State's school improvement plan pays off

From left, Mayor John DeStefano, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan participate in a round table discussion on education reform Tuesday, May 29, 2012, at Jepson School in New Haven, Conn.

Hartford — In a visit to the state Capitol Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced that Connecticut’s unique plan for bettering its public schools has won the state a federal waiver from certain mandates in the national No Child Left Behind law.

The waiver grants Connecticut new flexibility in implementing school improvement initiatives under the 2002 law, often criticized by educators as one-size-fits-all.

The waiver also allows the state to avoid a once-imminent scenario in which nearly half of its schools would be labeled “failing” under No Child Left Behind, and subject to possible restructuring or even closure.

Connecticut was one of eight states granted waivers Tuesday, including Rhode Island and New York. Twenty-six states applied. An additional 11 states received waivers during an initial round of approvals last year.

Schools in states with No Child Left Behind waivers must still achieve “adequate yearly progress,” but based on state-by-state criteria and requirements.

Connecticut’s waiver will also allow state education officials to devote their $100 million in annual Title 1 federal funds to state-developed reform programs designed to help students from low-income backgrounds.

Speaking before an audience of Connecticut politicians and education advocates, Duncan described the waiver program as a temporary fix to a “fundamentally flawed” national education law with misguided mandates. Efforts to rewrite the law have stalled in Congress, he said.

“Our goal in this waiver process is a simple one — that’s frankly to get out of the way whenever that’s possible, to let states and districts figure out the best way to meet the education needs of their children,” Duncan said.

He said the school improvement plans in Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s education bill, which were signed into law May 14, were key to his department’s decision to grant the waiver.

Duncan said his staff particularly liked the sections of Malloy’s bill that create turnaround programs for low-performing schools; new “meaningful” performance evaluations for teachers and principals; and 1,000 additional openings in an early childhood education program.

“There are some basic points that in the legislation made us very confident about the direction the state is going,” Duncan said.

To obtain the waiver, Connecticut in February submitted a proposal aimed at closing the state’s nation-leading “achievement gap” while improving the quality of education for all students.

Connecticut Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said that under the plan Connecticut schools must make progress toward the second-highest level in a five-level achievement matrix. (They previously aimed for the middle “proficiency” level to satisfy No Child Left Behind.)

The new system will take into account students’ performance at all five levels of the achievement matrix, instead of focusing solely on the middle level.

For example, it will now matter if a student rises from the matrix’s bottom level to the fourth level, or from the second level to the top level. Without the waiver, those improvements wouldn’t count under the federal law because they do not affect that middle, proficiency level, Pryor said.

“What we think we’ve constructed now is a much better measurement system,” he said.

By 2018, all Connecticut public schools must show that they are on track to being at least halfway toward the second-highest level, Pryor said.

In addition, Connecticut schools will now be accountable for students’ performance in math, reading, writing and science — not just math and reading.

The waiver is good through the end of the 2013-2014 school year, with an option for an additional year extension.

Data released last September showed that 47 percent of Connecticut schools failed to meet No Child Left Behind’s regular performance standards.

New London ranks among the four lowest-performing school districts in the state, and has Connecticut’s sixth-lowest graduate rate. Pryor is expected to give his recommendation for improving New London schools at a June 6 meeting of the State Board of Education.

j.reindl@theday.com

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