School & District Management

Superintendents Push Dramatic Changes for Conn. Schools

By Christina A. Samuels — January 04, 2012 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 7 min read
Colleen A. Palmer , the Superintendent of Schools in Weston, Conn., Colleen A. Palmer, was involved with a report published in November 2011, dealing with school reform in Connecticut. The Connecticut Association of School Superintendents has presented an agenda to the state that would fundamentally restructure how education is carried out in the state. From consolidating some small districts to doing way with school year and “seat time” requirements, the superintendents—all 166 signed on to this document—say this is the way to create a learner-centered education system.
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Mary Loftus Levine. She is the executive director of the Connecticut Education Association.

The Connecticut classroom of the future may not be limited by a traditional school year, the four walls of a classroom, or even the standard progression of grades, based on a proposed package of unusually bold changes that are being advanced by the state’s school superintendents.

Instead, the current system would be replaced by a “learner-centered” education program that would begin at age 3; offer parents a menu of options, including charter schools and magnet schools; and provide assessments when an individual child is ready to be tested, rather than having all children tested in a class at the same time.

The superintendents’ recommendations also promote the long-resisted idea of consolidating some of the state’s 165 school districts, 21 of which consist of only one school.

“The present division of local school districts into 165 separate entities with some regional arrangements is economically inefficient and fosters economic, racial and ethnic isolation,” according to the proposal, which was released in November by the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents.

“We’re not at all naive about the challenge before us. We’re goring every ox there is,” said Joseph Cirasuolo, the executive director of the group. He worked closely with a 16-person panel that spent two years developing the report’s 134 recommendations.

While ambitious, the package comes at a timely moment. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat, who was sworn in last January, has declared that he wants the upcoming legislative session to focus on reforming education for the state’s 564,000 students in prekindergarten-through-12th grades. On Dec. 20, Mr. Malloy sent a letter to state legislators, saying that he would like to see laws that improve access to high-quality, early-childhood programs, create an educator evaluation system that values “skill and effectiveness” over seniority and tenure, and deliver resources to needy districts that embrace reform. The governor also plans in January to launch a series of stakeholder workshops around the state to talk about education reform. Many of the governor’s priorities dovetail with the proposals from the state’s school superintendents.

“We should not and will not accept half-measures and repackaged versions of the status quo,” Mr. Malloy said in his letter to lawmakers. Both houses of the Connecticut General Assembly are controlled by Democrats.

Education ‘Moon Launch’

Mr. Cirasuolo said that the superintendents’ work has been presented to the governor, the new state Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor, and other education groups around the state, including local school boards. He compares the proposals to President John F. Kennedy’s declaration that the United States would land a man on the moon: There was immediate skepticism to that proposal, too, but the country was able to achieve the goal.

“There’s almost a little ‘perfect storm’ developing” around education reform in Connecticut, Mr. Cirasuolo said.

The package of reforms presented by the superintendents was developed through a process the leaders had not tried before, said Larry Schaefer, the staff associate for leadership development for the superintendents’ group. In 2008, at an annual policy conference that brought together 123 of the state’s 165 superintendents, the leaders talked about how the mission of education had shifted to the expectation that all students should be achieving at high levels, he said.

“We’ve seen a not-so-subtle transformation in the education world from providing students with an opportunity to learn, to an obligation to be sure that every kid does learn,” said Frank H. Sippy, the superintendent of the 4,500-student Pomperaug Regional School District 15 and a member of the 16-person panel that developed the education transformation proposal. “We superintendents recognized we’re pretty well equipped to do the former, but not terribly equipped to do the latter.”

In fall 2009, the 16 superintendents, assistant superintendents and university professors started work on the project, with the assistance of other educational experts brought in for their expertise. They included Michael B. Horn, an expert in education and “disruptive innovation,” and Tony Wagner, the co-director of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The superintendents’ recommendations are encapsulated under broad categories. For example, under the topic of making learning personal, the report recommends that students progress through school based on what they actually learned, rather than the time they have spent in classes. Under the category of offering options, the superintendents’ report proposes abolishing all regulatory state mandates and replacing them with mandated student-learning outcomes. State funding mechanisms should include incentives tied to meeting and exceeding those mandated outcomes, the report says.

The panel presented its proposals to the full membership of the association, which unanimously adopted them in October.

While Connecticut tends to rank higher than average among states on the National Assessment of Education Progress, also known as the “nation’s report card,” recent results suggest some stagnation. On this year’s tests, Connecticut scores were largely flat compared to 2009, in reading and mathematics. In addition, the state showed large achievement gaps between its white students and their black and Hispanic counterparts, and among students of different income levels.

Last month, the state released statistics showing that nearly one in five of its students do not complete high school in four years. The numbers were worse for Hispanic students, black students, students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, students in special education and students who are learning English: about one in three students in those groups do not receive a standard diploma in four years.

But many of the school leaders who worked on the panel do not lead districts that are struggling with student achievement. For example, Mr. Sippy’s district serves Middlebury and Southbury, which are among the state’s better-off towns, and about 95 percent of its graduates go on to college.

‘One Clear Vision’

In the 2,500-student Weston district, 97 percent of high school graduates enroll in college. But Colleen Palmer, the superintendent of the district and also a member of the panel that developed the recommendations, said that the school system’s strong test scores are just one measure of success. The school system could still be more flexible and responsive to student needs, she said.

“We haven’t had one clear vision of education reform we’ve been able to look to in our state,” said Ms. Palmer. And with the wealth and resources of some communities in the state, “one could be seduced into feeling that we’re doing better than we really are,” she said.

Another panel member, Salvatore Menzo, the superintendent of the 7,000-student Wallingford district, has experience both as the former superintendent of a one-school district, and as a school leader trying to make major change. In 2010, his district reconfigured its elementary schools, turning them into four K-2 schools and four 3rd-though-5th grade schools to better balance demographics and enrollment numbers. The debate before approval of that plan was contentious, he said, and a similar debate needs to happen around improving education in the district.

The professionals who facilitated the discussion among the school leaders told them “be creative, let’s try to have no limits,” Mr. Menzo said.

He said he can imagine a school district that offers universal preschool for 3-year-olds, introduces subjects like foreign-language instruction in elementary school, and uses technology to provide enrichment courses that districts might not otherwise be able to offer on their own.

“We cannot continue to rest on the fact that just because what we do now is fine for some of the children, it’s going to be fine forever,” Mr. Menzo said.

Some education groups in the state said that they welcomed the proposals from the superintendents.

Mary Loftus Levine, the executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, said her organization agrees with the superintendents’ group on issues related to early-childhood education, stable state funding, improving teacher-preparation programs and involving parents more deeply in the lives of their children’s education.

“We think that it’s extremely far-reaching—we commend them for the breadth of their efforts,” Ms. Loftus Levine said.

Patrick Riccards, the executive director of the New Haven-based Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, also called ConnCAN, said “we’ve finally progressed to the point where the question is not, ‘Will we or won’t we have reform?’ It’s, ‘What kind of reform will we put forward?’”

Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation.

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