A fourth consecutive year of improving graduation rates and narrowing achievement gaps gave Gov. Dannel P. Malloy an opportunity Wednesday to begin to turn education reform from an irritant in his relationship with teachers to an election-year asset with the broader electorate.
In a press conference at downtown Hartford high school, Malloy joined Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor in releasing data showing steady improvement in overall graduation rates, with the biggest gains by black, Hispanic and lower-income students.
From 2010, the year before Malloy took office, through the 2013 school year, the graduation rate improved in key demographics: whites, from 88.7 percent to 91.4 percent; blacks, from 68.7 percent to 75.7 percent; Hispanics, from 64 percent to 70.2 percent; and economically disadvantaged, from 62.7 percent to 72.1 percent.
At the same time, the gap in graduation rates between whites and each of those groups shrunk. The 20-percentage point white-black gap of 2010 closed to 15.7 points in 2013, a reduction of 21.5 percent. The other gaps also closed: white-Hispanic, 3.5 points, or 14 percent; and economically disadvantaged, 4.5 percentage points, or 17.5 percent.
“I am excited that we are in fact beginning to see clear signs of steady progress being made,” Malloy said, addressing reporters at the Hartford High School, Inc., a business-oriented magnet school operated by the city’s school system.
He acknowledged more work remains. In a report released last month, Connecticut still had one of the highest achievement gaps in the nation — fourth for Hispanic students, 12th for black students — when it comes to graduating in four years.
Malloy has increased state aid to local education in each of his four budgets, an overall investment of hundreds of millions of dollars at a time when some other states either were flat-funding or cutting spending on education.
“You make those kinds of investments in the hopes that over a long period of time they will pay dividends,” he said.
An element of the governor’s approach has been to identify the poorest-performing school systems as “education reform districts,” targeted for greater aid: Bridgeport, East Hartford, Hartford, Meriden, New Britain, New Haven, New London, Norwich, Waterbury and Windham.
The graduation rates in the education reform districts increased from 66.3 percent in 2012, the year Malloy proposed his reforms, to 69.1 percent in 2013.
The new graduation rates were released after a national report that gave Connecticut the best 12th-grade reading scores among 13 “volunteer pilot states” releasing test scores in a “national report card.” While its score was the best, only half of Connecticut seniors were judged to be proficient in reading.
“Well, we are on a roll,” Pryor said, reviewing the numbers.
Pryor has been a lightning rod in the Malloy administration’s difficult relationships with the state’s two major teachers’ unions, the Connecticut Education Association and AFT-Connecticut.
In February, Sen. John P. McKinney, one of the five Republicans running for governor, called for Pryor’s resignation. At the time, the state was in the process of requiring that every teacher be evaluated in accordance with state guidelines, and it was implementing the new Common Core State Standards that will change what students are tested on each year.
Neither union joined McKinney in calling for Pryor’s resignation. Leaders of both have been working to improve the first-term Democratic governor’s standing with the rank and file, and their presidents contributed laudatory statements for inclusion in a press release on the graduation rates.
“We urge everyone to seize this opportunity to acknowledge the hard work and ongoing success of Connecticut students and teachers,” said Sheila Cohen, the president of the Connecticut Education Association.
“Progress in closing the achievement gap and increasing graduation rates in our state is a testament to the commitment of teachers, paraprofessionals, and all public school employees to their students,” said Melodie Peters, the president of AFT-Connecticut.
There was nothing complicated in the political analysis Democrats offered Wednesday about the improving graduation rates.
“It’s clearly good news, and good news usually helps people” in campaigns, said Roy Occhiogrosso, a campaign adviser.
“Obviously, education is an important issue,” Malloy said. “I ran for governor on education.”
Jonathan Pelto, a blogger and former Democratic state legislator critical of Malloy on education, has been using education as a rationale to explore running for governor as a third-party candidate. He has found no encouragement from labor.
Last week’s Quinnipiac University poll indicated education is a plus for the governor, at least narrowly. Voters approved of his handling of education, 45 percent to 39 percent.