Agenda: For Public Schools Agenda 2011 Goals: End the achievement gap, get A's on nation's report card December 27, 2010
This state does well in schooling better-off suburban children. But it fails low-income children, who are mostly concentrated in city schools. Poor students in the fourth and eighth grades in Connecticut score three grade levels below their more comfortable peers - the worst achievement gap in the nation - even though this state is among the highest per-pupil spenders in the nation.
Connecticut's goals for the next decade, starting in 2011, should be to end that terrible distinction and reach the No. 1 spot on "the nation's report card," the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Gov.-elect Dan Malloy's choice of education commissioner will be critical.
The legislature and Board of Education made commendable strides in 2010 by increasing pre-K funding and adding more rigorous high school graduation requirements in math, science and languages, among other things.
Even so, Connecticut missed out on federal Race to the Top money for school reform. States had to show they were serious about shaking up the school establishment by changing the way teachers are evaluated, rewarding successful teachers and letting alternative school models succeed. Connecticut fell short.
The state should offer districts incentives to follow New Haven's example and negotiate union contracts that tie teacher job evaluations to student progress on test scores. New Haven's contract provides for help for failing teachers but also lets schools do the merciful thing by letting failing teachers go to find more satisfying work.
The To-Do List
Among other changes that should come in 2011:
Eliminate teacher tenure and seniority rules. In Hartford, a teacher with seniority who is laid off at one school can bump a newer teacher trained for a specialty academy. That wreaks havoc with raising test scores. Towns should do away with teacher-bumping.
Recruit great teachers. The state needs to remove obstacles to alternative certification programs and support programs such as Teach for America.
Raise expectations for teaching performance. Connecticut pours a huge amount of money into schools. Districts have a duty to demonstrate how well that investment is doing, teacher by teacher.
Reward administrators - and teachers - who improve student achievement. Derby Superintendent Stephen Tracy has asked his school board to base his salary on student performance. The town of Thompson is pioneering in offering administrators bonuses if they meet goals. May these rare examples of accountability go viral.
Form private/public partnerships to keep kids in school. Yale's college scholarship program for New Haven students who graduate from high school is sure to slow the dropout rate. Are there other angels out there?
Expand preschool in the poorest towns and cities. Kindergarten is not the day-care center it was 50 years ago, and children from poor families often enter it unprepared. Mr. Malloy has suggested a sliding-scale fee for pre-K. It's a good idea and now is the time to try it.
Measure teachers' performance accurately. The state needs better data systems to evaluate teachers.
Lift enrollment caps on certified alternative schools, and let the money follow the child. Right now the state pays both the school the child leaves behind and the school he goes to, allowing lousy schools to keep doing a lousy job. If a child leaves a bad school for a better one, the bad school shouldn't profit.
The Cost Of Change
How to pay for reforms with the state in dire straits? Connecticut has to rethink the way it finances education. The school-funding formula is unwieldy and ineffective. In 2011, there will be no stimulus money to save school jobs.
The state also has incentivize school districts to consolidate. Connecticut is archaic in maintaining its 167 costly school fiefdoms.
Since 2007, Maine has been consolidating its school districts from 290 to 179; the goal is 80. The state has saved $36 million a year, and local districts $30 million. The cuts in insurance, administration and other non-classroom costs have allowed many schools to bring back music, art, gifted and talented programs and pre-K. It's a model to adopt.