Improving student achievement in our lowest-performing schools is a challenge faced by states across the nation.

Here in Connecticut, nearly 40,000 children attend chronically low performing schools that are not providing them with an education that prepares them for lifelong success. While Connecticut has taken steps to address this issue, more work must be done to turn around our state’s lowest performing schools.

Efforts to address our lowest performing schools began in 2012 when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the Connecticut General Assembly created the Commissioner’s Network, a state-level turnaround program that works with up to 25 of the state’s lowest performing schools. The Commissioner’s Network offers schools additional resources, interventions, supports, opportunities to innovate, and better ways to share effective practices with other schools and districts. Today, the network serves more than 9,000 students in 16 schools located in communities that serve a majority of children of color and children living in poverty.

While it’s still too early to know the full impact of the Commissioner’s Network, preliminary progress from the first four schools that joined the network in 2012-2013 show that the achievement results have been mixed. This is a red flag that cannot be ignored. With 12 additional schools having joined the network since 2013-2014, and more to be added in the coming years, we must make sure that our investment in this program works. To ensure the full potential of the network program is realized for students attending our lowest performing schools, we must make changes now that bolster turnaround efforts and drive gains in student achievement.

ConnCAN supports our state’s focus on improving the lowest performing schools, including the Commissioner’s Network. However, we can make this critical program even stronger by expanding on the changes proposed in SB 942 currently being considered by the Connecticut General Assembly.

In our recently released report, “Addressing Connecticut’s Education: Improving Turnaround Measures for our Lowest Performing Schools,” ConnCAN reviewed programs similar to the Commissioner’s Network across the country that have seen tremendous turnaround success. For example, UP Academy Dorchester, a turnaround school in Massachusetts, has seen a 26 percent increase in proficiency in English, 47 percent in math and 53 percent in science. And, in Tennessee, schools in the state’s turnaround program outpaced the the entire state in both reading and math for grades 3-8.

Learning from these programs and others in Philadelphia and Louisiana, we believe with commonsense policy changes we can maximize the impact of and investments made in the Commissioner’s Network.

These changes must include, first and foremost, a commitment to prioritizing our lowest performing schools for intervention. By focusing our resources on the schools that need the most help we can more swiftly improve outcomes for our students most in need.

We also recommend creating effective policies and regulations that allow schools the freedom and flexibility needed to make bold and innovative changes. This should include autonomy in key areas such as staffing, budgeting, and programming, all cited as critical to turnaround success.

Additionally, we must ensure that as many schools as possible are receiving the support they need and that turnarounds are designed and equipped for success. We can do this by lifting arbitrary network caps; establishing clear and rigorous guidelines for turnaround plans and streamlining the approval process; ensuring parents and local communities are fairly represented on turnaround committees; and by doing more to recruit the school leaders, operators, teachers, and staff with the expertise and experience needed to successfully turn around a school.

If the state reviewed and approved only those plans that meet these high expectations and held those schools accountable for their performance against approved plans, then we can vastly increase the chances of success in these schools.

In February, all of these recommendations were discussed at a public hearing before the Connecticut General Assembly’s Joint Committee on Education. Now, the General Assembly has the opportunity to pass legislation that incorporates these changes and improves the performance of the Commissioner’s Network to fulfill its intent.

We must adopt a culture and system of continuous improvement. Real, sustainable progress is possible for the Commissioner’s Network if we couple further investment with the policy changes needed to strengthen the program. Our state took an important step in improving education in Connecticut by establishing the Commissioner’s Network, but bold changes must be made to this program to give children in lowest performing schools the opportunities and education they deserve.

Yamuna Menon is the Director of Research and Policy at ConnCAN (Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now), the New Haven-based education research and advocacy organization. A forum hosted by the Education Committee on turnaround efforts will be held April 16, 2015.

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