Steady Work

The Story of Connecticut's School Reform

To appreciate Connecticut's school reform effort, which is described in the following article, it helps to take a stroll past some landmarks in recent education history.

The Connecticut reform got started four years before the Education Summit of 1989, presided over by then-governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton and President George H.W. Bush, and it predated the National Education Goals of 1990 and Bill Clinton's Goals 2000 legislation, passed in 1992. Also in that yearand six years into Connecticut's reform effortChris Whittle announced his ambitious proposal for a nationwide system of for-profit Edison schools that would reform K-12 education and turn a profit. It was subsequently abandoned in favor of a school management business. Since then, we have also seen EAI, another school management business, come and go, and voucher schemesfor example in Milwaukee and Clevelandpromise much and achieve results that are modest at best.

All that time, Connecticut has been engaged in a reform process that still continuesexamining, re-examining, and redoing pieces of its education system that need work. It would be tempting to call Connecticut the tortoise among many school reform hares, except that reforming schools is not a competition, and no one ever reaches a finish line. Probably that is one of the most important lessons Connecticut's school reform has to offer.


In recent years, people who study and think about education have come to agree that it will be impossible to improve student learning unless we have a corps of highly qualified teachers.1 As a result, a growing number of states have passed laws that aim to upgrade teacher recruitment, education, certification, and professional development. While this increased attention to teachers' learning is heartening, we know little about how and when teacher-quality policies can enhance student learning.

That's why the story of the Connecticut school reform is so important. It's not a tale of an overnight turnaround; neither is it one of reforms du jour regularly taken up and then discarded. The Connecticut State Department of Education—with steady support from elected officials—spent fifteen-plus years creating, supporting, and revising a coherent set of policies for improving teacher learning that are also aligned with standards for students. And the state has continued to provide the financial support to make these policies a reality.

Our interest in improved teaching is, of course, grounded in the assumption that better teaching will lead to increased student learning. And, indeed, Connecticut's long-term investment in teaching quality has had a substantial payoff. By 1998, Connecticut's fourth-grade grade students ranked first in the nation in reading and mathematics on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) even though student poverty and language diversity had increased over the course of the decade. In addition, a higher proportion of eighth-graders in Connecticut scored at or above "proficient" in reading than anywhere else in the nation. Connecticut students were also the top performers in writing, and the only ones to perform significantly better than the U.S. average. A 1998 study linking NAEP with the Third International Mathematics and Science Study found that, in the world, only students in top-ranked Singapore outscored Connecticut students in science. While there remains an achievement gap between white students and the large and growing minority student population, the more than 25 percent of Connecticut's students who are black or Hispanic substantially outperform their counterparts nationally as well.

Two themes dominate the history of Connecticut's school reform. First, this is a story of policy alignment, and what can happen when education policies—those dealing with professional development, teacher and student standards, and student testing—all work together to a common end. And since such alignment does not happen over night, this is also a story of "steady work," of state department staff collaborating with teachers and principals to craft, revise, and revise again the policies that form the backbone of Connecticut's reforms. Gradually—over fifteen-plus years—a comprehensive system of aligned, and tested, policies emerged.

We could simply describe the system that currently exists in Connecticut; but this would miss the point, for any lessons to be learned from the state's experiences depend on seeing how Connecticut built its system over time. The story divides itself into two waves of reform: the first concerned with teacher quality and the second—building on the first—with a standards-based reform that aligned student and teacher standards.

Wave One: A Two-Pronged Approach to Teacher Quality

In 1985, Connecticut began its statewide reform effort by focusing on incentives for teachers as well as standards for teaching. Recognizing that it would be difficult to raise teacher quality without improving teachers' salaries, the state provided "salary grants" that gradually increased the average teacher's salary from a 1986 average of $29,437 to a 1991 average of $47,823. At the same time, districts were given incentives to hire qualified teachers by restricting the grant money to fully certified teachers and by phasing out emergency credentials. The policy also enhanced poor districts' ability to compete in the market for qualified teachers by giving them larger grants than their wealthier neighbors. To attract high-quality candidates to the profession, there were incentives for prospective teachers, including scholarships and forgivable loans. In most years, Connecticut continues to rank first or second in the nation in teacher salaries even though the trust fund that made these incentives possible ran out in the early 1990s.

Supporting new teachers. Meanwhile standards for teachers were also raised. Central to these new policies was a certification system, with beginning, provisional, and professional levels, which also included a post-baccalaureate alternative route.

The state department of education began by requiring that prospective teachers demonstrate mastery of basic skills and knowledge by passing PRAXIS I CBT. Secondary teachers had to pass the relevant PRAXIS II content-area examinations, and a content-proficiency examination—the Connecticut Elementary Certification Test (CONNECT)—was developed for elementary teachers.

During this first wave of reform, first-year teachers received a one-year certificate and then participated in the Beginning Educator Support and Training Program (BEST). All new teachers were observed and evaluated by assessors—experienced teachers, administrators, and teacher educators who had been trained to use an observation instrument and look for certain competencies. New teachers could take up to two years to complete the requirement.

From the beginning, BEST provided support for novice teachers, replacing the old-fashioned practice of sink-or-swim with a system of continuing support. Each first-year teacher worked with a trained, school-based mentor or mentor team, and he or she could also attend three 3-hour clinics to prepare for the assessment. All first- and second-year teachers also participated in a fifteen-hour, year-long seminar taught by exemplary teachers and designed to help novices think about their practice and prepare for their assessment. This system of assessments, supports, and training seminars was, and is, viewed as far more than a way of preparing young teachers; it represents a considerable investment in professional development for their more experienced colleagues as well.

Aligning student assessments. As the state department refined and revised the teacher assessment policies, it also worked to bring standards for students in line with the emerging teacher standards. One important piece entailed the Connecticut Mastery Tests, the traditional statewide-standardized student achievement tests. The state wanted to assess both basic skills (in mathematics, reading, writing, and listening) and the application of those skills to "realistic problems" using more authentic measures. So augmented test items were added to the mastery tests, including short-answer and longer essay responses to extended samples of literature and other texts; and performance assessments were designed and used in selected fields. In 1991, the General Assembly also passed legislation to create a tenth-grade Connecticut Academic Performance Test, first implemented in 1995, which assesses mathematics, science, language arts, and interdisciplinary studies.

High stakes for teachers—and low stakes for students. Connecticut has been a leader in adopting reforms designed to raise teaching standards, and it holds teachers to these standards: Teachers who cannot pass the BEST—after several tries with much support—cannot teach in Connecticut. However, student performance is treated differently, and policymakers believe this approach is working.

A study prepared for the National Education Goals Panel concluded that it was Connecticut's use of low-stakes testing—along with more authentic measures of reading—that contributed to the gains in student achievement. A key to the usefulness of these tests, according to the report, is "the wide dissemination of the—test objectives and the increasingly user-friendly reporting mechanisms" that make results available.2 The state department not only reports student assessment results within districts grouped by similar student populations, it also gives the districts raw data in computerized form, allowing them to do more targeted analyses. Equally important, the state provides additional resources to the neediest districts, including funds for professional development for teachers and administrators, preschool and all-day kindergarten for students, and reduced pupil-teacher ratios.

Clearly, student achievement is important in Connecticut. Indeed, it drives the system. But when students fail, adults are asked to analyze the reasons for this failure, and those adults are then given the resources necessary for continued professional development and the implementation of other practices that will help raise student achievement.

Wave Two: Standards-based Reform

Connecticut's effort to reform its education system was given additional urgency when the Connecticut Supreme Court decided Sheff vs. O'Neill, a suit alleging that de facto segregation in the Hartford Public Schools led to minority students' getting an inferior education, in favor of the plaintiff. The decision found that "racial and ethnic segregation has a pervasive and invidious impact on schools, whether the segregation results from intentional conduct or from unorchestrated demographic factors," and it ordered the state to remedy inequities and design a plan to ensure that all students had equal educational opportunities.

The new reforms were designed to build upon the foundations laid by the earlier reforms. Again, the content of the reform was impressive in scope and impossible to achieve quickly. Four new pieces are especially critical. One involved the alignment of student and teacher standards; another, the replacement of the generic teacher observation process with a new subject-specific portfolio system and an enhancement of the support system. A third led to changes in the certification standards for teachers and teacher education programs. Perhaps the most ambitious addition involved increased attention to on-going professional development.

Standards for teachers and students. The state's "Common Core of Learning"—a statement of expectations about student learning—was revised and became the basis for all other policies. It is an ambitious vision of student learning that includes (1) basic skills and competencies (reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing, quantifying, problem solving, reasoning, working collaboratively and independently); (2) understandings and applications—that is, discipline-based and interdisciplinary skills (such as language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, world languages, and the arts); and (3) aspects of character (including, responsibility and integrity, effort and persistence, intellectual curiosity, respect, citizenship, and a sense of community). This new "core" went well beyond traditional and previous lists that focused primarily on basic skills and competencies.

Next came Connecticut's "Common Core of Teaching," a document that describes the professional knowledge and skills necessary for teachers who will guide students in meeting the new standards. It includes the basic skills and competencies required of all K-12 teachers and subject-specific professional standards for the knowledge, skills, and competencies of elementary school teachers and teachers of English/language arts, social studies, mathematics, music, physical education, science, special education, visual arts, and world languages.

Beginning teacher assessment and support. But teachers can't be expected to meet these standards unless they are prepared to do so. Thus, a second piece of this reform involved replacing the generic classroom observation with subject-specific portfolios (modeled on the work of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards) and enhancing the support system. Instead of a one-hour observation looking at goals, plans, and procedures, the portfolio analyzes longer segments of teaching in relation to student learning.

The portfolio is highly structured. Although details vary according to content area, all novice teachers document a unit of instruction dealing with an important concept. This involves describing a series of subject-specific lessons; discussing how they assess student learning; and reflecting on their teaching and their students' learning. The materials used to do this are familiar to anyone who has put together a portfolio: lesson logs, videotapes, teacher commentaries, and student work.

Each portfolio is evaluated by two trained assessors who are experienced teachers certified to teach in the candidate's area. If they were looking at the portfolio of a novice math teacher, for example, they would be asking questions such as, "How appropriate are the mathematical tasks the teacher selects for the instructional goals and objectives? How does the teacher promote student discourse in the classroom? How effectively does the teacher manage the physical, time, and social aspects of the classroom?" The bottom line is whether the teacher's decisions make sense given the content they are trying to teach and the context in which they are working.

Portfolio scores are sent to candidates (as well as the superintendent of their home districts) in September. Candidates who score at levels two through four (out of a possible four) are eligible for the provisional educator certificate as long as all other criteria are met. Candidates who receive a level-one score (below basic) are eligible for a third year in the BEST program. However, candidates who receive an unacceptable score of zero are eligible for a third year only if the superintendent requests it and the commissioner of education can find "good cause."

An elaborate support system helps beginning teachers negotiate the challenges involved in the portfolio process. In the first year, all have a mentor or a support team. They also participate in subject-specific seminars offered at regional centers. In their second year, new teachers can continue working with a mentor and participating in subject-specific seminars. Those who do not meet the portfolio standard in year two receive extensive feedback and coaching before they resubmit the portfolio. Among the resources available are collections of model portfolios and workshops, offered by experienced teachers, that focus on the technical aspects of putting together a portfolio. The state department is now collaborating with universities to offer courses that incorporate the content of the portfolio workshops.

Perhaps this system sounds rigid and top down. It is not. Rather than controlling all aspects of the BEST program, the state consistently seeks input from teachers and teacher educators. This strategy has helped to keep the program open to innovation and change. It has also helped to give the program validity with teachers; and by encouraging them to think and talk about how to improve BEST, it continues to build capacity for professional dialogue throughout the state.

Changes in certification. As these changes in how new teachers are initiated were taking place, Connecticut also approved changes in certification requirements, now being phased in, that were designed to strengthen clinical field experiences for beginning teachers, extend the education of bilingual educators, and focus on competencies rather than course credits. Perhaps most notable is the requirement that teachers have field experience in every area in which they seek an endorsement.

Finally, the state department revised the standards for approving teacher-preparation programs to make them consistent with best existing national standards. Effective July 2003, the state will adopt National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) standards. They are aligned with standards developed by the Interstate New Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium (INTASC), which is sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers, with Connecticut's "Common Core of Teaching," and with the standards of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Furthermore, all preparation programs will be required to demonstrate that their students are familiar with the state's teaching and learning standards, as well as the statewide student assessment programs. Creating a powerful beginning teacher assessment and support program allowed the state to move out to related domains, in this case, the realm of teacher preparation.

Supporting practicing teachers. But what about teachers who were already working in the system? The first reform effort had established the Professional Educator Certificate, which required certificate holders to complete ninety hours of professional development every five years. To help teachers meet this requirement, school districts were to offer eighteen hours of "high-quality" professional development every year. However, during the first wave of reform, districts received little guidance concerning the professional development, nor was there much discussion of Connecticut's policies concerning CEUs, the nationally recognized unit of measure for documenting not-for-credit professional development, which Connecticut had adopted.

So, in 1999, the State Board began revising this part of the system. It aligned teacher evaluation and professional development with the state's teaching and learning standards, curriculum framework, and BEST; and it rewrote the guidelines for CEUs to make sure that all professional development would focus on improving teacher knowledge and skills and be directly tied to the state standards for teaching and learning.

Participating in BEST, the program for initiating new teachers, turns out to be a significant piece of the state's continuing professional development. As of the 1997-98 school year, approximately 20 percent of the state's veteran educators had participated in BEST as mentors, cooperating teachers, and/or assessors, and if you include beginning teachers, BEST has touched nearly half of the teaching force. Now that the program has been in place for a number of years, state department staff are able to recruit experienced teachers who themselves went through the portfolio process as mentors and assessors. But as we suggested above, merely looking at the numbers does not convey the impact of the BEST program.

Educators across the state report that the portfolio assessment and support system has helped them to develop a common language for talking about teaching and learning and deepened their capacities to reflect on their practice. And state department staff report a similar effect on their own learning: Just as they require teachers to examine data in making decisions, the department also collects and analyzes data to inform the design, and subsequent redesign, of its policies.

Impact on Students and Teachers

The Connecticut story is complicated and hard to sort out because teachers and state department staff alike are constantly adding new pieces—and revising previous programs and practices. And it is still too early to know the full impact of these increasingly well-articulated and aligned policies about teaching and learning. Yet, it also seems clear that Connecticut's investments in teaching quality are paying off. Connecticut fourth graders outscored all other students in the U. S. on the 1998 NAEP reading test scores released in 1999. Trend data show that fourth graders' average scores grew significantly over time, from 222 in 1992 and 222 in 1994 to 232 in 1999. Students scoring at or above the proficient level moved from 34 percent to 46 percent (the national trend was 17 percent to 29 percent). Eighth graders also met or surpassed student performance in all other states. The eighth-grade average scale score (272) was in the highest group, along with Maine (273), Montana (269), and the Department of Defense schools (269).

In the NAEP Trial State Assessment in 1996, Connecticut was among the five states with the highest mathematics scale scores for fourth graders and among the eight states with the highest average scores for eighth graders. Fourth graders who scored at or above "proficient" in mathematics rose from 24 percent in 1992 to 31 percent in 1996 (the national numbers went from 17 percent to 19 percent). Eighth graders who performed at or above "proficient" rose from 22 percent in 1990 to 31 percent in 1996 (the national trend went from 15 percent to 23 percent).

The impact can be seen in other ways as well. Within three years after the 1985 measures raising teacher salaries and creating financial incentives for new teachers, Connecticut's long-standing shortage of teachers in its urban areas was transformed to surpluses statewide. And even as demand for teachers has increased in recent years, the state has continued to maintain those surpluses. Insiders report that the competition for teaching positions in Connecticut is high and that the pool of qualified applicants is impressive. In 1990, nearly one-third of the new teachers hired had graduated from colleges rated "very selective" or better in Barron's Index of College Majors and that 75 percent of them had undergraduate grade-point averages of B or better.

A word of caution. But are the achievement gains tied to Connecticut's investment in teachers and teaching? Since ours is a historical analysis, we cannot tell whether a causal relationship exists. However, we can rule out a number of explanations that are not related to education policy. During the 1990s, Connecticut's student population did not become more advantaged, nor did lower-wealth or lower-achieving students leave the state's schools, get held back in grade, or get pushed into special education categories in which their scores would not count—consequences of some high-stakes testing programs that can artificially inflate test scores.

In fact, Connecticut's median household income dropped during the 1990s and its poverty index grew by nearly 50 percent. The proportions of students who are members of traditionally underserved minority groups also grew during the decade: Between 1992 and 1998, the percentage of black students grew from 12.9 percent to 13.7 percent, and the percentage of Hispanic students increased from 10.7 percent to 12.1 percent. Moreover, increased immigration from many parts of the world means that Connecticut has experienced steady growth in the percentage of students who are new English-language learners. It is no surprise, unfortunately, that there are achievement gaps between white and minority students and students from more and less wealthy families. What may be surprising is that, in the 1990s, as achievement rose for students from every group, across all types of districts, these gaps diminished.

Nor have some reforms that are popular in other states—like reducing class size or increasing instructional time—played a role in Connecticut's success. Connecticut's class size dropped by less than one student per class in the early elementary grades and grew by more than that amount in the upper grades between 1991 and 1998, leaving the state ranked fourteenth nationally on this indicator. Total instructional time grew by an average of only 4 hours per year in elementary school and an average of only 23 hours in middle schools, leaving Connecticut ranking thirty-fourth nationally, well below the national median. All of this suggests that teaching might well account much more for the state's extraordinary levels of learning than other potential factors.3

A package of policies. These observations about factors that were not instrumental in raising student achievement, interesting though they are, do not answer the question as to whether Connecticut's education reform has indeed improved the quality of teaching in that state.

Scholars, noting the weak theoretical links between any one of these policies and quality teaching, continue to be skeptical about any causal relationships. We believe, however, that the "package" of policies helped create a culture that valued teachers and teaching and made it possible for teachers to develop and acquire professional knowledge at the same time as they were held to high standards.

Connecticut's history of school reform presents an unusual story of large scale, iterative, statewide change. Political winds, changing economic circumstances, and shifting demographics often take a toll on educational policy and make it impossible to sustain a single vision of reform. As a result, efforts like the one described here more often than not get derailed in midcourse. But such has not been the case in Connecticut, despite a recession in the early 1990s.

That the state education department was able to do this is, in no small measure, a result of its considerable autonomy. The governor was not trying to wrest control of education from the department, nor was the legislature blocking the staff's efforts. In our fragmented U. S. educational system, it is hard for state departments to find a foothold, much less the sustained support and resources necessary to do what Dick Elmore and Milbrey McLaughlin once described as "steady work."4

Yet Connecticut's department of education did just that: Taking advantage of their relative independence from political pressure, the staff gave coherence to Connecticut's educational reform. And because they had time on their side, state department staff and collaborating teachers across the state were able to see what worked and what did not. Experienced educators participated at every juncture: drafting standards and curriculum frameworks, assessing and mentoring new teachers, and participating (sometimes leading) professional development. Throughout, the state department of education orchestrated research and evaluation, using feedback from interviews, surveys, and validation studies sometimes to tinker with, sometimes to alter substantially the policy system.

We have no doubt that more changes in the Connecticut policy system are on the horizon. Recent research suggests that uneven implementation is a problem. And the state department also wants to get a bead on weaknesses in mentor training, mentoring, and portfolio development and assessment. We have learned a lot by following this unfolding policy story for the last fifteen years, and we anticipate that the years ahead will provide even more insight into how reforms designed to support teacher learning—reforms that are allowed to unfold and improve over time—can lay the groundwork for steady progress toward the goal of a high-quality education for all U. S. students.

Suzanne M. Wilson is a professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University, East Lansing; Linda Darling-Hammond is Charles E. Ducommun Professor in the School of Education at Stanford University; and Barnett Berry is executive director of the Southeast Center for Teaching Quality at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. This article is based on the authors' study, "Teaching Policy: Connecticut's Long Term Efforts To Improve Teaching and Learning." The full report was sponsored by the Center for the Study of Teaching and Policy and is available at


1. See, for example, National Commission on Teaching and America's Future (1996), What Matters Most: Teaching for America's Future (New York: National Commmission on Teaching and America's Future, Teachers College, Columbia University).

2. J.B. Baron (1999), Exploring High and Improving Reading Achievement in Connecticut (Washington, D.C.: National Educational Goals Panel).

3. Baron (1999).

4. Richard F. Elmore and Milbrey W. McLaughlin (1988), Steady Work: Policy, Practice, and the Reform of American Education (Santa Monica, Calif.: The Rand Corporation).

American Educator, Fall 2001