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Stop blaming teachers for education problems

By TIMOTHY EGAN

Publication: The Day

Published June 27. 2014 4:00AM

Unfortunately, The Day editorial board has decided to join the rumblings of those - including the uninformed, highly political, decision of Judge Rolf M. Treu - who insist that teachers and their unions are responsible for the under-performance of American school children ("Get back to job of teacher tenure reform," June 22). Students are doing poorly, they posit, because there are so many grossly ineffective teachers who are protected by their tenure and their unions.

It is difficult to know where to begin among the many mischaracterizations and uniformed assumptions made by this editorial. I would ask the Day, Judge Treu - who ruled that California tenure laws had deprived students of a decent education and their civil rights by leaving bad teachers in place - to show us where all these incompetent, ineffective teachers are? Are there hundreds of them, thousands? Is it the assumption that since, in some communities, large numbers of students are underperforming that most of their teachers are ineffective? Who are they? What percentage does the Day think we are talking about? And is the Day insinuating that we need some kind of inquisition to rid the land of poor teachers?

And what are they so ineffective at doing? Teaching unmotivated, unprepared, sometimes unfed, uncared for, undisciplined students to take high stakes standardized tests, which the students have little motivation to take? Are the results of such tests the benchmark we use to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers? What of the student who graduates from high school with a 1.8 GPA, bad test scores, and never goes to college and yet now is gainfully employed in a trade, owns a home, pays taxes, contributes to his community - is he a school failure?

By any measure we now keep, the answer is yes, and yet it may have been school that saved that student, that taught him discipline and responsibility and a sense of community, none of which is tested for, but which contribute to his success as a citizen. But that isn't quantifiable, it can't be reduced to a set of data points.

Has it occurred to the Day's editorial board that Judge Treu's characterization of the termination process in California as so "complex, time consuming, and expensive that it could take $450,000 before its run it's course," could be easily applied to the teacher evaluation process recently delayed in Connecticut? This new evaluation tool is untested and has yet to prove it is a more effective, accurate means of determining what good teaching looks like. Tying student test scores to teacher effectiveness is dubious at best, and much of the rest of the evaluation tool is very similar to previous methods for evaluating the quality of instruction.

Has it occurred to anyone in this debate that the under-performance of American students is a highly complex issue, with an array of causes, including cultural issues, the disintegration of the family, socio-economic factors, social promotion, and abject poverty? Any of these play a far greater role in the determination of student success than the nature of their instruction. Whoever gave teachers such power in this dynamic anyway?

Yes, there is some data that suggest that great teachers can make a positive difference in a difficult student's success, but there is no correlating data that suggests that students require "super teachers" in order to learn. And, yes, some teachers are better than others, but the vast percentage of teachers working in classrooms across this nation are competent, caring professionals. It is disheartening and deeply disappointing to hear supposedly educated people reduce the crisis in our education system to scapegoating public school union teachers and the protections afforded them by tenure.

Tenure protects the most senior, most experienced and often the best teachers in our communities. Without it, school boards could eliminate higher paid experienced teachers and replace them with new teachers lower on the pay scale. There has always been a process for evaluating and terminating public school teachers, even those with tenure. There has always been a system to test new teachers and tenure always had to be earned through effective performance.

The California ruling is just another attempt at a simplistic and genuinely poorly reasoned solution to educational issues that go far beyond the quality of instruction and instructors in our schools. If somewhere in the tenure debate, someone would like to talk about paying public school teachers the kinds of salaries other similarly educated professionals earn, perhaps we could really look at eliminating protections like tenure. Until someone wants to have that discussion, lawsuits like this one in California are just more union busting and have nothing to do with improving the quality of education.

Timothy Egan is an art teacher at Montville High School, where he has taught for the past 20 years. He is also a former member of the Waterford Board of Education.

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