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.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Bridgeport's Proposed Charter Change Deserves a "Yes"

In New Haven, we are seeing the impact that mayoral control can have on improving our public schools. Student performance is on the rise. The city now has more high-quality school choice options than ever before. New Haven is able to coordinate “wrap around” services that are part of its School Change Initiative. And the city continues to pursue its groundbreaking teacher evaluation system that was created in partnership with New Haven Federation of Teachers.

In Hartford, we see similar value in an expanded mayoral role. Hartford test scores have been on the rise. The city’s Portfolio school system is flourishing. Successful magnet and charter schools can be found across the city. And parents are now working with educators and elected officials to ensure that progress continues.

It is common sense, then, that a city like Bridgeport would seek to pursue such a path. As Connecticut’s largest city, Bridgeport has had its share of educational struggles. Currently, only 55 percent Bridgeport students graduate from high school and many of those graduates leave school with just the skills of an eighth grader.

Only one in 10 high school students in the city are on grade level when it comes to math or reading. Just 25 percent of elementary school students are reading at grade level, and only a third of all Bridgeport public school students are performing at grade level based on state measures. As a result, the achievement gap in Bridgeport is significant and stagnant.

But history does not have to be destiny in a city like Bridgeport. In just 12 short months, we have watched Bridgeport take serious steps forward toward improvement and toward making their kids their number one priority. Mayoral control is the best way to hold the mayor accountable for fixing the schools. And it is the best way to ensure Bridgeport continues its recent progress.

Lost in all of the political rhetoric, we forget that it was the Bridgeport Board of Education that asked the state to take over the schools. The board determined it was not up to the challenge. It was unable to bring the change necessary to turn things around. It couldn’t address the financial and academic challenges facing the schools. So it took an action that few boards are willing or able to do, admit that it could not fix the problem and ask for help.

As a result, Bridgeport quickly hired Paul Vallas as its superintendent. Before arriving in Connecticut, Vallas had a strong track record of success, achievement, and turnaround in cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, and New Orleans. Under his leadership, change came, it came quickly, and it had immediate impact.

Vallas came to Bridgeport in January. He closed a $12 million budget deficit for the schools, restoring financial stability to the proud city school system. And he did so by protecting the jobs of educators and ensuring that necessary cuts were not felt in the classroom.

Bridgeport is now focused on turning around its lowest-performing schools, and has one school in the newly formed Commissioner’s Network. The city has further demonstrated its commitment to excellence by enrolling as a pilot district in a new teacher evaluation system focused on student learning and academic measures.

In far too many districts, such change does not come easily and it certainly does not come quickly enough for children who need it. We are seeing real progress in Bridgeport in a short period of time because of the commitment demonstrated by all those involved: Parents and policymakers; educators and advocates; community leaders and clergy. All are invested in the success of Bridgeport schools, and all want to see their kids succeed.

Staying on this path of progress is not an easy task. It requires real leadership, the type of leadership that has been demonstrated by Mayor Bill Finch, the Bridgeport Board of Education, and Superintendent Vallas. A leadership that accepts no excuses and holds itself to the highest levels of accountability.

On November 6, the voters of Bridgeport will have an important decision to make on their ballots. City residents will have the opportunity to vote yes for this leadership and the accountability that comes with it, casting a “yes” vote for the proposed charter change for the city.

This charter change represents an important crossroads for the city. A “no” vote is a vote in favor of the failed policies of the past few decades, an endorsement of the status quo that has denied far too many Bridgeport kids the education they need, deserve, and that their families help fund.

A “yes” vote, though, is a vote for hope and progress. It is a demand that our schools should be held to a greater level of accountability. It is an endorsement that we want to hold our schools to higher levels of professional standards. It is an expectation that our schools can do better, and we now expect to see it.

Every child in Bridgeport should have access to a world-class education. Charter change is a necessary tool to fulfilling our promise of great public schools for all of our students.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Roadmap for Closing CT's Achievement Gaps

We have all heard the statistics.  Connecticut has the largest achievement gaps in the nation.  Too few of our high school students end up graduating.  Our kids, regardless of the town they live in, simply are not prepared for the colleges and careers ahead of them.

As much as we may talk about the problems, when it comes to education reform in Connecticut, we really focus on the solutions.  To forward that discussion, today ConnCAN released an exciting new report – The Roadmap to Closing the Gap: 2012-2020.  In the Roadmap, we explore what is necessary to close the achievement gaps in Connecticut by the year 2020.

We’ve moved away from abstract percentages and depressing statistics.  And instead identified  - using a student-centered approach - a path for closing the gaps.

In each of the state’s 30 lowest-performing districts, how many kids need to get to “goal” on the state tests? How many more students in each of these districts need to graduate from high school? How many more points must we add to the average SAT score to ensure every student in each of these districts is college ready?

The answers to these questions may surprise you.  Despite the enormity of our deficiencies, we can close the gaps in less than a decade.

The Roadmap breaks down the achievement challenges in each of these 30 districts (known as “Alliance Districts”), showing what those cities and towns must do to ensure that we can get 80 percent of our students performing on grade level; we can achieve a 90-percent graduation rate; and we can get our average SAT score up to 1,550. 

Here in New Haven, only 39.5 percent of our students are performing at grade level.  Just 62.5 percent of New Haven high schoolers graduate from high school in four years.  And the average composite SAT score in New Haven is 1,225.

What does it take to close the achievement gaps in the city?  We need just 65 additional students performing at grade level in each grade every year.  Only 54 more kids need to graduate from high school each year to get us up to a 90 percent graduation rate.  And students need to add 40 points a year to their SAT scores to get at the college-ready measure of 1,550.

Yes, these are significant goals, and the seriousness of achieving them should not be underestimated.  It is possible, it is doable, and it is necessary.  But for it to happen, we have to act, and we have to act now.

The Roadmap is a call to action, a map to demonstrate that meaningful education reform is both possible and achievable in the next decade.  This report won’t take us all the way to where public education in Connecticut needs to be, but it provides us with an important and clear starting point.

Our path to reform has just begun.  The Roadmap tells us which direction to go.