DeStefano: Time To “Relinquish Power”

Melissa Bailey PhotoCharlotte, N.C. —After a national teachers union flew him to Charlotte to pump his reform efforts, Mayor John DeStefano conceded what New Haven’s Board of Ed is “doing wrong”—failing to “relinquish power” to schools.

DeStefano made the remarks in a lunchtime panel Wednesday at The EpiCentre in uptown Charlotte, one of many discussions timed to coincide with the Democratic National Convention here. The talk, sponsored by Bloomberg LP and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), convened five “thought leaders” in education to talk about innovative steps unions have taken to reform schools.

DeStefano, who decided to skip this year’s party convention, flew to Charlotte at the request of AFT President Randi Weingarten Wednesday morning. New Haven and New Jersey served as two examples where the teachers union has partnered with government to overhaul teacher evaluations as a first step to improving schools.

As dozens of attendees nibbled on green beans, chicken and cheese grits in a white-tableclothed dining room, DeStefano took yet another opportunity to tout his work in New Haven as a national model. He talked about how the city chose to collaborate with New Haven’s chapter of the AFT, rather than vilify teachers, as it launched a reform effort some four years ago. New Haven’s teachers contract has been hailed nationally for including teachers in the process of reform.

Weingarten almost apologized for the amount of praise she doled on New Haven: “Not to really pump up New Haven any more than it is right now, but they are focused not only on some kids, but all kids. They take responsibility for all schools,” she said at one point.

DeStefano added a few candid remarks.

“I do think we’re doing some interesting things in New Haven, but I know what we’re doing wrong—a real struggle for us … is it’s hard to relinquish power.”

New Haven’s reform effort has centered on a “portfolio management” system where schools are managed differently according to how well they perform. The district empowered principals at low-performing schools to pick and choose which teachers work there; principals at high-performing schools are supposed to get more autonomy over their curriculum.

DeStefano said transitioning to this new system has been difficult for the school district’s central office.

“As much as anything, this has been about central office really—no guys, really—devolving budgetary authority and hiring decisions to the schools and programming decisions about what goes on in the schools,” DeStefano said.

“It’s central office. It’s hard to let go,” he said.

Central office’s difficulty letting go of power “goes to the point of whether schools are welcoming to parents, and the flexibility the professionals in the school have,” DeStefano said.

Handing down decision-making power to schools is “frankly an expression of trust,” he said.

The challenge of “devolving authority” is “a really big deal for all of us,” he said. 

DeStefano went on to highlight a second major challenge the district faces: a “dearth” of capable building leaders.

“The hardest thing are building leaders,” he said. New Haven’s “robust charter system” has the same problem, he said.

Finding strong principals is crucial, he said: “If you want to know if you’re welcome in a school, you can tell within 30 seconds of walking into a school whether you’re welcome or not.”

“The biggest challenge we face right now” is “developing and identifying talent in the district” to lead schools.

After his 45-minute panel, DeStefano elaborated on his remarks. He said he recently got a call from the parent of a 7th-grader who lives across the street from Nathan Hale School, and the parent can’t get the student in.

Kindergarten parents have had problems, too, he noted.

“I think central office still plays a very heavy role,” he said. “We need to continue to challenge ourselves about the role of central office devolving budgetary and management authority to the schools.”

More authority has been handed over to schools in some cases, he said, where “we have higher confidence levels in building leaders.”

Finding “great leaders” makes the biggest difference in a school, he said. The new teacher evaluation system has provided “structure and professionalism to the relationship between building leaders” and school staff.

The new principal evaluation system has resulted in some principals departing, he said. But he said the biggest effort needs to be to build talent within the district.

The school system set up a “talent pipeline” to help solve that problem, he said.. As with many other aspects of New Haven’s reform drive, it’s too soon to tell if the new system is working.

At least two teachers who went through the district’s new training program with Achievement First became assistant principals this year; another became an administrative intern at the Quinnipiac School.

“We’ll see how they do,” he said.

Reached by phone after the panel, Assistant Superintendent Garth Harries said the mayor is right to point out those two challenges.

Portfolio management—managing schools differently to suit their needs—“is always the challenge. I don’t think there’s a district that has really solved it around the country,” Harries said. He said districts have to find a balance between handing power over to schools and making decisions at central office.

“We get good feedback from our schools, but it’s absolutely fair to say that’s a challenge for us,” Harries said.

“I think we’ve done a great job building a pipeline of leaders,” Harries added. In addition to the residency program, the district has rolled out various other programs designed to build a stepladder for teachers who want to move up.

Those are just two challenges the district faces in its reform drive, he said: New Haven also needs to do better to develop more exemplary teachers and to engage parents.

In general, Harries said, the reform drive has allowed the district to accomplish more as well as reveal some areas of weakness.

“As we make progress, we discover problems we didn’t know we had at the outset,” then work on solving them. “I think this is all very healthy.”

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posted by: cwhig on September 5, 2012  4:31pm

“Central office”—that means Dr. Mayo, right? How long is long enough?

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on September 5, 2012  4:31pm

Hey King John.How about Relinquish Control by steping down now.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on September 5, 2012  4:39pm

This is what the people of New York think of Randi Weingarten.


posted by: Long Time NH Resident on September 5, 2012  4:56pm

I really wish that headline meant what it said. I almost had hope for NH for just a moment.


posted by: SaveOurCity on September 5, 2012  5:36pm

love how Johnny talks about the “Leadership” and “Central Office” having problems as if that is not him…..VOTE for CHANGE in 2013

posted by: Honest in New Haven on September 5, 2012  5:44pm

The idea of “relinquishing control” coming from the Mayor is laughable.  I don’t think more needs to be said.  Why do we keep talking up our “national model” here in New Haven when we have yet to accomplish anything? Have test scores improved?  Has the achievement gap been closed at least a little bit? Have any schools been successfully turned around?  No!  Yet the teacher’s union is flying DeStefano to North Carolina to tout the contract?  Maybe it’s me, but when organized labor reacts that way with “management”, it’s usually because they like the deal they got! We need to stop listening to all the hype from City Hall and start focusing on same really basic questions: are our kids learning in school like they should be learning?, and are they being taught skills that will make them successful for life in the 21st century?

posted by: cedarhillresident! on September 5, 2012  6:05pm

:) Ya gotta love the NHI! Ya all know what our reactions where to that headline!

but with that said with an “uhh shucks” I do agree with some of the ideas he suggested. But lack of action and the spending of alot of cash to market ideas after ideas…really leaves me feeling flat about the ideas….just another dept of paper pushers and another bill for tax payers and some friend or family member of someone getting a job….blah blah blah

Tell them what sounds right, but we know the truth.

posted by: Brutus2011 on September 5, 2012  7:58pm

The mayor and his people at NHPS Central and the BOE rightly sense that parents are beginning to stir. Informed and politically aware parents are a waking behemoth that education execs, including mayors, fear. The mayor’s administration might be forced to “relinquish control,” or political control of the school system and its substantial budget.

On Sept. 9th, there is a meeting in New Haven of the Ct chapter Parents Across America (PAA). Go to facebook for details.

Lets see the superintendent come and try to make one of us cry.

posted by: Noteworthy on September 6, 2012  8:49am

DeStefano should take his own advice. That anybody talks about New Haven being a national model is the act of wishing upon a star while watching a cow jump over the moon and a pig fly.

posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on September 6, 2012  9:04am

What’s with the big photo of the steam tables???

posted by: Jacques Strap on September 6, 2012  7:48pm

This from a mayor whose own city’s reading department doesn’t allow primary-aged students to color, cut, write or paste during a 120-minute literacy block. The mayor’s comments above are laughable, just laughable.

posted by: wanttobeateacherinNH on September 6, 2012  7:56pm

DeStefano says that New Haven needs “ develop more exemplary teachers…”  Well, I have been trying to get a full time teaching position in New Haven for years. I am certified, have a doctorate in education, and a lot of quality experience. 

I had several interviews this summer.  I found out at the very end of my first interview that the position was filled 2 weeks prior to the administrator contacting me to schedule the interview - which was interesting in itself because the position had not even been posted for 2 weeks when I had the interview).  I was told following another interview that I was not hired for the particular position I applied for because my experience and educational level would be threatening to others.

It is also impossible to get responses from most administrators; I know my emails are read because I receive a read receipt, but only one administrator has had the courtesy to respond.

I am not sure how hard New Haven is trying…

posted by: David S Baker on September 7, 2012  8:56pm

Ha ha ha ha!!!!

Best headline bait EVER.  Award worthy.