By Nicholas Kristof, New York Times, February 15, 2012
The breakthrough experiment in New Haven (Connecticut) 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.
First, thanks to Mr. Kristof for shining a light on this New Haven model, where "tenure" or job security has given way to a contract that removes union protection from those who really should not be in the classroom.
Second, thanks to Randi Weingarten, for seeing through the fog around teachers' unions, (federations) and acknowledging their self-sabotage in the eyes of the public. And they were not providing solutions to the American school system which everyone agrees is in steep decline, on all measures that matter, including teacher morale.
Third, thanks to the parents of these inner city schools for climbing on board a new wave of running schools that relies on improved performance from teachers, principals and senior officials. There may be something of the "Hawthorne effect" here, which holds that people when participating in an 'experiment' generally perform better than they would othewise. However, given that possibility, this new contract, and its effective elimination of that "security blanket" from all teachers, requiring that they earn their right to remain in the classroom next year (and only next year!) by performing at or above expectations.
How could teachers really respect a system that included teachers who were obviously along for the ride. We have all taught in schools where this kind of teacher, while certainly not the norm, has continued for decades, in spite of all attempts to "urge" him (and it was mostly him's, not her's) out.
One wonders just how long the New Haven experiment will take to spread across the U.S., into all 50 states, and then north of the 49th parallel into all 10 provinces and 3 territories.
There will be many parents, and teachers, and ministries of education, not to mention colleges of teachers that will be watching the New Haven model with considerable interest. And so should our education reporters in Canada and the remaining 49 U.S. states.