Westport PTA Sponsors Forum Regarding Senate Bill 24

Cheyenne Haslett, Web News Editor

On Mon., April 2, the Westport PTA Council sponsored a forum in which a panel was set up at Town Hall to answer questions about Governor Dannel Malloy’s proposed Senate Bill 24, “An Act Concerning Educational Competitiveness.”

On the forum and poised to field questions about S.B. 24 were Rep. Jonathan Steinberg D-136, Rep. Gail Lavielle, Senator Toni Boucher, A.P. Economics teacher Kathy Sharp, English teacher Julia MacNamee and English teacher Anne Fernandez.

The bill, which proposes to reform a large amount of the Connecticut education system, has stirred controversy in recent weeks. Steinberg recognized the tension the bill has created and started the meeting off with an appeal for both sides to remain calm. “I would start by saying I hope everyone here can take a long deep breath,” Steinberg said, adding that, “It’s really about the kids.”

Westport parents with children in the school system, concerned residents of the town and educators employed by the district all came prepared with questions, most of which involved teacher evaluation being linked to standardized testing, tenure and salary, as well as the achievement gap between districts.

Most questions stemmed from the section of S.B. 24 which proposes that 22.5 percent of a teacher’s evaluation be determined by their students’ standardized test scores. Many questioned the reliability of such data. “You cannot hold teachers accountable for things out of their control or they will leave,” said Fernandez in response to a parent’s question about high-stakes testing

Boucher pointed out that there are times when she believes statewide testing is helpful, and cited a time when CMT scores in one of her district’s showed students struggling with fractions, which allowed educators to analyze the curriculum and change it for better results. “Testing can produce great data,” said Boucher.

Others, however, such as Sharp, believe that tests evaluate student skills, not teacher quality. “So much can affect scores outside of a teacher’s control,” Sharp said.

It is for this reason, and many others, that some teachers feel implementing standardized test scores into a teacher evaluation system would put their salaries or tenure in jeopardy, which, if true, could lead to a different environment in Westport, as well as towns and cities across the state. “Would I be here, speaking tonight, if I didn’t have tenure? I don’t think so,” MacNamee said.

Other issues covered by the forum were complaints over the way the Education Committee handled voting, fear that the bill could hurt high achieving schools, and whether or not teachers and parents were involved sufficiently during the making of the bill.

The bill has been passed by the Education Committee and is on its way to the Appropriations Committee, where budgets will be discussed. From there, it will go to the full Senate, the House of Representatives, and finally, back to the Governor’s desk. Possession officially ends May 8.

One thing that no one argued was the growing achievement gap, backed by the statistic that 41% of students are in failing districts. Many linked this academic disparity to the socioeconomic difference across Connecticut.

“We don’t know how good we have it, and it’s up to us to lift the rest,” Steinberg said.