What I've learned in my 40 years of public school teaching and leadership is that caring is the hallmark of great teachers and leaders. Research shows that inner-city students achieve at higher levels with teachers they perceive care about them.
A few years ago, I watched Tony Mullen, a teacher in Greenwich, and his students interact comfortably. One girl at the alternative high school where he taught was an elective mute — she spoke to no one. But she made a point of whispering to me, "Mr. Mullen is a good guy. He cares."
Tony, who became the 2009 Connecticut and National Teacher of the Year, reviews each student's file. He uses students' backgrounds to encourage them to succeed. He refuses to let their challenging pasts harm their futures. His students and their parents cry when describing how he has changed their lives.
Tony, like other great teachers, finds the "hook" to propel students to achieve beyond their expectations. These teachers focus on students as individuals with unique strengths that need to be nurtured and celebrated — strengths that may or may not be readily assessed through standardized pencil-and-paper tests. The students of these teachers achieve in ways that tap their unique interests, passions and curiosities.
Recently, I watched hours of testimony about the comprehensive education reforms proposed by Gov.Dannel P. Malloyand Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor. The most compelling statements were those by students who had — or did not have — teachers like Tony.
The important question became clear: How do we get a Tony Mullen into every Connecticut classroom? Reforms should pave the way for our children, no matter their Zip code, to consistently have teachers who lead them to:
• Explore, define and solve complex problems that are important to them and the community.
• Pose and pursue substantive questions that tap their unique passions and curiosities.
• Generate innovative, creative ideas and solutions to problems.
• Communicate effectively for a given purpose, including advocating for ideas, causes and actions.
• Respond to failures and successes with reflection and resilience.
• Collaborate with others to produce work and/or heightened understanding.
• Recognize, respect and honor other cultural contexts and points of view.
• Conduct themselves in an ethical and responsible manner.
• Do well on standardized tests (as a secondary outcome of great teaching).
Will the governor's comprehensive package of reforms accomplish these purposes?
Most of the reforms, if implemented well, have the potential to change all our kids' lives; some are better than others. The best is the expansion of early childhood programs and the development of a system to help parents know if a program is high quality.
If this were funded to serve all 3- and 4-year-old at-risk children, not just 500 more of them, Connecticut would leap ahead in decreasing the achievement gap between poor and wealthier students. It is the major proposal in this package that has been extensively researched and proved effective.
The reform I worry about is the one that tightly connects students' scores on standardized tests with teachers' evaluations, certification and salaries. We surely need a way to more easily remove teachers who are not performing well. I fear, however, there will be unintended consequences of this proposal. More teachers will "freeze," closing their doors in order to ensure that kids do well on tests, fearing that the scores could jeopardize their jobs.
No more professional learning communities, no more willingness to take those challenged and challenging kids who might bring down their students' scores, their evaluations, their certifications and their salaries. But sadly, more cheating.
Unintended consequences of the questionable requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act — the narrowing of the curriculum and fierce focus on reading, writing and math to the exclusion of subjects that can fuel a child's intellectual fire — resulted in poorer education for our children.
High-stakes testing under this proposal will have even higher stakes — with the consequences set solely on educators' shoulders. Instead, accountability must rest with everyone — students, parents, teachers, administrators, school boards and communities. Each has a crucial role to play in ensuring that all children achieve.
To refine this proposal we should convene the state's cadre of great teachers — not the unions, not the other alphabet-soup education groups, not the business people, but the individual great educators — and ask them what should be done. Incorporating their advice into this solid package is imperative; it will enhance the possibility that these reforms will improve our children's lives.
Betty J. Sternberg is the former Connecticut commissioner of education and Greenwich superintendent of schools. She is currently professor of educational leadership at Central Connecticut State University.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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