Norwalk deserves education reform with new superintendent

By Lisa Thomson, Red APPLES of Norwalk

NORWALK, Conn. – “Disclaimer: Primary responsibility for a student’s success begins at home.”

However, holding adults accountable in public education is daunting. There are so many moving parts: the feds, state, unions, municipalities, school boards, etc. Not until federal NCLB legislation passed in 2001 were school districts held accountable, albeit indirectly with standardized testing. And, not until Connecticut repeatedly lost Race to The Top dollars, and branded the state with the largest achievement gap, did reform legislation pass with the help of Gov. Malloy.

Norwalk started its own reform a few years ago by hiring Susan Marks, Ph.D. as superintendent. She reached out to the community, increasing transparency for those who were watching. Unfortunately, a bad economy, split board, and $4 million bombshell (ticking for years) lead to unprecedented staff cuts (even after a tax increase) creating a lot of bad feelings for everyone. Hopefully, the outside auditing firm hired by the city, new financial director and the state legislated accounting procedures, will help get our heads around funding.

Reform superintendent, Paul Vallas once said, “Public schools haven’t failed, they’ve just failed to evolve.” Could he have been referring to the 30 percent of U.S. college freshman requiring remedial assistance in one of the 3 R’s? Or was he referring to outdated practices that carry financial implications?

It will take time and public pressure to implement the systemic changes needed to balance financials with academic achievement, so that American children can compete with the world.

The fiscal cliff we face as a nation also applies to Norwalk. It’s difficult to sell tax increases for education, when 21 percent of the budget is allocated for healthcare and benefits AND growing; or to pay for employee ex-spouses when many residents can’t afford insurance themselves. It’s also difficult to sell a tax increase, when union leadership resists work rule changes benefiting students, unless legally negotiated or legislatively mandated by the state.

But there is hope. According to a 2012 survey conducted by Teach Plus, for the first time in a half century teachers with 10 years’ experience or less make up more than 50 percent of the U.S. workforce. While the findings indicate that this new majority of teachers agree with their older colleagues about things like class size (as do parents) the study revealed that newer teachers were more open to perfor¬mance-driven options for both evaluations and pay.

Where are we in Norwalk? Last year’s roster revealed a three-way split: 37.4 percent of teachers had 10 years or less, 32.6 per cent had 13 years and the balance had 18 years or more. So what? Well, it turns out that a state arbitration panel singled out Norwalk’s BoE-NFT contract dispute for the “dysfunctional nature of the current salary structure and longevity benefits, the generosity of which is unprecedented in the state…”

In addition to an achievement gap, Norwalk suffers from a compensation gap with entry level teachers earning 2.5 times less than the longest serving teacher. In the reform movement sweeping the nation, time won’t be the only factor determining compensation and effective teachers shouldn’t have to wait. Everyone needs to stay on top of this issue, as the panel gave both sides two years to re-think changes. The majority of teachers must ensure they have input regarding an historical pay structure that appears skewed against them.

On the administration side, it’s not enough to administrate. National and state officials want leadership, accountability and innovation. If Norwalk hopes to see money, the adults must be held accountable. New Haven is an example – millions have been invested because of a municipal government and BoE with the political will and desire to introduce reform. They’ve lead the way with charters, magnets and robust appraisals with the kids benefitting.

Evaluations are still a sticking point for most teachers. New state guidelines are under way, introducing a combination of measures that look at classroom observations, test results and parental input, but teachers fear a double standard by administrators, who haven’t kept sufficient tabs on themselves over the years. As the process gets under way, Norwalk’s new superintendent must ensure consistency up the chain of command.

Parents and taxpayers need to hold elected officials accountable for reform. It doesn’t take a lot of votes to get on the BoE; maybe a thousand votes if running locally and a few thousand for At-Large. For a city with 85,000 residents and 50,000+ registered voters, that’s pretty poor. As the stakes get higher, like declining property values and rising gang violence, perhaps residents will start turning out to vote for elected officials who don’t just pay lip service to education.

Connecticut education funding is a mess. The state is facing its own fiscal cliff and its unlikely substantial dollars will be coming. With residents weary of increased property taxes, how can Norwalk attract outside funding in these tough times? Thousands of foundations exist, some exclusively for the benefit of education and they’re always looking for cities with reform minded leaders, with the political will, to bring innovative learning and better management to their towns. Two examples: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donates hundreds of millions each year to expand reform initiatives and increase access to technology and Alcoa, one of the largest corporate donors last year, gave millions towards STEM (Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics) for elementary/middle school students.

We can debate the previous superintendent’s strengths or weaknesses, but a particular strength included her outreach and delivery of $5 million in new funding directed not at insurance, but staff development and academic programs like elementary reading assessments, tutoring, testing counseling and college prep for high school students, a vocation-centered re-design of Briggs and assistance with the new Common Core curriculum.

The BoE needs to get behind the next superintendent and stop politicking. They need to hire and then support a superintendent that will deliver a unified vision, and then support him or her. We need REFORM to prevail over the status quo and win-back the confidence of the community, state and outside funders.

We need to welcome young couples with children back to Norwalk’s wonderfully diverse neighborhoods and once highly reputable school system. It’s time for the reform members of the BoE, with the help of city officials, to get on with search and demonstrate to the community their sincere willingness to clean the place up. The kids are counting on you and so is the community.


One response to “Norwalk deserves education reform with new superintendent”

  1. LWitherspoon

    Well said, Ms. Thomson. I hope you and Red Apples will continue pressing our elected officials to fight the difficult battles that are required to achieve real reform. The future of Norwalk depends on it.

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