Let’s get the bad news about the school reform compromise finally approved yesterday by Connecticut’s state legislature. These are only modest steps that won’t do enough to help transform education in that state and ultimately, help all children get the high-quality teaching, strong, college-preparatory curricula, and nurturing school cultures they need and deserve.
The plan to pilot a new teacher evaluation system using objective student data in just eight-to-10 districts (along with the fact that nearly all the reforms are being launched in pilot form) is real small ball stuff; it is one clear example of how Nutmeg State legislative leaders, including Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams and Education Committee Co-Chair Andrew Fleischmann (the subject of a Conversation at Dropout Nation podcast featuring Connecticut Parents Union President Gwen Samuel), ignored the successful reforms happening in the rest of the nation and merely bowed to the will of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates opposed to any stronger form of teacher performance management. The decision to also ban for-profit charter school operators from working with the newly-created regime for turning around the state’s worst failure mills and dropout factories merely proves the point I made yesterday about the anti-intellectualism endemic in education (especially among traditionalists opposed to any form of reform that they do not favor).
Legislators made no effort to address the state’s school residency law, which, along with other Zip Code Education policies, condemn kids to low-performing schools and districts; this means more mothers such as Tanya McDowell will be tossed into jails and prisons for doing what’s right to help their kids succeed in school and in life. Nor did the legislature consider creating an inter-district school choice program that would expand the number of high-quality school opportunities for poor and minority kids. And the last-minute move to pilot a reading remediation effort is — which plays on successful efforts in Florida to retain third-graders struggling with literacy — is rather meaningless without forcing Connecticut’s ed schools to overhaul their abysmal training of teachers.
All that said, the good news is that Gov. Dan Malloy got much of his ambitious school reform effort contained in what is now Senate Bill 27. More importantly, the passage of the reforms is an important step towards overhauling public education in a state with one of the widest achievement gaps.
By requiring annual evaluations of teachers and principals based on Value-Added analysis of student performance over time, Malloy and legislators are finally providing the first opportunities to support and reward high-quality teachers and strong school leaders (as well as weed out those instructors and school leaders who don’t belong in the classroom). The launch of the school turnaround network, which is based largely on the successful Recovery School District model pioneered in New Orleans, is also an important step towards helping revamping failure mills that have failed far too many kids in the state for far too long; the decision to allow for top-performing charter school operators also was a good step. The move to increase per-pupil dollars for charter schools by 22 percent by the 2014-2015 school year will do plenty to spur the opening of new charters throughout the Nutmeg, expanding the opportunities for high-quality education.
One of the most-important reforms approved by the legislature is the pilot reading remediation program. As mentioned, the pilot program won’t fully work without addressing the low quality of reading instruction among Connecticut’s teachers. At the same time, the very fact that the state is even moving to address this aspect of the education crisis deserves recognition. With the percentage of Connecticut fourth-graders reading Below Basic proficiency having increased from 26 percent to 27 percent between 2003 and 2011, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (even as more reform-minded states experienced declines in illiteracy), the state can no longer ignore this leading factor in the state’s yawning racial-, ethnic- and gender-based achievement gaps. The move to launch another early childhood education effort — which includes offering 1,000 new pre-kindergarten spots to low-income families — could also be an important step for improving literacy so long as any gains can be sustained once a kid enters K-12 schools; that, in turn, will only happen if the state takes additional steps towards systemic reform.
The fact that any of the reforms were passed at all is a testament to Malloy’s success — and that of school reform activists on the ground such as the Connecticut Parents Union and ConnCAN — in forcing legislators to stop kowtowing to NEA and AFT leaders who have spent more time buying ads to defend failed thinking than on actually offering substantive reforms of their own. It is also a credit to black and Latino legislators such as State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, who forced Williams and House Speaker Christopher Donovan to come up with a plan that would be more-palatable to Malloy and take steps towards advancing high-quality education.
But Malloy and reformers in the state cannot stop pressing hard on transforming education. As I made clear in March, Malloy needs to campaign for school reform-minded legislators, while reform advocates should force legislators such as Fleischmann into primaries against challengers more-willing to stand up to NEA and AFT leaders. Reformers also need to work more-closely with Parent Power activists — including groups such as the Hartford Parents Organization — to further support on the ground. As Malloy showed last month in the round of town hall meetings held in Connecticut’s urban locales, there are plenty of families tired of schools that aren’t fit for their children’s lives — and they are willing to hold politicians accountable for defending failed thinking.
What happened this week in Connecticut is proof of why strong gubernatorial leadership and strident advocacy is critical to advancing reform. Nutmeg State children need more of this — and so do all of our kids everywhere in America.