Middletown residents got a first-hand look at how heated the debate is over education reform when Gov. Dannel Malloy visited the city for a Town Hall meeting on Monday night hosted by Shiloh Baptist Church. Malloy proclaimed the education reform effort in Connecticut was similar to a modern-day version of the civil rights movement.
The NAACP sponsored the discussion on the education reform bill, which has completely taken over the Capitol this year. The church was packed to the brim with engaged and concerned citizens looking for Malloy to further explain and defend his reformation bill, a task he took to with great vigor from his opening speech onward. The governor opened by highlighting how the poor scores of Middletown students on standardized tests reflected the humongous gap between the highest and lowest performing schools in Connecticut communities. Malloy then stated, “I am putting everything into reforming our education system. It would have been easier not to do anything about this issue. For a long time it was not on the hot burner.”
After State NAACP President Scott X.Esadaile opened the meeting, speakers were able to directly converse with the public and Malloy about the bill. In front of a crowd made up of both parents and influential people in education and the NAACP, a number of thought-provoking exchanges occurred.
NAACP Education Committee Chairman Dr. Benjamin Foster Jr. spoke on how he hoped the bill could promote more culturally relevant education, a viewpoint strongly supported by the crowd. “Teachers need to receive cross-cultural training and learn to use teaching material which is more culturally relevant,” Foster Jr. said. “Having this as elements of the bill would make it more cogent and relevant.”
Malloy largely agreed with the importance of cultural sensitivity between teachers and students and said he hoped to have teachers obtain professional, post-graduate training, similar to the programs Stamford teachers received when he was the city’s mayor.
Some of the town hall’s conversations were not so civil. Hamden High School Principal Gary Highsmith suggested the proposed bill was not supported by substantial research or studies, and argued that the bill should feature less reliance on standardized tests which placed undue accountability on teachers.
“It has been my experience that in absence of data,” stated Highsmith “people fall back on “let’s disband the unions” or “fire all the teachers”…or they attempt to vilify teachers. There is no evidence that dismantling collective bargaining will lead to improved student learning.”
Malloy took no time to counter Highsmith. He stated that the state was not taking away collective bargaining for teachers and pointed out that the Connecticut Education Association had agreed too much of the reform proposals they were now fighting. Malloy then broadcast one of his central messages of the reform debate.
“Accepting failure is not acceptable,” he said. “Why should we invest in schools that are going to continue to fail? You have to get out of the box because what’s in the box isn’t working.”
The dialogue between Malloy and Highsmith focused on two of the bill’s most significant components. Under the governor’s proposed bill, $39.5 million out of the $50 million for school funding would go to the 30-lowest performing schools in Connecticut. Malloy has repeatedly said he desires to have a multi-certification process for teachers, where they would keep the one certification they already have, but in which the most exceptional teachers would be recognized with additional certifications.
The second recurring theme of the night was the question of how much parental involvement could and should shape the performance of students, and the extent to which the voices of parents have been heard in the shaping of the reform bill. Attorney and NAACP member Michael Jefferson spoke on behalf of more parental involvement. He cited studies which claimed that family involvement had a larger effect on the performance of disadvantaged students than any one measure a school could take. Jefferson was extremely concerned with his belief that the governor and those shaping the bills had set out to blame and bash teachers. These observations set off a passionate reaction from Malloy.
“If you are intimating that I’m bashing teachers, you’re dead wrong,” he stated. “They (teacher unions) celebrated the bill on their website.” He then went on to say that the CEA did not inform their members of certification and tenure reforms in the bill, a statement which drew a sustained clamor from the crowd.
The governor said that he cannot mandate parental involvement but that there are ways for schools to work with parents in promoting it. For example, Malloy suggested schools should have open houses on weekends or holidays to accommodate the schedules of working parents. By doing this, parents can have a greater opportunity to be involved in their children’s education.
Capitol Prepatory Magnet School Principal Dr. Steve Perry concluded the town hall by fervently defending the reform bill while urging Malloy to remain devoted to reforming education.
“It’s not about charters, it’s about options,” he stated. “If there’s a choice and no one chooses my school, then shut it down. We lock these kids in these schools to die and then blame them for the deaths they die. Don’t let people squabbling other adult comfort get in your way. Go harder.”