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Governor's Commission Proposes Dozens Of Education Reforms

Proposals Designed To Close State's Achievement Gap

By GRACE E. MERRITT

October 19, 2010

HARTFORD The governor's commission on the state's achievement gap presented dozens of bold reform proposals Tuesday, including a state-funded preschool for all low-income students, a requirement that high school students pass a test before they can graduate and linking teacher pay and tenure to student performance.

The Connecticut Commission on Educational Achievement offered 65 recommendations for what is envisioned as a 10-year plan to improve the performance of low-income students by requiring those who do poorly and their schools to get extra help and by attracting strong school leaders.

It also made some suggestions that are sure to be controversial, such as allowing school systems to fire ineffective, tenured teachers more quickly and changing state educational funding formulas to send more money to poorer districts.

The commission also favors adopting a "money follows the child" model in which state funding is sent to the school a child attends, even if it's a charter school. Some educators strongly oppose that idea, saying it will drain money from local districts.

The commission was appointed by Gov. M. Jodi Rell to find ways to close the state's achievement gap, the largest in the nation. The commission found that low-income students lag by as much as three grade levels behind other students in reading and math, and that only 60 percent of low-income students graduate from high school.

The commission focused on low-income students, but noted that the gap disproportionately affects African American and Latino children.

Other key proposals would:

--Use student achievement as a key factor in teacher evaluations and tenure decisions.

--Require stronger remedial help for poorly performing students, such as a longer school day, summer school or tutoring.

--Require all-day kindergarten in districts that have the lowest-achieving 5 percent of elementary schools.

--Add a top-level secretary of education who would report to the governor and oversee the education and higher-education commissioners, as well as a new commissioner of early-childhood education.

--Provide more mentoring, collaboration and professional development for teachers.

--Create a statewide system with multiple pay levels for teachers, with provisions for granting bonuses for high performance.

--Replace members of the state Board of Education with leaders committed to closing the achievement gap.

--Require all students to pass the state CAPT test to get a diploma.

"This was one of the things that made a big difference in Massachusetts to require students to pass a test to graduate," Commission Chairman Steve Simmons said.

The commission, composed mostly of business leaders, spent nearly eight months compiling the report. The group held hearings, met with 150 educational experts, conducted extensive research and traveled to three other states to learn about successful reforms.

Some proposals are costly, such as the plan to extend preschool education to 9,000 to 13,000 low-income students who don't have it now. The state Department of Education estimates that, alone, would cost $100 million.

The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, reacting to the report, expressed concern that the cost of the reforms will have to be carried by towns and cities.

"Local governments are already dramatically underfunded by the state for the cost of local public education," said Kevin Maloney, a CCM spokesman. "The state last school year covered just 38 percent of education costs, well short of the 50-50 goal of cost sharing with local school districts."

Simmons said the commission is keenly aware of the state's fiscal crisis and the poor economy and noted that many of the recommendations wouldn't cost anything. He also said Connecticut already spends more on education than 45 other states and should examine and reallocate current spending. In addition, the state can look for savings by reallocating certain grants, sharing services and consolidating school districts.

The commission said closing the achievement gap is important because it represents the state's failure to help its most vulnerable children and portends a gloomy future for the state's economy. Unemployment will increase, the state will fail to attract businesses that need skilled labor and the prison population will grow since high school dropouts are three times as likely to be incarcerated than graduates.

"The alternative of not doing anything is so bad," said commission member David Carson. "We could be the best in the world and our system is now failing thousands in our state."

Some educators and other experts said the reforms are a promising first step.

"Overall, I think that we would support the vast majority of the recommendations," said Sharon Palmer, president of the American Federal of Teachers Connecticut, a union that represents nearly 10,000 teachers in the state.

Teacher union leaders said they particularly like the idea of more professional development and mentoring for teachers and improving the teacher evaluation process. But they didn't like some of the recommendations concerning seniority and tenure.

"Given the breadth of this report, it's not surprising to find a number of recommendations, for example, some in the areas of school finance and teacher compensation, that we consider ineffective and not research-based," said Kathy Frega, spokeswoman for the Connecticut Education Association, the state's largest teacher's union.

Gwen Samuels, president of the State of Black Connecticut Alliance, said she was disappointed that neither of the candidates for governor was present at a press conference for the report's release, but pleased by many aspects of the report.

"I like the teacher evaluation piece. The tenure business is detrimental to students now," Samuels said.

Both candidates for governor said Tuesday that they support of many of the proposed reforms.

Republican Tom Foley said he supports school choice, "money follows the child" funding and teacher promotions based on assessments.

Democrat Dan Malloy said he has already implemented several of the reforms in Stamford, where he is mayor, including universal preschool for low-income children.

Tom Murphy, a spokesman for the Department of Education, commended the commission.

"I think they have some well thought-out proposals, many of which we can embrace," he said.

He said the state has been working on expanding preschool education, but has been limited by the cost and the number of slots available. He also said that changing the state education funding formula is complicated and that changes could mean higher local property taxes.

To view the entire report, go to ctachieve.org.

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.
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