In a series of columns in the fall, I criticized the New Haven Promise scholarship program, calling it a Band-Aid solution to larger problems in our city’s failing schools. While Yale funds this program with the best of intentions, the University is not subsidizing true educational reform.
Defenders of the initiative responded that Promise represents only one of many reform efforts advanced by Mayor DeStefano. In particular, DeStefano’s supporters highlighted the city’s attempt to rank its public schools in order to determine which are failing. The new system nominally places each school in the city into one of three categories called “Tiers.” The top performing Tier I schools are rewarded with more autonomy, Tier II schools receive more funding, while underperforming Tier III schools face restructuring. Those Tier III schools designated “turnaround schools” could even become charter schools. On its face, this plan seems to objectively grade schools by transparent standards. However, the tiering effort does not live up to its billing. It does anything but hold schools, teachers and their union to account.
The complicated and opaque mechanisms used to rank New Haven’s public schools obfuscate educational progress in our classrooms (or lack thereof), depriving parents and taxpayers of true accountability. Take, for example, the convoluted formula used to grade the city’s high schools. Each school is supposedly judged on the number of students in each grade who are on track to graduate, an ostensibly sensible metric given a 27 percent dropout rate citywide.
Upon examination, the formula used to assess each high school lacks rhyme or reason. To track the percentage of students on the path to graduate, the tiering formula looks at whether students accumulate annually enough credits to graduate and whether they pass state aptitude tests in 10th or 11th grade.
Unfortunately, the formula arbitrarily discounts those years in which students typically take the state administered tests which measure proficiency in core subject areas such as reading and math. Student performance in 10th and 11th grades counts three times less than performance in senior year. This discount minimizes the effect of state-administered tests on each high school’s final score and thus deprives the tiering system of objective substance.
At Metropolitan Business Academy, for example, 96 percent of freshmen are deemed to be on track to graduate. The following year, as sophomores, that figure tumbles to 17 percent, presumably because these students are not proficient on state tests. As seniors, during a year without the testing that substantially determines a school’s overall score, that number jumps back up to 91 percent.
Metropolitan was deemed a Tier II school, putting it in the middle of the pack — safe from the drastic restructuring it needs and deserves. The tiering formula, in short, obfuscates and minimizes the fundamental truth: According to state-administered testing, Metropolitan’s students fail dismally. However, the school continues to graduate them, claiming they are prepared for the real world.
The pattern occurs at other New Haven high schools, including High School in the Community and Cooperative Arts Magnate. The latter witnessed a 13 percentage point-drop in state reading and math test results last year, while the former saw a 26.2-point drop in reading scores. While these are clearly failing schools, these institutions were classified as Tier II and rendered safe from major transformation.
The ranking farce continues: No objective standards exist for determining which schools become Tier I, II or III. There are no transparent quantitative cutoffs at different scores. The final determination of the tier to which a school is assigned is up to the superintendent of the school system, who is free to rank a school in a higher tier, even if a formula indicates that a lower ranking is appropriate.
By drastically discounting test scores in the school reform process, the Mayor gets the best of both worlds. He placates parents and reformers who want objective, transparent standards. At the same time, he shelters schools and teachers from the harsh reality of their poor performance.
No wonder Randi Weingarten and the teachers’ union support this pseudo-reform effort. The tiering system whitewashes the real problems in our city’s education, while co-opting the reform movement by usurping the mantel of test scores.
The Mayor promised real change. It is time we kept him to his word. As Yale students, we tutor, teach and mentor in New Haven classrooms. In some public schools, we administer the only available extracurricular activities. We have a real stake in the reform process.
Moreover, Yale provided Mayor DeStefano with legitimacy as a school reformer when we publically awarded him a prestigious Chubb Fellowship to discuss his programs — not to mention when we underwrote the New Haven Promise, to massive expense.
Students and faculty have a responsibility to protest the Mayor’s sham efforts at reform. In lieu of the opaque and manipulative system of school tiering, we should demand a system of objective, transparent and understandable school rankings which will inform and empower parents and voters.
Maybe Yale should invite DeStefano back to another Chubb lecture, and — this time — demand some explanations.
Nathaniel Zelinsky is a sophomore in Davenport College.