Beware The Myths Muddying The Debate On Education Reform
By Rick Green
February 21, 2012
During this big year of education reform, be careful who you listen to.
At the start of the General Assembly's consideration Tuesday of Gov. Dannel Malloy's hefty education reform bill I kept finding people who were distorting what this important discussion is all about.
The problem, for example, isn't teachers in our public schools, it's the folks who keep talking about how teachers are the main problem.
The problem isn't that the governor wants to eliminate tenure. Malloy wants — justifiably — to link it to whether a teacher is helping children learn.
Most of all, talented and even mediocre teachers shouldn't be demonized or forced out of their careers. We should assist those who need a helping hand and then make life very difficult for the relative handful of ineffective educators. The real challenge is the vast, average middle and how we can get the educators there to become better teachers.
Of course teachers shouldn't be evaluated on some absurd one-size-fits-all test-score goal. Nobody, by the way, is talking about this — despite what some teachers union leaders suggest. But how can we possibly begin to help struggling schools if we don't assess whether individual students show adequate progress during a school year?
Demonstrating that students are learning — on tests that for, example, measure a third-grader's literacy skills — should be the cornerstone of a teacher's evaluation. The Malloy plan seeks to do this.
Meanwhile, the much-discussed cornerstone of the Malloy plan really isn't that at all. Teacher tenure ought to be a very small, if important, part of education reform. Unfortunately, listening to some folks around Hartford lately, you'd think that good-for-nothing teachers are the reason why we have the country's largest education achievement gap. (The reason is poverty and the concentration of poor students in cities.)
On Tuesday, the libertarian Yankee Institute came out with an absurd, dubious comparison saying that the average citizen is 17 times more likely to lose his or her job than the average teacher. Another blogger, the CTWatchdog, incorrectly declared that this means the state's murder rate is higher than its teacher firing-rate.
What's the point of this except to make teachers the enemy?
On the other hand, it was distressing to listen to Connecticut Education Association President Phil Apruzzese when he testified that his union could only fully support one portion of the Malloy reform bill: more money for preschool education.
Sadly, a recent CEA mailing to its members doesn't do much to convince a skeptic that the union is interested in more than protecting its members. It declared that the Malloy education plan "disrespects the high standards that teachers meet to maintain their professional status'' and "lowers standards." One union leader who spoke Tuesday simply stated "I do things well" when pressed by members of the legislature's education committee about how he should be evaluated. Ugh.
Hiring more qualified college graduates, and making teachers work harder to keep their jobs, and paying more to those who achieve in difficult schools — as the Malloy plan proposes — isn't exactly lowering anyone's standards. It's more likely that parents, taxpayers and even teachers want this sort of increased accountability.
A survey of 400 teachers that will be released later this week by the school reform group ConnCAN shows that 82 percent support dismissing educators who have a documented history of poor performance. Among new teachers, nearly 90 percent support dismissing poor performers, the ConnCAN survey found.
Much of the teacher union ire is focused on Malloy's education speech to the legislature two weeks ago when he suggested that earning tenure — a lifetime job protection — amounted to merely showing up for work. It was a poor choice of words for a speech, no doubt, but the governor's message shouldn't be lost amid all the rhetoric and folks hustling to protect the status quo.
Malloy's plan is a beginning, not the end of job protection for unions. We do need better teachers, but we need more to help the majority of them doing a pretty good job already. We need additional help for struggling schools. We need, more than anything, to pay more attention to what works.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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