By Yohuru Williams
With the effort to convert the Clark Elementary School into yet another Charter school in Hartford by the apostles of market driven education reform intensifying, there is now more than ever the need for statewide collaboration and action against the other venomous serpents formed from the Medusa’s head of such so called reform efforts in Connecticut. These include the adoption of Common Core State Standards, the teacher evaluation system aligned with student assessments, the promotion of charter schools, and inclusion of Teach for America educators in high needs, impoverished school districts. Each in its own way has contributed to the current crisis in public education in Connecticut, and will continue to exacerbate achievement gaps rather than close them.
Connecticut politicians have played a critical role in bringing about this crisis. Along with promoting so-called reformers like outgoing Hartford Superintendent Christina M. Kishimoto and the equally divisive outgoing Superintendant in Bridgeport Paul Vallas, Governor Malloy and State Department of Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor eagerly embraced the Common Core State Standards as the panacea for boosting student performance. The preliminary results, as anticipated, have been less than stellar. The announcement of this year’s NAEP scores, which still showed Connecticut at both the top and bottom of the mountain, is a strong indictment of the problems associated with this approach. While Malloy and Pryor tried to make the case for vast improvement, in Math at least, the gains were negligible with the state improving from a score of 242 in 2011 to 243 in year 2013. In the area of the achievement gap between white and minority students the results were more telling with Black and Hispanic students scoring just 14 percent and 19 percent respectively, while White and Asian students scored 58 percent and 64 percent.
With the persistence of such a wide achievement gap, one would hope that state officials would be moved to reassess their current prescription for reform. It would be a welcomed change if, in the process, state officials also looked to the state’s teachers as an authoritative voice and invested in them as a resource to help solve these problems. They, of course, are the ones who work with Connecticut learners every day. They are the researchers, organizers, and educational consultants who have dedicated their lives to our public schools.
I suspect the reason politicians have avoided this approach is because they do not want to deal with underlying issue of poverty that remains at the root of the problem in public education, especially in urban school districts like Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven, and Stamford. To invest equitably in all schools would require a true examination of the state’s zip-code apartheid.
It would also require politicians to investigate the solutions offered by teachers themselves including smaller class sizes, greater opportunities for professional development, the restoration of programming in music and the arts, and the flexibility to explore new interventions through the scholarship of teaching and learning. To address a heterogeneous population of youth including English language learners, they have adopted a homogenous assessment through high stakes testing and teacher evaluation. This is unlikely to provide any knowledge to help us reform schools.
Furthermore the insistence that untrained “teachers” from Teach For America can be the engine for this change is absurd and especially pernicious. Rather than ensuring that recruits have the opportunity to prepare for instruction by taking real education classes and working with veteran teachers, TFA opts for a five week training program that would not satisfy even the most cursory of professional credentialing bodies. Youth in urban schools deserve highly trained and qualified professionals and if political leaders in Connecticut believe this to be true, they will invest in resources that attract and keep the most highly trained and qualified professionals to these districts.
It also does not bode well for increased student performance—unless learning outcomes are limited strictly to student performance on standardized tests. In recent years, cheating scandals related to the adoption of high stakes testing-ushered in by market driven educational reform rocked Florida and the District of Columbia. Connecticut joined their ranks just last week with the revelation that someone tampered with dozens of Connecticut Mastery Tests administered at Betances Early Reading Lab School in Hartford earlier this year. Is this the model we wish to emulate?
Governor Malloy and Stefan Pryor, this is not a test. Connecticut teachers are among the best trained in the nation and are more than prepared to meet the challenge of reshaping the educational landscape. They must however have a voice and a seat at the table. The best teachers know that the greatest way to reach students is through listening to them and through building relationships to promote achievement. The same should be true for politicians in Connecticut. The future of Connecticut’s youth is at stake. Prove your sincerity in bringing about real change by having the courage to return to the drawing board with your best resources. Initiate dialogue with your primary stakeholders in this struggle: the parents and teachers of this state. Look to the Universities and Colleges in Connecticut for assistance – there is tremendous potential for what can be done to improve education. Blaming teachers for the social ills that come with poverty is too easy a scapegoat.
If you really believe in education, you’ll find better a way to invest in the local, professional resources we already have in Connecticut.
Yohuru Williams, Ph.D. is Chair and Professor of History at Fairfield University. Follow him on Twitter@YohuruWilliams