Connecticut is home to some of the nation’s highest-performing school districts. But we also have one the largest gaps between our strongest schools and those that are struggling – particularly for low- and moderate-income communities. This is an issue whose time has come. Our goal should be nothing less than a public education system that offers an excellent education to every single child. To do this we must use an empirical approach to education policy, using evidence – not ideology – and building on what works. And we must approach the problem collaboratively, involving all of the stakeholders including parents, administrators, teachers, and the community.

The data paints a compelling picture. On average, Connecticut’s public education system ranks among the best in the nation in academic performance. It’s a record of which we can be proud. But a closer look reveals a wide gap in educational attainment between our affluent areas and our low-income communities.

Low income students perform roughly half as well as non-low-income students on standardized tests. They also have a substantially lower graduation rate. Although policy makers often call this an “achievement” gap, the reality is that the gap begins at a very young age. According to the CT Department of Education, only 40% of pre-schoolers are fully ready for school learning.

These are not easy challenges to address. We should start by learning what is working in schools where students excel. Connecticut is home to some of the best schools in the country, after all. What makes these schools effective? To listen to some, it must be because these schools use “merit pay” for teachers or don’t allow teachers to have the job security that comes with a due process system. Or it is because these schools have adopted “market-based” school choice systems.

Of course, there’s one problem with those assertions: they are not true. Our most successful school districts have been able to attract and retain excellent teachers using the carrot, not the stick.

When I began my career as a science teacher I certainly wasn’t motivated by material gain – I could have chosen far more lucrative careers. I chose to teach for the same reason that motivates 45,000 teachers in Connecticut – to make a difference in the lives of children. Not only to impart knowledge, but to instill a love of learning. I also realized quickly that teachers, like most professionals, do their best work when they feel valued, appreciated, and supported.

Controversial and polarizing attacks on teachers might make good headlines, but there’s no evidence that they make good policy. Rather we should pursue a collaborative approach that values the contributions and ideas of all stakeholders. Common sense and emperically driven solutions – like smaller class sizes – should be at the top of our agenda.

Finally, lets remember that education does not happen in a vacuum. The single biggest factor in explaining educational disparities is poverty – no informed and reasonable person denies this basic fact. It’s true that we cannot use poverty as an excuse to allow Connecticut’s education gap to persist. But we must also not deny the impact that poverty has on our children’s ability to learn. And we cannot make excuses for poverty.

This is why, in addition to supporting common sense education reforms, our union champions the elimination of poverty by raising the minimum wage to a living wage, fighting against predatory lending, and demanding a fair economy for the 99%. Connecticut is an unequal state in terms of incomes and wealth, not only education. We can achieve fairness in education and a fair economy, but not one without the other. And that is a cause all of us can agree on.

Sharon Palmer is the president of AFT Connecticut