One State’s K-12 Learning Curve

Connecticut made some bad choices for its schools in the '90s. It seems to be learning from its mistakes.
by | February 23, 2012

When it comes to K-12 public education, Connecticut has lagged some of its peer states in recent years. But if lawmakers adopt a new proposal from Gov. Dannel Malloy, it would be the latest evidence that the state's leaders have learned from their mistakes.

In 1998, Connecticut's reading scores were slightly better than those in neighboring Massachusetts. But over the next seven years, Connecticut was among the seven states that saw the largest drop in student reading scores.

The problem, according to educational-standards expert E.D. Hirsch, was that during that time Connecticut opted for a skills-based or "how-to" curriculum. During the same period, neighboring Massachusetts' focused on academic content, which yielded a meteoric rise in test scores and made Bay State students the nation's highest-scorers.

In 2010, Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island were awarded federal "Race to the Top" education grants. But the weakness of Connecticut's plan to link teacher evaluations to student performance was cited as the biggest reason why it didn't make the cut for the federal money.

Now Connecticut has switched to a curriculum based on the Massachusetts model, and Gov. Malloy's proposal would transform teacher evaluations and tenure.

For starters, Malloy's plan would encourage more-rigorous evaluation by replacing what currently is a simple "satisfactory" or "unsatisfactory" system with a four-level structure: "exemplary," "proficient," "developing" and "below standard," with the evaluations based largely on the rate at which students improve.

Teachers could earn tenure in two and a half years if they achieve "exemplary" evaluations or in four years after receiving three evaluations of "proficient." Those deemed "below standard" would be given a year to improve or face dismissal. Teachers who earn tenure would still be required to demonstrate their effectiveness periodically.

All in all, it's a far cry from the status quo, under which teachers are virtually guaranteed tenure after four years.

Of course, public education is far too complex for any one reform to serve as the silver bullet. When it comes to teacher evaluations, part of the problem lies with principals and other managers who too often don't know how to or aren't interested in conducting real evaluations. For example, a 2010 study commissioned by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education found that only half of Boston teachers were evaluated over a two-year period. Fully one-quarter of the city's school's didn't turn in a single evaluation.

But with teacher quality being the school-based variable that has the greatest impact on student performance (outside factors such as parental achievement levels, income and race are the best predictors), there are few things more important than ensuring that those leading our classrooms are up to the job.

It's good to see Connecticut's governor moving to turn his state around after years in the educational wilderness. Hopefully, the state's legislators will get on board.

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