Maybe you've heard about the school district in Rhode Island that announced, after years of failure, that it planned to fire every high school teacher because the union refused to agree to changes such as a longer work day.
This is just the beginning.
As if to remind the entire country and sluggish states like Connecticut, the Obama administration applauded the tiny city of Central Falls — and made Rhode Island a finalist in the Race to the Top competition for new federal education assistance.
Now Connecticut, which struck out in the first round of Race to the Top funding, is being forced to look at dramatic moves to prove that it is serious about breaking down our largest-in-the-land achievement gap between white and minority students. These minority students, by the way, will provide the bulk of our future workforce.
"It will not be possible in Connecticut to close the achievement gap without a coherent and comprehensive state reform strategy," said Hartford Superintendent Steven Adamowski, who is clashing with the Hartford Federation of Teachers over changes that he wants to make in union contract rules that determine what school a teacher can work in.
"Connecticut will be forced kicking and screaming to do some of the things it needs to do," Adamowski said.
The difference now is that there's no new money to throw at the problem. Struggling schools will have to improve with existing resources.
"We need to be upset and demand action," said state Rep. Jason Bartlett, a leader in the General Assembly's Black and Puerto Rican Caucus. "We are not saying more money. We are saying we need to change the way we do business."
Changes are on the horizon. Among the proposals that state legislators are considering:
•A plan to have money follow the student who attends a different school.
•Linking the evaluation of teachers and principals to student performance.
•Handing parents at a chronically low-performing school the power to vote to "trigger" dramatic reforms, like replacing the staff.
Any of these steps could transform the way public schools in low-performing districts operate. Alex Johnston of the school reform group ConnCan told me that the combination of perennially low-achieving city schools and the fact that there isn't more money available will force Connecticut's hand.
"We have one of the worst achievement gaps in the country. We have one of the worst structural deficits," Johnston said. "For the first time the feds have made a very strong statement that continual failure is not going to be tolerated."
It's hard to grasp why some of these proposals have been resisted. Why, for example, shouldn't the tax dollars spent on a child move when that child decides to go to a different school? Evaluating teachers — at least in part — on whether students are learning also seems logical.
"This is not a situation where incremental is going to make the change we need," said Dacia Toll, founder and president of Achievement First, which runs successful charter schools in Connecticut and New York. "Incremental reforms have produced at best only incremental gains. We have got to be bold."
The difficulty with bold — like threatening to replace teachers if they don't make changes, or closing failing schools — is that careers are on the line. So I understand when Sharon Palmer, president of the Connecticut chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, tells me that "there are no silver bullets."
"If this stuff were easy to solve, we would have done it a long time ago," said Palmer, whose union deserves high marks for negotiating a contract in New Haven that will mean teachers are evaluated, in part, based on whether children are learning enough. "It is very difficult to move rapidly."
But daring leadership can force change. After the initial uproar in Rhode Island, the teachers and the school district are now negotiating a plan in which teachers get new training and spend more time with students — while keeping their jobs and most of their benefits.
And if they resist, they will be out of work.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at