Amy Farrior, a first-grade teacher in Marlborough, was excited at first when she heard Gov. Dannel P. Malloy calling 2012 the year for education reform. But then she heard the governor’s remarks on tenure, and how he suggests teachers can earn it. “Basically the only thing you have to do is show up,” he said.
Farrior says she was shocked.
“And hurt really,” she said. And judging from the talk in the faculty lunchroom over the last few weeks, Farrior believes many of her colleagues feel the same way.
“It really feels like teachers are the scapegoats right now,” she said. “Of course there are things that need to be changed, but this is not how we envisioned going about it.”
Malloy’s proposal to change how teachers earn and keep tenure is a key and controversial piece of a sweeping education reform bill aimed at closing the worst achievement gap in the country.
But Malloy put teachers on the defensive in announcing the plan earlier this month when he characterized tenure as job security that’s too easy to earn and too difficult to lose. As the details of his proposals trickled down to state classrooms last week, many teachers remained apprehensive.
Robert Willey, an art teacher at East Hampton Middle School and president of the East Hampton Education Association, worries that the debate will only fuel the wave of teacher criticism that has swept the country in recent months.
He said educators who oppose Malloy’s plan aren’t interested in keeping bad teachers in the classroom, they just want to make sure the process for judging and removing teachers is fair.
“Why would teachers, a group that is under great scrutiny, want to protect teachers that make everybody else look bad?” he asked. “That makes no sense. Teachers want good teachers in the classroom.”
Malloy’s plan would require teachers to re-earn their tenure every five years, based on evaluations tied largely to student achievement. Under the proposal, new teachers would get tenure after three years if they earn two “exemplary” evaluations and after five years with three “proficient” or “exemplary” evaluations.
Veteran teachers would need to prove they are “effective” — not merely “competent” — to keep their tenure and schools must provide support and training to those who fall short.
The plan also links a teacher’s certification to new evaluation guidelines adopted by the State Board of Education this month, prompting complaints from the state’s two teacher unions that Malloy was moving too quickly. The evaluation system was developed with the help of the unions but has yet to be implemented in classrooms.
“We have concerns, obviously, about tying tenure and your license to teach onto a yet unknown evaluation system,” Mary Loftus Levine, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, told the legislature’s Education Committee last week.
Not all teachers agree. Megumi Yamamoto, an English teacher at Cheshire High School, said she welcomes the changes, saying they can elevate the status — and public perception — of teaching. She said many of her best students aren’t interested in teaching because it doesn’t carry the prestige of other professions.
“I would really love to see anything that involves making teaching more of a respected profession,” said Yamamoto, who is Cheshire’s 2012 Teacher of the Year. “If that has to be connected to a new system of evaluation or looking again at the role of the unions, I’m very open to it.”
Only six states currently require “evidence of effectiveness” to confer professional licensure for teachers, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality’s 2011 State Teacher Policy Yearbook. The report gives Connecticut a D+ for its teacher licensing policies, partly because the state fails to consider student performance when renewing a teacher’s certification.
Several teachers interviewed said they expect to be evaluated, but tying it to a teacher’s certification is worrisome because circumstances beyond a teacher’s control can profoundly affect how students perform.
“You have an urban teacher in a building that’s falling down around her ears. You have students in a revolving door and you’re going to be judged on test scores of kids who might not have been in a classroom for more than a month,” said Willey. “Now we’re saying we’re going to take that teacher’s certification away?”
State Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor reassured lawmakers last week that teachers would not be banned from teaching based on a single poor evaluation. Those who lose their tenure could keep their license, but would be bumped down to a different certificate level. Under the plan, those teachers would retain their “initial educator certificate” — the same probationary license given to beginning teachers — and would still be eligible to work in other districts.
Maura Graham-Vecellio, a kindergarten teacher in Meriden who’s been teaching for 22 years, said the status of a teacher’s certification is too important to be left in the hands of an administrator.
She said teaching methods are constantly changing and administrators who are judging a teacher’s effectiveness may not be up on the trends. New national and state math standards, for example, call for a non-traditional, hands-on approach.
“An administrator might see a very noisy room where learning is taking place but not in a way that they understand,” she said.
Under the new evaluation system an administrator’s observation counts as 40 percent of the rating. Student performance counts as 45 percent, and parent and student feedback makes up the rest.
Willey remembered an encounter with a co-worker, a sixth-grade reading teacher, who was making copies of student reading materials in the copy room. Willey said he was confused because her stack of paperwork included reading passages spanning second- to sixth-grade levels.
“I said ‘Why all this different material? Don’t you teach sixth-grade kids?” he recalled. She replied that she did, but there was a wide range of abilities in her classroom.
“And they want to have your certification judged by that group of kids?” he asked her. “She looked at me with a very worried look on her face and said, ‘Yeah, it’s scary, isn’t it?’“
“And by the way,” he added. “She’s a hell of a teacher.”
As for Yamamoto, while she supports tenure reform, she said she understands why so many teachers are upset.
“I think that teachers are very defensive about our profession. It’s hard to not be — especially during budget times when everyone has an opinion about how they could do our job better,” she said.
“I understand the defensiveness, but I do think education is changing very quickly,” she added. “We need to embrace that in whatever way we can as long as we remember that the most important thing is what happens to an individual kid in the classroom.”