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Homework Begins For New Education Chief

Achievement Gap A Priority, McQuillan Says

January 18, 2007
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer

Connecticut's new education commissioner doesn't know yet whether the state should require high school students to pass a graduation exam, as Massachusetts does, but he will look for any edge to bolster student performance.

How Mark K. McQuillan, a former deputy education commissioner in Massachusetts, approaches testing and student achievement will be watched closely as he assumes oversight of public education in Connecticut.

Of particular concern is the poor performance of many low-income and minority children, especially in the state's big cities, where the gap between them and middle-class white children is among the largest in the nation.

"Connecticut and Massachusetts have a lot in common. We're both deeply committed to closing the achievement gap," McQuillan said Wednesday, moments after being appointed commissioner by a unanimous vote of the State Board of Education.

For more than a decade, Massachusetts has taken an aggressive approach to holding schools accountable through testing and other measures. Starting with the Class of 2003, the state has required high school students to pass a standardized high school exit exam before they can receive a diploma.

"In Massachusetts it worked," McQuillan said after a brief press conference Wednesday. "It was called for by our business community, and I think there was general support from our urban superintendents as an important step forward."

However, he added, "I don't know yet enough about Connecticut ... to draw that conclusion."

McQuillan, 58, left the Massachusetts Department of Education in 2004 to head the Edco Collaborative, a consortium of 21 suburban and urban school districts in the Boston area providing services to disabled students, low-income children and others.

He was selected from among five finalists who interviewed for the Connecticut commissioner's job. "He was head and shoulders above any of the other candidates," said Janet M. Finneran, a member of the State Board of Education from Bethany.

McQuillan, who will receive an annual salary of $170,000, is expected to begin duties April 16. He will succeed interim Education Commissioner George Coleman, who has held the job since Betty J. Sternberg resigned as commissioner last summer.

McQuillan was a key figure in Massachusetts' efforts to improve schools under the demands of the No Child Left Behind Act, a 5-year-old federal law that relies heavily on student testing and calls for a shake-up of schools that fail to make sufficient progress.

Connecticut filed a lawsuit two years ago challenging the cost - but not the substance - of the law, and McQuillan said Wednesday that the lawsuit has merit and that a lack of sufficient funding "warrants some response."

However, he added, "that does not in any way suggest that the law will be ignored. ... The achievement gap is such that it has to be addressed, and No Child Left Behind gives us the tools to work on that. ... The core value of No Child Left Behind is one that I fully support."

In his application for the commissioner's job, McQuillan outlined various ideas he favors, including an expansion of preschool education, a vigorous effort to recruit top-notch teachers, and a longer school day and school year.

McQuillan won praise Wednesday from educators in Massachusetts who cited his efforts to enlist teachers, school boards and others in improving public schools.

"He's someone whose integrity I respect immensely," said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. "This is a terrific loss for Massachusetts."

Koocher said the Massachusetts' education department often clashed with local school districts, but McQuillan "was an anomaly in that department ... probably one of the very few people everyone felt comfortable working with."

Others described him as a respected administrator and good listener capable of bringing people together to solve problems.

"You're lucky to have him," said Kathleen Skinner, an official with the Massachusetts Teachers Association. "He's a tough guy, a very solid educator. What we value about him is that he's a real consensus builder. He really understands the collaborative nature of public education."

McQuillan, who started his career as an English teacher and later worked as an administrator in several Massachusetts school districts, is married and has three children.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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