The gap dividing Connecticut’s schools is much more than wealth.  Judge Thomas G. Moukawsher elegantly addressed this in responding to CCJEF (Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding) v. Rell.

I would argue that it is also a gap of expectations.  A major problem driving what Judge Moukawsher so aptly called the Connecticut’s “ irrational” education and financing systems is the lack of expectations for all of its students.  A student can still get a high school diploma and not be able to read and write.  This is because all that a Connecticut student has to do is to pass the requisite number of courses prescribed by the district and the state.  However, as has been made clear over time, passing a course does not require meeting any specific literacy standard.

And athletes have even lower academic expectations.  According to the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Association (CIAC) Handbook a student can be a varsity athlete for four years, only passing four courses a year, meaning getting a “D” in each course.  At the end of their senior year they will be at least six credits shy of the credits required for graduation and have a .5714  grade point average.

Judge Moukawsher slammed the state’s teacher evaluation system. When the state initiated its teacher evaluation system in 2012-13, it required essentially one week of training in a system that is complex and where expectations and ratings are often only ambiguously defined.  Training administrators and teachers in any teacher evaluation system at the minimum requires three to five years of training and review for the system to be used reliably and in a way that courts will recognize as valid.  No wonder that nearly all teachers are rated proficient.

This leaves legislators and school boards in a challenging position.   How do they justify increasing school funding when they’re not sure about the standards students are expected to reach or what they’re paying for?  This is made even more difficult in a fiscal environment of declining state revenues.  Bottom line, legislators can legitimately ask what am I paying for when people want more and more services such as public safety, health care and roads and bridges?

I speak to all of this having worked in eight different states at the local and state levels including Connecticut as a teacher, principal and superintendent. As well I was Associate Commissioner for Finance and Accountability in Massachusetts when it more than doubled educational funding from $3 billion to $7 billion dollars a year over five years, began requiring literacy for graduation and built it’s now nationally recognized student testing system, MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System).

Further, I’ve spent more than 3,000 hours observing in classrooms and led the creation of New London’s teacher evaluation system described by state and union officials as one of the most effective for improving instruction in Connecticut.

In 2010 when the CCJEF v. Rell decision was issued I argued in the Connecticut Mirror that the key to changing state school finance was creating standards of service for students.  This means that to justify school spending, the state and school districts have to define the services to which students are entitled:  How many hours a week should teachers teach a course in high school, middle school or elementary school?  How much art, music, technology or physical education instruction should each student receive each week?  What services should be available from counselors, social workers, psychologists, physical and occupational therapists for each student, for how many hours per week?  If a student is three years below grade level in reading and language acquisition, what kinds of services does the student need, for how long?  Responses to these kinds of questions need to be the drivers of school finance decisions.

Making the kinds of decisions that it takes to truly improve the lives of students and their achievement takes political courage.  It takes being willing to learn from other states and school districts.  Courage was shown in California in the 1971 with its landmark school finance decision in Serrano v. Priest when the state’s Supreme Court found that California’s system of school finance primarily dependent on local property taxes was inherently unequal and in violation of U.S and state constitutional protections.  

Courage has also been shown in other states such as Delaware and Florida and school districts like Miami-Dade and Hillsborough Counties, FL and New London that developed excellent teacher observation and evaluation systems and actually used them to improve student achievement.

The question is, do leaders in Connecticut have the will and the capacity to do the same?

Nicholas A. Fischer is a former New London Superintendent of Schools and former Massachusetts Associate Commissioner of Education.

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