By the time today's toddlers enter ninth grade, high schools in Connecticut won't look like they do today, at least according to a plan to reshape secondary school education.
It's more than just increasing the number of credits needed to graduate and requiring students to pass end-of-course exams in five classes. Beginning in sixth grade, each student would develop an individualized plan to shape his or her education. Courses would be infused with skills employers have identified as key, like work ethic, collaboration, and leadership. And each student would have a connection with an adult in the school, fostered by a shift from traditional classes to more personalized classrooms designed to engage students.
For the past few weeks, state Education Commissioner Mark K. McQuillan has been traveling the state, presenting such an image of a reshaped high school and soliciting input on the ideas.
On Wednesday night, the "listening tour" came to Hartford, where about 40 people braved the icy rain to listen and weigh in. Some came with suggestions — add environmental science to the curriculum, allow American Sign Language to count as a world language, require all students to take an arts class — while others questioned the merits of the plan's core curriculum and expressed skepticism about how the proposals could produce change without addressing broader issues of poverty and inequality.
The plan, recommended by a committee of teachers, school officials, and business and higher education leaders, and endorsed by the State Board of Education, is regarded as a work in progress. Comments from the public are expected to help shape the final proposal, which is to be presented to the state board in December and submitted to the legislature for its 2009 session. If passed, it would go into effect in 2011.
On Wednesday, McQuillan outlined the concerns behind the push for high school reform. Test scores are stagnating and falling below those of other states. Connecticut's achievement gap is among the widest in the nation. An increasing number of high school graduates enter college unprepared. And the impending retirement of a large portion of the state's work force, unmatched by an influx of young skilled workers, has left the business community fearful for the future of the state's economy.
"We have to improve," McQuillan said. "We have to improve dramatically."
The changes would require students to earn 24 credits — up from the current 20 — and take specific courses, including world languages, which are not required now. Students would have to pass end-of-course exams in five subjects, and seniors to complete an independent project.
It's not clear what the proposals would cost. A study to determine that is expected to be commissioned this year, and cost considerations will be part of the final proposal, McQuillan said. A reform plan will require an investment by the state, he said.
Mark Benigni, assistant principal at Berlin High School, praised aspects of the plan, but questioned what he called conflicting objectives — the focus on individualized plans for students while limiting students' choices by requiring specific courses.
Benigni, who is also the mayor of Meriden, added that officials should use the discussion about school reform to address the root causes of problems in schools — wages, unemployment, a lack of affordable housing, and medical care.
Weaver High School Principal Paul Stringer said issues like inadequate access to health care and eye care, which contribute to the achievement gap, must be addressed if urban students are to meet higher standards.
Other people raised questions about what safety net would exist for students who could not pass the exams or prescribed courses. McQuillan said safety nets could include allowing students to take summer courses or tutorials to pass the test.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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