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Betty Sternberg's prescription for educational success

It sounds like Sternberg has been reading Richard Rothstein's research on the effects of child health on school progress.
By Meg Learson Grosso

Betty Sternberg was noted for her opposition to the No Child Left Behind Act while she was the chief educational official for the state of Connecticut from 2003 to 2006, and she hasn't changed her opinion.

The first woman to become a Commissioner of Education in Connecticut and the present Superintendent of Schools in Greenwich spoke to the Y's Women last week.

Sternberg noted that the federal No Child Left Behind law was created to help children in low-performing schools catch up with their wealthier peers. The law requires yearly testing and allows disadvantaged children to transfer to better performing schools in the same district. She pointed out that one problem with that law is that sometimes all the schools in a district, such as New Britain, are under-performing.

However, Sternberg biggest beef with the law is that she would like the money that is spent on annual testing to be spent on other things. Of course, even the millions spent on testing would not pay for her five point plan for better education.

First, she would like to see high-quality pre-school for all three- and four-year olds. She contrasted her first jobs teaching bright well-prepared children in Lexington, Massachusetts and her second job in San Jose, California in 1972 while it was still in its pre-Silicon Valley days.

Her students were the children of farm-workers who spoke only Spanish. When she tested them by playing Candyland or Chutes and Ladders, they did not know names of colors, how to take turns, or relative sizes. They didn't come into kindergarten as well prepared as the children in Lexington had. She said that 35 years later, she walked into Hartford schools and saw children just as poorly prepared as in San Jose.

For this reason, literacy programs for parents would be the second step for her plan.

In addition, Sternberg would also like to see high quality health care for both physical and mental needs, since a child with a toothache or other ailment is not able to concentrate on learning to read and write.

Fourth, Sternberg would like to see a curriculum in which the instruction both builds on the strength of the youngsters, and also teaches them to use technology.

One could build on children's strengths by finding out both what their interests are and how they learn. In the past, she said a teacher might test her students on the times-tables and if some failed, the teacher would move on anyway. Nowadays, if a child fails, the teachers uses a different method until that failing student succeeds, she said.

As for technology, the Internet has made information so abundant that students have to be taught to sift through it. They should be taught to look at the source of the information. If an Internet article on Martin Luther King is sponsored by the Ku Klux Klan, that tells students something. While the ability to use word processors has made writing easier, there are also sites on the Internet where children can get immediate feedback on their papers. A high-quality curriculum would teach children to use technology, not block them from it, she noted.

Lastly, Sternberg would have American children go to school for longer hours. She noted that Chinese youngsters go to school from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., then go home for dinner and go back to school from 6 to 8 p.m. They also go to school seven days a week. She said that Chinese kids ask "What do American children do on weekends?" However, she isn't asking that Americans go that long and she did note that the Chinese school day was a comprehensive one that included activities such as theatre and dance.

Questions from the Y's women led to Sternberg's suggestions for failing inner-city schools. She said magnet schools might be the solution. They were court-ordered in Hartford as a result of the Scheff vs. O'Neill lawsuit. Themes such as the arts, or math, science and technology, or foreign languages have created more interesting schools, Sternberg said, noting that there is a long waiting list in Hartford for a magnet school that follows the International Baccalaureate curriculum.

As commissioner, Sternberg tried to get funding for inner-city schools so that they would have smaller class sizes, however, at the last minute, the initiative failed. She noted that the research is positive on the good effects of smaller class sizes for kindergarten, first and second grades, but not as strong for the higher grades.

Asked how good teachers could be kept in inner cities, she noted that the starting salary for a Hartford teacher was $35,000, whereas in wealthy nearby Avon, the starting salary was $42,000.

Afterwards, Sternberg spoke with the Minuteman about higher socio-economic school districts in general. One would expect achievement, she said, but "Are they pushing the children enough? Are they pushing them beyond that natural level of achievement?" she asked.

On the other hand, she said, there are schools that are labeled as failing under No Child Left Behind that are actually growing in achievement.

Sternberg began her talk by saying that in 1955 when she was a little girl, her family doctor asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. She said, "A nurse" and he answered, "No, a doctor." She laughed at the absurdity of a girl becoming a doctor.

On the other hand, her own daughters thought like that doctor. "He was way before his time," she said of the doctor.

However, she noted that as commissioner, she would go into a classroom in Bridgeport and ask children what they wanted to be and found that they had a limited view of what they could become, as she had when she was a child.

"We have to allow them to have their dreams and then get them to do what they have to do to accomplish those dreams," said Sternberg.

Sternberg worked in the state department of education for 24 years. She was instrumental in the development of the Connecticut Mastery Tests for grades 4, 6, and 8 and the CAPT test for grade 10. She received a Ph.D from Stanford University, a Master's from Columbia and her undergraduate degree from Brandeis.

— Meg Learson Grosso
Westport Minuteman


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