Connecticut needs to do much more to help low-income children succeed in school.
This year’s Connecticut Mastery Test and Connecticut Academic Performance Test results confirm what everybody already knew: passing landmark education reform in 2012 wasn’t enough. It was a great start to a long and challenging process of reforming public education, but if Connecticut is going to close its achievement gap, it will need to sustain these comprehensive reforms over many years.
If we expect to see immediate change before the reforms have had time to make an impact, we will be disappointed.
Over the past year, Connecticut has begun to implement a process for turning around failing districts and schools — where the majority of our low-income children are educated. Our 30 lowest-performing districts have been designated as “Alliance Districts,” and four of our lowest-achieving schools have been designated as “Commissioner’s Network” schools.
Since the reforms passed, the Alliance Districts have received turnaround funding and have been monitored by the Connecticut State Department of Education. The results thus far have been mixed. Reading and math results from grades 3, 8 and 10 show that in some cases the achievement gap has widened — rather than narrowed.
Since the achievement gap marks the difference between the performances of low-income and higher-income subgroups, a gap can widen because one group starts to excel. On the other hand, sometimes the narrowing of achievement gaps can look deceptively positive if the gap between performances lessens because scores of one or more groups has declined.
In other words, we aren’t doing a good job of narrowing Connecticut’s widest-in-the-nation achievement gap unless we are doing it by raising low-income performance and maintaining high expectations for non-low-income students as well.
Therefore, the worst-case scenario for a district is for the achievement gap to widen while student achievement also decreases across the board. Unfortunately, we’ve seen this occur in several Alliance Districts — such as Naugatuck and New Haven — where third- and eighth-grade achievement gaps grew in math while both low-income and higher-income subgroup performances decreased.
But a few Alliance Districts had truly commendable results. In these districts, not only has the achievement gap narrowed, but improvements can also be observed for both low-income and higher-income subgroups. Hamden accomplished this feat in third-grade reading. Derby and West Haven managed it in third-grade math. Even more impressively, Norwalk saw subgroup increases and a narrowing of the achievement gap in both eighth-grade reading and math.
Alliance District scores ranged from impressive to troubling; in short, the defining characteristic was inconsistency.
The Commissioner’s Network schools posted promising results: They have received the greatest level of state intervention, representing pockets of early, intensive reform implementation. They received the most funding and support from the state Department of Education and other partner organizations, were granted greater opportunities for flexibility and innovation, and had plenty of community buy-in. At Curiale School in Bridgeport, the percentage of third-graders achieving at goal levels in math more than doubled. The percent of 10th-graders reading at goal climbed by 15.7 percentage points at High School in the community in New Haven. Within the Commissioner’s Network Schools, the sustained dysfunction that formerly existed may finally be coming to a halt.
We have only just begun the work of improving public schools for all Connecticut children. If we are going to close the achievement gap, we must put the policies contained in Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s landmark education reform bill into practice.
Now is the time to stay the course. Reshaping public education is a difficult task, but with persistence, we are confident that we can close Connecticut’s achievement gap while raising overall academic performance.
Ramani Ayer is former CEO and chairman of the Hartford. He is vice chairman of the board of the Connecticut Council on Education Reform, a group of business and philanthropic leaders that works to close the achievement gap.