Officials pledge a more unified approach to education

A statewide council of educators, business leaders and civic officials pledged Monday to build stronger ties among education systems from preschool to graduate school, but their task will be daunting, a survey of other states suggests.

In a ceremony in Hartford, members of the state’s P-20 Council signed a pledge of cooperation to turn around discouraging trends in the levels of education and job preparation among Connecticut’s young people.

But similar councils in other states have run into trouble over a lack of focus, political squabbles and a shortage of funds, according to a researcher who has studied the school reform efforts.

“Despite the best intentions of council participants and the promise of . . . meaningful education reform, many councils are struggling to achieve their potential,” analyst Jennifer Dounay Zinth of the Education Commission of the States (ECS) wrote in a 2008 report.

P-20 4-13-10

Educators and civic officials line up to sign a pledge of cooperation Monday calling on education systems from preschool to graduate school to work together to build a stronger workforce (Robert A. Frahm)

The report said 38 states had formed P-16 or P-20 councils, covering the span of education from preschool to college or graduate school, but Zinth said Monday that some councils have been dissolved while the status of others is unclear. A more realistic number is 28, she said.

The councils are designed to build stronger connections among educators and policymakers at all levels of education.

Building a stronger workforce not only depends on getting more students through college, it means reaching them even before they enter kindergarten, a White House economist told Connecticut’s P-20 Council at Monday’s meeting.

“If we want to understand how [students] are going to succeed at the post-secondary level, we have to look earlier,” said Cecelia Rouse, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers.

About 70 people – representing colleges, teacher unions, school boards, school superintendents, parents and others – gathered to hear Rouse as she presented an array of sobering education statistics, including figures showing the U.S. trailing nations such as Canada and Korea in the percentage of adults holding college degrees.

She also cited long-term studies following children who had attended high quality preschool programs, saying those children were less likely to be placed in special education or held back in school. As adults, they were more likely to graduate from college and hold good jobs.

Today, the fastest-growing jobs “are going to require some sort of post-secondary credential,” Rouse said. “We need a comprehensive system that starts in early childhood.”

Connecticut’s P-20 Council was formed last year by Gov. M. Jodi Rell out of concern over the level of preparation of many young people entering college and the workforce. The 2006 economic forecast “New England 2020” projects a decline in the percentage of young people with bachelor’s degrees in New England over the next decade.

In many states, the councils have focused on the bridge between high school and college, according to Zinth, the analyst at ECS, a Colorado-based agency that tracks education policy in the 50 states.

“There is a growing recognition that there is a huge gap between the skills students need to graduate from high school and what they need to be successful when they enter college,” Zinth said.

President Obama also has made the issue a priority, calling for the U.S. to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.

“It’s clear there is intense global competition out there for jobs,” said U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Connecticut, who attended Monday’s ceremony and said building a more educated workforce is crucial. “We either do this, or we’re going to fall backward, and that’s not acceptable for a great state like ours.”

Many of those who attended the ceremony signed a “declaration of cooperation” that listed nine principles underlying the work of the P-20 Council. Among them are pledges to form stronger ties between schools and teacher training programs, start college and career planning as early as middle school and require every school or program to “understand the expectations of the educational system or employers to which their students go next.”

State Higher Education Commissioner Michael Meotti and Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan are co-chairmen of the commission.

“This is a very public commitment to the ground rules of how we do this,” Meotti said after the signing ceremony. “In other places, this has become a contentious blame game. This is a matter of cooperation. We’re all in this together.”