New London a great place to start state education reform

Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy was able to get his education reform bill through the legislature, in the process reaching a compromise with the state's powerful teachers unions that takes a deliberative approach to implementing performance evaluation policies.

Then this past week Connecticut received its gold star for education reform policy - a federal exemption to the federal No Child Left Behind requirements. Appearing at the state Capitol to deliver the good news was U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

The waiver means that the U.S. Department of Education has concluded the state's reform plans, if implemented successfully, can turn around low-performing schools by providing them the necessary support, raising standards and improving teaching.

Duncan said the effort to meet the "proficiency" required by NCLB led to a dumbing down of standards and a narrowing of curriculum. Nearly half of state schools were failing to meet the federal performance standard.

The NCLB law needs major changes, but like most matters it is stalled in Congress. In the meantime a waiver is the only means for a state to avoid tying up time and resources trying to meets its arbitrary standards, rather than getting about the task of truly reforming public education.

So now that the governor has his education reform law and his waiver, he needs to show some success. I have a suggestion for him - New London.

It is no secret many of the city's students are struggling. New London ranks among the four lowest-performing school districts in the state, with the sixth lowest high school graduation rate. Yet because of its relative small size, as compared with struggling school districts in places like New Haven, Bridgeport and Hartford, an aggressive intervention by the state in New London could provide quick results.

The state is well aware of New London's struggles. State Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor recently sat down with the city's Board of Education to go over a state audit that raised concerns about the governance and management of the district.

Yet New London has some things going for it that hold out the prospect of significant student progress in a relatively short time, just the kind of thing proponents of the education reform package need to demonstrate its effectiveness.

Superintendent Nicholas A. Fischer has overseen the implementation of tougher teacher evaluation standards and sought to clarify for teachers what effective instruction lookes like. As the state continues to formulate the teacher evaluation program called for in the legislation, it could look to New London to test it.

New London's Winthrop Magnet Elementary STEM School - science, technology, engineering and mathematics - will open next school year, while the Nathan Hale Magnet Elementary School for Performing and Visual Arts opens the following year, both built largely with state funding. The opening of these innovative schools adds to the potential for rapid progress in New London. The Science & Technology Magnet High School of Southeastern Connecticut, adjacent to the high school, has proved a success.

New London is the perfect place to aggressively pursue the parent outreach and involvement called for in the education reform plan. Its a place where the state can get big results for a relatively small investment.

If state officials are looking for a manageable test case, New London can be it. It has established a literacy standard for graduation, and made progress in improving school safety. A foundation is there to build on.

New London needs to accelerate progress in turning its struggling schools around, while the Malloy administration would like some genuine educational success to point to before the next gubernatorial election. Sounds like the perfect match.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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