by Liz Shapiro
On September 7, 2016, key aspects of Connecticut’s funding mechanism for public schools were declared in violation of the state constitution. In his ruling, Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher ordered the state to address school funding inequalities, set up a mandatory standard for high school graduation, overhaul evaluations for public-school teachers and create new standards for special education. The state has been given 180 days to create plans to address the issues.
Although this inequity in school funding probably comes as a shock to some Connecticut residents – after all, Connecticut ranks fifth in the Education Week Research Center’s national 2016 Quality Counts report card of the nation’s schools – it comes as no surprise to a collaboration of history educators who have been working as partners for over three years on the simple goal of making history learning in Connecticut meaningful, fun and accessible to all learners.
There are many recipes for great collaborations, but the key ingredients for Connecticut’s collaborative successes seem to be acknowledging and identifying a systematic weakness, and a willingness to look outside the box for solutions that create win-win-win-win scenarios for teachers, history museums (formally referred to as “public history” organizations), academic historians and students.
For practitioners, thinking about a collaborative effort of this scope even five years ago would have been impossible. Finding money for buses for field trips, combined with the time-crunch of the classroom day and ‘teach to the test’ mentality made learning outside of school walls nearly impossible. Museum educators created one terrific program after another for school audiences, but invariably, visits dwindled. And students suffered the consequences. But as demonstrated time and time again in Connecticut’s history, state educators and historians rose to the challenge. Our story has a happy “middle” (the ending has yet to be written.) Not content with mediocrity, two groups of organizations led by people who care about Connecticut’s students approached this growing problem from two different angles.
First, under the leadership of the Connecticut Council for the Social Studies, Stephen Armstrong, Education Consultant to the State of Connecticut, and State Education Commissioner Dr. Dianna R. Wentzell, a team of elementary, middle, high school and college faculty envisioned and wrote a new set of frameworks for social studies education in Connecticut. These frameworks, based on the Inquiry Learning Process, where students ask and answer critical questions with support and guidance from teachers, were adopted in 2015.
At the same time, staff at Connecticut Humanities (CTh), the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, seeking to focus and improve services, facilitated a dialog with their partner organizations – including the Connecticut League of History Organizations (CLHO), Connecticut Explored magazine, Connecticut History Day and the CTh-run program, ConnecticutHistory.org.
What happened next was a series of conversations, phone calls, deep discussions and “ah-ha” moments that paved the way to unprecedented collaboration between educators, museums, public historians and academics. If, by working together, we could build bridges of communication and access between the people who steward Connecticut’s past, and the people who have daily interaction with our students, then wonderful, magical, life-long critical skills learning would happen. And it is working.
Tangible accomplishments are numerous:
- Participation in Connecticut History Day, including among students in inner-city schools such as New Haven, has steadily increased. School participation has nearly doubled (to 98 schools in 2016) since 2012. In 2016, over 4000 students and 470 teachers participated in History Day workshops, with the work of over 5000 students represented at the six regional contests.
- A new website, TeachITCT.org, was launched by CTh to complement their ConnecticutHistory.org project. The website was created in response to teacher requests for access to primary-source materials and short, inquiry-based activities that focus on Connecticut history. The website also includes a searchable list of museum field trips so that teachers can easily find the off-school learning experiences they look for to support their curricular goals.
- Master teachers David Bosso, of Berlin High School, and Stephen Armstrong were among key session leaders at a three-part workshop series (spring, 2016) hosted by the CLHO, attracting 37 museum educators, and designed to familiarize this group with the new Connecticut frameworks and the inquiry method of teaching. A dearth of Connecticut history content for the elementary audience was a problem for third and fourth grade teachers. Connecticut Explored magazine has begun work on an online magazine for third graders that explores relevant content material at an age-appropriate level.
- Long-established groups of academic historians such as the Association for the Study of Connecticut History (ASCH) and the Connecticut Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History (CCCPH) are welcoming public historians into their mix and looking deeply at ways to improve the relationships between public school educators, history museums and academic historians and better stewardship of the tiny pool of financial resources that we share.
What’s next? As the state plans for the court-ordered overhaul of school funding and the creation of new standards for high school graduation and special education, I would like to offer the collective experience of this group of “power historians and educators” (yes, similarities to the Power Rangers are purposeful) as a resource for state planning.
This is a group that has decades of practical experience in making educational miracles on a shoe-string budget, and better still, a track-record of outstanding collaboration. Best yet, all stand ready to help build a fair and equitable education system for all Connecticut’s students – because this is what we’ve been trying to do all along.
Liz Shapiro is the Executive Director of the Connecticut League of History Organizations. She loves exploring issues of organizational behavior and bringing creative ideas to life. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
PERSPECTIVE commentaries by contributing writers appear each Sunday on Connecticut by the Numbers.
 http://www.edweek.org/media/qualitycounts2016_release.pdf, September 12, 2016
The full Quality Counts 2016 report, including in-depth reporting on new directions in school accountability, a retrospective look at highlights and milestones from the past 20 years, and an original analysis of national and state achievement trends: www.edweek.org/go/qc16.
 Connecticut History Day is managed by the Connecticut Public Affairs Network (CPAN) with support from the Connecticut League of History Organization, Connecticuthistory.org and Connecticut Explored magazine.