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OP-ED | Don’t Blame Teachers

by Sarah Darer Littman | Feb 9, 2012 11:55pm
(14) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Opinion

No one has ever accused Gov. Dannel P. Malloy of being diplomatic, and that fact was never more apparent than in the education reform portion of his State of the State speech Wednesday. One wonders if his speechwriters, in an obvious attempt to position Malloy for the national stage, realized the utter condescension they were showing to the very constituency required for success. 

If we want to improve our schools, teachers will be the ones who are battling it out on the front lines every day.

Let’s just break down the dissonance in the speech, shall we? Here’s pro-teacher Malloy:

“Connecticut will not join the states trying to demonize and antagonize their way to better results…We won’t get drawn into making a false choice between being pro-reform or pro-teacher…I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, I am both. I’m pro-teacher, as long as that doesn’t mean defending the status quo, and I’m pro-reform, as long as that isn’t simply an excuse to bash teachers.”

And finally: “I’m trying to be careful in explaining this tenure reform proposal because I know there are those who will deliberately mischaracterize it in order to scare teachers.”

But then the façade of teacher support falls apart. Because in describing tenure Malloy parrots Billionaire Boys Club school chancellor Joel Klein’s “if you have a pulse you get tenure” line:  “To earn that tenure – that job security – in today’s system basically the only thing you have to do is show up for four years. Do that, and tenure is yours.”

So despite all the “I love teachers” rhetoric, using the utmost care to explain tenure reform so it wasn’t “deliberately mischaracterized”, the governor chose to deliberately mischaracterize how teachers obtain tenure under the current system in order to play to the reform crowd and achieve his political ends.

As one teacher commented on Facebook: “REALLY? So you mean I DIDN’T actually have to teach all those classes, grade all those papers, communicate with all those parents, attend all that professional development sessions, complete a portfolio, and have all those observations and evaluations? All I had to do what SHOW UP? Why didn’t someone TELL me that?”

Blaming teachers is terribly fashionable amongst the gubernatorial set these days, as is blaming students and their families, as best (or rather worst) exemplified by the Hartford Courant’s Editorial Cartoonist Bob Englehart, who blamed “dysfunctional inner-city poor minority families” because “for the most part, losers raise losers.” But while such rhetoric might win Malloy points with Republicans and the charter school crowd, is it really going to help improve the quality of our public schools?

Just as in the private sector successful companies have great leaders, successful school reform should start at the top. I found it telling that the governor’s first stop to sell his educational reform plan was with administrators, not with teachers, and that his reform package had absolutely no reference to evaluating the people who can be responsible for the bad decision-making that impedes teacher – and thus student – success.

As the author of books for young people, and a parent of teenagers, I interact with teachers every day. I see them online, on their own time, participating in chats to further their knowledge of teaching skills and looking for innovative ways to enrich their students’ learning experiences. Yes, there are some teachers who need additional support but why are we messing with the majority of good teachers while not dealing with the administrators who are holding them back?

We’re losing gifted teachers because we’re making their day-to-day life untenable and blaming them for the ills of the entire education system. If Malloy is serious about reform, I’d like to see him pay more than lip service to being pro-teacher, and show the will to tackle school administrators in the bargain.

Sarah Darer Littman is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers and an award-winning novelist of books for teens. Long before the financial meltdown, she worked as a securities analyst and earned her MBA in Finance from the Stern School at NYU.

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(14) Comments

posted by: Terry D. Cowgill | February 10, 2012  5:00pm

Terry D. Cowgill

Sarah, you’re correct that teacher bashing gets us nowhere, but is coming out for an end to tenure, by definition, teacher bashing?

And I understand that the governor was stretching the truth when he said all you have to do to get tenure is show up for four years. He was exaggerating for effect.

But how many probationary teachers are denied tenure? Not many. The fact is that sometimes teachers are to blame and the governor is right to focus on improving the quality of instruction in the classroom and on removing the barriers to that goal.

Most of our educational problems have more to do with the disintegration of the family—a problem about which the state can do little. But inside the school it has been demonstrated over and over that the single most important factor in education is a great teacher in every classroom. We clearly don’t have that now and I applaud the governor for starting a dialogue.

posted by: saramerica | February 11, 2012  6:35am

saramerica

Could you elaborate on what you mean when you say: “most of our education problems have more to do with the disintegration of the family - a problem about which the state can do little”?

posted by: malvi | February 11, 2012  10:21am

I agree our schools are a mess!!! And that some teachers do not belong in the classroom - but the MAJORITY of the teachers I have ever known (that is many) are VERY DEDICATED professionals who invest much personal treasure (money and love) on their students. If we want to reform education take the politicians, the union, and the bureaucrats out of the mix, form a coalition of parents, teachers, and education experts, engage successful schools in the discussion and shape our schools accordingly.

posted by: Terry D. Cowgill | February 11, 2012  12:58pm

Terry D. Cowgill

Sarah, I’m talking about a culture that doesn’t really value learning—a culture in which too many parents don’t give a great deal of thought to what their kids are doing at school, as long as the kids are out of their hair.

I’m talking about kids growing up without fathers, and mothers who are so overwhelmed that they are either unable or unwilling to adequately care for their children. I’m talking about a culture in which drugs are the norm rather than the exception. A culture that values acquisition of goods over acquisition of knowledge.

In other words, the usual social pathologies.

posted by: Mall-oy | February 12, 2012  11:17am

Terry, Assuming that what you say in your Feb. 11 comment is true, how do you expect teachers to instill in parents the ability to value the acquisition of knowledge?  The problems you are mentioning can be dealt with by the state.  The state has to enact laws that make parents accountable for their children’s education.  Right now, all parents have to do to avoid breaking the law is to make sure that their kids do indeed attend school.  Talk about all you have to do is show up.  A point Sarah makes in her article is about administrators keeping teachers back.  I would like to see people in the know writing about the lack of quality administrators.  When the story about the bonuses that were given to the bureaucrats at the Hartford Board of Education broke out, the mayor requested an investigation in the matter.  What became of it?  It seems the story was buried.  Talk about resources that could be used in the classroom.  Yes, teacher bashing will get us nowhere.  Why is it still going on?

posted by: Reasonable | February 12, 2012  2:52pm

Sarah: You coined it right,  Gov. Malloy “was politically correct” for his benefit only.

posted by: Terry D. Cowgill | February 12, 2012  3:01pm

Terry D. Cowgill

Mall-0y, I guess you have greater faith in the government to address social pathologies than I do. And I certainly don’t, in your words, “expect teachers to instill in parents the ability to value the acquisition of knowledge.” But the government CAN address the quality of instruction in the classroom.

I don’t know about you, but I have children in public schools and was a teacher myself for 13 years, so I’m not some layman shooting my mouth off.

There are some great people manning the classrooms (I know; I’ve worked with dozens over the years), but there are also plenty who sleepwalk through their entire days.

However, perhaps the biggest problem is teachers who start out great, pass through their probationary periods and get tenure, but then become burned out after several years. Unfortunately, instead of changing careers, most of the burned out teachers stay in the classroom—either because they can or because they aren’t really trained to do anything else. Students and families then become the losers.

I did become burned out by teaching. It can be a monstrously difficult and stressful job. But I got out of the classroom and found something else to do.

I would ask you one final question: what defines teacher bashing? Is wanting an overhaul of the tenure system, by definition, teacher bashing? If so, then you have constructed an air-tight argument: if you don’t continue to give me what I want, then you must hate me.

posted by: Mall-oy | February 12, 2012  4:01pm

It’s Mall-oy not Mall-0y.
As long as people like the governor and yourself make it sound like the bad teacher problem is so wide spread that it is going to be the only issue to tackle in order to fix the schools, it is teacher bashing.

posted by: saramerica | February 13, 2012  8:49am

saramerica

Firstly, how is exaggerating for effect useful and is demeaning the process teachers have to go through (portfolios, evaluations, etc) but characterizing it as “just showing up” useful? How is that showing respect for teachers?  Secondly, if probationary teachers who aren’t up to snuff aren’t denied tenure is that their fault? I would submit to you that it is the fault of the ADMINISTRATORS. They are the ones supposedly leading the school and making executive judgements about staffing. Four years is a long time to make a judgment about someone’s suitability for a position , and if they haven’t figured it out by then, or had the guts to deal with an incompetent employee,  that’s a bad manager, in my book.

As for single parents, you’re probably well aware you’re pushing a button here, but let’s consider how government policies on a national and state level are affecting them when it comes to supporting their ability to foster their children’s love of learning. Cutting library funding, so less access to books, computers. Cutting funding for literary program like Reading is Fundamental. Cutting funding for after school programs. Cutting funding for school librarians, so some schools have to share or don’t have them. I could go on.

And the answer, according to the geniuses? More testing. Instead of giving the kids REAL BOOKS, giving them “Leveled Readers” bought at great expense because they come with pre-printed worksheet practice test questions. Great. Governor Malloy wants to help reform the education system to give employers workers. That’s great if they want test-taking drones. If they want intelligent critical thinkers we’re going down the wrong path.

posted by: Terry D. Cowgill | February 13, 2012  10:12am

Terry D. Cowgill

Sarah, you’re correct that often administrators are at fault. But, unlike teachers, administrators’ contracts aren’t automatically renewed. The can be let go after two or three years (and often are).

So who’s to blame for bad administrators? I suppose we could go up the food chain to the boards of ed that hire them—or the schools of education that train them.

I commend you for not jumping to the conclusion that I think all single parents are doing a bad job. You obviously are very involved but, as you pointed out, not all single parents have your resources.

As for Malloy demeaning teachers with his comments and proposals, my wife is a public school teacher and if I thought she was being demeaned by his words, then I would take offense.

posted by: GoatBoyPHD | February 13, 2012  10:36am

GoatBoyPHD

Like Terry I’ve taught and believe the cradle-to-grave employment mentality needs to go. I like the 5-year contract proposal.

I remember one inner city teachers’ lounge in particular: most of the students were ‘pond scum’ and the arrest blotter was called the ‘alumni news’ and notable ‘alumni’ (usually drop outs from the blotter) were posted on the internal bulletin board for yucks.

That’s reality for the old and jaded.

There’s no easy answers but pretending the teachers union will generate any helpful solutions is foolish. It isn’t their job. It isn’t their mission statement.

Part of the problem is simple: as long as teacher insist on a one-size-fits-all solution then some babies wll get thrown out with the bath water.


People who confuse the union with good teaching are the same people who confuse unions with great autos. Union workers can manufacture a great auto. It doesn’t mean they will or do so on a reasonable budget. There’s never been a union strike over the quality of the product being delivered or lowering consumer costs to get the same job done more efficiently.

posted by: saramerica | February 13, 2012  10:52am

saramerica

Well, Boards of Ed, hahahaha. After watching the circus that’s been going on here in Greenwich with a completely dysfunctional BOE and rotating door of School Supers, I think we need training and guidelines for the BOE as well. Seriously, it weren’t a conflict of interest w/columnist gig I’d be tempted to run.

What I also see in this neck of the woods are parents who value weighted GPAs over being a well-rounded student. I wrote my college essay on how “a child is not a vase to be filled but a fire to be lit.” Unfortunately what I see is a system moving more and more towards the “vase to be filled” ethos.

posted by: PaulW | February 13, 2012  12:06pm

Until we start to regionalize, I think all this is pretty meaningless.

posted by: EdLeadershipcrisis | February 14, 2012  10:34am

Administrators come from the teacher pipeline - you’re essentially talking about the same pool of people - those middle of the pack high schoolers that went to teacher education while the top of the class went to study business, engineering or pre-professional liberal arts (Pre-law pre med, etc).  When there are too few of the best and brightest in the profession to start with, what do you expect of the leadership pool?  And stop blaming families, Terry. Research is overwhelming that high quality teaching mitigates largely against poor home situations.  It is only when teaching is mediocre or bad when the home life problems get compounded in school.
Sara and Terry are deflecting the blame away from the things we have the most control over.  The public education system that was stagnant from the 70s to the 2000s while the world changed around them.  Blame falls largely on the professionals that kept on teaching and leading in schools, and those training institutions that didn’t prepare them, for a changing child.  While lawyers, doctors, pharmacists, actuaries, CPAs and others raised their own bars toward certifications and their overall skill sets, the business of schools stayed the same. We can only control what we can control, and teacher unions can largely control the expectations and development of their work force through supporting tough entry standards and expectations for continuous mastery of new skills (imagine a pharmacist who did the same thing the same way as ten or twenty years ago?). Unions have always balked at tougher standards without being bought off - and mediocrity is what resulted.