A Connecticut teacher talks with students as they work together on a project.
Credit: Mike Lydick, Courtesy of CEA
Lindsey Mann is a Muggle, but she knows the secrets of Azkaban.
Thirty-year-old Mann is becoming certified as a Connecticut public school teacher at Southern Connecticut State University. Recently her class visited the Edgewood Elementary School in New Haven to study interdisciplinary themes in teaching. For the sixth-grade students at the K-8 arts school, the class's theme was Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. All assignments were based on the book, from art projects (draw a "Wanted" poster of the character Sirius Black, advertising his crimes and where he might be found), to writing compositions (write a birthday letter to Harry at his cousin's house, asking him questions about his life as a wizard). Students learned the skills they needed while exploring subjects they enjoyed.
The Connecticut certification process encourages such innovation, thanks to a statewide focus on teacher quality that has lasted more than a decade. In the early 1980s, spurred by disappointing national test results and reports such as "A Nation At Risk" -- the seminal document published in 1983 that decried the mediocre state of public education in America and recommended sweeping change to fix the problem -- other states mounted reforms using administrative reorganization or new curriculum as levers for change. Connecticut chose to start with teachers. The commissioner of education at the time (now executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals), Gerry Tirozzi, insisted that "the teacher is the center of educational reform."
The changes wrought by that reform account for the rigor of teacher education and professional development today. Mann's units, and those of her classmates, must incorporate relevant Web-based and project-based components and accommodate all learning styles. (An example of a successful unit is one for the fifth grade that she created around the book Fever 1793, about a yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia. Students in small groups used the Internet to research life in 1793, then exchanged e-mail with pen pals as though they themselves were characters in the book.) The units will be included in her portfolio for assessment. When she becomes a teacher, she will still be responsible for turning in a portfolio and a videotape of herself teaching for review.
"They put those kids through hell," one veteran teacher says of the certification process.
"The money helps," says first-year teacher Reilly Love.
Two Sides to the Story
These two statements represent the two sides of Connecticut's reform. In the early 1980s, Connecticut was far from a desirable place for teachers to work. Starting teachers made from $11,000 to $18,000 per year. Even in wealthy areas, teaching was not an attractive option. In impoverished urban areas -- Connecticut's cities are, in stark contrast to its suburbs, overwhelmingly poor -- finding and retaining quality teachers was next to impossible.
When Tirozzi formed a commission of business, education, and government leaders to improve teacher quality, he knew money would play a part. He just didn't know how much -- or by what formula -- salaries would be increased. Arthur Wise, the current president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, recalls evaluating two of the commission's proposals.
The first idea, merit pay, entailed rating teacher effectiveness annually and awarding a bonus accordingly. The second involved career ladders. Teachers would be "ranked" in the manner of college professors: associate teacher, full teacher, and so on. Neither was proven and, according to Wise, neither plan allowed for a budget downturn.
"With merit pay, you've got some teacher saying, 'I got all this money for doing a good job last year; I did the same job this year, and you're telling me it's not worth anything?' And with career ladders, you've got someone who got promoted to full teachership last year and with it came a big raise. So then the next year you tell them you're not going to give them any kind of promotion. Plus, you're going to shave money off of the salary they've already got. Where's the incentive?"
The commission's final plan, the Education Enhancement Act of 1986, addressed money and standards at the same time. Tirozzi calls it "a balanced equation." Under the act, teachers' starting pay was raised to a minimum of $20,000, almost doubling some salaries. Districts altered their salary structure across the board so that all teachers, not just new ones, benefited. Qualified teachers poured across the Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York borders looking for jobs.
Connecticut's 1986 Education Enhancement Act paved the way for a statewide focus on the arts.
Credit: Mike Lydick, Courtesy of CEA
"Large, Steady Gains"
Procedures for teacher learning were improved at the same time. Connecticut initiated a portfolio assessment for new teacher training and aligned assessments for students with standards for teachers. It developed a support system for beginning teachers, known as BEST (Beginning Educator Support and Training), providing them with mentors for their first years of teaching.
Later refinements to the Education Enhancement Act included the implementation of arts-themed Higher Order Thinking Schools (Edgewood Elementary is one), and the creation of a Common Core of Learning (CCL), which outlined statewide expectations for what constituted a "fully educated" student. This document was intended not as a set of standards or mandates but as a catalyst for curricular improvement. In addition to foundation skills like reading, writing, and problem solving, the CCL emphasized social and emotional development: "intellectual curiosity, respect, citizenship, and a sense of community."
By 1998, Connecticut's fourth graders were ranked first in the nation in both reading and mathematics on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The proportion of eighth graders scoring at or above proficiency levels in reading was the highest in the country. Connecticut also ranked first in writing. The achievement gap between Black and Hispanic students and white students remained, but the minority students outperformed their counterparts on a national level. In a 2001 report [download PDF (212 KB)] prepared for the Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy, authors Suzanne M. Wilson, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Barnett Berry credit the Education Enhancement Act for Connecticut's "large, steady gains in student achievement and plentiful supply of well-qualified teachers."
The Challenges Ahead
Now the challenge is to keep the reform going. This is a crucial time for Connecticut's educational system, though all looks smooth on the surface. As of 2001, the state still had the highest average teacher salary in the nation (at $53,507), according to the American Federation of Teachers. Students still outperform national NAEP scores in mathematics, reading, writing, and science. Connecticut has incorporated technology into its standards for students, and it has made technology training a requirement of the teacher recertification process.
But in spite of these improvements, Connecticut struggles with internal equity issues. Teachers in the wealthier districts get better technology training, better professional development, and higher pay. There is also an achievement gap between wealthier districts and their high-poverty, high-minority urban counterparts. In Education Week's Quality Counts 2003 report, the state received an A- for adequacy of resources. For equity of resources, it got a D.
Another challenge is the increased importance of testing under federal law. The Connecticut Mastery Test is given in the first, fourth, and sixth grades. In 2004 it will be given every year. Veteran Deep River teacher Wendy Oberg approves of the test as a measure of higher order thinking, but would rather not depend on it as an absolute measure of teaching success. Connecticut Education Association President Rosemary Coyle, adds, "One test score determines the fate of an entire school. If you don't get that number, you are penalized."
Urban schools, which rely on state and federal aid, are most vulnerable to the penalties. Some urban teachers end up using their extensive certification training to teach canned remedial programs, which, as one young teacher says, "can really wear you down."
With the 1986 Education Enhancement Act, Connecticut developed high standards and a sophisticated support system for its teachers, and it reaped high achievement gains for its students. The imperative today is to keep the original equation balanced; as Connecticut collaborator Wise says, to "stay with the innovation. We have made some great strides, but we need to make more."
Ashley Ball is a former staff writer at The George Lucas Educational Foundation. She has written for Classroom Connect’s Quest program and Grolier Books’ Questions Kids Ask series. Ms. Ball also contributed to the Teachers A-Z Resource Guides published by Discovery Channel School.