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Dacia Toll

3/19/15

Dacia Toll, Co-CEO of Achievement First began her talk with reference to an equation that acts as a motto for Achievement First:  Education=Freedom. 

She referenced the fact that education is not equally distributed in the country and pointed to the following statistics:

  • 93% want to go to college when polled at the middle-school level (regardless of race or economic class)
  • 70% graduate from high-school (regardless of race or economic class)
  • 44% enroll in a college
  • 27% earn a college degree

But of the 27% who earn a college degree, 77% of those come from the top economic quartile, while only 9% come from the bottom economic quartile.  And perhaps the most surprising statistic, less than 1/3 of those earning a college degree come from the so-called middle class.

The U.S. used to lead the world in education.  It has fallen severely behind in the rankings.  Yet, higher education has become an economic imperative.  Those with college educations and increasingly post-graduate degrees far out earn less educated individuals and such higher education is becoming increasingly important in finding a good job.

Ms. Toll then put the focus on Connecticut.  She pointed out that our state has one of the largest achievement gaps between those who come from the top economic quartile and those from the bottom.  In Connecticut, those students from high economic backgrounds tend to be among the top quartile of students in the U.S.  In contrast, those students from the lower economic strata are among the poorest performing students in the country.

Ms. Toll indicated three factors that are needed to reverse this.  These are:

  • Higher academic standards
  • Better teachers
  • Choice and competition

The U.S. now ranks about 24th in academic achievement and ability when compared to other developed countries.  Those countries that rank at or near the top all have rigorous academic standards and their students are regularly tested by country dictated examinations to determine if those standards are met.

The U.S. has no national academic standards.  They are determined state by state.  Massachusetts has the highest standards in the U.S. while South Carolina has among the lowest.  Consequently, Massachusetts has determined that only 40+% of its students are proficient while South Carolina says that 95% of its students have achieved proficiency upon graduation from high-school.  But South Carolina graduating students can’t match the proficiency of Massachusetts students that were determined to be non-proficient. 

According to Ms. Toll, standards have to be such that graduating students are ready for college without having to attend remedial courses.  But in too many instances states set lower standards because it is politically uncomfortable to face the truth. She is a strong proponent of Common Core standards and feels that there should be uniform federal standards across the country.

The second requirement is great teachers.  It is demonstrable that students consistently exposed over some years to good teachers significantly improve their academic performance.  It is equally true that students consistently exposed to poor teachers over some years will have their academic performance significantly decline.

In this country the top achieving students do not go into teaching.  The pay for teachers is low and the teaching profession does not enjoy a high status.  This is all reflected in college teaching departments, which consistently have the lowest standards for admission of any college field of study.

The third factor is choice and competition.

Achievement First schools offer some of this factor and incorporate the other two factors to provide a different educational approach.  They look to score high student achievement growth without regard to economic background.  Although their students, who are chosen by lottery, are almost all minority students from poor economic backgrounds, 82% persist to the college level with about a 40% graduation rate.  This is improving yearly and equals the achievement rate of students from a high economic background.

Despite this success, Connecticut is now considering Senate Bill 1096, which would place a moratorium on charter schools primarily due to the influence of the Teacher’s Union that views such schools as a threat.  Ms. Toll advocates contacting your state representatives and demanding that they quash this bill.

Q&A

Q.  How did Massachusetts control the teacher’s union in their state?

A.  Strong gubernatorial and legislative leadership dedicated to supporting education.

Q.  Is teacher tenure part of the problem in CT?

A.  CT teachers gain tenure when invited back for five years.  After four years the school head should have a good idea of their abilities.  I am not a proponent of teacher tenure below the college level as the reasons for its coming about don’t exist anymore.  In CT tenure is only part of a larger problem.

Q.  Does your data include private schools and do charter schools take away assets from public schools?

A.  Private schools are not included in the data.  Charter schools do take away some assets from public schools, but only minimally and only in other states.  In CT our school funding system provides double funds for kids and it is economically advantageous to have these schools in our towns and cities.  Also the lottery system used to select students keeps down any migration of the top students to charter schools.

Q.  What is the cost comparison between charter and public schools?

A.  At Advantage First schools we keep the expenditures per student at the same level as public schools to eliminate any criticism regarding our success.  Additionally, the way charter schools are funded in CT discriminates against these schools by giving them 30% less than public schools.  We were funded in such a way as to fail, but private philanthropy has enabled us to persevere and succeed.