Malloy tells school superintendents ‘We’ve got to do a better job’

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy told school superintendents from across the state Wednesday that he will tackle a host of education issues in 2012, including a flawed school finance system, a seniority system that protects bad teachers and the failure of many students to learn.

He also said the state Department of Education has to play a larger role in improving education in the state.

“Education has such an important position on my list of priorities,” he told a roomful of superintendents and other education leaders in East Hartford. “We got to check our presumptions [and] our assumptions at the door.”

The governor offered few specifics, but school leaders welcomed his commitment.

“We have long waited for this. It’s been a long time coming,” said Manchester Superintendent Kathleen Ouellette, who was recently selected to become the superintendent of Waterbury Public Schools.

Several measures show the state is failing when it comes to education, Malloy told the audience. They include the failure of one out of every four students in several urban districts not graduating from high school, minority students testing far behind their white classmates and 70 percent of students showing up to community colleges needing to take remedial courses for things they should have learned in high school.

“I am not convinced we are properly preparing” students, Malloy said.

While he spent just over 20 minutes telling the group what is wrong with the system, what he didn’t do was offer specifics on how exactly he intends to change the status quo or who would be leading the State Department of Education, which has not had a permanent commissioner since December.

“I’m not here to be critical. I am here to focus,” he said. “We’ve got to do a better job.”

Malloy said he is still shaping what specific initiatives he intends to ask the legislature to approve. He also said he expects the next education commissioner to be named in “a matter of weeks.”

The changes he intends to make to how the state finances districts are sure to be controversial however it plays out. With the likelihood that the state will not be able to spend more on education anytime soon, his budget director said Tuesday the state has to better distribute the $2.8 billion pot of money it does have for education.

“I apologize to you that I can’t send a lot more money to your districts,” Malloy told the education leaders at Rentschler Field.

It’s the specifics of that new financing formula that leaders are waiting to see.

“The fact that he’s promising to tread in new water and figure this out once and for all is really refreshing,” said Hartford’s Superintendent Christina Kishimoto.

How he intends to identify the bad teachers will also likely be controversial. Education advocates for years have been calling on state leaders to develop a teacher evaluation system to begin the process of helping teachers improve and dismiss those that do not.

Mary Loftus-Levine, the head of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said she agrees with the governor that something needs to be done.

“We are also looking for a new system to evaluate teachers,” she said, adding she believes it’s a small minority of teachers that are so bad they should be shown the door. “The [districts] needs a rubric to follow.”

“We should work with all teachers to make sure they live up to our standards and if after a period of time they’re incapable of living up to our standards then teachers deserve a new colleague,” Malloy said, reiterating his previous statements that seniority should not be the only thing looked at when districts lay off teachers.

Kishimoto, whose district has been unsuccessful in getting the State Board of Education to allow it to circumvent seniority rules in teacher layoffs, said she’s eager for change.

“The current approach is not grounded around quality assessment,” she said. “I hope [Malloy] follows through.”