Zelinsky: A broken promise indeed

On Wednesday, I criticized Yale’s well-intended but poorly-designed scholarship program, New Haven Promise (“An empty Promise,” Nov. 10). I argued that this program does not address the fundamental problems of the New Haven public schools — namely, the poor performance of many unionized teachers. Instead, the Promise is an ill-disguised Band-Aid which fails to address the deeper problems of New Haven’s public schools.

Among the critics of my critique was Brian Bills, who called on me to volunteer in New Haven’s schools. In fact, I am a lifelong New Haven resident and care deeply about this city. Before Mr. Bills came to Yale, I taught math and chemistry in Breakthrough New Haven, a summer school for gifted public school students. While at Yale, I have volunteered in High School in the Community to give back to this city, which has taught me a great deal in turn. My conclusions about public school teacher performance derive not only from national discussions on this issue, but also from my own personal frustration working in New Haven’s school system. I have seen the union-driven apathy that Mr. Bills prefers to ignore.

Moreover, these systemic problems are not a partisan issue. President Obama has described the lack of teacher-accountability as “a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences.” I agree.

Bills and Alderman Jones both argue that Mayor DeStefano pursues an “ambitious agenda of actual education reform.” If these policies come to fruition, I will be among the first to applaud. However, Mayor DeStefano’s attempts at reform are more likely destined to replicate the educational failures I have witnessed for the past two decades as a New Haven resident. Bills and Jones praise the classification of New Haven schools into three tiers as a concrete step toward reform. However, this year, New Haven officials designated only two schools out of over 40 in the school system as “turnarounds” needing drastic change. In a district with a 27.4 percent high school dropout rate, neither turnaround school is a high school. As serious educational reform goes, this is not impressive. Similarly, both Bills and Jones correctly state that the new teacher contract allows for teacher evaluations. Yet, such evaluation is meaningless in a world where tenure exists and there are no consequences for bad performance. The contract still prevents administrators from firing in a timely manner those tenured employees who teach poorly.

The problem of pseudo-reform is not new. Mr. Bills and Mr. Jones were hundreds of miles away in 2006 when the mayor ran for governor of Connecticut. I was not. Prior to the election, Mayor DeStefano announced a massive physical renovation of New Haven’s schools as a key element of school reform. At enormous cost, this proposal placated special interests such as the construction lobby, the teachers and the unions. Some at the time, including myself, were skeptical of this ostensibly “bold” step in reform. Real reform starts in the classroom, with substantive changes to teacher and student behavior. Unfortunately, we skeptics were correct. One of these reconstructed schools, Barnard Magnet School (three blocks from my house), is today classified as the only “Tier III” school, apart from the “turnarounds.” We may have shiny new buildings, but the same old teacher’s union, and the same old problems.

I agree with Jones and Bills that home environments and parents play an important role in a child’s education. Parents need to inspire children and stay involved in their academic lives. However, as partners to parents and communities, elected officials have an obligation to reform the public services and servants — namely the teachers — whom they oversee. What about New Haven Promise’s plan to offer scholarships to students? At face value, it seems like a great idea. No doubt, it will help some deserving students who could otherwise not afford college. For that, I applaud it.

However, New Haven Promise does nothing to address the deeper systemic problems of New Haven’s public schools. The Promise does not signal a commitment to real reform. Just like the renovation projects four years ago, it obfuscates the root problems in our schools. Neither Mr. Bills nor Alderman Jones confronts the tough question raised by my critique: Is the scholarship program, the mayor, or Yale bringing about the reform overhaul we need and they promise? As a lifelong New Haven resident with practical experience in this area, my answer remains a clear and disappointed “no.”

Nate Zelinsky is a sophomore in Davenport College.