Fourteen principals of chronically failing schools were replaced in recent years in Lawrence, Mass., by a state-appointed receiver put in charge of the city’s struggling schools.

Meanwhile one state over, two principals Connecticut officials identified as needing to be replaced to improve their schools were waited out by local and state school officials. It was easier than dealing with community pushback and local politics over removing a popular school leader or navigating the multi-step dismissal process in the principal’s union contract.

In New Haven, the state education department waited until a principal job became available in another city school. In Bridgeport, officials waited for the principal’s promised upcoming retirement.

While state law gives the education commissioner the authority to implement a plan to turn around a failing school, including replacing a struggling principal, the department has exercised that authority only once in recent years.

Those situations aren’t outliers. State Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell says removing principals is one of the most common obstacles when her department wants to intervene in schools that fail to improve year after year.

In Hartford, where Wentzell was an assistant superintendent until December 2012, the district had 12 principals on “special assignment”, doing other administrative duties because their schools weren’t showing progress and union contracts significantly restricted or slowed down the district’s ability to fire them.

Connecticut State Capitol CTMIRROR.ORG
Massachusetts State House

The differing approaches to removing principals is just one of many areas where Massachusetts’ lawmakers have regularly taken bold action – or enabled local districts to – while Connecticut has been timid. It has shown in the outcomes for students from low-income families for years. Massachusetts over the last 20 years has moved to the top of the national rankings for achievement by students from low-income families while Connecticut has lagged.

Part of Massachusetts’ success stemmed from a “Grand Bargain” that annually infused hundreds of millions of additional state dollars into local school districts – predominantly those in poor communities. In return, the state took significant steps to bolster accountability when schools failed to improve with the new resources. Among them were:

  • Setting higher expectations for what students should know as shown on standardized tests.
  • Requiring students to demonstrate on a state test that they have mastered a certain body of knowledge required to receive a high school diploma.
  • Giving local school officials more power to improve their own schools and then intervening with more authority when districts fall far short, including by changing leadership, overriding union contracts and temporarily superseding the local school board.

A more active state role is key if Connecticut is to catch up with its neighbor in turning around low-performing schools, say many education leaders, advocates and business groups who point to Massachusetts’ success.

In 2011, shortly after stepping down as Connecticut education commissioner, Mark McQuillan, who also had served as deputy commissioner in Massachusetts, wrote a report to legislators comparing the education systems in the neighboring states.

“Placing more authority and power in the State Board of Education and the Department of Education is both necessary and needed if Connecticut hopes to make the change it must,” McQuillan wrote. “Critics who dismiss the idea of reposing more authority and power in government must seriously consider what has been accomplished in Massachusetts.”

Since then, state lawmakers still haven’t made the changes that preceded Massachusetts’ gains – or they have moved forward more cautiously.

“Every year we adults play around with whether local control matters or not is a year that kids aren’t getting access to high-quality education in places like Bridgeport,” said Jeffrey Villar, executive director of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform, which lobbies at the state Capitol for the state’s chief business coalition.

In a landmark decision last year, a Superior Court judge found the state is defaulting on its constitutional obligation to provide a minimally adequate education for all its students, in part because lawmakers and the education department have been “standing on the sidelines imposing token statewide standards.” An appeal of that ruling is currently awaiting a decision by the state Supreme Court.

Not everyone agrees the state should take a stronger hand, arguing that local autonomy is the best way to ensure cooperation to improve schools.

The Connecticut education department insists it has the all the authority it needs to improve schools – though when prodded about different policies, the state’s education chief acknowledges more “flexibility” would be helpful in dealing with certain issues.

“We have been really fortunate in that we’ve been able to gain the statutory authority when we’ve needed it. That seems to make sense. In Connecticut, people really like their decisions to be as local as possible,” said Wentzell during a wide-ranging interview. “So while it would be easier in some ways to just have the authority, I understand why people want to evaluate on a case-by-case basis. That way things aren’t done to people; they are done with people. That has worked well for us.”

The ‘Massachusetts Miracle’

Taken as a whole, Connecticut’s students are not very far behind those from Massachusetts.

But look at how those from low-income homes are doing, and test results for Connecticut’s students are far behind those in Massachusetts in several subjects.

It used to be different. Connecticut’s low-income students’ scores on the so-called Nation’s Report Card, a test overseen by the U.S. Department of Education, rivaled those of their peers in Massachusetts in the 1990s.

Then the Bay State passed the sweeping reforms that helped make its test scores the highest in the country – not only for students from high- and middle-income families, but for impoverished students too.

For example, Connecticut fourth graders who qualified for free or reduced-priced meals tested slightly higher than their neighbors in 1996. Since then, Massachusetts’ test scores have outpaced Connecticut’s gains. Recently Connecticut has made substantial gains in 8th grade reading, but is still behind Massachusetts.

To qualify for free or reduced-price lunches a child’s family must earn less than 185 percent of the federal poverty threshold. For a single mom, that’s less than $30,000. Median household income in 2015 in Connecticut was $71,346; it was $67,846 in Massachusetts.

Performance of students from poor homes

Source: National Assessment of Educational Progress (The Nation’s Report Card)

Compared to other countries, Massachusetts students overall are second only to Singapore’s in science and also score high on math, results on the 2011 Timss exam show. Connecticut’s students scored slightly above average.

“Massachusetts is clearly one of the nation’s top-performing school systems,” John Papay, an assistant professor of education and economics at Brown University, said during a presentation last fall at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education. “It has shown rapid growth.”

With those gains, Massachusetts has become the envy and focus of top lawmakers in Connecticut – especially because the two states are educating similar populations.

Both are about 60 percent white; 15 percent require special education services; just under 10 percent speak limited English; and about one-third come from low-income families.

Both states enjoy median household incomes well above the national average; about two-thirds of households own a home; and overall, school districts get the majority of their funding from local property taxes. Both states also have numerous small school districts run by local boards and a similar rate of students attending charter schools.

Fourth graders in Lawrence, Mass., attempt to paint a Monet. Jacqueline Rabe Thomas /

“I understand when we look to Massachusetts. They are consistently in the top five of student achievement,” state Sen. Gayle S. Slossberg, the Democratic co-chair of the Connecticut General Assembly’s Education Committee, said during a forum on school funding last year.

“Massachusetts is often looked at because it’s the most successful state in school reform,” Wentzell, Connecticut’s education chief, testified last year during the education-funding trial. “It’s important for us to look at Massachusetts because they’re a lot like us.”

When Gov. Dannel P. Malloy proposed controversial legislation in 2012, our neighboring state was his model. But the Democratic leaders in the General Assembly didn’t back many of the reforms he sought to empower the state education board and local education officials. And various components that did pass have been scaled back or were repealed before they went into effect.

“I personally spent a lot of time studying Massachusetts back in 2011 and 2012. That’s who we pointed to,” the Democratic governor said during a recent interview. “I don’t think we’ve made as much progress as we could if, instead of Lawrence and Lowell (in Massachusetts), we were talking about Bridgeport and Waterbury. I think we have a ways to go.”

“Right now, reform is sitting at the district and school level,” said Jennie Weiner, an associate professor at the University of Connecticut whose research focuses on leadership practices that have led to improvements for struggling schools. “We could get the highest amount of leverage if the state is involved. You can find districts that are doing it on their own, but that’s really difficult work.”

“… Our reforms have really not changed much,” she said of Connecticut. “We’ve done stuff around the edges.”

‘The secret sauce’

Those closely connected to getting Massachusetts’ major reforms signed into law or implemented are hesitant to credit one specific initiative for the state’s success.

David Driscoll, Massachusetts commissioner of education from 1999 to 2007. Jacqueline Rabe Thomas /

“I suppose you want to know what the secret sauce is,” David Driscoll, a former Massachusetts education commissioner and deputy commissioner who oversaw implementation of the reforms for more than a decade, said at the start of an interview with the Mirror.

“I am reluctant to say just do this or do that. It’s not that simple,” said Driscoll, a mentor for Connecticut’s current education commissioner. “I spend a lot of time with other states wanting to know how to do it.”

Some ingredients, however, were key to his state’s success, he said. Those include appropriate funding, high expectations and accountability.

By his estimation, the only state that has been able to emulate the Massachusetts education system, with some tweaks, has been Tennessee.

Low expectations

Has Connecticut had lower expectations for its students than Massachusetts?

Yes. Though recently it has been trying to catch up.

The U.S. Department of Education regularly compares the scores students must achieve to be deemed proficient on each state’s assessment test and the federal Nation’s Report Card. Those comparisons regularly have shown that the bar was set much lower for Connecticut’s students.

Source: U.S. Department of Education, “Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto NAEP”

The most recent comparison, however, is from 2013, two years before Connecticut changed its test in an effort to raise academic benchmarks in math and English. Massachusetts took that leap decades before Connecticut – and there is wide agreement that a key ingredient in the Bay State’s rapid improvement is high standards.

Not having high state expectations can be especially harmful for students from poor families in struggling districts.

“We set a new goal that we are going to get everybody to the high end that heretofore had been reserved for the elite few. That was a huge job,” said former Massachusetts Commissioner Paul Reville, the executive director of a business-backed advocacy organization that is often credited with getting Massachusetts landmark reform law passed. “Only with measuring progress and determining who is getting there and putting pressure to close the gaps do you get to educating all students.”

Villar, from the Connecticut Business & Industry Association, said low expectations are an issue for Connecticut.

“One of our single biggest problems is getting past the narrative that it’s OK for poor, minority students not to achieve at the same levels as your middle-class white kids,” he said.

Some have referred to this as the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Sandra Stotsky, who shepherded Massachusetts’ high standards into practice during her tenure as the state’s senior associate commissioner, has spent her career looking at each state’s academic standards. She says Connecticut’s and others’ long suffered from being “weak, flabby and vague.”

In other words, what Connecticut was communicating to teachers and local educators was “edubabble” – education jargon that fails to state a clear goal or describe the content students actually need to be successful.

For example, Connecticut English standards that were in place for years required that students be able to “discuss, analyze, and evaluate how characters deal with the diversity of human experience and conflict.” They also needed to “maintain a multimedia portfolio that provides opportunities for reflection and dialogue regarding creative processes.”

Meanwhile, Massachusetts required that students learn Roman and Greek epic poems from a list of certain authors, but left it up to local educators to determine which poems and books to use.

The conservative Thomas Fordham Institute reported that Connecticut’s benchmarks up until 2006 faced “systemic vagueness” and were, therefore, “an abdication of duty.”

“The standards never adequately explain what teachers should teach and students should learn,” the reviewers concluded.

But getting high benchmarks into place is a hellish endeavor. In Massachusetts, the state education board rejected some of the first proposals, progress moved at a snail’s pace at times and many teachers and their unions resisted until the state spent hours having them participate in development of the final product.

Driscoll, who was the state’s deputy commissioner during much of that time, said state officials refused to back down.

“We stood by it. It doesn’t take a lot of courage to tell the truth. Our biggest issue was emotional. It wasn’t districts telling us ‘don’t tell us that we’re not as good as we think we are.’ They already realized the truth,” he said.

In Connecticut – after decades of sputtering test results – the state board eventually mustered the political courage to overhaul its benchmarks. Those standards – the Common Core State Standards and the test aligned with those standards – were intended to raise the bar.

Teachers, students and others rally at the State Capitol in 2015 to oppose the test aligned with the Common Core State Standards aimed at raising the bar. Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CtMirror

The rollout of Common Core was incredibly controversial. Hundreds of teachers, students and those opposed to testing  rallied outside the state Capitol, legislators held special hearings on the issue, dozens of bills were filed to restrict implementation, and the state’s largest teachers union ran TV and radio ads to put pressure on lawmakers.

Many teachers and their union leaders have argued that too much time and energy is spent on test preparation and questioned whether the Common Core truly represents a higher standard for student achievement.

But Gov. Malloy and the Democratic-controlled General Assembly dug in and provided $38 million over two years to transition to a new test for 2014-2015 — the Smarter Balanced Assessment — that is aligned with the Common Core standards.

Pushback has largely subsided since, and Commissioner Wentzell says she is hopeful the shift was worthwhile.

“There was initially a lot of concern and perhaps anxiety and mistrust on behalf of some teachers with the shift to Smarter Balanced. But now it’s a non-issue,” said Wentzell.

It’s too soon to tell whether the shift has paid off, however. Students took the first post-rollout wave of federal exams last school year and scores are expected to be released in the spring.

Stotsky said results should show up quickly. “If they are really good standards, it should show up right away: We’re talking two or three years,” she said.

Forget a diploma if you fail the test

Leading up to passage of the watershed 1993 education reforms in Massachusetts, frustration was growing among business leaders.

Massachusetts’ telephone company couldn’t find enough qualified people to fill its open positions. While the applicants had high school diplomas, 75 percent of them couldn’t pass the company’s basic hiring test.

There were numerous such examples, recalled Reville, leader of the business-backed education advocacy organization and now a professor at Harvard University.

So, in a 142-page missive to state leaders, the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, wrote that the state was facing a crisis.

“The inability of many public school students/graduates to qualify even for entry-level jobs or to compete successfully with their counterparts from other industrialized countries is a clear signal that the education system needs to undergo dramatic improvement soon,” the report begins. “…Workers are increasingly unequal to the needs of industry, even for entry-level jobs.”

Business leaders were discouraged that they were having to regularly provide their workers with the education they should have received before leaving school.

In an effort to address the disconnect, the legislature included in a 1993 omnibus education reform bill a requirement that students pass an exam to earn a diploma. Previously, the state had only required students to take a year of American history and civics and four years of physical education. The rest was left up to local education officials to determine.

Implementation was scheduled to begin with the Class of 2003, and the bar to earn a degree wasn’t set too high.

Driscoll said the test, which students would first try to pass in their sophomore year, was essentially assessing whether they were at least at an 8th-grade level in math and English. Even so, Reville said, “They were still the highest standards in the country.”

Had the bar been set higher, then tens of thousands of students would have been at risk of not graduating. At the time only about one-quarter of 10th graders had passed the math test and one-third the English test.

The low bar wasn’t enough to quell the displeasure of some over the thought of denying students a diploma. One of the state’s largest teachers’ unions ramped up their lobbying against the requirement and started to run television advertisements.

“The polls showed that the public started to turn against us,” recalled Driscoll. A wave of legislation was filed in an attempt to override the 1993 law or replace it with an evaluation of a student portfolio. As the date to pass the test neared, a group of six students who had failed to pass the exam filed a lawsuit in an effort to get the exit exam thrown out, complaining that the state had failed to adequately prepare them.

The state Supreme Court eventually would rule that the requirement was within the authority of the legislature.

Regardless, the state had work to do as graduation neared for the 65,000 students of the Class of 2003. When that class first took the exams in their sophomore year, 72 percent passed the English portion and 68 percent the math. So state lawmakers decided to funnel $115 million to school districts over the next three years to provide additional tutoring, summer school and other supports for students failing the exam.

By senior year, 92 percent had passed. But that meant 4,800 seniors did not make the cut – most of whom lived in high-poverty school districts.

“Everybody in the state was waiting for us to blink,” Driscoll said. “We didn’t blink. That was the key. We as educators knew that this was a reasonable standard. People were graduating from high school that couldn’t write a sentence and couldn’t do basic math. That had to be fixed.”

It’s an approach that many states have since taken. Fifteen states last school year required students to pass exit exams to earn a diploma, and five other states have passed laws requiring it in the future. However, 10 states have dropped exit exams since 2011, reports the Education Commission of the States, a nonprofit think tank that tracks state laws.

Research is mixed on the impact of exit exams. (See here, here, here and here.) But Reville says his state’s story is proof that increasing accountability can be a successful approach – if done correctly.

“Once the test started counting, the [pass] rates spiked,” he said. “Some states have had high stakes and low standards. We didn’t. We decided that we are going to have high stakes and high standards. That’s partially responsible for our success.”

Other states have awarded different types of diplomas, depending on the level of achievement a student is able to demonstrate, or have moved toward non-test-based portfolios.

In Connecticut, lawmakers have retreated from such accountability and have set no statewide standard for demonstrating high school achievement. A law passed in 2010 would have required exit exams beginning with the class of 2018, but implementation was pushed back year after year, and this year legislators eliminated the pending requirement.

In his decision in a landmark school funding case in Connecticut last year, a Superior Court judge targeted low graduation requirements in his scathing indictment of the education students receive in the state’s most impoverished districts.

“What it means to have a secondary education is like a sugar-cube boat. It dissolves before it’s half launched,” Judge Thomas Moukawsher wrote. “State graduation and advancement standards are so loose that in struggling cities the neediest are leaving schools with diplomas but without the education we promise them.”

‘No one ever fattens a cow by weighing it’

High-stakes tests aligned with higher standards weren’t the only thing going on as Massachusetts’ experienced rapid increases in achievement.

Paul Reville, who was a key force in getting Massachusetts landmark reforms adopted into law. Jacqueline Rabe Thomas /

“No one ever fattens a cow by weighing it,” as Reville puts it.

Rather, additional money – coupled with the added authority of state and local leaders to make certain changes in schools that failed to improve – also helped. One of those added authorities include giving superintendents the authority to more easily get rid of struggling principals by not allowing them to unionize. Meanwhile, back in Connecticut, the state waits out struggling leaders who are part of unions – as was the case in New Haven recently.

“And then she decided not to retire, so that was difficult,” said Wentzell. “One of our most typical areas of concern in our [lowest-performing districts] is leadership. Superintendents have expressed to us that there is a leadership issue with the school, but they can’t move the principal.”

Coming tomorrow: The role money plays in getting bold reforms approved and the impact it has on educational performance. Read the entire series here.

The Mirror’s exploration of ways to close persistent gaps in educational achievement is supported in part by a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network and the Nellie Mae Foundation. Click here to view more of the projects they have funded. The Connecticut Mirror retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

Jacqueline was CT Mirror’s Education and Housing Reporter, and an original member of the CT Mirror staff, joining shortly before our January 2010 launch. Her awards include the best-of-show Theodore A. Driscoll Investigative Award from the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists in 2019 for reporting on inadequate inmate health care, first-place for investigative reporting from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in 2020 for reporting on housing segregation, and two first-place awards from the National Education Writers Association in 2012. She was selected for a prestigious, year-long Propublica Local Reporting Network grant in 2019, exploring a range of affordable and low-income housing issues. Before joining CT Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.’s Maryland newspaper chains. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College.