Nathaniel Zelinsky ’13 got it wrong in his column Wednesday (“An empty Promise,” Nov. 10). The New Haven School Change campaign (including the New Haven Promise) will improve the city’s public schools, and public school teachers and their unions are not “squarely to blame for poor educational achievement,” as Zelinsky suggests. We’ve heard that shortsighted argument time and time again, and it’s still wrong.
Repeated studies have shown that non-school factors such as a students’ level of poverty are overwhelmingly more important in predicting educational outcomes than the quality of their teachers. Indeed, in a country whose public schools have sorely lacked meaningful structural innovation in decades, and amidst a shrinking middle class and a widening income gap between the wealthy and poor, placing the burden of poor students’ comparatively low academic achievement on their teachers is simply misguided. In a review of “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” the recent documentary on the failure of America’s schools, former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch voiced a similar opinion. “Teachers can have a profound effect on students,” she writes, “but it would be foolish to believe that teachers alone can undo the damage caused by poverty and its associated burdens.”
School reform advocates should support efforts to mitigate the effects of poverty on public school students in addition to simply making organizational changes in schools.
Such efforts include providing early education opportunities, healthy meals for students, longer school days, longer school years and year-round calendars. These solutions seem to be routinely ignored when considered alongside easier (and cheaper) reforms like merit pay for teachers, ending teacher tenure systems and encouraging the growth of charters. In addition to supporting these measures, school reformers should strive to treat educators as professionals.
Reform advocates should also support salary structures that attract quality applicants. My sister decided to become an elementary school teacher in North Carolina a few years ago. She’s still teaching, but the below $30,000 salary that she earned during her first year was not what persuaded her to stay. And she and many of her colleagues could not always afford to stay after school every day (as Zelinsky suggests) because she was forced to get another job to support her family. Our educators should be paid competitively, and yes, their pay should in part be determined by performance incentives based on reasonable metrics. They should also receive ongoing professional development and classrooms that contain a manageable number of students. The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have not always been productive partners in school reform efforts. But they are improving, and few places demonstrate these new efforts better than New Haven’s own School Change campaign.
Some of the most exciting provisions of the contract in New Haven, approved overwhelmingly by the NHFT in October 2009, called for a series of steps that would craft and implement more accurate and fair teacher evaluations. These standards take student performance into account, and allow ample resources for teacher improvement, with an emphasis on professional development. Under the evaluation system, teachers would be rated on a 1 to 5 scale, with the best teachers rated “exemplary” with a score of 5. These teachers would assume leadership roles within their schools, serving as mentors and examples for the faculty.
The reforms that have and will continue to be implemented are positive steps toward comprehensive school improvement. While admittedly leaving much to be desired, New Haven’s school reform efforts take important steps to answer these structural challenges. The program is a step in the right direction, and the New Haven Promise will improve our city’s schools.
I haven’t seen “Waiting for ‘Superman.’ ” I’m not a huge fan of Vincent Gray, but I do think that D.C. schools will continue to exist without Michelle Rhee. I decided that Teach for America wasn’t for me, but I hope that my friends who will soon teach in some of America’s most challenging classrooms decide to remain there after their two-year commitment ends. As good teachers, they can help transform American public education.
But so can the rest of us. Don’t just blame the teachers. They must help improve our nation’s schools, but we also need engaged parents, strong school administrators, supportive communities who fight for the poor and middle class in contexts other than education, and elected officials who are willing to be unpopular. Tutor, mentor, volunteer for a campaign, or just vote. Even if you don’t want to teach, you too can make a difference and give the promise of a better tomorrow to all of our country’s children.
Mike Jones is a senior in Saybrook College and the Ward 1 Alderman.