A pair of proposed bills seeks to help fill the state’s education achievement gap, among the nation's largest.
Heated Board of Education meetings pitting the stereotypical young parent against the stereotypical frugal senior have become an all too common caricature. But the issue of Connecticut’s achievement gap is far more complex, said several legislators and educators. And ultimately it’s less about accounting than it is about accountability.
“The short term problem is the budget — how to get the state on firm footing. The long term problem is that by having the largest achievement gap in the nation we hinder our ability to attract jobs and grow jobs organically,” said state Sen. Bob Duff, a Democrat who represents Norwalk and Darien in the 25th Senate District. “No employer is going to want to come here if there isn’t a ready, willing, and able work force.”
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Connecticut has the largest disparity nationwide between low-income and non-low-income students. In a 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress study, among fourth-grade and eighth-grade math and reading students, non-low income students outperformed low-income students by 34 points in math and 28 points in reading.
Since the General Assembly opened Jan. 5, two proposed bills are taking aim the problem. SB 1104 would change state law requiring 100 percent of Charter School teachers to be certified. And finally, SB 1160 seeks teacher evaluations.
If SB 1104 passes the Commissioner of Education could waive the certification requirement for charter schools teachers who demonstrate their effectiveness.
SB 1104 proposes to make 15 percent of those teachers eligible for waivers if they prove results, said state Rep. Gail Lavielle a Republican who represents Wilton and Norwalk in the 143rd House District and sits on the Education Committee. Their incentive to get certified could be part of teacher pension plans.
“It may be the most important bill because it actually acknowledges the importance of teacher accountability in regard to student outcomes. This bill is pivotal,” Lavielle said.
Dacia Toll is president of Achievement First, which supports four public charter schools in New Haven, Hartford, and Bridgeport supports the bill.
“This bill in no way lowers the standards for educators in Connecticut – in fact, in a powerful way, it actually raises the standard to what we know our students need and deserve – it provides them with an effective teacher, not simply a teacher who has put in the required seat time in school of education courses,” Toll said in recent testimony.
The Connecticut Education Association, which represents 40,000 educators, opposes the bill.
“The one absolute we all support is having higher qualified and properly certified teachers in our classrooms,” said Mary Loftus Levine, CEA’s director of policy and professional practice. “As educators, we oppose waiving the requirements that S.B. No. 1160 attempts to accomplish. Charter schools were granted lower standards, waiver language, and new alternate routes to certification, which just took effect July 1. When and where does this end?”
Both Lavielle and Duff said without early childhood education reform the gap will remain open. But “everyone needs to realize there is no silver bullet and they need to stop looking for someone to blame,” Duff said.
“The state does value education. We tend to fund it. But more money isn’t answer. We need to truly analyze performance,” Duff said.
That’s where Results Based Accounting, RAB, comes in. It was applied to Early Reading Success in 2008. The program showed little improvement and so legislators voted to stop funding it, Duff said.
“Much focus has been on what do you want teachers doing? Who do you want in the classroom?” Lavielle said. “You want teachers whose students learn the most.”
To that end SB 1160 proposed a model for teacher evaluations. Any teachers needing improvement would get support and training to improve. Currently the state has no such system.
“I'm a firm believer in evaluations and opportunity for professional development for everyone who has a direct impact on the education of children, including administrators. I also believe there should be consequences for those administrators who don't perform evaluations,” said state Rep. Brenda Kupchick, a Republican who represents Fairfield in the 132nd House District.
The American Federation of Teachers supports the bill, but CEA doesn’t. CEA officials say they're worried that it doesn't provide enough protection for teachers.
It would set criteria for evaluations and stab at no longer seniority being the primary criteria for keeping someone on staff.
Kupchick said though she supports the bill, she worries it doesn’t adequately protect quality teachers with tenure against possible retribution. After a recent meeting with CEA she said the Education Committee would work to improve the bill.
“As a representative from Fairfield, many of these issues do not apply because we have some of the finest teachers in the state. However, my decisions as a state representative will affect districts across the state,” Kupchick said.
Tenure has in some ways quashed the ability for that evaluation dialogue, Lavielle said. Indeed Florida recently passed a bill eliminating tenure.
“This is not about jeopardizing good teachers,” Lavielle said. “But who are we trying to help here? The students. These people are closing the achievement gap every day.”
And if the state doesn’t mind the gap it will pay later. The cost to remediate and retrain students runs into the million, Duff said.
“It becomes a budget issue,” Duff said. “Not only is it an embarrassment it’s a job killer.”