Teacher training a key to school reform, commissioner says

NEW BRITAIN – It is one of the state’s largest suppliers of new schoolteachers, but after Central Connecticut State University sends its graduates into the classroom, it knows little about how they perform.

That was among the issues raised Monday as state Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor met CCSU faculty and administrators to zero in on how to improve the quality of teachers in the state’s public schools.

“In a significant sense, it all starts here,” Pryor told representatives of the teacher preparation program at CCSU, the latest stop on 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 has made teacher quality a key theme as he seeks to improve public schools and address Connecticut’s worst-in-the-nation achievement gap separating the poor from the well-to-do.

“How do we set the highest standards? … What’s the right way to insure that the activities that happen here relate to student performance?” he asked faculty from CCSU’s School of Education and Professional Studies.

Joining Monday’s discussion was Gov. Dannel Malloy, who appointed Pryor in September and who has pledged to make education a central issue during the next session of the state legislature.

“Stefan has got a very big mission to accomplish in a very short period of time,” he said.

Studies have shown that family background, economic status and other external factors can produce large variations in student performance, but many researchers say that the strongest school-based factor affecting student achievement is the quality of the classroom teacher.

Malloy described the teaching profession as a calling. “When done well, it’s a guarantee of our democracy’s success,” he said. “Unfortunately, when not done well, it’s a guarantee of personal failure.”

In Connecticut, the profession could undergo significant changes. A statewide committee is expected to issue recommendations next year to change the way teachers are evaluated, and student progress is expected to be a factor in those evaluations. Some education reformers suggest that teacher preparation programs also should be evaluated based on the performance of their graduates.

That is among the chief principles of Teachers for a New Era, a project started in 2001 by the Carnegie Corp., calling for reform of teacher preparation programs at selected colleges and universities.

“Recent research … linking individual pupil records with specific teachers in many different cities and states has established beyond doubt that the quality of the teacher has a profound influence on pupil learning,” the Carnegie Corp. said in a summary of the project.

The Connecticut Department of Education granted 331 teaching certificates to CCSU graduates in the 2009-10 school year, making Central the second largest supplier of new teachers that year, state figures show. The largest was Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, where 383 graduates received certificates.

However, there has been little follow-up on how children learn from teachers who have graduated from teacher training programs.

“We really have a dearth of data,” said professor Nancy Hoffman, who directs CCSU’s Master of Arts in Teaching program. “Right now there is no feedback that would let us look at how our graduates’ students gain in their classrooms.”

Malloy agreed that better information is needed.

“We’ve been slow in establishing objective standards by which to measure ourselves,” he said. “Maybe going to an independent analysis by a third party [to determine] the quality of our product is appropriate.”

Pryor pressed faculty members about the standards required for entering the teacher preparation program. “What can we do to increase the number of candidates who come into your program with higher academic acumen?” he asked.

Malloy asked, “Are we doing everything we can to encourage those people to go into teaching who should go into teaching and at the same time discouraging sufficient numbers of people who … may not be as successful?”

One professor, Tim Reagan, suggested the school could recruit better students by offering more scholarships. Anne Pautz, an assistant dean, said some students avoid teaching because other careers offer better salaries. “Engineers can get so much more money,” she said.

State regulations also can be barriers, faculty members told Pryor.

Hoffman said regulations outlining specific course requirements, in some cases, are too complex and can limit the number of candidates for training programs.

“There’s a fine line between too much regulation and too little regulation,” she said later. “I hope they can re-balance.”