Monday, January 31, 2011

Kindergarten Age Change Supported By Gov. Malloy

During this brief time when both Rosemary and I are overwhelmed by life's little challenges, I read this piece in the CT Mirror: Malloy: Raise Kindergarten Age

For those of you unfamiliar with the long running age cut-off debate in Connecticut, a quick recap. If your child will turn five before January 1, he or she can start school in September at the age of four. Not surprisingly, many people take advantage of this option and sent their four year olds to kindergarten, and others hold them back and start them when they are five. Anecdotally, it seems more boys are held back and more wealthy kids -- those parents that can afford an extra year of day care will hold back the immature four year old.

I've been down this road twice -- I have two kids that were born near the end of the year. Daycare expense is only one of the many issues that go into the decision. Parents know their own children better than anyone and are probably in the best position to decide if little Susie or little Johnny need an extra year to "grow."

Still, the proposal makes sense, mostly because I don't think there's another state out there that allows such young children to start kindergarten as Connecticut does. And as hard as it is to send any child off to college, sending a 17 year old off to college can give many parents pause. As a state, our kids may do better in the long run if they are five when they start school and 18 when they start college.

If the proposal goes through, I hope the State Board of Education gives strong support and encouragement to towns to make acceleration for advanced students a clear policy. The four year old start policy has been a positive thing for bright kids that are able to keep up with their older peers. Hopefully, changing the start date will give towns the incentive they need to accelerate kids, when appropriate.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Get Smart, Connecticut campaign

The ConnCAN organization has launched a big campaign to promote their legislative agenda. Many of the reforms the organization would like to see passed are leftover from last year. Things like -- money follows the child, teacher tenure, and the like.

The agenda is filled with common sense proposals -- things that many other states have already adopted. The school finance issue will mean big changes for Connecticut, if passed. There are so many interests opposed to the reforms, and there is no longer a "race to the top" carrot dangling out there for the state, the effort is unlikely to succeed.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Connecticut's High School Science Teacher Certification Found Wanting

A recently published report by the National Council on Teacher Quality gives us more disturbing news about the quality of the teachers put in front of high school science classrooms. Some States, including Connecticut, have set the bar very low -- expecting little specific knowledge about the different science disciplines before being permitted to teach some of the most demanding and important high school subjects.

Connecticut received the lowest possible score in this report -- a RED light. Here are some pulls:
The US suffers not only because of the math and science teachers we don't have -- in many cases we also set unacceptably low expectations for the STEM teachers we do have.
[M]any states fail to guarantee that biology, chemistry and physics teachers have mastered the content they teach. . . . The bottom line is that the so-called flexibility of the "broad field" science teacher is a fantasy. In reality, the concept of the all-purpose science teacher not only masks but perpetuates the STEM crisis, and does so at the expense of students.
[Connecticut's] approach does not guarantee adequate knowledge in particular areas of science. Candidates are only required to pass the Praxis 2 General Science (and content essay) test. These combination assessments fail to note performance in any specific science discipline, and a candidate could answer many questions wrong in one area yet still pass the test.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

New High School Graduation Requirements -- Should they be Voluntary?

The State has just realized that it is broke and really can't afford to pay for the sweeping new high school graduation requirements they passed last year into law. This new law will apply to kids that are currently in the fifth grade -- the class of 2018. To graduate from a public high school in CT, students will have to pass state tests in the subjects of english, math, science, and history, get at least a credit in a foreign language, and do a "capstone" project.

In the next 7 years, the State expected to do a lot of the prep work for implementing these standards -- things like deciding what would actually be on those exams, writing model curriculum, and defining what would be a capstone project. The State had counted on using all those federal dollars dangling out there in Race to the Top to pay for the new requirements.

The federal dollars never materialized. Connecticut's application for $175 million was rejected. Since then, other events have taken center stage. With the looming budget crisis, legislators appear to have noticed that all those laws they passed last year are still on the books, but there's no money to make them a reality.

One idea is to delay the requirements even later than 2018. Another is to do nothing and let the towns figure out how to pay for all the new things they'll have to do.

Here's a third idea -- make them voluntary. Some of the new high school graduation requirements are unproven with no research base behind them -- particularly former Commissioner McQuillan's "capstone" project. I've been uncomfortable with the whole capstone project requirement, even when it seemed possible that someone else (my federal tax dollars rather than my state or local property tax dollars) would pay for it.

But I've got some serious misgivings about the whole capstone project as it is. It might be a good idea, but there's little evidence at this point that it would do anything at all to prepare students for life after high school. So, keeping an open mind -- how about we make the new requirements voluntary and ask school districts to provide feedback instead.

Ask districts in their yearly reports to include a short description of whether they voluntarily implemented any of the new requirements and to describe their experiences.

I start with an assumption that the vast majority of citizens and towns would like to graduate students well prepared to achieve after high school. If they think this new capstone project is a good idea, some will try it. The towns that don't like it or can't afford it, can watch the experience of other towns. It could be a great big collaborative project where towns share their experiences and give each other feedback before we mandate it across the state.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

LYNN: Attention -- great new blog!

Education Quick Takes -- just up and blogging!!  I'm adding it to my favorites and joining the rss feed. In her latest post, Grace tells us that no longer will high school students have to take three SAT subject tests to apply for top colleges. No college will require three test anymore. It's hard not to wonder if the lowering of standards is a result of a less prepared student body coming out of high schools.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

LYNN: Minimum Budget Requirement -- Repeal or Leave in place?

An editorial in the Norwich Bulletin raised an issue that I had not heard of before, but which should interest anyone worried about schools, taxes, and how to survive the economic downturn. It sounds like a dull topic, but the details are so easy to explain and comprehend, that I think we can all get behind this one.

The State of Connecticut has a law on its books that requires towns to fund their schools at or above the same level that they did in the prior year. This is called the "minimum budget requirement." I couldn't believe that this was true, so I looked it up. Indeed, it is true and I even found a opinion from the CT General Assembly's Office of Legislative Research explaining the entire thing. It doesn't get any more official than that.

Interested readers should read the entire thing, but for my purposes, the last sentence is the most critical:

"The effect of the current MBR is to prohibit towns from reducing education budgets in FY 10 and FY 11 below their FY 09 levels. By law, the penalty for failing to meet the MBR is a reduction in the town's ECS grant for the subsequent fiscal year equal to twice the amount of the shortfall."

In plain English, this means that your town CAN NOT reduce how much it spends on education next year. By force of law, it is prohibited. The penalty is equal to twice whatever the town cut from the education appropriation.

Some lawmakers are suggesting that the MBR should be repealed. The Norwich Bulletin would keep the MBR as it is. Their reasoning? Connecticut schools have the worst achievement gap in the nation, so we shouldn't allow towns to cut spending.

I really don't follow the reasoning. It is true that CT does have the worst achievement gap in the nation. But basically, the Norwich Bulletin would argue that since schools have done a poor job with the money we gave them, we should continue to give them at least the same amount. The logic is a little fuzzy.

Here's my opinion on the matter, and I believe it to be perfectly consistent with a liberal philosophy.

The MBR discourages efficiency and innovation. No town has the incentive to do a better job, to reduce cost, to figure out how to do more with less. By the State's mandate, towns must appropriate the same amount next year, no matter how much more efficient or creative they become.

For example, imagine a couple of rural towns that offer a handful of advanced classes. They could offer more classes at a lower cost by harnessing the power of collaboration and technology. If they jointly paid a single teacher and used teleconferencing and the internet, they could broaden the academic course offerings and lower cost. But the MBR would penalize them for doing it.

Small districts could share expensive administrative personnel -- has anyone wondered why ever single school district needs a curriculum director? Sharing these types of resources would save money and could improve results. But the MBR prohibits it.

Finally, public school enrollment is steadily declining and some school districts are seeing big drops in their student enrollment. The MBR would require them to continue funding the schools at the same level, no matter how many students leave the district.

The MBR should be repealed.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

LYNN: Acting Commissioner Coleman?

The CT Mirror reports that the State Board of Education is likely to appoint Deputy Commissioner George Coleman to lead the State Department of Education until our new Governor, Dan Malloy, is able to appoint a permanent replacement to Mark McQuillan.  The State BOE will meet this morning to discuss the appointment, although the agenda makes it clear that this will be a closed door discussion.

When asked about his choices for a new permanent Commissioner, Malloy said, "I am looking for a track record of success, great potential, someone who thinks outside the box, someone who stresses collaboration and change."

With that said, I'm guessing Coleman will not be Malloy's permanent choice as there is no greater "inside the box" thinker than Coleman, who has spent his entire career as an insider that learned to work the system well. Coleman gives every impression of being a decent person and a smart man, but I dare anyone to come up with anything he's ever done that was innovative.

According to biographical information on Mr. Coleman, he joined the State Department of Education in 1987 as a kindergarten consultant. Could it be that George Coleman has never worked for anyone other than the State Department of Education? 

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

ROSEMARY: Public/Home School Hybrid Part I – The Problem

Before I begin expounding on the notion of a public/home school hybrid, I have to register my happiness, no, DELIGHT, at the resignation of Senator Thomas Gaffey.  He has been a thorn in the side of anyone interested in education reform for many years, with homeschoolers being the bottom of the barrel as far as he’s concerned.  A friend of mine from his district once arranged a meeting with him, along with other constituents who also happened to be homeschooling parents.  Deborah Stevenson, the NHELD lawyer, accompanied the group of constituents as far as the door.  Upon entering the meeting room, the parents found that Gaffey was flanked by two Department of Education lawyers for the occasion, and when his constituents asked if their lawyer could also be present, he said “No” and Attorney Stevenson was made to wait in the hall. The Gaffey maxim: Lawyers for me, but not for thee.  And now he’s going to need a bit more lawyer fire-power than esquires from the Department of Education.  Here’s the CT Mirror article on this most happy of developments.  Now we just have to pray that something more ominous does not develop to replace Gaffey.  One cannot count on “clean margins” when it comes to the politics of education in the Constitution State.

Public/Home School Hybrid – The Problem
It’s quite ironic that I am co-writing a blog on education reform when I have been homeschooling my children since 1993.  My active years in the public school system were 1982 to 1992.  During those ten years, I was active in the PTO, taught an afterschool enrichment class at the middle school and volunteered at the elementary school during school hours.  I did all the things a young mother ought in terms of involvement, and then my oldest child started having trouble in fourth grade.  It was 1985, and my second child, a boy, was an infant at the time.  The older child had skipped second grade as a result of the cessation of the TAG program and was now having trouble socializing with children, in some cases, two years his senior.  (It must be noted that these were the early years of keeping boys back a year, starting them in kindergarten at six rather than five.  My son was a young five-year-old with a June birthday when he started kindergarten.)

At any rate, school became a burden to the entire family.  My son hated school, was having difficulty with socialization issues, started to get bad grades and I was now visiting the school as a parent of a “problem child”, meeting with the school psychologist and his teachers on a regular basis. One finds out rather quickly that when word gets out your child is a problem, folks will talk about you and yours behind your back and in a small town it has ramifications beginning in school that spread to town-run sports to birthday parties to playdates with classmates. The only place we found refuge was the hockey rink, where the team was comprised of kids from several towns and dad was the coach.  When our second son began having similar problems in school in third grade (and please keep in mind, there are eight years between the brothers …)  it was 1993, and we decided we were done with public school.

At this point, I have to applaud the K-2 teachers my boys had.  School had been almost idyllic up to that point with both of them.  My older boy only had the K-1 experience because of skipping second grade, but his brother had a second-grade teacher named Mrs. Pearson, and she was wonderful.  This second son was having trouble reading, as were a couple other boys in his class.  Whole-Language was the absolute rage at the time, and these boys just weren’t “getting-it” and although they were able to “pretend” to a certain point in first grade, the jig was up.  Mrs. Pearson instituted a phonics back-up plan for the kids in question, and in less than a month’s time, all the boys were breaking through and becoming comfortable readers. By the Christmas break, my son was reading well beyond grade level.  Thank you, Mrs. Pearson. Third grade commenced to be an utter disaster, starting and ending on a bad note in the 1992-93 school year.

So began our homeschooling experience, and we have never looked back (okay, maybe a little bit when our second son wanted to play high school hockey in 1997 – the answer wasn’t merely “no”, it was “no, no, no!!!” according to CAS and CIAC, CAPSS, CEA, and CHSCA, to name just a few of the covered wagons. Our son, as a result, became quite a good golfer.  Golf tournaments don’t have the jackboot of CIAC at their throats. Oh, and we did look back again a wee bit … orchestra … and that was “no, no, no!!!” as well, because that was under the auspices of CSMTA.  So we crossed the state border into Massachusetts and thanked God for the Western Massachusetts Young People’s Orchestra.  It is an outreach of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, which could give four flying busted violin strings whether or not a kid was educated at home or in school.

So, we see the problem confronting any kind of accord between public and home schooling … a noxious, arrogant, exclusive, intolerant and nondiverse array of alphabet soup, a plethora of organizations that circle around one another whenever a challenge presents itself.  The problem, in its essence, is that education itself is not a choice.  It’s compulsory (as it well should be) yet it’s the parents who are compelled to educate their children, NOT the state … yet the state is fast becoming the entity which regulates every aspect of education and creates the illusion that parents have no say, no recourse and no choice … just pay your damned taxes and shut up.  Next installment:  Part II- The Stealth Option.

LYNN: McQuillan's Record

Mark K. McQuillan was appointed Commissioner of Education on April 16, 2007. How have the schools of CT fared under McQuillan's leadership? I'll start by bringing some data into the equation, because I happen to prefer data to less objective measures. So here goes:

SAT scores in 2006:  Math  510,  Reading 505, Writing 504
SAT scores in 2010:  Math  510,  Reading 505,  Writing 510

In four years, there has been no change in math or reading scores of high school graduates in CT. A slight improvement was seen in writing. I'm hesitant to attribute much of the writing gain to anything other than: people figured out how to prep for the test by 2010. 2006 was the first year the writing portion was included in the SAT. I'm going to make an assumption here that over four years, SAT prep programs got better at preparing kids to write for the test. I'm willing to consider other possibilities.

How about graduation rates? The State Dept of Ed still claims that in 2006 to 2008 that HS graduation rates were at a respectable 92%. However, the legislature pushed for a better system of accounting for students that move between districts. As a result, a new data system was put in place that calculated the high school graduation rate at about 79%. The Courant carried an article on this in March last year. Because we don't have good data before 2009, we can't draw much of a conclusion about McQuillan's term. However, I think we can all agree that 79% is nothing to be proud of.

LYNN: McQuillan Resigns Citing "Stress"

With the abrupt resignation of Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan on Dec 21, Connecticut will have a new leader at the Department of Education for the first time in four years, and the first to be appointed by a Democratic Governor in 24 years.  The CT Mirror carried a fascinating account of the resignation, which gives the impression that McQuillan's decision was made on the spur of the moment, surprising everyone at the State Board, Governor's transition team, and himself. In other words, McQuillan snapped. If the CT Mirror is to be believed, our Commissioner was miffed that the Malloy transition team called a meeting at the same time as McQuillan's school finance panel meeting, that McQuillan's meeting had to start late as a result, that members of the school finance panel came up with (get this) THEIR OWN IDEAS on how to reform school finance, and that the School Board Chair had the audacity to try to control the meeting. At which point McQuillan adjourns the meeting and storms out. The next day he quit.

Up to that point, the Malloy team had considered McQuillan a strong contender for reappointment  to be Commissioner. Probably not so much anymore.

The State Board of Education will meet tomorrow, January 5, to appoint an interim commissioner until the Malloy team can pick a permanent replacement.

WNPR, CT's public radio station, did a soft news retrospective on the legacy of McQuillan. According to the WNPR story, McQuillan's biggest two accomplishments were a scaled-back high school reform law and getting a parent on the HS reform task force. That sounds about right to me. McQuillan has been an enormous disappointment over his four years running the education department.

Personally, I had high hopes for him. He came from Massachusetts and had served that state (as a mid-level deputy) during the time that MA underwent one of the most remarkable transformations of any state education system. MA now boasts some of the most robust and extensive achievement in the nation. Taken on its own, MA students perform near the top when compared with international students. The US as a whole has done dismally on international comparisons for decades.

One could have hoped that McQuillan would bring the MA model to Southern New England. But he did no such thing. Instead, McQuillan seemed bent on re-making CT's high schools from scratch. Rather than look at what had worked in other states or other nations, McQuillan chose to simply change everything.  What he ended up proposing had no basis in research and would have imposed a model of radical experimentation on CT schools. The legislature was right to reject it. In the end, the only change McQuillan got through was to require high school graduates to do a "project" before they graduate. Wow.

Meanwhile, what happened to the State's education system under McQuillan? I'll have to dig up some hard numbers for a future post, but basically, CT continued its downward spiral in all categories except one -- we spend a lot on teacher salaries. In fact, I believe that CT has the highest teacher salaries in the nation. But every measure of performance has shown a steady decline in achievement -- graduation rates are terrible, SAT scores (of the few that do graduate) are flat, college remediation rates are soaring (as high as 40% in a recent study), and the State continues to have the biggest achievement gap in the nation.

CT was once considered to have the best schools in the nation. Now the undisputed leader is Massachusetts. CT's position has slipped on every measure. As McQuillan departs, the new Commissioner will have all of those problems to deal with, plus a budget crisis as the federal stimulus money ends, and a dysfunctional state education department.