Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has hit the road in support of his education reforms, sparring with teachers and parents at packed town halls around the state. So far the conversations are covering familiar ground: standardized tests, tenure reform and different ways of doing teacher evaluation. The governor has more town halls scheduled, and he’ll likely face the same issues in each one.
Somehow, the Year of Education Reform has turned into the same old conversation we’ve been having about teachers and tenure since forever. The other reforms in the bill have been overshadowed by the heated discussion over tenure, but many of these are also tied into teacher performance and evaluation. One of the most overlooked pieces of the governor’s bill, for example, would provide for failing schools to be added to a “commissioner’s network” which would require a turnaround model, many of which involve wholesale staff changes, for each. The governor’s reforms are less about changing how we do education than about how we handle staff.
There’s a great deal of truth to the governor’s constant refrain that having schools filled with better evaluated and more committed teachers will make a difference. The question is, how much? Will getting rid of lousy teachers and swapping out staff at failing schools narrow the achievement gap in significant ways, especially over the long term? Is teacher reform going to be enough?
I feel like we’re missing a huge opportunity, here. The reforms in the governor’s bill are a piece of a much larger puzzle that so far the state is failing to address. It’s telling that one of the only reforms focused on actual student achievement is coming not from the governor, but from the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus: a program to ensure students are literate by the end of third grade. The governor called his reform a “blueprint” for improving education, but in truth it might be better described as focusing on the front wall of the house while ignoring the rest. Anything more will have to wait for future sessions.
What should those future sessions focus on? There’s much that needs to be done. Students are still coming into classes not ready to learn. Kids are arriving at school hungry, tired, stressed, worried and worse. They leave school into lives of instability and uncertainty. How can their needs best be met? Good teachers help them, but free breakfast programs, smarter social services and robust after-school programs, including homework assistance, would help them, too.
There are also the looming, all-consuming issues of socioeconomic status and ethnicity to address. Our lowest-performing districts are our poorest, and because of the way race and poverty intersect in this country, they’re often heavily minority. Charter and magnet schools are trying to address school desegregation, but in a world where a homeless woman can get twelve years in jail for enrolling her son in a wealthier, “better” school district something is still deeply amiss. Town-based districts in general are in desperate need of a good, hard look, and not just because of segregation issues. Home rule and separating our small state into over a hundred tiny districts based on town lines may not make as much sense as it did a century ago.
Speaking of towns, what about the fact that school funding is still tied to property taxes? ECS (Educational Cost Sharing, the state’s portion of education funding) reforms do help, but by and large public schools are paid for by town taxes on automobiles and real estate. Town budgets, and education spending, suffer from the vagaries of the real estate market: in Enfield, the grand list has plummeted as real estate values fell. Unfunded mandates from the state make things more complicated, and towns struggle. This has to change. In 2006 a candidate for governor said the following: “Suffice it to say, we’ve got to change the [education funding] system, it’s gotta be more income based, it’s gotta be more progressive in its nature and I think increasingly property taxes have to be looked at as how you pay for your local services, NOT education—or substantially less to education.” That candidate was Dan Malloy, and he was absolutely right.
We can do better when it comes to student achievement. Teachers are a piece of this, and reforming how they’re evaluated, developed and in some cases let go will lead to some improvement. But teacher reform isn’t enough, we need to broaden our focus and look at the whole picture. Our students deserve no less.
Susan Bigelow is the former owner of CTLocalPolitics and an author. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.