With the decision from the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF) v. Rell case, we are taking a giant leap forward in Connecticut, but taking an equally giant step backwards as a nation. We’re starting to win the battle of funding equity, but we are still losing to the teacher shamers — which is more a national issue than solely a Connecticut issue. It’s important to remember that teachers are the lifeblood of a school and we’ve been misunderstood for years.
I remember reading the early Tweets from the various reporters I follow on Twitter – I wasn’t quite sure where the 90-page verdict was going. It was lunch time when the decision first started being read and I had to go back to teaching my afternoon classes not feeling good about what the judge was saying. By the time the decision was finished being read, it was after school and I had realized the decision was in favor of those of us on the front lines of urban education in Connecticut.
Having started my teaching career with a year-long internship in Fairfield and then formally starting my career in Bridgeport, I could not believe the disparities between my two schools that are within two miles of each other. One road — a town line — kept my Bridgeport students in the poverty they have always known while across the street in Fairfield, their students thrived.
My students can’t even get a classroom set of To Kill a Mockingbird without having to apply for grants, while the book rooms in Fairfield easily rival Barnes & Noble for size and scope of their inventory. It’s what Dr. Bryan Ripley Crandall at Fairfield University calls a Zip Code apartheid.
I don’t want to use this space to keep drawing comparisons of inequity because, thankfully, Judge Thomas Moukawsher’s decision is waking up a state that has been living in a fantasy world for far too long. But with this decision came a far sadder truth: teachers are still misunderstood because nobody knows what teachers face every day in our classrooms, unless you are an educator. Unfortunately, those making laws for us are not educators. There’s no doubt that this decision is a landmark in the rights of students, but some of the remarks Judge Moukawsher made about teachers and how they are evaluated encroaches dangerous territory.
Moukawsher bashes the evaluation system because too many teachers are scored as exemplary and he criticizes the lack of student “success” in the evaluation formula. In my opinion, since 45 percent of our evaluations are based on student “success,” I think there’s already too much of it in our equation. Student “success” can be defined in so many different ways, not just the ways the state or nation deems acceptable.
We’re missing seeing the whole student in this model. Not to mention the fact that health care, home life, and social implications are crucial factors that affect a student and in which a teacher has absolutely no control over. If policy makers don’t believe me, my classroom is open and waiting for you to visit. Come see it first hand. This is an open invitation.
Using an evaluation system where student “success” determines a teacher’s efficacy means that only suburban and rural teachers will be evaluated as exemplary because they have the resources available to help those teachers meet their students where they are. Urban teachers like myself have to do the best we can with the very little we are provided. The odds are stacked against us from the beginning. And I, for one, don’t appreciate Judge Moukawsher’s assumption that schools with failing students means the teachers must be deemed failures as well.
You want a better evaluation system? Make professional growth and development the main indicators of a teacher’s success, not student outcomes. We can control how well-educated we are as professionals and we should be held accountable for that, but we can’t always control the various factors that alter a student’s performance and we shouldn’t have to be evaluated on them. It’s demeaning and insulting. The teacher bashing has to stop.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, I do want to thank Superintendent Fran Rabinowitz for her tireless and honest testimony given to the CCJEF case on behalf of the Bridgeport Public Schools. She didn’t sugarcoat the truths we face each day and she fought valiantly on our behalf. During her time in Bridgeport she has been our greatest supporter and she is a champion of the educators in Bridgeport.
As Senate Majority Leader and friend of the Connecticut Writing Project Bob Duff said, “this could be a clarion moment for education reform.” He is absolutely right, but it cannot be a reality until our teachers are respected and understood as professionals.
Shaun Mitchell was a 2016 Finalist for Connecticut State Teacher of the Year and recipient of the prestigious Beard Award for Excellence in Teaching. He is an English teacher at Central High School and a Teacher Consultant for the Connecticut Writing Project.