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Education reform: Good news for Weston

Less paperwork and red tape. Comprehensive teacher evaluations and improved tenure criteria. A more streamlined arbitration process. According to Weston Superintendent Colleen Palmer, there’s a lot to like about the new education reform legislation signed into law this month.

“As we review the legislation, there’s nothing we feel will impede our progress forward. Just the opposite — there’s more flexibility in terms of educational practice and providing diverse educational opportunities to our students,” Dr. Palmer said.

The wide-ranging educational reform bill — an attempt to close one of the nation’s largest achievement gaps — made it through both the state House and Senate before the end of the legislative session, and Gov. Dannel Malloy signed it into law May 16.

The governor’s office outlined six basic principles of the education reform package. Dr. Palmer said several of them will have more of an impact on “high priority districts” rather than already high performing districts like Weston.

For example, portions of the bill are focused on increasing access to early childhood education, authorizing early intervention to turn around low-performing districts and schools, and delivering more resources to needy districts; these will not really affect Weston, Dr. Palmer pointed out.

However, other sections address reducing red tape by eliminating many data reporting forms that are redundant, revamping teacher evaluations, and overhauling the state’s teacher tenure statute. All of these will impact Weston — and mostly in a positive way, Dr. Palmer said.

Reporting

School districts are currently required to fill out “dozens and dozens” of reports, Dr. Palmer said, with information on demographics, finances, facilities, and education. “We complete well over 100 mandated reports, and each takes time,” Dr. Palmer said.

However, as diverse as the reports may seem, much of the information is redundant and, using data mining software, could be pulled from just a few master reports such as the Strategic School Profiles that are compiled each year, she said.

Under the new legislation, which goes into effect July 1, 2013, the state education department will reduce by one-third the number of data forms it requires school districts to complete.

In addition, a task force is being set up to look at ways to data mine and streamline the reporting process. Dr. Palmer said she and others have recommended the state contract with one data information system vendor, such as Power School, which would save all the individual districts money and put a wealth of information in a single database.

Additionally, high performing districts such as Weston will eventually be able to apply for a waiver granting greater flexibility in reporting.

All of this will help reduce the amount of staff time that is currently devoted to reporting requirements, Dr. Palmer said. And, she pointed out, time saved is money saved.

Teacher evaluations

The education reform bill also addresses tracking and maintaining quality teachers. Dr. Palmer said the state Board of Education has already adopted new regulations prescribing a certain percentage of various data be used for evaluating teacher performance; “this bill codifies those,” she said.

Under the new guidelines for teacher evaluations:

• 45% is based on student outcomes, with half of that coming from the statewide standardized tests — the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT) and the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT). Teachers whose classes do not take these tests will use different testing criteria.

• 40% focuses on the teacher’s practices (organizing, planning, assessing, etc.), based on in-class observations by school administrators.

• 10% is from parent feedback. Dr. Palmer noted that this portion will look at trends, not just at one or two individual comments. “I support it. Parents’ voices need to be heard,” she said.

• The remaining 5% is then the district’s choice of either overall outcomes of the district or student feedback. “I support student voice,” Dr. Palmer said. “I embrace the idea of feedback from students and parents. I think it will better inform us and make us more effective.”

Dr. Palmer said she does not think the new teacher evaluation requirements will be overly burdensome in Weston; many of the practices are already in place. “It’s important to look at student outcome data” and to balance that with professional judgment, she said. “I’m eager to receive guidance from the state education department regarding the specifics of implementation.”

Tenure

The new legislation also makes significant changes to teacher tenure — the ways in which both effectiveness and ineffectiveness are measured. Dr. Palmer thinks the changes are an improvement.

The changes are meant to ensure effective teachers earn tenure and ineffective ones — not just incompetent ones — can be dismissed using procedures that are fair, speedy and manageable.

The new law “provides a clear articulation of the core of what we’re looking at when it comes to what makes an effective teacher,” Dr. Palmer said.

Just as importantly, it streamlines the process of getting rid of teachers who are not up to par.

The current system for arbitration uses a panel of three arbitrators, and teachers and the school district have an unlimited amount of time to present information — a formula that translates into termination hearings that often take up to a year, Dr. Palmer said.

The new law calls for just one arbitrator (much more efficient when it comes to scheduling, Dr. Palmer said) and a limit of six hours for presenting information.

The combination of a more streamlined process and clearer standards of effectiveness make for a system that is “more transparent and less bogged down in administrative scheduling and other extraneous factors that extend hearings,” Dr. Palmer said.

Overall, the superintendent, who is chairman of the Southern Fairfield County Superintendent’s Association, said she is pleased with the education reform package. She believes input from the association was adequately solicited and its feedback was taken into consideration when formulating the final package.

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