Slower rollout for education reforms approved by Senate

With thousands of students each year showing up for the fourth grade still struggling to read, legislators last year celebrated passage of a reform package that required statewide reading intervention and improvement plans — the top priority of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus.

This year those reading reforms are likely to be delayed.

The state Senate unanimously approved a bill Wednesday that pushes back those initiatives to the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school years.

“A lot of people would tell you that the [education] department is having a hard time implementing everything that was in the school reform law,” said Rep. Jason Rojas, a member of the caucus.

The bill -– crafted with the support of the governor’s education commissioner, the co-chairs of the Education Committee and the caucus — postpones implementing the regular reading assessments for students in kindergarten through Grade three, the creation of an intensive reading program and the expansion of an existing pilot program to address reading deficiencies.

The new law would have also stripped a teacher’s ability to teach if he or she failed an assessment of reading instruction methods. The bill still requires teacher take these assessments or surveys biennially, but teachers do not risk losing their certification if they fail them.

“We didn’t believe that was the intent of the original bill,” Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor said of linking certification to the reading assessments. “Given that the approach needed to be revised … in order to create a system that would be more valuable to teachers in their professional development process, the adjustments to the timeline make sense.”

Rojas, D-East Hartford, said with all the necessary changes to the reading initiatives passed last year, “We wanted to give [the education department] more time to see how the pilot is working before we scale it up anymore.”

Saying the bill provides for a “realistic timeline” for implementation, the Senate chairwoman of the legislature’s Education Committee said the delay is not a problem.

“We still have to move forward with these” reforms, said Sen. Anrea Stillman, D-Waterford, before the vote.

Those who support the changes in law made last year have been worried for months that the education reforms would be delayed as some local officials complained about the burden of implementing the new teacher evaluations and other reforms.

But on Wednesday the Democratic-controlled Senate rejected a Republican amendment that would relieve districts from the requirement that they begin implementing the new evaluations in the coming school year.

“You are making it impossible for [districts] to succeed… What they are telling us is ‘Hartford, you don’t have all the answers,’” said Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, who proposed the amendment.

The bill that was unanimously approved by the senate gives districts the flexibility to roll out the new teacher evaluation process over two years instead of one. The bill follows the recommendation for a slower rollout made by the diverse panel that crafted the plan that links evaluations to student performance. 

The bill that now heads to the state House of Representatives also clarifies the role that teachers’ unions will play in districts adopting an evaluation program. The bill requires that each district create evaluation committees that include participation from the union to craft their evaluations. If the committee cannot reach “mutual agreement” with the school board on how to evaluate their teachers within the perameters laid out by the state, the final decision will be left to the local school board.

“For the first time we have representation on the panel creating the evaluations. In our minds this is a very big issue,” said Mark Waxenberg, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.

Pryor, the governor’s education commissioner, said this process will help districts land union and teacher support for the evaluations.

“This will ensure that there is a substantial and vibrant diologue regarding the plans for evaluation and support prior to their adoption and approval,” Pryor said during an interview.

But union involvement is not guaranteed, as the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled years ago that the terms of teacher evaluations are not required to be negotiated. Grievances can only be filed on the outcome of an evaluation if the proper process was not followed, not the subjective determinations.

“Evaluation is a management responsibility,” said Thomas Mooney, an education lawyer whose firm represents almost 100 local school boards in the state. “There is widespread agreement that [evaluation] is off limits” from union negotiation.

And with all the changes to teacher evaluations last year — most notably linking them to tenure and dismissal decisions — the bill passed by the Senate Wednesday spells out that local school boards have no obligation to negotiate the terms of the evaluation. 

“There are no guarantees that [unions will have a say]. This is built on good faith and trust,” said Waxenberg. “I am optimistic we will have a meaningful evaluation at each school… You have to build a system on good faith and trust.”

Pryor said that he “definitively” believes that the final say on evaluations should rest with the local board.

The new state evaluation framework requires that the state’s 50,000 teachers will be graded every year based on the results of their students’ standardized tests, announced and unannounced classroom observations, and possibly surveys and other measures. Stillman said that she expects a handful of waivers to be provided for districts to try different approaches in evaluating teachers.