Teachers Are Focus Of Marathon Legislative Hearing
Changes In Tenure, Certification And Evaluations Debated
By KATHLEEN MEGAN
February 21, 2012
HARTFORD— Scores of people testified to the General Assembly's Education Committee Tuesday about teachers and proposed education reforms, but it was a 17-year-old Norwalk High School student who riveted lawmakers' attention.
"On one hand I can count all the teachers that have really motivated me for success," said Edwin Rosales. "Considering that I have had over 50 teachers in my high school and middle school career, I consider that, for a lack of better terms, sad."
Asked by one legislator why there are so many unmotivated students, Rosales said it's because they are taught by unmotivated teachers.
Rosales talked about an excellent teacher he'd had who would check with students one-by-one to make sure they had mastered the material. But, when he asked another teacher for extra help, Rosales said he was told: "If I don't get it at this point, that's it my problem."
Teachers were the focus of the first day of the two-day public hearing on Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's proposed education reform package, which would make sweeping changes — including an overhaul of teacher tenure and certification. The hearing, which began at 1:15 p.m., lasted late into the night.
Union leaders told lawmakers they favored education reform but questioned tying a new teacher evaluation system that is still in development to certification and tenure and said they worried that the proposal would weaken a teacher's right to due process in dismissal proceedings.
"We shouldn't be so eager and willing to experiment with basing certification on a system that is not yet designed, .. and that hasn't been tested and refined," said Phil Apruzzese, president of the Connecticut Education Association. "We believe this bill puts the cart before the horse."
Apruzzese said the state runs the risk of losing good teachers if the evaluation system becomes a "gotcha" practice and if reforms establish a "culture of fear, rather than collaboration in our schools."
Malloy, who was the first to testify at the hearing, noted that the new teacher evaluation system was created in a joint effort by teacher union leaders, school administrators and state officials and that the framework, while still needing more work, already has been approved by the state Board of Education.
Rep. Andrew Fleischman, D-West Hartford, a co-chairman of the Education Committee, told Malloy that many people have reacted positively to his vision for education reform but said teachers he has heard from object to the way the governor characterized tenure in his State of the State speech two weeks ago: "the only thing you have to do is show up for four years."
Fleischmann said teachers said that description "didn't accurately reflect their experience."
"I have no doubt that the teachers you spoke to had a different experience…" Malloy replied. "On the other hand teachers are gaining tenure with a lot less work than the teachers you spoke to. That's reality. ... We all know there are teachers in the classroom who don't belong there."
Bruce Douglas, executive director of the Capitol Region Education Council, commended the proposed changes aimed at improving teacher effectiveness. But, he cautioned against focusing predominantly on teacher evaluation.
"I contend that our teachers are over-managed and under-led." Douglas said the "efficacy of our teacher force is directly correlated with the quality of our school leaders."
George Giankakos, who teachers science to seventh- and eighth-graders at the Barnum School in Bridgeport, supported the bill, saying it would reward teachers for "excellent teaching" and provide them with "pertinent, effective, professional development."
David Telep, an East Haddam teacher, submitted testimony urging the committee to delay action on the bill. "Success or failure rests on an effective teacher evaluation system," Telep wrote. "We need more time to get this right."
Toward the end of the hearing, Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, stepped outside and said she had hoped that the views expressed at the hearing would be more collaborative. Union leaders and most of the teachers who spoke voiced strong criticism of the bill.
A week ago, the leaders of the state's teachers unions sounded somewhat positive about Malloy's reform plans.
Following the governor's State of the State speech on Feb. 8, Sharon Palmer, president of the American Federation of Teachers Connecticut, had said: "We need to see what he's talking about. We may not be that far apart."
Mary Loftus Levine, president of the Connecticut Education Association, had said, "I think we have a lot in common, but the devil is in the details."
By Tuesday, though, Palmer and Levine had had a chance to read the fine print of Malloy's 163-page bill.
Palmer said her union agrees with "smoothing out" or "shortening" the process of terminating a teacher — but she questioned whether the process, as proposed, would provide a teacher with a fair enough chance to appeal.
She acknowledged that changes are needed in the teacher evaluation system and that tenure "needs to be worked on or even eliminated or called something else." But Palmer criticized Malloy's proposal to tie teacher certification to positive job evaluations, rather than the current system based mostly on achieving academic requirements.
"Your certification is your license to teach in the entire state. … You could very well have a bad experience in one district and be perfectly fine to teach in another district," Palmer said.
Late Tuesday, Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor clarified that under the proposed certification system, it would "not be possible for tenured teachers as a result of their district evaluations to become unlicensed. … Even if a tenured teacher were to slip in his or her practices as judged by evaluators," he or she would continue to be certified."
In a four-page letter to Connecticut teachers, the CEA said Malloy's reform "disrespects the high standards that teachers meet to maintain their professional status" and would "lower standards in a long list of ways."
"Generally, he proposes allowing greater numbers of inexperienced individuals to teach our children, and he makes it easier for out-of-state teachers to migrate to Connecticut," said the letter, signed by Levine and Apruzzese.
The CEA's letter also said that the reform "crushes the teacher certification system" and would provide "an apparent incentive for Boards of Education to set lower salaries for teachers."
In response to the CEA's letter, Roy Occhiogrosso, senior adviser to Malloy, said the governor knew all along his proposal would spark a passionate debate, but as he made clear in his State of the State speech, he's not going to engage in any sort of public dialogue that is disrespectful to anyone.
After the hearing, Palmer said: "It's the opportunity for people to talk, but it's far from over. We have a long way to go."
The hearing on the proposed education reform bill is scheduled to resume Wednesday at noon.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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