Ramani Ayer is vice-chair of the CT Council for Education Reform and retired chairman & CEO of The Hartford Financial Services Group.
With 135 schools that have been designated as “In Need of Improvement” for five or more years, it is imperative that Connecticut develop a framework for turning around our low-achieving schools. In February, Governor Malloy released an education reform bill (S.B. 24) that called for such a framework. It proposed categorizing districts and schools into five performance levels, and establishing a Commissioner’s Network in which the State Department of Education could intervene in the lowest-achieving schools. Despite being based upon proven frameworks from neighboring states, this proposal was significantly weakened by the Education Committee’s substitute language. Under the original proposal, the Commissioner’s Network would be designed, and adequately funded, to transform up to twenty-five chronically low-performing schools over the next two years. The Commissioner would have significant intervention authority within this network of schools, including the capacity to make staffing decisions based upon “mutual consent” – without being limited by the existing collective bargaining agreements that often serve as barriers to true change. In 2010, Massachusetts passed legislation to further strengthen its excellent reform efforts. This legislation, called “An Act Relative to the Achievement Gap Process for ‘Underperforming’ Schools”, built upon the state’s turnaround framework that categorized schools and districts into five tiers of performance, and increased state authority to intervene in schools and districts in the lowest tiers. Most importantly, in schools and districts categorized as “chronically underperforming”, the Act provided the Commissioner of Education with the authority to develop a turnaround plan, expand learning time, require staff to reapply for their positions, and modify contracts or collective bargaining agreements. Massachusetts has seen excellent results within the first year of implementation. Twenty-two out of the thirty-five schools targeted under the new framework made significant gains in the first year of implementation – at an even faster rate than had been anticipated. This is an effective model for turnaround, and one that closely resembles Governor Malloy’s proposals. Unfortunately, the substitute language passed by the Education Committee has weakened the original proposals in S.B. 24 by decreasing the number of schools that the Commissioner’s Network may oversee and limiting the Commissioner’s intervention authority. Under this new language, the Commissioner is required to negotiate any intervention that conflicts with existing collective bargaining agreements – rather than being granted full authority over staffing and operating decisions for schools in the lowest tier of performance. Furthermore, the Appropriations Committee has now cut approximately 70% of the necessary funding that S.B. 24 had directed towards turning around Connecticut’s lowest-achieving schools.
Turning around chronically low-achieving schools requires incremental funding which will be targeted at bringing in highly-qualified teachers, extending the amount of time in the classroom and supporting other turnaround strategies. If we are serious about closing Connecticut’s largest-in-the-nation achievement gap, we must reinstate the adequate levels of funding initially allocated in S.B. 24 for intervention in our lowest-achieving schools and districts. Every day, more than 100,000 students in Connecticut attend schools that have been “In Need of Improvement” for five or more years. We can no longer rely on weak interventions and half-measures to begin turning around these schools. If we do not address our low-achieving schools, from every class entering 9th grade, more than 8,000 students will drop out of school without graduating. With a loss of $518,000 in net fiscal contributions over each drop-out’s lifetime, every cohort of high school dropouts costs Connecticut over $4 billion dollars in economic benefit. If we intend to maintain educational competitiveness on a national and global scale, and strengthen Connecticut’s economic future, now is the time for bold education reforms efforts. Reinstating the original proposals in Governor Malloy’s bill that will provide the Commissioner of Education with the capacity to meaningfully intervene in Connecticut’s lowest-achieving schools is a significant step in the right direction.