As a Puerto Rican émigré and the first member of my family to go to college, I have always been appreciative of the opportunities that a college education provides in this country. I would not be a university president today without the support and encouragement I received from many people when I was a student.
That is why I am especially troubled that Connecticut has the largest gap in academic achievement among its K-12 students in the nation. The gap between students of color, urban students, and those from low-income families and their white, suburban, more affluent counterparts is evident in all four areas tested for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) — reading, math, writing and science — and at all three testing levels — fourth, ninth and twelfth grades. Worse yet, the gap in performance grows wider as children progress up the grades. When the latest NAEP test scores came out in 2011, Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor called Connecticut’s lack of progress “shameful.”
Gov. Malloy’s Educational Competitiveness Bill, now under legislative review, attempts to address the achievement gap with a number of innovative strategies aimed at improving the teaching profession in our state and the quality of the schools in which our students are taught. Unfortunately, the interests of the few have resulted in a dramatic rewriting of the governor’s proposals in legislative committee, changes that would diminish Connecticut’s opportunity to impact students’ performance and their ultimate success in society.
What is at stake here? Children at the bottom of the achievement curve are more likely to drop out of high school, less likely to graduate from college, and more likely to live below the poverty line. They deserve better. But let us broaden the argument. If Latinos and African Americans, for instance, graduated from college in Connecticut at the rates of their white counterparts, it would generate $8 billion more in personal income a year, and hundreds of millions of dollars of state income tax revenue. And in southern New England, where it is predicted that half the workers will be minorities by 2020 and two-thirds of all workers will require some form of college education, closing the achievement gap has become an economic imperative.
The governor’s proposal focuses on the two fundamental factors in a student’s performance — teachers and the school environment. Data from Tennessee, Texas and Boston has shown that quality teaching can improve a student’s performance as much as 600 percent, reinforcing the impact that good teachers can have. The Governor’s plan raises standards in our university teacher preparation programs, provides incentives for higher performing college graduates to teach in at-risk schools, and links teacher and principal performance — measured by enhanced evaluation tools — to certification, tenure, pay and dismissal. All of these innovative strategies, aimed at improving teacher performance for the benefit of our children, have been delayed, removed or weakened by changes made in the General Assembly’s Education Committee.
The second major component of the governor’s bill is the formation of a Commissioner’s Network, a program that would allow the state to assume financial and administrative control of 25 of the state’s lowest performing schools. The language in this portion of the bill connects the network to the state’s No Child Left Behind waiver application and provides flexible options at the local level, including the creation of charter schools and incentives for teachers to accept positions in network-designated schools. Again, this crucial initiative has been watered down in committee. The number of schools in the network would be reduced to 10, language linking the network to the state’s No Child Left Behind waiver application has been removed, the incentives to attract teachers to work in network schools have been removed, and other elements of the proposal have been either restricted or obfuscated by ambiguous language. If these changes stand, the governor’s goal of impacting the achievement gap in Connecticut will not be realized.
Improving teacher performance and the quality of schools is not about someone else’s children or someone else’s problem. If we do not take decisive action to turn our schools around and improve performance standards in the teaching profession, a growing portion of our state population will lose out on the promise of a college education, and Connecticut’s economy and quality of life will suffer for everyone who lives here. The governor’s proposals deserve to be tested in the light of day. I urge our legislators to recast the Educational Competitiveness Bill to align with Malloy’s original intent. Our students deserve nothing less.
Elsa M. Núñez is the President of Eastern Connecticut State University; Vice President of the Connecticut State Universities, Board of Regents for Higher Education; and a member of a state task force studying educational funding in Connecticut.