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Teachers' Anger Distorts Goals, Provisions Of Education Reform

By Rick Green

March 16, 2012

How mad are some teachers at Gov. Malloy?

State cops flanked the stage and auditorium aisles when Malloy spoke in Windham the other night after both the Senate president and the lieutenant governor took pains to remind the audience about grade-school decorum. A town meeting in New Haven dissolved at times into heckling and shouting. In Windham, a teacher derided Malloy's education plan as "utterly fraudulent" to wild applause.

Malloy would be wise to be sensitive to the teachers' deeply felt, if misplaced, anger toward his reform package. What's more complicated is how some teachers, vitally important to education reform, have become so worked up.

For starters, Gov. Malloy is still trying to make up for suggesting months ago that earning tenure was akin to merely showing up for work. But much of all this is political theater. For example, one of the most contentious issues, linking teacher evaluation to student performance and tenure, has already been agreed to, in principle, by the American Federation of Teachers and the Connecticut Education Association.

CEA Executive Director Mary Loftus Levine told me that "teachers don't like the way things are now either. They are sick of being blamed for all the problems.''

Although the union continues to meet privately and negotiate with legislative leaders and the Malloy administration, the CEA in contrast to the AFT has told its members the governor's plan is part of a "reform environment" where "a well-funded and coordinated strategy to eliminate unions" around the country is "now hitting Connecticut." In an internal PowerPoint presentation, the union warns that Malloy's bill "will impact every public school teacher's" certification, evaluation, working conditions and salary. "We need teachers to speak up against this bill."

Looking over the CEA's explanation to its members, you would think this was Wisconsin and not a state where the governor has proposed that no school districts will receive reductions in education money. It's no surprise that Malloy told me Thursday that "this anger has been purposely stoked."

While education spending is getting hammered around the country, Malloy has proposed a $130 million increase, with more support for pre-kindergarten, charter schools, the state's neediest districts in addition to the changes in teacher tenure, raising teacher preparation standards and revising certification rules.

For the job protection provision enjoyed by public school teachers known as tenure, the governor and education Commissioner Stefan Pryor want changes made. A portion of a teacher's evaluation just under one-quarter would be based on how well students are learning as measured by state standardized tests. Other factors, such as parent and student feedback and classroom observation, would also be part of the process.

Ineffective teachers would be moved off the job faster. Teachers would be expected to continue to demonstrate "exemplary" or "proficient" performance.

This idea of linking teacher evaluation to student performance isn't Malloy's. It comes from President Obama, whose Race to the Top initiative rewards states that link teacher evaluation with student performance. Connecticut, as we all know, has twice failed to win Race to the Top money, largely because of this. About half of the states have made this change and a dozen, including Rhode Island and New York, can dismiss teachers based on teacher evaluation.

Many union members still don't like this idea, despite the fact that it came after months of negotiation and that it's part of a nationwide reform movement.

One teacher I spoke with the other night, Jeannette Picard, who teaches in Lebanon, told me the governor's reform efforts are "punitive" and a sign of the governor's lack of respect for educators.

"Teachers are very dedicated," she said. "We don't do this for the reason other people pick their careers. We do this because of our dedication to children."

Another frequent and accurate comment is that poverty is the real problem. Nobody, including Malloy, is debating that point. Schools still have a job to do until we agree on dramatic changes in our tax structure.

"How dare you evaluate the outcomes of kids in this district against the kids in Glastonbury or the kids in Avon,'' Kathy Koljian, a Windham High School teacher, told me. (Actually, that's not the plan: Teachers would be evaluated based on how much students learn.)

"This has been crammed down our throats,'' Koljian said. "This reform is very much top-down, it's not grass- roots."

She's right about that. We've finally got a governor who doesn't worry much about upsetting people and who is willing to make the sort of reforms others have already embraced all across the country. Change is coming and it's from the top.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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