Tackling Tenure Worth The Fight, Though Even Larger Battle Looms

Let's all cheer the governor's tour de force speech Wednesday that finally placed — however fleetingly — public education at the front of Connecticut's agenda for the future.

"I do what I say I'm going to do, and I do what I think is right for Connecticut, irrespective of the political consequences,'' said Gov.Dannel P. Malloy, in a take-your-medicine sermon that placed teacher performance as the No. 1 priority for the General Assembly this winter.

To keep your job "you should have to continue to prove your effectiveness in the classroom as your career progresses,'' Malloy sternly concluded.

The teacher unions are justifiably panicked over the I-Get-What-I-Want Governor's words. I don't blame them. How would you like to be a 50-year-old teacher and hear that you have to prove you're any good at a job you've been doing for 25 years? Don't believe for a minute the union argument that there already is an effective process for getting rid of the bad apples. It doesn't happen.

I'm all for fighting the tenure battle, despite all the messy compromises that will come with it, because it can lead to better teaching for students who need it the most and more support for teachers who need help. Teaching shouldn't be a job where warming a chair is the path to lifetime employment and a generous retirement.

But remember this: Bad teachers, or rather our frustrating inability to weed out the relative handful of ineffective educators, are not at the heart of our education problems and the shameful achievement gap. This isn't another balance-the-budget, adopt GAAP principles, cut-a-deal-with-the-unions kind of problem that can be solved by an impatient governor in one tidy legislative session and a quick $128 million in new funding.

Tenure isn't why we have the largest achievement gap in the land. Tenure isn't why nine in 10 black and Hispanic eighth-graders statewide are below proficiency in math, or why just four of five third-graders at Burns Academy in Hartford lack even basic reading proficiency. (When children are behind in third grade, by the way, researchers conclude that more often than not they never catch up.)

The problem we have is that poor children are falling further and further behind. They live, largely segregated, in poor cities and neighborhoods where we make sure school district boundaries and school funding divide the haves from the have-nots. They come from dysfunctional families, where jobs, fathers, meals and college-educated parents are absent. It's no coincidence that Stanford University researchers recently reported that over the past 40 years the Hartford region has grown more segregated by income than most other metropolitan areas in the land.

It doesn't matter if this is the second coming of "Stand and Deliver" educator Jaime Escalante; lofty policy discussions about tenure and teacher evaluation aren't going to change the ugly reality of poverty and how what happens at home affect learning in school.

To his credit, Malloy gets all this, which is why he makes a big deal about linking public schools with our economic future. Our cities, where too many children fail to learn essential literacy and numeracy skills, are where the future workforce will come from. He is to be applauded for his accompanying education proposals to expand preschool, provide more resources to struggling urban districts, take over failing schools, and revamp teacher preparation, certification and evaluation programs.

These efforts are a small beginning in a long, long campaign.

In the meantime, nobody should think that a new law that makes teachers hustle for their jobs will unravel years and years of economic decline, segregation and fragmented education systems.

"We cannot and will not fix what's broken in our schools by scapegoating teachers," Malloy said. "But nor can we fix it if we do not have the ability to remove teachers who don't perform well in the classroom in a timely fashion."

Teachers have already been scapegoated, merely by tenure becoming the target this legislative session. Their unions, caught up in a fast-moving momentum for change that will be nearly impossible to stop, were so flummoxed by the governor's full-court press that on Wednesday they could muster only muted comments about the need for "give and take."

That's hardly the governor's mood in what he has dubbed the year of education reform. In his speech, the always ambitious Malloy called for "boldness" and change that "will" and "must" happen now. It's all big, bold and different, and it may lead to an economic revival, but I hope by spring we are able show that we can do more than throw the weak and ineffective overboard.

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