The state’s largest teachers union didn’t shy away from overhauling the tenure system and teacher evaluation process Tuesday when it released its reform plan at a Capitol press conference.
The report, titled “A View From The Classroom,” cautioned lawmakers from passing legislation that could lead to teachers being arbitrarily fired, but said the current tenure system is outdated and must be streamlined.
“In some cases we have seen where people have sort of slipped through the cracks. So one of our main concerns is that everyone is held to the highest standard and that everyone is in fact evaluated on a regular basis,” CEA Executive Director Mary Loftus Levine said.
Loftus Levine said it was time to take a fresh look at the dismissal process for under-performing teachers. Under the current law it takes a minimum of 120 days to dismiss a teacher, she said. The process is expensive and prolonged by the fact that it can involve up to three arbitrators and several lawyers, she said.
“Trying to get the calenders straightened out just to hold hearings sometimes becomes very burdensome and can bog down the process,” she said.
The report recommends shortening that process to around 85 days and reducing the cost of the hearings by requiring only one arbitrator.
Last month, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy released his education priorities for the upcoming legislative session and signaled that teacher tenure is among the issues he wants addressed.
Malloy said he would be looking to introduce legislation that “ensures that our schools are home to the very best teachers and principals — working within a fair system that values skill and effectiveness over seniority and tenure.”
Education Department Commissioner Stefan Pryor, who made an unannounced appearance at the press conference, said the CEA addressed every aspect of the governor’s principles.
“You see very thoughtful responses on the issue of seniority and tenure and their relationship to the system and the possibility of reform,” he said of the report.
Pryor said that he has been communicating with the CEA and has found there are more areas of agreement between the Malloy administration and the union than there are “wedge issues.” He declined to discuss what the areas of disagreement might be.
In November, the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents offered a report that recommended offering teachers five-year contracts and getting rid of tenure all together. CEA’s recommendations still allow for teachers to get tenure after four years. Loftus Levine said there was no discussion of changing that four-year threshold.
Levine said that it was important that the reforms to the tenure system be closely tied to changes to how teachers are evaluated. The report said that there is currently no mechanism that requires teacher evaluations be done effectively and consistently. Levine said part of the necessary reform will be to ensure that all teachers are in fact evaluated. She recommended annual evaluations.
Currently, evaluations are generally done by a teacher’s direct supervisor. Levine said the union wants to see the performance assessments expanded to include the input of a teacher’s peers.
The report said the evaluations should not be based solely on the results of standardized student testing.
“We believe that it shouldn’t be all about test scores and we know that the public is getting a little tired of the feeding frenzy and the obsession with standardized test,” Levine said.
Instead, evaluations should look at multiple indicators of a teacher’s performance like their planning and organizational skills as well as classroom management and peer interaction, she said. They should also consider how well a teacher interacts with other instructors and what sort of extra-curricular responsibilities they take on, she said.
“People play various roles within their schools as mentors, as teacher leaders, and we think everything should count,” she said.
Not everyone agrees that testing results should not be the most important aspect of evaluating teacher effectiveness. Last month, the state learned that it would not be among those awarded $49.99 million in Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge funding. It was the third time the state missed out on the funding from the federal Race to the Top program.
Patrick Riccards, CEO of the private, non-profit education reform group ConnCAN, said that the states that have benefited the most that program are the ones that significantly rely on standardized testing results for evaluations. He said it’s important that those scores aren’t lost in teacher assessments.
“At the end of the day the most effective way to know whether our schools are succeeding or not is to know if our kids are succeeding and that needs to be the primary measure,” he said.
Riccards praised the CEA report however, which he said focused on the right topics and put forth some important ideas.
The report also addressed how the state should improve the formula it uses to determine how much state funding goes to local school systems. The report said the state should increase its funding of the Education Cost Sharing grant program which leaves local property taxpayers to foot too much of the cost of education.
If the state can not afford to fully fund the program it should increase its funding over time, she said.
“If we know where we’re going we can set up a way to get there that’s reasonable and that we don’t just keep tinkering and fooling with the formula so that it is so out of whack that it really doesn’t make anybody happy,” she said.
Levine said more current data should be used in the formula when it determines the wealth level of different towns. Currently, it uses 10 year-old census data, she said. The state should also consider how it wants to define poverty and wealth for the purposes of education funding, she said.
The report said that lawmakers should not consider proposals that try to fold special education costs into the ECS program. Instead, lawmakers should try to find ways to reimburse districts with excess special education costs, which are unpredictable and put an unfair burden on local budgets, according to the report.
Also at the press conference were representatives of the American Federation of Teachers, or AFT Connecticut. The organization agrees with most of the proposals put forth by the CEA. AFT Connecticut will not be releasing its own recommendations on how to move the process forward, but it does have a seat at the table as the dialogue continues.
Malloy will hold a workshop on education reform at 11 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 5, in preparation for the upcoming legislative session which he said will be focused on the topic of education.