A Q&A with Stefan Pryor

After leading the effort to rebuild post 9/11 New York City and later heading economic development projects in Newark, N.J., Stefan Pryor now faces the challenge of overseeing Connecticut’s public schools. The state’s new education commissioner sat down recently with reporters from The Mirror to talk about teacher evaluation, school finance, charter schools, fixing low-performing schools and other matters.

Mirror: From what you’ve learned about the Connecticut education system so far, what are your top initiatives?

Pryor: We are keenly interested in a focus on low-performing schools and districts and how to organize our work around such schools and districts, what sorts of improvement initiatives and interventions are appropriate and effective…. We want to get out of the way, in some instances, of higher performing districts and their work. … We’re going to look at the organization of this department and whether it matches our vision of the future. There’s a high likelihood…we will reorganize aspects of this department.

M: There was a time when Connecticut was leading the nation in student performance on national tests. Massachusetts has passed Connecticut. Are there any lessons from what Massachusetts has done that would make sense here?

P: You better believe it. There are lessons from Massachusetts, from Delaware, from Louisiana – different lessons from different places. We are digging in and evaluating best practices from other states, from other municipalities that may be outside of Connecticut and may offer lessons that can be taken to scale in a state.

M: We certainly have seen examples here in Connecticut and elsewhere of individual schools that have had success with low-income children. Why has it been so difficult to do that on a larger scale?

P: We will definitely be looking for examples of schools that have shattered expectations and advanced performance among low-income students in Connecticut and beyond…I think there are many reasons why there has been difficulty expanding best practice…I think we have to focus with intensity on that question. One of things we intend to do is look at the question of how the state department and its stakeholder allies may help in the school improvement and intervention effort throughout the state.

M: Are there specific examples of schools that would be models?

P: I do have, of course, a set of schools and their practices…that I think about. These are conventional public schools, charter schools, magnet schools and others. What I intend to do, however, is to explore and investigate those schools I may not yet have encountered throughout the state…We are going to conduct outreach in the initial couple of months of our work here…Those visits will not exclusively be schools…There will be visits to board meetings of key associations, visits with parent and teacher organizations, visits with other stakeholder groups.

M: Why is Connecticut seeking a waiver for No Child Left Behind (the federal law imposing sanctions on schools that fall short of goals on student progress)?

P: To be precise, what the governor and we have said is that we anticipate filing for a waiver. We’ll make a full and formal decision soon…The reasoning behind applying for a waiver…is that NCLB standards, as currently articulated, are not in line with reality…The governor and I are very interested in creating a system of Connecticut standards and Connecticut accountability that are state-of-the-art…There was a point in time where Connecticut’s assessment system and accountability system was really at the forefront in this country. It is not viewed that way anymore.

M: You said regardless of whether it’s a charter school, magnet school or traditional school, what matters is results. How do you measure results?

P: There’s no doubt that student performance needs to be among the criteria. There are other ways to look at performance at the school level, at the classroom level. One of the exercises we’ll be engaging in as a department and as a broader community…is answering that question.

M: Should charter schools, magnet schools and other schools of choice be funded the same way as traditional schools? Should funding all come from the same formula?

P: It’s too soon for me to offer you observations about the formula, but I can tell you that it’s been my observation…that the [Education Cost Sharing] formula has not been functioning properly…When I entered my job in Newark, we had a zoning code that was a patchwork of exceptions. No one could make sense of it. When developers would come forward and ask whether they could build a project, there was a tortured process to obtaining an answer. The rule was not the discernable among the exceptions. I have a sense that the funding formulas of Connecticut are similar. We need to fix that.

M: The state has one of the lowest rates of offering students seats in charter schools. Do you think the state’s charter school laws are too restrictive, and do you think more children need to be offered an opportunity to attend these schools?

P: I think that more students should be offered opportunities in effective schools. Charter schools are one mechanism through which to offer new school experiences for students. Not all charter schools are effective, however. So, my objective will be to ensure that the best schools in our state, including charter schools, have the opportunity to expand [and that] the worst schools, the schools that are not offering good opportunities for our students, are closed or otherwise restructured or otherwise improved.

M: Some contend that teacher tenure rules prevent schools from keeping the best teachers during periods of layoffs. Unions have argued that tenure is crucial to protect teachers from arbitrary dismissals. What is your view?

P: I don’t think it’s helpful to talk about whether we’re for or against tenure because tenure turns out to be an array of things. It involves due process protections. It involves time duration…I think what’s more important is that …we talk about the kind of talent that we need in our school system and the array of investments and interventions that we need in order to ensure that we have the finest talent system in the country. That includes looking at issues ranging from attracting the best professionals…[to creating] an induction system that ensures that our professionals enter the profession in a way that makes sense and doesn’t result in an excess of turnover. It means professional development that is aligned with our standards and drives performance…It means evaluation and removal when those conditions in our system are triggered. It means providing for mentorship relationships between veteran professionals and novice professionals…It means thinking about the compensation system.

M: What’s your view of the New Haven teachers’ contract, which includes an evaluation process that factors in student performance and provides for removing substandard teachers?

P: The process through which New Haven achieved its agreement is one of the models that we ought to be looking at. The fact that the collective bargaining unit and municipal administration and school district administration came together and grappled with issues and resulted in a contract that everyone felt good about…that’s impressive, and that’s a good model… Would the New Haven contract be applicable to every school district in Connecticut? No, of course not…Would some of the provisions of the contract and of the process that led to the production of the contract be applicable in other cases?…Very possibly.

M: You come from a non-traditional background. What attracts you to education?

P: My first passion and my first profession was education. It was my predominant occupation for the early years of my career all the way through Sept. 11, 2001. I was working in the schools of New York in two high-poverty, low-performing districts [through the nonprofit Partnership for New York City] when Sept. 11 occurred. … I underwent the experience of Sept. 11 and began to work on the recovery and then the rebuilding…It feels right that a decade later I am returning to my first passion and my first calling.

M: Where did you grow up and what type of schools did you go to?

P: I went to public schools all the way through, from K through 12 in the Clarkstown Central School District… I lived in a town called New City, New York.

M: We’ve heard that you have a reputation for working long hours and that you rarely take time off or a break, so we want to know what you do for fun.

P: I enjoy spending time with family and friends. I do have some hobbies. One that is known to my close colleagues, family and friends: I am an amateur-only percussionist. It does help me release stress when I do get the chance to play… Occasionally I play tennis as well.

M: One thing people around here want to know: Red Sox or Yankees?

P: I am not going to wade into that one.