In the aftermath of the introduction of New Haven Promise, the details of education reform are being discussed by a diverse group of New Havenites.
A panel of educators, students, parents and city officials gathered with historian and education analyst Diane Ravitch to debate education reform Tuesday night at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School. WTNH anchor Chris Velardi and Paul Bass of the New Haven Independent online news site moderated the discussion, which covered topics ranging from teacher accountability to the effect of family life on academic achievement. Around 70 New Haven residents filled the auditorium, many toting Ravitch’s recent book on education policy.
Reggie Mayo, superintendent of New Haven Public Schools, said the city’s three goals for public schools are closing the achievement gap, halving the dropout rate in five years and giving students financial support for college through initiatives like the New Haven Promise.
“I don’t think there’s any school district I know that has reached all of these successes,” he said. “But certainly we’re going to give it a good shot here in New Haven.”
Many panelists embraced the drive for teacher accountability in city schools.
“[Teaching] is not a job you can do poorly and continue to get paid for year after year,” said Damaris Rau, instruction director for New Haven Public Schools. “We’re talking about children’s lives. We’re not a bank or a shoe store. There has to be accountability.”
Educators spoke about the need for accountability for administrators as well, noting that struggling teachers should be given adequate resources and support.
But Tom Burns, vice president of the New Haven teachers’ union, cautioned against implementing overly strict accountability measures, such as constantly bombarding students with exams.
“The key is, don’t beat the joy out of [learning],” he said. “And don’t beat the joy out of teaching either.”
Ravitch, author of “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” criticized the focus on standardized testing in public schools spawned by the No Child Left Behind program.
“The search for accountability is turning us all into consumers and not citizens. Schools are not baseball teams. You don’t just say we’re going to give you a measurement, and this is your number,” she said.
Ravitch advocated a more holistic approach to school reform, one that included balanced curricula and attention to both students’ school and home environments. Schools have invested a lot of money in test preparation at the expense of developing programs in literature, art and music, she added.
A supporter of No Child Left Behind at its inception, Ravitch changed her views when she realized the program had not produced results when federal test scores were released in October 2007. “I’m a historian, and evidence matters,” Ravitch said.
Teachers need to teach to the individual, not the system, said Wilbur Cross high schooler Solomon Botwick-Reis, one of two students on the panel. When teachers are preoccupied with teaching to a test, they seem to teach just to “look good,” he said.
Much of the discussion revolved around the role of parents in supporting their children in school. According to Ravitch, families affect student performance by 60 percent, while the effect of a good teacher is only 7 to 15 percent.
New Haven teachers and administrators agreed that parents should take responsibility for helping their children succeed in school.
“Parents are not off the hook,” Gary Highsmith, principal of Hamden High School, said. “What we tend to do is back off and take parents off the hook because that’s not a politically savvy thing to talk about.” Parents who “engage in specific parenting practices” such as reading to their children increase their children’s chance of success “exponentially,” he said.
Parents on both the panel and in the audience raised concerns, however, that they do not always have the means to help their children. Panelist and parent Nilda Aponte described being unable to help her daughter with math homework because her school did not provide students with textbooks.
“As parents, we don’t know anything,” Aponte said. “We don’t come with a manual.”
Aponte is a board member of advocacy group Teach Our Children.
Other parents in the audience agreed.
“Oftentimes families really do not know how to organize or give structure to help their children learn,” Gladys Jackson said.
Rachel Sexton, a teacher at Domus Academy, said teachers alone could not be expected to solve the problems of children from troubled and disadvantaged backgrounds.
“Those are not insurmountable problems, but they require a host of social service supports that we do not provide,” she said.
Local media were largely responsible for the event: it was organized by the New Haven Independent and co-sponsored by WTNH and WNPR.