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OP-ED | Great Schools For All Children

by Sharon Palmer | Feb 13, 2012 9:40pm
(8) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Opinion

Connecticut is home to some of the nation’s highest-performing school districts. But we also have one the largest gaps between our strongest schools and those that are struggling – particularly for low- and moderate-income communities. This is an issue whose time has come. Our goal should be nothing less than a public education system that offers an excellent education to every single child. To do this we must use an empirical approach to education policy, using evidence – not ideology – and building on what works. And we must approach the problem collaboratively, involving all of the stakeholders including parents, administrators, teachers, and the community.

The data paints a compelling picture. On average, Connecticut’s public education system ranks among the best in the nation in academic performance. It’s a record of which we can be proud. But a closer look reveals a wide gap in educational attainment between our affluent areas and our low-income communities.

Low income students perform roughly half as well as non-low-income students on standardized tests. They also have a substantially lower graduation rate. Although policy makers often call this an “achievement” gap, the reality is that the gap begins at a very young age. According to the CT Department of Education, only 40% of pre-schoolers are fully ready for school learning.

These are not easy challenges to address. We should start by learning what is working in schools where students excel. Connecticut is home to some of the best schools in the country, after all. What makes these schools effective? To listen to some, it must be because these schools use “merit pay” for teachers or don’t allow teachers to have the job security that comes with a due process system. Or it is because these schools have adopted “market-based” school choice systems.

Of course, there’s one problem with those assertions: they are not true. Our most successful school districts have been able to attract and retain excellent teachers using the carrot, not the stick.

When I began my career as a science teacher I certainly wasn’t motivated by material gain – I could have chosen far more lucrative careers. I chose to teach for the same reason that motivates 45,000 teachers in Connecticut – to make a difference in the lives of children. Not only to impart knowledge, but to instill a love of learning. I also realized quickly that teachers, like most professionals, do their best work when they feel valued, appreciated, and supported.

Controversial and polarizing attacks on teachers might make good headlines, but there’s no evidence that they make good policy. Rather we should pursue a collaborative approach that values the contributions and ideas of all stakeholders. Common sense and emperically driven solutions – like smaller class sizes – should be at the top of our agenda.

Finally, lets remember that education does not happen in a vacuum. The single biggest factor in explaining educational disparities is poverty – no informed and reasonable person denies this basic fact. It’s true that we cannot use poverty as an excuse to allow Connecticut’s education gap to persist. But we must also not deny the impact that poverty has on our children’s ability to learn. And we cannot make excuses for poverty.

This is why, in addition to supporting common sense education reforms, our union champions the elimination of poverty by raising the minimum wage to a living wage, fighting against predatory lending, and demanding a fair economy for the 99%. Connecticut is an unequal state in terms of incomes and wealth, not only education. We can achieve fairness in education and a fair economy, but not one without the other. And that is a cause all of us can agree on.

Sharon Palmer is the president of AFT Connecticut

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(8) Comments

posted by: EdLeadershipcrisis | February 14, 2012  10:15am

Great.  Another apologist deflecting the blame away from the things we have the most control over.  One of the reasons the economy is so bad is that we have too big a drain on it in terms of undereducated people and not enough innovators. One of the biggest reasons for this is 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 union heads 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?).  That means supporting time structures for longer school days and years to be able to hone the craft without extra compensation to stay current in the field like the rest of us. If we educate all kids well, poverty will be reduced.  The Horse before the cart - please.

posted by: malvi | February 14, 2012  10:27am

IT is fair to point out that the author of this Op ED, Sharon Murphy Palmer, is the first vice president of the Connecticut State AFL-CIO and vice president of the Southeastern Connecticut Central Labor Council. She also serves on a number of boards, commissions, task forces and committees, most with ties to labor, progressive politics and the causes for which Palmer has spent most of her life working.

posted by: saramerica | February 14, 2012  3:24pm


I cannot believe the wilful ignorance of EdLeadershipCrisis’ comments. I see teachers on social media networks most nights of the week participating in chats to further variously further their knowledge of children’s literature, using technology in the classroom, teaching strategies…etc.etc. This is on their own time, not getting paid, because they want to do a good job, stay current, and do the best for their students. The private sector doesn’t own the monopoly on hard work and innovation. One of my teacher friends is actually giving a TED talk at the annual conference in CA.

posted by: EdLeadershipcrisis | February 14, 2012  4:51pm

I never said that teachers don’t work very hard and with long hours, but are they working smart in large numbers? What has the field of practitioners done to collectively raise the bar? By having a few thousand enter noble sidebar internet chats?  Is that systematic improvement that will raise the bar of the profession to be expert at things like SRBI, formative assessment, classroom management, teaching ELLs,team teaching, etc.

The unions even went to great length a few years ago to blow away the state’s teacher portfolio induction program that was known in the peer review literature as the best in the country. What bars have they ever set higher, like these other fields? The evidence speaks for itself despite the many teachers who individually keep raising their own bar.

posted by: brutus2011 | February 16, 2012  5:28am


“EdLeadershipcrisis” is an apt name if it is derived from the top of the public education hierarchy. By this I mean those above the classroom. They set policy, make a lot of money with great pensions, and monkey around with handing out tastes to their friends and relatives. So, please do not blame the teachers. Yes, a few of us coast and should repent. But the vast majority of us are all in for our kids. And the reference to us not working harder but smarter? Wow-this is a prime example of how disrespected teachers are in our society. I support people freely expressing their opinion but we teachers are not the problem.

posted by: EdLeadershipcrisis | February 16, 2012  10:48am

Yes, we have agreement with Brutus that those in federal-, state-, local- and even school- level leadership roles have contributed mightily to an “EdLeadershipcrisis”.  We also let this business stay stagnant for decades though lousy policy-making, poor leader training, and not knowing how to balance strategic support for teachers and accountability for their performance. The difference is that, in other professions the field tows the policymakers and the training programs, not the other way around.  The field of teaching through its powerful unions, have chosen not to do this.  No one can provide any evidence of teachers collectively getting behind mandatory improvements to the profession in order to stay licenced.  Collecting CEUs and then not applying the learning in the classroom didn’t raise the bar, did it?

posted by: Tom Burns | February 19, 2012  7:17pm

Ed Leadership crisis—-where have you been? NHFT is doing exactly what you say noone has ever done—Tom
and Brutus—we need you now-please give me a holler so we can get you involved—-860-227-6668—Tom

posted by: EdLeadershipcrisis | February 21, 2012  11:13am

Yes, Tom, new haven may be onto something.  Let’s see if the state and national organizations scale it up. I hope so.