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Deciphering the Education Reform Debate

By Kerri Provost

February 22, 2012

It’s been reported that when the USA PATRIOT Act was originally introduced, nobody in the U.S. Senate read the bill before signing it.

Right now in Connecticut, Governor Malloy’s unwieldy 163-page Act Concerning Educational Competitiveness (SB24), is getting a lot of attention, yet there are some who would be content having the bill pushed through with little understanding of the terminology or the issues.

In what has been turned into a war against teachers, truthiness is replacing actual truth. Tenure, for instance, is being presented as a way of keeping ineffective or “bad” teachers employed until their frail, limp bodies have to be carted away. Tenure actually guarantees due process, granting teachers the right to not be fired for arbitrary reasons.

For those outside of the classroom, it may be a surprise that teachers’ jobs are threatened for reasons outside of competency issues. In Hartford, in low performing schools where gains in adequate yearly progress are modest, some teachers have received the message that they could be let go, even though they are fairly new to the school where these achievement issues have had a long history. None will go on the record because they fear job loss. Tenure would alleviate some of those fears of speaking truth to power.

Still, some in the field of education have been speaking out at the Legislative Office Building. Here are highlights from the recent public hearing:

Sharon Palmer of AFT Connecticut opposed the bill, in part because these new teacher evaluation measures would mean that if a teacher were fired in one district, that instructor’s certification would be revoked. She could no longer teach in any public schools in Connecticut.

With the proposed changes, a tenured teacher terminated for ineffectiveness would lose her right to appeal this in Superior Court.

For those who believe teachers are only fired for incompetence, this may seem like a step in the right direction; however, this ignores the reality of politics played in schools, especially in relation to No Child Left Behind.

Teachers can guide students, but they are not miracle workers.

Amy Congdon, a second grade teacher in Trumbull, says:

I cannot control the outcome of my students’ learning. I can present the information and give them every research-proven method of applying the skills that the great educational minds have come up with, but if there’s no parent support at home, they won’t succeed. If they didn’t get enough sleep the night before the CMTs, they won’t do their best. If they choose to not reread questions or check their work, the results won’t reflect their abilities. If they just don’t care about taking a test that day, they will fail. How can I possibly be held responsible for uncontrollable life-circumstances or a student’s unfortunate attitude?

Christina Black, an English teacher from Rockville High School, who used to work in the business world, said:

Teaching is everything that I dreamed it would be. While the business world never inspired,

challenged, frustrated, and rewarded me, all at the same time, each and every day, it never belittled me or told me my work was worthless. SB 24 does just that.

There is currently concern about attracting quality teachers and retaining young people in Connecticut.

Preschool teachers from East Hartford — Karen Maxwell, Jane Soto, and Jaime Maynard — said:

Teaching is not a business and should not be run as such. Teachers work with human beings and a plethora of societal conditions that create situations and impact student performance

in ways outside of the educator’s control. As such, it is punitive to apply a business-based commission model to teacher pay. This proposal will create a high turnover rate and discourage quality educators from entering the education field. We firmly believe that this proposal will lead to unethical behaviors and practices from administrators and teachers.

Erin Sullivan, a teacher who has worked in Torrington and Bridgeport, stated:

Senate Bill 24 is counter-productive to improving education in this state. The bill grossly misrepresents both the current practices involving tenure and – even more – the problem with achievement today. The bill is political ploy to gain favor by reacting to public angst and misconceptions regarding the teaching profession. It does not, in a way, reflect the reality of the obstacles that are currently impacting achievement.

She continued to explain why the tenure reform initiative is aimed in the wrong direction:

After these four years, my principal saw it fit to recommend me for tenure. One of my colleagues, at the same time, was not recommended for tenure. The administration found this person was not worthy of tenure. If teachers who should not receive tenure are granted it, that is a problem with administration – not teachers.

In her testimony, she presented clear facts which some reform cheerleaders have sniffed at: beginner teachers are cheaper than those who have seniority. When more and more dollars are being spent on assessment measures, further burdening the schools economically, it becomes, to some politicians, attractive to remove the obstacle that keeps higher paid senior teachers in place.

There is more to tenure reform than simply caring about the quality of teaching staff.

Robert Cotto of CT Voices for Children, who also serves on the Hartford Board of Education, said:

Managing teachers by using student test scores can create incentives to narrow educational goals, or “teach to the test”. There is evidence that Connecticut’s schools, being responsible for only CMT and CAPT scores, have shifted resources and instruction to subject areas that are part of the CMT at the expense of a rich, broad curriculum. From 2002-2009, Connecticut’s second graders have had on average fewer hours of instruction in Computer Education, Health, Language Arts, and Social Studies and more hours in mathematics.v Between 2002 and 2011, fifth graders have gradually experienced fewer hours of social studies and health, while having more hours of instruction in math-a tested subject.vi Over the last three years, 8th grade students in Connecticut have also seen increases in the number of instructional hours for math and reading, while other subjects have fluctuated.vii Given the responsibility to raise math, reading, and writing test scores, the state’s schools and districts have shifted the focus of the instruction, on average, to these tested subjects.

More of his testimony, which includes statistics and a reference page, is available in PDF.

Dr. Linette Branham, the Director of Policy & Professional Practice for the Connecticut Education Association, held Finland’s education system up as a model of success. She said that Senate Bill 24 does not come close to matching Finland’s practices.

Mary Loftus Levine, the Executive Director of the Connecticut Education Association, called out ten issues with the bill:

We ask you, the Education Committee, to take a close look at the following concepts in this bill and ask yourselves if they will close the achievement gap or simply mal{e teachers, and their students, the victims of yet another unproven experiment in the name of political “boldness” and “reform.”

This bill:

•Ties a teacher’s certification and license to ever teach anywhere else in Connecticut to one principal’s subjective evaluation, all based on a system not yet developed.

•Eliminates the value of and requirement that Connecticut teachers obtain a master’s degree or 30 graduate credits to advance, grow professionally,and obtain new knowledge and strategies along with their students.

•Eliminates the required 36 hours of special education training and also training in how to use technology to teach.

•Eliminates collective bargaining rights and returns to the ‘meet and confer’ days of old

•Devalues the experience and expertise now recognized in teachers who hold National Board Certification by issuing them the same level of certificate a new teacher receives

•Gives superintendents and the commissioner of education extraordinary power and authority, taking away that of elected boards of education; i.e., the superintendents alone would hire, the commissioner would appoint superintendents, disband and appoint new boards of education and waive current board of education policies

•Require a master’s degree if a teacher gets a bad evaluation, but does not recognize the need for everyone to have one to improve skills and grow professionally. The standards to become a Master teacher are weak and insufficient.

•Creates a convoluted system which ties a teacher’s employment solely to whether an undetermined process was followed and now to the merits of the teacher’s daily work

•Creates more job insecurity by extending at will status to a full year, demoting people without just cause standard, and promoting others based on unproven, undeveloped systems linked to test scores

•Finally, mandates new salary schedules and the reopening and renegotiating of contracts based on a vague notion of how teachers should be compensated, creating havoc with school budgets and teachers’ already precarious livelihoods

Loftus Levine stated that this bill also creates potential legal challenges.

Several small school districts felt SB24 would institute unfair economic penalties.

Where is the support for SB24 coming from?

The bill covers a lot of ground. Individuals and organizations can find value in parts of it. Depending on agenda and circumstances, the lesser parts of the bill can be forgiven by some because they have prioritized one issue over others.

For example, a parent from Hartford who was in the dark about her child reading/writing several years below grade level, believes teachers will be evaluated using more objective measures. Teachers with the West Hartford Public School System disagree, calling these evaluation measures more subjective. In any case, that parent’s support only looked at one angle of SB24.

The bill has also received support from the business sector, which appears not to have read the fine print on which due-process measures would be kept in place. There is ambiguity in the bill, as it promises to ensure due process for all, but then seeks to remove it for “ineffective” tenured teachers.

Strong support for the bill also comes from those connected to charter schools.

Testimony continues today. You can see all of the presentations to the Education Committee on the State of Connecticut General Assembly website.

Reprinted with permission of Kerri Provost, author of the blog RealHartford. To view other stories on this topic, search RealHartford at http://www.realhartford.org/.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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