The education reform package approved by the legislature holds out the potential to improve performance in the state's public schools and narrow Connecticut's largest-in-the-nation achievement gap between students in its poor urban schools and affluent suburbs. But to achieve that potential will require persistence, additional reforms and significantly more money.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy deserves credit for making reform of public education the top priority during the recent legislative session. The demands he placed on the teacher unions by seeking to connect pay and tenure to performance evaluations was unprecedented in the state for a Democratic leader. And while he failed to get all he sought in his original reform package, his initial stance led to a compromise that achieves a lot.
The danger in making education such a high profile issue in this session is that the legislature may consider passage of a reform bill mission accomplished and move on. If the goal is genuine change, education will need to be an ongoing focus.
High ideals are also bumping up against fiscal realities. Reforms will not come free.
The reform package recognizes that giving students a strong foundation is critically important to future achievement. It adds 1,000 preschool seats, focused on struggling school districts, with an additional $6.8 million investment (Connecticut will spend about $85 million for state-funded preschool programs this year). Currently 6,400 students, 16 percent, arrive in kindergarten with no preschool experience, half from the state's 19 poorest districts, according to the state Department of Education.
This bill recognizes reading ability is vital to academic achievement. It calls for a pilot program for five elementary schools to annually assess reading skills, with intense tutoring to help underperforming students to catch up. It provides $2.7 million for the pilot, but taxpayers will have to prepare for a much larger investment to improve student reading statewide.
Out of the debate over the most controversial topic - Gov. Malloy's call to closely link performance evaluations to teachers obtaining and maintaining tenure - came a reasonable compromise. The state's two major teacher unions had complained, with reason, that it was unfair to place the careers of teachers in jeopardy using an untested evaluation program.
The state will instead first test the evaluation system in eight to 10 schools, with a University of Connecticut study group assessing its effectiveness in identifying poor performance. The plan is to roll it out statewide in the 2014-2015 school year. The criteria for the just removal of a teacher will become "ineffectiveness," rather than the existing standard of having to demonstrate "incompetence."
Most importantly, a good evaluation system, if competently administered by principals, will provide information teachers can use to strengthen their performance. That must be the goal. Only those who will not or cannot teach effectively should face firing.
Most disappointing is the failure to give Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor the tools necessary to aggressively attack the problems at the most poorly performing schools, situations that should be considered an emergency. Befitting an emergency, the governor wanted the commissioner to have the authority to make major changes without negotiating with the union and require teachers to reapply for their jobs so he could rehire the best and introduce new blood.
Instead turnaround plans will be subject to negotiation and mediation. A "turnaround committee," half teachers, half school officials, will develop changes. If firefighters took such an approach to emergencies, entire neighborhoods would burn down. And indeed, some of our schools are in flames educationally.
The bill creates a "Commissioner's Network" to intervene in up to 25 of these lowest-performing schools. The Education Committee had called for 10. The 25 number is largely the function of meeting a formula to obtain a federal waiver and avoid penalties under the "No Child Left Behind" law. In reality, with $7.5 million in funding, the state may be able to help only a handful of such schools, and probably not all that effectively given the restrictions.
More positively, the commissioner will have the option, through negotiation, to replace up to six poor schools with charter schools. The law also boosts funding for innovative charter schools, while requiring them to take their fair share of special education, reading challenged and low-income students.
As a first step, the reform package is a good one. But it is not monumental change. Such change takes time, money and long commitment.