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Bumpy path to education reform

Published December 17. 2013 4:00AM

The Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents made the right decision in pulling the plug on an incendiary draft statement prepared by a subcommittee and headed for the desk of state Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor.

The board went into damage control mode when the draft statement developed by the association's Legislation Committee was leaked to blogger and Pryor critic Jonathan Pelto, a former state lawmaker.

Components of the state's education reform effort include increased pre-school education; greater accountability for teacher performance through an evaluation process; direct intervention by the state Board of Education in struggling school districts; and broadening state support for magnet and charter schools. While giving Mr. Pryor some credit for his dedication, the draft letter chided him for trying to advance his own agenda without listening to and incorporating the views of education administrators at the local level.

The tone of the draft statement was strongly negative.

Among the criticisms it included were poor communication by the commissioner's office, unreasonable deadlines to implement reforms, and the contention that the department and the team Mr. Pryor put in place are not up to the task they face. As for the commissioner, the draft statement contends he has failed to provide a clear vision of how the reforms will be integrated, and is too focused on how they are viewed politically.

No doubt, there is discontent in some quarters with the way the education commissioner is implementing portions of the education reform package approved by the legislature in 2012. And some of the criticism is warranted. Yet it is also clear that superintendents are feeling the pressure to turn the aspirations of policy makers into reality in classrooms, a very difficult task. Mr. Pryor was a controversial choice from the start, with a history of strong support for the charter school movement, seen by some as a threat to the traditional public education model.

However, the way to address concerns about implementation of the reforms is not by inviting open warfare with the commissioner and, by extension, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

The association's board of directors recognized as much in not only voting unanimously to reject the draft statement, but adding a note of support for the commissioner.

"We support the commissioner, and we appreciate the fact that he's worked as collaboratively with us as anybody could," read the board's statement.

While the board perhaps went a bit too far in trying to make nice - the statement had the tone of a forlorn teen-ager fearing he has offended his latest crush - comments by Executive Director Joseph Cirasuolo to the Hartford Courant show he recognizes this matter is more about how the concerns are presented. Mr. Cirasuolo said there are issues the superintendents do need to address with the commissioner, but "nothing that merits the tone" of the highly critical draft.

Undertaking a massive education reform effort is daunting. Disagreements are inevitable. Corrective actions and course adjustments will be necessary both at the local and state level. But two years in, Gov. Malloy is not about to jettison the commissioner he selected to lead the effort. The superintendents are better off trying to work with him, rather than calling him out.

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