Principals prove challenges can be overcome

The two unions representing public school teachers in the state continue to oppose Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's proposal seeking to link obtaining and maintaining tenure to performance. Union lobbyists persuaded the Education Committee to strip that provision, and any connection between performance evaluations and compensation, from the bill. Gov. Malloy now faces a big challenge in trying to get it reinserted in some fashion.

Union leaders say among their concerns is their belief that many principals are not prepared to evaluate teachers. With careers on the line, teachers say they cannot risk arbitrary and personality-tainted evaluation processes.

That's a reasonable concern, but my recent attendance at a forum sponsored by the Southeastern Connecticut Chapter of the League of Women Voters convinced me it can be overcome.

If given the authority, skilled principals, using an evaluation process understood by all, can set reasonable expectations, fairly assess teacher effectiveness, provide the opportunity for improvement and, when that improvement is lacking, remove teachers who do not make the grade.

The forum held last Monday at the Waterford Public Library focused on the primary problem that the governor's education reform package seeks to address - the yawning gap between the poor academic performance seen in urban and other poor school districts as compared with the state's more affluent suburban schools.

Speaking at the forum were administrators confronting that challenge daily. James Mitchell, former Groton superintendent, now works for the state Department of Education as a liaison to struggling school districts, including Norwich and New London. Also on the panel were Alison Ryan, principal of New London's Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School and Christie Gilluly, principal of Norwich's John B. Stanton Elementary School. In both schools minority students - black, Hispanic and, in Stanton's case, Asian - are the majority. And most students in the two schools qualify for free or reduced lunches. In other words, they come from poor families.

A fourth panelist was Principal Valerie Nelson of Groton's Charles Barnum Elementary School. Most of the students in that school come from Navy families associated with the submarine base, providing the additional challenge of a constant turnover in school population when the Navy reassigns moms or dads.

Getting parents involved with their new, and often temporary school, has been a key component to success, said Nelson. So too has been consistent positive re-enforcement when students achieve academic goals. Remarkably, every student at Barnum reached proficiency in the math section of the Connecticut Mastery Test last year, while 92 percent were deemed proficient in reading.

Mitchell made the salient point that it is not enough to provide explanations why poorer students often underperform compared to their grade-level peers in suburbia. Parents struggling to get by with multiple jobs and unattractive work hours may not have the time to pay attention to stressing academics at home. In other cases, dependence on public assistance may have sapped initiative and left a home without the proper perspective on the importance of education. Poverty is often a close cousin to family dysfunction, substance abuse, domestic violence and a lack of familial security. None of that is conducive to learning or being prepared to learn.

"But our challenge, our job, is to take those students, come as they are, and help them improve to the next level," Mitchell said.

Principal Gilluly said at Stanton the emphasis is on short term goals - steady improvement in the number of words that a student can read and comprehend in a minute; or continued progress in understanding increasingly complex math equations. Progress is constantly monitored, with students excited to reach one goal and challenged to take on the next. In the process, they learn.

"We try to present a clear challenge and make it exciting. Sometimes this becomes our competitive sport," said Gilluly.

Progress among classrooms is also compared, providing a measuring stick for how teachers compare with their peers. This can be a signal to Gilluly whether intervention is necessary to address why a class, and teacher, are falling short.

At Bennie Dover, Principal Ryan said a relatively new teacher evaluation plan has effectively set a clear standard for teacher performance expectations. Teacher/coaches work to assure teachers are utilizing best practices in the classroom.

"But there is a line in the sand, these are children's lives," said Ryan. "Some teachers have said, this is not for me."

In the past two years, she estimated one-quarter of the school's teachers have left.

"We had to change," Ryan told the audience.

That's a message the politicians and leaders of the teacher unions need to hear. Things have to change, on that everyone should be able to agree. And certainly improved teacher performance is part of the solution. Providing assurances that there is a fair evaluation system and adequate training of principals to utilize it effectively may provide the confidence teachers need to get on board.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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