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Reforming Education: 'This Is Our Moment,' Says Malloy

Kathleen Megan

January 06, 2012

Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor kicked off the governor's education workshop Thursday with sobering statistics that show how little support school superintendents feel they get from the state.

More than half of the superintendents said in a survey that the state Department of Education does not help them close the achievement gap between wealthy and poor students. And, Pryor said, only 12.5 percent said they believe that state policies make it possible for them to remove ineffective staff.

In addition, only 7.5 percent of the superintendents believe the department has a clear plan to attract, retain and develop teachers and administrators, and only 21 percent say the state helps them find talented people to fill positions in their districts.

"If superintendents don't feel we are helping, we've got some work to do," Pryor said as he opened up an afternoon of workshops at Central Connecticut State University. The workshop drew about 350 people, representing a "who's who" in the state's education world, including legislators, state and local education leaders, school administrators and teachers, union representatives, private- and public-sector education experts and parents.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy convened the workshop to gather input from experts from throughout the country including Martha J. Kanter, undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Education to help his administration shape education reform proposals that will be presented to the legislature next month.

Kanter advised the assembly to "think about leveraging federal funds over a multiple-year period" to help close the achievement gap and to ensure that students graduating from high school are ready for higher education.

She said that the governor's aims which include closing the achievement gap, expanding the availability of high-quality schools and ensuring that schools have the best teachers and principals "are so aligned with what we want to accomplish at the federal level, that you can help us lead the way."

Malloy was not able to attend much of the afternoon-long event, but when he arrived the crowd gave him a standing ovation.

"This is our moment to hold ourselves to a higher standard where no child is left unsuccessful, no child fails to reach his or her potential, no state goes through what we did the last 22 years and ill-prepares its workforce," he said. "We have to come together. We have to be successful."

Later, Malloy told reporters that he expects that education improvement will carry a higher price tag. "To make some of the progress we need to make in early childhood education and teacher improvement, some additional monies are going to have to be expended. I believe that districts and/or the state are going to have to spend more money."

Sandy Kase, the former superintendent of the New York City Chancellor's District who recently was appointed chief administrative officer of Bridgeport's public schools, talked about turning around failing and neglected schools.

She described a strategy that included lengthening the school day and providing financial incentives to attract the most experienced teachers.

"Kids in low-performing schools, in particular, need more quality time on task," Kase said.

She also spoke about the need for better teacher preparation. "We still have teachers coming into our schools who are unprepared," she said.

Pryor's survey of the state's 157 superintendents about 90 percent of whom responded to the survey also reflected this concern. Fifty-three percent said they believe that existing education programs do not adequately prepare new teachers.

The good news in the survey, Pryor said, is that 61 percent of the superintendents said they were optimistic about the state's ability to improve public education.

Asked if the results of the survey surprised him, Pryor said, "For the most part, the responses reinforced some of the concerns and priorities that have been expressed. The severity of the superintendents' concerns in certain areas was surprising."

Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, said the survey results "did not surprise me. It's what I've been hearing from superintendents anecdotally for quite a while."

The superintendents are more optimistic now about the chances for improving education, Cirasuolo said, than they would have been a few years ago.

Pryor said that he was working on reorganizing the state Department of Education and that the state would pursue a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law, as are a number of other states.

Other panelists at the workshop included Kevin Guitterrez, chief executive officer of ReNEW Charter Schools, and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Hartford Superintendent Christina Kishimoto said she found it "refreshing" to have the governor bring in "new thinkers" and "thought leaders" to talk about the achievement gap and how the state can become competitive with other states and other nations.

Kishimoto said: "We have been working absolutely alone on reform for the past five years. Please, we want the state to work with us. We are thrilled to see this kind of action taking place."

But Sharon Beloin-Saavedra, president of the New Britain school board, said outside experts weren't needed to identify the challenges that Connecticut schools face.

"I don't need an expert from New York or Rhode Island to tell us what to do," she said. "A longer school day and a longer school year and wraparound school services it all costs money. We know exactly what to do; we're just not properly funded."

Aram Ayalon, an education professor at Central who serves on the New Britain school board, said he was disappointed that the workshop format didn't afford more time for dialogue between panelists and audience members.

"We were bombarded with information from mostly outsiders," Ayalon said.

Wendy Lecker, a public school parent from Stamford, echoed the same concerns: "We don't need any fancy reform. We need support."

Allan B. Taylor, chairman of the State Board of Education, said it's "important for people to hear something about what's going on elsewhere and think about possibilities."

He also said it was important to develop a consensus about what reforms are needed. "I think this helps," he said of the workshop.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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