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We Missed the Chance to Remake Education

What a missed opportunity! We could have made the 2021-22 school year the time to fix our underachieving public education system. We could have utilized the wisdom we gained from a year of remote and hybrid learning to rethink how we deliver education. We could have made our schools work for kids, rather than having our kids work to support our failed education model. But we failed. We reverted to the tired old system. We threw away the chance.

Connecticut schools closed for COVID on March 16, 2020. The education system that shut down was hardly the exemplar of fine teaching. While the Common Core and the Smarter Balance Testing scheme provided challenging learning for the highly motivated and gifted, they served to leave in the dust the lower performing students. Rich suburban towns could afford smaller class sizes and excellent teaching materials, while the cities and poorer rural towns were forced to have classes of sometimes twice the number of students with little technology available. Teachers complained that they were instructed to merely implement a curriculum and give standardized tests but were prevented from teaching. Administrators felt like Gulliver, tied down by Lilliputian regulatory ropes. Connecticut scores near the top on the National Assessment of Education Progress (The Nation’s Report Card), but that achievement pales on closer analysis: while 53% of white kids score at or above proficient in 8th grade reading, only 17% of Black kids do. While 57% of kids not eligible for free or reduced-price lunch score at or above proficient, only 20% of eligible kids do. See, the Nations Report Card.

COVID forced the closure of schools and the development of the art of remote teaching. Some students suffered greatly under remote teaching, but some did very well. Academic treatises on learning loss have not been substantiated by the actual testing done by school districts. And, when schools returned to a hybrid model, learning accelerated, largely due to small class sizes and an end to unstructured activities. Certainly, there was a huge spurt in chronic absenteeism, but much of that was due to factors such as poverty, working parents, and inadequate connectivity. Student alienation was exacerbated by ham-fisted attempts to force attendance. During this last year and three months, teachers learned how to engage and stimulate students over the Internet, how to develop social connectedness in the face of mandated physical distancing, and how to triage the curriculum to focus on what is essential.

Now, however, the state has decided to revert to the same old failed system of the past. The AccelerateCT initiative of the State Department of Education contains virtually nothing new or different. Instead of recreating a system to meet the needs of different students, the state has retreated to a one size fits all approach. Every student back in school full time. Same old crowded classrooms. Same old inappropriate curriculum. Same old excessive testing. Same old not permitting teachers to teach.

We can do better. We can continue a program of remote instruction for the students who choose it. We can restructure schools to maintain small class sizes. We can make vocational education and internships an option in every high school. We can ensure that students are outside for at least one hour each day. We can focus instruction on the individualized needs of each student. We can allow administrators the freedom to budget across years, rather than forcing them to use it or lose it. We can liberate teachers to teach. We can focus on teaching, not on testing. We can modify the structure of schools to make all students feel welcome and a part of the community. We can provide the social and emotional support that students need whether they are in the school building or in a program of remote learning. And, perhaps most importantly, we can close the funding gap, where the rich suburban towns in DRG A spent an average of $22,411 per student for the 2018-19 school year, while cities with large minority populations in DRG I spent an average of $16,008 per student.

School opening day 2021 should be day one of a new educational future for Connecticut. Instead, the bureaucrats who run the system have determined that we will muddle on in mediocrity. It’s a shame.