Wednesday, Patch interviewed Sharon Palmer, a former Waterford teacher and the president of the second largest teachers union in the state, the American Federation of Teachers, and Waterford Superintendent Jerome Belair about the recent education reform debate dominating the state government.
Patch expected a contrast, with Belair representing administration wanting to get more out of teachers while paying less, and Palmer arguing that teachers are all saints who are underpaid and should be immune from ever being fired.
Instead, the opposite happened. The two had views so similar, that if they were put out without a name attached, you couldn’t tell them apart.
“What the efforts are about now is to identify the expectation for everybody,” Belair said. “We want the standard to be excellence.”
Palmer’s words were even stronger.
“I would like to weed out the (teachers) who don’t belong there,” Palmer said. “We don’t want them there either.”
Palmer said the key to this reform is to perfect the evaluations. Both agreed that standardized tests should be part of the equation, along with the principal’s review and observation.
Belair discussed how Waterford reviews non-tenured teachers, which are generally teachers in their first four years on the job. The teachers are observed often and are given support and guidelines of where they need to improve, and if the principal believes they are not improving, the principal has to make the tough decision not to renew the teacher’s contract, Belair said.
“It is very important for a principal to be able to make that decision, and they will take a lot of heat but they need to be able to do it,” he said. “I always ask them, ‘Would you want your child in that classroom?’ And if the answer is no, I tell them you are letting those parents at home down if you don’t.”
Again, Palmer’s words were even stronger. Palmer and her union were instrumental in setting up a new evaluation system in the New Haven School District, and in the first year of implementation 34 teachers were let go after having poor evaluations.
“Thirty-four teachers were let go, and none of them even requested a hearing,” she said. “Because they all knew they weren’t up to the standard."
Belair and Palmer both stressed that teachers need mentoring and to be told where they need to improve before just being let go. Belair added that teachers need to know when they are doing a good job, not just when they are doing a bad job.
“I should hear that I’m doing a good job just as much as if I’m doing a bad job,” he said. “Both need to be out there.”
The Problems With The Governor’s Bill
Palmer was concerned with parts of the governor’s bill, largely the part that said teachers would have to essentially reapply for a teaching certification every five years. If they are doing poorly, they could lose that certification, she said.
She was opposed to that because she said the teacher should lose his or her job, but not the certification, meaning they can’t teach in Connecticut anymore. Sometimes, it is not a good fit, she said.
“This is especially an issue for our teachers in urban districts, where there is a 50 percent turnover rate in four years,” Palmer said. “Sometimes, it is just not a good fit in a certain place, but that shouldn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to teach in Connecticut again.”
Belair and Palmer both voiced concerns with basing teachers’ pay off of performance, instead of the current system which is based purely on experience and education.
Belair worried about the practicality of doing it, with taxpayers potentially having to pay people more. But Belair did say if there was a bonus system similar to places like Pfizer, “I couldn’t see myself being against that.”
Palmer said performance-based pay is being looked at in other areas in the country, and wanted to see the results before commenting. She did say though that the system would have to have some rigidity to it, to avoid favoritism.
“(The current pay system) is based on something that is entirely measurable,” Palmer said. “Because historically, high school teachers were paid more than elementary school teachers, men were paid more than women, the principals favorites were paid more and, perhaps most disturbingly, teachers that were politically connected were paid more.”
Why The Bill Didn’t Pass
The bill didn’t go through the education committee as the governor proposed it “because of the unknowns,” Palmer said. But the AFT promises to keep working on it and get something like that in place, she said.
“The goal we have is not far off than what the governor wants, and that is to make the work situation better for our members,” Palmer said. “If we can get better teachers in front of our students, it is only going to benefit the students, which is what this is all about.”
“Family plays a huge part, and the student plays a huge part, but teachers make a big difference, I know teachers can make a difference,” Belair said. “I have seen teachers make a big difference. And our goal should be to have the best teachers possible and the best administrators possible to make that happen.”