Patrick Riccards was the chief executive officer of the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, ConnCAN, an education reform advocacy organization in Connecticut.

Earlier this week, after getting home from the state Capitol as the sun was getting ready to rise, I took a moment to watch my two children – ages six and four – sleep. With all of the rhetoric and fighting often tied up in education reform, it is easy to lose sight of why we work to ensure all kids have access to great public schools.  For me, it is all about my kids.

During the past three months, that motivation was important to remember as Connecticut engaged on one of the most significant education policy fights in its history. We heard reform wasn’t necessary. We heard reform was too hard. We heard we were asking for too much. We heard there wasn’t enough time.  We heard it was simply impossible.

But as Nelson Mandela said, “It is always impossible until it is done.” Today, we can say that the first stage of substantive education reform in Connecticut is done. After months of legislative work, predated by years of efforts to build a sense of urgency and a call to action, Connecticut has enacted one of the most ambitious, comprehensive education reform plans the nation has seen.

What was accomplished in this legislative session? Following a 28-7 positive vote in the State Senate and a 149-0 unanimous vote in the State House, Connecticut:

  • Launched a new educator evaluation system, to be piloted in 10 districts this year, that makes student learning outcomes the most important element of teacher and principal evaluation
  • Required that teacher tenure be earned based on effectiveness
  • Created a streamlined dismissal process for chronically ineffective teachers
  • Established a Commissioner’s Network for the state’s lowest-performing schools, providing the leadership, structure, funding, flexibility, and accountability to bring real change to those buildings and students who need it most
  • Implemented an evidence-based approach to teaching children to read, providing the instruction, measurement, and accountability to get all kids reading at grade level by fourth grade
  • Provided conditional funding for the state’s lowest-performing school districts, offering additional dollars for the implementation of real reforms
  • Established a Common Chart of Accounts so, once and for all, all Connecticut public schools account for their spending in a consistent, transparent way
  • Moved closer to real equity for Connecticut’s charter school students, providing the largest increase in per-pupil expenditure for charter schools in the state’s history
  • Expanded quality public school choice options by calling for additional state-authorized charter schools, including those that serve ELL populations, and providing financial incentives to create locally authorized charters

Clearly, this is not simply tinkering around the edges or dipping a toe in the water when it comes to education reform. From effective educators to school choice to turnarounds to fair funding, Connecticut has taken a significant step forward in its efforts to improve all public schools.

Real reform does not happen without real leadership. As we have seen time and again, it is easy to talk a good game on education reform. It is rare to find those true leaders who are willing to work tirelessly do what is right, instead of just what is popular. Those who are willing to stick to their guns, despite enormous pressures and unending attacks from the defenders of the status quo.

Connecticut is fortunate to have such a leader in Governor Dannel Malloy.  From declaring 2012 as “The Year for Education Reform” to refusing to cede his ground on what was needed to improve our schools, Governor Malloy displayed the true “Profiles in Courage” moments we both seek and need. Without question, Connecticut would not be where it is today without Governor Malloy’s vision, leadership, and commitment.

And while Malloy was the captain of this education reform effort, he had a terrific team around him. Commissioner Stefan Pryor. The Black and Puerto Rican Caucus. Legislative leadership. And the many parents, students, community leaders, business leaders, teachers, principals, superintendents, school board members and concerned citizens who joined together to support real reform.

Governor Malloy and educational leaders in Connecticut have gotten it done. The Nutmeg State has done what many said would be impossible when it comes to education reform. A Democratic state with strong unions has reformed both education evaluation and tenure. A financially well-off state that long ignored its nation-leading achievement gap is now embarking on a massive school turnaround effort.  A state known as “the land of steady habits,” is now poised to be a national education reform leader.

Make no mistake, there is still much work to be done in Connecticut.  This year’s actions are significant steps toward real improvement.  They must be followed by equally bold and strong steps in the coming years, as today’s reforms are implemented with fidelity across the state.  But the journey has begun.

Patrick Riccards is the chief executive officer of the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, ConnCAN, an education reform advocacy organization in Connecticut.


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