By JACQUELINE RABE THOMAS
A conversation with new Connecticut education commissioner Dianna Wentzell
HARTFORD — Dianna Wentzell takes over as Connecticut’s new education commissioner as educators face major obstacles to improving schools throughout the state. During her first month on the job, Wentzell toured several schools and laid out her vision for Connecticut’s education system to legislators.
Here’s her take on the state of education in Connecticut and how she hopes to improve public schools.
Wentzell, who was a teacher for 12 years before becoming a district administrator, said testing students is important, but only when done appropriately. The state has faced considerable pushback from some teachers and parents who worry that too much classroom time is being consumed by testing and test preparation.
“Testing and assessment are a necessary part of instruction, but that’s just it: they’re a part of instruction. So assessment’s purpose is to inform instruction. An assessment helps us know what our students need so that our teachers can meet the needs. The most useful assessments are the ones that are small enough and quick enough that they can help inform instruction,” Wentzell told legislators during her confirmation hearing in May.
And the state’s battery of annual tests also helps ensure accountability, she said.
“The core purpose of a state assessment program really is to see whether we are making good on our promises to kids and families,” Wentzell said. “So I think in the case of student assessment, the critical conversations are around how do we rightsize this experience so it doesn’t take over the educational experience for kids and the teachers? How do we make sure the test is long enough and comprehensive enough to really give us good data, but no longer than that so that we’re not intruding on the educational experience to the degree possible?” she asked.
“We need to stand together and really convince all educational stakeholders that test preparation has no place in our schools. You know, these tests are not to be prepared for. They’re like taking your temperature to see if you are well.”
Before becoming commissioner, Wentzell led the state office responsible for implementing the controversial Common Core State Standards and the new standardized tests aligned with them.
Those standards — which officials report matched 80 percent of the state’s existing English standards and 92 percent of math standards — require students to spend more time reading nonfiction and to show writing ability by including facts.
Wentzell says implementing Common Core in Connecticut’s schools is the right move.
“Change always makes all of us nervous, and I think once parents understand the intention of higher standards, and they understand how to better support their own child to achieve at high levels, they feel much more comfortable. But they are much more likely to feel comfortable if they can have it explained by their child’s teacher. So we have really redoubled our efforts to support the teachers who are leading this change,” she said.
Controversy has surrounded the state’s plan to link nearly one-quarter of teachers’ performance ratings to student test scores and to allow school leaders to use those ratings to make tenure and dismissal decisions.
But that plan may stall since the state scrapped its old assessments and launched the Smarter Balanced Assessments in the school year that just ended. The state has asked the U.S. Department of Education for permission to push back linking the evaluations to tenure and dismissal decisions until at least the 2016-17 school year since there is no baseline against which to measure a teacher’s progress.
“We would like to have an extra year to see how that test performs before there are stakes associated with them,” Wentzell said.
One of every 15 students in Connecticut’s public schools speaks and understands limited English, and their achievement lags far behind that of their classmates. The gap in Connecticut is among the largest in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
In response, Wentzell says the department needs to focus more attention on those students by providing better guidance for districts.
“I do think different models are more appropriate, depending on when a child is learning English, whether they have literacy already in their native language and other kinds of specifics that are contextual,” said Wentzell, a former school leader in Hartford, which enrolls more English language learners than any other district in the state. “I think it’s very important that the state Department of Education provide guidance on the best research-based models but allow local districts to make decisions about what makes the most sense.”
Lawmakers recently boosted the state’s role in overseeing the education of English learners by requiring low-performing districts to submit plans to improve.
The growing cost of providing needed services to students with learning disabilities has been a major concern for district leaders, especially given that the state grant that supports special education has not increased for years.
One in eight Connecticut students — more than 65,000 students — receives special education services, and nearly $1 of every $4 spent on education now goes to special education. In the past decade, while general education costs increased 36 percent, spending for special education increased by 54 percent, a nearly $650 million jump.
Wentzell said the best way for districts to contain these costs is to offer supports in their own schools, rather than paying tuition to send students out-of-district. The state’s role is helping districts understand their options and best practices, she said.
“There was a time when a lot of kids were deliberately excluded from our public schools that could be educated just fine in our public schools and be more a part of society in general. So inclusion has brought more and more kids with special needs into regular classrooms. If students needs are met in the regular classroom – that’s better. That saves funds for the district,” Wentzell said.
The state spent more than $2 billion this fiscal year on education, but a coalition of parents, teachers and municipal leaders is suing the state, contending that is not enough to provide an adequate education.
The Connecticut Supreme Court five years ago ruled that the state Constitution guarantees students an education that meets a minimum standard. It sent the case to a lower court for a trial to determine whether the state has met that standard, and, if not, what remedies should be ordered.
That trial is scheduled to begin in three months.
Wentzell was noncommittal when asked by legislators during her confirmation hearing whether the state needs to funnel more money to districts.
“As someone who has lived in our public schools really my whole career, you probably won’t ever hear me say that we’re overfunded. I think we always all know that we could do more with more, but sometimes we learn a lot about how to do things better by doing more with less, and those are important lessons, too.
“There are areas that are in need of investment in our schools and there are investments that are in need of evaluation to make sure they’re effective,” she said.
Connecticut has drastically expanded the number of students enrolled in nontraditional public schools. Last school year, 46,189 students attended either a charter or magnet school — nearly triple the number of students attending choice schools during the 2004-05 school year and nearly 10 percent of all public school students.
Wentzell said that regardless of school governance type, the state needs to do better figuring out what works to improve educational outcomes.
“I think when we start to talk about schools, and school models, one of the things we really need to make a conscious effort to do is to really study spotlights of excellence in Connecticut. What’s going well where and why?”
“I believe there are things to learn from all of our different types of schools. And we can learn about what the best efforts have been in certain areas,” she said.
The key strategy of the Malloy administration to improve educational outcomes has been to focus the state’s time and additional funding on districts and schools that are struggling to improve. Those efforts — called the Commissioners’ Network of schools and Alliance Districts — will enter their third year next school year.
Wentzell said now is the time to figure out what has worked and what hasn’t.
“When we think about the big policy initiatives of the last several years, I do think it’s more of a time of refining our efforts and really making sure to evaluate which of our initiatives are having the intended outcomes. What’s making the most difference for our kids and where do we need to either redouble our efforts or take a different path?”
Jacqueline Rabe Thomas is a reporter for The Connecticut Mirror (www.ctmirror.org). Copyright 2015 © The Connecticut Mirror.
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