No one can evaluate a teacher’s performance in the classroom quite like another teacher, educators, union members and administrators testified at a public hearing Monday night.
The Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, wants state legislators to remove the State Department of Education’s (SDE) authority to set professional standards for teachers. Rather, CEA proposes an autonomous panel led by educators to determine those standards for themselves, something a number of states already do.
“When you’re only in an advisory role, people really don’t have to listen to you and often they don’t,” said Mary Loftus Levine, CEA’s executive directior.
The state seems more guarded about the idea, however.
Marion H. Martinez, the associate commissioner of the Division of Teaching, Learning and Instructional Leadership at the SDE, said department members attended the hearing only to collect information about the idea of an independent professional standards board. She said the SDE has not established a position about an independent board.
“Given the fact that the commissioner is relatively new, having come on board officially Oct. 7, and the fact that we have so many new board members, they are intent on gathering additional information, hearing what other states do and then making a decision after careful deliberation,” Martinez said.
Nancy Pugliese, who leads the teacher certification division at SDE, has said that removing the education department’s authority for setting standards is a bad idea. She said the CEA has thwarted efforts by the department to update the standards for years.
The hearing took place before the legislature’s Program Review and Investigations Committee (PRI), which issued a preliminary report on teachers’ standards in late September.
“Our teachers know more about learning and academic achievement than any other group of individuals in the educational system,” Levine said. “Yet our current debate is like a traditional New England town hall meeting with the people who know the most about the subject, our teachers, left outside in the cold watching silently through the windows.”
Connecticut’s current board on professional teaching standards plays only an advisory role to the SDE and state Board of Education (SBE). Seventeen members comprise the board, including four teachers appointed by CEA and other educators, business and industry officials, school administrators and two parents of public school children.
Cheryl Prevost, an East Hartford teacher and chair of the Connecticut Advisory Council for Teacher Professional Standards, said council members think that the SDE and SBE fails to value their opinions.
“I can say with confidence that this lack of decision-making authority takes its toll on teachers who sit on the council,” she said. “They often feel as though their opinions aren’t valued when decisions are made that have an impact on how they do their jobs.”
“I believe this (advisory) council could do much more if restructured and replaced by an independent professional educator standards board that had much more decision-making authority in governing our profession,” Prevost later said.
State Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, who is PRI’s co-chair, said he wondered whether public school teachers should define their own standards like some private professionals, such as lawyers or engineers.
“We have a choice as to whether we walk into attorney Kissel’s [state Sen. John A. Kissel, R-Enfield] office, but I don’t have a choice as a youngster assigned to a public school teacher.”
Other public unionized professions in Connecticut already regulate themselves through their own autonomous professional standards boards. For example, Connecticut’s fire commission and police council issue certification, develop professional standards and provide their own training.
Twenty-one states, including Connecticut, use their educational professional standards boards for advisory roles, including Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Maine and Rhode Island. CEA wants to make Connecticut one of 18 states with a standards board that makes decisions in some capacity. Boards from states like California, Georgia, Minnesota and Pennsylvania play a large to limited role in making decisions about educator licensing, preparation, disclipline and ethics.
Four states, including Delaware, Maryland, Mississippi and Texas, use semi-autonomous boards that make joint decisions with other state government agencies.
Lucinda Young, chief lobbyist for the Washington Education Association, and Jill Mack, licensure officer at Saint Joseph College in West Hartford and former member of the Vermont Standard Board for Professional Educators, both said independent professional standards boards worked in their states and it’s Connecticut’s time for one.
“For a state who claims to be on the cutting edge of education reform, the time is right,” Mack said.
Neither Vermont or Washington state suffers from an unprecendented educational achievement gap like Connecticut, said PRI member Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford. She asked if either state saw measurable progress in closing any form of achievement gap through their independent professional standards boards, and Young and Mack said they did not.
PRI will make final recommendations in December.