Author: Leah Ward

The Future of K-12 Education Policy in Connecticut


Experts discuss future of K-12 in Connecticut at Dodd Center lecture


Providing solutions to the major problems of childhood education will require us “to go beyond reform,” said Joseph Ciarsuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents (CAPSS), at a Monday presentation in the University of Connecticut’s Thomas J. Dodd Research Center.

“We put the kids on an assembly line at the age of five,” Ciarsuolo said. “As they’re going through, if we see there’s something wrong we take them off the line and do what we can to get them back on the line. What we ought to be doing is taking a look at the assembly line itself.”

The event was sponsored by Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA) with UConn’s Neag School of Education. Ciarsuolo and two other prominent experts formed a panel to discuss the future of Connecticut’s public education system.

Jennifer Alexander, chief executive officer of the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN), focused on the inequality of Connecticut’s public education system. She noted that while the state is highly ranked nationally in most education assessment, it also has “the largest achievement gap in the country.”

“Kids with similar learning needs are getting very different amounts of money,” Alexander said.

Donald E. Williams, Jr., a former Connecticut state senator and current Deputy Director of Policy, Research and Reform at the Connecticut Education Association, similarly focused on inequality of income as it relates to inequality of education.

“Our poorest communities should not have the largest classrooms,” Williams said, referring to the scarcity of teachers in poor areas.

He added that currently the two most accurate predicators of a child success are their race and their parents’ income.

Later in the talk, Ciarsuolo outlined his ideas to change the public education enterprise, primarily focusing on making the process more “personalized.”

“We put the kids on an assembly line at the age of five. As they’re going through, if we see there’s something wrong we take them off the line and do what we can to get them back on the line. What we ought to be doing is taking a look at the assembly line itself.

— Joseph Ciarsuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents (CAPSS).

First, he proposed to end the traditional system of a child’s age determining their grade bracket.

“Kids should move through the system based on what they know and what they’re able to do,” Ciarsuolo said. “They’ll get the time to learn that and acquire the skills. The amount that each kid takes varies with the time they need to learn.”

“If we have a system that is truly mastery based, that is truly personalized, these kids wouldn’t be going into college unready to learn,” Ciarsuolo said.

He argued education should begin earlier, around age three, and continue without “imprisoning ourselves with the standard school year,” which traditionally exists to allow children to work on their parents’ farm. In those two to three months of summer students lose much of what they learned during the year.

Second, educators need to align their styles of teaching with students’ styles of learning. He said kids learn in a number of different styles, but traditional schooling only offers one or two. Kindergarteners, Ciarsuolo said, “have learned a lot in five years,” but this slows down if the teaching stops aligning with their learning.

Finally, he said education has to be more dynamic and take into account student interests. A more personalized system, Ciarsuolo said, would acknowledge that students do most of their learning outside of traditional classrooms and in diverse ways.

Each of the panelists agreed major funding changes are necessary, particularly in simplifying and equalizing the state’s education funding program to better care for poor communities.

Ciarsuolo further said education and poverty are inextricably tied. He quoted President Lyndon B. Johnson, “Poverty must not be a bar to learning, and learning must offer an escape from poverty.” Ciarsuolo contended that education to disadvantaged communities must be strong enough to better those communities.

“I think we have a problem with values. It isn’t just the money,” Ciarsuolo said. “It’s the value we spend on education. We need to start talking with people and asking where there values are.”
He said that where the U.S. ranks on total percent of GDP spent on education is where it ranks in test scores.

“The money is there,” Ciarsuolo said. “The question is, ‘How are we going to spend it?’”

Christopher McDermott is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at

State Rep. Fleischmann Visits Neag



The Neag School of Education’s Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA) hosted “A CoState Rep. Fleischmannnversation with Representative Andy Fleischmann” this past November at the Storrs campus. As the chairman of the Education Committee of the Connecticut State Assembly, State Rep. Fleischmann (West Hartford) spoke about the future of education in Connecticut schools and how education policy research could better inform policy making in Hartford and beyond.

Hosted by CEPA, this was the first time Fleischmann was invited to the Neag School of Education since he assumed office in 1995. As a major advocate for children and education, Fleischmann has worked on the state and national levels to help ensure that children are receiving the highest quality of education through research and policy implementation.

“One of the things that I would love to come out of this dialogue would be ideas, research, facts, and concepts about what Connecticut can do to make sure it has the most effective teachers, most effective principals, and the most effective superintendents,” Fleischmann said at the event.

“Neag is really trying to jump-start into being the center of policy analysis, and we want to move it into a new realm of influence,” says Morgaen Donaldson, Neag associate professor of educational leadership and the director of CEPA, which works with educational leaders and policymakers on issues related to the development, implementation, and consequences of education policies. “Fleischmann is one of the most influential policymakers in the state. To us, inviting him was a clear choice,” she says.

Ensuring Academic Excellence

Faculty from Neag and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, as well as local citizens, current undergraduate and graduate UConn students, and even area high school students visiting the University filled the seats.

Fleischmann spoke at length about developments following the midterm elections and how they will impact schools. He said that it is important for educational researchers to conduct relevant research to support policy changes and new initiatives. Given the recent federal level and statewide elections, he also questioned how policymakers will implement the new actions based on the educational research available.

Fleischmann said that, since 1995, Connecticut has put excessive amounts of money into school readiness programs across the state without conducting any longitudinal studies to gauge the effectiveness of these programs. He said that there should be more communication and more partnering to achieve that success.

“Ideally, we should get new people in the room and have the right type of data collected for longitudinal study designs. This way, we won’t continue to wonder, ‘Gee, how did it go?’ but rather, we will be proactive about these studies,” Fleischmann said.

Given the strong connection between education and politics, Fleischmann emphasized that research from schools such as UConn is essential to policymaking in Hartford. If teachers wanted to see something changed in the classroom, it would first have to begin with some kind of research to show why changes need to be made, he said.

“The No. 1 factor for a student excelling is the quality of the teacher; the second is the school leader. Wouldn’t it be neat for us to figure how to implement the best policies to ensure academic excellence?” Fleischmann said.

CEPA plans on having other key figures come to the Neag School for further discussion on education research and policymaking. In the upcoming semester, Donaldson says she hopes to invite other state representatives as well as members of the Connecticut Education Association, Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, and similar groups.

“I hope that by bringing in researchers to talk to us about their research on policy creation and implementation, it will foster a community of like-minded individuals who can make a change,” Donaldson says.


A Report Card on Teacher Evaluation


Nicole LaPierre works with students in a classroom during her student teaching practice.

Nicole LaPierre ’11 (ED), ’12 MA, works with students in a classroom during her student teaching practice. Pierre is now an elementary teacher at Cider Hill School in Wilton, Conn. (Paul Horton for UConn)

A recent report by UConn education researchers on Connecticut’s new System for Educator Evaluation and Development (SEED) has the potential to impact every public school student in the state.

“Teachers have been identified as the No. 1 school-level influence on students’ achievement,” says Morgaen Donaldson, assistant professor of educational leadership in the Neag School of Education. “That means for students to score high and reach their full potential, teachers need to score high and work to reach their full potential. So for parents, grandparents, and anyone connected with a child, our work evaluating the SEED program is helping ensure students get the high-quality teachers they need to succeed.”

“For students to score high and reach their full potential, teachers need to score high and work to reach their full potential.”

Mandated by the state General Assembly as part of aggressive legislation passed in 2012 to improve the quality of state schools and raise student achievement scores, the study was conducted by Donaldson and six other researchers from the Neag School’s Center for Education Policy Analysis. Among other results, it concludes that with additional administrative support and better-executed implementation, the SEED model has the potential for “even greater gains.”

Although teacher unions have criticized SEED for basing close to half of a teacher’s performance evaluation on their students’ performance, data gathered from the 14 school districts piloting the evaluation system during 2012-13 show that changes in mindset and practice are essential to the kind of teacher growth and improvement SEED was designed to achieve. These changes include:

  • Teachers spending more time on self-assessment and goal-setting;
  • Teachers more carefully considering how to best meet the individual needs and challenges of current students;
  • Principals and other administrators conducting more frequent classroom visits to observe teachers at work.

More than half of participating teachers and administrators rated their post-observation conferences to be “valuable” or “very valuable.” For both groups, however, the time needed to prepare and take part in rigorous observations, develop lesson plans tailored to individual students, and fulfill other SEED requirements was an issue. In addition, the time and funds required for much-needed professional development were cited in the report as an ongoing challenge.

Improvements recommended by Neag researchers include increased opportunities for teachers to learn about SEED; programs to build the skills and abilities of teacher evaluators; help with teacher goals setting; and a system for the state to continue to track and improve the program.

Additional resources needed

“I think it’s clear from our report that most districts will need added resources to carry out SEED, because even in districts with significant resources, teachers and administrators can be spread thin,” says Donaldson. “But the fact that behaviors were changing because of SEED is small but important evidence that shows what SEED can do. It’s going to be hard for educators to perform all that SEED expects without the necessary resources. But if those resources are made available, the impact on K-12 students can be huge. Better teacher performance will mean better student performance.”

While responses to the Neag researchers’ findings from education officials like American Federation of Teachers Connecticut President Melodie Peters have been cautiously neutral, Bridgeport Education Association President Gary Peluchette told the Connecticut Post his concern is that SEED focuses more on “chasing a test score than best practices.”

However, Connecticut Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor told the Hartford Courant that the Neag report gives “added confidence that the system has the potential to improve instruction for our students, and that the state can make implementation even better through continued and improved supports provided to teachers, schools, and districts. The fact that Neag researchers find there is potential for this system to lead to improvement in both teacher practice and student learning is profoundly important.”

Although many school districts are still figuring out how best to implement it, the SEED model went statewide at the start of the 2013-14 school year. Its process calls for teachers to be rated on a four-step scale as “exemplary,” “proficient,” “developing,” or “below standard.” In the pilot districts, 73 percent of teachers met criteria for “proficient” and 23 percent for “exemplary.”

The fact that Connecticut now has consistent, statewide evaluation standards for all public school teachers is one of the model’s biggest pluses, Donaldson says: “Between SEED and the introduction of the Common Core [State Standards], our school systems are going through huge, unprecedented changes. But if carried out well, the result of these ambitious reforms could be young people who are better educated and more skilled, and that really could make a difference in the future of our state, country, and world.”

Continue reading