Zelinsky: An empty Promise

On Tuesday, the City of New Haven and Yale announced New Haven Promise, a joint program to provide college scholarships to New Haven high school graduates. While this plan is well-intentioned, it will actually end up hurting the very high school students it seeks to help.

New Haven Promise is a poorly disguised Band-Aid which will only allow the larger problem to continue festering: New Haven’s high schools do a bad job of preparing students for college. The true beneficiaries of the “Promise” are the political interests who have refused to enact real school reform for their own political benefit, and who can now point to this program as a claim of their intention to reform.

It is an unfortunate reality that many high school students in New Haven are getting a bad education. This trend is not unique to our city, but is a national scandal. The blame for poor educational attainment lies squarely on the teachers and their unions.

Many public school teachers do not commit the necessary time and effort needed to do their job well. Instead of staying after school to tutor or help run an extracurricular, unionized teachers typically leave as soon as the final bell rings. One-on-one time, after school activities and caring mentors can make the difference for struggling students in New Haven and across the country. These efforts help keep teenagers off the streets in a supportive environment that they may not find at home.

In New Haven, Yale students have admirably (but haphazardly) tried to fill in the gaps left behind by teachers. While specific programs have been successful, these efforts fail to address the larger systemic problem: Our public schools lack the out of classroom experiences that prepare students for college and life beyond.

Moreover, because public school teachers achieve tenure after only a few years, administrators have extreme difficulty firing those who perform poorly. The American Federation of Teachers fiercely defends the tenure status quo, claiming teachers need the “job security,” which no comparable private sector employees enjoy. The result is a school system governed by apathy, in which the teachers go through the motions, viewing their job as secure regardless of their effort and involvement. Public school students consequently suffer in the classroom.

No doubt there are many teachers who care deeply about their students. But we cannot ignore the fact that there is a definite, established trend of poorly performing teachers who are a detriment to their students. These teachers continue to teach until retirement, doing a disservice to the students they claim to help.

New Haven Promise will send students to college unprepared, without the skills they actually need to succeed. Sure, we may send more local children to two- and four-year colleges, but will they actually learn? Will they really be better off at institutions of higher learning if they cannot consistently write a five-paragraph essay or solve a basic algebraic equation?

Instead of throwing money at the problem, New Haven needs to enact real school reform. School administrators must have the ability to fire teachers who view their job as ending with the final school bell. Tenure must be abolished and a system of accountability put into place. Good teachers should be rewarded and bad teachers should be fired. Sadly, this will not happen, because the mayor and Democratic machine in New Haven (and nationally) are wedded to union votes, chief among them the teachers.

Last year, the city announced a small step toward reform. Schools were supposed to be classified into three categories, each tier a different level of success. But this scheme has yet to bring out the radical change needed for children in New Haven.

New Haven Promise whitewashes the true problem in New Haven. We should not care about how many New Haven students we send to college, but rather how many we send to college prepared. The program allows the mayor to claim that he is attempting real reform, without having to actually make the difficult decisions needed to make public schools work for inner-city students.

Let’s not waste Yale’s money on political grandstanding by the mayor to dodge a bullet and pretend to be undertaking educational reform when he is placating the teachers’ union. Instead, let’s work together to actually (and courageously) address the problems in New Haven’s schools.

Nate Zelinsky is a sophomore in Davenport College.

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