LI teachers voice concern to NY school chief

Commissioner John B. King Jr., left, is interviewed Commissioner John B. King Jr., left, is interviewed by second grader Axel Reino, 7, right, of Westbury, while visiting the Park Avenue School in Westbury. (Jan. 30, 2013) Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

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New York State's school chief got an earful Wednesday about teacher job evaluations, testing and other worries of Long Island educators.

But then, Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. had invited local school officials to speak out.

"Our teachers are extremely hardworking, but they're scared," said Frank Naccarato, principal of Lindenhurst Middle School, one of six Island schools visited by the commissioner. "That's no way to run a school."

Another principal, Jeanette Altruda of Copiague's Walter G. O'Connell High School, wondered aloud what local residents would think if the school's test scores slip in the spring. In recent months, King's aides have warned of this possibility because tests will reflect new national Common Core academic standards that are intended to be more rigorous.

"Will people lose confidence in us, if we go off this cliff?" said Altruda, whose school won a College Board award last year for students' achievement.

King has heard such remarks many times. Wednesday, however, he prompted the discussions in front of news reporters and TV cameras, both during the school tours and at a lunch in Westbury for about 100 district superintendents and administrators. Similar meetings have been closed to the press.

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During that session, King predicted that more consolidations of districts will be needed in the near future to save money, adding, "I don't think there's an appetite for a large increase in local taxation, state taxation."

Some Island educators said they've noticed a growing confidence on the part of King, 38, the youngest commissioner in the state's history when he took the job in May 2011.

"As he's spent more time in the position, he appears more at ease and more comfortable in his dialogue with the field," said Henry Grishman, superintendent of Jericho schools.

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King, a frequent visitor to the Island, said this week's return was to check schools' progress on two fronts.

One is the Common Core standards, which have proved popular with teachers assigned to deliver lessons based on them. The standards are meant, among other things, to encourage more analytical readings of nonfiction, including the speeches of great statesmen.

The other is job evaluations, which are largely unpopular with teachers and with the principals assigned to rate them and be rated themselves. Evaluations are based partially on student test scores, which are translated through a complex formula into ratings.

King predicted that complaints about evaluations will subside as educators become more accustomed to the state's new system. Most teachers, on the Island and statewide, will get their first full evaluations either in the spring or fall.

"Change is always hard, and I think there are always anxieties in the first year," the commissioner said in an interview. "As we work through this first year of implementation, I think anxieties will decrease."

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Before that happens, King and his Education Department must decide how to report results of initial ratings already developed for teachers in grades 4-8.

Those ratings, which will count for 20 percent of full evaluations, were delivered to local districts in August. The agency has said it may release ratings, without teachers' names, next month, after it works out details for protecting individuals' privacy.

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