Bethel is among the schools that voluntarily sought the kind of reform Malloy hopes to see across the state, and the evidence exists that Bethel has met the challenges. But that doesn't mean that Governor Dannel Malloy's education reform will leave Bethel unscathed, and there is concern among educators.
when Malloy came to Bethel to talk about education reform. According to Malloy, 31 states have already adopted some of the changes he is seeking to put forth in Connecticut. Among those states that have already instituted changes are New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and all are wrapped tightly around CT. The squeeze to change is being felt throughout the state.
Bethel's success does not necessarily mean that Bethel administrators are 100 percent on board with Malloy’s ideas. One of the major concerns is that teacher evaluations will be based on student performance.
“We all face kids who have trouble learning,” said Associate Superintendent Janice Jordan, Ph.D.. “I am not saying inner city kids or anything like that. I am saying that about kids right here in Bethel.”
Jordan said that when she first came to the Bethel School District she met regularly with a group of teachers who developed a formal and structured teacher evaluation program. That program included the teachers’ ability to look at their students’ test scores and say, ‘Okay, why are these kids learning and why aren't these kids learning, and let’s try to figure out how to help them.’
With an increased use in data, teachers and administrators now look over the students’ scores several times over the course of the year. According to Jordan, the Bethel schools have long held their teachers accountable. “And let me tell you,” she said, “when that happens, you are trying to make things better for the children.”
Many of the teachers who came to hear Malloy speak in Bethel seemed convinced that being held accountable could mean losing their jobs. However, Bethel’s administrators disagree. “There are very few kids, if you give them other ways of learning, that will not learn. If teachers are doing that, there is nothing to be afraid of,” Jordan said.
Superintendent Kevin Smith felt that evaluating teachers is a critical aspect of running a successful school, however he is not fully on board with what the governor has been proposing. He said, “The challenge with comparing one teacher against another is that you have all these different variables. There are in-school factors and out- of-school factors that contribute to a student’s performance in an assessment. I am opposed to using that exclusively or significantly, with the governor calling for an overall 22 percent of a teacher’s rating being in tested areas.”
Testing was a concern of at least one of the parents at Malloy’s town hall meeting. Many parents and educators fear that there is already too much testing. However, Jordan said that with Smarter Balance Assessments (SBA) testing has changed dramatically for the better. The process now shows how students take what they have learned in the classroom and enables them to apply it to real life situations. “That is not what the CAPT and CMT tests are about,” she said.
Describing the new method, Jordan said, “There are all kinds of wonderful new things in these assessments. And I don't think we are afraid of them, we just know they are different and we have to prepare our teachers.”
Describing a three day long SBA, a fourth grade class set up a grocery store. Students had to figure out the best places to put shelves, doors, a cash register, etc. They had to determine how much space people need to shop. “Students will conduct polls to determine when people shop and what the store hours should be. They will have to determine how many employees, how much they have to pay them, how much to charge for items to cover their costs,” Jordan said, describing the detailed process these fourth graders must complete. “It is so sophisticated, it’s calculus, but they don't know that.”
“This is what you call a performance assessment. It’s the application of your math understanding, solving real world problems,” Jordan said, adding that, “It will show how children will learn. There are parts of that test that I would shine in and there are parts that I will not, it’s just my learning style. But there is really something in it for everyone, and it’s kind of fun, really.”
“You will never hear our teachers say that kids can't learn. You have to find the way that they can,” Jordan said.
Bethel’s educators are concerned that there could be changes enforced by the Malloy administration. Bethel’s schools have focused on assessments and evaluations for years, and it is working. No one wants it messed with.
“I think people get stirred up, our teachers, our union leadership are concerned that things will be mandated for every district no matter where you are, no matter what you can do,” Jordan said, adding she is not necessarily opposed to mandates in the inner city schools where children are failing. “You must show improvement in kids, and there is a part of me that doesn't mind that at all,” she said.
BHS teacher Jessica Galbraith thinks the new method of evaluating teachers takes the fear out of being observed in the classroom. “Our teacher evaluation guru is Dr. Jordan. She put together a framework for evaluating teachers, and I think most teachers like it. It allows teachers to ask for help."
According to Galbraith, the observation process is not set up to be punitive, it is set up for coaching and helping teachers, novice as well as more experienced teachers, to get better at their craft. "We are trying to mold teachers here, and not coming in for the attack," Galbraith said. "We are looking only at things that are going wrong with a lesson. Malloy wants to rank teachers from best to worst, and pay them accordingly. That’s what I think teachers are afraid of."
Smith said, “The teacher has to create conditions for the children to do well. We want kids to think critically and solve those problems. It isn't about them taking a test and doing well.”
Smith said it is about looking at the whole picture, and he believes it is impossible to say whether or not a teacher is effective with only one measure.
“Every measure would show that our teachers are performing at high levels. We intervene and work with teachers at a intense level, and they have to gather evidence of their practice, not just in the classroom, but with planning, interaction with parents, and a whole host of domains. They must evaluate themselves. And that happens no matter if you are the highest performing teacher or the lowest.”
Teachers who are struggling are not let go unless they continually fail their students. Smith said, “I can tell you every administrator who has supervision. We know who is struggling and who is not. We have a strong mentoring program for teachers, a buddy teacher program, coaching for peers. We have an evaluation system that we have been working on for six years. It does exactly what the governor proposes and does not get us to where we have to rank our teachers.”