Moukawsher got the problem right, and the solution wrong

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Judge Thomas Moukawsher has performed a remarkable service by shining a bright light on the profoundly unfair, counterproductive, and irrational way Connecticut funds public education.  While the odds against a court-overseen remedy of the type contained in his Sept. 7 order are long indeed, the children of Connecticut should hope that the governor, the State Department of Education, and the legislature seize the opportunity to make radical change.

Alas, here lies the problem.  There is no clear solution.  Ever since Ronald Reagan released “A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform” in 1983, a report that documented the increasing failure of American schools, a political divide has emerged on educational reform.  Liberals claim that more money is needed for better-qualified teachers, better curricular material, better facilities.  Conservatives say schools need to be run like businesses, with pay and tenure based on performance and performance measured by tests of student performance.

No Child Left Behind, passed in 2001 and signed in early January 2002, brought the two sides together with legislation that included both a substantial hike in resources and strict regimen of accountability.  It was the model of political compromise, but virtually every indicator of educational effectiveness in the last fourteen years shows no improvement or actual decline.  Both the liberal and the conservative approach have been tried and both have failed to move the needle.

Of course, these interventions did not occur in a vacuum.  Rather, societal winds buffeted the education system.  Perhaps the most significant has been the raising, if not breaking, of the glass ceiling.  Teaching, particularly at the elementary level, has traditionally been a female occupation.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 76.3 percent of teachers were female during the 2011-2012 school year, compared to 70.5 percent during the 1987-88 school year.  Yet during the same period, the percentage of women becoming doctors, lawyers, engineers, and corporate executives has skyrocketed.  Now, half of all law school and medical school graduates and 40% of MBAs are women.

A number of academic studies document that college graduates with high SAT or ACT scores are less likely to enter teaching and show a serious decline in test scores for teachers from 1960 to 2000.  That the best opt for professions other than teaching is not just the result of the relatively low wages of teachers, it is also a product of the political assault on teachers.   Surprisingly, a 2013 Pew Research Center study revealed that teachers were second only to the military when rated by the public on the question of who contributes the most to society’s well-being and that the drop from 2009 to 2013 for teachers was about the same as the drop for other professions.

The crux of excellent education is excellent teaching.  Strong academic performance does not, of course, make a great teacher.  Still, those who teach our children should be committed and competent, creative and caring.  As teaching loses out to other occupational choices for our top college graduates, the quality of teaching declines.

None of this is to say that Connecticut has mediocre teachers.  Connecticut’s schools have some extraordinary teachers and some weak teachers.  More to the point, however, the high stakes testing, the slavish dedication to a Common Core based curriculum, and the byzantine teacher evaluation system all operate to prevent teachers, both the strong and the weak, from doing their jobs.  We have made it virtually illegal to teach, that is, to create the intense, individual relationship between an adult and a student that can lead the student to expand his or her ability to perceive, understand, and contribute to the world.

Judge Moukawsher’s analysis of the irrationality of Connecticut’s school funding system, of the starving of urban school districts, and of the bizarre nature of the teacher evaluation system is acute.  His prescription for more reliance on testing and for decimating special education is ill-informed and wrong-headed.  The political leadership in Hartford needs to recognize the crisis identified by the judge, ignore his suggestions for reform, and get to work devising an education system for Connecticut that will produce high quality education.

The fulcrum of that effort needs to be teaching.  Creating an education system that produces excellent results needs to be designed from the classroom, not from the State Department of Education or from the Legislature.  We need to provide teachers with the tools, respect, and resources they need to educate our children.  Education is a one-on-one, teacher to student effort.  Connecticut’s new education system needs to reflect that reality.

Andrew Feinstein is a special education lawyer in Mystic.

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