Ramani Ayer, former CEO of Hartford Financial Services Group

In order for Connecticut to close it’s the achievement gap, which is the largest in the nation, the Commissioner must improve the state’s low-achieving schools.  It is both an economic and moral imperative for Connecticut to begin aggressively turning around schools that have failed its students year after year, some for as long as 9 and 10 years, and develop them into high-achieving schools that provide every student with the knowledge and skills to achieve success.

The new Commissioner of Education, Stefan Pryor, recently requested $25 million from Governor Malloy’s administration to dedicate toward turning around the state’s lowest-performing districts and schools.  As the Commissioner prepares to tackle this important issue, he should focus on three key actions that are within the scope of his current authorities. These actions will have a powerful impact on turning around Connecticut’s lowest-achieving schools.

The Commissioner’s first action should be to establish a School Turnaround Office. This Turnaround Office should have full oversight and authority to intervene in Connecticut’s low-achieving schools and districts, and should hold them accountable for improvement. Numerous states and districts – such as Colorado, Massachusetts, and New York City – have all recognized the need for, and established, turnaround offices that have explicit authority to monitor, intervene in, and support their lowest-achieving districts and schools.  Connecticut should learn from these states and do the same.

Second, the Commissioner should exercise his existing statutory authority to prepare a statewide education plan that includes a framework for intervention in low-achieving schools. This plan would identify the schools and districts in need of improvement, require improvement plans from each of the low-achieving schools or districts identified, and utilize additional support and consequences to motivate change.  After the Commissioner establishes this framework, the Turnaround Office should monitor progress made on improvement plans. A clearly articulated plan and framework will create the right kind of partnership between schools and districts on the one hand, and the State Department of Education on the other. It will enable the SDE to tailor its own actions to the specific needs of schools and districts that require intervention.

Third, the Commissioner should demand that Connecticut’s lowest-achieving schools provide academic interventions, and increase the learning time, for their students. Providing students with additional academic supports will help them to achieve the high academic standards that we should be setting for them.  This can be done by lengthening the school day, lengthening the school year, Saturday academies, or a combination of such interventions.

The Commissioner’s initial turnaround efforts should focus on these three actions.  In addition, the Commissioner would benefit from legislative support that would give him the latitude to form charter, magnet and other innovative schools, and provide greater authority for both the Commissioner and district administrators over schedules, budgets and contracts, when intervening in the lowest-achieving districts and schools.  A number of other states have adopted legislation that provides their Commissioners of Education with the unilateral authority, when necessary, to override collective bargaining agreements (CBA’s) so that their ability to make the necessary changes in the lowest-achieving districts and schools is uninhibited by existing constraints.

The bottom line is that all students in Connecticut deserve an excellent education.  No student in Connecticut should attend a school that has already failed its students for 10 years. It is only by providing low-achieving schools and districts with the right combination of autonomy, accountability, and adequate resources that we will begin to turn around our state’s lowest-achieving schools.

In addition to serving as a board member of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform, Mr. Ayer also serves as Chair of the Hartford HealthCare Board of Directors. Mr. Ayer has formerly served as CEO of Hartford Financial Services Group, Inc., as Chairman for the American Insurance Association, and as a member of the boards of directors of Hartford Hospital, the American Insurance Association, and the Insurance Information Institute. He is also a former member of the Business Roundtable.