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Superintendents Outline Strong School Reform

By Robert M. Thorson

January 23, 2013

I can hardly believe I'm writing to support public school superintendents. Their recent report "NextEd: Transforming Connecticut's Education System," sounds like a solid prescription for fixing ailing mainstream schools. I hope the implementation is going well.

When I was a high school kid in the late 1960s, school superintendents and principals were my sworn enemies. Their authoritarian, command-and-control tactics were more like those of prison wardens than of educators. Bathed in adolescent hormones, we baby boomers squirmed in our seats while waiting for the bell to ring.

Then, when finishing my teacher's training in the early 1970s, school administrators helped ruin my teaching credential. This happened when I snitched on my supervising teacher for running a home business from his desk while his students did "self-learning." The principal sided with him, rather than with me, who was viewed by both as free labor.

Happily, all that immaturity and angst is behind me. So are the hit-and-miss pathways of my children through the Connecticut public school system. Some were well served. Some were not. At this point, I'm detached from the state's public school system, except as a taxpayer, public citizen and instructor for those who come to the University of Connecticut.

The NextEd report is a vision of reform prepared by the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents with a strong external advisory board. In short:

1. Raise the achievement bar by establishing globally competitive, internationally benchmarked standards.

2. Make education personal by individualizing student learning styles and interests.

3. Start with early childhood for reasons that are obvious to any parent.

4. Retool assessments and accountability, mainly by de-emphasizing standardized tests.

5. Offer more options and choices, rather than case-harden the menu of what's important and what's not.

6. Reform educational leadership from the bottom up, from the rules governing local school boards to the state commissioner's office.

7. Boost the quality of teachers and principals through recruitment, reward and renewable five-year contracts.

8. Involve students, parents and community organizations as full partners.

9. Leverage technology.

10. Keep the transformation going on a continuous basis.

Every single item on this list makes perfect sense to me as a lifelong student, parent, teacher and taxpayer. And I suspect that most of the group's positions are also in sync with the very progressive reforms coming out of the Malloy administration.

When reading the NextEd report, it struck me as so good that I wondered if these were real goals, rather than talking points for conferences. So hopeful that private preparatory schools should take notice. So systemic that everyone, including the teachers unions and local school boards, should let it move forward. So clear that I'm suspicious the wool is being pulled over my eyes. Perhaps it is.

Thinking back to my own school days, the teachers I remember liking best sound like those of the NextEd template. They held the achievement bar high. And yet, at the same time, they understood me, individualizing instruction and assessment. They worked around my special challenges, which involved being mistrustful of authority, easily bored and having a learning style that craved depth, rather than breadth.

My 12th-grade speech and drama teacher comes to mind. He challenged me to hone an important skill that I still use. We lost more competitions than we won. Praise was more than a platitude. It meant something.

The teachers I remember disliking put a priority on classroom order and factory efficiency, forgetting that learning is highly personal, usually messy and often non-linear. My 11th-grade English teacher comes to mind. I spent much of the year in his "Jackass Row," forced to sit in complete silence, denied the right to ask or answer questions or participate in any way. My crime? Asking him about something that wasn't on his radar screen: semantics.

I'm glad someone is cleaning the Augean stables of Connecticut's entrenched public schools, even if they are administrators.

The NextEd report is at: http://www.capss.org/uploaded/ETP_Public_Documents/CAPSS_Executivesummary_Final.pdf

Robert M. Thorson is a professor of geology at the University of Connecticut's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. His column appears every other Thursday. He can be reached at profthorson@yahoo.com.

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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