Leaders call for education reform

New Haven public school curricula have been reworked to foster a “college-going culture” in the city.
New Haven public school curricula have been reworked to foster a “college-going culture” in the city. Photo by Alon Harish.

University President Richard Levin will take on matters of Connecticut education reform in his new position on the board of directors of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform.

Levin, along with the chief executives of several Connecticut-based companies, joined the board last Thursday, forming a growing consortium of business and civic leaders calling for changes to the state’s public school system. The CCER, a Connecticut-based nonprofit organization, was formed under a 2010 state commission created by former Gov. Jodi Rell to brainstorm strategies to narrow the state’s achievement gap — the largest in the nation.

“I think having the major organizations in the state all standing behind vigorous efforts to improve education is important,” Levin said. “It could make it politically easier to make changes that are necessary, and so I was trying to do my duty as a good citizen of this area.”

According to CCER spokesman Robert Townes, grassroots momentum is building in Connecticut to enact major education reform. He added that Levin’s presence on the board of directors will help the organization “shape [its] strategic direction” and that Levin’s internationally known name will give the CCER greater political clout when addressing education issues.

The announcement of Levin’s appointment comes shortly before major education policy changes are expected to be introduced to the state legislature. The Connecticut General Assembly will convene for its next legislative session next Wednesday, and Gov. Dannel Malloy has said he will propose legislation “potent enough to make Connecticut a national leader in narrowing the achievement gap, and comprehensive enough to set the stage for a restoration of Connecticut as a model for creating academic excellence for all,” according to a Jan. 26 press release.

Also on Thursday, the organization introduced its new executive director, Rae Ann Knopf, who served as the deputy commissioner of education for the Vermont Department of Education from 2009 until her recent appointment to the CCER. The organization announced its 2012 legislative priorities at the same time, including changing teachers’ tenure policies to reflect performance rather than seniority, as well as creating a statewide strategy for improving turnaround schools and districts, which it will send to lawmakers in Hartford during the legislative session.

Townes said school performance metrics in Connecticut are complex, explaining that sometimes people incorrectly attribute the state’s large achievement gap to the fact that the top schools produce very high-performing students. He stressed that Connecticut has “huge socioeconomic stratification within a small area” and that schools in low-income districts are performing poorly.

Education reform is not only important for Connecticut’s economic future, said Townes, but is also fiscally relevant now — high school dropouts use, on average, $518,000 more per person in state-funded social services than graduates.

John Crawford, lead independent director of Webster Financial Corporation and another new appointee to the CCER board of directors, said education reform needs to be addressed because the current system is unfair for those at the bottom.

“We have to make sure that all children have an equal opportunity to be prepared to enter the workforce,” Crawford said. “We certainly have a lot of children in Connecticut who are very well prepared and we have a big number who aren’t — the focal point is how we make sure that children who have a strike or two against them have an equal shot.”

Crawford said he hopes to see greater preschool education and more exposure to reading before students enter kindergarden. He also stressed that economic incentives and proper evaluations need to be established to attract and retain talented teachers.

In addition to Levin and Crawford, Marna Borgstrom, CEO of Yale-New Haven Hospital; Brian MacLean, president of Travelers Companies; and James Torgerson, CEO of the United Illuminating Company, joined CCER’s board of directors. Knopf also announced last Thursday that First Niagara Bank had donated $3 million to the CCER to support the organization’s reform initiatives.

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