Brill: Breaking the impasse

Education in America

The rubber is about to hit the road for New Haven school reform. In the next few months, we’ll see if the mayor and his team are committed enough — and bold enough — to make tough choices on behalf of the city’s 20,000 students.

Surprisingly, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. seems to be headed in the right direction. On Jan. 25, the district’s Reform Committee recommended a smart new set of metrics to measure individual student performance. While some variables are vague and can be fudged by schools (student and teacher surveys about educational environment), others are both comprehensive and concrete (school-wide assessments, college-going rates and, yes, yearly statewide testing).

These achievement criteria are crucial because they provide a sensible way of answering the infamous question posed by George W. Bush ’68, “Is our children learning?” For years, policy-makers have been hung up on the reliance upon standardized assessment, with liberals decrying the rigid adherence to test scores under No Child Left Behind and conservatives stressing a back-to-basics approach. Here it seems we’ve reached a compromise.

The new metrics also demonstrate a seriousness about holding teachers and principals accountable for student success. According to the new union contract, teacher evaluations in New Haven will now rely upon clearly defined metrics of student performance. In April, the committee will determine exactly what teacher evaluations will look like, and what bearing they will have on hiring, firing and promoting.

If DeStefano is sincere about placing quality teachers in every classroom, he must be willing to tell teachers with consistently poor results to find a job somewhere else. More critically, the mayor should tie teacher evaluations to pay, given their emphasis on a fair formulation of student achievement.

All of which brings us to Mayor DeStefano’s next deadline, Feb. 22. On that day, the Reform Committee — comprising teachers, administrators and parents — must determine how the city will grade school-by-school performance. Which factors the district will rely upon is an open question.

In New York City, the school grading system is a complex formula whose most important components are state test scores, graduation rates and attendance statistics. Those metrics, however, are considered alongside peer schools that have similar racial and socio-economic student bodies to create relative rather than absolute scores. No one believes New York’s grading program is perfect, but it is certainly an honest attempt to hold schools accountable for results.

By March 15, the New Haven Board of Education will use the newly established grading criteria to determine where schools fall in the new three-tiered school portfolio system. Administrators in top-tier schools will be given relative autonomy, while two of the four schools in the bottom tier will be closed or reconstituted at the end of the school year.

Make no mistake: School closings can be intensely political, especially in New Haven, where patronage and racial considerations dominate city policy-making. Look no further than the concurrence of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito LAW ’75 in Ricci v. DeStefano, in which the Yale Law alum lambasted the mayor for making personnel decisions for his fire department based on electoral politics.

That’s why the mayor will rank no more than eight schools in this first round, out of the city’s 49. And my bet is that DeStefano’s two choices for school closures will be largely uncontroversial — that is, they will be blatantly failing schools with no clear racial or ethnic make-up and no historic tradition in a neighborhood.

And one aspect of the mayor’s plan has already gone awry. DeStefano wrongly promised New Haven would be rewarded for its reform efforts by the Obama administration’s Race to the Top fund, which will dole out $4.35 billion for states that demonstrate a variety of efforts to boost student achievement. Now the mayor’s spokesmen are saying not to expect the state to win funds in the first or second rounds this summer because of Connecticut’s failure to overhaul its charter school funding formula.

State education law is largely outside the mayor’s control, which is why he shouldn’t have sworn by Race to the Top to begin with. And even if Connecticut does eventually win its $175 million request, New Haven would receive only about $9.7 million, a fraction of the school system’s $173 million budget.

Nonetheless, the mayor’s plan is off to a better start than I expected. If he stays tough in the coming months, DeStefano could break the logjam between aggressive reformers and union diehards, and present a new, compromise model for urban education policy-makers. But that’s a big if.

Sam Brill is a senior in Trumbull College.

Comments

  • p schneid

    for better or worse, under this contract, student performance will have minimal effect on teachers’ compensation. the only provision for such a pay scheme is for small school-wide bonuses in outperforming schools. teachers will continue to be compensated almost solely based on seniority and educational attainment.