Can Public Schools Really Change?
Why New Haven’s ambitious new education strategy might actually succeed.
Photo by iStockphoto.
As the recent Chicago teacher strike demonstrated, public school systems are phenomenally difficult institutions to change. The array of competing forces—unions, politicians, parents, principals, charter schools, state and national bureaucrats—gums up many reform efforts and frustrates all but the most persistent reformers. But what’s happening in the historically troubled New Haven, Conn., public school system suggests there may be ways around this, ways that all sides can support.
In 2009, New Haven’s school district and teachers’ union signed a groundbreaking contract for the 21,000-student system. The four-year deal included a small annual pay hike—and allowed the district to give merit bonuses, close failing schools, and evaluate teachers based in part on student performance. The contract’s reform-minded provisions brought praise to a struggling urban district, from admirers including Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, and New York Times columnists David Brooks and Nicholas Kristof. Three years later, there are signs that cultural change is coming, too, in fits and starts. It’s especially evident in the district’s unusual effort to groom future leaders by handing them over to a local charter network that it used to view as an upstart threat.
A little history so you can see how big a change this represents: In 1998, a group led by two Yale Law students, Dacia Toll, who’d previously worked as a student teacher in New Haven, and Stefan Pryor, who’d been a policy adviser for the city’s mayor, John DeStefano, opened Amistad Academy, a charter school. (Pryor is now the state commissioner of education for Connecticut.) Amistad soon posted test scores for its students that far outstripped New Haven’s. Charters like this one are often accused of creaming students off the top, but the Amistad kids were chosen by lottery and resembled New Haven’s student population demographically: heavily low income and almost entirely African-American and Hispanic.
DeStefano has been in office for nearly 20 years, along with school superintendent Reginald Mayo, and for much of that time, the New Haven schools has suffered from nepotism and low achievement and graduation rates. In 2003, Toll formed an umbrella organization, Achievement First, and opened a second school in New Haven. A couple of years later, DeStefano and Mayo felt attacked by a friend of Toll’s, former Rhodes Scholar Alex Johnston, who’d launched a pro-reform group called Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now, or ConnCAN, with a board that included heavy hitters like Yale President Richard Levin. The mayor and superintendent accused ConnCAN of denigrating the New Haven schools. Toll expanded her charter efforts elsewhere, in Brooklyn, Hartford, and Bridgeport. Achievement First now runs 22 schools with 7,000 students; only five are in New Haven.
But a funny thing happened on the way to explaining away Achievement First’s success. Mayor DeStefano forced his way onto AF’s board (via a Connecticut law to requiring the charter to appoint a city official), and then as he sat through meetings, he found himself thinking that he had something to learn. “He sat and listened for a year, and then he and the superintendent started asking, ‘What do we need to do differently?’ ” assistant superintendent Garth Harries says. DeStefano began declaring that school reform would be his legacy. He and Mayo called in David Cicarella, the president of the New Haven teachers’ union. “Pre-reform, I’d almost never talked to the mayor,” Cicarella says. “Now he was saying, ‘What’s your input? What do you think?’ ”
The union and the district together hammered out a method for evaluating teachers based in part on state test scores and in part on factors like classroom management, use of data, and parent outreach. The goal was to help as many teachers as possible improve—and to drum out the ones who wouldn’t. Over the next two years, 70 teachers failed to lift themselves out of the bottom of the pack, and the union went along with removing them. The terminations were only about 4 percent of the total workforce of about 1,700 but far more than in previous years, and they sent an unmistakable signal. “The people who were let go had been fairly evaluated by a system we helped to create and shown no improvement,” Cicarella says. “I don’t see how we can defend that. Frankly, we shouldn’t.”
Connecticut students in the fourth through eighth grades take a state test every year, and in New Haven, their scores rose a bit in 2011. So did the graduation rate and the number of ninth through 11th graders who are on track to graduate. Other news is mixed: Yale University and a local foundation started awarding scholarships to in-state public schools for New Haven high-school graduates with a B average and good attendance. Among the first group of 115 freshmen, only 62 percent made it to sophomore year. This fall, the principal of one of the city’s high schools is embroiled in a cheating scandal.
DeStefano and Mayo get credit, though, for some adventurous hires. They brought in Harries, a former McKinsey consultant who came to New Haven in 2009 from New York, where he worked on special education reform for former schools chancellor Joel Klein. The district also tapped Gemma Joseph Lumpkin for the new position of executive manager of leadership development: She grew up in New Haven, had consulted for the district on using data collection to strengthen student performance, and had worked on a National Science Foundation initiative for urban schools. And DeStefano mended fences with Alex Johnston, appointing him to the school board.
Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and writes about law, family, and kids. Her forthcoming book, Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Empathy and Character. Find her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook or Twitter.