By Shelly Banjo

Published by Wall Street Journal, July 14, 2011

As a candidate, Dannel Malloy a year ago placed education at the center of his campaign. He pledged that if elected governor, he would build on a slew of long-awaited education changes Connecticut lawmakers had passed in order to snag federal Race to the Top funds, intending to push the state even further.

If statewide test scores out this week are any indication, Mr. Malloy still has a long way to go before being known as an education reformer.

Despite being one of the country’s biggest education spenders on a per-student basis, Connecticut’s 2011 test scores for reading, math and writing barely inched up from the year before, as poor children and those in urban areas continue to lag well behind their richer, more suburban peers.

Only 58% of Connecticut’s third graders and 45% of 10th graders meet state standards for reading, and the results are worse for children whose families are eligible for free or reduced-price meals: Nearly twice the percentages of wealthier students scored at the standards for those grades than their peers who are eligible for the meals.

“The disparity in student performance here in Connecticut has been an unrelenting problem,” the acting education commissioner, George Coleman, said. “To systemically address this continuing problem, we must rethink how resources such as time and instructional supports are allocated, and how we can increase the engagement level of our lowest performing students.”

The disappointing student test results highlight Mr. Malloy’s struggles to fulfill his campaign promises.

More than six months into his term, he hasn’t yet appointed a full-time commissioner to lead the Department of Education. Lawmakers last month voted to put on hold education reforms passed under former Gov. M. Jodi Rell after the state didn’t receive money from Race to the Top. Hopes for passing other education initiatives, such as teacher evaluations and a revision of the school finance system, were dashed as lawmakers ignored education to focus on closing a $3.6 billion budget gap.

“The governor understands that the state faces a number of challenges on the education front, not the least of which is the achievement gap,” said Mr. Malloy’s senior adviser, Roy Occhiogrosso. “He’s said his hope for the next legislative session will have as its prime focus the issue of education.”

Not all is dark: Hartford and New Haven, districts that have pursued aggressive turnaround measures to better evaluate student progress and teacher competence, showed signs of improvement: Their rate of improvement in students meeting state goals more than doubled the state’s rate.

Budgetary and leadership problems are apparent at other individual districts and schools. The board of education in Bridgeport, for one, last week voted to dissolve itself amid an $18 million budget shortfall and infighting among members.

“We called the state and said, ‘We’re dysfunctional and we’d like you to come reconstitute the board,’” said Barbara Bellinger, former president of Bridgeport’s school board. “It’s the state’s responsibility to provide adequate and equitable education…, so if a district is failing they need to step in.”

The state board of education approved the measure 5-4 and the acting commissioner has begun looking for five new board members for Connecticut’s second largest school district.

The state board of education has already initiated a takeover in Windham, a poor school district in the northeastern part of Connecticut. Allotting $1 million to help reform the school, it appointed a former Hartford superintendent known for pushing through tough reforms as special master to oversee the process.

Concerned about the continuing decline of the education system, a group of businessmen this week launched an organization called the Connecticut Council for Education Reform.

It intends to use private funds to help change the system and urge the state to take action to boost test scores, hire and keep better teachers and close the state’s achievement gap. “The business community sees these as economic problems and if we want to make real strides, we have to look at this statewide, in a systemic way,” said Ramani Ayer, former CEO of the Hartford Financial Services Group. “The dramatic progress in states like Massachusetts and Delaware came because it was started right at the top…the governor knows he needs to drive this.”

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