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State Must Step Up Sluggish School Reform

By Stan Simpson

May 10, 2012

Here's what I'll never understand about Connecticut and its sluggish efforts at meaningful education reform:

The state is home to some of the best charter schools in America Amistad Academy in New Haven and Jumoke Academy in Hartford being the two most prominent. And by all accounts, New Haven has a novel and effective teacher-tenure agreement.

Yet, among the biggest obstacles in agreeing to the recent changes passed this legislative session were (incredibly) tenure reform and what role charter schools should play as a remedy for failing schools. Examples of successful reform are here in our backyards, yet all kind of excuses were conjured to not aggressively duplicate them. The tallest tale was the assertion that efforts to add more charter schools were actually an endorsement of for-profit corporations looking to get rich off the backs of urban kids.

Billionaire philanthropists, the argument went, saw gold in those urban schools and they wanted to mine them. The problem with that premise is that, by law, Connecticut allows only nonprofit charters. Charters are indeed public schools, but independently run. There is no example of profiteering among charters in Connecticut because it's illegal.

But the scare tactic served as a sufficient distraction in the reform debates. When it comes to education reform, Connecticut has become the master of making the very simple, complex. The richest state in the union, with its intellectual capital and the highest-paid teachers in the country, couldn't come up with a workable plan to transform the state's poorest performing schools.

Although many are celebrating the newly minted reforms 1,000 new slots for preschool, $1,000 more per student for charters, autonomy for the education commissioner to shake up failing schools, funding for early literacy, pilot teacher evaluation programs what's forgotten is that the state's achievement gap embarrassment spans 20 years.

While Connecticut dawdled and postured politically, large numbers of urban kids were attending virtual dropout factories, which became feeders for a prison system whose annual budget grew to $700 million.

So, why has it taken two decades and counting?

"There is only one explanation that makes sense,'' writes Armand A. Fusco of Guilford in his recently released book "School Pushouts: A Plague of Hopelessness Perpetrated by Zombie Schools.''

"Too many adults derive benefits politically, personally, financially and/or professionally by keeping the problems from being solved because it is inconceivable, based on all of the evidence and facts that the problems have not been solved.''

Fusco is a former teacher who has been a school superintendent in Branford and Massachusetts.

Many have proclaimed failing schools can be traced to poor parenting. Certainly, unstable homes and absentee dads play a role in a child's academics. But it is not the parents who are socially promoting these students to the next grade when they are not able to read, write or compute. Let's be real about that.

The best solution for the state's achievement gap would be to put the bulk of new funding into pre-K to Grade 3 and reading. Add more paraprofessionals and tutors to those classes; and don't pass any student who is not reading at level by Grade 3. That would mean offering more summer school reading enrichment for those kids.

The commissioner should be given wide latitude to take whatever means necessary to get failing schools up to speed. There also should be more training for teachers struggling to teach students English as a second language and students with special needs. And there should be regional alternative education schools for those students who, for whatever reason, are not cutting it in high school.

Connecticut invests $10 billion in education. Its strategies, however, in educating urban communities, with their disproportionate number of poor children, immigrants, special needs students and single-parent homes, have not worked.

The only thing more embarrassing than the state's achievement gap is its failure on three separate occasions to secure even one penny of the billions set aside in federal Race to The Top dollars.

Those federal dollars, set aside for remedies to close the gap, would have meant more state teaching jobs and likely would have saved teaching positions.

That should be enough incentive to keep building on the encouraging education reform measures passed this week.

Stan Simpson is host of "The Stan Simpson Show'' (www.ctnow.com/stan and Saturdays, 6:30 a.m., on FoxCT) and senior executive adviser at the Hartford Journalism & Media Academy.

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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