Hartford has come a long way in providing high-quality schools for all students. Student achievement is on the rise: The graduation rate has increased from 29 percent in 2006 to 50 percent in 2010. There are more school options for families to choose from. The Center on Reinventing Public Education, a think tank that studies school districts, has designated the district as an exemplary model for districts nationwide.
Still, Hartford faces challenges that are found in many districts, including Rochester, N.Y. One of the key elements of a school district that offers a variety of high-quality choices to students is talent, or a high-quality workforce. However, in Connecticut there is state law on teacher certification and seniority that interferes with ensuring that the most effective teachers are in the classroom.
When creating school options with specific themes for students, it is important for teachers who work in these schools to have the ability to stay. In times of layoffs, least senior teachers are "bumped" out by more senior teachers. As a first-year teacher in Massachusetts, I was terminated for just this reason. I did not wait to see if I was to be re-hired because I had decided to attend graduate school, but what about all the teachers who spend their summers in limbo, waiting to see whether they will have a job? This is a reality for many least senior teachers in school districts.
In schools with a theme that requires specific training for teachers, bumping by seniority could present a huge problem. Specialized training takes place for teachers and administrators as part of a unique school model. For example, Expeditionary Learning school teachers learn how to develop cross-curricular "expeditions" and student support groups. Teachers are trained for a specialized curriculum, but the training is not identified as a specific certification area within state law. As a result, when it comes time to lay off teachers, they are laid off by certification area and the specialized training is not a factor in keeping the teacher employed.
Why should we shuffle teachers around like interchangeable parts, now commonly referred to as "The Widget Effect" thanks to an important report by The New Teacher Project? Through a district-teachers union agreement in Rochester, certain schools are able to not participate in staffing by seniority, but we have yet to make this a reality for all schools.
Different students benefit from different educational environments; there should be no one-size-fits-all approach to education. The same is true for adults. Not all teachers are the same and we must recognize that seniority alone does not determine the effectiveness of a teacher, or of any person in a profession.
There are also ways to find talent outside of traditional pathways. Organizations such as Teach for America and New Leaders for New Schools, and district-grown programs, have built pipelines to provide talented teachers and administrators to schools. In Rochester we are working to explore partnerships with both these organizations to provide alternative avenues for attracting teachers and administrators to live and work in our city.
It is evident that under the leadership of Steven Adamowski and the board of education there have been great gains in school quality and, as a result, student achievement in Hartford. All of our collective education reform rests on those who work with and for students. It is up to us to ensure we have the best possible people serving our children, year after year.
Mary Doyle is chief of school innovation for the Rochester, N.Y., school district.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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