Education

Connecticut Superintendent Rails Against Failed School 'Reforms'

On the shoreline of Connecticut, the head of one school district is asking legislators to rethink the justification for reforms like the Common Core.

Photo Credit: catwalker via Shutterstock.com

Ever heard of Thomas R. Scarice? Unless you live somewhere in the state of Connecticut, possibly not. But his is a name to keep on your radar if you're interested in the future of public education in America -- and here's why.

Scarice is the superintendent of Madison, CT's public schools, and has previsouly earned accolades from education historian Diane Ravitch, among others, for his work to involve the local community in designing the future of its public schools. Late last month, Scarice penned a letter to his state represetatives exhorting them to look more closely at the reforms being touted as the "solution" to "failing" public schools, particularly those solutions that have come packaged as part of the Common Core. He called on them to both revisit the substance of said reforms and demand evidence that such measures as high-stakes testing actually work -- and he did so using the authority of his position as the head of school district, an expert in the field, and someone with a long-term commitment to ensuring that the children in his state are educated responsibly, and well.

In short, Tom Scarice took a public stand to defend the future of public education. It is only a shame that he is largely alone among his cohort in so doing. "If every superintendent had Tom Scarice’s courage and understanding," Diane Ravitch wrote, "this country would have a far, far better education system and could easily repel the intrusions of bad policies." Would that it were so.

Scarice's letter is well worth reading. Here is the full text, as published on Ravitch's education blog:

January 29, 2014

Senator Edward Meyer
Legislative Office Building,
Room 3200 Hartford, CT 06106
Representative Noreen Kokoruda
Legislative Office Building, Room 4200 State of Connecticut
Hartford, CT 06106

Dear Senator Meyer and Representative Kokoruda:

As a superintendent of schools it is incumbent upon me to ground my work with my local board of education. My work must be grounded in two areas: in accurately framing problems to solve, and most importantly, in proposing solutions grounded in evidence, research, and legitimate literature to support a particular direction. Any other approach would be irresponsible and I’m certain my board would reject such shortcuts and hold me accountable.

In our profession, we have the fortune of volumes of literature and research on our practices. We have evidence to guide our decision making to make responsible decisions in solving our problems of practice. This is not unlike the field of medicine or engineering. To ignore this evidence, in my estimation, is irresponsible.

Legislators across the state have heard from, and will continue to hear loudly from, educators about what is referred to as education reforms. Webster defines “reform” as “a method to change into an improved condition.” I believe that legislators will continue to hear from the thousands of educators across the state because the reforms, in that sense, are not resulting in an improved condition. In fact, a case can be made that the conditions have worsened.

To be fair, the reforms did, in fact, shine a light on the role of evaluation in raising the performance of our workforce. There were cases of a dereliction of duty in the evaluation of professional staff. This is unacceptable and was not the norm for all school districts.
However, I would like to make the case that these reforms will not result in improved conditions since they are not grounded in research, the evidence that supports professional decision-making, like a doctor or engineer. It is simply a matter of substance. The evidence is clear in schools across the state. It is not working.

We have spent the better part of the last 12 years with a test-based accountability movement that has not led to better results or better conditions for children. What it has led to is a general malaise among our profession, one that has accepted a narrowing of the curriculum, a teaching to the test mentality, and a poorly constructed redefinition of what a good education is. Today, a good education is narrowly defined as good test scores. What it has led to is a culture of compliance in our schools.

We have doubled-down on the failed practices of No Child Left Behind. Not only do we subscribe to a test and punish mentality for school districts, we have now drilled that mentality down to the individual teacher level.

We have an opportunity to listen to the teachers, administrators, parents, and even the students, to make the necessary course corrections. We know what is coming. We’ve seen it happen in other states. We can easily look at the literature and predict how this story ends. New York, Kentucky and so forth, these states are about one year ahead of Connecticut. Why would we think it will end any differently for our state? We can take action to prevent the inevitable.

We have an opportunity. You as legislators have an opportunity. Our students and communities are counting on us.
I am pleased to see that the Governor has asserted his authority to address this deeply rooted problem. But we cannot stop there.

I ask the following:

Do not be lulled into solutions that promote “delay.” Although the problem is being framed as an issue of implementation timelines and volume, I contend that this is much more about substance than delays. Revisit the substance of these reforms, particularly the rigidity of the teacher evaluation guidelines.

As you revisit the substance, demand the evidence and research that grounds the reforms, just as a board of education would demand of a superintendent. You will find, as I have, that the current reforms are simply not grounded in research. As legislators, demand the evidence, particularly the literature that illustrates the damaging effects of high stakes test scores in teacher evaluations. Demand the evidence that demonstrates that this approach is valid and will withstand legal scrutiny. Demanding evidence is how every local board of education holds their administrators accountable.

Build on the Governor’s first steps and create even greater flexibility for local districts to innovate and create. This is 2014…standardizing our work across all schools is not the answer. That’s the factory / assembly line mentality that got public schools into this mess. We need a diversity of thought, similar to a “crowd sourcing” approach, if we are to solve the problems of the 21st century. Above all, commit to the principle that “one size fits all” does not work. We would never accept that from individual teachers in their work with students, why should we accept “one size fits all” for very different school districts across the state? There are indeed alternative approaches that fit the context and needs of individual districts. I would be happy to provide with you with our example.

You, as legislators, can create the space for innovation to thrive. Promote innovation, not mere compliance.

Revisit the No Child Left Behind waiver that was filed with the U. S. Department of Education. This is consistently presented as the trump card in any discussion involving modifications to the reform package passed a couple of years ago. We’ve been told that we cannot make changes because of promises made to the federal government. Was there a lower threshold for compliance with the No Child Left Behind waiver? Can we take a more aggressive approach for our state and not be dictated to by the federal government to this degree? This resonates at the local level and ought to at least be considered.

Finally, do not be a cynic, but be a skeptic about the common core. How can this be done?

Demand the evidence to support whether or not the standards are age-appropriate for our youngest learners. Demand the input of early childhood experts like the 500+ nationally recognized early childhood professionals who signed a joint statement expressing “grave concerns” about the K-3 standards. Or perhaps seek input right here in Connecticut from the early childhood experts at the Geselle Institute in New Haven.

Demand the evidence that supports that every child should master the same benchmarks every year when we know that all children develop at different rates.

Demand an accurate accounting of the current and, more importantly, future costs of implementing the common core and the new Smarter Balanced (SBAC) testing system.

Demand the evidence that supports coupling the common core to unproven tests. In just weeks, many students will sit for these new tests. They will serve as subjects to “test out the test.” It is quite possible that you will hear even more from parents after the tests are administered. Be proactive and seek these answers in advance of the inevitable questions you will be asked.

I want to close by stating that I personally have between eighteen to twenty more years to serve in this state and I look at these problems in a very long-term sense. What can we do now, not for this year or next, but in the long-term to be the shining example for the rest of the country that Connecticut’s public education system once was considered? I’m committed to this work and I will continue that commitment for nearly two more decades.

I ask you to seize this opportunity.

Thank you.

Sincerely,

Thomas R. Scarice, Superintendent

Elizabeth G. Hines is AlterNet's education editor and the co-author of Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire.