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OP-ED | The World According to the Supers

by Terry Cowgill | Nov 17, 2011 9:47pm
(15) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Opinion

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.

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(15) Comments

posted by: ... | November 18, 2011  9:21am

...

Connecticut (well, nationally) also has a tougher time getting the teachers they need, and some of the reforms you touch on would require even more than we have now.

However there are too many young kids who don’t see teaching in the most positive of lights. Often this is because of the image teachers get. I’d refer to a cartoon that showed 50 years ago the parents at a parent/teacher conference yelling at their kid for bad grades. But today the parents yell at the teacher for their kids bad grades.

Unfortunately, many students do not want to enter that environment, let alone the negative public opinion teacher’s unions get in some states.

If we want teaching to be a growing trend in our state, and for it to be good, the jobs need not only an attractive pay (which could achieved through cost-saving reforms like rationalization), but a friendlier public environment.

posted by: GoatBoyPHD | November 19, 2011  10:51am

GoatBoyPHD

You missed the one area where the Supers outed themselves: money should be allocated to the district for the Supers to spend at their discretion! Of course! How could it be any other way!~

Here’s how! The voucher system. All Parents get vouchers and can choose where to redeem them. Local, Regional, Charter, Magnet, Public or Parochial. Let the people vote with their feet!

We need to put more trust in the parents to place their kids in the schools most conducive to learning. We’ve heard enough from the Supers and Unions on that issue over 40 years.

Let the taxpayers spend their own money where they see fit!

One other missing element: districts fell into the trap of paying teachers for more education instead of face time and results.

As we’ve seen over and over again a toadstool can earn their Masters +30 credits over 20 years and not improve their teaching skills or become more productive or produce better outcomes for the students. That must change.

Compensation has to be based on face time and results.  The experienced teacher with better than average results for their student population who works After School, Night and Summer Sessions is worth $90,000 at full tenure.

posted by: GoatBoyPHD | November 19, 2011  10:57am

GoatBoyPHD

JoensAC12 you bring up a valid point but I think 5- year contracts and 401Ks eliminate that cradle to grave mentality that forces a teacher to stand there and take that crap because their career is on the line. Kids take advantage of that too.

Some parents need to be given the flipper and lots of mouth from the teaching staff.

posted by: Terry D. Cowgill | November 19, 2011  5:30pm

Terry D. Cowgill

Jones, I don’t see filling the teaching positions as being a problem. Teachers are paid about what mid-level managers make in business while enjoying greater job security, working far fewer days and almost never having to travel on business and be away from their families for days or weeks at a time.

The problem is getting a truly outstanding teacher in every classroom. I do agree with you about the lack of prestige that bedevils the profession, however. Unfortunately, our culture will never confer great prestige on any job that involves working with children. And I don’t see that changing any time soon.

posted by: GoatBoyPHD | November 19, 2011  6:53pm

GoatBoyPHD

Among the reasons the profession doesn’t confer prestige are the regulations that make success difficult. Real success and innovation is hamstrung. Teachers are hamstrung by the model as are curriculum designers.

5 year contracts and you can get a flood of 50 something workers who want out of coprorate America and are looking for new challenges.

The payscale needs reform in those circumstances as do the cert requirements.

The system isn’t managed for success or prestige or flexibility or innovation or change or fresh blood.

A Pox on all those things! Those come from Rightist Progressives who don’t value cradle-to-grave union jobs as the single most important element of the US economy.

posted by: Disgruntled | November 19, 2011  7:55pm

Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents is almost worse than listening to regular politicians. By law,you need an degree in education to be a superindendent…they have shut the door on anyone else yet they take on tasks that are way beyond their job description.
Unless and until they open up the management of our schools to “outsiders” nothing will change.
They relish “discussion” and have taken studies to a level beyond what a normal human can endure.
Open the system to everyone and change will follow…quickly.

posted by: ... | November 19, 2011  8:01pm

...

Hey Terry,

Thank you first of for responding. I don’t know if it has changed drastically in the past 4 years, but right around my graduation from high school, nearly a dozen teachers 55 and older suddenly retired. I learned during their last year they were given the option of retiring early with a revised ‘golden parachute’ package, or they could continue teaching and keep their substandard benefits. Needless to say, all of them chose the former.

The following year they rehired about 75% of those previously vacant positions with fresh teachers in their late 20s and early 30s. Talking with a couple of them as a post-graduate and then with the retired teachers I kept in contact with, they were making roughly a third less than what the outgoing teacher’s average salary.

Perhaps this is just a one-school story. I also don’t have the clearest grasp of what the average teacher salary is in CT in comparison to the cost of living. But it is practices like the one mentioned above that do detract young potential educators, especially those with outstanding potential.

posted by: bobby.gould | November 19, 2011  9:20pm

From what I gather from contacts in the Ed world (on both the admin and educator sides), “tenure” is just that—in name only and a bit of a false sense of job security.  If the school wants a teacher gone, they are gone.  Good, mediocre, awful or otherwise—the admins circle the wagons around the educator (in a bad way), apply pressure, and that person is out in reasonably short order.

Also, Terry, your comment on pay is a little misleading.  Starting teachers do not make much, even in the chi-chi districts like West Hartford and its ilk.  They’d be lucky if $45k is what they get.  It would take nine years to crack $60k—and this is the high-end districts.  Many get less. 

Moreover, your analogy/comparison to midlevel managers is well off the mark.  I’m not an educator, but I’m going to guess most folks who are and who read your comment probably found it flip, misinformed and more than just a little insulting. 

First off, I don’t know too many midlevel manager positions that require a master’s degree and rigorous certification. Moreover, you tell an English teacher who has to work nights and weekends correcting endless papers that s/he isn’t missing time with his/her family.  (Just make sure to duck when you do.) 

Finally, in my experience in the working world, I haven’t come across a single midlevel manager that had it anywhere near as tough as your average educator.  Having a bad day, feeling under the weather Mr/s. Midlevel?  No problem, shut your door and ride it out for the day.  You, Mr/s. Teacher?  Tough—you’ve got kids to teach.  Suck It Up. Get on Your Feet.  And stay on them for the next eight hours.  And when you’re done, don’t forget that stack of papers that you still have to grade and the prep you have to do for tomorrow’s class.

And let me address the summer thing before somebody inevitably brings it up.  Do you know why teachers need summers off?  Because if they didn’t, the Supers wouldn’t need to bother with the 5-year contracts—most teachers would quit after a year (probably to become midlevel managers).

posted by: GoatBoyPHD | November 20, 2011  11:29am

GoatBoyPHD

Milwaukee is in the process of going to a full voucher system. The 5-year longitudinal and latitudinal study by the U or Arkansas is extermely favorable. Grad rates, college attendance, costs, flexibility, the speed at which problem schools are addressed, etc.

http://tinyurl.com/6t8lgc4

Measurable improvements for less money. About $6,500 per head versus almost $12,000 in public schools.

Indiana went statewide with voucers. A tiny 4,000 to start but more are coming.

There’s something heartwarming about an Indiana superintendent on his hands and knees begging parents not to use their vouchers and leave his system.

Indiana allows public, private, charter,  and parochial schools to compete for student dollars.

Choice is a wonderful thing when managed properly.

Say yes to 5-year contracts, to technology (EBooks and Kindles for all), to open source curriculums, say yes to independent study amd more modular instruction, to vouchers, to paying teachers for facetime and results instead of advanced degrees.

Say yes to all-day preshools and after school sessions and online night classes and better school-to-work options (including pay) for vocational studies.

Say yes to using vouchers to regionalize CT schools.

So no to the inevitable CT Education Ent Moot that will stall progress ‘Until the year 2525—if man is still alive’ and so forth.

Next up: Higher Education. Tuition costs and faculty administrator pensions are out of control in public institutions.

posted by: Terry D. Cowgill | November 20, 2011  1:56pm

Terry D. Cowgill

@bobby.gould: Where to begin?

There are tricks that administrators can use to encourage underperforming teachers to leave (frequent observations, require them to submit detailed lessons plans well in advance, assign them every unpleasant duty available). But, contrary to what your sources tell you, if the teacher wants to hang in there and does the minimum to get by, administrators face an uphill (and very expensive) battle to get the teacher out of the classroom.

My comment about pay takes into account the number of days worked per year and job security, so I don’t think the analogy is misleading at all.

It’s interesting that you presume my “analogy/comparison to midlevel managers” to be “flip, misinformed and more than just a little insulting.” Unlike you, I have actually worked as a teacher—12 years, in fact. My wife has worked as a public school teacher for 21 years. In addition, I have worked in the private sector for 13 years. Consequently, I suspect I know a little more about how schools operate than you do and have more informed insights into the school/mid-level manager comparison as well.

Yes, when I was a teacher I had to spend a lot of my spare time grading papers and writing tests and comments. But in the private sector, I brought home work just as often, lest I be viewed as a slacker. Then a few days later, I’d have to get on a plane and attend business meetings in Texas for several days. On one of those occasions, I had to miss my daughter’s fifth birthday party. But so be it.

Finally, your comment about the mid-level manager shutting the door when he feels under the weather is preposterous on two levels. First of all, managers are managers because they have to manage people. If you shut your door for the day, you risk letting things get out of control (and getting in trouble yourself), so you just cope. Your right that a teacher can’t push the students out of the classroom so that s/he can enjoy some down time. Since teachers have far more sick and personal days than most of us, they can simply take the day off and let a sub teach the class. The dirty little secret is it happens all the time.

It’s funny. In my teaching days, I and all my colleagues thought what we did was the hardest job in the world. Then I became editor of a newspaper in upstate NY and was threatened by a mobster’s son who didn’t like something I’d written about. him. I quickly learned that teaching high schoolers isn’t the only tough job in the world.

posted by: GoatBoyPHD | November 20, 2011  5:43pm

GoatBoyPHD

Here’s the Avon CT Salary Schedule Bobby. The base tops out at $91,000 for a Masters +30. That doesn’t include stipends for longevity, department head, coaching, activity mentor,  or other reimbursements—all of which are in the full contract available on line.


http://tinyurl.com/88dsm4

US Census reports median salaries for College degrees range from 55K for a Bachelor’s to 88K for post-Masters Professional (See Wiki for 2010 income and education data).

Cost of living adjusted,  teaching in CT is in line with the averages of other similar professions with benefits and time off that exceeds other similar positions.

A better question Bobby would be whether there’s a need for more writing instructors to integrate writing into each subject area and perhaps pay some teachers (such as Phys Ed) a little less money to cover the costs.

There are subject areas that have higher burdens for tutoring and others for ‘correcting’ and others well—they are the coasters. Pay all of them the same? Why? The one-size-fits-all model doesn’t recognize that many are over-educated for their position and should be paid less rather than paying Reading and Writing Instructors more.

Then there’s the discussion of tutors and paraprofessionals and teacher aides and which subject areas get them to lessen the load on the teaching lead. Not surprising, language arts is one.

I won’t tell you I think teachers are overpaid. I will tell you I think they are badly employed.

posted by: GoatBoyPHD | November 20, 2011  6:02pm

GoatBoyPHD

That link to the Avon salaries again.

http://tinyurl.com/88dsm4d

posted by: bobby.gould | November 21, 2011  9:40am

@ Dr. GoatBoy, Cherry-picking the highest salary in a affluent community—a salary that takes at least 13 years and an extra 30 credits of masters work to achieve—doesn’t really make much of a point.  The CEO of my company probably makes $500k or more, but that doesn’t really represent the average salary in my company.

@Terry, thank you for the response.  I too have a spouse who has spent a career as a classroom teacher, working in both under-performing and excelling districts in her career and her and her colleagues’ experience is that the classroom has changed markedly, even just over the last 10 years.  And, it’s not the quality of educator that has changed.  Indeed, teacher standards have become more rigorous; today’s teachers are more highly-educated and prepared than those of 25 years ago.  Its the entire attitude towards education (and by association, towards teachers) that has changed.  And, this type of recommendation typifies the standard response to fixing problems in education—which is to say, by passing punitive measures against schools and teachers—when it really only serves to make the attitude towards education worse. 

When it comes down to it, my displeasure with your support of the 5-year recommendation has less to do with the smaller argument of teaching as a career.  Mostly I’m chaffed because the topic of teacher “tenure” is disproportionately interesting to the press & policymakers, when as a policy measure, “tenure” reform is unlikely to result in a net improvement of the quality of teachers in the classroom (indeed, admins, facing constant budget pressure, will be sorely tempted to use this reform to cut loose experienced, but expensive teachers in favor of cheap, enthusiastic, but green newbies).  By introducing this measure, the Administrators have done their other policy recommendations—and some are really great—a disservice, because all anyone wants to talk about is “tenure.” It sucks all the air out of the room and leaves folks like us quibbling over which career is harder or whether there may be mediocre teachers in some classrooms.  @Terry, thanks for engaging me on this.  (And thanks for your service as an educator.)

P.S. @Terry, I’d like to know—and I’m not asking the question as a rhetorical device, I swear!—why did you leave teaching?

posted by: Terry D. Cowgill | November 21, 2011  10:27am

Terry D. Cowgill

Bobby, I agree with you that tenure receives a disproportionate amount of attention in the media, probably because of the tension and conflict inherent in the subject. But I’m not sure I would call it’s elimination “punitive” to teachers. It could actually be liberating if the five-year contracts were, as I suggested in my column, combined with the opportunity to pay the best teachers the most money.

You’re also correct that the elimination of tenure is not necessarily the only important issue in improving education. In my column I also addressed the issues of pre-k funding and increased regionalization, but tenure was the one that caught your attention the most. See first paragraph of this comment. grin

I left teaching first because my school was downsizing and consequently my contract was not renewed. But I probably would have left anyway because I was growing bored with the job. I always felt like a writer trapped in an English teacher’s body.

posted by: Terry D. Cowgill | November 21, 2011  5:26pm

Terry D. Cowgill

BTW Bobby, my blog will tell you a little more about me:

http://ctdevilsadvocate.com/