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The Condition of Education: Different Perspectives

How students perform on standardized tests should not be the sole basis for teacher evaluation, tenure is simply due process and charter schools are not a panacea.

That’s what Lily Eskelsen, the vice president of the nation’s largest teachers union, told a packed house of 2,800 on Nov. 11 at a panel discussion on education at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford.

“Maybe 1980 was the golden age and I didn’t know it,” she said. She described how, as a teacher in Utah, her grade school students weren’t thrilled with the standard reading textbooks provided by her school district’s central office, so she replaced them with books such as Old Yeller, and Black Stallion.

“My principal and the parents supported me. Now it’s all built around standardized tests in the spring,” she said. “That’s what’s killing the joy in the classroom. My teachers want to teach, to open minds to infinite possibility but all administrators and policymakers want to see is test scores.”

Joining NEA’s Eskelsen on the panel were Joel Klein, the outgoing chancellor of the New York City public schools; Davis Guggenheim, director of the charter-school-lauding documentary, Waiting for Superman; Deborah Gist, the Rhode Island commissioner of education; and Jon Schnur, CEO of New Leaders for Public Schools. The moderator of the Connecticut Forum discussion of Our Great Education Challenge was Nora O’Donnell, chief Washington correspondent for MSNBC.

Not all of the panelists agreed with Eskelsen, the lone union leader.  But Eskelsen more than held her own.

After she described how a caring teacher can perform a number of tasks to bring out the best in a student, Gist asked, “Can’t a great teacher do both, care and achieve?”

“Achievement has to be more than standardized test scores,” Eskelsen replied.

Klein agreed and suggested the NEA “come up with something.”

Schnur said, “Tests should not be the only measure. In many communities agreements are being made on how to assess teachers.”

During the second half of the program, the panelists answered questions from the audience. One audience member asked, “Why not get rid of tenure for teachers?”

Guggenheim insisted tenure protects a lot of bad teachers.

Eskelsen cited a number of past examples before tenure where teachers were replaced because of local politics, religion, gender, or let go so a principal could give the job to a friend.

“Tenure protects good teachers from being treated unfairly,” she said.

Klein said, “The system is broken. It works for adults, not children. We reward length of service but not excellence.”

“I don’t have tenure,” O’Donnell said.

Schnur said the tenure system needs to be modernized.

“We have to create a teaching profession that is the profession to be in,” he said. “We need higher standards. That’s how other countries do it.”

One such country is Finland, Eskelsen said, and their teachers are unionized.

O’Donnell broke in and asked, “Do they have tenure?”

“They have tenure,” Eskelsen replied. She went on to say that Finnish educators recruit the top students from universities and put them through a rigorous graduate school process, perhaps tougher than law or medical school.

“You must have a master’s degree in your specialty area in Finland’s schools,” Eskelsen said. “That is the opposite of Teach for America, where you are allowed to teach before you are prepared.”

An argument then ensued about the merits of the Teach for America program.

The night’s discussion began about the state of education in the United States today.

Schnur did not paint a pretty picture.

“Forty years ago U.S. public schools were No. 1 in performance and now are about 10th,” he said. “We have not gotten worse [since dropping to 10th] but we have not gotten better,”  he said. “While we have stagnated, other countries have moved ahead. Connecticut has the largest achievement gap in the country.” The achievement gap refers to the gap between low-income and non-low-income students’ test scores.

Klein claimed the current system impeded the progress he tried to make in New York City schools.

“I need math and science teachers,” he said. “I want to pay them more but am not allowed to under the current system.” He said he wants to do the same with principals but cannot and would like to hire principals who are not educators.

Guggenheim said he visited Harlem while making his film and, in referring to a charter school there, said that Klein worked miracles.

Eskelsen said that she disagreed with the premise that charter schools are the only answer. Though the union supports charter schools, she said only 17 percent of them are outperforming public schools.

One of the innovative approaches being used in Connecticut is the CommPACT school model, in which decisions about each school are made from the bottom up, giving a new voice to students, parents, and teachers. Everyone is empowered and work together, along with community leaders, to make existing public schools with unionized teachers improve.

The teachers are assisted by experts from the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education. There are CommPACT schools in Waterbury, Bridgeport, New Haven, and Hartford.

Eskelsen recently visited a CommPACT school in Waterbury, West Side Middle School, which she called “a little miracle.”

She said she was impressed by the positive attitudes of the teachers, parents, and students as she walked through the school and asked a teacher what made it this way. She was told that the teachers were asked for their opinions on how to improve the school and that excited them.

“How do we transform that school that is unacceptable?” Eskelsen asked. “Not by opening a few seats in a charter school.”

On the role of parents, Eskelsen said, “Parents are the most important factor in a kid’s life. When you put a caring parent and a competent teacher together, you rock.”

Parents should care, be honest and act, Klein said. Looking out at the audience, he said, “If  the people don’t insist that every school is a school I would send my kid to, things won’t change.”

After the forum ended and the audience was filing out into the street, two older women discussed what they had heard or not heard that night.

“No one mentioned money,” one said.

Her friend answered, “That’s the gorilla in the room.”

Read more about the CT Forum’s Our Great Education Challenge from the Hartford Courant.

If you attended the forum, please leave a comment and let us know your thoughts.

  1. Gloria Brown #

    Davis Guggenheim said we can’t accept any excuses. Is that what he thinks poverty, hunger, high absentee rates, and lack of resources are? I have to wonder what kind of movie he would be able to make if his equipment didn’t work, half of his actors didn’t show up, and the ones who did show up hadn’t learned their lines! Would he be willing to accept responsibility for the poor results? Or would he offer “excuses?”
    The Forum was disturbing because we have people like the participants (other than Lily) pushing “reform” without involving the teachers, parents, and students in any real decision-making.
    It was very interesting that the Courant reported that when the participants asked the members of the Youth Forum how they thought their schools could be improved, they said to get rid of the emphasis on testing and have their teachers get to know them better. Smart kids! They must have great teachers after all.

    November 19, 2010
  2. For those schools that are considering larger class size, when the question arose about class size and effectiveness, Lily Eskelson said she received Teacher of the Year with a classroom of twenty four. When she was given thirty students and then a shelter school she was not able to be the teacher of the year. There are limits even for great teachers.

    November 16, 2010

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