Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Retreat From Education Reform

"We have a very fundamental disagreement here. You see this is what happens when you rush. …When you are trying to fly the plane and build it at the same time … you move too quickly, and you end up with controversies” -- Sharon Palmer, president of the American Federation of Teachers Connecticut.

Hours after a USA Today columnist draped around Governor Dannel Malloy’s shoulders the mantle of Roger Sherman, the Connecticut delegate to the Constitutional Convention responsible for offering the “Great Compromise” that unified the convention and paved the way to a ratification of the U.S. Constitution, a wing came off Mr. Malloy’s educational reform plane.

“This month,” USA Today proclaimed, “Connecticut Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy signed into law a compromise bill that could be a blueprint for meaningful education reform in the other 49 states. The bill, which passed with near-unanimous support from Republicans and Democrats, is a broad attack on the state's troubled public schools… Recognizing the dire consequences of failing to fix this problem, the governor and legislators overcame partisan bickering and produced a law that also won the backing of public school administrators and teachers' unions.”

The Palmer quote above may be found in a story titled, ominously, “Teacher Evaluations: January's Dream Agreement Now On The Rocks: Misunderstanding On Key Issue Of Student Test Scores.”

The January “Dream Agreement” is the same “Great Compromise”tooted in the USA Today opinion piece.

The sticking point for teachers and unions concerns the percentage of a teacher's evaluation that would be based on students' performance on tests. Last February, both sides appeared to agree that 45 percent of the evaluation was to be based on "multiple student learning indicators," and half of that measure was to be based on standardized test scores. The present disagreement centers on the remaining 22.5 percent. Teacher unions now insist that this portion of the evaluation should include measures of student performance other than tests, while representatives of school administrators and superintendents insist that this portion of the teacher evaluations could include tests.

This management-labor disagreement -- which would profoundly affect the education reforms proposed by Mr. Malloy, reducing by a considerable amount the role played in education reform by measurable objective data –apparently surfaced only recently within the state's Performance Evaluation Advisory Council, the group charged with producing a compromise plan between teachers and administrators that would implement the reforms Mr. Malloy has insisted are necessary to reduce Connecticut’s first in the nation education gap between performing and non-performing public schools.

The real rift here involves the usual management-worker tug of war: When Mr. Malloy first unscrolled his reforms, his proposed changes seemed to hold out the promise of greater management control over the hiring of good teachers and the firing of inadequate teachers by principals and superintendents. Teacher evaluations linked to student performance, a measurable datum, along with tenure linked to teacher evaluations, would give school managers greater control over the educational product in under-performing public schools.

That lofty ambition soon crashed into a wall of union opposition. Everywhere Mr. Malloy wentto sell his reforms to the real customers of public education – the tax paying publicand the parents of students in under-performing schools, for many years the victims of an inadequate public school education – the governor met with an unbendable opposition on the part of teachers, their union leaders and the usual culprits in the media and academia, all of whom are heavily invested in the maintenance of the status quo.

And the end result of all the palavering is: Non performing schools will receive more money; the schooling net, now approaching cradle to grave union directed “education,” will embrace more students, leading to the hiring of more teachers; teacher evaluations have been rolled back; the coupling of employment and performance as measured by objective data has been loosened; and the state a few days ago was graced with the presence of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who granted Connecticut a waiver from the rigors of the federal No Child Left Behind requirements during the 2013-14 school year.

One news report noted: “Calling the state's evaluation framework ‘meaningful’, Duncan did not weigh in on how much of a teachers' grade should be tied to standardized tests.”

Of course he didn’t. That matter is on the point of being decided by union muscle. Why should politicians intervene vigorously on behalf of students in the state who are receiving a below par education? According to recent figures, one in five Connecticut high school students failed to graduate on time or at all; and of high school students who graduated in 2004, just two in five had earned a degree or certificate from college six years out. Why destroy the fantasy that the majority of teacher evaluations will in any firm sense be coupled to student performance?

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