It was an inspirational photo opportunity at the signing of the long-awaited education reform bill Tuesday at the Capitol when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy declared "the long debate is over and the new beginning has just begun."
"We will win this battle. We will improve our schools," Malloy told jubilant educators, legislators and business leaders. "We are going to make this happen."
In the end, the governor got at least a taste of much of what he wanted. Teacher unions blocked some of the most radical changes and slowed the pace of the governor's plans. More spending continues to be a large part of the solution.
But what have we really accomplished with all this talk about how to fix Connecticut's lowest-performing schools? What lessons were learned in the much-hyped year of education reform?
Here's my rundown:
1. Will the nation's largest achievement gap narrow? Not immediately, but supporters of Malloy's compromise plan believe that more spending, new intervention strategies, and the chance to target the state's lowest-performing schools will make a difference. A "commissioner's network" of struggling schools will be the state's top priority. "We are now saying it is unacceptable for schools to drop below a certain level,'' said Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor.
2. Overnight changes don't fly. Like it or not, there wasn't support for the larger reforms the governor and his supporters (including me) sought. The compromise that won overwhelming approval — and union support — is a more cautious approach, heavy on testing things out first. "We should never, ever do sweeping change. You are experimenting with kids," AFT Connecticut President Sharon Palmer reminded me Tuesday. She's mostly right.
3. Everybody likes reading and little kids. These are two of the most obvious (and costly) areas where spending more money makes a difference. There will be more preschool slots. More teachers will be taught effective strategies for reading instruction. This matters.
4. Labor contracts can, and will, be changed. This was one of the contentious issues that bogged down reform for weeks. Malloy sought the ability to step in and unilaterally change a collectively bargained teachers contract at a failing school. Under the bill signed into law Tuesday, contracts can be altered using an expedited negotiation process that includes teachers. This is a substantial change and will allow educators to redesign failing schools more quickly. For example, there is now a process to quickly renegotiate issues such as the length of the school day or year. Union opposition cannot stop the process.
5. Charter schools are the surprise winners. Viewed as deal-killers by the Connecticut Education Association, the state's largest teacher union, charters instead emerged as surprise victors. State funding for charter schools will steadily grow in coming years, increasing by $1,100 per student to $10,500 per student this coming year. Significantly, charters will be scrutinized more closely and used as models for school reform — a provision that the Malloy administration was unwilling to back away from. Expect substantial growth in charter schools in coming years.
6. Finally, we may be able to clearly and fairly assess good teachers. After a disastrous start, when Malloy suggested that teachers earn the job security called tenure by just showing up for work, a significant new evaluation program emerged that could become the legislation's biggest achievement, if it works. Teachers must demonstrate they are effective. Regular evaluations will be based, in part, on whether students are learning. Educators who are struggling will get additional help. Removing ineffective teachers will be easier. "It is designed to improve every teacher,'' said State Board of Education Chair Allan B. Taylor.
7. How we pay for education was barely touched. This bill does the usual — adding more money for preschool and struggling schools for example — but it does not begin to address what critics say is a larger problem: the inherent inequality of a system that pays for much of public education based on property taxes. A mandated new accounting system will make it easier to understand and compare education spending.
8. Is it possible that Malloy may not be toast with teachers? Everyone, at this happy moment, now believes that there should be more "collaboration" between teachers and elected leaders when it comes to making changes in schools, at least until the next controversial proposal. CEA President Phil Apruzzese told me "there is still a divide'' between Malloy and teachers, but he said his membership ought to give the governor a second chance now that there is agreement on this bill. "We have to look at this in total," he said. Apruzzese said he hopes that in the future Malloy "listens to teachers first."
9. Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor will be on the hot seat. Pryor and the State Board of Education must quickly address a long list of priorities, from teacher evaluation to turning around failing schools to restoring teachers' confidence. He must show that these reforms can actually work in schools, improving learning for poor and minority students.
10. All of this could mean more education money from Washington. We've been three-time losers in the U.S. Department of Education's Race to the Top initiative, costing the state hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid. On Tuesday, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan had warm praise for Connecticut's reforms.
On Tuesday, everyone felt like a winner. Within a year, we'll know how much of a new beginning it really was.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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