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Kevin Ahern on the Campbell Conversations

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Most public school teachers are feeling embattled these days, with public criticisms of their effectiveness and calls for tougher evaluations and promotion criteria.  At the same time, public schools in poorer districts are being asked to do more and more to help address the broader social and economic problems manifesting themselves among school populations.  How are teachers experiencing these challenges?  This week on the Campbell Conversations, host Grant Reeher speaks with Kevin Ahern, a product of the Syracuse City school system, a longtime English teacher in the system, and currently President of the Syracuse Teachers Association.

Interview Highlights

Grant Reeher: Some observers, including the governor, have argued that the mismatch between the effectiveness ratings of the teachers and then the success ratings of the schools, in terms of exam scores and graduation rates, that the mismatch between those two demonstrates that the teacher evaluation system, itself, is too generous and needs to be toughened. Is there something wrong with that logic?

Kevin Ahern: Yeah, I think that is based on a faulty notion that kids’ performance on standardized tests is solely caused, or affected by a teacher’s effectiveness in a classroom. The measurements are really kind of unfair because they don’t take into account so many factors that classroom teachers simply can’t account for.

Reeher: So tell me more about that. What are the main reasons, say, that the Syracuse city schools score low on these measures relative to other school districts?

Ahern: I think there’s a whole lot of reasons, and I think poverty’s part of it. Certainly, the effect of poverty on kids and their learning it’s not a monolithic thing. It affects kids differently, and there’s lots of variables here. But, certainly, all of the research shows that when you have high populations of poverty in a school district, kids will struggle. And a lot of that, we see, for example, in the early grades kids come to school not necessarily ready for the work starting in kindergarten, or as early as pre-k. They’re behind in reading, they’re behind in speaking, all kinds of things like that. That is a huge issue. So what we end up with is a lot of kids who struggle mightily but are behind when they start to move into the upper grades. And once they’re significantly behind, we don’t have the resources to bring them up to where they should be.

Reeher: You mentioned jobs. You also mentioned resources to deal with these things. The city does seem to be in a bind when it comes to education because on the one hand it doesn’t have a robust, private tax base for funding it so it relies very heavily on the state to do that. And, there’s a whole conversation we could be having about state support, but I think we will set that aside today. The problem is that education funding is very limited despite everyone agreeing how important the educational system is. So, do you think the city needs to find a way to put more support into the system, and how would it do that?

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Ahern: Well, I think, certainly, the city would like to have a more robust economy and improve its tax base. But, just to step back for a second, I think we do have to talk about the state funding issue, and especially as it relates to school districts like ours with high poverty rates. There was a lawsuit serval years ago that essentially was brought forth by parents and students that said the state isn’t properly funding schools for kids in poverty. And they won that law suit, and the state was told they had to pay a whole lot of money back and provide fair funding. It was called the “Campaign for Fiscal Equity” suit. That was quickly dismissed, well it wasn’t dismissed, it was ignored. The state chose not to pay the money when the economy kind of hit the skids in ’08 or ’09. Syracuse, as an example, is $55 plus million short as a result of that in the ensuing years. So a lot of that funding would’ve helped us provide more teachers, certainly, in classrooms, more support for kids, all of those things. Even to get a base line, to say that we’re funding kids fair and equitably, the state has been really loathsome in its attitude about this. And governor after governor has simply refused to provide the necessary resources. So I do think that’s a big issue.

Reeher: Ok, and, granted, I take your point. But, I guess, where I’m coming from is the idea that I’ve heard that now for a long time. The situation could change, but it could not change. So we are where we are right now, and given that we are where we are right now, does the city somehow have to find a way to put more money into this system, because, you know, we can keep saying the state needs to provide it but if that money doesn’t come, it doesn’t come.

Ahern: Well, I think the city should try to find ways to do that, and I understand that this is just kind of the makeup of the city’s tax base, it’s so difficult for them to overcome. But I also think, again, there’s a real need of commitment from everybody in the community to start working closely with our schools and help and support them. And that may mean different things to different groups in different entities in the city, but I certainly think there’s an obligation to do that.

Reeher: You mentioned several governors there not enforcing the fiscal equity decision. I want to talk about this particular governor, Governor Cuomo, for a minute. At least going by his rhetoric, he seems to have almost declared war on the teacher unions and he has proposed a new system of evaluation, which is more heavily based on students’ tests scores than the one currently in use. Is there anything his new plan that you support or that your organization would go along with?

Ahern: No. The governor is simply wrong, and this clearly a political attack to a large degree. The unfortunate part about it is that it affects kids. First and foremost, his agenda is bad for kids, but it’s also really hurting the profession of teaching and scaring people away.

Reeher: Well, what is it that’s bad for kids?

Ahern: I think, ultimately, when you have a system that relies on this kind of measure and punishmentality, that the teachers, by nature or by necessity, will narrow the curriculum significantly, focus really on testing, testing, and more testing which really deprives kids of the kind of rich education opportunities that certainly I grew up with when I was in the school district and I think most parents would want for their kids, to provide them with those kinds of opportunities. So, in that way, I think it really harms kids, as well as the governor’s budget. And, again, even under the best case scenario, significantly short of funding.

Reeher: Do you feel, as a teacher and someone who represents teachers, under siege by the governor?

Ahern: I think we certainly do, and it didn’t start with the governor. It started a while ago with the Race to the Top. Significantly, for folks most recently. No Child Left Behind was not great for us either, but certainly Race to the Top’ ratcheted everything up, because it became clear that for districts in need to get money that they would have to make all these kinds of measure and punish ideas that they’d put across, like the teacher evaluation piece and all of that.

Reeher: Sometimes in the rhetoric that I hear, regarding teachers as a group and teachers unions, some of the criticism, I almost get the sense that teachers are becoming demonized to a certain extent. Do you see that?

Ahern: I do, and it’s unfortunate. I think teachers are the last people who should be demonized. I think teachers are doing tremendous work, and they’re doing it for all the right reasons…for the benefit of kids, for the benefit of our society. Public education is a bastion of our democracy, and I think teachers got into this business for the right reasons. They certainly didn’t get into the business for fame and fortune. So, the fact that we can somehow become scapegoats for all of this is really a sad fact. I just want to say, I do know that the unions who represent teachers are under assault too in all of this, and I think, frequently, people will say, “I love my teacher, but I don’t love my union.” And I think that’s another aspect of this.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.