The phrase “It takes a city” is all over New Haven — on buttons with red-and-white lettering handed out at press events, on bumper stickers displayed in the offices of New Haven Public Schools employees, even hanging above the Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School on College Street.
It is the catchphrase of the city’s new comprehensive school reform initiative, an ambitious undertaking by Mayor John DeStefano Jr. that made national headlines after the teachers’ union and city agreed on a ground-breaking four-year contract in October.
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Hailed by national leaders from President Barack Obama to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan as a momentous step forward, the program is, nevertheless, still in its infancy, and crucial components still need to be determined.
For starters, the parents, teachers and school administrators selected to work on reform have yet to determine how to analyze the performance of New Haven’s students. They also have yet to decide how to analyze the performance of New Haven’s teachers. And they still need to figure out how to analyze the performance of New Haven’s schools.
The contract may lack specifics, but it forces administrators and educators to define the subjective judgments that must be made about student progress and teacher performance. If the city’s reform efforts succeed, the effects could be felt in school districts around the country that are trying to overhaul struggling school systems. New Haven could be a model for how to turn a school system around.
The mayor’s goals for reform are simple: By 2015, he wants to cut the school dropout rate in half (the district’s drop out rate was 5.6 percent in the 2006-2007 school year, the most recent reported on the Connecticut State Department of Education’s Web site — far above the 1.7 percent statewide rate), close the city’s achievement gap and make sure all students graduate high school and college.
The contract lays out the structure for reform and purports to give teachers a direct role in reform by establishing the basis but not the specific plans for school change, and yet it was praised by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and officials at the U.S. Department of Education for being a collaborative effort.
The teachers’ contract is the foundation of the reform effort, said David Cicarella, president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers. But that framework is far from filled in. As an October New York Times editorial put it, “the accolades seem premature given that crucial details have yet to be worked out.” Even Cicarella said in November that the uncertainty is “frustrating.” And the details of what will happen in schools during the reform process are still being hashed out three months later.
The contract entrusts the specifics of the reform effort to three committees: the Reform Committee, the Teacher Evaluation Committee and the Survey Committee.
The first is charged with overseeing all reform efforts and also figuring out how to classify schools based on performance metrics that have yet to be determined. The Teacher Evaluation Committee is responsible for deciding how to measure teacher effectiveness and the Survey Committee surveys teachers, parents and students to identify what each group needs from the public school system.
All three committees have deadlines for coming up with suggestions. Some deadlines, such as the March 15 deadline for establishing what goes on in turnaround schools, are set in the teachers’ contract. Not meeting these deadlines would give the reform process less flexibility under the contract, said Garth Harries ’95, New Haven assistant superintendent of schools for portfolio and performance management. For other deadlines, Harries said, it is a question of keeping up momentum and excitement around the reform process.
“I believe New Haven can be the first urban setting to put all the pieces of school reform together,” Harries said.
TEACHERS HELPING TEACHERS
In the fight for education reform, how to evaluate teachers has become a central question.
A 2009 study called “The Widget Effect,” written by seven members of the New Teacher Project (a non-profit the city has enlisted to help with the school reform efforts), found that teachers in school systems nationwide are treated as interchangeable parts and that school districts need to separate good from bad from great teachers.
Dan Weisberg, vice president of policy and general counsel at the New Teacher Project, said New Haven is “breaking new ground” by even attempting to factor student performance into teacher evaluations.
Still, at the Oct. 30 finance committee hearing on the teachers’ union contract, some city aldermen said they were concerned that even if reform succeeds it will be hard to remove underperforming teachers. But Cicarella said New Haven Public Schools can terminate the contract of any non-tenured teacher at will. The teachers then have a right to a termination hearing. Cicarella said depending on when the school decides to fire a non-tenured teacher his or her dismissal could be almost immediate. Cicarella said there were 40 non-tenured teachers whose contracts were not renewed last year.
As of Dec. 31 there were 618 non-tenured teachers in the district and 1195 tenured teachers, said Kevin Moriarty, systems programmer for New Haven Public Schools, in an e-mail.
The real challenge is terminating underperforming tenured teachers, Cicarella said. Less than 1 percent of tenured teachers have been terminated in the last five to 10 years, and that’s not because all of the teachers were capable educators, Harries said. Under state law, both tenured and non-tenured teachers can be terminated for almost anything but tenured teachers must go through a lengthy removal process before the termination is complete.
In the current system, school administrators will first attempt to improve an underperforming teacher, possibly assigning him or her an instructional coach who will make a observations about the teacher’s performance, Cicarella said. If the district still wants to fire a teacher, a termination hearing is held, attended by three arbitrators — one for the Board of Education, one for the union and one neutral — and their lawyers. Given the difficulties in scheduling with all the parties, the termination process can take up to two years, Cicarella said.
The new contract gives underperforming teachers a chance to improve, but the teachers’ union can ask them to leave if they do not, Cicarella said. The contract does not outline how a “peer assistance and review” program would operate, Cicarella said, but the general gist is that after the teacher fails to improve, the union can assign a teacher whose only responsibility is to work full time with a small number of problem teachers.
The New Teacher Project’s Dan Weisberg says the peer review program could be a “helpful component,” given that a teacher may be more likely to respond to a peer’s suggestion that he or she either needs to improve or leave, rather than a supervisor’s.
If both the district and the union decide that the teacher is still not suited for the job, Cicarella said, the union will attempt to convince the teacher to resign in order to quicken the process. Chris Willems, a Wilbur Cross Comprehensive High School science teacher and Survey Committee member, says he can “only imagine that using a peer-based system to help save the career of a teacher or to help guide them out of the profession would make more sense than the system we do have.”
DeStefano said the peer-review assistance program is a way to support teachers who are doing their jobs and speed up the termination of those who are not.
But though the contract focuses on eliminating poor teachers, it also rewards good teachers.
The teachers charged with teaching underperforming teachers will be compensated just as if they were in the classroom, Cicarella said. The contract also provides for school-wide bonuses for schools that are making progress in the way of student achievement.
Another potential pitfall, Cicarella said, is that the teachers’ union and school administrators have not decided what happens if the union and school administration disagree on whether to fire a teacher. Under the contract, the Teacher Evaluation Committee must figure out the details of the peer assistance and review program by Feb. 15.
Still Cicarella says it is not uncommon for tenured teachers to resign and termination hearings are uncommon.
“Lots of people who leave teaching do it voluntarily,” Cicarella said.
FIGURING OUT THE METRICS
The contract lays out nebulous provisions for reform. They are left vague so the committees can come to reform plans through discussion. It assumes New Haven’s public schools can be divided into three categories, Tier I, Tier II and Tier III, based on their performance — Tier III schools being most in need of reform.
According to the contract, which goes into effect in July 2010, student progress will be a factor in teacher evaluations. But the key question is how to quantify the learning progress of students and the effectiveness of teachers, and that has yet to be determined.
The tier system was an element of reform the city wanted from the beginning. It is not a new concept, Harries said. Hartford uses a tier system, he explained, as do many other urban school districts. The intention is to see improvement in all of the schools, DeStefano said, but Tier I school administrations will have more authority within their own schools. The Board of Education plans to discuss the criteria at their meeting Feb. 8 and make a decision Feb. 22. In early March the city will pick a few schools in each tier as “prototypes” to begin work on in fall 2010. Tiers II and III will have lessening degrees of autonomy.
Then there are the “turnaround” schools, which essentially occupy a fourth tier. These the schools that need to be overhauled, the schools that can’t be helped even by the Tier III reforms.
Although the contract states that all schools will remain within the city’s public school system, third parties will also be able to manage turnaround schools. (The contract does not define who the third parties are.) There is also the possibility that turnaround schools could become in-district charter schools. In turnaround schools, Cicarella explained, all teachers would need to reapply for their positions, and some might be asked by the principal not to come back.
If a teacher loses his or her job at a school, Cicarella said, he or she would be placed in another school within the district — that is, unless the teacher is not equipped for the district. A teacher could also choose not to reapply — the contract gives the school the leeway to make changes such as longer school days.
Joan Devlin, senior associate director at the American Federation of Teachers, said the contract gives school administrators and teachers license “to do things that are different and will be hopefully tailored to meet the needs of the student.”
On Jan. 15 the eight-person Reform Committee was set to finalize the recommendations for what factors the city will take into account when measuring students’ performance and learning ability. The factors that will be considered include students’ growth over time and state standardized tests, such as the Connecticut Mastery Test.
Harries said multiple times that standardized tests are not the only measure that should be considered when evaluating students’ progress. Harries explained that the Reform Committee hopes to measure students’ academic and social “growth.” According to a sheet provided by Harries at the Jan. 11 Board of Education, meeting one way of doing so would be to analyze students’ ability to “demonstrate analytic thinking.”
According to the handout, an essay question that would prompt this “analytic thinking” is: “How do Puzo’s characters change from book to film in the ‘Godfather’ saga?”
The handout, though, did not provide any details about how a student’s response would be judged.
Although the Board of Education was originally supposed to discuss the proposals for measuring student performance at their Monday meeting, the discussion was replaced on the agenda by another item. Harries said he would suggest that the board discuss the committee’s proposals at a Saturday workshop, but Board of Education President Carlos Torre was unsure there would be time.
Cicarella said in January that the reform process is moving along well but that the committees have a lot of work to do before the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year, when some reforms are due to be implemented. The Reform Committee, which is tasked with figuring out most of the major pieces of the reform, has added more dates to its meeting schedule between now and June to ensure its members will meet all of their deadlines and have programs in place by the beginning of the next school year and the reform stalls.
But once the committees make their recommendations for the district’s reforms, the task leaves their hands and goes to the Board of Education, which will review the proposals.
As the reform effort gets underway, the Board of Education is grappling with the task at hand. But as the board tries to figure out how to meet the impending deadlines, it remains to be seen how the board members, all of whom were appointed by Mayor DeStefano, will proceed.
Correction: Jan. 28, 2010
An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the role of instructional coaches in dealing with underperforming teachers. The coaches make observations about the teachers, not recommendations.