Don't scapegoat teachers
If there is one thing that gets Mary Loftus Levine steamed it's the perception that most of the problems with the Connecticut education system, and with American public education generally, can be attributed to bad teachers.
"Teachers are facing demonization," Levine told me when we recently sat down. "It's not fair, it's not accurate and it's not going to fix the real problems."
Levine is a lifelong teacher herself and currently the executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, the largest teachers' union in the state with about 43,000 members.
Before dismissing Levine's comments as the actions of a union boss out to protect the membership, consider the recent proposal put forth by the CEA. It would streamline the process for dismissing ineffective teachers. The proposals the union offers would shorten by a third the dismissal process, from 120 days to about 85. It calls for one arbitrator instead of the current costly and cumbersome three.
But the union also wants to assure school systems have clear and consistent evaluation policies, which take into account multiple indicators of academic growth, not just test scores. They want plans in place to help underperforming teachers improve. And they want to assure teachers have adequate protection from retaliation because of personal or political reasons.
Has tenure and complicated dismissal procedures protected poor performing teachers? Absolutely. Do the proposals put forth by CEA go far enough in making sure bad teachers can be rooted out? Maybe not, but they certainly appear to be a good-faith effort to start a discussion about fair and effective methods for assuring teacher accountability.
I'd have to agree with Levine that it is a mistake to scapegoat teachers as the cause of what ails our education system, particularly in Connecticut, where the gap in educational achievement between urban students and their suburban counterparts is so massive.
Simply blaming teachers lets parents who do not make education a priority in the home off easy. It masks the reality that children growing up in wealthier suburban towns begin their educational journey in kindergarten so much better prepared than kids in the cities and in some poor, rural communities. Saying it's the teachers fault ignores the lack of discipline and respect from students that those teachers often have to deal with; values that can only be successfully engrained if reinforced in the home.
The challenges facing our public education system are myriad, the difficulty of rooting out poor teachers among them. But it's hardly the biggest problem, not even close.
Paul Choiniere is editorial page editor.