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State Gets Ready For School Reforms

Malloy Plans To Focus On Lowest-Performing Districts

By Rick Green

August 11, 2011

Gov. Dannel Malloy's version of school reform is still on hold, but a push from President Obama may soon provide some clues.

Federal Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called Gov. Malloy this week to tell him that the Obama administration wants to let states off from some of the strict provisions of the controversial No Child Left Behind Act such as penalizing schools if they don't reach goals for reading proficiency. In return, states such as Connecticut would enact significant reform.

Thus far in Malloy's term Connecticut has been notable for its lack of focus on the nation's largest performance gaps between middle class and poor children.

Significantly, Duncan wants states to tie student achievement to teacher evaluation and compensation while also focusing on the neediest school districts. Recently, Duncan also suggested that teacher salaries grow dramatically in order to attract more qualified educators to the profession.

Malloy, who lacks a permanent education commissioner, told me he will be pushing for dramatic change between now and the start of next year's General Assembly session. The governor has pledged to devote much of the session to education reform.

"The lack of faith that exists between the teachers and their representatives and the local boards of education is something I need to break through,'' said Malloy, who has spent much of his first seven months in office struggling to find common ground with public employee unions.

"What we need to do in Connecticut is concentrate on about 20 school systems,'' Malloy said, signaling a significant change for the state Department of Education, which often functions more as a compliance agency making sure 166 different school districts meet their bureaucratic obligations.

Instead, Malloy wants an agency that worries less about Avon, Darien and Madison and more about Bridgeport, New Britain and Hartford. It's a practical and unavoidable strategy in this new era of reduced resources.

"I've had a series of conversations with Arne Duncan over the last year," Malloy said. "I'm a fan of what he is trying to do."

Secretary Duncan told reporters this week that "we want to work with states that are being thoughtful around educator effectiveness, [who are] better at evaluating and supporting teachers and principals. We want to work with states that have new and improved accountability systems."

"We want to work with states that are willing to courageously tackle the lowest-performing schools and achievement gaps," Duncan said. "We're much more interested in growth and gain. How much are students improving each year?"

Malloy's strategy will almost certainly mirror successes in New Haven, where school leaders working in partnership with the teachers union have focused on measuring whether students are making enough progress. In coming days New Haven will, for the first time, begin terminating failing educators under an innovative new labor contract.

"Those who do not improve, you have a faster and better way of getting rid of tenured teachers,'' said New Haven Superintendent of Schools Reginald Mayo. "Eighty percent of a teacher's performance evaluation will depend on kids' [academic] growth."

The problem, of course, is far larger than the relatively few teachers who are ineffective. Parents need to be held more accountable. Failing districts need more money to pay for new programs. Cherished benefits, such as labor contracts that offer virtual lifetime job guarantees, will have to be revised.

"The reform agenda is bigger and broader than the issue of the neediest school districts,'' said William Ginsburg, a board member of the newly formed Connecticut Council for Education Reform, a business-backed lobby group. "The reform agenda is about accountability at the teacher level and at the administration level."

"The reform community is really waiting to see how aggressive the Malloy administration education agenda is going to be," said Ginsburg, who is president of the philanthropic Community Foundation of Greater New Haven. "We haven't seen that yet."

Meanwhile, Malloy said education will soon emerge as a top priority, once he finishes with the state budget. He noted that the State Board of Education will soon have a finalist for the job of education commissioner the person expected to lead reform efforts for his administration. A new commissioner could be named within a month.

"I've had the opportunity to review the quality of all of the candidates. There are easily five interesting candidates within that group,'' Malloy said. "There are several that I could get behind."

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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