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.