A judge’s insight on how to care for students

A Connecticut judge orders reform of the state’s public schools to help poor students. But unlike similar court rulings, he focuses less on money and more on how to achieve student success. Other states should take notice.

Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Students at Roosevelt School in Bridgeport, Connecticut do a worksheet on reading comprehension using their iPads. Some of the lowest performing schools in the country - including preK-8th grade Roosevelt - are integrating the arts into their turnaround plans. Morale, attendance, behavior and family engagement see dramatic improvement. This is a sign of a new movement that educating the whole child yields better academic results as well.

Since the 1970s, nearly every state has been hit with lawsuits by parents or teacher unions over how much money it spends on public schools, especially in poor districts. Yet America’s K-12 system is still failing by many standards. Now a Connecticut judge has changed the national conversation with a startling ruling that focuses less on money and more on how to care for student success.

The Sept. 8 decision by state Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher did not demand higher spending from the state, as similar court decisions in other states have done. Rather, he ordered the state to better redirect money on local needs and “good teaching.” He demanded reforms – within six months! – to ensure that educators show they care more about learning outcomes than higher budgets, new buildings, and salary boosts determined by teacher seniority.

In effect, the ruling could help shift the discussion of education reform from quantity to quality.

He cited evidence that some students graduate from high school even though they are functionally illiterate and unable to pursue higher education. In urban districts, “most of the students are being let down by patronizing and illusory degrees,” Judge Moukawsher said.

He found the state’s teacher evaluation system almost useless, failing to focus on student success.

“Good teachers can’t be recognized and bad teachers can’t be removed,” he said. “Why bother measuring students if it never has any direct connection to how they’re being taught.” He also pointed out that the state spends more than the national average on its poorer schools but its poorest students perform worse than those in states with less school spending.

Connecticut’s lawmakers must now work quickly to fix the formula for state aid to poorer schools. The judge found the state aid to be irrational, befuddling, and unconstitutional, a result of politics and high state debts. Most of all, the ruling puts all those responsible for public education on notice that they will answer to a court for results in student learning.

Many states still grapple with issues of school spending, often through ballot initiatives or pending lawsuits. Perhaps the Connecticut ruling can set a precedent with its focus on best practices rather than simply more money. Poor school districts do deserve additional resources, to be sure. But the judge was clear that substantial reforms must come first to ensure students receive minimally adequate instruction.

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