Not long ago, during a trip to the West Coast, I met with a UConn alum working in the biotech field. During our conversation, he mentioned he could not hire college graduates to work in his company because the graduates he interviewed had strong technical backgrounds but lacked both written and oral communication skills, or vice-versa. His belief was that the U. S. educational system fails to educate students with the necessary competencies to be successful in the 21st century workplace.
I’ve heard this story many times before, and as, dean of the Neag School of Education, take the message seriously. Although there is no magic bullet to fix the problem, steps are being taken by us and other leaders in education to provide the necessary context – and action – to affect a change that will make a difference. So what exactly is the problem we face and the steps we’re taking?
The U.S. public education system consists of about 55 million students in 14,000 local school districts and 99,000 schools. Approximately 45 percent of these public schools students are children of color, with almost 20 percent from families below the federal poverty line and more than 40 percent eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches. More than 90 percent of funding for public schools comes from state and local sources, with most key educational policies determined at the state and local levels. However, the federal government plays a limited but influential role in K-12 education through requirements are attached to federal funds.
In Connecticut, the story is similar. A little more than one-third of Connecticut’s public schools students are children of color, with 11.3 percent from families below the poverty line and 32.3 percent eligible for free or reduced-priced school lunches. Approximately 5.3 percent qualify as Limited English Proficient, while 12.2 percent require special accommodations as special education students.
This brief overview paints a picture of K-12 schools as complex organizations where oversight and instruction are shaped by superintendents, principals, teachers, students, parents, unions, accreditation processes and state and federal policy makers. Programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top – as well as the prevailing winds from Washington — impact the day-to-day operations of schools across our nation, and, ultimately, how U.S. students achieve.
International and national test comparisons of these achievements show mixed results. For example, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), commonly referred to as the nation’s report card, found that since the 1990s, 4th and 8th grade students’ reading and math scores have increased, while 12th graders’ reading scores have decreased. Further, there has been little progress in narrowing the achievement gaps between white and African American, Latino and Native American students. Students from low-income families also have lower average test scores than students from higher-income families. In addition, more than 25 percent of students fail to graduate from high school in four years. For African-American and Hispanic students, this number is approaching 40 percent.
While the NAEP scores of students in Connecticut are “slightly better” than the national average, state scores overall are bleak. African-American and Hispanic 4th and 8th graders, for example, scored as much as 35 points below white students in both mathematics and reading. Statistics also show that while last year 89 percent of white and Asian students graduated high school within four years, only 69 percent of African-American students, 64 percent of Hispanic students and 63 percent of low-income students achieved the same goal.
The issues of student achievement and the achievement gap are of particular concern in Connecticut. As previously mentioned, the gap in scores between white students and students of color, as well as between low-income and non-low-income students, is unacceptable and, in fact, the largest of any state in the country. Connecticut’s achievement gap is a real and complex problem, and closing the gap will take a sustained and comprehensive effort from educational stakeholders, unions, parents and policy makers from across the state.
To help remedy the situation, Governor Malloy declared 2012 the “Year for Education Reform” and, recently, signed an education reform bill that has the potential to reshape and improve Connecticut’s educational landscape. Translating research into practice is oftentimes difficult. However, the Neag School of Education is committed to improving the academic performance, health and well-being of ALL children in this state, and we are positioned to do so because of a very special gift given to the school over a decade ago.
In 1999, Mr. Raymond Neag, a successful businessman, entrepreneur and gentleman, decided to invest in education and made a very generous gift to the school of education. His gift transformed the school, turning it into one of the premier schools of education in the nation. Today, according to the latest US News & World Report, the Neag School of Education is ranked #32 among all graduate schools of education in the nation, the #1 public graduate school of education in the Northeast and #22 among all public graduate schools of education. Additionally, our Elementary Teacher Education program is ranked #14 in the nation, while the Secondary Teacher Education program is #17 in the nation. That is impressive, given there are more than 1,400 teacher preparation programs in this country! In addition, our doctoral program in the Department of Kinesiology remains the #1 ranked program in the nation.
Further evidence of the strength of our teacher and administrator preparation programs is documented by yearly assessments and through research on our graduates. For example, research studies on our teacher graduates found that in a limited number of school districts across Connecticut, elementary students being taught by Neag graduates outperformed students taught by all the other teachers in those districts on the mathematics portion of the Connecticut Mastery Test. Similar results were found in reading.
As I look to the future, our vision is clear—the Neag School is dedicated to developing a team of faculty committed to conducting research and working collaboratively with educators, parents, unions, legislators and state department of education personnel to turn around our lowest performing schools in Connecticut. Building on the strength of our nationally ranked teacher and administrator preparation programs, we have developed a plan to do so. Designed to help schools establish climates more conducive to learning, the plan incorporates comprehensive and sustained professional development opportunities to improve school leadership and teacher quality, enhance professional development and provide technical assistance. It also assists with meaningful wrap-around services like parental engagement, after school programs, mental health and disability supports, community service and alternative learning programs. We also are committed to developing a research agenda around the work of closing the achievement gap, and providing school leaders with the tools and systems that can enhance turn-around decisions in support of low-performing schools.
As we move forward on our initiative of closing the achievement gap, we need to be mindful that performing well on high-stakes tests is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition in educating students. In addition to closing the scores, we need a comprehensive and sustained plan to insure students have acquired the skills needed to enter college and contribute to Connecticut’s workforce.
When Mr. Neag gave his gift he stated, “I saw this gift as an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of thousands of schoolchildren in Connecticut and the nation.” At the Neag School, we take his words very seriously. As a school, our mission is clear: We are committed to producing highly effective teachers, principals, superintendents, researchers, exercise scientists and physical therapists in order to improve the academic performance, health and well-being of ALL children in this state and across the nation.
Today, more than ever, teachers and administrators need to look beyond the classroom and be advocates for children, especially those in our most challenging schools. Closing the achievement gap is both an economic and moral imperative for the future of our state as well as the children of Connecticut. The work will be difficult and costly. However, it is important that concerned citizens like you support the work and become an integral part of the conversation. Have a great summer!
Thomas C. DeFranco