A federal boost for Connecticut’s education reforms

When it came time for U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to decide where he would make the announcement on which states landed an exemption to the federal No Child Left Behind requirements, he said Connecticut was the obvious choice.

“Connecticut is absolutely a winner,” Duncan told a beaming Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in a crowded function room Tuesday at the state Capitol. “Of the 26 applications we received this round, Connecticut’s was amongst the strongest, most creative and most innovative.”

Arne Duncan

Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

The waiver to NCLB signals that the federal government has confidence in the state’s reform efforts to turn around low-performing schools, improve the teaching profession and hold schools more accountable for student progress.

For Malloy, Duncan’s announcement was a quick validation of the importance of education reforms that were passed until the final week of the session, which ended May 8.

Connecticut joins 18 other states that have also received a waiver to the NCLB benchmarks, which includes a requirement that 100 percent of students be proficient in reading and math by 2014. Almost half of the schools in Connecticut this year failed to reach the NCLB benchmarks.

Connecticut hosts the largest-in-the-nation achievement gap between low-income students and their peers and has lost three bids to land federal money through the government’s Race to the Top competition.

State officials say they have grown accustomed to not being recognized for their education reform efforts. That ended Tuesday, Malloy said.

“It’s about time Connecticut starts winning federal approval,” Malloy told education advocates and leaders at the Capitol’s Old Judiciary Room, while standing next to a nodding Duncan.

So what has changed?

For starters, the state passed what Duncan called a bold education overhaul, spearheaded by Malloy’s education commissioner, Stefan Pryor. The fact that it had the buy-in from most education leaders, including teachers’ union leaders and administrators, also made the waiver a sure thing.

Malloy Pryor

Smiles from Malloy, Pryor (r) and Theresa Hopkins-Staten, vice chair of the State Board of Education.

“It’s inspiring to see that collective commitment,” Duncan said.

Pryor is pleased that the Nutmeg State is beginning to shed its embarrassing national reputation when it comes to education.

“We are now known for some other distinctions,” Pryor said. “We are known as a state where labor and management can work together to achieve progress. We are known as a state that has just been identified by the United State’s Secretary of Education as a leader among states.”

But the journey to this celebration has been rocky, as the state’s largest teachers’ union aired advertisements attacking Malloy’s initiatives and teachers from both unions rallied outside the Capitol in protest.

In the end a bill was eventually approved that had teacher union support, a key component to the state winning its waiver, Duncan said.

Phil Apruzzese, president of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said it was critical that teachers remain engaged as the reforms are implemented.

“We need to keep that collaboration open,” Apruzzese said.

New Haven has had a collaborative model for two years, which is why Duncan decided to stop by an elementary school there earlier in the day.

“You guys have really helped to create a national model. New Haven is absolutely on the forefront of tough-minded collaboration,” Duncan told New Haven educators and city officials before heading to the Capitol.

What the waiver means

Connecticut’s 397-page accepted waiver sets up a new five-tier system for rating schools. The lowest-rated schools will guarantee state intervention.

The existing NCLB system required schools and districts to increase the number of students, as measured by racial and socio-economic groups, to become proficient in math and reading from year-to-year on standardized tests.

The waiver still uses standardized tests as its benchmark for rating schools. Instead of just requiring students to reach proficiency, schools will receive credit for the continued growth of students beyond proficiency. The state also reduced the minimum size for when groups of black, hispanic and English language learning students must be tracked and progress monitored from 40 to 20 students.

“Connecticut has had the courage to say those children will no longer be invisible,” Duncan said.

The schools also will begin for the first time take into account test results on science tests when rating schools.

This emphasis on standardized tests when grading schools has some concerned, including Sharon Palmer, the president of the state’s chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.

“That’s a glitch we have yet to work out. I hope it will be more than a test,” Palmer said.

High schools will have their graduation rates factor into their rating, but elementary and middle schools will be dependent on standardized tests, said Ranjana Reddy, an official at the State Department of Education who helped write the state’s waiver application.

“We want to build beyond that with other indicators,” she said, mentioning upcoming student attendance, school climate and achievement in other subjects like civics and art are being considered. “By no means is this a perfect accountability system. It’s a work in progress.”

The waiver runs through the 2013-14 school year. The state will need to reapply for exemption from a list of repercussions that schools face if 100 percent of their students are not proficient in math and reading. Those penalties include closing a school and offering students enrollment in other schools.

Duncan said he would welcome such inclusion of more than test scores.

“Looking at graduation rates, looking at reductions in dropout rates, looking at closing achievement gaps, making sure high schools graduates are actually college and career ready and not taking remedial classes. You can’t just look at one indicator you have to look at a range,” Duncan said.

Annual teacher and principal evaluations based largely on student performance is also a centerpiece of the state’s waiver. Calling the state’s evaluation framework “meaningful”, Duncan did not weigh in on how much of a teachers’ grade should be tied to standardized tests. The state panel in charge of making that decision has butted heads recently on whether tests should be allowed to make up to 50 percent of a teachers grade. The state has until July 1 to make a decision.

“Having student achievement was important, but we didn’t say how much,” Duncan said during a conference call with reporters. He noted that in New York he supported their reforms when it accounted for both 20 percent and 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.

The waiver also means $20 million in federal money the state receives each year can be redirected to new initiatives the state department deems appropriate for turning schools around, Pryor said.

Following New Haven’s lead

Before heading to the state Capitol, Duncan stopped at a New Haven elementary school where teachers, school officials and political leaders talked about the role of teachers in making that city a model for school reform.

“Turning around schools is tough, tough work,” Duncan said at the Brennan-Rogers School during one of a nationwide series of roundtable discussions focused on reshaping the teaching profession.

The Obama administration has cited New Haven as a model for collaboration because of a teacher contract that is the centerpiece of reform, including a rigorous teacher evaluation system that links evaluations to student progress.

That collaboration is evident at schools such as Brennan-Rogers, a struggling school that has begun an intensive turnaround effort, aided in part by union-negotiated work rules that allow greater flexibility for teachers to alter schedules and work extended hours.

“It’s a very different place. We eliminated most of the restrictions,” David Cicarella, president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers, told Duncan. “We want to make sure we have buy-in from the teachers.”

Cicarella said the collective bargaining process was often difficult but was a key element in New Haven’s reform effort.

“It put teeth in everything we did,” he said. “The things we put in the agreement that we signed off on — we have to do that…There was no walking away from that.”

Among those at Tuesday’s roundtable was Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who praised New Haven officials, including union leaders, Mayor John DeStefano and Superintendent of Schools Reginald Mayo, for their persistence in creating the reforms.

“The road they chose was not an easy road,” Weingarten said. “These folks put their heads down [and] focused on kids…People have seen you can actually make an evaluation system work respectfully and work fairly.

“None of this is easy, whether it is turnaround for schools, whether it is … college affordability, whether it is teacher evaluation.”

The discussion, one of more than 200 meetings sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, is designed to encourage teachers to take an active role in the effort to reform the teaching profession. The department says the national project, known as RESPECT, envisions a “sweeping transformation of the profession,” including a shakeup in the way teachers are recruited, trained, promoted and paid.

Efforts nationwide and in Connecticut to change the profession, however, often have met with resistance or complaints that teachers have been left out of the process. In Wisconsin, for example, teachers and other public employees staged mass protests when Gov. Scott Walker and the state legislature sharply curtailed bargaining rights.

Duncan said the debate should include teacher voices. “For far too long, teachers and teaching have been beaten down…This [discussion] has to be teacher-led, not Washington-led,” he said.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Duncan asked one teacher why she chose to transfer to Brennan-Rogers after previously working at a higher-performing school.

“The main reason I did that was for the challenge,” said Tamara Raiford, a pre-kindergarten teacher. The school’s turnaround effort attracted a wide range of teachers, she said.

“We had people coming from different facets of life. This was their second career, third career. We had people coming from the business field. We had people coming from all over the country, and we all came with that commitment that we were going to work hard,” She said. “We knew that something good was going on here.”

Duncan asked, “How do we create a climate where everyone is clamoring to come to a school like this?”

The discussion was hosted by U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District.

“In Connecticut, we know education reform is no simple task,” DeLauro said. She added that school reformers should “be careful not to make changes without the input or at the expense of teachers.”

Part of the debate over Connecticut’s school reform law was whether to give the state education department the authority the commissioner requested to limit some collectively bargained rights in the state’s lowest-performing school districts. The new law does not strip these rights.

“Connecticut’s approach has been to affirm the role of collective bargaining,” state Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, told Duncan. “I think that’s critically important. The model only works when you have buy-in.”