By Lisa Thomson
Co-Founder of Red Apples of Norwalk
NORWALK, Conn. – Red Apples of Norwalk is a volunteer, grassroots education advocacy group. We’re moms and educators that want systemic change in Norwalk’s schools because we think kids deserve better – hardly a new concept in the national debate on public education.
Born in 2010, out of a few moms who met at Board of Education meetings, we wanted to raise our activism from individual PTO school fundraising to demanding a more strategic vision for our district. Some BOE members and anonymous bloggers have tried to label us teacher haters. How absurd! Many of our supporters ARE teachers. Sadly, many teachers feel they can’t speak publicly about the system. They’re scared. Some wait until retirement to tell it like it is, but even then, they are wary. I should know – my mom was a teacher.
But here’s some hard data. Connecticut has the largest achievement gap in the country and, while Norwalk does better than the state in many instances, it’s still not good enough for our kids. In the not so new global economy, U.S. students rarely make it into the Top Ten.
So what is it about our advocacy that makes some folks nervous? Nobody likes change. It’s scary, and sometimes those leading or implementing the change stumble. But doing nothing is NOT an option. To ensure that Norwalk’s kids will be ready for the demands of college and career, we need to improve across the board. That’s why Connecticut needs to proceed with implementing teacher AND administrator evaluation and professional development supports; standards for teacher preparation programs by raising GPA scores for college admission and requiring that early reading teachers have the right tools and know how to get kids reading at grade level from the start!
The Common Core standards are also important: Scheduled to be fully deployed by 2015, these standards mean that teachers can cover fewer and deeper content in the 3Rs – consistent with countries across the globe – and, for the first time, will help us compare our students’ performance to kids in other states and countries. We need this information to know whether U.S. students will be ready for college spots and jobs in the future!
These changes are no small feat. More professional development is needed – for EVERYBODY – teachers AND administrators. Gov. Dannel Malloy has led the charge but encountered resistance, mostly from union bosses who too often seem to block progress at every turn. If their resistance stalls reform, Connecticut is more likely to go bankrupt before it closes the achievement gap, gives kids a great education or creates more jobs.
States like Maryland and Florida and neighbors New York and Massachusetts have embraced reform. Other states have focused on the other U.S. hot button – ensuring long-term fiscal solvency with pension liabilities and escalating healthcare costs. However, improving outcomes for kids isn’t so much about spending MORE or LESS money, but about effectively ALLOCATING where the dollars get spent. Some specific questions we’re asking:
• Why are more NPS dollars budgeted for health care per employee than on education per student?
• Why doesn’t NPS know how much it spends per student on the 3Rs?
• Why does NPS spend less than half its budget on actual classroom teachers?
This brings me to another tough, yet important topic – teacher pay. Do we really understand the numbers? Recently, a report titled “Better Pay, Fairer Pensions: Reforming Teacher Compensation” was published by the Manhattan Institute. Two cost-neutral changes were proposed for teacher retirement benefits:
• moving more compensation into salary
• offering more flexible retirement benefit packages
Teachers who change districts or leave the profession before longevity increases kick in are left with very little. For the minority of teachers who stay in ONE school district their entire career, qualifying for full benefits, the system offers a maximum retirement. But this is done by relying on teacher turnover. The many subsidize the few. It also begs the question: Is this the best way to keep our best teachers? Instead of back-loading complicated, longevity steps at the end of a teacher’s career, increases could accrue more evenly, or maybe accelerate faster for highly effective teachers earlier in their careers to help recognize and RETAIN the very best teachers. At the moment, longevity trumps effectiveness, every time.
Shouldn’t parents be able to ask questions and advocate for a quality education for ALL students without being labeled teacher haters? We ALL need to be willing to break away from an agrarian schooling model developed at the turn of the LAST century and look for strategic and technologically innovative ways to deliver better outcomes for kids without bankrupting our cities and states.
Politicians also need to stop making innocuous statements about fully or not fully funding budgets. Instead, we ALL need to know WHERE the dollars are spent and if what is being done, works for kids; not an easy task, especially in a structure steeped in decades-old collective bargaining rules and contracts that favors the status quo. Nationally recognized reform Superintendent Dr. Manuel Rivera and the current BOE are moving to a three-year budget planning process. This should make things more transparent and stop the yo-yo like funding atmosphere.
Everyone wants a successful and dynamic K-12 story that reflects the world we live in today. Connecticut and Norwalk need to continue the progress made on reforms, so young families move back into our state, city and neighborhoods.