One of the most provocative ideas in the growing stack of education reform proposals that Gov. Dannel Malloy is churning out is a disarmingly simple one: What if the schools most in need of improvement could do whatever they had to do to fix them?
No 19th-century trade union rules dictating the school day. More pay for teachers. A longer day for children. Additional reading instruction and tutors. Teachers would be carefully selected and given more training, and much more would be expected of them.
Schools would be evaluated on one basic yardstick: whether goals for student learning were being met. (This counts as a radical idea in the world of public education.)
Would that make a difference in a state with the greatest achievement gap between poor and middle class students? Will that begin to vanquish the real villain, which is our acceptance of intensely poor cities surrounded by more affluent suburbs?
We may be about to find the beginnings of some answers.
At a school in Hartford Monday, Gov. Malloy gathered together urban educators and reform advocates and announced his plan for a "Commissioner's Network" for up to 25 schools that would get more money, fewer work rules and a whole lot more help.
"It's going to make people uncomfortable. We've got to do it,'' said Malloy, flanked by urban Democrats, one Republican (state Sen. Toni Boucher of Wilton) and no leaders from the state's two teacher unions. It was a revealing glimpse of the coalition the governor hopes to fashion around his education reform ideas.
"We know what works. We lack the will to implement it," Malloy said. "We are going to put a model in place that turns around the lowest-performing schools."
Yes, the proposal is rather limited — up to 25 schools over two years and just $25 million in assistance. There are, for example, about 135 schools in Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven, New Britain and beyond that have been identified as "in need of improvement" by the federal government.
Still, the news here lies in the high-profile changes that Malloy hopes to bring in how these schools operate.
Malloy and Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor are betting that some of the problems created by poverty — including jobless or absentee fathers, teenage mothers and homes without books — can be overcome by intensely focused, comprehensive schools that operate on a vastly different scale. The dirty little secret where the teacher unions are correct is that it's a whole lot harder, and more expensive, to work with children who show up for kindergarten years behind and who never recover. Too often, test scores don't reflect how difficult it is to teach children who arrive in school lacking even basic vocabulary.
With this limited proposal, Malloy is looking for common ground, among the unions, state legislators and the taxpayers who will be giving even more money to schools that already get extra help. If Malloy and Pryor can show that schools that operate differently work, it could lead to dramatic changes in how school districts across the state are run, even in more affluent districts.
Malloy's blustery proposal foresees schools with new "management agreements" run by nonprofit groups, universities, charter schools and partnerships that include teacher unions as well as local districts and the state.
While Connecticut Education Association Executive Director Mary Loftus Levine said she didn't know enough to comment about Malloy's plan, the leader of the state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers told me there was little choice but to try something new.
"We've got to try and make it work. It's worth a shot,'' said Sharon Palmer, president of AFT Connecticut. "I'm willing to try and work with him … but it's got to be fair for the teachers."
"As long as we are sure that it is based on sound practices and that it is not some crazy idea that has no foundation."
The truth is that some schools are already doing what Malloy is talking about. The difference here is that Malloy and Pryor want to shine a bright light on promising new approaches. If they succeed, it will create more pressure for change in the dozens of schools where children are falling behind not just their counterparts in neighboring states, but in countries around the world.
The new standard is pretty simple. "Hold up a mirror,'' Gov. Malloy said Monday. "Are you going to tolerate failing schools?"
We already do that quite well. The question is what we are willing to change.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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