Will 2012 Be the Year of Education Reform?

Governor, business community, advocacy groups seek bold changes

By Bill DeRosa

On December 20, Gov. Dannel Malloy issued a letter to state legislative leaders setting the stage for a 2012 General Assembly session that will focus heavily on improving education in Connecticut. (The session runs from Feb. 8 through May 9.) In calling for comprehensive changes to our education system, the governor did not mince words, saying, “We should not and will not accept half-measures and repackaged versions of the status quo.”

CBIA President and CEO John Rathgeber, a board member of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform (CCER), believes that the governor’s resolve is a good sign, especially given how far education in Connecticut has fallen and the high cost of continued inaction.

“The future competitiveness of Connecticut is at stake,” says Rathgeber. “Our economy is going to be increasingly dependent on a workforce that can be highly innovative and productive, and that requires higher academic achievement across the board in public education.”

The governor’s letter indicated that state Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor will be responsible for crafting “potent” legislative proposals based on six broad principles:

  • Enhancing access to high-quality early childhood education opportunities
  • Strengthening state interventions in low-performing schools
  • Expanding the availability of high-quality traditional and nontraditional school models
  • Removing regulatory barriers to success
  • Ensuring educator excellence by developing an evaluation system that values skills and effectiveness over seniority and tenure
  • Delivering more resources to districts with the greatest need, provided they embrace key reforms

Those principles dovetail with many of the recommendations made in CBIA’s 2012 Government Affairs Program and by other advocacy groups, such as CCER and the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents (CAPSS). Last year, both groups presented their recommendations to the State Board of Education, the governing body of the State Department of Education (SDE).

To followers of Connecticut politics and public policy, the governor’s letter was not surprising. In a speech to lawmakers on the closing day of the 2011 legislative session in June, he pledged to make education the focus of the 2012 session. Since then, the SDE, led by Pryor, has been holding ongoing meetings about key reform issues with business leaders, advocacy groups (including CBIA), school leaders, teachers and their representatives, as well as legislative leaders and the Black and Hispanic Caucus.

“We are finding that there is a lot of commonality of perspective and interest across the groups,” says Pryor, adding that what was learned from those meetings factored prominently in the development of the six reform principles outlined by Gov. Malloy.

Change Drivers

Five days before the governor issued his letter, the state learned that the U.S. Department of Education had rejected its application for a $50 million federal Race to the Top (RTT) grant for early childhood education—the third time in two years Connecticut had lost its bid for funding under the Obama administration’s education reform program. (The first two rejections came in 2010.)

The RTT strikeout was a key catalyst in moving education reform to the top of the state’s policy agenda.

“Being rejected for Race to the Top was the clearest statement you can get that Connecticut has not done the things at the state policy level to tackle this issue,” says CCER board member William Ginsberg, president and CEO of The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven. The failed RTT applications were “part of the wake-up call for Connecticut,” he says.

Other parts of that wake-up call have taken longer to resonate but are now driving the push for education reform. They include the fact that:

  • Connecticut’s once-revered education system is being surpassed by other states that began instituting reforms years ago
  • The achievement gap—the disparity in academic performance that separates low-income and minority students from others—is persistent and widening
  • A changing economy is demanding more advanced knowledge and skills from high school and college graduates

Falling Off the Pace

“Unfortunately, Connecticut suffers from a myth that we are still a top-achieving public education system nationally,” says Rathgeber. “In fact, we’ve been slipping by any measure, whether it’s by comparison with other countries or states.”

Results from the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in reading and math support that conclusion.

In math, although Connecticut students traditionally have outperformed the NAEP national average, 2011 results show that the average fourth-grade math score in Connecticut was not significantly different from the national public school average. At eighth-grade, the average math score was only slightly above the national average, with Connecticut’s score either lower than or not significantly different from scores in 24 other states/jurisdictions.

The only sign of progress in 2011 is a modest upward trend in eighth-grade reading scores. Other NAEP indicators, however, show flat trends for Connecticut students. For example, there has been no improvement over 2009 in the percentage of students scoring at or above the NAEP proficient level in reading and math.

Pryor points out that other states, including our neighbors, have worked to strengthen their education systems over the course of recent years and even decades. But, he says, “Connecticut has not exhibited the same level of determination or offered the same degree of focus that other states have, so we’re losing our edge.”

CBIA lobbyist Louis Bach, an education policy specialist, believes that state residents might be surprised by which states now come up in comparisons with Connecticut.

“Our top students are flatlining compared to the rest of the country, and our lowest-achieving kids are actually performing worse,” he says. “We’re on par with Mississippi and Alabama as far as our low-performing students are concerned. And our top students are slipping relative to states like Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, and even states like Texas, North Dakota, and South Dakota—states we wouldn’t have necessarily associated with strong education systems in the past.”

Bach, like Pryor, attributes this situation to Connecticut’s failure to institute meaningful reform when other states did, even when the warning signs began appearing in the 1980s and ‘90s.

Why has Connecticut been so slow to act?

“I think the biggest obstacle we face is fear of change,” says Patrick Riccards, CEO of the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN). “Change is hard, because we don’t want to do the wrong thing or risk offending too many people. As a result, we have this general sense of apathy, and part of that is driven by the fact that we still, for the most part, don’t feel a sense of urgency to change. We want to believe our schools are terrific, because they’re schools we went to, because we know the principal, because we go to church with our teachers—and we want to believe we are sending our kids to great schools. But when we look at the data, we know we have to change.”

“A Truly Troubling Achievement Gap”

Perhaps the most compelling data are those that illustrate what the SDE calls a “truly troubling achievement gap.”

The 2011 NAEP shows that Connecticut is among the top 10 states with the largest achievement gaps based on every student-subgroup comparison. In some cases, such as the disparity between students from low-income families* and those from non-low-income families, Connecticut has the widest achievement gap in the country.

Comparing the percentage of students in various subgroups that score at or above the NAEP proficient level in math and reading provides a stark picture of the large performance disparities in our schools.

White students, for example, consistently outperform their African-American and Hispanic peers by wide margins. In reading, 55% of white fourth-graders score at or above the proficient level, compared with 14% of African American fourth-graders and 17% of Hispanic fourth-graders. Among eighth-graders, the breakdown is 54%, 21%, 22%.

In math, 60% of white fourth-graders score at or above the proficient level, compared with 15% of African-American students and 19% of Hispanic students. At the eighth-grade level, the numbers are 48%, 11%, 13%.

When family income is the variable, economically disadvantaged students perform significantly worse than more-affluent students—and below the national public average for their peer group. According to the SDE, the achievement gap based on family income is not only vast but exists in nearly all Connecticut communities.

Among students from low-income families, 17% of fourth-graders and 14% of eighth-graders score at or above proficient in reading, compared with 57% and 50% of students from non-low-income families.

In math, 19% of economically disadvantaged fourth-graders and 14% of eighth-graders in that subgroup score at or above proficient. In contrast, 62% of fourth-graders and 50% of eighth-graders from non-low-income families score at or above that level.

The achievement gaps represented in these data mean that our minority and low-income students are about three grade levels behind their white, more affluent peers in reading and math.

Gaps are also reflected in Connecticut high school graduation rates. In 2010 (the most recent year for which data are available), the four-year graduation rate was 81.8%. White students graduated at a rate of nearly 88.7%, compared with 68.7% for African-American students and 64% for Hispanics. The rate for economically disadvantaged students was 62.7%, nearly 26 percentage points lower than for students from non-low-income families, who graduated at a rate of 88.4%.

“Unfortunately,” says Riccards, “we now have a system where getting a good public education depends largely on your race, your family income, or your ZIP code.”

Changing Times, Changing Expectations

One of the key drivers of education reform throughout the country has been a decades-long shift to a knowledge-based global economy, one that puts a premium on ideas and technology over physical labor. As a result, the job market now requires a higher level of educational attainment. That’s particularly true in Connecticut, where so many of our economic-base industries, such as manufacturing, biosciences, and pharmaceuticals, rely on innovation and highly sophisticated technological processes.

“At one point in our economic evolution, people had the ability to earn a family-supporting wage with limited academic preparation and a strong work ethic,” says Rathgeber. “Those jobs are disappearing. Companies now use lean processes and advanced technology to optimize efficiency and productivity, and they’re demanding critical-thinking and problem-solving skills of their employees. That trend is just going to accelerate as competition increases in the global economic environment.”

According to Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of CAPSS, economic transformation has created new expectations for the role of education in our lives.

“The expectation for public education has changed,” he says, “from giving every child an opportunity to learn to making sure every child does learn what they need to know to lead decent and productive lives. We’re very well-designed to meet the old expectation, but unless we redesign the system, we’re never going to meet the new expectation.”

Ginsberg agrees. “The issue is not that we are getting so much less out of our education system today but that we need to get so much more out of it.”

That need is all too apparent in Connecticut, where a lack of qualified individuals to fill approximately 1,000 positions in advanced manufacturing has led to what many are calling a skills gap.

Recent CBIA surveys illustrate the problem. In the 2011 Survey of Connecticut’s Manufacturing Workforce, for example, 34% of the 273 manufacturers responding reported that entry-level employees lack basic skills, including reading and math. Twenty-three percent said that their mid-level employees were lacking in advanced problem-solving, scientific, and computer skills.

In the 2011 CBIA/BlumShapiro Survey of Connecticut Businesses, 37% of the 707 companies responding reported having difficulty finding qualified workers. Similarly, CBIA’s 2011 Fairfield County Business Survey found that only 39% of the 195 companies responding believe Fairfield County has a sufficient number of skilled/educated workers. More than one in ten reported that a labor shortage is preventing them from expanding.

“The governor learned in his summer jobs tour that there are many manufacturing businesses that would like to add jobs but can’t find the people,” says Robert Kennedy, president of the Connecticut Board of Regents for Higher Education, the agency that oversees Connecticut’s four regional universities, 12 community colleges, and Charter Oak State College. ”In my own visits to our colleges and universities, I’ve seen that some of our academic programs don’t necessarily match up with what’s needed by business and industry.”

No Quick Fix

Although education reform may mean different things to different stakeholders, they typically agree on one point: Fundamental change is needed. Or to put it another way, the time for quick fixes or tinkering is long past.

“I think we need systematic change and culture change throughout our school districts,” says Robert Rader, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education. Rader’s group has offered recommendations ranging from improving teacher quality through more rigorous evaluation to making the timetable for completing a K–12 education more flexible to reflect student needs—a change that Rader says would result in a system where “time is a variable and achievement is a constant rather than the other way around.”

CCER Chair Peyton Patterson, former president and CEO of NewAlliance Bank in New Haven, shares Rader’s view on the depth and breadth of the changes needed. “Connecticut’s achievement gap is widening,” she says. “We must change our current direction as a state and make fundamental education reform a reality for our students.”

Lighting a Fire

For most proponents of education reform, the path to improved student achievement starts with excellent teachers.

“There is nothing more important than ensuring that a quality teacher exists in every classroom,” says Pryor, pointing out that student performance is directly correlated with teacher effectiveness.

Although good teachers abound in Connecticut schools, diminishing student performance has led to the call for better means of holding not just teachers but all key education players more accountable for student outcomes.

“To me, it all begins with accountability, with creating the structures that hold the entire system—from elected officials at the top to superintendents, principals, and teachers—accountable for the results,” says Ginsberg.

He argues that public education has not always embraced the idea that the people who work in the system should be held accountable for student performance. But that idea, he says, has been at the core of school reform nationally and should be in Connecticut.

CBIA’s recommendations for increasing accountability include developing new tools for evaluating administrator and teacher performance that would be (1) modeled on those used in states that have successfully turned around struggling school systems and (2) based on four graded levels of effectiveness, placing significant emphasis on student academic achievement and, in the case of teachers, classroom observation.

Pryor told CBIA News that the SDE, in consultation with a stakeholder advisory committee and national experts, is working on a new evaluation system for teachers and principals. Although details have yet to be worked out, the plan, he says, is to have local school districts develop their own evaluation frameworks in accordance with minimum requirements established by the SDE and its advisory committee. For districts that don’t have the capacity to build an evaluation framework from scratch, the state would provide a template, or model.

In early January, the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, released an education reform plan that includes proposals for improving the teacher evaluation process and streamlining dismissal procedures for removing underperforming teachers.

CBIA and other reform advocates also recommend changes to teacher seniority and tenure rules, so that effective teachers remain in the classroom regardless of time served, and tenure is awarded on the basis of teacher efficacy rather than automatically after a specified number of years. Such proposals have been controversial, however, with opponents arguing that they’re intended to allow school districts to more easily fire the most senior teachers, who make the highest salaries.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” says Bach. “In the private sector, the point of results-based evaluation and reward systems is not to periodically kick your experienced workers out the door and then have to hire new people who need months or years of training and experience to get up to speed. That’s inefficient and expensive.”

The main point of such systems, he says, is to help existing employees improve, grow professionally, and increase their value to their organizations.

“We need to give great teachers and principals the opportunity to shine,” says Bach. “It’s not about firing people, it’s about lighting a fire so that our educators can be the best they can be.”

Wanted: Turnaround Schools

Unlike other states, Connecticut lacks a systematic approach to addressing schools that have consistently failed to improve students’ academic performance. As a result, there are approximately 120 low-performing schools in the state that for more than five consecutive years have failed to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) under federal guidelines. Many more schools have failed to make AYP for two or more years.

Pryor and others believe the state needs to have sufficient authority to intervene decisively in low-performing school districts and grant more autonomy to districts achieving at a high level. He also sees a critical role for high-performing schools as models for their less successful counterparts.

“We think it’s very important that we identify high-performing models throughout the state and replicate, emulate, and expand those models—whether we’re talking about conventional public schools, magnet schools, tech schools, or charter schools,” he says, adding that the effort will involve much more than sharing best practices with struggling school districts. “It’s also a case where if a magnet school is working well, and there is a regional organization operating that school, we may need to call upon that organization to create more schools.”

A longer-term solution to the problem of continually failing schools involves improving the certification process for teachers and administrators by requiring field experience in underperforming schools and removing some of the regulatory barriers to certification.

“We’ve heard from nearly every stakeholder that our certification rules are too complex to understand,” says Pryor. “They’re no longer serving their purpose, which is to elevate the teaching profession by establishing clear, comprehensible standards for entry into teaching. Instead they’re serving too often as a barrier. We’re hearing that from teacher unions, superintendents, and individual applicants who have had negative experiences with the system.”

Pryor also thinks Connecticut’s reciprocity rules** are too stringent, making it too difficult for teachers who have been certified in other states to teach in Connecticut.

“We’re in a perpetual war for talent, especially with our bordering states,” he says. “But we’re losing the battle. I recently visited with a superintendent and board of education from a town near the New York border, and they vociferously and justifiably complained that the reciprocity rules prevent them from hiring teachers who have been trained in New York.”

Where Does the Money Go?

Given that Connecticut already spends a lot on education, it’s important to be able track how the money is being spent. How much funding is being dedicated directly to classroom learning? How effective is it? Those are not easy questions to answer, in part because no common chart of accounts exists at the school level.

“We need a common chart of accounts and the transparency that would bring,” says Bach. “When you get down to individual schools, we want to be able to see where the money is going. For example, some school districts count the custodial costs as part of central office expenses; others count it as part of individual facilities’ costs. That creates confusion and works against transparency. A uniform system of accounting would help education advocacy groups, parents, and others whose taxes fund education understand what’s going on.”

CBIA also recommends that the SDE review regulations to identify and eliminate outdated and irrelevant requirements on districts in order to ease their paperwork burdens, reduce costs, and increase efficiency. According to Pryor, that process has already begun.

“We’re analyzing our regulations and requirements here at the department, and we’re conducting a red-tape review to see which rules can accurately be portrayed as red tape and be pruned.”

Bridging the Skills Gap

“We have a real workforce pipeline problem in Connecticut,” says Bach, referring to the skills gap that has made it difficult for some employers to find qualified workers.

The jobs bill passed last October contained a number of measures to help solve the problem, most notably the commitment of $40 million in capital investments over two years to establish or expand manufacturing technology programs (like Asnuntuck Community College’s) in three additional community colleges and three of the state’s technical high schools.

The goal is to bring graduates’ skills and industry needs closer together, says the Board of Regents’ Kennedy, who hopes to eventually expand the manufacturing technology programs to all 17 of the higher-education institutions he oversees.

During his seven-year tenure as president of the University of Maine (2004–2011), Kennedy built a strong track record of placing graduates in careers.

“We worked very closely with business and industry,” he says. “We changed the culture. The faculty and staff knew that it was important to partner with industry and that it was highly valued within the institution. And we changed some of the incentive structure to encourage faculty and staff to focus on supplying job needs and what the business community needed. That same partnering is what we need more of in the state of Connecticut.”

CBIA is urging policymakers to build on the jobs bill and further strengthen the ability of Connecticut’s technical high schools and community colleges to provide students with new-economy skills. Among other things, CBIA recommends that Connecticut follow the lead of other states and adopt a nationally recognized skills certification approach in which students attain industry-driven credentials through high school, college, and beyond. In addition, CBIA believes the state can help students gain a competitive edge by increasing opportunities for experiential learning, including:

  • Modifying state statutes to allow students age 16–18 access to manufacturing facilities for internships, job shadowing, plant tours, and similar experiences
  • Requiring students to complete an internship to graduate from technical high schools and community colleges
  • Increasing opportunities for students interested in manufacturing and energy careers by working with the Department of Labor to expand the use of apprenticeship programs

“Experiential learning is critical for engaging and motivating students,” says Judy Resnick, executive director of CBIA’s Education Foundation. “It’s where the classroom and the real world converge. The work-based learning approach has been proven to succeed academically because it enables students to understand in a very compelling way why their academic work is so important. If they can apply what they’re working on in the classroom, it makes all the difference in the world.”

An Idea Whose Time Has Come

“The time to act is now,” says Patterson. “Clearly momentum is building. We are optimistic about the prospects for meaningful reform, and we see the upcoming legislative session as a great opportunity.”

Given the strong commitment shown by the governor and Commissioner Pryor, many advocates of school reform share Patterson’s optimism, although Bach cautions against complacency.

“I think the potential for meaningful reform happening this year is good, but it’s going to depend on the ability of education advocates to push the issue. There will be resistance from those who prefer the status quo.”

The good news, argues Rathgeber, is that we know what needs to be done to reverse the negative trends and live up to our reputation as a top state for education. He emphasizes that education reform is not a blame game and that there are many dedicated teachers, principals, and district leaders who simply want what’s best for children.

“We just have to focus on that and make sure we have the best talent in the classroom, the right training and preparation for that talent, and the right interventions when districts, schools, principals, and teachers continually fail to improve student performance. We need to ensure we don’t accept mediocrity. We need excellence, and we can celebrate the excellence that’s there, but we have to deal with underperformance wherever it occurs.

“It’s not about money or finger-pointing. It’s about having the political courage to do what other states have done to improve the educational experience for all students—regardless of where they live, the color of their skin, or how much money their parents make.” ■

* Families whose children are eligible for free/reduced-price school lunches.
** Reciprocity is a system whereby a recommendation for a teaching license from a state-approved education training program in one state is recognized in another state. Reciprocity, however, does not guarantee that a license from one state can be exchanged for a license in another state. Rules governing licensure through reciprocity vary from state to state. Learn more.

Bill DeRosa is editor of CBIA News. He can be reached at bill.derosa@cbia.com.

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