Friday, February 24, 2012

The New Haven Experiment

STOP THE PRESSES!!!  Nick Kristof wrote a VERY important and thought-provoking op ed in yesterday's NYT hailing the union contract in New Haven:


February 15, 2012

The New Haven Experiment



I lost patience with teachers' unions when union officials in New York City defended a teacher who had passed out in class, reeking of alcohol, with even the principal unable to rouse her.

Not to mention when union officials in Los Angeles helped a teacher keep his job after he allegedly mocked a student who had tried to commit suicide, suggesting that the boy slash his wrists more deeply the next time.

In many cities, teachers' unions ensured no one was removed for mere incompetence. If a teacher stole or abused a student, yes, but school boards didn't even try to remove teachers who couldn't teach.

"Before, you had to go smack the mayor in order to get fired," Reggie Mayo, the schools superintendent here in New Haven, told me.

That's what makes an experiment under way here so jaw-dropping. New Haven has arguably become ground zero for school reform in America because it is transforming the system with the full cooperation of the union.

One of America's greatest challenges in the coming years will be to turn around troubled schools, especially in inner cities. It's the civil rights issue of our age, and teachers' unions have mostly been an exasperating obstacle.

Yet reformers like myself face a conundrum. Teachers' unions are here to stay, and the only way to achieve systematic improvement is with their buy-in. Moreover, the United States critically needs to attract talented young people into teaching. And that's less likely when we're whacking teachers' unions in ways that leave many teachers feeling insulted and demoralized.

The breakthrough experiment in New Haven offers a glimpse of an education future that is less rancorous. It's a tribute to the savvy of Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers and as shrewd a union leader as any I've seen. She realized that the unions were alienating their allies, and she is trying to change the narrative.

New Haven may be home to Yale University, but this is a gritty, low-income school district in which four out of five kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Eighty-four percent of students are black or Hispanic, and graduation rates have been low.

A couple of years ago, the school district reached a revolutionary contract with teachers. Pay and benefits would rise, but teachers would embrace reform — including sacrificing job security. With a stronger evaluation system, tenure no longer mattered and weak teachers could be pushed out.

Roughly half of a teacher's evaluation would depend on the performance of his or her students — including on standardized tests and other measures of learning.

Teachers were protected by a transparent process, and by accountability for principals. But if outside evaluators agreed with administrators that a teacher was failing, the teacher would be out at the end of the school year.

Last year, the school district pushed out 34 teachers, about 2 percent of the total in the district. The union not only didn't object, but acknowledged that many of them didn't really belong in the classroom.

"We all use the same litmus test: Would we want our kid in that room?" says David Cicarella, president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers, the local union. "We all recognize that we need to do something. Tenured teachers who are ineffective — that is an issue. We want to do something about it. But it's not fair either to blame all teachers."

Cicarella says that teachers accept that the world has changed. Accountability and feedback are welcome if they are fair, he says, adding: "It's not O.K. any more to spray and pray."

So far this year, administrators have warned about 50 more teachers that their jobs are in jeopardy because of weak teaching. That's out of 1,800 teachers in the district.

Mayor John DeStefano Jr. of New Haven says that the breakthrough isn't so much that poor teachers are being eased out, but that feedback is making everyone perform better — principals included. "Most everybody picked up their game in the district," he said.

It'll take years to verify that students themselves are benefiting, but it's striking that teachers and administrators alike seem happy with the new system. They even say nice things about each other. In many tough school districts, teachers are demoralized and wilted; that feels less true in New Haven.

The New Haven model still doesn't go as far as I would like, but it does represent enormous progress. And it's a glimpse of a world in which "school reform" is an agenda and not just a term that sets off a brawl.

If the American Federation of Teachers continues down this path, I'll revisit my criticisms of teachers' unions. Maybe even give them a hug for daring to become part of the solution.

This is a STOP THE PRESSES not because New Haven is so important or the contract is so revolutionary, but rather because what's happening here – and how we reformers react to it – it emblematic of the reform struggle across the country.


Whenever I hear a kumbaya story like this one, in which the union harmoniously agrees to a thin contract, robust evaluation system, streamlined removal of lousy teachers, etc., my BS alarms go off so I did some checking around and have learned the following:


On the plus side, the New Haven contract was a major step forward from what preceded it – and from the typical contract in most cities.  It's probably top 1% in the country (though keep in mind how low that bar is).  A decent evaluation system was put in place and removing the bottom 2% of teachers last year and putting another 3% on warning are important steps.


On the negative side:


·        This is clearly evolutionary, not revolutionary, progress.  If the ideal is New Orleans, then New Haven is far from it.  My understanding is that this is not nearly as strong as the contract Michelle Rhee got in DC.

·        Removing the bottom 2% of teachers last year is a meaningful step in the right direction – but the actual percentage of terrible teachers is quite a bit higher; it should probably be 5-6% annually for quite some time.

·        This is not even close to a district of choice – in fact, one of the trade-offs to get this contract done was pulling back on charter schools and school closings; instead, failing schools in New Haven just go through the usual BS "turnarounds", in which pretty much all of the adults keep their jobs, nothing truly changes, and kids keep suffering.

·        In summary, though they're better than they once were, New Haven schools still suck (defined as nobody on this email list would EVER allow their child to attend a randomly selected public school in New Haven)


So in light of this, should we reformers be celebrating what's going on in New Haven (and laudatory articles like Kristof's) or bashing it/them?  My personal view to be quite celebratory (though I do think it's useful if some folks remain very critical).  Let me use a football analogy to explain why:


Five years ago (and prior), we reformers were stuck on our own 5 yard line and we getting manhandled.  Every once in a while we ran a very clever trick play, fooled the other team and gained a few yards, but then on the next play we'd get sacked for a loss and be right back where we started.


But starting about five years ago, we got some great draft picks and upgraded our team (think Obama, Duncan, Klein, Rhee, DFER, etc.), joining the early warriors (think Escalante, TFA, KIPP, EdTrust, etc. – forgive me for forgetting the many other people and organizations I should name) and we started to move the ball – not easily, not quickly, more like three yards and a cloud of dust, and still with frequent setbacks/sacks.  But overall, we've moved the ball to, say, our own 30 yard line.  That's 25 yards of progress – but we still have 70 yards to go…


Sometimes we make big plays and can move the ball a lot in one play – like Hurricane Katrina obliterating one of the worst school systems in America in New Orleans, thereby creating the conditions for a fresh start with no union and a district of choice.  Another example is Obama, against all odds, beating Hillary in the primary.  Can you imagine where we'd be with President Hillary Clinton (and someone like Linda Darling-Hammond as Secretary of Education)???  I shudder at the thought (at least as it relates to ed reform; I think she would have been an excellent President in most other areas).


But this is NOT the norm.  We cannot win this game by waiting for lightning to strike or throwing Hail Mary passes.  The system is too big and too broken, and in most places the unions are too powerful, for revolutionary change to occur.  Instead, the core of our game, in most cities and states, has to be evolutionary change (i.e., three yards and a cloud of dust). 


I wish this were not so, as my heart cries for the millions (tens of millions?) of children who are going to get a sub-par education while the schools improve only slowly, but I think it is.  My 9th grade geometry teacher liked to say, "Don't let what you want change what is."  We need a strategy and tactics that are rooted in reality, not naïve hope.


A good example of this is the teacher evaluation system that the unions just agreed to in NYS (see articles and commentary below).  This is not revolutionary by any means, but it's a major evolutionary step forward.  And, critically, it builds on what happened in New Haven, DC, and elsewhere.  In other words, we have to keep the pressure up, win lots of small victories in the trenches around the country, make darn sure to consolidate these victories and not go backward, and then build on each one, moving the ball steadily down the field.


If we can do this, maybe – just maybe – within my lifetime (I'm 45) we will once again have a system of K-12 public education that is internationally competitive, properly educates ALL children, and that we can be proud of.


Here are two friends' comments on New Haven:


A) The crux, as I see it, is how many other cities will do this in a meaningful way.   Otherwise it just becomes a rhetorical trump card in the debate "we're doing this in New Haven, we know how, leave it to us..." rather than a genuine reform for kids.


B) The AFT bent a little in the face of a powerful mayor with a world-class temper threatening to go on a rampage against them in his town. Now New Haven stands as the "shining example" of how they're mending their ways, meanwhile that contract remains a one-off and the AFT fights against applying hard student performance numbers to teacher evaluation ("if we have to have evaluations, keep them squishy and subjective and endlessly debatable") and they fight tenure reform in every district and legislator's office.


None of this should surprise us. Weingarten is a capable politician and she's elected to represent normal folks who have a few clear priorities, the same priorities that we would have if we were in their shoes, starting with job security. The union's value proposition to its members includes the view that school management is often capricious, political, self-serving and stupid - frankly, I wouldn't want to have to debate them on that. The union is not going to do a 180 on this. They're going to play rope-a-dope: selectively compromise on watered-down contract provisions while preserving their real base of power - the government-run district as the dominant provider of services; broad collective bargaining rights; binding arbitration; etc.


The real fight has just begun

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