Superstar school reformers went toe to toe with a national teachers' union leader in a debate hosted by the Connecticut Forum at the Bushnell Thursday night over how to improve schools and evaluate teachers.
Before a sold-out crowd of 2,800 at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, Joel I. Klein, who has help turn around New York City schools, movie director Davis Guggenheim and others tried to pinpoint why the United States education has stagnated and the best ways to improve it.
The figures are startling: 68 percent of the nation's eighth-graders can't read at grade level, one-third of students drop out of school and the United States education has fallen back to the middle of the pack compared to other industrialized nations.
The forum, "Our Great Education Challenge" couldn't have been more more timely, with public school reform dominating headlines with President Barack Obama's Race to the Top competition and the release of Guggenheim's documentary, "Waiting for Superman," which shows how American public education is failing its children.
Closer to home, Connecticut passed its own school reform legislation this spring, hoping that it will improve schools and close the state's academic achievement gap, the largest in the nation.
Klein, who resigned Tuesday after eight years as chancellor of New York City's schools, kicked off the evening by criticizing teacher unions.
"The problem is the education system we have is for the benefit of adults and not for the benefit of the children," Klein said.
For example, he said, the school system is short on math and science teachers because they can get better paying jobs elsewhere. To attract these teachers, he wanted to be able to pay them more, but the teachers' union contract would not allow him to pay certain teachers more.
"We reward length of service rather than excellence," he said.
Lily Eskelsen, vice president of the National Education Association, said that teachers do want to be recognized for excellence, but she is concerned about simply measuring teacher performance by student test scores. She said that teachers should be given more autonomy to identify the problems in their own schools and come up with creative solutions to fix them.
Klein agreed that it is silly to micromanage teachers, but said that test skills are still relevant to determine if a teacher is helping a student learn and progress. And he noted that there are other ways to evaluate teachers, such as peer reviews and supervisory reviews.
He criticized the NEA for not coming forward with any proposals for evaluating teachers. "If you don't like test scores, come up with something better," he said.
"There is not a single person in this audience who would allow me to randomly assign their children to a Hartford public school," he added. "So whose children should go to the schools we would not want our kids to go to?"
Asked whether a longer school day or longer school year would help address the problem, Deborah Gist, Rhode Island Commissioner of Education, said she sees so much mediocrity in schools now that she is not sure that extending the school day would help. It would just mean students would get more mediocre instruction, she said.
She and others told of teachers unwilling to come in to work on Saturdays or teachers who stay late at work being told by their unions not to do so.
Eskelsen said that many school districts do not operate that way and that many are doing innovate things in their schools.
One of the most interesting moments of the night came before the forum itself when several high school students from throughout the region got a chance to ask questions of the panelists at a small "press conference" at the Hartford Marriott Downtown.
After the panel fielded several questions, Gist turned the tables on the students and asked them for their advice for improving the nation's schools.
Several students suggested moving away from test scores and instead focusing on learning, bonding with students and rewarding students who strive for academic excellence.
"It's not just about teaching us what's on the test," said Lexie Gruber, who attends Hall High School in West Hartford.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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