Thursday, December 6, 2012

District/Charter Collaboration to Improve Outcomes for All Kids

Yesterday, Hartford Public Schools (HPS) announced it won a $5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to expand collaboration between the public school system and charter schools in the city.  The award was the result of more than a decade of work, where HPS has worked closely with Achievement First (AF) and Jumoke Academy to improve education outcomes for Hartford public school students.

One cannot overstate the importance of this announcement.  Of the seven grants provided by the Gates Foundation, the award to Hartford was the largest.  Larger than its grant to Boston.  Larger than its grant to New Orleans.  Larger than its grant to Philadelphia.  And even larger than its grant to New York City.

Why?  One driving reason is because this is work that HPS and its charter schools have long pursued.  In Hartford, the public school system and the charter schools work in partnership (and have for many years).  This was not a matter of HPS, AF, and Jumoke agreeing to do something if they won the grant.  No, this is an acknowledgement of the years and years of HPS and AF collaboration to date.  And it is an acknowledgement of the coordinated efforts HPS and Jumoke have engaged in, including working together at the Milner School this year.

The significance of this award was also seen in the comments coming from yesterday's event:

From Hartford Superintendent Christina Kishimoto, we heard "This grant will help Hartford Public Schools, Jumoke, and Achievement First build on the successful practices that each has to offer the others."

From Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, we heard of a commitment to student achievement and the need to offer a portfolio of public school options, recognizing "public schools don't all have to look alike."

From Connecticut Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor, we heard "We must be agnostic on governance and management.  We must be focused obsessively on performance."

From Education Committee Co-Chair Andrew Fleischmann, we heard "These collaborations are the future of Connecticut ... We must do what is best for our children."

Such collaboration is both the future of Connecticut and is what is best for the kids of Connecticut.  In cities like Hartford and New Haven, cities that have robust school choice programs, it is clear that traditional public school systems, magnets, and charter schools must work together.  And when they do, as Hartford illustrates, the kids are the big winners.

Despite the rhetoric, we must not forget that charter schools are also public schools.  They are also community schools.  And they provide families with real choice when it comes to their children's futures.

Hartford should be congratulated for this important win.  It validates much of the work and collaboration to date and is yet another signal that the city, its schools, and its kids are headed in the right direction.

We must also recognize similar collaboration in places like New Haven, where New Haven Public Schools and AF are collaborating around issues such as professional development and legal training.

And we must seek to ensure that the other eight communities with charters (yes, Connecticut, there are only 10 communities in the state that have charters) are pursuing similar paths of partnership and collaboration.

Student success is a team effort.  It requires traditional public schools, charters, and magnets.  It requires the hard work of educators and advocates, parents and policymakers.  And it demands we look to best and promising practice, in whatever form, to continually improve our schools and the learning process for our kids, for all of our kids.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Reimagining the School Day in CT

Across the nation, we are seeing the impact of expanded learning time for our kids.  Not only does it help with student performance, but we can also see the benefits with regard to student safety, health, and overall well being.  Research and efforts from organizations such as the Ford Foundation, the Wallace Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the Mott Foundation, and Carnegie all point to the enormous benefits of expanded learning time.

Yesterday, I was down in Washington, DC for an event sponsored by the TIME Collaborative, an effort led by the Ford Foundation and the National Center for Time & Learning.  At the event, Connecticut was announced as one of five states (along with Colorado, Massachusetts, New York, and Tennessee) that will receive a financial investment in expanded learning activities.

Soon, we will see specific efforts -- as part of the TIME Collaborative -- in East Hartford, Meriden, and New London.  Of course, we are already seeing expanded learning in those schools that are now part of the Commissioner's Network, as well as in other communities across Connecticut.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy was in DC to accept this honor.  There, Governor Malloy noted the need for additional classroom time for our teachers and our students if we are to compete in the 21st century.  Boldly declaring "this is our time to change," Malloy issued a clarion call that we should not tolerate different levels of achievement based on wealth and geography.  Expanded learning time can be one of those great equalizers.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan states that our shared goal should be students learning more. To do that, we have to give children the time to learn more in a high-qualithy way.  Speaking of after-school violence and other risks today's students face outside of the school day, Duncan called on all involved in education to help all kids start thinking "when I grow up," instead of "if I grow up."

Duncan also heaped praise on Malloy, noting that he was one of the few governors in the United States who stands as a true "education governor," both talking the talk and walking the walk when it comes to school improvement.

Yesterday's announcement of the event can be found here.  An overview of the TIME Collaborative can be found here.

This announcement is an important step forward for education and education reform in Connecticut.  Following the passage of the state's landmark education reform bill in May, it is clear that national entities such as the U.S. Department of Education and the Ford Foundation are taking notice of Connecticut.  While reform efforts have just begun, and we have much further to go, we continue to commit to the changes necessary to provide all kids with a high-quality public education.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Education Reform's Truth and Hope

Too often, education reform discussions focus just on the hard facts.  They spotlight the difficult truths of public education, where too many kids are failing to perform at goal, where too many students are dropping out of high school, and where too many children are denied access to a exemplary public education.

But if we are serious about improving our public schools, and if we are truly committed to ensuring that all kids -- regardless of race, family income, or zip code -- have access to great public schools, we must focus on both the truths and the hope.  We must be honest about our shortcomings but forthright about the possibilities.

Last month, I had the honor and privilege of speaking at the Connecticut NAACP State Convention.  In remarks focused on both the truth and hope of education reform, I talk of the social contract we have to provide all kids with a great public education.  You can see most of the speech below.  The first few minutes are missing, but it is still worth a watch ...

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Addressing CT's Achievement Gaps

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of testifying before Connecticut's Achievement Gap Task Force.  The members of this group have been hard at work not only looking at the problems of the achievement gap in the Nutmeg State, but also looking at specific solutions one can implement to reverse this troubling trend.

Yes, Connecticut has the largest gaps in the nation.  The differences between African-American and white, Latino and white, and low-income and with-means students in staggering.  But demographics do not have to be destiny.

You can see the full November 2 Task Force hearing here, courtesy of CT-N Connecticut Network.  You can find my testimony, speaking on behalf of the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN) at about the 1:00 mark (about an hour in).

Happy watching!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Just Say No to ALEC

Every three or five years, I changed school districts as a child. I spent my K-12 years in four different states. With each move, I was faced with a different set of academic standards and a different set of expectations.

After some moves, I found myself greatly ahead of the curve. In another, I found myself behind what was expected. And in my final move, made before my junior year of high school, I actually had my new high school try to say I was ineligible to be valedictorian because I had taken chemistry “too early” in the sequencing.

We are now a nation on the move. Families move in search of work, to take care of family members, or simply to find better opportunities. With each of those moves, each and every child should be able to expect the same thing from school. Sixth grade should be sixth grade, whether it is sixth grade in Connecticut, Georgia, Colorado, or California.

Fortunately, over the past several years 45 states came together to develop a common set of standards for our schools, clearly identifying what should be learned in kindergarten through 12th grade. Led by our nation’s governors and top education leaders, these standards – known as Common Core State Standards – are voluntary benchmarks that assure all kids are getting a world-class education.

Why are these standards important? Five simple reasons:

  • Common Core offers fewer and clearer standards, providing teachers the ability to focus on their students and tailor their lesson plans to the needs of the classroom
  • Common Core goes into greater depth within fewer topics and theories within subjects, allowing for more engaging learning and deeper understanding
  • Common Core provides faster results when it comes to assessment, empowering educators to address and course correct
  • Common Core is built to focus on understanding and not memorization, prioritizing comprehension, mastery, hands-on learning, and learning that sticks with students
  • Common Core allows for better materials for the classroom and allows educators to share ideas and resources

Here in Connecticut, school districts are hard at work to adopt the Common Core, working with educators and communities to develop the lesson plans, professional development, classroom support, and assessments that will provide a path for improvement in all of our classrooms.

Unfortunately, later this week, a group called ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) will be taking up an amendment condemning the Common Core. Between now and the 16th, ALEC’s Board of Directors will vote on whether to approve its “Comprehensive Legislative Package Opposing the Common Core State Standards Initiative.”

Put simply, this is the wrong vote at the wrong time for the wrong reasons. Now, more than ever, the United States needs common academic standards to ensure that, regardless of the state a kid lives in, a 10th grade education always means the same thing. We need to be do more to establish clear standards, standards that individual states can’t tinker with or lower to make themselves look good. We need one high standard that all states follow, so we can truly compare apples to apples.

It is time to tell ALEC no. Common Core is a positive step forward that this board should not act against. We need to focus our energies on strong implementation and fostering its embrace by the entire school community. It’s the least we can do for our kids.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

At the Center of CT Ed Reform, Teacher Morale on the Rise

For years now, the defenders of a failed status quo have crowed that education reform – particularly the school improvement efforts passed this year by the Connecticut General Assembly – was bad for teachers.

For months, we watched as folks yelled and screamed and swore at Governor Dannel P. Malloy, opposing needed changes around issues such as teacher quality and school turnaround.  The vitriol during the spring in opposition to reform, in the name of teachers, was stunningly large.

So it was surprising, and heartwarming, to see the headlines recently from the Connecticut Education Association trumpeting that teacher morale was “through the roof” in Bridgeport.

Why?  In many ways, Bridgeport is ground zero for education reform in Connecticut.  Just look at the facts.
  •         Bridgeport’s mayor, Bill Finch, is one of the hardest-working elected officials in the state looking to bring change and improvement to his public schools
  •         Bridgeport’s superintendent, Paul Vallas, is one of the nation’s leading school reformers and, in less than a year, has enacted one of the most aggressive reform packages the state has ever seen
  •         Bridgeport is piloting Connecticut’s new educator evaluation system, where teachers and principals will be evaluated under a model that makes student learning the top priority
  •         Bridgeport is now part of the Commissioner’s Network, with the Curiale School being part of a major effort by the state to turn around our lowest-performing schools
  •     Bridgeport is also part of the Alliance District, where it will receive millions from the state to enact real, meaningful education reforms focused on improving student performance

Despite all of this reform, despite all of this change, despite all of this focus on student performance and achievement, teacher morale is strong.  And at the Bridgeport school that is experiencing the most change and is impacted the most by this year’s reform bill – Curiale – morale is up, as is student attendance (at least according to the CEA).

We all know that we can’t fix our schools without the full support of our teachers.  They are the ones on the front lines, the ones responsible for enacting change and ensuring all kids – regardless of race, family income, or zip code – are learning.  They need to be partners in the process.  And early reports from Bridgeport indicate we are seeing that partnership.

But this also demonstrates that one can be both pro-reform and pro-teacher.  Bridgeport is experiencing more education reform and is feeling the impact of the state’s education reform efforts more than any other community in the state.  With leaders pushing for reform, with a new teacher evaluation system, and with intense efforts to turn around the city’s lowest-performing schools, Bridgeport teachers are responding positively.

Now we must look at how to continue this road to reform, so that other educators across the state can also feel a boost in their morale as the improve outcomes for all of our students.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Strength of CT's Teachers' Unions

We regularly hear about the strength of Connecticut’s two teachers’ unions – American Federation of Teachers-Connecticut (AFT) and the Connecticut Education Association – when it comes to both politics and policy in the Nutmeg State.

But we all know that reputation can often extend far beyond the reality. Today, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released a new research report that takes a close look at the strength of teachers’ unions across the United States.

And what did Fordham find with regard to Connecticut? When it comes to the power of the AFT and CEA, Connecticut teachers’ unions were ranked in the second tier when it comes to strength, placing 17th in the nation. Fordham noted that “Connecticut boasts the highest teacher union membership in the nation. Its unions enjoy a broad scope of bargaining power and favorable state policy environment, and they have garnered a reputation among stakeholders as moderately influential.”

Our teachers unions scored best when it came to Resources and Membership, placing 9th in the nation. Almost all – 98.8 percent – of our pubic school teachers are unionized, and the unions get $516 per teacher from those unionized educators.

AFT and CEA also scored well when it comes to Scope of Bargaining, ranking 13th in the nation because Connecticut is one of 32 states that requires collective bargaining and is a state that allows unions to automatically collect fees from non-union teachers. Of the 21 items Fordham looked at as part of a bargained agreement, Connecticut teachers collectively bargain 20 (with only pension/retirement benefits completely excluded).

Connecticut also placed 13th for State Policies, with researchers noting how most of the Constitution State’s education policies align with traditional union positions – even after the passage of this year’s landmark education reform legislation.

Where do Connecticut’s teachers fall short, by comparison? AFT and CEA ranked 27th for Perceived Influence, with the unions scoring well for protecting education dollars and spending while noting that Connecticut’s teachers unions do not believe in the art of compromise when it comes to policy discussions.

But the lowest placement was for Involvement in Politics. Fordham scored Connecticut’s teachers’ unions 29th in the nation, based on their contributions to political campaigns. According to the numbers, Connecticut is only 35th in the nation when it comes to unions financially supporting candidates for state office, and 14th when it comes to financially supporting state political parties. What is missing from the calculation, though, it the impact of Connecticut’s public financing system and the significant dollars the AFT and CEA bring to campaigns through independent expenditures.

All told, Fordham paints an interesting picture of the power of Connecticut’s teachers unions and their impact on policy. When we see those states that rank ahead of Connecticut, we see that AFT and CEA enjoy a strong reputation without fully demonstrating the muscle to back it. Through a strong membership base and state law that fully embraces collective bargaining, the unions are able to enjoy a power that their involvement in politics or perceived influence warrant.

Regardless of the rankings, Connecticut’s teachers’ unions will continue to enjoy their reputation for being a major power in Connecticut politics. And it is a reputation well deserved. But if this year has taught us anything, it is that one voice alone should not and must not dominate the discussion on how to fix our schools.

Meaningful improvement requires the teachers unions working in partnership with parents, pastors, community leaders, and advocates. Anything short of that, and we are letting reputations and urban legends determine the fate of thousands and thousands of kids in need of help.