Education commissioner proposes easing bureaucratic barriers

FAIRFIELD – In affluent, high-achieving school districts like this one, the state’s top education official thinks the best strategy might be for the state education department to step aside and do less, not more.

State Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor asked Fairfield officials how the state could ease the burden of regulations, annual reports and other bureaucratic mandates that often lead to a mountain of paperwork.

“We’re interested in hearing about regulatory barriers, anything that might be a hindrance … We want to know how to get out of your way,” Pryor told the Fairfield Board of Education this week.

Fairfield was the latest stop on what Pryor calls a “listening tour” to visit schools, meet educators and assess the needs of the state’s public education system as he completes his second month on the job.

Pryor, whose most recent job was deputy mayor of Newark, N.J., was an unconventional choice for the education post, taking over a system that boasts some of America’s best schools but also struggles with low-achieving schools in the state’s poorest towns and cities. On national tests, Connecticut has the nation’s largest academic achievement gap separating the poor from the well-to-do.

Fairfield is among the state’s top-performing districts. More than 90 percent of the town’s eighth-graders, for example, met the reading goal on the state’s annual Mastery Test last spring, well above the state average of 75 percent. Similarly, 87 percent met the mathematics goal, compared with a statewide average of 67 percent.

Pryor praised Fairfield’s record, including its recent expansion of pre-kindergarten classes to include children as young as age 3.

Nevertheless, despite the success of school systems such as Fairfield’s, the state can do better, Pryor said.

“We are not as high-flying as we may think we are,” he said, citing recent 8th-grade mathematics scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card.

Connecticut’s scores fell behind those of states such as Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Dakota, South Dakota and Texas. “I’m tired of hearing how Massachusetts is beating Connecticut,” Pryor said. “There is no good reason for it. They are doing some things right that we are not…We ought to aspire to be number one.”

He added, “Many states do a far better job of supporting and intervening with lower-performing schools than we do.” In Massachusetts, for example, the state has a “tight alignment of curriculum, instruction, professional development and assessment,” he said.

While the education department intends to focus much of its attention on improving low-performing schools, it also will try to help high-achieving schools by relaxing some of the state’s bureaucratic requirements, Pryor told the Fairfield school board.

“It’s all in pursuit of higher performance in all our districts for all our children,” Pryor said.

Phil Dwyer, a member of the Fairfield board, asked Pryor about the time-consuming regulations and record-keeping requirements imposed on schools by the state. “Does it really help us move the needle when it comes to school climate?” he asked.

Pryor said, “Where there are outdated or irrelevant or barrier-creating regulations, we want to know about it.”

The State Department of Education lists more than 60 reports that are issued on a regular basis, many of them required annually under state or federal laws. The reports cover matters such as busing, school construction, school lunch, discipline, graduation surveys, technical education, bilingual education, immigrant students, dropouts, teacher shortages, racial balance and teacher certification.

Across the state, school officials have often complained that state and federal regulations are burdensome, but reducing paperwork or easing regulations could be difficult, possibly requiring new legislation.

Fairfield Superintendent of Schools David Title cited the example of certification regulations for teachers and administrators, saying the rules are so cumbersome that they sometimes prevent school districts from hiring talented educators from other states.

Title also said later that the state’s annual Strategic School Profiles – which require schools to report a range of data on demographics, test results and other matters – are outdated and include information that also is contained in other reports published by the state.

“It’s arcane,” he said. “We never get rid of anything. Any data collection they do really needs to be examined.”