There’s been a lot of talk about education reform over the past few months, starting with Governor Malloy’s budget address back in February. In that speech, the governor laid out some important markers for the kind of fundamental policy change Connecticut needs so that we can finally begin to close our worst-in-the-nation achievement gap. He said that our state’s mechanism for funding public education, the Education Cost Sharing formula, was broken and must be fixed. And he said that tenure rules needed to be changed so that districts should be able to keep their best new teachers.
That’s the kind of bold policy change Connecticut needs to see, and that we need to pursue urgently if we’re serious about reform. Sadly, we cannot look back at the 2011 legislative session and be satisfied with what was accomplished; we can’t point back to any bills that were enacted that will fundamentally alter the way we deliver public education in Connecticut.
In 2011, we didn’t end last-in, first-out teacher layoffs, even as the news of layoffs continues to grow. Bridgeport, for example, recently announced a plan to lay off 154 teachers, guidance counselors, social workers, psychologists and literacy coaches. Nobody wants to see layoffs to begin with, but how much worse a setback it will be when those layoffs are conducted without regard for teacher performance, and great new teachers in Bridgeport and elsewhere lose their jobs while teachers with documented poor performance remain in the classroom.
In 2011, we didn’t improve the prospects for teacher evaluations in Connecticut. Although legislators on both sides of the aisle have gone on the record with their conviction that Connecticut desperately needs rigorous teacher evaluations, the only substantive teacher evaluation language on the table during the session was cast aside in the final days. Instead, the end of the session saw a last-minute series of amendments that would have significantly weakened the statewide framework for these evaluations. Education reform advocates called on legislators to stop the bill from moving forward as amended, and as a result all teacher evaluation language was stripped from the bill.
Likewise, in 2011, we did not enact any legislation overhauling our state’s deeply irrational and unfair school funding system. Legislators did not even take action on what would have been an extremely reasonable and relatively incremental step forward – a common chart of accounts for school districts to provide accountability for the billions our state spends on public education every year.
To be fair, there was some progress on education issues this year, notably on setting the stage for more pre-K access, providing more flexibility to teachers and schools on the use of early reading assessments, and providing charter schools with some flexibility on certification for their staff. But we have a long history of tinkering around the edges, making sure no feelings are hurt along the way. No adult feelings, that is. Because when state leaders fail to make bold changes year after year, it’s the students who pay the price. Thousands of students in our state attend schools where reading at grade level is the exception, not the rule. We can do far better. The time has come to move beyond tinkering and embrace real reform.
What will it take? First of all, we need urgency. It’s time to get serious about the fact that we have the nation’s largest achievement gap, and to start the hard conversations about how to close it at the policy level – not continuing to debate whether it exists, or how bad it really is. We’ve been talking about the problem for long enough, and now it’s time to talk about solutions.
Second, we need strong state leadership to set the framework for reform priorities. Here in the land of steady habits, we cannot let the consensus-building process devolve into paralysis on key issues year after year. Let’s be clear: getting bold and urgent about education reform doesn’t necessarily mean leaving consensus behind. Seeking common ground is important, and having key stakeholders at the table, during policy development and implementation, is a good way to ensure the lasting success of reform. But we have to stop being satisfied with kicking the can down the road on major reforms simply because not all the stakeholders can agree. We need our state leaders to lay out a bold road map for change, make sure everyone who needs to be at the table is given an invitation—and that no one at that table gets to sit back and just play a veto card—only then can we get going on the hard work to make progress for our students, no matter what.
And finally, we need informed and empowered stakeholders to shape the implementation of reforms at the local level. Local leaders need structure and guidance from the state on teacher evaluations, school finance reform, and everything in between, but they also need the flexibility to mold those frameworks in a way that will work for their particular communities.
The truth is, embracing and enacting real reform in this state will require a transformation in the way we all approach policymaking for public education. We’re fortunate to have some key champions in leadership positions already and have plenty of reason to hope for breakthroughs moving forward. Let this be the last year that we have to look back at a legislative session and say that when it comes to fundamental education reform, “we got bupkis.”
Alex Johnston is the executive director of ConnCAN