ConnCAN CEO talks education reform

Patrick Riccards, right, the CEO of education reform advocacy group ConnCAN, spoke to students about reform efforts in the state at St. Anthony Hall Monday afternoon.
Patrick Riccards, right, the CEO of education reform advocacy group ConnCAN, spoke to students about reform efforts in the state at St. Anthony Hall Monday afternoon. Photo by David Kemper.

Standing before 35 Yale students in St. Anthony Hall on Monday afternoon, education reform expert Patrick Riccards asked how many thought they had attended a “terrible” high school.

The CEO of Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN) — a nonprofit education reform advocacy organization — Riccards discussed what he has identified as the broad issues with public education in the state. He pointed to the wide variation in school quality across Connecticut, and an achievement gap among students of lower socioeconomic status and racial minorities. To address these problems, Riccards said Connecticut should continue the work of Gov. Dannel Malloy to overhaul public education.

“In Connecticut, [education quality] is all dictated by what is your race, how much money does your family make, and what is your zip code,” Riccards said.

Connecticut schools surpassed most in the United States during the 1980s, but have since been “coasting on a reputation,” Riccards said. Now, he said, nearly 80 percent of high school students in the state must take remedial math after graduation.

To combat poor performances among white and minority students alike, ConnCAN has backed the multi-step plan passed by Malloy to reform education. The legislation calls for Connecticut to add 1,000 slots for pre-K education, require educator evaluations, and give districts the authority to fire teachers deemed ineffective by state standards, among other measures.

Malloy’s plan also mandates that all public school districts craft and adopt a single universal charter by 2015. Riccards said he hopes that these steps will help even out the quality of Connecticut schools, so that New Haven’s Amistad Academy will no longer be the “one high school in the state of Connecticut where African-American students can outperform the state average.”

Even with the measures being taken by the Malloy administration, Riccards warned that additional efforts are needed to continue improving state education. While he acknowledged that change is difficult, he emphasized that the education “status quo just doesn’t work.”

“People thought this was about as ugly as politics could get,” Riccards said, referring to the battle Malloy faced in passing his plans for education reform. “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Still, Riccards kept the overall tone of his talk optimistic. He said the past year has given “enormous hope” to those who fought changes in education or said they were impossible to achieve.

Of four students interviewed, three spoke favorably of Riccards’ talk.

Kristin Dowling ’15 said she found Riccards “really inspiring,” as she is considering a career in teaching, and thinks having the support of nonprofits will be invaluable.

But Tom James ’12 criticized Riccards for oversimplifying the analysis of state testing data, arguing that the results of student assessments currently administered by the state are not the best means of evaluating teacher quality.

According to information on the ConnCAN website, only 36 percent of Connecticut public school students in the class of 2004 earned a four-year college degree within six years.

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