If the chronic problem of lagging academic achievement among poor children has perplexed educators for years, can a group of business leaders find a solution?

A state commission made up mainly of top business officials will issue recommendations in October that could shape Connecticut’s policy to address what the group described Monday as an educational tragedy.

Of the 50 states, Connecticut has the largest achievement gap separating low-income children from their more well-to-do classmates on U.S. Department of Education tests of reading and mathematics. The gap separating minority and white students also is among the largest in the nation.

“This situation affects not just the children themselves, which is a tragedy….It affects all of us. It affects our state as a whole,” commission Chairman Steven Simmons said at a press conference in Hartford.

simmons, steven, 8-31-10

Simmons: Achievement gap ‘a tragedy’

School reform has been a major issue in Connecticut this year. The legislature last spring passed a sweeping education bill as part of an effort to win millions of dollars in education grants under Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s $4.3 billion competition to spur school reform.

The issue took on new urgency when Connecticut was eliminated from the competition while neighboring states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York were among winners of the federal grants. Public education is expected to be a significant issue in the gubernatorial election this fall. Rell is not seeking re-election.

“I think the timing of this commission is just right to make an impact,” said Simmons. “From the White House on down, there have been calls for change. Whether it’s from the President and secretary of education, whether it’s from some of the major media outlets, whether it’s from the state legislature or the gubernatorial candidates, we’re seeing up and down the country calls for changing the situation. . . . There’s a window of opportunity to really make a difference.”

Gov. M. Jodi Rell formed the commission earlier this year, naming a bipartisan group consisting of three members with backgrounds in education and eight business leaders and CEOs. Over the past six months, the commission has conducted hearings across the state and interviewed more than 150 educators and other experts.

“Being outside the system, we’re going to feel free to call it as we see it and to make recommendations we think are best for the kids in the state without any vested interest one way or the other,” said Simmons, a cable TV executive and founder of Simmons/Patriot Media and Communications in Greenwich.

As schools across the state began resuming classes this week, Simmons cited sobering figures showing that low-income fourth- and eighth-graders trailed their more affluent classmates by substantial margins on national tests. In addition, about 60 percent of low-income students graduate from high school in Connecticut, compared with 86 percent of students from wealthier families, the commission said.

Those problems persist even though Connecticut spends more per pupil than all but a handful of states, Simmons said. “We think it’s not necessarily about spending more money,” he said.

Simmons said low-income students in Connecticut performed poorly even in comparison to low-income children in other parts of the nation, but a State Department of Education official questioned that claim.

Tom Murphy, a department spokesman, said such comparisons are difficult to make because of substantial differences among states in the size and makeup of the groups that qualify as low-income. Nevertheless, he said he agrees with the commission’s efforts to close the achievement gap, adding that it is also the top priority of the education department.

The commission’s report is expected to include recommendations on issues such as school finance, teacher evaluation, preschool education and strategies for turning around struggling schools.

“We found that perhaps the most important thing in increasing educational achievement is having an effective teacher, so we looking at how do we attract the best teachers to our schools. . . . ….We’re looking at how we can get the best school leaders,” Simmons said.

“In some ways, we’re hoping much of our report will be a blueprint for the next governor,” he said.

Both gubernatorial candidates said they will study the commission’s report closely.

“Absolutely,” said Tom Foley, the Republican candidate. “We’ll be very interested in seeing what the commission recommends. I’m sure a lot of what they recommend will be similar to what our education policy team recommends.”

Democrat Dan Malloy said closing the achievement gap has to be a priority. “Reforming the educational system only works if it’s led by the governor,” he said. Malloy added that he is looking forward to hearing the ideas of commission members. “I’m going to take whatever they say to heart,” he said.

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