Connecticut Commission on Educational Achievement Releases Report

Includes over 50 recommendations for closing state’s achievement gap

A task force of business, education, and community leaders today released a blueprint for a 10-year-plan to improve the state’s public school system.

The Connecticut Commission on Educational Achievement, a bipartisan, privately funded, volunteer group established in March by Gov. Jodi Rell, has spent almost eight months investigating the state’s educational achievement gap and developing strategies for closing it.

Their plan, which includes nearly 60 specific recommendations, was unveiled at a press conference at the State Capitol this morning. 

 The Gap

The achievement gap—measured by grades, standardized test scores, dropout rates, course selection, and college completion rate—is the disparity in academic performance that separates low-income and minority students from others. Connecticut’s achievement gap is currently the worst in the nation.

 “We are 50 out of 50—dead last,” said Steve Simmons, chair of the commission and CEO of Simmons/Patriot Media and Communications LLC. With only weeks to go before the gubernatorial election, he said, we must call on Connecticut’s next leader to become “the education governor” and to “make narrowing the gap one of his highest priorities.” This is an effort, he explained, that requires “commitment from the top.” 

The plan’s key proposals are divided into six broad categories:

1. Accountability. Drive accountability for educational change by letting the new governor lead the charge, appointing a secretary of education who reports directly to the governor, and establishing a new commissioner of early-childhood education and care.

 2. High expectations. Set high expectations for all students, with curricula and supports that enable all students to meet those expectations. Steps include increasing access to pre-K and full-day kindergarten, aligning statewide curricula to higher standards, identifying and supporting low-achieving students early through extended learning time and tutoring, and requiring high school students to pass the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT) to graduate.

3. Leadership. Actively recruit the most effective superintendents, principals, and related staff; create programs that train administrators to be effective in low-achieving schools; and train principals in new evaluation and data systems.

4. Excellent teaching. Ensure that low-income students—indeed, all students—have well-trained, highly effective teachers; promote alternate routes to teacher certification; demand accountability from teacher preparation programs for producing effective teachers; and recognize and reward outstanding teachers through a new career ladder and performance bonuses.

5. Intelligent investments. Provide an efficient, transparent way of funding public education by reviewing the student weighting formula for distributing state aid to school districts and phasing in changes over three to five years. (For the past several years, the funding formula has not been followed due to fiscal constraints.) Over time, have money follow a child to the public school of his or her choice.

6. Turnaround schools. Improve our lowest-achieving 5% of schools through greater authority, accountability, and more time for learning; establish a school turnaround office with the authority to aggressively intervene in the lowest-performing schools.

Raising the Bar for All Teachers, Schools

A major focus of the commission’s report, said Yvette Melendez, is teacher quality. Melendez is a board member of the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and former chief of staff of the Connecticut State University System“Excellent teaching,” she said, “is the most important driver of student achievement.”

In this category, the commission recommends restructuring teacher prep programs to encompass more in-classroom training, including field experiences in high-need districts; terminating teacher prep programs that fail to produce effective teachers; streamlining the process to remove ineffective teachers from schools; providing financial incentives and mentoring to attract excellent teachers to high-need schools; and instituting a compensation system that appropriately rewards novice, intermediate, advanced, and master teachers based on performance.

“Teacher effectiveness must be at the heart of teacher tenure decisions,” Melendez said.

Just as teachers would fall into or advance through certain categories, so would schools, said commission member Ramani Ayer, retired chairman and CEO of The Hartford.

The commission’s report, he says, includes a recommendation for the State Department of Education and Board of Education to categorize schools into one of five tiers.   “We must bring a singular focus to the issue of failing schools,” said Ayer, and create a “school turnaround office that has a clear mandate to intervene in the lowest-performing schools.”

Failing schools would be those in the bottom two tiers of the categorization system. Other recommendations Ayer outlined included actively recruiting top school administrators through reciprocity arrangements with other state departments of education; building in specialized strands in urban leadership and turnaround schools for administrator training; introducing new teacher evaluation methods and training school principals in those assessments; speeding up the development of data systems that evaluate teachers, administrators, and pre-K programs; and giving school superintendents sufficient latitude in terms of their curricula and budgets.

Dudley Williams, director of district education strategy at GE Asset Management Group, addressed the need to invest intelligently, including adopting a statewide common chart of accounts that encourages transparency and efficiency in education spending.

Among other things, the commission has recommended that Connecticut’s legislature authorize a pilot study to explore how some of the state’s 166 separate school districts could consolidate and share services—thereby increasing efficiencies and reducing costs.

Indeed, while Connecticut spends more on education per pupil than almost all other states, its lowest- performing students score in the bottom third on national tests—alongside such traditionally poor-performing states as Louisiana and Georgia.

Competitiveness at Risk

 For decades, Connecticut has enjoyed a strategic advantage over other states by virtue of having one of the most well-educated, highly skilled workforces in the country. Simmons began the press conference by acknowledging that students in our state have performed very well overall and that “Connecticut’s education system has much to be proud of.

” But a closer look, he said, reveals an enormous gap in test scores, graduation rates, and other measures of achievement between the state’s low-income and non-low-income students. On average, low-income students perform three grade levels below their more affluent peers, and while the achievement gap is evident in the math and reading scores of fourth-graders, factors that contribute to the gap are in place long before students reach fourth grade.

The commission emphasizes that increasing the effectiveness of pre-K programs—and low-income families’ information about and access to these programs—can go a long way toward preventing problems that require intensive remediation.  

“The earlier the intervention,” said commission member John Rathgeber, “the stronger the outcome.”   Rathgeber, president and CEO of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, has characterized Connecticut’s achievement gap as “unacceptable,” adding that “we must demand more from our educational investment.

” Connecticut’s achievement gap," he says, "combined with its high labor and energy costs, could drive companies to states where business costs are lower and skilled workers more plentiful."

Ripe for Change

Asked why the group believes its recommendations have a chance of moving forward even after past reform efforts have lost momentum, Simmons explained, “For the first time in a generation, we have a Democratic president and secretary of education pushing real reform to close the achievement gap,” adding that “both gubernatorial candidates have indicated that they are fed up with the status quo” and want to close Connecticut’s gap as well.

Commission members also fielded questions regarding how reforms will be funded—particularly at a time when our state faces massive budget deficits.   “We owe this much to our children, our state, and our country,” said Simmons, adding, “If we don’t make these investments, our state will be fiscally and economically worse off.”

Simmons also noted that while increased pre-K access and additional remediation efforts for struggling students cost money, many of the commission’s recommendations—such as appointing innovative and dynamic leaders, revising teacher tenure laws, promoting alternative routes to certification, encouraging shared services among school districts, and reallocating some of the state’s $600 million in categorical grants to meet these goals—have no additional costs associated with them.

In fact, he argued, many of the recommendations will result in cost savings.  A number of the commission’s members, he noted, are CEOs or former CEOs who are “extraordinarily conscious of the fiscal situation in our state. This is not necessarily a matter of spending more money but looking at how we’re spending our money.”

In addition to Simmons, Rathgeber, Ayer, Melendez, and Williams, the 11-member commission includes David Carson, retired chairman and CEO of Peoples Bank, Bridgeport; Roxanne Cody, president and founder of R.J. Julia Booksellers; William Ginsberg, president and CEO of The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven; Carla Klein, former teacher and member of the Bridgeport Public Education Fund; Peyton Patterson, chairman, president, and CEO of New Alliance Bank, New Haven; and Steve Preston, president & CEO of Oakleaf Waste.

The commission’s entire report is now available at ctachieve.org.

--Lesia Winiarskyj

Lesia Winiarskyj is a writer/editor for CBIA. You may reach her at lesia.winiarskyj@cbia.com.