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Can't Blame Teacher Tenure For Failing Schools


February 26, 2012

Diane Ravitch, an education expert, points out that today's school reformers know nothing about what works in education, and so they try to make schools look more like businesses.

They propose to test students, evaluate teachers according to those tests and then reward or punish teachers consequently. Their proposals make little to no mention of curriculum or instruction. These reforms, as with those proposed by Gov.Dannel P. Malloyand state Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor, rest upon the premise that teachers know exactly what needs to be done to improve education, but they simply aren't doing it. They assume that if we remove tenure and threaten teachers with reprisal, then teachers will do their jobs. In truth, the challenges in education are much more complex, and tenure is not to blame.

The biggest problem in Connecticut is the achievement gap between wealthy and poor students, which largely correlates with the gap between white and minority students. The fact of the matter is that the gap has everything to do with poverty and not a whole lot of anything to do with tenure.

Students in wealthy, educated towns such as New Canaan, Fairfield, Glastonbury or Mansfield succeed despite their teachers' tenure, yet we are supposed to believe that the struggles of students in neighboring towns such as Norwalk, Bridgeport, Hartford and Windham are the fault of teachers' collectively bargained rights to due process.

In 2005, Windham Center School was awarded a federal Blue Ribbon for excellence, but in 2008 Windham Center School was labeled a failing school, despite nearly identical staffing.

Windham has two elementary schools that serve impoverished neighborhoods and two that serve relatively affluent neighborhoods. Windham Center School served a neighborhood of teachers, professors, lawyers and doctors. But demographic changes and the state's response to certain provisions in federal education law caused dramatic shifts throughout the town. Between 1999 and 2009, Windham dropped from the seventh to the third poorest town in the state.

Many of the newly arrived poor were English language learners. At one time, most of these students would have attended either Natchaug or Sweeney elementary schools. But the new federal law not only required that schools be labeled as failures if their students did not excel on standardized tests, it also required that towns give students the choice to attend a different, non-failing school.

As you might expect, many students elected to attend the so-called good school. The result was that the teachers at Windham Center were suddenly handed a large number of impoverished English language learners who they were unprepared to teach. Did the town, state or federal government provide the professional development necessary to help the teachers teach these kids? No. The feds just gave the school a failing grade.

I do not blame the students or their families for this predicament. Most of our ancestors were poor immigrants who faced similar challenges. And I do not fault the choice program in and of itself. If anything, it helped desegregate the schools. But I do fault the federal government and the state government for issuing unfunded mandates and for failing schools whose teachers have been set up for failure.

And now I worry that the teachers are being scapegoated even further.

One problem with the school choice program was that it was predicated upon the false conclusion that the teachers at Natchaug and Sweeney were not doing their jobs, and the teachers at Windham Center were. Now that the poor and the non-English speaking students have been distributed throughout the town, Gov. Malloy and Commissioner Pryor are going to implement reforms that will make it look like all the teachers in Windham and other like towns are failures. And without tenure, they will all be at risk of losing their jobs.

The problem here is not tenure. Tenure didn't fail these kids, impoverish their families, or underfund their schools. What teachers and their students need is not blame, reprisal, failure and sanction. They need funding and professional development.

Jason Courtmanche is the director of the Connecticut Writing Project at the University of Connecticut. He was a high school English teacher for 12 years.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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