One would think that the National Education Association’s Connecticut affiliate would be celebrating. After all, it, along with the American Federation of Teachers unit there, has managed to strong-arm state legislators into eviscerating Gov. Dan Malloy’s school reform plan contained in Senate Bill 24 — and perhaps, even engage in a little retribution against a few school reformers in the Nutmeg State that have scored a few past victories against it. Instead of a plan that would essentially end near-lifetime employment for even the worst-performing teacher, reward high-quality colleagues who deserve their jobs, and expanding school choice, the union and its education traditionalist allies have so far kept the status quo quite ante.
But Malloy is standing tall against the legislative cowardice, while school reformers such as the Connecticut Parents Union, StudentsFirst, ConnCAN, and the local branch of Students for Education Reform mobilizing another round of efforts to back the governor’s plan. This, along with some of the waffling of state legislative leaders feeling the heat from reformers, may mean that at least half of Malloy’s plan may pass after all. Faced with this reality, the NEA apparently thinks it needs to remind state senators and representatives that they won’t get any of its campaign cash unless they do exactly what it wants. So the union is launching a new round of ads (on top of ones launched earlier this year) this time backing the white-washed version of SB 24 and proclaiming that the legislature is “getting it right”.
The NEA’s soundbite is catchy. But not even close to reality — especially when one looks at the numbers. The average fourth-grade boy in Connecticut scored just 224 points on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress, eight points (or grade level) below their female counterpart. Scores for both young men and young women stagnated between 2003 and 2011, even as their peers across the nation saw gains in achievement. Meanwhile the state’s achievement gaps — among the largest in the nation — remain yawning. The average young black male fourth-grader scored just 201 points on the 2011 NAEP, 34 points (or three grade levels) behind his white male peer, while the average Latino male fourth-grader scored nearly four grade levels behind his white peer; all three trail their female counterparts. And average reading scores for all students in the state have actually declined in the past eight years, even as the average scale score for all students nationwide has increased by nearly a third of a grade level.
While the nation saw the percentage of functionally illiterate fourth-graders decline by six percentage points (from 39 percent to 33 percent) between 2003 and 2011, the percentage of Connecticut fourth-graders reading Below Basic proficiency increased from 26 percent to 27 percent. While the Nutmeg State still managed to likely have 238 fewer fourth-graders who were functionally illiterate in 2011 that in 2003, this is only because the state’s fourth-grade enrollment declined by 6 percent during that period. If not for population loss, Connecticut would likely have more students on the path to dropping out within eight years.
This shouldn’t be surprising. A system perfectly designed for failure will fail. This is the story with education in the Nutmeg State. From a system of teacher recruiting and training so abysmal that two-thirds of teachers at some ed schools can’t pass the Praxis I reading exam used to measure their competency in literacy instruction, to Zip Code Education laws that make criminals out of poor and minority parents and grandparents such as Tanya McDowell and Marie Menard who are trying to exercise the right to help their kids escape the worst American public education offers, public education in Connecticut needs an overhaul. What the NEA (along with state legislators) are effectively defending is the condemnation of the futures of young men and women who deserve education worthy of their potential. And they make no apologies for it.
So school reformers in the state must fight harder. This includes launching a series of TV ads featuring families who would benefit from overhauling teacher quality and expanding choice, along with taking apart the NEA (along with the AFT) for failed thinking. It also includes hitting harder on the underlying issues behind the state’s education woes and how defending this woeful model will merely lead to more of Connecticut’s children landing into poverty and prison. And it means shedding light on some of the conflicts of interest that may lie with legislators sitting on the education committee.
But it can’t just be a Connecticut effort. Beltway reformers and philanthropists should be ready to help their counterparts in the Nutmeg State take action. After all, other education traditionalists will look to Connecticut as a model for their efforts at opposing systemic reform. Certainly a few traditionalists will call it “carpetbagging” (since they don’t know what the term really means or its origins from the Reconstruction era). But the children in Connecticut are our children too. And they deserve our strong, strident, yet principled advocacy for transforming a failed system.