Simmons talks CT education gap

Professor, children’s book author and education advocate Steven Simmons said Connecticut’s educational achievement gap has become a civil rights crisis at a Pierson College Master’s Tea Tuesday.

Simmons, who was appointed chairman of the Connecticut Commission on Educational Achievement by former Governor M. Jodi Rell in March 2010, spoke to a roomful of Yalies about what Pierson Master Harvey Goldblatt called “the bizarre disparities of incomes” among Connecticut families and what that means for the educational gap that exists between low-income and middle- or high-income students. Simmons explained some of the commission’s early findings and outlined some of its basic recommendations to the state.

Education advocate Steven Simmons spoke at Yale on Tuesday.
Education advocate Steven Simmons spoke at Yale on Tuesday.

“The achievement gap is the civil rights issue of our generation,” Simmons said. “We’re condemning these students to a life of failure, and lifting them up is our goal.”

The commission’s members — which Simmons described as a bipartisan body of businessmen and community leaders who have no political stake in the education debate — spoke to over 200 education experts, board members, teachers and principals, and reviewed past research on the subject, Simmons said. They found that while Connecticut has one of the highest average achievement scores in the nation, the achievement gap between low-income and non-low-income students is the worst in the nation.

This gap exists not just in urban areas, he said, but also in wealthy suburban areas as well. African-American and Latino students were found to be the most underachieving, he added.

“We have a vast gap in achievement and a vast gap in reading and math skills,” Simmons said. “In fact, we’re dead last despite the fact that we’re one of the states that spends the most money on education.”

Simmons presented some of the commission’s recommendations on how the state can close the achievement gap. He stressed the importance of stricter teacher evaluations, based on student growth, in increasing teacher accountability, adding that the state needs to reward effective teaching and punish ineffective teaching. He expressed a need to reform the institution of tenure, noting that it “doesn’t make sense” as it exists now, and should be based on teacher effectiveness.

“We cannot sacrifice the lives of students for the sake of the adults’ needs,” Simmons said.

Simmons accepted questions from the audience at the end of his presentation. Tom James ’12 said he will be one of the last students to receive his teacher certification through Yale’s Teacher Preparation Program, which will end this June. James asked Simmons to comment on the status of the teaching profession in light of Yale’s decision to abolish the Teacher Preparation Program.

Simmons called the end of the program “a great shame” and encouraged Yale to develop a preparatory program or course of study for aspiring teachers and education leaders.

“We must attract people like the people in this room — the best and the brightest from our colleges and high schools,” he said.

After the tea, James said he found it interesting to hear Simmons talk, adding he thinks the commission’s findings show why Yale should renew its commitment to education and teacher preparation.

Sally Helm ’14 said that while Simmons did not “go too much in-depth” on many of his subjects, she enjoyed the overview of educational inequality.

“He has a really wide breadth of knowledge,” Helm said.

In addition to his work with the commission, Simmons is also chairman and CEO of cable television company Simmons/Patriot Media and Communications, LLC.

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