. Guidelines for the funding include adopting assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the global economy; building data systems that measure student growth and success as well as that inform teachers and principals about how they can improve; recruiting, developing, retaining and rewarding effective teachers and principals; and turning around the lowest-achieving schools.
In an official statement, NYSUT officials said the organization is ''strongly committed'' to helping New York state gain Race to the Top funding. The officials said it is important for the commissioner and the Board of Regents to understand that teacher input is essential in educational change.
Eggert said that past commissioners have asked the teaching field for its input in reforms and that NYSUT expects Steiner to offer the same opportunity to help shape the future of education in New York.
''Our sense is that he is going to want to maintain a dialogue with teachers,'' Eggert said. ''In the past, commissioners have done this by talking to NYSUT and also by holding hearings and meetings around the state and listening to practitioners who have some things to offer in terms of what the commissioner is proposing. We would anticipate a process like that, but we don't know yet just what process this commissioner has in mind.''