John DeStefano – Democratic nominee for governor – responded today to results of the 2006 Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) which show that more than one third of the state’s elementary and middle schools failed to meet the standards of the No Child Left Behind law. All told, 290 schools made the list, nearly double the amount from one year ago. According to Connecticut Voices for Children, Connecticut is one of the 10 states with the worst racial disparities in high school graduation rates.
“Gov. Rell presides over one of the worst achievement gaps in the nation,” said DeStefano. “It is shameful that the gap between black and white high school graduation rates and Hispanic and white high school graduation rates is one of the worst in the U.S. and looking at these test scores it is evident that more of our children are being left behind each and every year. As governor, I would implement the tenets of my Every Child Reads by Third Grade proposal – including universal pre-k for all 3 and 4 year-olds.” ("More")
The list of failing schools is daunting, to be sure. But Jodi Rell is not solely to blame. In fact, while the Rell Administration does indeed deserve some of the blame for this lengthy list, there are other, more immediate and more difficult to solve causes to be dealt with.
Question: What makes a failing school?
Teachers - Teachers almost always get the lion's share of the blame. They're on the front lines every day, they're actually getting paid to directly educate the students and, let's face it, most Americans don't really like them.
There are plenty of bad teachers out there, true enough. How many can you count from your own school days? But even the best teachers can't always overcome all the other forces listed below, and it's getting harder every year.
Parents and Home Life - Parents are a wild card. Some parents care about their child's education. A lot more don't. If parents aren't around, or they're terrible role models, then the chances are good that the child will come into class with learning the very last thing on his or her mind. If students aren't held accountable at home, the school can do little.
Administration - I have met competent administrators. They do exist. They are, however, rare. Bad administration can lead to low teacher morale, and lax student discipline. Neither helps to create a good learning environment.
There's a reason why private schools work: they can get rid of the worst kids. Public schools can't. Good administrators can compensate for this by enforcing discipline, but most administrators fail.
Teacher's Unions - If you ever wonder why incompetent teachers stick around for years and years, despite everything, this is why. The unions have won few other real victories for teachers, however.
Town Government - Public Schools are run by school districts, which are run by municipalities acting either alone or in concert. Town government is tied to the property tax, increases to which are finding more and more resistance from citizens each year. So towns cut the budget. What else can they do? Besides, of course, finding creative new solutions to their problems, really pooling their resources with other towns (every town in most multi-town districts has its own administrative structure and superintendent, for example) or being willing to cede some of their soverignty to the state.
State Government - State lawmakers with little real knowledge of education continue to pile on standardized test after standardized test, with the end result that students know how to take tests. They know precious little else, however. The state is also responsible for the increasingly heavy paperwork load, and increasingly strict (and sometimes arbitrary) requirements that keep a lot of good people out of teaching. The state is also failing towns by forcing them to rely so heavily on the property tax. It's way past time to uncouple education funding from local property taxes.
Federal Government - NCLB is an unfunded mandate, and it's hated by teachers and state/local governments. But it isn't the only one out there. A lot of the budget of a school district is taken up by special education requirements, which come from both the state and federal level.
The federal government has been content to largely ignore the crisis in public education. No Child Left Behind is a poor fix, at best.
There's a reason why private schools work: they can get rid of the worst kids. Public schools can't.
Society (Us) - There is a strong cultural current in America that tells kids to forget about school. It's always been there. But adults have lately stopped telling kids differently. Television, music and all other kinds of media tell kids that there is nothing worthwhile at school beyond socializing. We fail when we don't correct this perception.
DeStefano is pointing the finger at Gov. Rell, and proposing a few fixes to the problems in our schools. At least it's something. But Rell isn't wholly responsible, and the fixes DeStefano is proposing are probably not enough. The problem is simply too big.
"More than one third of Connecticut’s elementary and middle schools get failing grade / DeStefano: It’s time for universal pre-k, not more of the same failed policies from Gov. Rell." Press Release. DeStefano for Connecticut. 24 August, 2006.