Connecticut failed — in spectacular fashion — in three attempts over the past two years to qualify for millions of dollars in "Race to the Top" federal education money for early learning. The state's latest attempt didn't even come close to qualifying for a red cent, staggering across the finish line 20th out of 37 applicants.
The state's superintendents rolled out an ambitious list this fall of nearly 140 "must-haves" if Connecticut is to be an educational leader, among them making teacher tenure renewable every five years and giving all 3- and 4-year-olds access to preschool. The state's largest teachers union is getting out in front with proposals for evaluating and dismissing underperforming teachers.
And the governor, in a letter to the General Assembly, presented a list of his own needed changes. He agrees with expanding early-childhood education, as well as rewarding the most skilled teachers, removing red tape, and increasing magnet and charter schools.
Good Intentions Don't Help
"We're failing our own citizens," Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said in an interview. "We need to do what we know works. … We need to nudge, push and incentivize school districts to offer preschool to students."
He continued: "We need a more fluid system that protects high-performing teachers. If you did a survey in any school and asked who are the worst three teachers and the three best teachers in the building, there would be broad agreement. I'm not against rewarding performance," the governor said.
His attention to this issue is heartening. But he will need to go further to make a difference. He should lead the charge to tie student performance to teacher evaluations, to test teachers for competency and to end "last-in, first-out," the practice that protects bad teachers with seniority from layoffs.
Good intentions haven't done much in the past. The achievement gap between low-income students and well-off ones has been a scandal for years. The gap between students of the same age but from different income brackets can be three to four grade levels.
Universal preschool is a must in Connecticut. It critical to helping all children learn, but especially those who are poor and often less exposed to early reading and educational experiences. They then enter kindergarten behind many of their peers.
Studies show that pre-K has lingering, positive impacts even decades later. But Connecticut ranks a miserable 29th out of 50 states in giving 4-year-olds access to preschool, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. Thousands of low-income students are shut out. This can't go on, and it's a big reason our achievement gap is so wide — and persistent.
Democrats Must Act
Gov. Malloy sounds like he is willing to bring his considerable energy to this topic next year. He'll need it, because nothing in education will change until he picks a major fight with his own party. Democrats have had control of the legislature for decades and so owns its share of responsibility for the mediocre state of affairs. Yet doing nothing is no longer an option.
So have we had enough? Connecticut thinks of itself as a smart state, but it doesn't take a genius to figure out that tolerating the lack of achievement of too many students hurts our ability to attract and retain jobs. The state has been dead last in the nation job creation over the past 20 years. If we aren't willing to do the right thing for moral reasons, for pity's sake, let's at least act in our own economic self-interest.