After the embarrassing and ungracious offering of the job of Connecticut Commissioner of Education to one person, then withdrawing the offer, and then offering the job to a second person, the reason given to the public for choosing the second person was that the State Board of Education wanted a commissioner with whom it was “on the same page.”
But what is that page? A good place to start looking for it is with the goals of the new commissioner.
- Make a positive impact on graduation rates.
- Close the achievement gap.
- Ensure that all students have increased access to opportunities and advantages that they need to succeed in life.
Those goals have a familiar ring. The history of Connecticut trying to meet them is not a proud one. But maybe that “new page” that the new Commissioner and the State Board of Education are on is one of a dramatic new vision and radical new actions. What could that vision and those radical new actions look like?
First, would be to change the term “graduation rate” to something like the graduating of well-educated high school students. Currently, graduation rates make good headlines but can mean very little in terms of student learning.
“Credit retrieval” is a common practice in public schools with low graduation rates. “Credit retrieval” allows students to make use of often dubious computer programs that, in no way equal courses in academic subjects, yet the students get credit for the academic courses. In doing so, students increase the graduation rate for their schools but do not have adequate learning experiences.
Charter schools have another way to increase their graduation rates. They “counsel out” students who are likely to not graduate before they get to be seniors which leaves only a pre-selected group as seniors and, unsurprisingly, they all graduate. In 2016-2017, the school year for which the most recent data is available, 25 percent of all charter high schools, as compared to 3 percent of all traditional public schools, had graduation rates of under 50 percent. Here in Connecticut, for example, in 2013 at Achievement First’s Amistad Academy in New Haven, 25 students out of 25 students in the senior class graduated, but 64 students had been in that class as ninth graders. That means that Amistad Academy had a graduation rate of 39 percent of the students who began their high school studies there.
A visionary way to increase the number of students who receive a high school education is to not count the number of students who receive high school diplomas but rather count how many of the students who begin a school as ninth graders complete the coursework necessary for graduation.
For example, some innovative public high schools hold Saturday classes with actual teachers instead of plugging kids into commuter programs. The applause should be given to high schools who deliver a quality education to all the students who begin their high school education in the school, not to the schools who either give credits without the academic content and skills or who dismiss those who won’t make for a good statistic.
It is then that Connecticut students will have the tools for their future and the State Board of Education and the new commissioner will have made a difference in the lives of our children and in the quality of our state. Increasing graduation rates, as it has been addressed in the past, gets us nowhere.
Also, improving the achievement gap is a hackneyed expression that needs new vision. That vision could begin with redefining “achievement ” and redefining “gap.” In Connecticut as well as nationally, achievement, since the publication of A Nation at Risk, has meant the attainment of good standardized test scores. Standardized test scores are always correlated with the income of the parents of the students taking the test. Therefore, we can raise test scores by getting wealthier kids into a school.
The other way to raise those scores is to teach to the test. All commercial test prep courses and online free test prep courses claim that taking those prep courses will improve test scores. And they do. They do because standardized tests measure only one skill: the ability to take a standardized test. But that is not achievement.
Achievement in the 21st century means that students are engaged learners who are able to think critically, problem solve, collaborate with others, demonstrate initiative, speak and write effectively, access and analyze information, explore their own questions, and use their imagination as described in The Global Achievement Gap by Tony Wagner, (Harvard University). No standardized test has ever, or can ever, measure those skills.
So the goal of “closing the achievement gap” will serve only to highlight the disparity between the affluent and the poor. Even more importantly, the goal of “closing the achievement gap,” as measured by standardized test scores, guarantees that the children in Connecticut who most need a quality education will be relegated to test prep in a school’s efforts to raise its standardized test scores and will continue to suffer from their lack of real teaching and real learning long after they leave our schools.
As for the “gap,” the gap that we should be addressing is not the gap between the standardized test scores of the kids in Wilton, Madison, Farmington, and Glastonbury with the standardized test scores of the kids in Hartford, Willimantic, Bridgeport, and Waterbury, but the gap between what all kids are now doing and what we could teach them to do.
We should be working our brains full-time exploring how to help each kid to reach further, to know more, to try harder, and to accomplish what that kid never thought possible. That’s the gap our schools should be closing: the gap between students’ current assumptions about their possibilities as thinkers and learners and their eventual accomplishments. That is a goal with a vision that is worthy of our energy and investment as a state.
And what are those “opportunities and advantages that children need to succeed in life?” We know exactly what they are because many of Connecticut’s children already have them. They are the opportunities and advantages of many of the children in our affluent, largely white schools. They are the opportunities and advantages denied to other children in Connecticut due to poverty, income inequality, and racism.
The new Commissioner and the State Board of Education can take on these underlying problems of poverty and racism that affect children for every minute they are in school and which any school cannot prevail against without appropriate funding, personnel, academic resources, and social services. Looking at the big picture with its complex causes beyond the classrooms will take vision and strong political action. It will switch the narrative from one of “failing public schools” to one of how can we adults and taxpayers not fail our public schools.
Given the recent history of the leadership of public education in Connecticut, it probably is a vain wish that the “same page” of the Connecticut State Board of Education and the new Connecticut Commissioner of Education will be one of vision and bold action, but without dreams where are we?
As the song says: “You gotta have a dream or how you gonna have a dream come true?”
Ann Policelli Cronin is a consultant in English education for school districts and university schools of education. She has taught middle and high school English, was a district-level administrator for English, taught university courses in English education, and was assistant director of the Connecticut Writing Project. She was Connecticut Outstanding English Teacher of the Year and has received national awards for middle and high school curricula she designed and implemented.