Q&A with Rae Ann Knopf, executive director of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform.
Q: What are the council's roots?
A: It's been said of our group's founders that they were talking about "the achievement gap" and "education reform" before these topics became hot-button issues. CCER is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization formed in 2011 in response to recommendations made by the Council on Educational Achievement convened in 2010. We represent the voice of business and civic advocates who care deeply about education and believe we must close the gaps in learning achievement experienced by students who live in low-income situations and minority students. We are very supportive of the plans put forward by Gov. Malloy and Education Commissioner Pryor, in S.B. 24: An Act Concerning Educational Competitiveness. It addresses systemically most of the issues we believe must change if we are to affect the kind of dramatic improvement needed in our public education system.
Q: One of your group's recommendations revolves around attracting, developing and empowering the most effective leaders for schools and districts.
A: Effective school leaders are the number one force in attracting and retaining effective teachers and creating high achieving schools. In order to do this, principals and superintendents must not only be held accountable to high goals for student achievement, but must also be afforded more autonomy in operating their schools and districts. When successful, they should be compensated fairly and differentially for their efforts. Current laws make it difficult for boards of education to do this consistently. We also have a shortage of effective educational leaders in our state. Current laws regarding certification and state-to-state reciprocity make it nearly impossible for us to recruit and develop leaders at a level that meets our need.
Q: Your group says educational cost sharing, which provides $1.9 billion in grants, has "[d]ue to years of alterations, caps, and other adjustments … now has little correlation with the actual costs to educate a child."
A: We believe the most important first step to fixing our funding system is having a consistent chart of accounts that is used across the state by all districts and schools. We currently have very little information available on how funding is used to meet the needs of individual students or groups of students. This makes it nearly impossible to direct funding in ways that we know will improve learning outcomes for Connecticut students and to ensure that the students who need it most, have access to the resources and innovative school models that are most effective.
Q: Guaranteed employment such as tenure is contradictory to good business practices. What's the council's stance?
A: We believe the current practice of granting tenure based on longevity is not only ineffective and counterintuitive from a business sense, but actually works against goals designed to improve instructional practice, effective teaching, and school leadership for the benefit of students. We also feel strongly that retention and lay-off practices based on seniority must be abolished in order to ensure the best teachers are retained during tough economic times when budget shortfalls must be addressed.
Q: Your board is dominated by business leaders. Will it take business acumen to solve our education system?
A: Our board is made up of business and civic leaders who are concerned about the educational well-being of our children and the economic future of our state. They know these issues are intrinsically linked and to date, the business and civic perspective has not been adequately reflected in debates on education reform. We intend to change this dynamic. We do believe that leaders outside of education have experience and expertise that can be helpful in changing our system, but not to the exception of working with public education leaders who also recognize and have the will to act on this urgent need for change. We are collaborating with leaders at state and local levels to make this happen.
Q: Finally, what's different about this group? What makes you think it can put in place reforms that will result in accomplishments?
A: People throughout Connecticut are at risk on this issue. If we fail to address it now, we can be assured of the continued decline in the availability of jobs, new businesses, and young people with the skills and resources to support their own families and businesses. Much of the current public discourse is clouded by special interest groups. What makes us unique is that we are beholden to no one organization or institution.