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OP-ED | Fox Knocking on Henhouse Door

by | Oct 6, 2011 6:52pm
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Posted to: Opinion

Who should decide whether a teaching candidate is professionally fit to preside over a classroom in Connecticut’s public schools?

That question could spark a contentious debate as Connecticut’s largest teachers’ union makes its case that the state should get out of the business of setting certification and ethical standards and turn it over to teachers themselves.

The General Assembly’s Program Review and Investigations Committee (PRI) is currently looking   at how teaching standards should be determined. As you might expect, the Connecticut Education Association likes the idea of having its own members determine standards while the state Department of Education is dead-set against it.

In assessing this idea, the important first question is: Why do we even need such a change in the first place? Mary Loftus Levine, the executive director of the 41,000-member CEA, told CT Mirror, “You’ll find teachers are harder on other teachers than anyone else will ever be because they know the job. This will elevate the profession.”

CEA President Phil Apruzzese added that “our members … want a voice in decision-making through a new board because they know firsthand what it takes to deliver excellent teaching and learning, and they want to be accountable for excellence.”

Wait a second. CEA members want to determine standards for the profession because “they want to be accountable?” If that’s true, then teachers must be saints. In any other field, organized workers who want to set their own standards would be called self-interested.

Meanwhile, at my local regional high school, Nur Abdulhayoglu, president of the Housatonic Valley Regional Faculty Association, told me that while she is unfamiliar with the specifics of the proposal before PRI, “it would make sense to me that the oversight of licensing of any group of professionals be carried out by individuals who have been esteemed members of that profession.

“I would not think that anyone would believe that the licensing of medical doctors should be determined by attorneys, for instance, since they do not have knowledge of the ins-and-outs of what makes an excellent practitioner in the medical field.”

She’s right. It goes without saying that educationally savvy people should set the bar for educator standards. However, those standards should not be set by a panel comprised primarily of members who all belong to the largest teachers union in the state. Such is not the case with the licensing of doctors and lawyers, few of whom are represented by labor unions.

As surely as the apple caromed off of Newton’s head, it’s an immutable law of physics that labor unions work continually to expand their power and numbers. It’s not clear yet who would appoint the members of the proposed professional standards board. But if the CEA effectively becomes the gatekeeper of its members’ profession, it could erect barriers to teaching that favor the union, or enact ethical standards that make it even more difficult to remove chronically underperforming or ethically challenged teachers from the classroom.

Craig Toensing, a retired banker who served on the State Board of Education for 12 years and chaired it from 1995 to 2005, said in an email that he, too, was unaquainted with the details of the initiative the PRI was considering. But he could “see why [the CEA] would be in favor of this proposal.”

“A panel of educators — read ‘teachers’ — setting licensing standards for themselves does not make good sense. Connecticut has one of the best sets of standards of licensing for teachers in the nation and as a result has one of the finest teacher corps. Those standards have come from the State Board of Education and to change that process to the one proposed may well weaken our strong system.”

A retired Connecticut superintendent with more than 20 years experience communicated with me on condition of anonymity. He was particularly concerned with having union members set ethical standards.

“I am reminded that every time I have been involved in trying to terminate or otherwise remove a poor teacher, the matter has been completely stonewalled by the CEA.”

If CEA members dominated licensing and ethical standards, the retired superintendent added, it “virtually guarantees that they will be the CEA’s standards. Generally speaking, that would mean that everything would be done to provide greater job security for its members and higher pay as well.”

I used to work as a rank-and-file teacher, yet in this matter I have to take the side of those at the top end of the hierarchy. That said, I’ve never been a big fan of oppressive regulatory barriers to the profession anyway.

Over the years, state licensing standards have typically emphasized pedagogy over content. But all the methods and adolescent psychology courses in the world won’t make you a good teacher unless you a) love working with children b) know your subject inside-and-out c) are passionate about it and d) have a dynamic personality. I’d say at least two of those four qualities are almost impossible to instill in a teaching candidate. You either love kids and have an engaging demeanor or you don’t.

For 12 years, I taught in private schools, where collective bargaining and certified teachers are rare. Many independent schools err on the side of not providing enough preparation for their new hires. Some don’t even require any form of student teaching. They just trust in your ability to cope, assign you an occasional mentor and throw you in the classroom. Consequently, I’d say I was mostly ineffective for the first five years of my teaching career as I learned the art of instruction and classroom management on-the-job.

There’s got to be a happy medium somewhere that ensures a qualified teacher in every classroom while further removing barriers to the profession for talented individuals from the private sector looking for a career change.

And that simply won’t happen if the state’s professional standards board is dominated by the CEA. I’d stake my life on it.

Terry Cowgill blogs at terrycowgill.blogspot.com and was an award-winning editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company. He is host of Conversations with Terry Cowgill, an hour-long monthly interview program on CATV6 on Comcast’s northwest Connecticut system.

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posted by: Gale | October 9, 2011  8:23am

How apropos that you cite Housatonic Valley Regional High School. You have only to read the Pingpank Report at http://www.straighttalkmedia.com/documentarchive/PingPank.pdf to know why giving teachers the authority to set their own licensing standards is a baaad-to-the-bone idea.