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State Agenda, Part 3: Race To The Top Of The Class

Hartford Courant

January 05, 2010

Connecticut is a smart state, fourth in the nation in the percentage of residents holding college degrees. Yet it is 15th in high school graduations, dragged down by the dismal rates in its cities. In 2007, Hartford reported that its high schools graduated only 29 percent of the students who had entered the public schools in the ninth grade.

It's no coincidence that states such as Connecticut with a high percentage of college graduates also have the highest median incomes. And it's no surprise that Hartford, which struggles just to get kids to finish high school, ranks 10th nationwide in household poverty. (It ranks fourth if college towns such as Bloomington, Ind., with their thousands of students, are taken off the list.)

Dropouts are a drain that cost billions of dollars in social services and lost tax revenue. Connecticut's prisons are filled with them. A recent study by Northeastern University showed that Connecticut high school dropouts were 17 times more likely than college graduates to need food stamps. More than a quarter of dropouts under 64 receive rental subsidies.

Hartford schools are making heroic efforts to retain students and send them on to college. Four of its high schools were named to U.S. News & World Report's 2009 list of best in the nation, alongside schools from tony towns such as Darien and Simsbury.

But the state's achievement gap remains the largest in the nation. In National Assessment of Educational Progress tests, the gap between Latino and white students in eighth-grade math was the worst in the nation, and black students lagged 4.4 grade levels behind white students.

President Barack Obama has challenged the nation to achieve the highest rate of college graduates in the world by 2020. (It's now 15th.) To that end, the federal "Race to the Top" program will give out $4.35 billion to states that commit to making children college-ready and to closing the achievement gap the largest federal investment to date in school reform. Connecticut's share could be up to $175 million.

Not long ago, Connecticut boasted the best schools in the nation. If we are serious about catching up to states that have surpassed us in test scores, Race to the Top funds may be the only way to pay for preparation. But school districts and teacher unions will have to commit to tough goals, such as merit pay for outstanding teachers.

To be eligible, Connecticut has to show that it:

1. Has reliable, accurate data measuring student success. The state Department of Education has a new $6 million tracking system that should give officials a clearer idea of which students entering ninth grade graduate in four years, what's happened to the others and how well all students are progressing. Data should be public and easily understandable so that parents can compare school districts.

2. Recruits and rewards effective teachers and principals. School districts should evaluate educators by how well their students are doing. Those that don't will lose out on Race to the Top funds. New Haven's teacher contract allows for such evaluations and was praised recently by President Obama.

Unions grouse that pay for performance rewards a small number of teachers for the hard work of many. But merit pay works for students, and that's what matters. A private grant used to recruit and reward teachers of Advanced Placement courses in 10 Massachusetts high schools had remarkable success in 2008: AP course enrollments rose by more than 500 students, and passing scores of low-income students went up 57 percent.

3. Ensures "successful conditions for high-performing charters and other innovative schools," in the words of the Race to the Top guidelines, by, for example, funding them equitably and lifting the state cap on student numbers. Growth is capped at 300 students per charter school.

The Center for Education Reform ranks Connecticut sixth weakest of the nation's 40 charter laws because of the low cap, unpredictable funding and lack of autonomy granted charter schools. The state sets charter school budgets and pays them and magnet schools less money per student, on average, than traditional public schools get. Also, school districts don't lose funding when they lose students to charters and magnets. State funding should follow the student.

President Obama's college-graduation goal won't be met unless cities such as Hartford can close the achievement gap and raise graduation rates. Connecticut's cities could get a big helping hand if the state does what's needed to succeed in this highly competitive race for federal dollars.

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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