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New State Schools Chief Begins Today, Declaring We Are Tired Of The Lack Of Progress

By Rick Green

October 06, 2011

The heralded and long-awaited arrival of Stefan Pryor as Connecticut's new education commissioner — he begins work Friday — is a bitter reminder of how little progress we've made solving our most persistent failure.

We talk endlessly about our economic future, and yet tens of thousands of children in urban schools are still falling behind, not learning and dropping out. There are few, if any, larger obstacles holding Connecticut back.

What, I wanted to know when I met with the commissioner-to-be this week, could Pryor possibly do that governors, previous commissioners and hundreds of educators haven't already done to tackle what is the nation's greatest achievement gap?

"I think there is a recognition that this is a special moment,'' Pryor responded, explaining that it his good fortune to be working for an impatient governor who has promised an education agenda during his second year in office.

"The sense I get from everybody — the education associations, the union leaders, the advocacy group leaders, the legislators, the state board members — is that we are tired of the lack of progress. We are ready for a shift forward."

Though Pryor was cautious and guarded during our chat, it was still clear that education policy under the 39-year-old Yale graduate may shift seismically in coming months. This is a man, after all, who made an early name for himself as the founder of one of Connecticut's most successful charter schools, the Amistad Academy in New Haven. More recently, Pryor was a top aide to Newark Mayor Cory Booker.

Above all, Pryor was brought here to create change. Some important highlights emerged from our conversation:

•A streamlined state Department of Education, one that focuses more on the fundamental problems of struggling schools, will emerge. Shifting from a regulation-and-compliance bureaucracy focused on paperwork to a more nimble agency that exists to improve learning will be a top priority.

•School districts that succeed can expect new freedom. Schools, experimental or traditional, that show results will be held up as models — and replicated.

•Teachers who achieve will be rewarded. Whether students actually learn must become part of how educators are evaluated. In particular, getting the best teachers into the lowest-performing schools will become a top priority.

•Student achievement, measured by indicators like standardized tests, will continue to be a critical metric for evaluating schools.

"At the moment, when there are national dialogues about which states are moving in the right direction, you don't hear Connecticut's name,'' Pryor said. "The unit that parents think about … is the school. We as a department need to think about the schools of our state and how to improve them."

Two things Pryor spoke repeatedly about — giving more freedom to school districts that achieve, and promoting successful individual schools as examples for the state — are particularly noteworthy. Significantly, we have no shortage of high-achieving schools and districts in Connecticut.

It would be revolutionary if Connecticut's state Department of Education became known for helping good ideas grow and for getting out of the way of districts that are already succeeding.

"What can the state department do for higher performing districts? Get out of the way,'' Pryor said. The big idea, he told me, Is to "spend more time with this districts that need the help."

Pryor warned me — repeatedly — that he was not arriving as an acolyte of the charter school movement, which is often pitted against traditional education and unions. Charters play a very small role in the education of children in Connecticut. Like other model schools, they can be an example, he said.

"Effective schools will play a large role in this new era,'' Pryor said, whatever the design or governance structure. "My goal will be … to promote those schools, to expand those schools, to replicate those schools that show effectiveness.''

Teacher evaluation, a favorite topic of seat-of-the-pants school reformers, must improve, but by working with all sides, particularly the unions, Pryor said. Significantly, this must include a career path that rewards and promotes effective teachers.

"It is essential that student performance be an element of evaluation and companion in our system,'' he said. "That is something that we are going to engage as a very healthy, very full conversation with all of the stakeholders.

"We need to ensure that the teaching profession provides for ways for outstanding faculty members to advance in their careers. And advancement includes increased compensation over time."

Pryor, who has a reputation as a workhorse, said he plans to begin his job with a listening tour of schools, classrooms and towns around the state.

"I think it's possible to map out an approach that people agree upon. Will there be conflict? You can count on it. The place to start from is what do we agree on what do we want to accomplish,'' he said. "People are hungry for that."

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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