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Malloy Drafting Plan To Fix Our Schools; So Is Everybody Else

What We Need Is Not More Talk But Bold Action If 2012 Is Going To Yield Meaningful Reform

By Rick Green

December 20, 2011

Everybody is talking about fixing the schools.

The danger is that all the competing agendas will collide and we'll be left with some mushy compromise, while the most basic problem the thousands of poor and minority children who aren't learning literacy or proficiency with numbers remains.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy added to the chorus Tuesday when he finally spoke up, declaring that "we've lost our edge" in public education. In a letter to General Assembly members, he asked for "new tools" to expand preschool, intervene and provide more resources to failing districts, reward success, improve teaching, and cut red tape. He might want to add parents who don't know how to be parents to that list too.

School superintendents, meanwhile, have their own 134-item action plan, which took two years to prepare. A prominent business-backed group has its own detailed strategy. Two government commissions, one looking at school funding, another examining the achievement gap, are hard at work preparing their own lengthy agendas on topics that have already been studied to death.

In recent days one parent group launched a statewide bus tour while the taxpayer-funded State Education Research Center issued a report saying that "institutionalized racism" lies behind our staggering education inequality.

Actually, more than anything, it's poverty that lies behind our educational failures.

Two recent items remind us how far we've fallen. The state failed, for the third time, to win federal money under the Race To The Top program, which rewards innovation. And recent statistics from the National Assessment of Educational Progress reveal that Connecticut has the largest achievement gap among all states for seven of 12 key indicators.

Not so long ago, Connecticut's public schools were held up as a model of achievement for the nation. Now neighboring states routinely exceed us. Malloy, who now can't wait, put education at the bottom of his to-do list when he was elected. He may be surprised to learn that fixing failing schools is harder than hammering out a budget deal with his labor unions.

The gap between suburban white students and students who are black, Hispanic or poor is most severe for fourth grade reading. Students behind at this age, researchers repeat with numbing regularity, are likely never to catch up, let alone become the anchor for the 21st Century workforce the governor tells us our economic future depends upon.

"There has been no statistical growth. Other states are showing significant gains,'' Stefan Pryor, Connecticut's commissioner of education, bluntly told the panel appointed to study the much-studied achievement gap. "The numbers are not going in the right direction."

Among black and Hispanic eighth graders, the NAEP figures tell us, nearly nine out of 10 are scoring below proficiency in math. Add this to fourth grade reading and the future looks bleak.

As we approach Malloy's much-hyped education session of the General Assembly, the wish lists are long and costly: eliminate tenure, expand preschool, pay teachers based on performance, more training for teachers, more technology, merge school districts, more money for the cities, cut regulations, add regulations, focus on racial issues, focus on poverty, focus on how we pay for public education and I'm just getting started.

We're still waiting to hear what the powerful and politically influential teacher unions will get behind.

It's Pryor's monumental job to come up with a strategy for Malloy. Pryor, an energetic and experienced reform advocate who most recently worked for Newark Mayor Cory Booker, is in the midst of his own "listening tour" of schools and classrooms. He plans to come up with the administration's blueprint by February.

The risk is that all this studying and these dramatic "calls to action" will yield only piecemeal compromise and feel-good promises to work together in the future.

"There is so much floating around. Everybody has their own ideas,'' said Patrick Riccards, CEO of ConnCAN, a business-backed group that supports aggressive school reforms. "The greatest problem we face is we again do nothing. We may talk too much."

"The governor has declared the coming year as the year of education reform. If we don't act in 2012 it's safe to say Connecticut is not going to act."

Pryor says there is "enormous promise" for what might happen in 2012. "We need to focus more on the places where the problems lie."

When we spoke Thursday, Pryor told me that "a common path forward" was emerging among all the groups pushing for change. "This may be a generational moment."

It might be. Focusing on the biggest problems seems like the right idea. We don't need another commission, legislative hearings, a thick report, or letter from the governor to tell us that 10-year-olds who can't read are a crisis. We've known that for years. It's actually doing something that's the challenge.

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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