By Rick Green

Publish by Hartford Courant, July 13, 2011

In a discouraging ritual that surprises almost nobody, the mastery test scores will be announced Wednesday, again revealing a vast achievement gap for poor and minority students.

We’ve had years of studies, commissions, press conferences and promises, but the gap remains. From graduation rates to third grade reading, poor and minoritychildren continue to struggle and fail.

Recognizing that not enough powerful folks are doing enough, a business group jumped into the debate Tuesday, hoping to force change in how our public schools are run. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has pledged to devote much of next year’s legislative session to education reform, a fact not lost on the business leaders.

The Connecticut Council for Education Reform, a corporate-backed nonprofit led by a panel of CEOs, aims to disrupt the debate where influential teacher unions have long played a powerful role. The group has evolved from a commission appointed last year by former Gov. M. Jodi Rell.

“Our low-income students are performing among the bottom one-third of low-income students anywhere,” said Peyton Patterson, chairwoman of the council and former CEO of New Alliance Bank, “like in Arkansas, Louisiana and West Virginia.”

“The achievement gap exists in pretty much every community in the state of Connecticut,” Patterson said, pointing to West Hartford and Greenwich as examples of wealthier towns with substantial achievement gaps.

The new group’s board includes a provocative, formidable mix: Roxanne Coady, founder of RJ Julia Bookstore in Madison; John Rathgeber, president of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association; William Ginsberg, CEO of the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven and Steve Simmons, chairman of Patriot Media and communications, are among its members.

Board members say they will bring their case to the legislature, to towns and cities and to nonprofit groups. They say they will build a movement that warns about the danger the state faces, while supporting legislation to reform schools.

We need to be very worried, these CEOs say, because the facts are so scary. Our cities are turning out too many unqualified graduates just as employers will need them the most. By 2020, for the first time in half a century, Connecticut will not be replacing the workers who retire with a more educated workforce. This comes as 65 percent of jobs in the state will require some kind of post high-school education and training.

The CEOs, retired and current, who gathered for a press conference at the state Capitol, told me they’re ready to jump into conflicts that have stymied school boards and state legislators: teacher tenure, how we evaluate and compensate teachers, and seniority. They want to focus on the lowest performing school districts and push for change.

Among the long list of recommendations contained in a report the group prepared last year was one that would make growth in student achievement the main factor in evaluating teachers.

Leo Canty, vice president of the Connecticut Federation of Teachers, told me that schools could use a helping hand, but the real problem is a lack of resources when “it’s kids who need individual help.” Meanwhile, “there is clearly an effort to cut taxes and do more with less.”

New Haven’s new teacher contract, which revamps teacher evaluation and compensation, is often cited as an example of the sort of cooperation that can yield results in how schools are run. That breakthrough took months of meetings and negotiations.

But the CEOs say they are impatient with the lack of reforms in areas such as seniority, which protects veteran employees, and they plan to aggressively push the governor, legislators and voters to support far-reaching changes. Connecticut spends more money, per pupil, than 46 other states, the council notes.

“We are all in and we are going to try,” said Ramani Ayer, former CEO of the Hartford, who is on the council’s board. “Nationally the country is far more interested in seeing change. The governor has said this is something that he wants to be at the top of his issues.”

“We need to step back and look at what is working and what is not working.”

On Tuesday, there was another reminder. As council members were promising a fresh initiative, the state released scores from the latest Connecticut Academic Performance Test. The results showed a growing gap between poor and non-poor tenth graders in math, science, reading and writing. In Bridgeport, the state’s second largest school district, just one in 10 sophomores met state goals for reading, math and science.

Copyright © 2011, The Hartford Courant

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