For every 10 New Haven middle-schoolers, nine say they want to go to college, but only five actually go, and only two get a degree.
Schools Superintendent Garth Harries (pictured) unveiled those numbers Monday night as he announced some early conclusions he has reached since taking over the public school system on July 22.
Mayor Toni Harp called the statistics “dramatic and frankly very troubling.”
The numbers came as Harries released a report stemming from a “listening tour” in which he heard from hundreds of people in a series of weekly meetings from September to December. The report recaps what he heard on that tour and outlines the direction he aims to take the city’s nationally-watched effort to improve its schools.
Harries shared some details of the report in an interview Monday afternoon, then unveiled it publicly at the school board’s meeting Monday evening at Hill Regional Career High School.
The report offers two big ideas. First: The school district’s four-year-old reform effort has been too focused on top-down “accountability” and not enough on shared responsibility. Second: New Haven needs to focus not on “proficiency”—being “good enough” in reading and math, as measured by the federal No Child Left Behind Act—but on “preparation,” ensuring kids are ready for the next step in life.
In his letter, Harries made two numerical observations that highlight a lack of preparation.
First: He said 88 percent of students in grades 6 to 8 reported on a survey that they want to go to a 2- or a 4-year college. But only 71.4 percent of the Class of 2013 graduated from high school in four years. Only 70 percent of the Class of 2011 enrolled in college in the first two years after graduating from high school. And only 23 percent of the Class of 2007 earned a college or technical degree, Harries wrote.
“What does this mean? For every 10 middle school students, nine say they want to go to college, but only five of those students actually go, and only two get a degree,” Harries wrote.
“These are stark numbers. They should shock us. But they shouldn’t surprise us,” he wrote. The numbers are on par with the national average, he said, but they are still unacceptable, because kids have the potential to do better. “The vast majority of those students can fulfill their dreams as they state them.”
Kids’ performance in middle school gives a hint of what’s to come, Harries wrote: Of this year’s 7th- and 8th-graders, 44 percent had a D or F on their transcript by the end of the 2nd quarter of the current school year, Harries said.
“These numbers should spur us to action,” he wrote.
Harries outlined a new set of priorities—but no specific actions—for what to needs to change.
Harries proposed the following objectives:
• Students need to master basic reading before they enter 2nd grade. Harries offered two main suggestions on how to ensure they do: Hold kids back for a year if they are struggling with reading. Or shrink class sizes for young learners—possibly at the cost of maximizing upper-grade classes that are under-enrolled. Class sizes in lower grades are at the maximum allowed by contract, while they get smaller in the upper grades. He said that’s the opposite of suburban towns, which often have smaller class sizes in lower grades, where smaller class sizes are shown to matter most. (Click here to read a full story about those proposals, which Harries floated publicly last month.)
• Ensure students “demonstrate maturity of personal development” by the end of middle school. He’s talking about skills like resilience, self-discipline, and perseverance—skills that, research shows, are more important than SAT or IQ scores in predicting long-term success. Harries suggested teachers start focusing more on these skills with their students. Students might start assessing themselves on these skills, Harries said. He stopped short of endorsing any specific method, such as a character report card employed by schools in the KIPP charter network.
• Make sure students are on a path to succeed after high school. This means students need to “master foundational skills”—such as pre-algebra—“before they find themselves in college remediation,” Harries said. He said the district needs to address its high-school attendance rate. Currently, high schools have a 90 percent average attendance rate. That’s on par with the national average, Harries said, “But what employer would accept someone who missed one day [of work] every two weeks?”
Schools May Ditch “Tiering”
Harries also called for revisiting a system he created of grading all city schools. For three years, the system has placed every school into one of three “tiers” based on student performance on tests, school climate surveys, graduation rates, and how graduates fare in college. Harries said upon reflection, he feels the system focused too much on “accountability” and not enough on support. The system failed to give low-performing schools extra help, Harries conceded. And it failed to take into account the different populations that different schools face, he said. He called for a more equal distribution of students and resources among schools.
Harries said he finds one aspect of tiering—the overhaul of some low-performing schools as turnarounds—to be valuable. He suggested New Haven continue with plans under way to overhaul two more schools where kids are struggling: James Hillhouse High School and Lincoln-Bassett School.
Harries’ announcements stirred an unusually broad-reaching discussion at Monday’s school board meeting.
Board President Carlos Torre (at left in photo) said he agrees with Harries that the district needs to stop focusing on “proficiency” and start focusing on making sure kids are prepared.
“Proficiency” is the baseline level of math and literacy by which the federal No Child Left Behind Act held schools and districts accountable. It’s a lower bar than “goal,” a measure of whether kids can do work at grade level.
Torre said New Haven started focusing on “proficient” because the media kept reporting test scores only by the “at goal” measure, and that made the district look bad, because very few kids were meeting that threshold.
“What we need to worry about is not so much public relations,” Harp replied, but whether kids can reach their goals. “If proficiency doesn’t mean that a person can have a goal that they can achieve, then … we’re really not taking them where they need to go in our society,” she said.
“The fact that we have these numbers”—two of every 10 kids earning post-secondary degrees—“frankly, are embarrassing,” Harp said.
She called for the district to raise its expectations. “If little slave children could learn to read by reading the Bible, then we can teach our children to read.”
Board member Alex Johnston pressed Harries to act with more “urgency” and to focus more on individual schools as the “unit of change.” To say that every high-school kid needs to be on a path to success means nothing until there’s a concrete plan involving educators in a specific school, he said.
He said unlike successful groups elsewhere—such as Unlocking Potential in Boston—have made much more progress in turning around failing schools in a shorter time period than New Haven has with some of its turnarounds.
New Haven has launched six “turnaround” schools, where management can replace teachers and change work rules in effort to revamp failing schools: Hill Central School, Brennan/Rogers School, Domus Academy, Wexler/Grant School, Roberto Clemente Academy and High School in the Community. Most are being run by New Haven district staff; two are being run by outside organizations that operate charter schools; one is being run by the teachers union.
“Not all of the times that we’ve intervened to get something done have we actually moved it,” Johnston said. “It’s not true” that turnarounds take five years to show results, he said. “If you’re not seeing results in one or two years, you need to think twice about whether that intervention is strong enough.” (He later declined to say which turnaround schools he believes are not showing improvement; he said Brennan/Rogers showed early signs of progress.)
Harp said she agrees. “We have some of the best schools in the state,” and “there are some schools that need 80 percent of our attention.” She said her personal story—she was raised by great-grandparents who were not involved in her education—proves that schools can do the heavy lifting of teaching kids to read. “It’s really what happens in the schools.”
Harries plans to continue discussing this report on a new listening tour. The first stop will be on Wednesday, March 26 at Wexler/Grant School. The time has not yet been set.