Locking Horns Over Tenure

Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor testifying yesterday at the Capitol - New Haven Independent

It is quite a sight. Lawmakers in Hartford are holding marathon hearings on Gov. Dannel Malloy’s education reform proposals. Interested parties — the education establishment, families and the governor’s people — are lining up to weigh in on perhaps the biggest battle over a public policy issue since Lowell Weicker rammed through a state income tax 20 years ago.

The focus of much of the deliberations is on Malloy’s most controversial proposal — you know, the one that makes it harder for teachers to get tenure and easier to take it away. I must say that I’m surprised Malloy has taken on this high-profile issue, fraught as it is with such political peril. After all, few Democrats have the stomach to take on labor unions.

I can only assume that Malloy believes deeply in the cause of improving the ranks of the teaching profession. For not only does he want to make it easier to rid the system of chronically under-performing teachers, but he wants to make it harder to become a licensed teacher in the first place (see his proposal to raise the minimum undergraduate GPA of aspiring teachers who want to be licensed in the state).

Even as a former teacher, I take a back seat to no one in my distaste for tenure. It’s an expensive job protection that virtually no one outside the world of education enjoys. There really is no compelling defense for it. Even the unions have conceded it needs reform and they have offered to shorten the timeline for firing awful teachers.

But why has Malloy seized on the issue and made it the centerpiece of his education reform proposal? A cynic might say he was trying to get back at all those teachers who no doubt told the young learning-disabled Malloy that he was mentally retarded and wouldn’t amount to anything.

I don’t know if that’s true. I may have spent an hour with the man last week, but I can’t read his mind. I can, however, tell you the real causes of the failure of our public education system have less to do with teachers than with the intractable social problems we face. It is certainly true that even as education spending has risen over the last several decades, student performance has not. But it’s also true that as social pathologies have deepened, so too has student achievement worsened.

But there’s not much the government can do about teen pregnancy, drug abuse, lousy parenting, poor eating habits and digital distractions. The government can, however, control who stands in front of a classroom.

If that makes teachers the low-hanging fruit, then so be it.

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