Recommends more efficient use of funds, greater school accountability, higher expectations of all students

By Bill DeRosa

On October 19, the Connecticut Commission on Educational Achievement rele

ased a report outlining the results of an exhaustive investigation into the causes of the state's education achievement gap and what can be done to close it.

The group was established by Gov. Rell last March as a privately funded, volunteer task force composed of business, education, and community leaders. Their findings present a sobering picture of public education in Connecticut but also offer bold strategies for improvement.

The achievement gap is the disparity in academic performance that separates low-income and minority students from others. Connecticut's achievement gap: measured by grades, standardized test scores, dropout rates, course selection, and college completion rate: is currently the worst in the nation.

"Frankly, that's unacceptable, especially for a state that has long prided itself on being at the top in education," says John Rathgeber, CBIA president and CEO and member of the commission. "We must demand more from our educational investment."

Commission chair Steve Simmons, chairman and CEO of Simmons/Patriot Media and Communications LLC, agrees, stressing that the effects of the achievement gap are far-reaching.

"It is a tragedy for the children involved, but it hurts all of us," he says. "It results in fewer skilled workers, higher unemployment, businesses turning away from the state, more crime, and a host of other problems."

Despite those consequences, some have dismissed the relevance of Connecticut's education achievement gap, arguing that it is more a function of the high academic performance of our middle- and higher-income students, not a consequence of how poorly our lower-income students perform.

"That argument misses the point," contends Rathgeber, "and it doesn't tell the whole story."

The Rest of the Story

Rathgeber is quick to point out that gains in the test scores of our higher-performing students are not keeping pace with gains in other states. In addition, our students from low-income school districts are doing very poorly by national standards. According to the commission's report, our lowest-performing students score in the bottom third on national tests, results that compare with traditionally poor-performing states, such as Louisiana and Georgia.

To cast it in a different light, although Connecticut spends more on education per pupil than almost all other states, our low-income fourth- and eighth-grade students are performing, on average, three grade levels behind higher-income students in reading and math.

High school graduation rates are also indicative of the wide gulf between white students and students of color as well as between low-income students and their more affluent peers.

Last March, the state Department of Education released data on state graduation rates for the class of 2009. The information was collected using new methodologies that offer greater accuracy than was possible in years past. Unfortunately, greater accuracy revealed lower numbers.

"The new data show that the graduation rates in the state are worse than reported in previous years," says State Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan. "For black and Hispanic students, the rates are alarming."

In 2009, the four-year graduation rate: the number of high school students who received a standard diploma within four years out of the number of students who were first-time freshmen four years prior: was just over 79%, more than 12% lower than the state had estimated for the previous year. White students graduated at a rate of 87%, compared with 66% for African Americans and 58% for Hispanics. The rate for low-income students, defined as those eligible for free or reduced lunch, was 60%, a full 26 percentage points lower than for students from more well-off families.

A Systemwide Problem

It may be tempting to think that Connecticut's achievement gap exists only between students in affluent suburbs and those in large urban centers and that reform efforts need only focus on our big cities. The commission's report, however, emphasizes that the problem exists statewide.

"Although substandard educational outcomes are pronounced in large urban areas," says Rathgeber, "the reality is that an achievement gap exists in every school in every town in our state. It's a systemwide problem that requires systemwide reforms."

Competitiveness at Risk

For decades, Connecticut has enjoyed a strategic advantage over other states by virtue of having one of the most well-educated, highly skilled workforces in the country. In recent years, however, the state has seen signs of that advantage slipping away, none more troubling than the education achievement gap.

"If we don't build momentum around altering this sad reality," cautions commission member Ramani Ayer, retired chairman and CEO of The Hartford, "we'll get outcompeted by our neighbors, all of whom are involved in large-scale efforts to transform their education systems."

Because Connecticut has some of the highest labor and energy costs in the country, a well-educated workforce is one of the few remaining positives in an otherwise less-than-friendly business climate.

"If employers can't find the qualified professionals they need to compete, why would they stay in Connecticut?" says CBIA Education Consultant Lauren Weisberg Kaufman, whose work has been supporting the commission's efforts. "Our education system and the high-quality workforce it produces have been key factors in attracting businesses to the state and keeping them here. Without these factors, we will lose companies to locations where the costs of doing business are lower and skilled workers are more plentiful."

"That scenario will be unavoidable," adds Rathgeber, "unless all of our young people, no matter their race, background, or socioeconomic status, have access to the best education our schools can offer and the opportunity to enter college or the workforce with the professional and technical proficiencies they need to succeed."

Rathgeber's point is based, in part, on research that shows that an increasing percentage of the state's workforce will come from urban centers like Hartford, New Haven, and Bridgeport, where large numbers of people live below the poverty line.

"Estimates are that 40% of our future workforce will come from our cities," says Judith K. Resnick, executive director of CBIA's Education Foundation. "We've sat back for a long time with blinders on, ignoring the growing achievement gap in disadvantaged areas of Connecticut. We can't ignore it any longer. The future of our state, our economy, and our quality of life depends on what we do now."

Doing the Right Thing

Although the economic consequences of the achievement gap are serious, the commission emphasizes that our young people themselves are most at risk, and our duty to them is what should ultimately drive our efforts to close the gap.

"I believe we have a moral obligation to do what, in many cases, was done for us," says commission member Dudley Williams, director of district education strategy at GE Asset Management Group. "The role of public education is to provide students with the tools to be able to thrive in our society. I believe it is among the greatest obligations we have to our children, and there can be no justification for walking away from it now."

That obligation, says commission member Peyton Patterson, begins at the earliest stages of education. Patterson is chairman and CEO of NewAlliance Bank.

"The importance of early-childhood education to closing our achievement gap sometimes goes unacknowledged," she says, "but it's a critical part of the equation. If children enter the higher grades ready to learn, they'll have an infinitely better chance at acquiring the math, reading, and other skills that will take them through their lives. Conversely, without access to quality pre-K and kindergarten, children will be playing catch-up, and their chances of academic success and of becoming lifelong learners diminish."

On-the-Ground Research

To fulfill its objectives, the group formed five subcommittees and set out on an intensive fact-finding mission to identify the causes of the achievement gap and examine struggling schools and strategies that could turn them around. Those strategies included recruiting top administrators, attracting and retaining effective teachers, evaluating teacher performance, and addressing the economic isolation and inequitable distribution of funds that results from Connecticut's system of more than 167 separate school districts.

During the spring and summer, commission members visited schools in Hartford, New Haven, and Bridgeport that had been transformed after years of failure. They also held public hearings in those cities as well as in Norwich/Willimantic and Waterbury to get feedback from residents, school superintendents, board of education chairs, school principals, city-government leaders, union leaders, and others. In addition, the group talked extensively with state and national leaders in education reform and met with senior officials in New York, Massachusetts, and Delaware (states which all won federal Race to the Top funding). The commission completed its inquiry by meeting with superintendents and principals from Connecticut's 15 partner districts with schools targeted for reform.

"I really valued the opportunity to meet with parents, educators, legislators, and other experts," says Ayer. "Any recommendations you make absent this input are likely to miss a big chunk of what is needed: or not hit the mark at all.

"The main thing I learned was that this is a systemic issue in that we must all share responsibility for changing the situation on the ground. Hearing from experts and other major stakeholders, we came to the same set of observations: that what we need is large-scale change and that we need commitment from leaders starting with the governor."

Findings and Recommendations

Why is there such a wide achievement gap in the state? According to the commission's report, it is tied to a number of factors, most notably big differences in household income from town to town, family to family.

"Low income correlates with low levels of academic achievement," says the report. "In Connecticut, we have some of the wealthiest towns in the country as well as some of the poorest, [and] the disparity in income contributes to the achievement gap. But it is not all a result of income differences."

Other factors cited by the commission include

" A systemwide lack of accountability

" Failure to set high expectations for all students

" The need for more effective teachers and school leaders, particularly in low-income areas

" Inefficient and opaque education-funding mechanisms

" Complacency in dealing with chronically low-performing schools

In response to these findings, the commission has developed a blueprint for a 10-year plan to significantly improve Connecticut's school system, with a focus on giving all students equal access to a first-rate public education. Here are some of the key proposals in the group's report, which is available in its entirety at ctachieve.org.

1. Accountability. Strengthen state leadership and drive accountability for educational change by letting the new governor lead the charge, establishing a secretary of education who is appointed by and reports directly to the governor, and establishing a new commissioner of early-childhood education and care.

2. High expectations. Set high expectations for all students and provide curricula and support so that all students can meet those expectations. Steps include increasing access to pre-K and full-day kindergarten, aligning statewide curricula to higher standards, identifying and supporting low-achieving students early through extended learning time and tutoring, and requiring high school students to pass the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT) to graduate.

3. Leadership. Actively recruit the most effective superintendents, principals, and related staff; create programs that train administrators to be effective in low-achieving schools and train principals in new evaluation and data systems.

4. Excellent teaching. Ensure that low-income students: indeed, all students: have well-trained, highly effective teachers with professional development opportunities. Getting there would mean promoting alternative routes to teacher certification; holding teacher preparation programs accountable for producing effective teachers; recognizing and rewarding outstanding teachers through a new career ladder and school, group, or individual performance bonuses; and attracting more effective teachers to the most challenged schools.

5. Intelligent investments. Provide an efficient, transparent way of funding public education by reviewing the student weighting formula for distributing state aid to school districts and phasing in changes over three to five years. (For the past several years, the formula has not been followed due to fiscal constraints.) Over time, have money follow a child to the public school of his or her choice.

6. Turnaround schools. Improve our lowest-achieving 5% of schools through greater authority, accountability, and more time for learning by establishing a school turnaround office with the authority to aggressively intervene in the lowest-performing schools.

Next Step: Leadership

Although the commission has provided an actionable plan founded on intensive research and input from experts at all levels, its work is only a first step.

"No one is nave enough to think that our job is done or that recommendations alone will transform our schools," says Rathgeber. "For decades, we've seen worthwhile research and reports come to nothing because there was no concerted effort to follow through. We can't afford to have that happen this time. Our state's future hangs in the balance.

"Making the commission's plan a reality will take strong leadership from our new governor and support from a state government committed to change. We'll also need support from the community, including business leaders, teachers, parents: indeed everyone who cares about our young people and has a stake in their success."

A Few Steps Forward

Some progress toward reforming education and closing the achievement gap was made earlier this year when the state legislature passed a landmark bill designed to strengthen standards for high school graduation and add rigor to the curriculum. The new law includes provisions for increasing the number of courses required for high school graduation, paving the way for the establishment of more charter schools, and promoting the spread of rigorous Advanced Placement courses in schools throughout the state. It also calls for a greater role for parent involvement in their children's schools.

Also encouraging were the results of the latest Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) for grades 3-8, which showed modest but welcome progress in narrowing the achievement gap. The CMT assesses approximately 250,000 students on their skills and knowledge in math, reading, and writing. Commissioner McQuillan said he was "pleased to see improvements in the performance of students across the board, including somewhat larger gains by minority and economically disadvantaged students, which helps to close Connecticut's large achievement gaps."

Although those results offer some cause for optimism, Rathgeber cautions that there is much work to be done.

"For far too long, Connecticut has not focused sufficient attention and resources on improving academic achievement among students traditionally underserved by the public school system.

"The question we have to ask ourselves is "If we can attain educational excellence for one segment of our student population, why not for all students?' The urgency of that goal is the reason the governor established the commission, and its findings and recommendations put us on a path to reaching it. Make no mistake, the purpose of this effort is not simply to put more money into a system that has consistently failed so many children. Rather, it is to adopt real reforms that will help our students graduate with the knowledge and skills to become productive, positive contributors to society and leaders of our future economy."

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Bill DeRosa is editor of CBIA News. He can be reached at bill.derosa@cbia.com.