All aboard! Connecticut school reforms follow other states

New Haven — As he faces mounting skepticism about his plan to reshape the state’s public schools, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is trying out a new sales pitch: Everyone else is doing it.

“We do nothing in this package that has not been done in other states,” Malloy told a packed audience at a Waterbury elementary school this week, outlining a plan that would toughen tenure standards under a new teacher evaluation process and increase the state’s authority to intervene in low-performing schools.

“Understand that what we are doing is not groundbreaking,” Malloy said. “It’s not the first time. In fact, high-performing districts that have reformed themselves have done some or all of the things we are talking about.”

Like Connecticut, other states, too, have run into heated opposition to school reforms, according to three top state education leaders who appeared at a forum in New Haven Friday.

“It’s been incredibly loud — the amount of noise from the media and the community. … It’s really quite an experience,” Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said of that state’s effort to revamp its teacher evaluation system.

Huffman, along with education chiefs from Rhode Island and New York — states that the administration has cited as models — spoke at an education forum sponsored by Yale University’s School of Management.

Some of the sharpest criticism of school reforms nationwide has come from teacher unions. Under the Malloy plan, for example, teachers in failing schools would have to reapply for their jobs, a controversial strategy that has been tried in other states, including Rhode Island.

In New York, plans for a new teacher evaluation system drew protests from critics who opposed linking evaluations to student scores on standardized tests.

Connecticut’s evaluation framework — which was agreed upon by the state’s two teachers’ unions — would factor in student standardized test scores for almost one-quarter of a teacher’s grade. But the unions have opposed Malloy’s plan to link those evaluations to tenure, pay and certification decisions.

Another hot-button issue nationwide is whether individual teacher evaluations should be made public. New York City earlier this month released to parents their teachers’ ratings. Under the Malloy proposal, such ratings would remain confidential.

Teacher evaluation has been a target for reform in many states — partly the result of incentives in the Obama administration’s $4.3 billion school reform competition known as Race to the Top.

Connecticut failed to win a Race to the Top grant, but even in states that won the grants, new teacher evaluation systems have not always gone smoothly.

“It’s been a bear to implement,” Huffman said of Tennessee’s plan, which includes annual reviews for all certified educators starting this year.

If Malloy’s bill becomes law, Connecticut will become the 19th state that allows teachers to be dismissed based on evaluations, according to a recent report by the National Council of Teacher Quality

Before this year, tenured teachers in Tennessee were evaluated only twice every 10 years, said Huffman. The new system, he said, “is about helping people to get better. It’s not about trying to get rid of people.”

Some of the stiffest opposition came from teachers who were not in danger of losing their jobs but who were not evaluated as outstanding, he said. “They were very, very unhappy about being told that they were scoring a three on a five-point scale,” he said.

John B. King Jr., New York’s education commissioner, said one of the challenges is to “build an evaluation system that everyone has confidence in.” Although good teachers don’t want to work alongside incompetent colleagues, “the problem is there isn’t confidence the evaluation system will identify the right people,” King said.

Connecticut Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor, who moderated Friday’s panel discussion, said the experiences of New York, Rhode Island and Tennessee in establishing new evaluation policies “will be invaluable as we implement our own [system].”

Along with Pryor, the panelists represent a new breed of state school leaders who are transforming their agencies, shifting from largely bureaucratic and regulatory responsibilities to a more aggressive role in school reform.

That’s drawn the ire of Sharon Palmer, the president of the state’s American Federation of Teachers.

“Quite frankly, we are concerned there is too much power being given to the education commissioner,” Palmer told the Education Committee last month, holding up a list she had compiled of all the new powers the commissioner would gain under Malloy’s proposed bill.

In Rhode Island, efforts to reform the state’s lowest-performing schools have had mixed results, Commissioner Deborah Gist told participants at the New Haven forum. In one highly publicized case two years ago, officials in Central Falls fired the entire staff of the local high school as part of a reform effort. Staff members were later rehired as new reforms were put in place, but progress was slow, according to Gist.

“Last year was a really, really difficult year … but they pressed on, and a lot of changes have happened,” including a significant improvement in the school’s graduation rate, she said.

In Connecticut, it’s too soon to tell if the legislature will sign off on Malloy’s plan to tie teacher tenure with their performance and allow the state’s education commissioner the authority to take over the lowest performing schools.

The Education Committee has until Wednesday to approve his bill, and all eyes are on them for what changes are made.

Eric Bailey, an official from the state’s chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, questioned whether Connecticut should simply follow the path of other states. He equated this strategy to a lesson many parents teach their young children: “Just because everyone else is jumping off a bridge, doesn’t mean we should, too.”