It’s election season in New Haven, and that means it’s time to talk about our city’s public schools. Just ask Mayor-for-life John DeStefano, who somehow feels the need to make a litany of hollow promises without either any hope of fulfilling them or a serious challenger.
This election cycle, DeStefano has hopped on the school reform bandwagon. It seems the mayor is hoping the magic of other cities’ school chancellors — prominently, Washington’s Michelle Rhee and New York’s Joel Klein — will rub off on his own superintendent, Reggie Mayo. I could dress up in pinstripes every day, but that wouldn’t make me Derek Jeter. DeStefano’s posturing recalls a great scene in the Coen Brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” in which the beleaguered incumbent governor exclaims, “We got to get us some of that re-form!”
Why am I so cynical about the mayor’s “School Change Campaign,” announced last February along with his ninth re-election bid? Simply put, because this is his ninth re-election bid, and New Haven Public Schools aren’t a whole lot better. Although the New Haven mayor does not explicitly control school policy, as New York mayor Michael Bloomberg or Chicago mayor Richard Daley do, DeStefano has what everyone agrees is de-facto control through his powerful political machine, appointees to the school board and close relationship with the superintendent.
To his credit, the mayor has created one of the most dramatic school construction projects in the nation, garnering roughly $1.5 billion in mostly state funds to remodel or build from scratch all of New Haven’s public schools, 31 thus far. Unfortunately, DeStefano and Mayo, the superintendent since 1991, have done little to change what actually happens inside schools, making the Citywide School Construction Project a gold-plated dud. In recent years state test scores, aside from elementary reading, have remained stagnant at most schools, and have actually declined at some. At James Hillhouse High School, for instance, a $37 million makeover completed in 2004 resulted in a decline in reading proficiency from 52 percent that year to 36 percent in 2007.
Hillhouse is one of the worst-testing schools in the city, but the numbers for the whole district aren’t much better. At the beginning of the 2007-’08 school year, state test scores in almost every school were 20 to 30 percentage points lower than the state average; 13 years after DeStefano took office, nine of the city’s 11 high schools were not making “adequate yearly progress” under federal guidelines, nor were 22 of 35 elementary and middle schools. So forgive me if I’m skeptical of DeStefano and Mayo’s latest gambit.
Details of the “School Change Campaign,” announced piece-meal over recent months, are similarly discouraging. Some aspects appear excellent, such as dividing schools into three tiers, each with a varying level of principal autonomy depending upon student achievement levels at the school. This would mean that high-performing schools like the Sound School will get to make their own budgetary, hiring and curricular decisions, while lower-performing ones like Hillhouse will come under greater scrutiny. Bottom-tier schools might even be reconstituted or closed. The catch is that such principal autonomy depends heavily upon ongoing teachers’ union negotiations, which have ruined many of Rhee’s plans in Washington and slowed Klein’s in New York.
But the more troubling question is what happens to the middle-tiered schools. DeStefano still hasn’t articulated a clear, well-defined strategy for turning around stagnating schools. He says he wants school-by-school performance measurements, but those already exist in the form of city quarterly assessments that many teachers see as a waste. He says he wants to retain a talented teaching staff in the long term, yet he has employed increasing numbers of Teach for America rookies, most of whom will leave city schools after two or three years. And while DeStefano now claims he wants to take lessons from charter schools, for nearly a decade he and Mayo have dismissed as anomalous the remarkable success of Amistad Academy. Looking at the last fifteen years, there’s no proof that DeStefano and Mayo have either the vision or competence to enact effective change.
After making New Haven’s schools the most beautiful in the country, he now says he wants its students to be the best in the country. If the mayor didn’t understand that student achievement was the real goal from the beginning, how can we believe he understands that now? How can we believe he wants anything else than “some of that re-form?”
Sam Brill is a senior in Trumbull College.