OP-ED | The World According to the Supers
Is there anything more revealing than when public officials tell you what they’d do if they could be king for a day?
Such is the case with the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents (CAPPS), which last week issued a sweeping report with more than 130 recommendations on how to improve public education in the state. And it will likely have maximum impact, coming as it does before a winter legislative session that Gov. Malloy has promised will focus on education reform.
The concept that seemed to get the most attention was the proposal to abolish lifetime teacher tenure in favor of five-year renewable contracts.
Eliminating tenure for educators in public schools and in higher education has been a goal of mine for years, so the superintendents are preaching to the choir here. Advocates for tenure have long argued that it merely ensures due process in disciplinary matters and prevents arbitrary dismissal, but there is wide agreement that it’s a barrier to the removal of chronically underperforming teachers and, therefore, an impediment to education reform.
Most administrators I’ve talked to tell me it’s not that difficult to fire grossly incompetent teachers. The problem lies in dealing with the lazy mediocre types who are sufficiently clever to do enough to stay out of trouble, but not enough to teach effectively. Maybe if they knew their contracts were subject to renewal, they’d be encouraged to perform more consistently. Superintendents, most of whom have little job security themselves, tell me this all the time.
It has always puzzled me that in most states, including Connecticut, tenure is a matter of state law. It makes sense that certain issues related to teacher employment be the business of the state. The state has a compelling interest, for example, in setting licensing standards so that all educators are at least theoretically qualified to teach in their content areas. But why should labor agreements between employees and local school districts be the business of the state? Shouldn’t school boards and local teachers unions be free to negotiate contracts that eliminate tenure in exchange for, say, higher pay or better working conditions?
As you would expect, the unions are grumbling over the proposal. To wit, Mary Loftus Levine, who heads the Connecticut Education Association:
“We think that would invite all kinds of abuses and capriciousness and a lot of volatility in our schools.”
I think Ms. Levine would find that, even outside the field of education, wrongful termination law has progressed to the point that a supervisor can’t just walk into a room and fire anyone. Lest the employer face an expensive lawsuit, a case for incompetence or insubordination must be built over time and carefully documented. Surely, teachers deserve the same protections as other professionals — no more, no less. Happily, one candidate for U.S. Senate in Connecticut, Democrat William Tong, agrees with me.
The superintendents also argue for expanded early-childhood education, more individualized instruction and increased regionalization. As one reformer noted, coming from a superintendents’ association, the three ideas are ironic in that the first two could result in more teachers and the third in fewer superintendents.
As worthy as it might be, the expansion of early childhood education could face an uphill battle with the Malloy administration, which has asked the courts to remove it from the state’s constitutional responsibility to provide equal educational opportunity to all students.
Increased regionalization also makes good sense. But it, too, might face opposition from the go-it-alone attitude so many of Connecticut’s 169 municipalities typically have. That too bad because consolidation could yield both savings and increased opportunity for students.
I live in Regional School District #1, the first regional district in New England when it was created by a special act of the General Assembly in 1937. But Region 1 is really a hybrid regional school district that administers the high school, as well as some regional services such as special education, but delegates local control over its six K-8 elementary schools, all of which have their own boards of education. Talk about redundancy of services ...
To make matters worse, the elementary school is Falls Village has only about 90 students, giving it the highest per-pupil cost in the state. In some seasons, the school fields few or no competitive athletic teams for lack of players. After-school activities are also quite limited. The number of students in each grade is so small (sometimes less than 10) that two grades are routinely combined into one classroom for what educators call “multi-age groupings.” I’d call it a bad idea, but I guess you have to make do with what you have.
Clearly, in small districts such as Region 1, and even in larger districts, more favorable economies of scale could be derived from increased regionalization, offering better availability of facilities and a superior breadth of opportunity for students. Single-campus K-12 regional districts are increasingly common, for example, in rural and suburban areas of of New York state. But I can’t think of a single one in Connecticut.
As Tom Murphy, a spokesman for the state Department of Education told me four years ago when I asked him about the citizenry’s limited taste for regionalization, “It’s not always cost-effective. But many people find it worthwhile. We have traditionally been a state of local control.”
Seeing as education got short-shrift in last year’s legislative session, I’ll be watching closely when the General Assembly’s new session opens in January. Teachers are fond of privately ridiculing administrators and superintendents for being so much dead weight. But if these education leaders can effect positive change, they’ll deserve our applause instead.
Terry Cowgill blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and was an award-winning editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company.