'Education reform' dies, which is just as well

Editor's note: Due to a software formatting error, this commentary originally appeared online as a Day editorial. The commentary was written by Chris Powell of the Journal Inquirer and does not reflect the opinions of The Day newspaper. We apologize for any confusion the error caused.

So much for "education reform" in Connecticut. It's too much for teachers and their unions and, since this is a gubernatorial election year, it is now too much for politicians too. So Governor Malloy has decided to slow it all down - the intensified evaluations of teachers, the new standardized testing of students that was to become part of those evaluations, and the implementation of the "Common Core" curriculum.

It's not just the political wariness of the governor, a Democrat. Leaders of the Republican minority in the General Assembly were about to propose the same retreat in the hope of ingratiating themselves with the teachers, Connecticut's most influential and pernicious special interest - - except for maybe the liquor stores.

While the political cravenness of it all is instructive, the policy change doesn't really matter much, since the big problem with education in Connecticut and elsewhere never has been teacher evaluation, deficient as it has been, and the tenure that mediocre teachers have been given. The big problem with education has been the long decline not in the caliber of teachers but the caliber of students.

An essay written by a middle school teacher in West Hartford, Elizabeth A. Natale, published two weeks ago in the Hartford Courant and headlined "Why I Want to Give Up Teaching," has become a sensation without being fully understood. While Natale complained about the new administrative demands on teachers, she also cited the unpreparedness of students. Similarly, in a television interview Natale cited the "issues" students bring to school that become classroom problems.

Two years ago, as the governor began pressing for more serious evaluation of teachers, a much more pointed commentary along these lines was written by a Bridgeport middle school teacher, Chris Kinsley, and published in the Connecticut Post. Kinsley's commentary also complained about linking teacher evaluation to student performance but, coming from gritty Bridgeport rather than tony West Hartford, the center of Connecticut's government class, it was largely ignored.

Kinsley wrote: "Whose job is it to make an appointment with his child's teacher when he receives a midterm report that states that his child is failing? Whose job is it to teach his child to be respectful to other students, teachers, and staff at school? Whose job is it to give his children the incentive to educate themselves and take advantage of what is offered to be learned - not just academics, but life skills? ... How many ankle bracelets are there in any of those suburban schools? I had four in one of my classes last year. How much time does one disruptive student take away from all the other students who want to learn? ... That is a bigger problem than tenure."

That is, the education problem in Connecticut has never really been education at all but rather social disintegration.

While teachers and their unions were happy not to talk about this for decades as long as it did not threaten their job security, at least it is starting to come out now.

But will elected officials pick up on the policy implications or act only to protect themselves politically?

Connecticut long has ignored the results and policy implications of its standardized educational tests. In many school systems half the students or more fail to perform at grade level but are promoted anyway, the policy premise being that it is better to pretend that kids are educated than to enforce any standards and tell the truth by not graduating them.

For any policy makers willing to get past the self-servingness of the teachers' complaints, the compelling questions are simple: Are there ever-more kids coming to school unprepared or unwilling to learn or emotionally disturbed? Are there ever-more kids who are behavior problems in school? Are there ever-more kids without parents? And if so, why?


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