Top teacher talks about masks, standardized testing
It is easy to stereotype labor leaders in the teacher unions as only interested in protecting teachers whether they are bad, good or indifferent. But Kate Dias, the relatively new president of the Connecticut Education Association, spent most of a nearly 90-minute interview with our editorial board talking about students.
She was bubbling with enthusiasm, optimistic that this will be a much better year for our schools, and adamant that providing teachers financial security and the resources they need is in the best interest of the students.
Dias began her term on July 15 and, shortly after, her office was calling about a meeting with the board.
Before taking the full-time job as CEA president, Dias was a Manchester High School math teacher, president of the Manchester Education Association, and served on the union’s board of directors. She also taught at Manchester Community College.
Dias said teachers are in a far different position than when the COVID-19 outbreak began. Then there was much uncertainty about the virus and no vaccine. Many teachers were reluctant to be in the classrooms and were left to struggle with a remote-learning approach for which they had little or no preparation.
The vast majority of teachers, she said, are excited about the return to the classroom.
“Were we all hoping that we would be at the point where we didn’t have to wear masks? Yes, of course. It’s disappointing. But with the delta variant, with the younger students unable to get vaccinated, and with the vaccine participation even among the older kids not that high, it was the right thing to do,” she said.
And, despite the inconveniences — “it can be a littler harder to hear them, or for them to hear us” — students largely take the mask wearing in stride and learning gets done, she said.
Teachers and students will need time to work back in routines after such a long period of disruptions for many school systems. There will be much catching up to do and the teaching challenges will be significant, Dias said.
At the time of our conversation last Tuesday, there were no reports about the anger over mask wearing that had been seen at school board meetings spilling into school settings. But Joslyn DeLancey, the newly elected CEA vice president, said that possibility is always somewhere in the back of teachers’ minds, along with the potential for mass shootings. It is an unfortunate reality of the day and age. You try to be prepared for such possibilities, mentally compartmentalize it, then get about the job of teaching, she said.
The union leaders were adamant that standardized testing has largely been a failure. It labels students, it labels schools and school systems, but it does not lead to improved student performance. Instead, it may detract from it, both said, as teachers are forced to teach to the test and vitally important lessons to be learned about communication, overcoming adversity, and cooperation suffer.
I pressed her with the argument that standardized testing can identify underperforming teachers. Dias countered, persuasively, that there are far better ways to evaluate teacher effectiveness such as observation in the classroom and measurement against cohorts.
The CEA president expressed frustration that teachers have not been adequately involved in assessing how to best use $1.1 billion in American Rescue Plan funds that Connecticut is receiving for education. One priority, Dias said, should be providing schools with modern HVAC systems so that kids are not forced to learn in sweltering or frigid classrooms.
She noted there are state temperature standards for pet stores, but not for classrooms. Wow, talk about misplaced priorities.
Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.