New Haven school reform may be making headway, but it’s far from perfect.
A few months ago, the mayor had laid the groundwork for meaningful change. First, he unveiled the grading criteria by which each elementary and middle school will be evaluated and sorted into three “tiers” for the district. For the most part, the metrics announced in late February are an honest attempt to gauge student achievement, with a strong emphasis on both absolute test scores and relative growth over time.
Unfortunately, for all the transparency in the grading matrix, the mayor and Superintendent Reggie Mayo added a sneaky caveat. Mayo and the mayor may add an undefined “qualitative factor,” allowing them to shift schools into politically convenient tiers based on vague measures like “readiness for reform.” Furthermore, the administration is ranking only a few schools this year, leaving dozens of others untouched, along with all high schools.
Alex Johnston, a Connecticut reformer and school board member, expressed concern, saying, “Dr. Mayo and your team, you kind of go behind closed doors,” and emerge with schools rankings.
Indeed, if one looks at the rankings announced in mid-March, it seems this is exactly what happened.
The two schools ranked in Tier I, Edgewood Magnet School and Davis 21st Century Magnet School, are certainly high performers that deserve the autonomy in curricular and budgetary matters they will be given. But according to the grading matrix, many schools had demonstrated identical — or better — student achievement but were not placed in to tiers at all. Nathan Hale Academy, for example, showed higher levels of student growth and similar test scores as compared with Davis. Worthington Hooker School, according to the graph, had markedly higher growth and absolute achievement than Edgewood.
The same can be said for the three schools ranked in Tier III, two of which will undergo changes next year. Though all three are in need of improvement, the unranked Truman School has almost identical statistics as Katherine Brennan School, which was placed in Tier III and will be “reconstituted.”
My point here isn’t that “portfolio management” of New Haven schools is wrongheaded — it’s that the grading system is arbitrary and thus detrimental. How can schools plan to reach Tier I if they don’t know how — or why — they’ll be graded? And how is it fair to fire teachers at Urban Youth while letting Truman teachers off the hook? Even if the mayor had been concerned about announcing school shake-ups so close to summer, he still could have placed every school, including high schools, into three tiers this year in a transparent fashion.
But the more profound, unanswered question is how and whether the Tier III schools will be improved. In a completely opaque process, the mayor and Mayo have decided different fates for these schools without much explanation. Brennan School, which the district says will be “reconstituted,” is merely getting slightly longer schools days and more professional development for teachers. It is unclear whether any poor-performing teachers will be replaced, or if Brennan will get new school leadership, two changes many agree are necessary for a school turnaround.
Urban Youth, meanwhile, will be closed and reopened as a charter school run by a little-known Stamford non-profit called Domus. Domus, however, has no experience in New Haven, managing only two schools: a high school and a middle school for children with behavioral problems.
Finally, what will happen to Tier II schools? After all, the great mass of New Haven public schools fall into this category, whose test scores are still roughly 25 percentage points below the state average. Rewarding great schools is easy, and failing schools have nowhere to go but up. Turning stagnant mediocre schools into fantastic ones is a challenge that New Haven reform has yet to even discuss.
What the mayor and Mayo have done so far is certainly better than nothing. Focusing on improving a few failing schools and rewarding high-achieving ones is important. But transparency and the willingness to make bold, decisive changes must drive New Haven forward, away from the mayor’s middling record on preparing every student for college.
Sam Brill is a senior in Trumbull College.