In a column from Wednesday’s News (“An empty promise,” Nov. 10), Nate Zelinsky petulantly attacks the New Haven Promise — a program through which Yale will help pay college tuition for public school students in New Haven — saying it will “only allow the larger problem [of failing public schools] to continue festering.” He seems to hold the intriguing and fatalistic belief that as long as we have tenure for teachers, our public schools cannot be improved, and any other efforts to reform education are a waste of time.
As someone who works at a designated turnaround school in New Haven, mentors at another school, and taught a summer program to gifted New Haven public school students, I know that Zelinsky is wrong in his assumptions and his conclusions about education reform in our city.
I’m not interested in playing the tried-and-true role of apologist for the teachers’ union. Like Zelinsky, I believe that some of the policies of the National Education Association, and to a lesser degree the American Federation of Teachers, are ill-advised. Unlike Zelinsky, my analysis does not stop there.
To his great credit, the mayor has since realized the limits of his previous approach, and launched an ambitious agenda of actual education reform in our city. It is this agenda that Zelinsky seems blissfully unaware of.
New Haven’s teachers’ union and the city are in the process of hammering out the details of one of the most progressive union contracts anywhere in the country, including provisions that would make teacher evaluations based on student performance — often a dealbreaker for those stubborn unions that Zelinsky so indiscriminately scorns. Schools are being ranked into three tiers, with the best schools gaining more autonomy from the central office, while the worst schools are set on a path to reform and improvement, or else closure.
In New Haven, the union has been a partner in reform. Like Zelinsky, I often wish the union would go further in limiting tenure, but having worked in New Haven schools, I recognize the grave challenges faced by teachers. For instance, if we give unfettered authority to principals to fire teachers, what happens if a principal, who has to manage 30, 50, or sometimes even more teachers, makes an inaccurate judgment about a teacher’s effectiveness? What about schools where the system is so broken that even good teachers can fail to adequately educate their students? These are real challenges, and I am reassured that the New Haven teachers’ union is working cooperatively with the administration to address them.
In a sense, Zelinsky is right: New Haven Promise is not the beginning and end of school reform. Thankfully, no one in New Haven thinks it is. Paired with the complete overhaul of New Haven’s public education system and union contract, the program could be incredibly powerful.
This past summer, I taught at the Ulysses S. Grant program in New Haven, working with gifted public school students from New Haven middle schools. During parent-teacher conferences, I would always ask about guardians’ plans for sending students to college — money absolutely mattered. The fact that my university has offered to help pay the way for my former students gives me renewed hope and incredible pride.
Education reform is a serious issue, and I’m glad to see students like Zelinsky write passionately about the “national scandal” of our failed school system. With the support of the mayor and the New Haven teachers’ union, this is a unique and powerful moment for education reform in our city.
I hope that rather than throwing up their hands in despair or fighting imaginary opponents, Zelinsky and his friends will get involved in our schools. Yale’s decision to fund the New Haven Promise is a small but important piece of the puzzle, and I want to thank our university for its generosity.
Brian Bills is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. He is an intern at Barnard Environmental Science Magnet School and a mentor at Wexler-Grant Community School.