Charlotte, 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.”