PALO ALTO—Three thousand miles away from New Haven, the city became Exhibit A in a showdown between a national union president and a charter school proponent about the future of school reform.
The president, Randi Weingarten (pictured) of the American Federation of Teachers, wielded New Haven as a weapon of political rhetoric Friday in a debate against Kevin Chavous, a founding board member of the American Federation for Children and the Alliance for School Choice. The pair squared off on a panel about school choice at the 66th annual Education Writers Association National Seminar at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.
The question at hand: “Choice & Competition: Improving or Undermining Public Education?”
By the time the debate ended, New Haven was being held up as a model alternative to charter-driven school reform—with a claim of dramatic improvement that was perhaps more exaggerated than even the claims made by New Haven’s officials.
Chavous argued kids should not be left to languish in a “one-size-fits-all” school system when they could be better served by charters, public schools that operate under their own rules, outside of traditional school districts. Chavous, a former D.C. councilman, now advocates for charters and “choice” systems (involving charters and vouchers) across the country.
Weingarten countered that charters suck money out of regular school districts. Every dollar spent on education should be invested in early education, in developing a robust curriculum, and in social and emotional supports for kids in traditional schools—not on choice, she argued. She offered Chile as a public educator’s nightmare of school choice gone wrong: The whole country switched to a voucher system in 1980, allowing kids to use public money to enroll at a public or private school. Now half of Chilean kids attend private schools, and the achievement gap between low-income kids and their wealthier peers has widened, according to a recent study.
Chavous said he did not want to talk about Chile when there are successful examples of charter schools in the U.S. that have improved results for low-income kids.
The conversation quickly became a debate.
“Randi is good, but she’s wrong about a lot of stuff,” Chavous declared. “There are other alternatives” within school choice other than vouchers. “It’s not a zero-sum game.”
Chavous (pictured) took aim at inflexible union contracts. “How can we change work rules, Randi, so teachers who want to work late can do it?”
Weingarten, in turn, laid into Chavous about charters. After 20 years, she argued, charters have produced only mixed results. In places like Chicago, Philadelphia, New York and D.C., experiments with school choice have not always led kids to better schools than the ones they left behind.
The pair sparred over whether Milwaukee’s voucher system has been successful. The debate grew so heated that when moderator Scott Elliott of the Indianapolis Star tried to get a word in at one point, Chavous shot back, in good humor, “Scott, you’re not here.”
Before a roomful of a hundred education reporters, the debate took on high stakes: Each sought to prove the other was undermining the effort to improve schools and particularly, to reach low-income, minority kids.
Weingarten argued the most needy kids are abandoned by systems of choice. As “you’re doing your choice stuff” with select few kids, Weingarten said, others are missing out on social and emotional supports that help them deal with the trauma that science has shown makes it harder to do well in school.
Exhibit A: New Haven
Instead of creating two-tiered systems through school choice, Weingarten argued, “let’s look around the world and the country” for “what actually is working” in traditional public education.
She rolled out New Haven.
“When I look at New Haven and see 3 to 4 percent” gains on standardized tests, she said, “something good is going on there.”
“We should see if their results are scalable.”
Weingarten conceded that unions have been too inflexible in general: “We were wrong as a union movement. You have to be about quality first and fairness second.” She used New Haven as a counterexample, where a union negotiated a new contract that allowed for flexible work rules of the kind Chavous was arguing for. (She personally played a role in that, traveling to New Haven to participate.)
She also called for raising the bar on teacher preparation, following the lead of places like Finland.
Chavous didn’t directly address New Haven’s work. He said the solutions Weingarten raised are not fast-acting enough.
“I’m all for professionalizing teachers, but why haven’t we done it?” he said. “While we wait, we’re still hemorrhaging kids,” kids who attend failing schools in public school districts. Summoning Harriet Tubman, he compared Weingarten’s approach to rescuing kids from slavery one at a time. “The biggest social justice issue is we know kids will wake up tomorrow and go to bad schools and people are okay with that,” he said.
A Chicago reporter asked Chavous about the unintended consequence of charter schools—they take in only kids whose families have the wherewithal to sign their kids up, leaving the more-disenfranchised kids concentrated in a few schools. What about the “leftovers”?
The phenomenon of “leftovers” didn’t begin with charter schools, Chavous replied. “That already started with black and white flight” out of cities. He said there’s no justification to say to low-income kids, “Just stay there until we figure out what to do.”
“More Than Incremental”
Weingarten turned to New Haven a second time when a Philadelphia reporter asked about a Gates Foundation initiative to fund new partnerships between charters and traditional school districts.
“That partnership is working in New Haven,” she argued.
She was referring to a collaboration between New Haven’s public school district and its local charter operator, Achievement First, on a new principal training program. She also cited a collaboration with Yale (on New Haven Promise), as well as with the Gates Foundation. (The Gates partnership is new: After launching its school reform effort with little influence from the major philanthropic powerbrokers swaying the course of reform across the country, New Haven has begun to work with Gates on a $3 million plan to make professional development more meaningful for teachers.)
“New Haven is a really interesting place now,” Weingarten said. “You see huge confidence in the public system. You see the public system working side by side with the charter system.”
“You’re seeing more than incremental progress,” she claimed.
The claim, which exaggerated New Haven’s successes more than even local officials have done, highlighted New Haven’s role on the national political stage.
Mayor John DeStefano made a strategic decision to invite Weingarten on board when he began to launch New Haven’s school reform drive in 2008. At the time, the AFT was reeling from a bitter standoff with D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. DeStefano invited Weingarten to New Haven to prove her union could be part of the solution to fixing public schools—and do it through a negotiated labor contract. National AFT staff flew from D.C. to Connecticut a half-dozen times to help the New Haven Federation of Teachers settle a new contract that—after its overwhelming ratification in 2009—would pave the way for reform. The contract included flexible work rules at failing schools and a new teacher evaluation that made it easier to fire tenured teachers based on poor performance, including how their students performed on tests.
“New Haven was one of those first contracts which we were very, very involved in helping to steer to the end,” said Weingarten in a recent interview. New Haven “became a proof point to show that collective bargaining really is a path to problem-solving.”
Her remarks Friday showed an eagerness to declare the approach victorious. Her numerical assertion boasted more success than even local officials have claimed.
The number of New Haven kids performing at grade level on the Connecticut Mastery Tests (CMT) rose by 3.6 points in the first year of reform, and 2.1 points in the second.
Mayor DeStefano has been prone to some exaggeration: He often touts the gains as “twice the state average,” omitting the fact that he is comparing two very small numbers—2 points versus 1 point, on the tests for high school sophomores, for example. Those results also don’t factor in whether, say, fewer low-performing students at a school show up for a test than in a previous year.
But local officials have not claimed, as Weingarten did Friday, that progress has been “more than incremental.”
“Growth has been incremental,” said schools Superintendent Reggie Mayo after the latest standardized results emerged last summer. “We’re looking for exponential” growth.
Asked what she meant by “more than incremental” progress, Weingarten said she was referring to standardized test scores, which she believed to be flat before New Haven launched its reform drive in 2010, then on the rise.
Her description doesn’t quite match the data, which show New Haven scores inching up steadily each year since 2008, narrowing the achievement gap with the state from 29.8 to 25.6 percentage points (based the number of kids scoring at grade level on the CMT). (Check out the chart above for the numbers.)
After the public forum ended, Weingarten was asked what she meant by “more than incremental progress.”
“The stats that I saw were that in the last two or three years, you’re seeing a trajectory that’s just different” in New Haven schools, she said.
“I’m talking about test scores,” she said, but also “people feeling good about the schools, people being involved in the schools and things like that.”
She said New Haven—as well as Baltimore; the ABC school district in California; and Union City, N.J.—are all trying, on “very stretched resources,” to build “collaborative and trusting environments” that are “focusing on quality and the voices of the people who are working plus the voices of parents “and really engage broad, wide, deep reform.”
Back home in New Haven, Board of Aldermen President Jorge Perez declined to echo Weingarten’s claims of dramatic success.
“I do not believe that we are ready to declare victory,” Perez said Monday. “What we have done in New Haven is go in the right direction. You cannot claim victory based on one or two years of numbers, especially where we started off needing so much improvement, especially when the increase may not be statistically significant. We still need time to see how well school reform is going to come out to be. On the other hand, the agreement we had with the unionized teachers was the right direction, facilitating changes we needed without having to argue with them every minute.”