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Time To Stop Whining And Make Serious Education Reforms

Rick Green

August 31, 2010

Maybe you saw what New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie did last week after he learned about the bungling behind his administration's failure to win $400 million in the federal Race to the Top competition that rewards states that adopt aggressive education reforms.

Christie fired his education commissioner.

Bravo. At least we know what matters to Gov. Christie, a Republican making waves across the country. That's more than I can say for Connecticut, land of timid leadership.

Connecticut's own miserable failure to capture any of this vital education funding twice was met by collective whining that all-this-competition-is-unfair-to-children from our education commissioner, school district administrators, elected leaders.

How embarrassing and revealing.

No wonder young people leave, CEOs don't want to bring their companies here and we ask how our high-quality-of-living and high-cost state is going to make it in coming years. We certainly aren't going to prosper by complaining about all this "frightening" competition, as a group of school administrators and boards of education called the Connecticut Coalition for Public Education did in a recent letter to President Barack Obama complaining about Race to the Top.

What might we get from this horrible "competition" that education leaders don't like? The distressing answer is that competition could actually force schools to change how they operate.

New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island won nearly $1 billion in federal money because educators and politicians in those states were willing to make dramatic changes to improve schools. Specifically, these states were willing to take steps to link a portion of the evaluation of teachers with whether students are actually learning.

It's the sort of thing parents have privately been doing for years figuring out who the best teachers are and fighting to make sure their kids get them. Finally, some states have decided to reward or terminate teachers based on whether they are doing a good job. Part of this assessment must be based on whether students are actually learning.

In New Haven, a carefully negotiated teachers' contract will do just this. But teacher unions, and their allies in the state legislature and the education commissioner's office, have fought efforts to bring these reforms statewide. The result is that Connecticut lost out, again.

If there's good news in all this, it's that the Democrat and Republican running for governor tell me they, too, are fed up with our acceptance of this mediocrity.

Both promise a vigorous hands-on role in education and say they would not make cuts to public school funding, despite a projected $3 billion deficit. Either candidate would be an improvement over the current spineless mess.

Republican Tom Foley promised to make linking teacher evaluations to student performance a cornerstone of his education reform.

"I come from a world in the private sector where everybody expects performance to be measured. It is Byzantine that we are not doing this in government with our teachers,'' Foley said. "You have to be able to link student performance to who their teachers are. I'm all for compensating people who are performing well. Some teachers aren't cutting it."

Foley might be a tad simplistic there are many factors that affect success in school but his inclination is correct: We must reward success.

I suspect Democrat Dan Malloy feels the say way his education record in Stamford is impressive, as is his commitment to improved reading instruction and early childhood education but he wasn't as outspoken as Foley, the Greenwich businessman-turned-politician.

"I never negotiate these things in the press,'' said Malloy, who is counting on union support to win the governor's office. "But if federal money is going to be tied to different ways of evaluating, then we have to be cognizant of that."

Alex Johnston, chief executive officer of the school reform group ConnCan and a member of the New Haven Board of Education, told me that Connecticut stands out because "we are surrounded by winners. We have to take this seriously."

I'm glad there are other states to remind us that we need to work harder. The real problem is our unwillingness to make courageous change, not pretending that the world is against us when we lose.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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