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Not Far Enough: State Must Grade Schools And Offer Choice

Malloy Plan: Governor's school reforms should be more radical


March 22, 2012

Governor Dannel P. Malloy's recent town halls on education reform have been dominated by the political bullying of teachers unions. Unions have heckled the governor, booed and shouted down anyone who disagrees with them and generally stymied reasoned discourse on one of our state's most important challenges.

Judging by this furor, you might think Mr. Malloy was introducing a set of groundbreaking, once-in-a-generation reforms. But the truth is, compared with states that have been at the forefront of reforming their public schools and improving student outcomes, Malloy's proposals actually change very little.

No state in the country has completely figured out education reform. But most have done a much better than Connecticut at developing high-achieving urban schools in high poverty areas. The Connecticut Policy Institute recently published a white paper that distilled some of the most effective reforms these states have implemented into "Four Big Things" that, at a minimum, Connecticut must do to improve educational outcomes for its lowest performing public school students. In each of these areas, Mr. Malloy's current proposals come up short.

The focus of the current education reform discourse in Connecticut is teacher tenure. We support Mr. Malloy's proposal to link teacher tenure to teacher performance, a hardly revolutionary measure that dozens of other states have already implemented. But linking teacher promotion to performance alone will not be effective unless it is part of a more comprehensive effort to hold public schools accountable for student outcomes, something the current draft bill does not do.

Connecticut needs a statewide longitudinal data system to track outcomes in basic reading and math skills for individual students over time. It needs an A-to-F grading system for schools that makes transparent whether or not schools are improving these outcomes, especially for low-performing students.

And it needs to introduce widespread public school choice to its lowest performing urban districts so that parents can hold administrators accountable when schools fail at their core objective: teaching students. This can be modeled on Hartford's all-choice public school system, which doubled third-grade reading scores and high school graduation rates between 2006 and 2011.

Connecticut also needs to require a reading exam for third-graders to move on to fourth grade (a measure that Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield of New Haven has introduced) and a regents-style exam to graduate from high school. Many states have introduced these exams, which signal to potential employers that a high school degree actually means something. High school graduates in these states receive higher wages as a result, research shows.

Even within the area of teacher quality and professional development, Mr. Malloy's reform proposal does not address an issue at least as important as tenure reform to attracting and developing the highest quality teachers possible: lowering the barriers to entry by opening up more channels for alternative teacher certification.

Research by the Brookings Institute, the Gates Foundation and others has consistently shown that having a degree in education does not correlate with teacher quality. As a result, many states, including New Jersey, South Carolina and Florida, have instituted reforms that have allowed 40 percent or more of their teachers to enter the profession without an education degree. These teachers perform just as well and they often bring diversity in approach and educational philosophy to the profession. Once again, Mr. Malloy's current proposals contain no such initiatives.

All of these reforms have been implemented in other states, with tangible results. None is a budget-breaker. And yet, Mr. Malloy's current draft bill doesn't include any.

The most recent press reports suggest that Mr. Malloy and members of the General Assembly's Education Committee might back down and cave into the demands of status quo special interests notably the unions. We suggest they do the opposite. If Mr. Malloy can't appease status quo interests by limiting his reforms to small changes, why doesn't he go ahead and introduce some truly bold initiatives that will actually make a difference?

Ben Zimmer is executive director of the Connecticut Policy Institute, a policy research think tank founded by former Republican gubernatorial challenger Tom Foley. The CPI white paper on education reform is available at http://www.ctpolicyinstitute.org/content/CPI_Education_Reform_White_Paper.pdf.

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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