Closing the Achievement Gap

While school begins, questions remain as policy makers and experts continue to debate whether the state’s education reform bill will accomplish its objectives, and parents try to grasp how the changes will affect their kids in class.



Schools in lower Fairfield County may not look that different as kids head back to class, but sweeping reform is afoot, with a goal to close the state’s achievement gap, considered the largest in the nation.

The action follows state passage last spring of “An Act Concerning Education Reform,” 185 pages of mandates spearheaded by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. The bill addresses everything from failing schools and unacceptable teachers to a state Education Commissioner’s Network that will step in and take over failing schools if local school boards don’t fix their problems internally. “It was quite the battle but it needed to be done,” says Gov. Malloy, who has called education reform “the civil rights issue of our time.”

“I’m trying to move people out of the box they put themselves in,” adds Gov. Malloy.

Making Sense of the Bill

The reform package:

  • Requires annual evaluation of teachers and administrators, improves teacher training, calls for coaching on the job, and spells out a pilot teacher evaluation model linked to student performance.
  • Expands access to high-quality early childhood education, and creates 1,000 preschool slots in low-income neighborhoods.
  • Creates a pilot program to strengthen literacy for students in K–3.
  • Devotes more money to high-performing schools, including magnets and charters.
  • Attempts to remove red tape in high-performing districts.
  • Commits $50 million in new Education Grant funds, mostly to the state’s thirty lowest-performing districts, Stamford and Norwalk among them, called “Alliance Districts.”
  • Creates the Education Commissioner’s Network to support (and intervene, if needed, in) twenty-five of the chronically lowest-performing schools in the state. The schools must submit a turnaround plan, with input from teachers, parents and administrators. If not accepted, the commissioner, Stefan Pryor, can implement his own plan.
  • Permits the commissioner to partner with non-profit school operators, such as charter schools, to fix turnaround schools. He can also withhold education money from local school boards because of low academic achievement, and can transfer the funds to the Department of Education for spending.
  • Adds, in total,  nearly $100 million to state education spending, which already adds up to about $2 billion. Much of the new money goes to the Alliance Districts (see page 130), which educate 41 percent of students in the state. The money comes with a catch, though. School boards can spend the money only on specified initiatives (see page 134) and must be accountable for their spending. In August, Stamford, Norwalk and others submitted applications spelling out how they planned to spend the new dollars, and how they planned to measure progress.

So How Does This Affect My Child’s School?

Most lower Fairfield County towns won’t get a penny of the new money. Still, the towns are required to follow the new mandates, whether that means implementing the new teacher-evaluation system or refining the curricula to jibe with the state’s Common Core State Standards, an initiative by the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Adopted in Connecticut in July 2010, the standards “define the knowledge and skills students should have in K-12 so that they will graduate high school able to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing academic college courses and workforce training programs.” Many municipalities in lower Fairfield County must fund the education reform initiatives on their own.

“In some ways, because the state has limited resources, concentrating the resources makes sense to a point; they have to triage this a bit,” says David Title, Ph.D., the superintendent in Fairfield. “We don’t want them breathing down our necks, and at the same time, we’re not getting a pass.”

Representative Terrie Wood, a Republican who voted for the bill and represents Darien and Rowayton concurs. “Do we have issues in our school districts? Absolutely,” she says. “But right now they are manageable. We all feel the responsibility to break the cycle in some of our cities where those kids are not getting what they need.”

The governor says better education for all children improves the overall welfare of the state. Malloy and his staff calculated that it costs taxpayers $518,000 in net tax contributions versus government subsidies during a person’s working lifetime if that person drops out of school. Consider the math in a district like Hartford, where 45 percent of students aren’t graduating. “If we don’t turn this around we’re going to bankrupt ourselves,” says Gov. Malloy.

As mayor of Stamford (1995–2009), Malloy had already taken issue with the state’s Education Cost Sharing (ECS) grant formula for distributing education dollars to districts, which is based loosely on property tax revenue and Census data. (Weston, for example, gets a bit less than $1 million in ECS money for about 2,500 students, while Norwalk gets about $10 million for some 11,000 students.) Malloy argued that the state should spend upwards of $2.7 billion for education, rather than rely on individual municipalities to fend for themselves. When he was elected governor in 2010, Malloy proclaimed education reform his highest priority and pledged to fix Connecticut’s achievement gap. “I covered that hole in ECS funding,” says Gov. Malloy. “I said we’re going to have to spend more money and there are going to be strings attached. It’s an 11.5 percent increase in Stamford’s case. Nobody loses money.”

Wendy Lecker, former president of the Parent Teacher Council in Stamford and an attorney who worked on school funding issues in New York City, isn’t buying it. “The state has a constitutional obligation to provide adequate resources so that each and every child is provided with an education,” she says. The extra $900,000 to Stamford is a start, but not nearly what it takes for “a school to overcome the deficit that our society doesn’t make up for. We should get millions more. Instead it’s $61 per kid.”

Why all the fuss?

When the governor announced his proposed reforms during his State of the State address in February, he sparked a rallying cry in Connecticut, but it wasn’t the one he expected. Though he spoke at length, just one issue resonated—that teachers only had to “show up for four years” to get tenure.

“All of a sudden, what was supposed to be about education reform became about ‘How do you fire a teacher’,” says Representative Larry Cafero, House Republican Leader who represents New Canaan and Norwalk and is a former member of the Norwalk Board of Education. “We needed teachers to be partners in this process, not adversaries. A lot of districts, especially in Fairfield County, are doing very well and they like their teachers.”

A stake was wedged between Malloy’s reform plan, with private, non-profit advocacy and reform groups from in and out of the state to one side; and teachers’ unions, community leaders and parents on the other, outspending and outshouting each other in public hearings and in the media. Thousands of protesters ringed the capitol  building during months of debates. In the end, though, after three months of haggling, legislators hammered out a compromise just two days before the session ended for the summer. The state’s House of Representatives passed the bill unanimously, and the Senate approved it 28–7. “It’s a good first step,” says Rep. Cafero. “I would not characterize it as historic or bold, but a very important first step.”

Barely after the ink dried on the governor’s approval signature, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan came to Connecticut to announce that due, in part, to the reform, the feds were granting Connecticut a waiver of No Child Left Behind regulations, which the state had tried and failed to obtain three previous times. The waiver will affect all Fairfield County schools, though many districts have not yet dealt with stipulations in the waiver, including the state’s pledge to bring all students up to the Common Core Standards and hold districts accountable if their students don’t get there. “We’ll adopt those Common Core Standards,” says Nancy R. Kail, a member of the Greenwich Board of Education and a former investment banker. A Democrat, she appreciates many of the reform initiatives, including additional preschool support. “Some of the new things in how teachers are evaluated, such as incorporating standardized test results and other quantitative measures, are a good move forward,” she says.

In Greenwich, which is perceived by many as a wealthy district, nearly a quarter of students are minorities and 13 percent of the student body receives a free or subsidized lunch; and each day, Kail sees how success in school must begin earlier. “From grade three onward, we do very well, but we’re beginning from a much lower starting place,” she says. “It’s the quality of the preschool that we really have to pay attention to.”

Part of the success in Greenwich is credited to help from local education foundations, which the education reform package encourages. The Greenwich Alliance for Education, for example, sends a Storymobile to the city’s public housing projects, supports early literacy programs, and funds college prep programs. “It does take a village,” says Kail.

Kail looks forward to another reform initiative that has proved contentious—increased money for charter schools. Currently, charters receive $9,400 per pupil from the state. That amount will increase to $11,500 by 2014–2015. Charter schools must submit plans to serve priority-student populations, particularly students struggling to learn English. Local school boards stand to gain up to $500,000 in start-up grants and $3,000 per student if they can design a high-quality turnaround plan and convince their unions to “embrace flexibility” and start a charter.

Attorney and parent advocate Lecker takes issue with this. “Charter schools are a privatization tool. They’ve become an industry. You can’t take money from the public schools and be part of the funding stream and then say public schools are failures,” she says.

Rep. Wood says it’s the way to go. “I’m a big fan of the charter schools. They require parental and family engagement. They’re raising the bar and raising expectations in a big, big way.”

Tests, tests and more tests

The expectation that all students will be proficient in math and reading by 2014, and relying on a set curriculum to get there, is at the root of much debate regarding reform in Fairfield County. Opponents up and down the county grumble that this goal will only mean one thing: increased, high-stakes, standardized testing, with hours and hours of “drill-and-kill” teaching.

“These new standards are mediocre,” says Lecker. “They are dumbing down our education. It’s out of sequence and very text-based. All this translates into high-stakes standardized testing.”

Stamford’s new superintendent, Winifred Hamilton, Ph.D., who has worked in Stamford schools for forty-three years, disagrees. “We’re in an age of accountability. The more you focus, the more streamlined your instruction may be. There’s a real emphasis on time [spent] on task; it’s not drill-and-kill. It doesn’t mean you can’t have fun in school.”

Even in this “age of accountability,” it is believed that the new mandates add even more testing and paperwork to a pile that already muddles much of the school day, interfering with time for creative learning. “In a district like New Canaan, they get barely any state money for education as it is,” says Rep. Cafero. “Now they get a lot of mandates foisted upon them, and for what?” Cafero had lobbied for towns to be waived from unfunded mandates, “but unfortunately that did not make the cut. What particularly galls people is if we’re doing pretty nicely and we don’t ask for a nickel. Why make us fulfill those mandates, many of which are unneeded or excessive and take hundreds of hours?”

Another consequence stemming from increased emphasis on test scores and accountability is that much of a teacher’s evaluation—up to 45 percent in some preliminary plans—will depend on whether or not little Johnny is proficient in certain subjects. This has prompted concern in many districts that teachers will spend less time trying to be innovative and more time teaching to tests. In Westport about 100 students staged a protest, where they wore tags with names and numbers representing the quantitative rather than qualitative assessment they feared would be given to their teachers.

Fairfield’s Dr. Title shares the students’ concerns. “The concept is appealing; we want to judge teachers by how much their students learn,” he says. “But almost everything in the entire legislation is heavily based on standardized test results. My experience is that when you overemphasize standardized tests … people figure out the system, and human nature is to want to raise scores. This starts to crowd things out of the curriculum.”

Collective bargaining in low-performing schools proved to be another tricky issue. Malloy wanted to be able to institute changes quickly in the failing schools and thought teachers should only be able to bargain over wage issues. Teachers, who feared for their jobs and schools and were among the most vocal opponents of the reform package, wanted to bargain over changes in working conditions as well. A key to the compromise was keeping teachers in the loop, and under the new reform bill, teachers can now help redesign a failing school. If there is a disparity over what teachers want and what the state wants, an arbitrator will step in to decide the difference.

Also in the compromise: teachers must be rated “effective” to receive tenure Conversely if they’re evaluated as “ineffective,” they lose tenure. Excellent teachers can be acknowledged with a “distinguished educator” designation. When legislators amended punitive-sounding wording in the original legislation, and promised to give struggling teachers the help to improve—but get rid of them faster if they don’t measure up—unions dropped their opposition. In the end, the two teacher unions, the Connecticut Education Association and the Connecticut Federation of Teachers, did not oppose the bill.

School systems in ten municipalities, including Norwalk, have volunteered to be the guinea pigs in the new teacher-principal-and administrator-evaluation process that begins this month. State officials will tinker with the plan during the 2012-2013 school year and hope to roll out a statewide evaluation program the next school year.

“When everything was said and done, we got what we needed, the idea that students, parents, teachers, administrators and school boards need to be held accountable,” says Gov. Malloy. “[We’ll] have an evaluation process that protects good teachers, makes good teachers even better, and [provides] a way to handle teachers who are underperforming.”

 

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