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Seven Views: So How Do We Fix Our Schools?

A cross-section of writers tackle the school reform question


January 15, 2012

When Gov. Dannel P. Malloy put education reform on the front burner for 2012, he caught a wave of public sentiment that has been building for a couple of years in every corner of the state. Everybody from superintendents and the state's largest teachers union to business leaders, advocacy groups, parents and political leaders wants to improve the state's public schools.

"This is our moment," the governor told a statewide education workshop earlier this month. But how should reform happen, what form should it take? What should be done first? Who leads? Today we present a cross-section of ideas, and invite your letters on the subject at http://www.courant.com.

Talent And Innovation


Finally, there is widespread support for significant school reform in our state. All are ready to act. The relative costs and benefits of revitalizing schools, vs., say, reloading prisons, could not be more clear.

So what do we do?

Building on leading-edge approaches already underway in Hartford, we would like to suggest "a new three Rs" for the state:

Reinvent Schools. Give students exciting themes and models to address their diverse learning styles and interests — and ensure real-world connections that translate into college and career readiness.

Recruit Top-Flight Talent. Students need the most talented principals and teachers to have the greatest chance for success. How to get them? Allow alternative routes to principal and teacher certification that attract the best talent. Create new certification standards for teachers who want to teach in urban areas.

Refinance Districts and Schools. Addressing school funding inequities, such as those in pre-K and after-school enrichment programs, is a moral and fiscal imperative.

Paul Diego Holzer is the interim executive director of Achieve Hartford!, a Hartford school advocacy group.

Raise Teacher Pay


Does society really want education to succeed? According to a recent study by Peter Dolton and Oscar Marcenaro-Gutierrez, two economic professors, "Better pay for teachers will attract higher quality graduates into the profession and improve pupil performance." Their study concludes that a 10 percent increase in teachers' pay would give rise to a 5-10 percent increase in pupil performance. It's simple — raising teacher salaries will attract more able graduates into the profession.

It will not happen immediately, but we have to start somewhere. Dolton and Marcenaro-Gutierrez studied a number of countries and found that in each, teachers' earnings had a direct impact on student scores. It's indisputable. We need to dramatically raise the salaries of beginning teachers, and raise those of veteran teachers as well. I'm near the end of my career so this won't affect me, but it could stop the excellent young teachers I see leaving the profession because they can't afford to stay.

Matthew Valenti is a teacher and president of the Torrington Education Association.

Uniform Standards


As the General Assembly prepares to tackle education reform, the state's largest teachers union is calling for more stringent teacher evaluation and tenure policies.

The Connecticut Education Association, which represents 43,000 teachers, wants teachers to be evaluated every year based on multiple factors, not just on a set of students' standardized test scores. The union also wants to streamline the process for dismissing under-performing teachers.

While this sounds good in theory, the union's proposal is somewhat lacking in substance. For example, the union advocates for "multiple indicators of student development and growth" to determine good teaching. Apparently these indicators would be decided within each district, with help from teachers.

But uniformity of standards would be the real key in an evaluation system like this. In my experience, when a group of administrators is asked to evaluate a video of a teacher, the evaluations range from terrible to great because the administrators are not looking for, or at, the same criteria in developing their assessments. Thus, there is a real need for a process to ensure evaluators are trained to conduct effective and consistent evaluations.

Edmund C. Higgins is an assistant professor of education at Quinnipiac University.

The Big Picture


The achievement gap is the disparity in school success between wealthy and poor kids. Connecticut is often ranked No.1 in this regard, partly because our wealthy students do really well and our poor students do really poorly.

Education commissioner Stefan Pryor wants to tackle this problem by bringing smarter young people into teaching, and by studying the effectiveness of teacher training. What that approach ignores is the reality that our state has some of the poorest, most racially segregated metro areas in the country.

The top indicator of how well a kid will do in school is the child's parents' income level. Good teachers matter, but when they are teaching kids who are homeless or lacking family guidance, the job becomes nearly impossible. Also, on average, wealthy kids who live in poor cities do well, and poor kids in wealthy areas do not: Same teachers, different outcomes. The problem is not just about teachers and teacher preparation.

The achievement gap correlates to race, but new research demonstrates that the gap between wealthy and poor students far exceeds the gap between students of color and white students. This is why towns like West Hartford — not Hartford— have the widest achievement gaps.

The gap is about income disparity, and as it has increased, so has the achievement gap. If our leaders are serious about solving the achievement gap, we must hear more about income disparity and what is needed to solve that problem.

Ronnie Casella is a professor and chairman of the Department of Teacher Education at Central Connecticut State University.

Fix The ECS


Most agree that the state's Education Cost Sharing formula, the main way the state funds public education, is very broken, but few agree on how to fix it. This fix must be a top priority in a legislative session focused on education reform. A new formula must focus on students; we must move away from the archaic approach of automatically funding districts, year after year, regardless of the actual students they're teaching are or whether they're doing a good job of educating them.

A major issue with the formula is that it doesn't accurately reflect the level of poverty in a community. My town, Windham, is an example — we suffer tremendously under the current framework. We are very underfunded, given our poverty levels, which exacerbates our huge achievement gap. The overall performance of our town's students on state tests is abysmal, and it's even worse for low-income students and students of color.

Can we adults look these students in the eye and say we have done everything we can to prepare them for success? Right now, we cannot. We need to create a system that establishes equitable funding for each child, regardless of the district or school they attend. That is the basis of a good school system.

Erika Haynes is a former Windham town council member and chairwoman of an education reform committee.

Opportunity Is Key


Today it seems everyone is looking to public education to solve all our social and economic woes. If we "reform education," the thinking goes, all our children will land high-skilled, high-paying jobs and we will end the cycle of poverty and discrimination.

Those are noble goals but unrealistic expectations. The nation and the state need to pursue these goals with sufficient dedication that outcomes improve, but with enough realism that we don't throw schools off their fundamental educational mission in an attempt to have them solve other problems.

If poor kids are underperforming, in part because their schools are underfunded, equalize the funding. But the schools can neither cure poverty nor completely offset its impact. And if English isn't spoken at home, the schools cannot change immigrant parents' native tongues nor completely offset the impact on their kids.

But, with equal funding and intensive English language instruction available, every such child will have equal opportunity. And equal opportunity for the individual, not equal outcomes, is what America is all about.

Red Jahncke is president of The Townsend Group International, a business consulting firm in Greenwich.

Work Together


Gov. Malloy has proclaimed 2012 to be "The Year for Education Reform" and we cannot squander this opportunity. For years, despite acknowledging shortcomings, we have made excuses for keeping things the way they've always been by saying "We can't do anything until we study it again." or "We can't do anything until we have more money." Connecticut and its steady habits.

It's time to wake up. We all need to come together in support of a governor who has called us out on our complacency and said enough is enough. No more excuses and no more delays. If we want to truly strengthen our schools, our economy and our society and be globally competitive in each, we have no choice but to get education reform right. This is our one shot.

Patrick Riccards is the CEO of ConnCAN, an education advocacy group

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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