Jones: A better future for public schools

Nathaniel Zelinsky ’13 got it wrong in his column Wednesday (“An empty Promise,” Nov. 10). The New Haven School Change campaign (including the New Haven Promise) will improve the city’s public schools, and public school teachers and their unions are not “squarely to blame for poor educational achievement,” as Zelinsky suggests. We’ve heard that shortsighted argument time and time again, and it’s still wrong.

Repeated studies have shown that non-school factors such as a students’ level of poverty are overwhelmingly more important in predicting educational outcomes than the quality of their teachers. Indeed, in a country whose public schools have sorely lacked meaningful structural innovation in decades, and amidst a shrinking middle class and a widening income gap between the wealthy and poor, placing the burden of poor students’ comparatively low academic achievement on their teachers is simply misguided. In a review of “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” the recent documentary on the failure of America’s schools, former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch voiced a similar opinion. “Teachers can have a profound effect on students,” she writes, “but it would be foolish to believe that teachers alone can undo the damage caused by poverty and its associated burdens.”

School reform advocates should support efforts to mitigate the effects of poverty on public school students in addition to simply making organizational changes in schools.

Such efforts include providing early education opportunities, healthy meals for students, longer school days, longer school years and year-round calendars. These solutions seem to be routinely ignored when considered alongside easier (and cheaper) reforms like merit pay for teachers, ending teacher tenure systems and encouraging the growth of charters. In addition to supporting these measures, school reformers should strive to treat educators as professionals.

Reform advocates should also support salary structures that attract quality applicants. My sister decided to become an elementary school teacher in North Carolina a few years ago. She’s still teaching, but the below $30,000 salary that she earned during her first year was not what persuaded her to stay. And she and many of her colleagues could not always afford to stay after school every day (as Zelinsky suggests) because she was forced to get another job to support her family. Our educators should be paid competitively, and yes, their pay should in part be determined by performance incentives based on reasonable metrics. They should also receive ongoing professional development and classrooms that contain a manageable number of students. The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have not always been productive partners in school reform efforts. But they are improving, and few places demonstrate these new efforts better than New Haven’s own School Change campaign.

Some of the most exciting provisions of the contract in New Haven, approved overwhelmingly by the NHFT in October 2009, called for a series of steps that would craft and implement more accurate and fair teacher evaluations. These standards take student performance into account, and allow ample resources for teacher improvement, with an emphasis on professional development. Under the evaluation system, teachers would be rated on a 1 to 5 scale, with the best teachers rated “exemplary” with a score of 5. These teachers would assume leadership roles within their schools, serving as mentors and examples for the faculty.

The reforms that have and will continue to be implemented are positive steps toward comprehensive school improvement. While admittedly leaving much to be desired, New Haven’s school reform efforts take important steps to answer these structural challenges. The program is a step in the right direction, and the New Haven Promise will improve our city’s schools.

I haven’t seen “Waiting for ‘Superman.’ ” I’m not a huge fan of Vincent Gray, but I do think that D.C. schools will continue to exist without Michelle Rhee. I decided that Teach for America wasn’t for me, but I hope that my friends who will soon teach in some of America’s most challenging classrooms decide to remain there after their two-year commitment ends. As good teachers, they can help transform American public education.

But so can the rest of us. Don’t just blame the teachers. They must help improve our nation’s schools, but we also need engaged parents, strong school administrators, supportive communities who fight for the poor and middle class in contexts other than education, and elected officials who are willing to be unpopular. Tutor, mentor, volunteer for a campaign, or just vote. Even if you don’t want to teach, you too can make a difference and give the promise of a better tomorrow to all of our country’s children.

Mike Jones is a senior in Saybrook College and the Ward 1 Alderman.

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    Mr. Jones is the voice of reason.

    “Such efforts include providing early education opportunities, healthy meals for students, longer school days, longer school years and year-round calendars.”

    These “innovations” are designed to fill the void created by the disintegrating family and the absence of parenting. Schools and their personnel are expected to be the “new family”.

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100928/ap_on_re_us/us_teacher_found_dead

    ***LA teacher suicide sparks test-score pushback***

    By CHRISTINA HOAG, , Associated Press Writer – Tue Sep 28, 2:04 pm ET
    SOUTH GATE, Calif. – The Los Angeles Times should remove teacher performance ratings from its website after the apparent suicide of a teacher despondent over his score, the union representing Los Angeles school teachers said.

  • River Tam

    > Mr. Jones is the voice of reason.

    Mike Jones is an ambitious politician, and you were just effectively pandered to.

  • The Anti-Yale

    Pandered to?

    I doubt that Mr. Jones’s sister took her teaching job and had to take a second job to support her family simply to provide Mr. Jones with data for his column.

    I pointed out two flies in his ointment: disintegrating families dump their traditional responsibilities on schools; and the obsession with evaluation can have tragic consequences.

    Your tone ,River Tam, sounds a trifle jaded. Perhaps it’s a bit early for you. Try coffee.

    PK

  • RexMottram08

    Teachers are intended to have second jobs- that’s why they get summers off.

  • The Anti-Yale

    They have summers off so they can get their 1st, 2nd, and 3rd master degrees. (Seven summers at Bread Load = my 3rd master degree: M.A. Middlebuty ’97)

    Don’t be a smartaleck ignoramus. Your posts are usually better than that.

    PK

  • River Tam

    > I doubt that Mr. Jones’s sister took her teaching job and had to take a second job to support her family simply to provide Mr. Jones with data for his column.

    I never said that was the case.

    But look carefully at Jones’s column. He doesn’t blame anyone. The problem is no one’s fault. His solutions carefully do not place the failure of our schools at anyone’s feet. He proposes teacher evaluations, but doesn’t suggest that anyone would be punished for bad scores (just that good teachers would get rewarded). He proposes healthy lunches but doesn’t note that their parents are teaching them junk. He applauds “engaged parents” but doesn’t note what happens when parents aren’t engaged. He makes the overwhelmingly obvious point that *giving kids money to go to college* will improve their lives. Every problem is a problem of circumstance rather than a problem of actors to Mike Jones. That’s because he’s gearing up for a long career as a career politician and he’s still in the stage where he plays to the uncontroversial middle.

    Let’s look at some other statements that Mike Jones makes.

    > I’m not a huge fan of Vincent Gray, but I do think that D.C. schools will continue to exist without Michelle Rhee.

    > I decided that Teach for America wasn’t for me, but I hope that my friends who will soon teach in some of America’s most challenging classrooms decide to remain there after their two-year commitment ends.

    > While admittedly leaving much to be desired, New Haven’s school reform efforts take important steps to answer these structural challenges.

    > Reform advocates should also support salary structures that attract quality applicants.

    And then there is his call for “elected officials who are willing to be unpopular”. After you, Mike.

  • Yale12

    Because, RiverTam, the failure of our schools cannot be placed at the feet of any one–or even any two, or three–groups of people. The politically intelligent answer is what was written yesterday: Blame the teachers. Blaming teachers is an easy fix, an easy out, and it’s something people can get behind–the public wants easy answers. Blaming teachers, parents, administrators, politicians, economists, and centuries of discrimination is not nearly as easy. While Jones may not have used the word “blame,” it was implied: the failure of our public schools is a collective failure, and it will take work from every single side to fix it. That’s not a very popular opinion to take, and I applaud Jones for it.

  • RexMottram08

    > They have summers off so they can get their 1st, 2nd, and 3rd master degrees.

    More useless credentialing. A Master’s in Education is another worthless degree churned out by the diploma mills.

    American higher ed should be sued for malpractice.

  • pablum

    On that note, RexMottram08’s graduation from Yale will make everybody’s Yale degree worth a little bit less.

  • RexMottram08

    My graduation cannot devalue it any more than Women’s & Gender Studies.

  • River Tam

    > The politically intelligent answer is what was written yesterday: Blame the teachers.

    The teachers’ lobby is incredibly powerful. And I did not blame the teachers (as you will note in the comments of that thread). I blamed the parents, which is the *least* politically correct move. Haven’t heard a lot of politicians tell parents, “schools are failing because you are failing”. They should.

  • The Anti-Yale

    “A Master’s in Education is another worthless degree churned out by the diploma mills”.

    I’m afraid I agree with you, from the inside out.

    Paul Keane,

    M.A.

    M.Div.

    M.Ed

  • RexMottram08

    PK- the M. Ed is your second most worthless graduate degree…I hope that M.Div. was free…even then you should ask for your money back…

  • The Anti-Yale

    The most thrilling intellectual course I ever took was at Yale Divinity School: “Psychoanalysis, Parents and God”, taught by Dr. Tom Brown, a shrink and a divine.

    Brilliant—-and apparently too hot for YDS to handle since it has been abolished.