Gov. Dannel P. Malloy delivered his second State of the State address Wednesday, as he tried to paint a picture of a state that still has plenty of problems, but is nevertheless moving in the right direction. The speech focused on Malloy’s major initiative for the short session, education reform, but also reminded the audience of how far they’d come since Malloy’s first State of the State, delivered in the midst of last year’s budget crisis. The speech served as a fitting cap to the governor’s first year, and set the stage for the second.
Let’s get right to the point: Gov. Malloy is not great at speeches. He tends to stumble, and he often sounds like he’s lecturing the audience rather than engaging them. This speech was one of the better I’ve heard him deliver, however. He made his points effectively and convincingly. He had the daunting task of defending the major initiatives of the past year, including a budget that has seemed a lot less watertight recently, while making the case for new spending on education reforms, and he skillfully accomplished that. The speech had a few moments that seemed awkward, and there still are some questions about the budget and just how much better things are getting economically, but by and large Malloy accomplished what he needed to accomplish.
It’s not unusual to hear governors give speeches full of big ideas; Gov. M. Jodi Rell, Malloy’s predecessor, often had major plans she wanted to enact. Unfortunately, a lot of those plans seemed to exist in a vacuum. As Gov. Malloy said today, “We’re good at making plans. We’re not good at sticking to them. Too often we’ve found ourselves simply careening from idea to idea, with no clear roadmap to guide us.”
Malloy provided us with that map Wednesday: he clearly and effectively placed his plans for education reform in the context of the larger economic and government reform processes begun last year. The theme of the speech, and of Malloy’s administration thus far, was the governor’s call for an “economic revival.” Fixing the budget crisis, enacting jobs legislation, keeping the social safety net intact, and reforming public schools are all vital pieces of that revival.
The heart of the speech, of course, was the governor’s education reform proposals. There’s a lot to think about, and a lot to like in what he’s proposing here. Expanding access to early childhood education is commendable, and a smarter way of allocating education dollars would be welcome. However, the really innovative and interesting stuff, to my mind, is the focus on how we evaluate, support, and train teachers.
I was a teacher for a while, and I didn’t do so well. I came into the classroom directly from college, quite unprepared for what I would face, and once I was there I didn’t get a lot of support. The state’s evaluation procedure for beginning teachers was an abstract burden, and what little professional development we had was tied to educational fads.
At the same time, there were a few other teachers in the building who coasted, getting away with doing a barely adequate job. I had students coming to me as seniors who had not learned writing basics, for example, because previous teachers hadn’t taught them those skills. Eventually, tired of the constant frustration, the overwhelming amount of work, and the lack of support, I started looking into another career. By the time my principal told me my contract would not be renewed, I had already started library school. I wasn’t the only one who stayed for a few years and left; many other young teachers were in the same boat.
That’s why so much of what the governor proposed resonated with me on Wednesday. Better training and support, better professional development, and a tenure system that actually makes sense will not only help retain young teachers, but hopefully will raise morale right along with standards. Gov. Malloy tried hard not to bash or alienate teachers, and the emphasis on better professional development and support was a step in the right direction. I’m withholding final judgment on the governor’s education proposals for now, but the principles outlined in his speech are a great start.
Gov. Malloy took pre-emptive shots at potential critics, especially on tenure reform. I’m sure that won’t stop criticism from coming. But the governor said, “I’m pro-teacher, as long as that doesn’t mean defending the status quo, and I’m pro-reform, as long as that isn’t simply an excuse to bash teachers.” This is a fine line to walk, but that’s characteristic of him. It’s an echo of his claim during the fight with state employee unions that he was pro-union while also being pro-reform. We’ll see if teachers’ unions and their members are any more open to Malloy’s reforms than state employee unions were.
“A while back we stopped leading,” Malloy said, “And since then, we have spent too much time muddling along, mired in mediocrity.” This is an excellent description of the Connecticut condition, and a good basis to continue the reforms that Malloy is pushing. Overall, the governor did a fine job laying out his vision for the state, and I look forward to seeing just how he plans to implement it.
Susan Bigelow is the former owner of CTLocalPolitics and an author. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.