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Op-Ed: School reform: Teachers are not the problem

Published 7:08 pm, Thursday, April 12, 2012
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As someone who has devoted his career to preparing young people for success in the world, I have always had a hard time ignoring attacks on teachers by education "reformers." But sadly, my colleagues and I have grown used to the repeated condescension of those who insist that they know what is wrong with American schools and how to fix them, even though they are not -- and often have never been -- teachers themselves.

Now, however, it seems that Governor Malloy has jumped on the bandwagon. Presented with an opportunity to work with schools and offer fresh, innovative solutions to the challenges facing Connecticut's students, he has instead opted to recycle the same, tired political rhetoric disguised as "reform."

Though I trust the sincerity of the governor's desire to see more of Connecticut's students excel, I have no such faith in his misguided education reform bill, SB 24. It ignores many of the underlying reasons for the achievement gap in the state, and instead places most of the blame on educators. Governor Malloy's recent statement that teachers need only to "show up for four years" to receive tenure was deeply offensive to hard-working, selfless educators all over the state, and unfortunately, this sentiment seems to be at the heart of the current "reform" effort.

SB 24 might as well be called the "Blame it All on Teachers" Bill. Its provisions -- which, sadly, reflect a national trend -- suggest that teachers are responsible for the lion's share of Connecticut's problems: teachers are the reason for the achievement gap, teachers are the reason for unemployment, and teachers are the reason there's such a staggering economic divide between the rich and poor in Connecticut.

Even without this latest round of attacks, teachers often find themselves combating the spurious perception that we are paid too much, that we are done with work by 2:30, that we're not accountable to anyone, and that we don't even work during the summer. If politicians continue to point the finger at educators every time it is convenient for them to do so, it won't be long before they ask the public to believe that teachers are accountable for climate change!

Teachers are an easy target for this type of sound-bite politicking disguised as "reform," and unfortunately, because of the way the debate has been framed, any educator who stands up to "reformers" in defense of teachers is caricatured as complacent, ineffective, and quick to hide behind the protection of the union at the first sign of a threat to the status quo. As such, it has become too easy for politicians to convince the public that teacher tenure is the enemy, that teacher evaluation and pay should be linked to students' test scores, and that teachers should bear sole responsibility for correcting all of the inequities in our society.

This type of thinking is not only simplistic; it has dangerous consequences for schools and students. It distracts everyone from the greater problem in Connecticut, which is the massive divide between our state's richest and poorest citizens.

No teacher believes that economically disadvantaged students cannot or do not want to learn, or that they do not deserve every opportunity to excel in school. Unfortunately, teachers can only do so much without proper funding for schools -- especially city schools -- and without support from families.

Are there ineffective teachers in Connecticut? Of course there are. And have bad teachers managed to hide behind tenure? Absolutely. But to suggest that such teachers are the norm rather than the exception is just plain wrong, not to mention insulting.

Instead of attacking teachers -- the overwhelming majority of whom are intelligent, compassionate, tireless professionals who have devoted their careers to helping young people succeed -- why not give them the support and resources they need? Instead of perpetuating the tired notion that "those who cannot do, teach," why not acknowledge that teachers cannot do it alone?

If Governor Malloy is concerned with the achievement gap in Connecticut schools -- as well he should be -- he should ask the legislature to focus its efforts on allocating more money to struggling schools. He should work to shrink large class sizes and create outreach programs designed to help struggling families take a more active role in their children's education.

All conscientious, hardworking, and fair minded teachers want to close the achievement gap. We would love nothing more than to see high standards set and an authentic improvement in our schools. But that will never happen as long as politicians insist on a simple, one-dimensional approach that blames teachers for all that ails American public education. True reform will only happen when politicians take the high road and adopt a comprehensive approach that also includes a conversation about the important role that parents and economics play in the education of our children.

Matt Pavia is an English teacher at Darien High School.