Testifying on everything from education funding to kindergarten start age to recruiting and retaining a diverse teaching force and more, many CEA leaders, members, and staff spoke up before the legislature’s Education Committee yesterday.
CEA President Kate Dias said CEA applauds the governor’s commitment to phasing in the full education cost sharing (ECS) formula, including a hold-harmless provision for certain districts that would otherwise see untimely declines in funding.
“What is most important is that we ensure that increases in funding are targeted toward addressing the greatest needs exhibited by students in our school system,” she said. “Over the past decade, we have seen a growing proportion of children become disengaged, disruptive, or dysregulated, which is especially alarming in the earliest grades.”
Unfortunately, the state’s poorest districts face the greatest challenges and struggle to retain educators, especially in shortage areas such as special education, school counseling, social work, and psychology.
To provide the state’s most financially distressed school districts with the resources they need, Dias asked committee members to consider an amendment to create a Promise District program to ensure available resources make it to where they’re needed most—the classroom. The program would set aside 25% of ECS increases received by the most financially distressed municipalities and target funding toward hiring more certified and non-certified support staff.
“The program would increase certified support staff, such as school counselors and social workers,” she said. “It would increase paraeducator and other non-certified staffing levels to enable teachers to collaborate and plan. And it would target funding for incentives to retain educators.”
Minority teacher recruitment and retention
Speaking to Senate Bill 274, which concerns minority teacher recruitment and retention, Dias told legislators, “This issue is really important to me and to CEA.”
She urged lawmakers to ensure input by active educators of color by requiring that the Minority Teacher Recruitment Task Force named in the bill include input from the Minority Teacher Policy Oversight Council, which has educators of colors among its members.
To improve educator retention and better the overall climate of schools, CEA Vice President Joslyn DeLancey urged the committee to consider an amendment to another bill that would raise the years of experience an educator is required to have to hold a school leadership certification and ultimately become a building principal.
“Currently, an educator can become the leader of a school community after just five short years of experience in a building,” she said. “This means that a person can graduate from college, become a teacher, and then a building leader, all before their 10-year high school reunion. As a local, and more recently, a statewide union leader, I have observed the negative impact that inexperienced administrators can have on job satisfaction, performance, and the overall climate and culture of a school.”
Foundations of Reading Exam
DeLancey also encouraged the committee to not only do away with a proposal that would require paraeducators to take the Foundations of Reading Exam but to also reconsider the current implementation of the exam for teachers
“While we understand the need to ensure that we have strong reading instruction for our students, we do not believe this biannual exam requirement contributes anything to this goal,” she said. “We believe that this survey is a barrier to certification for aspiring educators, particularly for people of color, and that it is also culturally biased. Additionally, the requirement for teachers to take this two-hour exam every two years is a poor use of time that does little to ensure that educators currently in classrooms get productive professional development or meaningful reflection as a result of the survey.”
She continued, “Strong reading instruction comes from well designed and implemented professional development, removal of boxed literacy programs (e.g., Lucy Calkins’s Units of Study for Teaching Reading series), and mindful and thorough evaluation and feedback from strong, smart, and sophisticated building administrators.”
Student mental health
CEA leaders and members have already testified this session on the need to improve mental health supports in schools, and many reinforced that message for legislators again yesterday.
“The pandemic underscored the need for more resources—additional social workers, counselors, access to healthcare resources, and lower student-to-teacher ratios,” said CEA Executive Director Don Williams. “Identifying and addressing student health needs as early as possible leads to better outcomes in every way.”
Saying that CEA strongly supports Senate Bill 1, which concerns mental and physical health for students in our schools, Williams added that CEA is proposing three amendments to the bill that would
- end dual teaching, where classroom teaching is divided in real time between in-class students and remote students,
- encourage Common Core flexibility and play-based learning in elementary school, and
- raise the kindergarten start age to five and increase the number of preschool spaces.
Williams explained that all three are key pieces to helping improve student mental health.
“Play-based learning is essential to self-regulation and executive function, which are in turn critical for academic and life success,” Williams told legislators. “We need greater flexibility in how the Common Core is taught in elementary school to take into account basic facts regarding child development and the need to learn through play.”
Kindergarten start age
When it comes to kindergarten start age, Williams said that it does not make sense for Connecticut to continue to be an outlier among states. “Connecticut allows children to start kindergarten at the youngest age, four and a half. No other state permits placing so many four-year-old children into what has become a more academically pressurized experience. Age makes a huge difference in elementary school, and some studies have linked a younger start age for children in kindergarten with increasing the likelihood of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.”
He added, “At the same time, families must not be disadvantaged with limited access to free or affordable childcare. That’s why linking these two developmentally appropriate goals makes sense. Our amendment would require that the state increase the number of spaces for preschool programs to accommodate the number of four-and-a-half-year-old children who would in the future enter school at age five.”
The committee also heard from an educator with lots of firsthand experience with the importance of changing the kindergarten start age, Newington kindergarten teacher Lesley Keener.
“I’ve been teaching in public schools for 35 years, I’ve watched the changes over the last 35 years,” she told committee members, testifying live from her classroom. “I’ve watched the programs change, I’ve watched the curriculum change, I’ve watched the stress level change for students, teachers, and families.”
Keener said that as a society we are putting too much stress on our young people–and they are telling us so. “They are throwing chairs, destroying school property, striking out, and crying for help. We continue to have achievement gaps, low literacy rates statewide, and an increase in teen suicides, vaping, and drug use.”
She said that what’s happening in kindergarten greatly affects the other grades. “We have lost our focus on the development of oral language, critical thinking, coping, and executive functioning skills because of the pressure and focus on academic skills from too young of an age—thus weakening the foundation for cognitive, emotional, and physical growth! To boot, we have curricula and assessments based on national standards and norms, yet we still are the only state bringing four-year-olds into kindergarten. Our children are starting behind the starting line of the rest of the country–and the world. We have to look at how and what we are teaching along with how children learn best–at all levels–and this may help reduce the number of mental and behavioral health concerns and challenges we are seeing now.”
“This is probably the best presentation I’ve seen, when you have a teacher in a classroom, showing us all the artwork,” said Education Committee Co-Chair Rep. Robert Sanchez.
Over Zoom, Keener gave legislators a tour of her classroom. Showing a sample of student work, she said, “These kids are supposed to write a three-sentence story. They’re supposed to write a narrative, an opinion, and a persuasive piece by June, when they’re barely sounding out, ‘I went to Chuck E. Cheese this weekend,’ and that is painstaking for them. So instead of building them up as writers and readers, we’re making them feel like failures before they even start.”
She urged, “You all have to be brave enough to do it. Make the change.”
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