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Board Discusses Application For Funds

GRACE E. MERRITT

October 08, 2009

HARTFORD - Holding its breath and jumping right in, the State Board of Education broached the controversial subject of connecting teacher evaluations to student performance Wednesday as members discussed the state's application for funding under a new federal competition.

To be eligible for the U.S. Department of Education's $5 billion Race to the Top reform-driven competition, applicants must prove that performance assessments for teachers and school administrators are linked to student and school achievement.

The state Department of Education wants to revise legislation to allow that linkage in order to meet a Dec. 30 application deadline.

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The state is developing an ambitious proposal for Race to the Top money that calls for dramatically improving 20 school districts, mostly urban, through secondary school reform and other initiatives.

During Wednesday's meeting, the board discussed various approaches to the teacher evaluation issue, such as linking teacher merit pay to student achievement. The issue proved immediately divisive as board Vice Chairwoman Janet Finneran and others said they could not support merit pay.

Teacher unions, which negotiate pay for members as a group, are generally skeptical of merit pay.

"I just don't want to see us sell our soul as we are racing to the top and not making philosophical decisions along the way," Finneran said.

She also raised concerns about the possibility of setting different salary levels for teachers based on market demand in their fields.

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"How can you decide whether a high school math teacher gets more pay than a kindergarten teacher? Teaching kindergarten is a more difficult job," she said.

Board member Lynne Farrell said teachers go into the profession knowing that they won't get rich, but will get satisfaction from the job.

Chairman Allan Taylor said the issue of whether some teachers get paid more than others is separate from the merit pay issue.

Taylor noted that there are various other teacher evaluation models the board can consider.The board eventually agreed to explore models developed by other states and agreed to discuss the issue more fully at a future meeting.

Also during the meeting, state Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan gave a presentation of the state's Race to the Top application, which he is still refining.

Currently, the plan would target 20 districts: Hartford, East Hartford, Manchester, Bloomfield, New Britain, Bristol, Middletown, Meriden, Ansonia, Bridgeport, Danbury, Hamden, Naugatuck, New Haven, New London, Norwalk, Stamford, Waterbury, West Haven and Windham, as well as the state-run Connecticut Technical High School System.

The goal is to make the Class of 2016 ready for college or work, lower the number of students requiring remedial course work in college and lower high school drop-out rates, among other measures.

Also during the meeting, McQuillan told board members he strongly disagreed with recent criticism by the U.S. inspector general's office that Connecticut used economic stimulus money to plug budget holes rather than on education spending.

The inspector general's office said last week that Connecticut, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania may not get Race to the Top money because they misappropriated stimulus money set aside for education.But Connecticut education officials said they used the money to shore up education cost-sharing money funneled to towns. State Department of Education spokesman Tom Murphy said the U.S. Department of Education even complimented the state for its excellent application. Murphy said the state is preparing an official response to "clarify and correct misconceptions."

"We believe we will be treated fairly once he sees the response and notes the compliance," he said.

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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