Jacqueline Rabe Thomas’s three-part series about spending, education reform and student achievement in Massachusetts and Connecticut provides an outstanding review of the progress of education in both states over the past 25 years. I see the series from the perspective of having been Associate Commissioner for Finance and Accountability in Massachusetts from 1993 to 1998, Superintendent of the Fall River (MA) Public Schools from 2005 to 2009, and Superintendent of the New London Public Schools in Connecticut from 2009 to 2014.
I think that it’s vitally important to remember what was noted in his minority decision in Pereira v. State Board of Education by Justice Richard Palmer. Education is a function of the state as described in the Connecticut Constitution. School boards get their authority from the Connecticut Constitution. School staff and administrators are licensed by the state and are officers of the state.
Both Connecticut and Massachusetts have had major State Supreme Court decisions calling for the reform of education and state school finance. In Massachusetts the case was McDuffy v. Robertson. McDuffy was a parent in Brockton, MA., Piedad Robertson was state Secretary of Education. In Connecticut the case was CCJEF v. Rell. [CCJEF] is the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, Rell was Governor Jodi Rell.
It is important to know that education is not a right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. It is only guaranteed in different forms by state constitutions. The U.S. Constitution comes into play under the 14th Amendment which guarantees that all citizens are entitled to equal protection under all laws, federal, state and local.
What the state courts found in Connecticut and Massachusetts was that under the existing systems of state school finance students were not being treated fairly, equitably or adequately. In 1992, in Massachusetts there were adjoining districts were one district was spending $3,000 per student and the adjacent was spending $12,000. Similar conditions were found in Connecticut in 2010 and affirmed again in Judge Thomas Moukawsher’s Memorandum of Decision in the CCJEF case on Sept. 7, 2016.
So, does just increasing the amount of spent on schools make a difference? Those interviewed in Rabe’s series say no. My experience in both states affirms that.
Paul Reville, former Secretary of Education in Massachusetts and moving force behind the passage of the Education Reform Law in Massachusetts, in 1993 described what it takes to increase student achievement. There has to be the political will to set meaningful standards for graduation and hold everyone in schools accountable for doing things that are known to improve student achievement. Indeed what Judge Moukawsher’s Memorandum of Decision said and implied was that Connecticut was not demonstrating that necessary political will six years down the road from the original CCJEF decision.
While Massachusetts included literacy standards for graduation in the original Ed Reform law, Connecticut still does not require literacy to get a high school diploma. In fact, under CIAC (Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Association) rules a student can get four varsity letters over four years, end up with only 16 credits and potentially have a .5714 GPA. In Massachusetts, under-performing schools were placed on a watch list as they are under the Alliance Schools program in Connecticut. Both states adopted teacher evaluation protocols.
As Judge Moukawsher documented, there are dramatic differences across Connecticut in whether and how teachers are evaluated and held accountable. Some believe that the number of teachers proficient or above in their evaluations needs to be congruent with the number of students proficient or above in tests of skills and knowledge. They ask how can it be that the number of students proficient or above is low and the number of teachers proficient or above is high. Whereas Massachusetts has had a few districts such as Lawrence and Holyoke under state monitoring and intervention for more than 20 years, Connecticut years recently removed strict state monitoring and intervention from New London, Windham and Bridgeport after only a few years.
Massachusetts requires students to pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment Test (MCAS) in order to get a diploma recognized by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Embedded within MCAS are literacy and content standards. Connecticut does not require any level of performance on state tests to graduate. In fact recently, in 2017 the state moved to loosen its graduation standards. Those graduation standards speak only to taking a certain number of courses in specific content areas such as English, mathematics, science and social studies.
Having had the privilege of leading two school districts, one in Massachusetts and one in Connecticut, that were identified as dramatically under-performing, I know these things to be true:
1) There is no doubt that having more dollars can increase the services such as mental health and school-based health clinics a district can provide. However, these services only make a difference when results are evaluated.
2) I know from program evaluations that simply reducing class size only makes a difference when what is taught and how it is taught change. I saw this at New London High School as it went from being identified as one of the worst in the state to one of the most improved as identified by the State of Connecticut and in U.S. News and World Report.
3) I know that suspensions can be reduced when rules are stated clearly and positively and they are consistently enforced.
4) I know that school discipline improves when staff know students and their names.
5) I know that dropout rates can be reduced by providing program options to students and having staff who encourage and pursue them to stay in school as we did in Fall River. Education Week documented the fact that we reduced the dropout rate from 44 percent to less than 22 percent.
6) I know that we need to stop blaming union contracts for challenges in holding staff accountable. It takes two to sign a contract (at least). No matter what the contract states there is a basic premise of due process that applies to contracts. It’s called N.E.A.T. It means that you have to give a person Notice, you have to Explain the problem in performance, you have to offer the staff member Assistance and you have to give reasonable Time to improve. It takes two to three years of training and practice to train principals and assistant principals to use evaluation systems effectively. In New London, we created a new teacher evaluation system involving administrators and union members that was rated by union officials as one of the best in the state for improving instruction.
7) I know that states must have clear, observable standards for students, staff and administrators to improve the achievement of underachieving, especially low-income students to improve. We need to remember that many gifted students are at risk and that income is no barrier to giftedness.
The “core business” of public schools is making sure that students have the skills and knowledge to have choices about the careers and lives they choose, and to be successful in their lives as adults. Do we have the political will to assure that all students have those choices and the opportunities for success?
Nicholas A. Fischer, Ed.D, is an educational consultant and former Superintendent of Schools in New London, CT, and Fall River, MA.