Malloy outlines broad principles for education reform

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy today outlined six broad principles that he says will guide the debate on education reform next year, including "intensive interventions" by the state in troubled school systems and a lighter bureaucratic touch at successful ones.

In a letter to legislators and stakeholders, Malloy hinted at a willingness to take up the politically charged issue of tenure and pay reform, saying teachers and principals should be valued for "skill and effectiveness" over "seniority and tenure."

Malloy told the Mirror as he returned to the Capitol this afternoon that he is looking to make the tenure system more responsive by recognizing high performers.

"There's got to be a balance," Malloy said. "We know that tenure's appropriate, but it's also got to be balanced by making sure we retain the best teachers. So, it's a balanced approach."

The governor said he will convene a set of workshops Jan. 5 with an eye toward formulating proposals to be taken up by the 2012 legislative session that begins Feb. 8.

The letter marks the start of Malloy's efforts to deliver on the promise of change made when he reached outside the education establishment to name Stefan Pryor as his choice for state education commissioner.

"We should not and will not accept half-measures and repackaged versions of the status quo," Malloy said.

The governor's senior adviser, Roy Occhiogrosso, compared today's letter to the administration's efforts early this year to set parameters and establish expectations for an ambitious budget debate.

"He drew the box, drew it in a broad way, poured the foundation and then let the discussions begin," Occhiogrosso said. "He set some high expectations, and he met them. He's setting some pretty high expectations here, too."

The governor says he wants legislation that:

  • Enhances families' access to high-quality early childhood education opportunities;
  • Authorizes the intensive interventions and enables the supports necessary to turn around Connecticut's lowest-performing schools and districts;
  • Expands the availability of high-quality school models, including traditional schools, magnets, charters and others;
  • Unleashes innovation by removing red tape and other barriers to success, especially in high-performing schools and districts;
  • Ensures that our schools are home to the very best teachers and principals -- working within a fair system that values skill and effectiveness over seniority and tenure;
  • Delivers more resources, targeted to districts with the greatest need -- provided that they embrace key reforms that position students for success.

Malloy said the state's schools have a history of excellence, and Connecticut still boasts a number of exemplary schools and districts that produce students who can outperform their peers.

"But over time, we have lost our edge as a state," he wrote. "Our performance on standardized assessments has stagnated, and students in other states have begun to catch and surpass ours. Our state's positioning has weakened to the point that we are not competitive in national grant competitions like the recent Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge."

In his letter, the governor gave no hint as to what he means by "intensive interventions," nor did he explain how far he is willing to go to ensure that teachers and principals are judged on "skill and effectiveness," not just "seniority and tenure."

Pryor, who has been meeting with educators, union officials, legislators and other stakeholders, said in an interview that the governor's letter is meant to give direction without closing off debate.

"The notion here is the governor is articulating principles under which we can evolve legislative proposals," Pryor said.

Malloy previously has talked about focusing the attention of the state Education Department onto troubled districts, essentially freeing successful systems of some bureaucratic oversight.

Pryor said Malloy's reference to "intensive interventions" meant more than simply shifting resources.

"The goal is to expand the tool box," he said.

Reaction from the state's largest business group and the two major teachers' unions, the Connecticut Education Association and AFT Connecticut, was upbeat, reflecting the outreach Pryor has made to them -- and the deferral of potentially troublesome specifics to another day.

"We commend the governor for his leadership on advancing high-quality public schools," said Mary Loftus Levine, the executive director of the CEA. "In their collaborative outreach to CEA in recent months, both Governor Malloy and Commissioner Pryor have indicated they recognize that high-quality teachers are the greatest asset in public education.

Eric Bailey, a spokesman for AFT, sounded a similar theme.

"We've actually been in discussion already with the commissioner and his staff. They have been reaching out to engage a lot of the different stakeholders. It's a good starting point," Bailey said. "As far as the stuff they put out today, there's nothing really there that we have an issue with."

Bailey said the union is willing to engage on the issue of how to better recognize performance versus seniority.

"We can say that focusing on 'skill and effectiveness' in terms of helping kids, absolutely, that needs to be primary," he said. "We don't disagree on that. We don't see that as any sign we're absolutely getting rid of seniority or we're absolutely getting rid of tenure."

John R. Rathgeber, the president of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, called the governor's initiatives "a sign of real progress."

"The principles for education reform put forth today by the governor are an important step forward in addressing a critical issue to Connecticut," Rathgeber said.

Patrick Riccards, the chief executive of ConnCAN, a reform group, praised the statement of principles.

"The letter outlines an audacious set of ideas to guide education reform policy change in 2012," he said. "Many of the policies the governor identifies are the types of reforms we've been calling for for years: guaranteeing excellent teachers and principals in every classroom, fair funding for the students and districts that are most in need, expanding high-quality school options, and transforming the lowest-performing schools and districts."

Malloy also said he will seek ways to better connect curriculums to the needs of employers, not a new issue, but one the governor has repeatedly heard raised in his visits with businesses.

"One of the most frustrating things I heard repeatedly from employers on my jobs tour was some version of 'I have job openings at my company, but I can't find enough qualified people to fill them.' These comments underscore the fact that our state's economic future is dependent on our students' educational outcomes," he wrote.

Malloy's ambitions may be at odds with the state's fiscal condition, forcing him to settle for high-profile demonstration projects.

His letter today made no explicit mention of the cornerstone of state aid to education: the ECS, or Education Cost Sharing formula, that he and other elected officials say must be revamped. It referred only to delivering more resources to the districts with the greatest need.

ECS reform in a time of tight resources could mean winners and losers, a politically explosive undertaking in an election year for all 187 seats in the General Assembly.

Pryor said the governor wants more resources directed to districts that need help, leaving open the question of whether the ECS formula would be the vehicle for that aid.