Education reform group presents proposals to state board

A group of business and philanthropic leaders presented their education reform proposals to the state Board of Education Wednesday, pitching changes to teacher certification requirements, preparation programs and evaluations to help close Connecticut’s dramatic achievement gap.

Members of the Connecticut Council on Education Reform said they considered the timing appropriate, coming as Gov. Dannel P. Malloy introduced his new education commissioner and reiterated that education will be a priority in next year’s legislative session.

“We think next year could be the lynchpin,” said Steve Simmons, vice chair of the council and CEO of Simmons/Patriot Media and Communications. “The governor has said that this first year was focused on the budget crisis and the second year was going to be education reform. I think we have a great chance here over this next nine or ten month period to really push for change.”

CT Council Education Reform

Council member Ramani Ayer and Vice Chair Steve Simmons make their proposals to the SBOE

Patrice McCarthy, deputy director and general counsel for the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education (CABE), agreed the timing of the reform proposals proved crucial.

“It can be the perfect storm in a good sense,” she said. “With so many voices saying let’s make change, the key now is for people to be able to pull together and collaborate on not 18 visions of change, but to focus their efforts.”

Sharon Palmer, president of the American Federation of Teachers-Connecticut, said said the union will work with the SBOE and the council, but she said agreement on everything is never guaranteed.

“No one wants bad teachers in the classroom,” she said. “There’s always a lot of differences on how to prevent that from happening.”

The council formed in January to follow up on the work of an earlier group named by former Governor M. Jodi Rell.  That group, the Commission on Educational Achievement, issued more than 65 recommendations for education reform in October 2010.

Ramani Ayer, council member and retired chairman and CEO of The Hartford, emphasized that closing the achievement gap starts with placing excellent teachers in the classroom. He said teacher preparation programs, for example, need reform and that the programs that produce underperforming teachers should lose their state approval.

“As we listened to parents and community leaders across the state in all our hearings, we heard that the teacher preparation programs are vastly diverse and meaningfully inadequate,” he said.

“Over time, you would want teacher performance as the key metric on determining whether these institutions are producing exemplary teachers,” Ayer added. “In the interim, you sort out the programs that produce outstanding teachers versus the ones that don’t.”

In addition to granting approval for teacher preparation programs based on effectiveness, the council also recommended that the SBOE limit elementary school certifications to the schools producing the best results. They said the state produces too many elementary education candidates, creating shortages in areas like special education.

Ayer said that Connecticut’s teacher certification regulations and alternative routes to certification are deficient, too. He said more hours of field work, including experience in high poverty schools, will ensure better teacher preparedness. He also stressed that alternative routes to certification, or ARC programs, need to play a bigger role.

“Connecticut lags behind in this area,” he said. “There are many states in the nation who have done a much better job on alternative routes to certification. Our process is more bureaucratic.”

Ayer said the council’s recommendations address a critical problem.

“We have over 120 failing schools in Connecticut,” Ayer said. “That is a tragedy, a Greek tragedy, and one that we shouldn’t permit.”

“If we ignore this trend, we will ignore it at our peril,” he added. “This is one area where if we don’t pay serious attention to it then we will hurt ourselves over the next decade.”

Members of the board committed themselves to giving the recommendations serious consideration in the months ahead.

“Everyone wants a better education system but no one knows how to bring the pieces together,” said Patricia Luke.

“Thanks for holding our feet to the fire,” said board member Terry Jones.