Curriculum reform may impact Elm City schools

New Haven public high schools may be forced to reform their curricula and increase their graduation requirements if a proposal from the Connecticut Department of Education is passed by the legislature.

The plan, which was first presented to the public Nov. 7, is intended to increase the rigor of the curriculum and provide students with the skills necessary to thrive in higher education and the workplace, said Tom Murphy, chief communications officer for the Connecticut Department of Education.

The department has proposed increasing graduation requirements from 21 to 24 credits and requiring a core curriculum that would include more extensive math, science and language classes. The proposal would also implement five new standardized tests — two in algebra, one in chemistry, one in history and one in English. Before the end of senior year, students would also have to complete an independent senior project.

The proposal has raised questions among some New Haven educators about funding, staffing issues and the effectiveness of standardized testing.

Murphy said increased competition in higher education and the global economy, as well as improvements in the public-school systems in other states, were the driving forces behind Commissioner and Secretary to the State Board of Education Mark McQuillan’s decision to create a committee charged with investigating high-school reforms.

“Connecticut has had a long tradition of outstanding public schools, but the rest of the nation is catching up,” McQuillan said. “At the same time, we are hearing from higher education and businesses that high-school students don’t have the necessary skills on the job or in their freshman year of college.”

Murphy said the fact that 22 other states are reforming their public-education systems indicates that high-school education fails to meet the needs of students, higher education and the modern economy. He said the almost 5,000 teenagers statewide who have dropped out of high school only to immediately enroll in adult-education programs instead are further evidence of the failure of the current system.

Emily Barton, executive director of Teach for America in Connecticut, said prioritizing science and math is a step in the right direction for Connecticut. The United States is clearly lagging behind the rest of the world in math and science education, Barton said.

“Everyone in the country right now has reason to be concerned about our future when it comes to math and science,” she said. “We all need to be asking ourselves how we can better prepare our students. These proposals are an important contribution to that dialogue.”

Many of the changes, such as the curriculum requirements, would necessitate hiring more teachers, Murphy said. The senior demonstration project would also require faculty with special training to oversee independent projects ranging from science experiments to history papers to community service or internships, he said.

Judy Puglisi, facilitator of the Cross Connecticut Scholars Program, a public high school in New Haven, said senior demonstration projects mandated by the state would need equally strong state support to be successful.

“End-of-year projects are great, but we have to make sure we have adequate staffing,” she said. “They can’t just make the project a requirement without staff. The state department could plan in conjunction with the school districts and maybe give training so schools could be more adequately prepared.”

Murphy said he understands the local concerns with lack of state resources, which is why the proposal will be discussed in districts before it is drafted as legislation.

“We know local districts are concerned about it,” he said. “It does require extra staff and funding. That is why we are going into this in a step-by-step manner, so that it has consensus rather than being a top-down action.”

The reliance on standardized tests as a method of student evaluation also generated concern among educators.

Puglisi said New Haven is in the process of developing a testing policy that can best serve the city’s needs. She said she does not think there needs to be an increase in the number of standardized exams.

“New Haven is working very hard to develop their own testing and doing a good job,” she said. “Something coming out of state department would have less input from us.”

The Connecticut Board of Education will meet Dec. 5 to discuss and amend the proposal, Murphy said. The board will then host feedback forums throughout the state and meet with local boards of education and parent and teacher groups. The state legislature is currently drafting a request for funds for a feasibility study to determine the cost of implementing the approved changes.

New Haven’s Board of Education began discussing the proposal at its meeting last Monday night.

City Hall Spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga said the next step will be to speak with McQuillan about the specifics of the plan. She declined to comment on the city’s opinion of the proposal.

Board of Education Spokeswoman Catherine Sullivan-DeCarlo declined to comment on the issue.

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