This month, the General Assembly passed and Gov.Dannel P. Malloysigned one of the most comprehensive pieces of education legislation this state has seen in a generation.
The law is a victory for our state's students, parents, teachers and administrators.
Fundamentally, the legislation affirms the potency and centrality of public education. It embraces the idea that great public schools can make a meaningful difference for all students — helping to close our achievement gap, which remains the country's largest. When the bill's provisions are fully realized, it will get Connecticut's education system back on track to national preeminence and will bolster our state's economic competitiveness.
With the dust settling and the ink drying, here's a preview of how the law's key initiatives will affect Connecticut's public education.
Enhanced early childhood and early grade education: The legislation expands early childhood efforts by providing 1,000 additional youngsters in high-need families with access to enriching school readiness programs. The legislation also strengthens a critical literacy pilot program and a broader program that focus on students in kindergarten through the third grade.
More funding to raise student achievement: For several years, state funding for local schools hasn't increased. The legislation lifts financial support for most of the state's 166 school districts. The largest increases will go to the 30 districts in greatest need, which account for about 40 percent of Connecticut's students and teachers. These 30 Alliance Districts — so named to signal a new partnership between the state and these districts — will receive additional funding only after they produce solid strategies for using these resources to raise academic achievement. Pairing increased support with enhanced accountability will help guarantee that these funds are used for the benefit of students.
Attracting, evaluating and supporting talented educators: We need to ensure that teachers and school leaders have the support and tools to succeed in their daily work and to progress in their careers. The law creates a "distinguished educator" designation to provide outstanding teachers with a way to advance in their profession without exiting the classroom. And, this school year, eight to 10 districts will pilot the state's new evaluation and support system for teachers and principals — with statewide implementation to follow. These evaluations will enable customized professional development for educators. Importantly, evaluations will also inform personnel decisions by districts, including the awarding of teacher tenure.
Intervening in the state's lowest-performing schools: Many schools face challenges that contribute to lower achievement among their students. But although some schools have made strides in spite of these challenges, too many are stagnant or even declining. These schools produce inadequate outcomes for students and for our state. The new legislation provides substantial tools to help turn these schools around. This year, school-based committees of teachers, administrators and parents will begin self-analysis and planning for potential participation in the Commissioner's Network — a group of schools that will receive the state's most intensive supports and interventions. A small number of Network schools will launch this year, building up to approximately 25 over the next three years. Network schools will receive funding to extend the school day and year, coordinate social services for families, create nonprofit partnerships that build capacity and take other critical steps.
There are several additional items in the legislation to help educators raise student achievement. Public schools of choice — magnets, charters, agricultural science schools and technical high schools — will receive substantial new resources, providing families with more high-quality options. Whatever their governance structure, superb public schools deserve greater support.
Students in low-income communities will also gain access to crucial services through an expansion of family resource centers and school-based health clinics.
We will pilot parent empowerment ideas such as parent universities, as well as innovative concepts to enable more frequent teacher-parent communication about student progress via the Web, email and text messages.
Over the past few months, Gov. Malloy's original bill benefited from vigorous feedback and input from legislative leaders, teachers unions, state board members, advocacy organizations, parents and others. There were tough moments, but the energetic debate ultimately elevated education to the top of the public agenda, refined the original bill's rough edges and resulted in a final product of which we can all be proud. We now have an opportunity to fulfill the governor's charge: ensuring that Connecticut's education system stands out for its progress rather than its problems — its gains rather than its gaps.
Stefan Pryor is commissioner of the state Department of Education.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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