School reform still on track, McQuillan says

Despite the failure to win millions of dollars in a federal school reform competition, Connecticut should not back away from the effort to reshape its public schools, Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan said Wednesday.

“We still have much on the table I think is worth doing,” McQuillan told the State Board of Education in a postscript to the state’s unsuccessful application for Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s $4.3 billion program to spur school reform.

McQuillan has been stung by criticism from the press, politicians and others since last week’s announcement that neighboring states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York all were among winners of the federal grants.

He said the strategies in Connecticut’s reform plans “were not necessarily the same priorities” as those espoused by the U.S. Department of Education in the Race to the Top application.

“We lost fair and square,” he said.

Connecticut failed to qualify for up to $175 million in Race to the Top funds despite a sweeping school reform package passed by the state legislature in May.

Among other things, that legislation establishes tougher high school graduation standards, creates a more demanding evaluation system for teachers, gives parents a greater voice in school governance, eases restrictions on charter schools and calls for improvements in the collection of data on student progress.

“It’s important to emphasize what we did well. . . . We passed perhaps one of the most important pieces of legislation in a decade,” McQuillan said.

He cited reforms such as the Connecticut Accountability for Learning Initiative, a state-developed program requiring schools to make better use of student performance data. The model is being used in 15 of the state’s lowest-performing districts and has produced encouraging early results.

McQuillan said the state plans to expand the program to more than 70 districts. In addition, he pointed to efforts to improve preschool education, develop a new program for mentoring young teachers, and work with other states on developing common academic standards and tests.

“The real issue is we have to go forward because we have acute need for our students,” he said. “Too many of our children are coming to school unprepared. Too many of our children are graduating from high school unable to do the rigorous work in a college setting.

“We’ve got to do this work with or without the [Race to the Top] money,” he said.

He pointed out that the state has received millions of dollars in other federal stimulus grants, including a recent $110 million allocation under an education jobs bill.

“All of that has been a huge boost for Connecticut,” he said