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Why Connecticut's Schools Are Lagging

What, Me Worry? Yes, you should worry. Your schools aren’t as good as you think they are.

One of the great mysteries of Connecticut is that its residents like to fashion themselves progressively ahead of the curve, yet such a self-assessment is wholly unsupported by the facts. In education, Connecticut’s performance is nothing short of embarrassing.

Connecticut education reform efforts lag behind those of most other states, notably, Florida, Idaho, New York,  Tennessee, Rhode Island, Louisiana … and the list goes on. Here are a few of the areas in which Connecticut’s education policies woefully trail the rest of the country’s.

Ending the LIFO (Last In, First Out) policy for determining layoffs. LIFO ensures that some great teachers are fired while some incompetent ones keep teaching, and results in the maximum number of teachers being let go, since the newest teachers have the lowest salaries. Most Connecticut school districts adhere to this policy, and layoff ties are sometimes broken by the last four digits of a teacher’s social security number. In this formulation, quality takes a major backseat to seniority, which has been shown to have little correlation to quality after the first few years of teaching.

Teacher Evaluations. Most school districts in Connecticut have no rigorous method of assessing teacher quality, and consequently have no method for acting on those assessments. While school districts across the country are implementing sophisticated assessment tools (Colorado, Louisiana), Connecticut continues to employ and promote whoever is fortunate enough to get a teaching job. Some recent steps, such as the Performance Evaluation Advisory Council tasked with developing a model evaluation system, are moving in the right direction, but there remains a palpable lack of urgency on getting this done right and fast, with a focus on student outcomes. Why is Connecticut so satisfied with a quality-blind employment system?

Automatic tenure. While the rest of the country races ahead with quality evaluations tied to employment decisions, Connecticut stubbornly refuses to link tenure, as well as other staffing policies, to quality.

School Choice & Charter Schools. Connecticut’s charter laws currently earn a D. The state board controls all charter schools – there are no local charters, no local control, no consistent facilities funding, and no appeals process. Charter seats are funded on a separate legislative line item every year, which limits their growth even when they achieve strong results, especially with low-income and minority students. In addition, as of July 1, 2010, all teachers must participate in the (underfunded) state retirement system. Well, perhaps Connecticut lags in this area because of strong unions, unlike New York and Massachusetts, both of which have vibrant statewide charter school systems. Oh, wait, New York and Massachusetts are strong union states. So what’s Connecticut’s excuse?

Ending social promotion. It seems like a good idea that if a fourth-grader is semi-literate (or worse), then perhaps that fourth-grader should improve his language skills before proceeding to fifth grade. Research shows that if students can’t read by end of third grade, they are far less likely to graduate from high school. Florida took the lead in this area with a statewide policy that ensured students could not move to the next grade if they could not read by grade 4, and that those students received extra help. Connecticut has no such policy.

Closing the Achievement Gap. Connecticut’s non-poor 8th graders perform, on average, 3.4 years ahead of Connecticut’s poor 8th graders in math. We lead the nation in this category. A 2-2.5 year gap, which is found in many states, is bad enough – but 3.4 years? The fact is, poor and minority students are better educated in Florida and Texas than in Connecticut. Connecticut’s poor and Hispanic students are outscored by Moldova, and Connecticut’s black students barely beat Egyptian and Palestinian student scores. Our poor and minority students can’t outscore students from developing nations with 1/20th the per-capita income.

When confronted with these issues, you may be tempted to conclude that some of Connecticut’s pitiable statistics are a result of Connecticut’s “best” students being so darn good. Think again.

Internationally, Connecticut’s highest scoring 8th graders score behind Slovenia, Estonia, and Poland in math on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). And these are our best students.

Nationally, Connecticut’s top students don’t score first in the nation in 8th grade reading, science or math on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Our top students place Connecticut in a 7-way tie for 5th in Advanced 8th grade science, with 4 percent of Connecticut’s students scoring at this level. That seems decent until one realizes that 22 states score between 3 percent and 6 percent, which leaves the overall picture of Connecticut education as fairly average. (Massachusetts, along with Montana, rank higher than Connecticut on that list.)

Only 15 percent and 14 percent of Connecticut’s SAT test takers break 600 on the critical reading and math portions of the test, respectively. All of our surrounding states crush Connecticut (25 percent of New Jersey SAT test takers break 600 in math), as do many other states: in California and Maryland, about 24 percent of students break 600 on SAT reading and math. (It’s worth noting that California tends to be one of the lowest scoring states on national education tests.)

 Also on NAEP, our 4th graders are in a 6-way tie for 9th place in overall math scores, then plummet to an 8-way tie for 20th place in overall 8th grade math scores (tied with Maine, Idaho and South Carolina, among others). Massachusetts is first on both lists.

 The picture is even more grim if we equalize for minority or economic variables. While Connecticut’s low-income 4th-graders have scored about the same on the NAEP reading tests since 2003, Florida’s have consistently improved, increasing their scores by about 6 percent in the same timeframe, thanks to a visionary, long-term reform effort. This Florida comparison is particularly instructive because, in 2003, Connecticut and Florida low-income 4th graders had the exact same NAEP reading scores.

The obvious conclusion is that Connecticut should be doing better. Many complain that Connecticut needs to spend more money, but the fact is, we already have it – we just don’t spend it effectively. Connecticut spends more on public K-12 education per capita than 47 other states, including Massachusetts. Connecticut’s per capita education tax burden is similarly higher than 47 other states, again including Massachusetts. And Connecticut boasts the highest state debt per capita and has for many years. Internationally, our best 8th grade math students are being beat by Poland’s best, yet Connecticut spends over three times as much on primary education (using equalized purchasing power parity U.S. dollars).

How is it we spend more than most but get less? How is it our top students aren’t competing for the top position in most categories? Most perplexing, how is it that so few are alarmed?

Connecticut residents, it seems, have a remarkable talent for apathy. Our state budget, debt and pension funds are in the same fiscally disastrous shape as many other states’s, yet while they panic, Connecticut can hardly muster a whimper. Connecticut’s state pension funds will run dry the same year as Illinois’s and New Jersey’s (2018), yet no one sounds the alarm. Similarly, Connecticut inexplicably has the highest energy costs in the continental United States, yet few seem concerned (overall, energy is about 5 percent cheaper in New York, 10 percent cheaper in Massachusetts, and 31 percent cheaper in Florida).

We seem content to stand aloof with “What? Me Worry?” Alfred E. Neuman looks on our faces. While every state bordering Connecticut won Race to the Top, Connecticut submitted an application with 120 blanks and lost out on $175 million in additional education funding. While every state bordering Connecticut has secured between $300 and $500 per student in competitive Federal stimulus competitive grants over the past few years, Connecticut netted less than $78 per student.

Some progress has been made, but so many who can could use their influence for good be influential seem convinced that Connecticut can’t possibly have an education crisis (or an energy crisis … or any crisis). It’s certainly a problematic that we’re not worried, but can’t shouldn’t we at least be embarrassed?

ShaqDaddy May 05, 2011 at 02:22 PM
What international test scores really tell us: Lessons buried in PISA report http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/guest-bloggers/what-international-test-scores.html Standardized tests prove I’m better than Michael Jordan http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/standardized-tests-prove-im-better-than-michael-jordan/2011/03/29/AF4sdL4C_story.html Remember folks, the author is in the business of selling standardized tests. This is not an opinin column, it is a thinly veiled advertisment!
ShaqDaddy May 06, 2011 at 02:59 AM
"But more fundamentally, there seems to be no objective evidence that illustrates the purpose of teacher’s colleges, whereas there’s a mountain of evidence supporting the claim that they should be abolished." Please share this evidence. Or, is this just another unsubstantiated assertion from someone that really claims to have education solutions but is the president of a business that sells test prep? Mr. Allen, while there are serious issues to be resolved in education, YOU and your like are part of the problem. Have you ever been a teacher? SAT test prep does not count. It is a shame that you are allowed to advertise your business under the guise of an opinion column advocating for education reform.
ShaqDaddy May 06, 2011 at 03:06 AM
Alan, are you suggesting that we actually engage students in a curriculum that allows creativity, experimentation and practice, one that actually develops real, applicable skills? Shame on you! Standardize, standardize, standardize ‘till the cows come home!
Helen Webb May 06, 2011 at 01:02 PM
I knew something was up with the school system! My daughter suffers from a chronic illness and missed 5 mos. of school (4th grade) last year and 3 mos. this year. Our school provided a tutor for one hour a day. Not only did my daughter keep with the class, she was often at the top! And this was a sick child. One hour a day! Thanks for this article, I'm passing it on to my friends. Also, more money obviously doesn't mean better schools.
Mike Rautsch May 11, 2011 at 12:32 AM
Wow, you're obtuse. You've already been informed on the FF Patch (multiple times) that the author doesn't sell test prep. The only thing you've proven is that you're capable of selective deafness. Then again, I suppose that's the kind of credibility we can expect from someone hiding behind an anonymous "ShaqDaddy" nym.

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