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OP-ED | Malloy’s Education Agenda: Some Questions For The Governor

by Terry Cowgill | Dec 29, 2011 9:14pm
(1) Comment | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Opinion

Keep your eye on Dannel Malloy in 2012.

I know. That’s no easy task, given his almost Promethean tendency to gallop around the state, hold press conferences, and propose new initiatives.

But as even his most partisan critics grudgingly concede — and you can love him or hate him — the Democrat Malloy has had a pretty good first year. He has succeeded in getting the General Assembly to go along with most of his proposals (e.g. paid sick leave, the pricey UConn “bioscience center,” the First Five initiative). Notwithstanding those accomplishments, Malloy spent most of his first year defusing a historic budget crisis with an equally historic tax increase and modest concessions from one of his obvious allies, the state government’s employee unions.

And if the governor wants to run for re-election in 2014, Connecticut’s wretched economy will likely have improved by then and Malloy will have gotten most of the unpleasant tasks out of the way early in his first term, leaving those he offended with ample time to forget.

Now with a new two-year budget under his belt, Malloy has reiterated his desire to make education the focus of the short 2012 legislative session that begins next month. And last week Malloy outlined several broad principles he will use to guide his education reform effort. It’s difficult in the abstract to disagree with any of it, but the devil is in the details and we haven’t seen any of them yet. My guess is he will try to strike a middle ground between the high-profile proposals we have seen, including those from CAPSS and the CEA .

On perhaps the biggest hot-button issue, teacher tenure, Malloy says, “We know that tenure’s appropriate, but it’s also got to be balanced by making sure we retain the best teachers. So, it’s a balanced approach.”

How exactly do schools “retain the best teachers” while adhering to the factory-floor model — first hired, last fired — that tenure celebrates? And how will we measure “skill and effectiveness” against the more quantifiable criterion of “seniority?”

Malloy also wants to “enhance families’ access to high-quality early childhood education opportunities.” This is a defensible idea that will also appeal to labor bosses who want to see more union jobs, but how will the governor pay for it? If he imposes higher taxes, Malloy runs the risk of putting Connecticut at a competitive disadvantage to neighboring states.

The governor also wants to “authorize intensive interventions and enable the support necessary to turn around Connecticut’s lowest-performing schools and districts.” Does this mean more state takeovers of failing local school districts of the kind we saw in Bridgeport earlier this year? I hope so. I can think of a couple other Connecticut school districts that could also benefit from the state’s “intervention.”

And how about this gem? Malloy says his program will “deliver more resources, targeted to districts with the greatest need — provided that they embrace key reforms that position students for success.”

Sounds to me like the state Department of Education will “suggest” ways for schools to improve but will make the additional aid contingent on doing things the way the state wants them done. In other words, sort of like the way things are now.

And Malloy’s outline for reform addresses the usual suspects that stifle creativity: “unleashing innovation by removing red tape and other barriers to success;” and most notably, “expanding the availability of high-quality school models, including traditional schools, magnets, charters and others.”

As a former high school teacher myself, I’ve often thought one of the chief failings of the comprehensive public school model is the insistence that schools can be all things to all people. Indeed, that’s precisely the greatest strength of the private school model: the recognition that kids have a multiplicity of educational needs and goals, coupled with the administrative flexibility to design programs and hire teachers who are best suited to those students’ interests and learning styles. In other words, the specialized curriculum and instruction found in charter and private schools is intuitively more effective than herding a disparate mass into big-box behemoths.

I remain hopeful that the energetic Malloy will back up his bromides with the kind of meaningful educational reform that the do-nothing Jodi Rell never got around to. But so far his program sounds like a lot of pretty slogans. I hope I’m wrong because, to paraphrase a poet I often quoted during my teaching days, “We have miles to go and promises to keep.”

Terry Cowgill blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com, is the editor of ctessentialpolitics.com and was an award-winning editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company.

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posted by: Careful | January 2, 2012  9:52am

Terry Cowgill may have hit the “nail on the head”—“His program sounds like a lot of pretty slogans.”

Hopefully not.