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OP-ED | Attract Great Teachers Without Cherry-Picking Evidence

by | Nov 30, 2012 2:34pm
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Posted to: Opinion

After the less than flattering rhetoric and misinformation from Gov. Dannel P.  Malloy regarding teachers during the education reform debate, it was refreshing to read that state Education Commissioner Stephen Pryor has suddenly decided that we should start trying to attract great teachers.

During a keynote address to the annual meeting of the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, Pryor apparently blamed a perception gap for the lack of great teachers. Pryor cited statistics from Finland, where he said 100 percent of school teachers came from the top third of their graduating class, according to the New Haven Independent. In the U.S., only 23 percent of our teachers came from the top third. In low-income U.S. communities, the percentage is only 14 percent.

But like most proponents of the corporate education reform model, Pryor is cherry-picking data to support his argument and leaving out the most pertinent facts because they don’t fit his narrative.

As Finnish education professor and former government official Pasi Sahlberg pointed out in the Washington Post, there are three key areas in which Finland differs from the U.S., and those differences contribute to the success of its schools: 

“Funding of schools: Finnish schools are funded based on a formula guaranteeing equal allocation of resources to each school regardless of location or wealth of its community.”

In July 1996, Connecticut lost a major lawsuit, Sheff v. O’Neill, regarding racial equality in education.  In finding for the plaintiffs, Justice Ellen Ash Peters wrote: “Much like the substantially unequal access to fiscal resources that we found constitutionally unacceptable in Horton I, the disparity in access to an unsegregated educational environment in this case arises out of state action and inaction that, prima facie, violates the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights, although that segregation has occurred de facto rather than de jure . . . students in Hartford suffer daily from the devastating effects that racial and ethnic isolation, as well as poverty, have had on their education.”

As Wendy Lecker and Jonathan Pelto pointed out in an op-ed that appeared in the Washington Post and the Hartford Courant, Connecticut is still a long way from the achieving anything near the parity of fiscal resources called for by the Sheff decision.  A recent report by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities found the current version of the Education Cost Sharing (ECS) grant is now underfunded by over $763 million — some 16 years after the Sheff decision and 23 years after the suit was first filed.

Plaintiffs have tried to correct this issue with case after case — the latest, CCJEF v. Rell, is scheduled to go to trial in 2014 in the absence of a settlement. Meanwhile, what is the Malloy administration suggesting we cut to reduce the state budget deficit? From the Education Department, $8.4 million. Much of it from the programs that benefit kids in districts that suffer most in the first place.

“Well-being of children: All children in Finland have, by law, access to childcare, comprehensive health care, and pre-school in their own communities. Every school must have a welfare team to advance child happiness in school.”

The education reform bill passed in the last legislative session added 1,000 new preschool seats and 20 more school-based health clinics. But that’s a far cry from Finland’s comprehensive universal healthcare, preschool, and access to childcare for parents.

Education as a human right: All education from preschool to university is free of charge for anybody living in Finland. This makes higher education affordable and accessible for all.

This won’t happen in our country any time soon. What’s more, even public schools with entry based solely on merit, have become less accessible because of the test-prep industry. Those who can afford test prep do better, because they are taught the strategies for that test.

Just ask Kristen Record, Connecticut’s 2011 Teacher of the Year, who explained to participants at the CT Mirror Education Forum in Hartford how budget cuts that eliminated the SAT-prep course — which previously was offered to all Stratford youth— affected her students. “In the classroom, teachers want to see attempts to answer every question,” she said. On the SAT, attempting to answer every question can be counterproductive. “It can be the difference between being accepted to (college) or not being accepted,” Record said.

Many of Record’s students — and those in other lower income communities across the state — cannot afford the private test prep that their suburban counterparts receive.

“Students take their first SAT in October of their senior year, cold, with no preparation, no guidance, no previous SAT-test taking experience. It’s no wonder that many of them score below the state average,” Record explained. 

Great teachers do make a difference — but that’s not the whole story of why Finnish schools outperform and Pryor shouldn’t pretend it is.

Sarah Darer Littman is an award-winning columnist and novelist of books for teens. Long before the financial meltdown, she worked as a securities analyst and earned her MBA in Finance from the Stern School at NYU.

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(10) Archived Comments

posted by: Linda12 | November 30, 2012  6:51pm

Pryor just repeats the privatizing, union busting, teacher bashing narrative that supports his narrow point of view. He is massing the troops for the takeover as we speak . . . borrowing people and tips from Bloomberg. He even needs his own spinmeister. I suppose his great work cannot speak for itself.  He will get through the backdoor what he couldn’t get through the legislature with SB 24. Keep your eyes open and your back against the wall…..this is not reform, do not be fooled…it is the handing over of our PUBLIC schools to the free market.

posted by: Speak up | December 1, 2012  8:08am

Can we get the class rank of Malloy, Ochio, Pryor and all the people he has hired?

Most of these positions at the SDE are newly created so Pryor is free to scheme and plan the next spin around,  How much has Pryor spent creating jobs for former friends and Bloomberg takeover minions?  Is SERC still his private slush fund?

posted by: GoatBoyPHD | December 1, 2012  8:42am


Since 1970 West Hartford went from the 5th highest per student expenditures to 115th. In the last 20 years students at level on the Mastery Tests increased from 40% to 80% despite lower per head funding. As an example WH spends approximately $13,000 per head versus Hartford’s $18,000 yet the bang for the buck is far greater.


You don’t see WH complaining about comparative metrics: they are getting the job done.

posted by: Speak up | December 1, 2012  9:00am

Does anyone really believe our poorest cities will ever top our wealthy suburbs.? Teachers are now the whipping boy for all of society’s ills and evidently no one but teachers are up for criticism in their world of selective accountability.  So while teachers will be held accountable political hacks laugh all the way to reelection.

As stated by a Texas superintendent, John Kuhn: We ask for honest measures that take into account all factors that contribute to our success or failure. Education outcomes do not solely hinge on teacher quality. Elite reformers want what’s best for their kids, but they only want what’s most efficient for yours and mine. Today we are so busy raising test scores that we are forgetting to raise children.  The little red schoolhouse is fast becoming the little red widget factory and that’s wrong for kids and detrimental for our future well being as a country. Meanwhile the real status quo is the expensive and ineffective testing and labeling we have been doing for many, many years. Let’s have accountability for the accountability merchants. Their policies do not help kids; they help torpedo public schools.

posted by: Linda12 | December 1, 2012  10:40am

Please read and substitute names like Pryor, Malloy, Occhiogrosso.

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the school system of the 21st Century, as envisioned by federal officials like Arne Duncan and state officials like Chris Cerf!

- More federal and state interventions in schools with large minority and poor populations… but not a lot more money.

- Test-based evaluations forced on teachers though bribery in poor districts… but not necessarily in affluent ones.

- “Choice” in the cities… but not in the ‘burbs.

- Local control in the ‘burbs… but not the cities.

A two-tiered system of education, segregated by class and race, blessed by Democrats like Barack Obama and Cory Booker.

posted by: GoatBoyPHD | December 1, 2012  1:14pm


The judges haven’t been overly responsive to that $763 million figure barring a proof of concept or some evidentiary basis that an additional $1 billion would in fact improve outcomes.

As near as I can tell the proponents of spending another billion on Educaiton are simply waiting to get the right judge.  Otherwise they keep failing the test of evidentiary proof in the courts. You know the circle—give the money to the teachers but they don’t want accountability to produce the results. Then they start with the home environment thing. Move to spend the money on home services and the teachers union complains schools are being underfunded—without including the money being spent for the home environment. Move to introduce testing and the porponents scream racial isolation. Move to bus students to the burbs and the proponts start harping on the beauty of parental involvement in neighborhood schools. Scam after scam after scam of moving targets.

Show us the proof of concept. The franchise school. The one to be rolled out throughout the state and the nation. Let’s see a proof of concept. Let’s see a small scale working model. The “Billion dollar underfundung club” refuses to form a Charter School using all their favorite proposed techniques to prove the worth of their argument. It would undermine the whole process by introducing acountability and proven results.

posted by: Linda12 | December 2, 2012  7:48am

Just change NJ to CT, Christie to Malloy, Klein to Pryor.  Jersy Jazzman captures the movement concisely. Great graphic, so do click.

You people need to back the hell off. When you’re able to do your own jobs, you’ll have earned the right to criticize us. But you politicians can’t even balance the budget without cutting medical care for old people. You posers couldn’t even run your own school districts (talking to you, Rhee and Klein). You wonks can’t even keep your flavor of the month reform straight. You pundits can’t even get the basic facts of the argument right. Fix your own messes before you come after us.

Shut up, go away, and let us teach. You have nothing to say to us we don’t already know. You’re useless. Go away.

posted by: saramerica | December 2, 2012  10:35am


We have kindergartner taking 14 tests.

Meanwhile, at the CT Forum’s Vision and Brilliance talk last night, Neil Gaiman told us that he was invited to the first SciFi Con in China. He asked Chinese offices why they were suddenly encouraging Sci Fi Con after decades of repressing SciFi. They had realized that while China was great at manufacturing other ppls products, they weren’t creating them. They interviewed engineers and visionaries at tech companies in US and found that one common characteristic was that they’d all had deep love of reading sci fi. So now China is encouraging this because fiction and creativity creates a vision for the future. But what are WE doing with Common Core? We’re going backwards, forcing kids to focus on informational texts. Another thing Gaiman said was that ideas come from confluence. I could not agree more. Creativity and vision come from breadth, from being able to synthesize ideas from different fields to create something completely new. Instead the corporate ed reformers are trying to test our kids in little silos of factoids. The short sightedness of their so called “vision” enrages me.

posted by: GoatBoyPHD | December 2, 2012  3:55pm


The model for Siri (Apple’s Voice Assistant) is still Star Trek The Next Generation and the interaction of the crew with consoles and viewscreens and search using touch, gesture and voice.

It’s these borrowed ideas often imagined in literature and the arts that provide common touch point in a culture of creativity.

How can anyone hate Neil Garmain? He mentions The Golden Ass in his Wikipedia entry and is married to Amanda Palmer.

I’m not a big fan of the extremes of testing we have integrated but I fail to see the difference between having the kids do 20 rote exercises at the back of a book on paper or on computer.

The amount of money made by book manufacturers with testing ‘paper’ banks is phenomenal.  Usually shipped on computer disk for reproduction.

Creating a standard core using open source texts that better addresses transfer issues and proper placement by using common test banks at pre-determined intervals is a problem?

OK. Vouchers. Let’s re-integrate choice. Personally I’d rather my kids read comics, sci fi, myth, religious texts,  work with technology and their imagination, and know enough to tell the teachers unions and their Luddites to stuff it.

posted by: ConnVoter | December 2, 2012  11:34pm

Sarah, your reference to Finland seems to perpetuate the fallacy that the problem with our schools is a lack of funding.  That’s false.  Some of the most expensive public school systems in Connecticut are in places like Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport, where students’ performance is the poorest.  This is not a money problem, because if it were, cities like Hartford would be thriving.