Experts discuss future of K-12 in Connecticut at Dodd Center lecture

Jennifer Alexander, chief executive officer of the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN), speaks during a presentation at UConn's Thomas J. Dodd Research Center on Monday, Oct. 5, 2015. (Mei Buzzell/The Daily Campus)

Providing solutions to the major problems of childhood education will require us “to go beyond reform,” said Joseph Ciarsuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents (CAPSS), at a Monday presentation in the University of Connecticut’s Thomas J. Dodd Research Center.

“We put the kids on an assembly line at the age of five,” Ciarsuolo said. “As they’re going through, if we see there’s something wrong we take them off the line and do what we can to get them back on the line. What we ought to be doing is taking a look at the assembly line itself.”

The event was sponsored by Center for Education Policy Analysis (CEPA) with UConn’s Neag School of Education. Ciarsuolo and two other prominent experts formed a panel to discuss the future of Connecticut’s public education system.

Jennifer Alexander, chief executive officer of the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN), focused on the inequality of Connecticut’s public education system. She noted that while the state is highly ranked nationally in most education assessment, it also has “the largest achievement gap in the country.”

“Kids with similar learning needs are getting very different amounts of money,” Alexander said.

Donald E. Williams, Jr., a former Connecticut state senator and current Deputy Director of Policy, Research and Reform at the Connecticut Education Association, similarly focused on inequality of income as it relates to inequality of education.

“Our poorest communities should not have the largest classrooms,” Williams said, referring to the scarcity of teachers in poor areas.

He added that currently the two most accurate predicators of a child success are their race and their parents’ income.

Later in the talk, Ciarsuolo outlined his ideas to change the public education enterprise, primarily focusing on making the process more “personalized.”

We put the kids on an assembly line at the age of five. As they’re going through, if we see there’s something wrong we take them off the line and do what we can to get them back on the line. What we ought to be doing is taking a look at the assembly line itself.
— Joseph Ciarsuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents (CAPSS).

First, he proposed to end the traditional system of a child’s age determining their grade bracket. 

“Kids should move through the system based on what they know and what they’re able to do,” Ciarsuolo said. “They’ll get the time to learn that and acquire the skills. The amount that each kid takes varies with the time they need to learn.”

“If we have a system that is truly mastery based, that is truly personalized, these kids wouldn’t be going into college unready to learn,” Ciarsuolo said.

He argued education should begin earlier, around age three, and continue without “imprisoning ourselves with the standard school year,” which traditionally exists to allow children to work on their parents’ farm. In those two to three months of summer students lose much of what they learned during the year.

Second, educators need to align their styles of teaching with students’ styles of learning. He said kids learn in a number of different styles, but traditional schooling only offers one or two. Kindergarteners, Ciarsuolo said, “have learned a lot in five years,” but this slows down if the teaching stops aligning with their learning.

Finally, he said education has to be more dynamic and take into account student interests. A more personalized system, Ciarsuolo said, would acknowledge that students do most of their learning outside of traditional classrooms and in diverse ways.

Each of the panelists agreed major funding changes are necessary, particularly in simplifying and equalizing the state’s education funding program to better care for poor communities.

Ciarsuolo further said education and poverty are inextricably tied. He quoted President Lyndon B. Johnson, “Poverty must not be a bar to learning, and learning must offer an escape from poverty.” Ciarsuolo contended that education to disadvantaged communities must be strong enough to better those communities.

“I think we have a problem with values. It isn’t just the money,” Ciarsuolo said. “It’s the value we spend on education. We need to start talking with people and asking where there values are.”
He said that where the U.S. ranks on total percent of GDP spent on education is where it ranks in test scores.

“The money is there,” Ciarsuolo said. “The question is, ‘How are we going to spend it?’"


Christopher McDermott is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at christopher.mcdermott@uconn.edu.