Heading into tumultuous education reform year, ‘Common ground’ on education reform highlighted

Teachers unions and education officials will soon begin butting heads as the Malloy administration tries to reform teacher tenure and other laws the unions have worked hard to protect.

But Tuesday was a day of niceties, as — at a meeting that included Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor and Senate President Donald E. Williams — the union representing more than 41,000 teachers unveiled the reforms they would like to see this year.

“To be sure we don’t agree on everything,” Pryor told the roomful of education advocates and officials at the Legislative Office Building, “but we agree on more than we don’t … [Let’s] focus on ideas that we can come together around rather than on wedge issues that separate us.”

Those wedge issue are likely to include how teachers are evaluated and then dismissed if they are determined to be failing.

Previous attempts to speed up the process for firing or laying off the worst teachers have fallen flat since few school districts in the state have evaluation systems to measure teacher performance.

In a review of more than half the districts in the state, CEA told lawmakers earlier this year few districts use seniority as the sole factor when making layoff decisions. In a follow-up review of almost all their contracts, CEA reports 18 percent use seniority as the sole factor when making layoff decisions and another 52 percent include seniority as a primary factor. Two years ago legislators created a panel to develop a model teacher evaluation for districts to use. Districts are still waiting for those recommendations.

“We want our teachers to be evaluated,” said Mary Loftus Levine, executive director of the CEA.

The CEA is proposing that teachers be graded annually based on the rigor of their lesson plans, organization, peer interaction and participation in professional development. “We believe it shouldn’t be all about test scores … We think that everything should count,” Levine said Tuesday.

Thirteen states require teacher evaluations to be tied to student achievement, and 19 allow teachers to be dismissed based on those evaluations, according to a recent report by the National Council of Teacher Quality. Connecticut does neither.

ConnCAN, a New-Haven based school reform group and an adversary of the CEA, broke away from the harmony that everyone else was touting Tuesday. The group sent an email blast to their followers criticizing the CEA’s plans to not use student achievement as a primary factor in teacher evaluations.

“How our kids perform should be the primary indicator. Ultimately, the success of our state, our schools, our teachers, and our kids is based on performance and student outcomes. We must not lose sight of that as we build a truly effective teacher evaluation model,” ConnCAN leader Pat Riccards wrote.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Pryor both say the state needs to retain its best teachers, not just those with seniority and tenure. But Levine says her union is not ready to retreat from its position that after four years on the job, teachers earn lifelong tenure. The state’s superintendent association has proposed replacing lifelong tenure with a routine teacher evaluation every five years.

“Right now the current amount of time is four years, and we have not discussed changing that,” Levine said. Rather, the evaluations will ensure that teachers are effectively evaluated and “counseled out” of the profession or fired before they ever get tenure.

Once the evaluations are adopted, the CEA proposes using them to speed up dismissal proceedings from 120 to about 85 days.

And while the “common ground” on Tuesday’s theme, highlighted by Pryor, the CEA and the Connecticut Council for Education Reform, a business-backed group, the real battles are just heating up.

“The momentum is truly building for meaningful education reform in Connecticut,” the council for education reform wrote in an emailed statement later in the day.