Updated at 4:48 p.m.
While announcing Dianna Wentzell as the state’s next education commissioner Friday, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy made clear he was looking for a teacher — a qualification his first controversial commissioner did not have.
“I made it clear that we were looking from day one for someone who has been a teacher,” Malloy said during a press conference outside his Capitol office.
Wentzell, 50, spent nine years teaching social studies or writing in the suburban Farmington public schools, two years teaching world history at a magnet school in East Hartford, and one year teaching various subjects in Pakistan.
“Over the years, I’ve planned and taught more lessons than I can count, and I know that I’ve learned just as many,” Wentzell said. “The experience and perspective that I gained in the classroom still helps inform the decisions that I make today.”
Wentzell, who has been serving as interim commissioner since January, joined the state Department of Education in early 2013 to lead the office responsible for implementing the Common Core State Standards and the new standardized tests. Before that, she worked as an administrator in Hartford and South Windsor. (See her full resume here.)
Her appointment is a clear victory for the teachers’ unions, which clashed with the governor’s last education commissioner, Stefan Pryor, a lawyer with a background in economic development whose educational experience involved opening a charter school.
“I think it’s a wonderful appointment. It’s a wise decision,” Sheila Cohen, the leader of the Connecticut Education Assocation, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said during an interview. “We are pleased they heeded our advice and appointed someone that is a public school educator.”
“It doesn’t matter where she taught; the fact that she taught is huge,” said Melodie Peters, of the American Federation of Teachers-Connecticut. “She gets it. It hasn’t been that long since she’s been in the classroom.”
State lawmakers on the Education Committee also agree that commissioners should have a background in education. The committee unanimously approved a bill last month that requires the state’s education commissioner to have been a teacher for at least five years and a school administrator for at least three.
Wentzell didn’t initially apply for the job and was recruited by Malloy’s staff a few weeks ago after he interviewed four other candidates. Those candidates included Nate Quesnel, East Hartford superintendent; Alan Ingram, deputy commissioner of the Massachusettes Department of Elementary and Secondary Education; and Nivea Torres, superintendent of the state’s vocational technical high school system.
Malloy told reporters he went with Wentzell because she “has proven to be an effective leader of our educational system. She has been doing a remarkable job — I want to stress a remarkable job — as interim commissioner of the department.”
Wentzell grew up attending public schools in Monroe and lives in suburban Hartford with her husband. All five of her children attended public schools, and two attended a magnet school.
As commissioner, Wentzell will be responsible for shaping state education policy and overseeing the state’s public schools, which enroll 542,000 students. Connecticut has some of the largest achievement gaps in the nation between minority students and their peers.
Wentzell also is taking over the permanent job as the state prepares to defend itself in a trial this fall on whether it is adequately funding public schools, and as state lawmakers determine whether to further expand school choice programs to comply with a Supreme Court order that the state integrate schools in Hartford.
She also will have to determine how the state responds to changes in federal education law.
A bill unanimously approved Thursday by the U.S. Senate committee that oversees education would allow state school leaders to determine whether to implement Common Core standards and whether test scores are used to rate schools and teachers. If the federal law changes, Wentzell will play a leading role in determining whether the state moves forward with those policies.
Malloy said that he doesn’t foresee seeking any major changes to the state’s education laws. During his second year in office, the Democratic governor focused his attention on overhauling the state’s education system. Controversial proposals to change teacher evaluations, tenure and collective bargaining in the lowest-performing schools fractured his relationship with teachers.
The legislature ultimately passed less controversial legislation that directs money to the lowest-performing schools and districts that promise to make certain reforms. They also required tying teacher evaluations to student performance for the first time.
“We have accomplished legislatively and otherwise many of the changes that we needed to bring about…It’s about implementing, implementing and implementing,” Malloy said.
“I look forward to supporting the work that we’ve started under this administration and to ever improving our systems,” Wentzell said during the press conference. “I look forward to continued collaboration.”
Almost two dozen candidates applied for the job. The job announcement sought applicants with a long background and an advanced degree in education — qualifications one of the state’s teachers’ unions called for during the last campaign.
Wentzell, whose appointment needs legislative confirmation, will make $192,500 a year, a raise from her current salary.
Wentzell was also endorsed for the job by the State Board of Education on Friday.
“She clicks in so many different ways with educators in the state,”Allan Taylor, chairman of the board, said during an interview.