Linette Branham of the CEA: The “Sausage Model” of Education Reform”

People think you make policy and the rest is easy. But the devil is in the details – what does policy look like in practice? 

Policy itself is the broad statements – laws or guidelines – meant to promote best practice. Details generally don’t go into policy because they make policy too restrictive.

Policy should always be research-based and clearly written – often it isn’t.

Policy should be a balance between strictness and flexibility. Consistency and equity are important in the educational arena. Policy can support change. Policy can support accountability – which some say is most important.

Education policy is leveled. S.B. 24 started out as one thing, morphed into a substitute bill (everyone knows this always happens) called S.B. 458 which eventually became Public Act 12-116. Legislators have particular interests and agendas which come from particular areas. There’s the education committee in the state legislature – most (not all) education reform legislation comes from that point.

The players:

  • educational groups (which are the major players but often clash): includes CEA (CT’s largest teachers’ union, which represents only teachers) and others such as AFT-CT – American Federation Teachers in CT, CAPSS – CT Association of Public School Superintendents, which isn’t a labor union because superintendents bargain individually, CAS – CT Association of Schools, which isn’t a labor union either, AFSA – American Federation of School Administrators, which does represent the voice of school administrators similarly to CAS, CABE – CT Association of Boards of Education, and various higher education groups (a note about unions – districts as a whole choose a union to join – every local district has an organization that chooses to be associated with a state affiliate)
  • education reformers  (not composed of practicing educators but have education reform high on their own agendas): ConnCAN, Students First (founded by ex-DC superintendent Michelle Rhee, who drove through serious change to acquire Race to the Top funds), TFA (Teach for America, founded by Wendy Kopp, focused on training of teachers based on alternate route to certification program), CCSR (CT Council for School Reform, which grew from a state task force and promotes change), and Students for Education Reform (aha!)
  • other special interest groups: CBIA (CT Business and Industry Association), legislative caucuses (groups in legislature with a common interest – example: Black and Latino Caucus), parent groups CT Parent Power, CT Parents Union

So, how do you create education policy to satisfy everyone? It’s not easy.

Someone gets an idea, often based on their own experiences (in their own schooling or a child’s school). Often their ideas are antiquated – they don’t really have a finger on the pulse of public schools today. Example: literacy is important right now. So the Black and Latino Caucus says that we need to make sure that teachers know how to teach reading and we need to make sure that we can measure that. So, this idea is proposed and gets thrown into the whirlwind of the legislation-in-process.

This is what happens: everything gets thrown into a grinder and you get..something. It’s like making sausage – a lot different in outcome than what you think you’re going to get at the start. Wins, losses, draws, unintended consequences – but usually better than nothing at all.

Out of this idea thrown into the mix, it was decided that teachers will, every year, have to take a practice version of a test (the final version of which they have already taken). CEA stepped in to testify saying that this was not the best solution – unsuccessfully. It was thrown into the sausage. Now, every teacher (in early grades) has to take the practice version of the Foundations of Reading exam every year. BUT WAIT. To clarify: that means that every single year, teachers take the SAME 2009 practice version of a certification test. That 2009 practice test and the answers are AVAILABLE ONLINE.

The sausage model – a messy process, at best – of creation of education policy:

  • the good: all voices can be heard, leads to coalition-building
  • the bad: everyone promotes their own perspective as the best solution, it’s difficult to reach the “right” people  – and the “right people” might have little to no background knowledge about the issues being discussed
  • the ugly: distrust, distortion of the truth, and players do whatever it takes to win (Syd’s note: I hate this language – education is not a win/lose game)

After policy is actually implemented, it’s not over – law dictates guidelines meant to dictate practice. At that point, the players begin again to fight for their own interpretation of the policy. A few questions to be asked: Who provides “official” interpretation? What does the policy “look like” in practice?  Are necessary structures in place? Funding? Conflict with other policies?

Education reform in CT is not new.

We were the 2nd to have a state-wide standardized test (CMT, 1985). We were first to create a state-wide set of teaching standards for all teachers (Common Core of Teaching, 1987). In 1986 – and this was the beginning of the road to “standards” for teachers – the Education Enhancement Act raised teacher salaries, set higher teacher “standards,” and required districts to have PD committees. In 1989, the Beginning Education Support and Training Program began as a mentorship program and ended as a high-stakes evaluation process to retain certification. The passing of NCLB in 2001 was followed by CT’s Accountability for Learning Initiative to provide support for low-performing schools and the Education Accountability Act to meet NCLB requirements by identifying and remediating low-performing schools. In 2008 the Sheff Stipulated Agreement led to an explosion in school choice designed to reduce economic and racial isolation (segregation) in Hartford. The CT Plan for Secondary School Reform passed in 2009 and was meant to increase rigor of high schools but is not funded well enough to progress significantly. In 2010 the Common Core State Standards (math and English/language arts only, but “crosswalks” are included to show how math/lang skills cross over into other areas) were established, and intended to be followed by the development of a new state-wide test. Public Act 12-116, passed as the final version of S.B. 24, provides for Network Schools, Alliance Districts, PD, reading & literacy. 

Today’s biggest issue is teacher evaluation. Teachers are required to be evaluated every year. Based on the recent reforms, though, evaluation is going to look much different.

Now, if teachers aren’t being evaluated, its because administrators aren’t getting it done – they have too much on their plates.

With the passage of P.A. 12-116:

  • 4-level matrix rating system: exemplary, proficient, developing, below standard performance in terms of level of “meeting indicators” – BUT what are these “indicators”? who is doing the evaluating? what does it mean to “substantially exceed” already-ambiguous “indicators”?)
  • “multiple indicators of student academic growth and development” – “22.5% of the indicators shall be based on the state test (based on?) ….or on other standardized indicator for other grades and subjects where available”
  • did teacher meet (exceeded, met, partially met or did not meet) goal via student growth? (but what’s the target?)

SO. All of the players have some perspective about what the policy should look like in practice. You can see the kind of nightmare we end up with.

The CEA advocated for language of “indicator”  (implies evidence) rather than “measure” (implies assessment) because many teachers consider student work over a period time as a far better indicator (that is, evidence) for student growth than standardized exams. Using a standardized test as assessment is problematic because it is just a snapshot in time and cannot show a pattern of growth. Plus, some kids don’t care – why should performance be judged based on kids filling in random answers just to get a test over with? Does whatever happens on test day, based on a number of circumstances that impact performance, really demonstrate overall teacher effectiveness?

Now: let’s look at some language in Public Act 12-116. Anything you might have questions about? Anything vague? Problematic? Ambiguous?

from 12-116:

…an endorsement to teach comprehensive special education grades one to twelve, inclusive, shall be valid for grades kindergarten to twelve, inclusive, provided, on July 1, 2013, any certified employee with such comprehensive special education endorsement achieves a satisfactory score on the reading instruction examination approved by the State Board of Education on April 1, 2009.

Student question: if a special ed teacher just doesn’t take the exam, does s/he still have a certificate? What if s/he fails? What do “comprehensive” and “inclusive” mean?

Special ed teachers are panicking. We need to know – what is this going to mean for our teachers? Special ed is already a shortage area, and now there’s a danger that come July 1, they aren’t going to have a certificate. What is this going to mean for our special ed students? Why would anyone propose legislation like this? 

again, from 12-116:

…for the school year commencing July 1, 2014, and each school year thereafter, the local or regional board of education for all certified employees who hold an initial, provisional or professional educator certificate with an early childhood nursery through grade three or an elementary endorsement and are employed in a position requiring such an endorsement in kindergarten to grade three, inclusive, shall require all such certified employees to take the practice version of the reading instruction examination approved by the State Board of Education on April 1, 2009. Each local and regional board of education shall annually report the results of such practice examination to the Department of Education.”

Awesome. Says Eliza: “It sure takes a while to even figure out what it’s talking about.” From the back of the room: “What a run-on sentence.”

Is having every teacher take this test going to reform public education? I personally don’t think so. One of the things we should avoid at all costs is jumping on the bandwagon. And our teacher evaluation system, as it stands, is a prime example of that.

So how to address the achievement gap?

My personal opinion is that the achievement gap is based on the fact that – because of a number of social factors – kids don’t come in with the readiness skills they need to move on. I hear people who say, “I have kindergarteners who cant speak because no one is speaking to them at home.” The problem is that we’re not focusing enough on literacy development – and I’m not just saying reading, we need writing, speaking etc – and we have become such a visual world that if we dont focus on those other areas, were doing kids a disservice. I believe that if we focused on early literacy, we’d start to chisel away at the achievement gap. But when kids come in, they get everything. I’m not saying the other classes aren’t important. They are. But we need to somehow use the primary grades to support literacy. I think it would really make a difference.

Dr. Branham leaves us with these questions about the future of CT education reform: Will CT’s education reform policies actually change things for the better? What general factors affect implementation of policies? How can we avoid “jumping on the bandwagon”? How can an individual or group influence policy development? Is it worth it? 

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