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The Debate - Elements of Effective Reform

Connecticut State Department of Education Commissioner Betty J. Sternberg outlines five elements of good, effective education reform for all schools.

It is imperative that we close the achievement gaps among groups of students. This is a decades-old issue in Connecticut and throughout the country, and no issue is more important. But how do we get there? How do we help all students do better? And how do we close those gaps?

Some will argue that there are many approaches to reaching this goal. A magnet school that focuses on mathematics and science. A middle-level charter school that addresses the unique needs of students in this age group. A Montessori magnet elementary school that features this method exclusively. They are all right; all of these approaches succeed in improving achievement. So do many others.

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Different approaches succeed because students, neighborhoods, towns and regions are different. They have different needs and resources. However, I believe that underlying every successful approach are the same five elements of good, solid, effective education reform. All of these elements are needed in order to close the achievement gaps.

First, numerous studies show that high-quality preschool gives young children what they need to do well in school. By lessening the gaps among students before they enter kindergarten, we have a real chance to close the gaps that increasingly manifest themselves over the K-12 continuum.

Second, we must listen to and understand the students whose achievement we are trying to raise. What do they and their parents think contributes to success? Given more choices, what kinds of schools would they attend? What kind of support do they need from families, schools and neighborhoods?

Third, we must attract and retain high-quality teachers in general, and especially in areas (both academic and geographic) that are most challenging. We must attract a teaching force more reflective of our students' races and cultures. We must attract educators who have the energy, commitment, passion and belief that all students can learn - educators who signal to students and their parents that it is their responsibility, along with their teachers' and administrators', to work hard to achieve at high levels.

High academic honor without high ethical behavior is no honor at all.

Next, we must take a very close look at what we are teaching and how we are teaching it. We must ensure that what we are teaching and testing are important, reasonable and challenging to every student. We must ensure that every student has the benefit of a planned, ongoing, systematic, up-to-date, research-based program of instruction in reading, writing, mathematics, science and social studies — plus a full course of study in a language other than English, as well as the arts and health and physical education.

Finally, we must keep an equally strong focus on students' social, emotional, physical and mental health. An intense focus on high academic achievement for all students is the heart of what we do. This is necessary, but not sufficient, to produce informed, respectful and respected citizens. We need an equally strong effort to improve student ethical achievement. High academic honor without high ethical behavior is no honor at all.

Successful schools focus on all of these factors when planning, implementing, evaluating and revising their school improvement plans. And while many believe that charter and magnet schools are in a better position than "regular" schools to do dramatic things that lead to dramatic student success, the truth is that "regular" schools generate similar success, too. One great example is the Simpson-Waverly School in Hartford, Connecticut. Because it is located in a high-poverty, high-minority area, the "conventional wisdom" would say test scores would be low and other measures of success equally bleak. Not so. On the Connecticut Mastery Test, Simpson-Waverly students perform at levels equal to students in some of Connecticut's wealthiest communities. They also demonstrate self-discipline, good citizenship and outstanding interpersonal skills.

All students can succeed in every way. It takes hard work - by the students themselves, their families, their teachers, administrators and communities — to get them there.

Together, we can do it.

For additional information, visit the Connecticut Department of Education

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