“Please don’t take me. I’ll be better,” the 10-year-old student in crisis pleaded repeatedly as Jacqueline Simmons, the principal at Edison School in Bridgeport, dragged him to an ambulance last school year.
“We didn’t have anyone to help him,” recalled Simmons. She wiped away tears as she recounted the experience to a Hartford Superior Court judge earlier this week. “He wanted to promise me he would be better.”
Simmons, now the principal of another Bridgeport elementary school, says she doesn’t blame troubled students when they hit, kick or throw desks at her. She doesn’t have the staff to help the large number of children that regularly have to cope with trauma such as domestic violence or seeing a parent go to jail.
Edison had a social worker available only two days a week and a psychologist one day. So when a child started acting out on days when no mental health staff were around, Simmons and her teachers would attempt to diffuse the situation. When that didn’t work an ambulance or the state’s child welfare agency was called, she said.
“Most children don’t choose to be bad,” Simmons testified during a trial that will determine whether the state is providing students in high-poverty districts with the education the Connecticut Supreme Court has ruled they deserve.
Struggling schools may need great teachers and other support staff in order to improve, but education leaders from Bridgeport, East Hartford, New Britain and Windham have been taking turns over the last three weeks explaining to Judge Thomas Moukawsher the many obstacles they face in hiring and keeping them.
Officials from these low-performing districts say they lose waves of their best teachers each year, have trouble hiring replacements, and have too few teachers and other support staff to keep their students from falling further behind.
But attorneys representing the state counter that the schools in these districts are overwhelmingly filled with excellent teachers — as evidenced by the annual evaluation ratings — and that the state has spent millions more in recent years so that students have the staff support they need.
“Almost all of your teachers are rated high,” Associate Attorney General Joseph Rubin pointed out to Fran Rabinowitz, the interim superintendent of Bridgeport Public Schools, during her testimony.
While 96 percent of Bridgeport teachers receive high ratings each year, there is an exodus of great teachers each year. It’s the result of grim working conditions in the city schools and higher pay and more support in nearby suburban schools, Rabinowitz testified.
“It’s a bone of contention for me,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many times other superintendents have said to me, ‘Thank you, you have trained your teachers well.’”
Some 200 teachers, about one out of every five in Bridgeport, leave each year, and school officials are regularly unable to fill several of those positions. The result is that hundreds of students are being taught by a revolving door of substitutes who are ill-equipped to teach the subjects they are responsible for, and students with special education needs do not get the specialized instruction they require, educators from Bridgeport testified.
In East Hartford, Superintendent Nathan Quesnel is forced to wait to hire new staff until he has assurances the necessary funding will be provided. Because state funding levels aren’t typically determined until late spring, districts with more financial security get the first pick of the hiring pool, and East Hartford’s low-achieving district must choose from the leftovers.
“You are missing the prime time of the hiring market,” Quesnel testified.
And in all these districts, there aren’t enough teachers, tutors, social workers and other staff to ensure that students who overwhelmingly come from families in poverty don’t fall behind their peers from more affluent communities, the witnesses testified.
At Lincoln Elementary School in New Britain, large classes have left teachers incapable of doing their jobs effectively, the school’s principal testified. In one kindergarten class, one teacher is responsible for 26 students, 17 of whom speak limited English.
“We are not possibly meeting the needs of those students,” testified Principal Elaine Cabral. “We need more certified staff.”
Salary and class size impact
In many of the state’s chronically failing districts, class sizes are larger and the average teacher’s salary is lower, data from the State Department of Education show.
In Bridgeport, for example, the average high school science teacher makes $63,200 a year compared to $82,400 in neighboring Weston schools. In Waterbury, the average elementary teacher makes $60,000 compared to $74,300 in neighboring Cheshire schools.
And at the schools Simmons has taught at and been a principal, educators regularly pitch in their own money so that their classrooms have the instructional materials (including paper and pencils) that they need or so they can take students on field trips, she testified.
“I purchase the basic things,” she said. “I pay for it out of my own pocket.”
“I buy pencils, notebooks and furniture for my room,” testified Barbara Maselek, a teacher at New Britain High School.
But defense attorneys assert that salary isn’t a good predictor of teacher quality.
“The best teachers aren’t necessarily the ones who are paid the most, are they?” Assistant Attorney General Rubin has asked every superintendent that has testified so far.
The superintendents from Bridgeport, East Hartford and New Britain all concede the point, and research is mixed on the subject.
Bruce Baker, a Rutgers University expert in school finance who has testified in school-funding lawsuits around the country, said salary levels are critical. He is now a witness for the plaintiffs in Connecticut’s trial.
“A district like New Britain or Bridgeport is going to have to pay the same teacher more to get them to teach in more difficult classrooms,” he testified this week. “The jobs in the better working conditions are also those with higher pay.”
The state’s lawyers plans to offer another expert in school finance to explain that paying teachers more does not always lead to better outcomes
“Teachers’ salaries today are based on credentials and years of experience, factors that are at best weakly related to productivity,” Eric A. Hanushek of Stamford wrote in a 2011 report.
During cross examination, defense attorneys have also pointed out that the only research that has been done on class sizes in Connecticut’s schools — research that is 10 years old — did not conclude that outcomes improved when class sizes were reduced. They also point to California’s multi-billion push to reduce class sizes that they say has not improved its struggling schools.
Educators in Connecticut’s lowest-performing districts disagree.
Maselek, the teacher in New Britain, explained to the judge the impact of having 31 students in her fourth period American Government class, 17 of whom have special education needs, several significant, and a handful that speak limited English.
“It’s impossible to meet the needs of all the students when their needs are so vast,” she testified, pointing out that while she has one special education teacher in that class with her. “We don’t have enough teachers.”
Defense attorneys have been quick to point to the hundreds of positions that the state now funds as a result of the new state grants created in 2012. The state’s worst-performing districts are slated to receive nearly $200 million more this school year than during the 2011-12 school year.
The attorneys representing the state point out that funding paid for 17 full-time kindergarten teachers, 48 part-time literacy and math tutors and 19 school resource officers who oversee in-school suspension programs.
Rabinowitz explained to the judge, however, that those weren’t additional positions, rather positions that would otherwise have been eliminated to close the district’s budget deficit. The district has 73 fewer teachers, psychologists and social workers since the 2010-11 school year, she explained.
The State Department of Education is apparently aware that this additional funding is being used to close districts’ deficits. Since 2013 the agency has signaled that a share of that money could pay for existing programs in danger of closing because of budget shortfalls, but the “substantial majority” must be reserved for new reforms.
In October, however, state education officials said a considerable amount of funding is being used “inappropriately” and announced plans to push for a change in the law to make sure the funding is spent correctly.
It’s difficult for the public to get a sense of how the number of teachers, social workers, psychologists and tutors in a school or district have changed over the last four school years. That’s because the State Department of Education’s data portal that used to regularly track and provide that information has not been updated since the 2012-13 school year.
Teachers in the low-achieving districts overwhelmingly receive the highest ratings — a fact the defense attorneys have regularly pointed out to witnesses and the judge.
Statewide, only 66 teachers received the worst rating of “below standard” during the 2013-14 school year. This was out of a pool of 38,900 teachers whose ratings are publicly available. However, the evaluations for 9,900 teachers are not available either because the education department is concerned that releasing those results would invade a teachers’ privacy or because some teachers were not evaluated that year.
A state panel voted in 2012 to impose a controversial new teacher evaluation system on districts that require student test scores to be factored into ratings. The inclusion of test scores has been somewhat delayed since students began taking a new state exam in 2013.
Three school years have passed since these new evaluations were piloted on districts that enroll about one-fifth of the state’s public school students, but the state education department has not yet done any research to show that these new evaluations have led to teacher or student performance improving.
“What the ratings from the first year of implementation tell us is that teachers and principals are engaging in meaningful, professional dialogue and setting goals for how to strengthen the education we deliver to Connecticut students,” said Abbe Smith, a spokeswoman for the agency. “This is an all-around win for Connecticut – teachers are empowered by having more of a voice in school improvement and students benefit from the increased focus on teaching and learning. The system is a work in progress and we look forward to continuing the dialogue with partners.”
Education leaders who have testified so far have mixed feelings on the validity of the ratings.
A group called the Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, made up of the leaders of the two statewide teachers’ unions, city mayors, superintendents, parents and students, is the plaintiff in the case.
Several members of the coalition have testified they hope this lawsuit will lead to additional funding for their districts, so that they can hire additional staff, among other things.