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The Public School Insights Blog

Yesterday, we shared our interview with David Cicarella, the union president who helped broker an historic agreement between teachers and the New Haven, Connecticut school distict.

Today, we'll hear from two district officials who were instrumental in the deal. Assistant Superintendent Garth Harries and Chief Operating Officer William Clark describe the groundbreaking collaboration that made the agreement possible.

Public School Insights: There has been a lot of attention given to the new contract in New Haven—a lot of it praise. What you think are some of the most groundbreaking provisions of that agreement?

Clark: I think the first big groundbreaking piece was how we approached it. Historically, due to Connecticut’s Teacher Negotiations Act, you are really forced into a very tight timeline of negotiations that is specifically identified by statute. Certain pieces have to be done by certain dates; otherwise you hurtle towards arbitration. So with the leadership of [Superintendent] Dr. Mayo, [New Haven] Mayor DeStefano and Dave Cicarella from the [New Haven] teachers union, what we really did was try to chart a different way and a different approach.

What we set up was essentially parallel tracks. On one track you had reform discussions and on the other track you had the classic negotiations. The reform discussions were specifically separate so as to not fall prey to the trappings of negotiations. We began by sitting around the table with the best intentions in mind: What could we do—what are the possibilities that could exist—if we look at this as a collaborative approach? That really opened a lot of doors.

We started, under Garth’s leadership within that committee, by coming up with a belief statement that both parties signed on to. So then even when we had some fits and starts and ...

Here are the conclusions of a new study on teacher turnover in charter schools:

We found that 25% of charter school teachers turned over during the 2003-2004 school year, compared to 14% of traditional public school teachers. Fourteen percent of charter school teachers left the profession outright and 11% moved to a different school, while 7% of traditional public school teachers left the profession and 7% moved schools. Using multi-nomial logistic regression, we found the odds of a charter school teacher leaving the profession versus staying in the same school are 132% greater than those of a traditional public school teacher. The odds of a charter school teacher moving schools are 76% greater. Our analysis confirms that much of the explanation of this “turnover gap” lies in differences in the types of teachers that charter schools and traditional public schools hire. The data lend minimal support to the claim that turnover is higher in charter schools because they are leveraging their flexibility in personnel policies to get rid of underperforming teachers. Rather, we found most of the turnover in charter schools is voluntary and dysfunctional as compared to that of traditional public schools. [Emphasis added] ...

Teachers in New Haven, Connecticut recently ratified a contract that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised as an “important progressive labor agreement” for its provisions on teacher evaluation and school reform. David Cicarella, president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers, recently told us about the agreement.

(Stay tuned tomorrow for an interview with New Haven district officials Garth Harries and Will Clark.)

Public School Insights: There has been a lot of praise given to the new contract in New Haven. What do you think are the most groundbreaking provisions of this agreement?

Cicarella: There are three components that get the most attention. One, our willingness to discuss tenure. Two, our willingness to talk about including test scores as a part of teacher evaluation. And three, the contract’s provisions for the closing and chartering of schools.

Public School Insights: Let’s start with tenure. What do you think the big accomplishment has been on that part of the agreement?

Cicarella: Historically, unions have been completely unwilling to discuss tenure, because it’s the only protection that teachers have against unfair dismissal.

But we’ve got to tighten up the dismissal process. We can’t have folks—and this is a complaint that the public makes and is legitimate—going through two, three, four years of improvement plan after improvement plan, when everyone knows that ...

vonzastrowc's picture

School of Hard Knocks

We often hear that traditional public schools should learn from the successes of the best charter schools. That's true. But they have at least as much to learn from their struggles.

Here are some of the seldom acknowledged lessons we should learn from great charter schools:

You can't just do away with your central office. What a lovely, romantic idea: Thousands of schools homesteading on their own, free from those meddling, fat-cat administrators. Yet reality looks a bit different. Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) have had to expand their central offices as they create more schools. If you want to "scale up" a good model, you'll need something that looks like, well, a district.

The hard stuff costs lots of money. Charters were supposed to be more efficient, and therefore less expensive, than regular public schools. It turns out that many of the best ones have to rely on extra philanthropic dollars to serve their students well. Even when you account for the fact that some get less less from the government, they cost more.

Teachers should not have to be ascetics. Sure, you can run a few hundred schools that depend on teachers who are willing to forego families, sleep and sanity for the sake of their students--until, of course, they leave. But tens of thousands?

Schools have to do more to motivate children and families. The students who leave demanding charter schools don't just disappear. They go to less challenging schools. As long as first-rate charter schools can use their high ...

Long Before the Aldine Independent School District in Texas won the coveted Broad Prize for Urban Education, it was a model for school district reform. We at LFA wrote about Aldine's success back in 2003.

Since that time, Aldine has kept up its steady progress. The district has not lurched from one reform strategy to another. It has not hired on a succession of superintendent saviors. It has made progress without the knock-down, drag-out fights that the media can't resist.

Instead, Aldine has stuck with strategies it formed over ten years ago and trusted its own veteran staff to lead the hard work of school improvement. Superintendent Wanda Bamberg recently told me the story of her district's success.

Listen to our conversation on the Public School Insights podcast (~17:08)

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Public School Insights: Back in 2003, we discussed Aldine’s focus on curriculum, the work you were doing to make sure you use data very well and staff development. There were a lot of other pieces to the puzzle, of course, but those were three of the big ones we noted. Do you have a sense that you are still carrying on in the same tradition now, or has there been a lot of change?

Bamberg: There really hasn't been a lot of change. I think that we have been following some of the same instructional plans that we started even before 2003. We started a lot of these things in the late 1990s.

One of the things that is different is that the system we have in place for capturing the scope and sequence [of the content we teach in our classrooms], our curriculum and lesson plans, and of course our assessment data is more sophisticated now than it used to be. Our system now has all three components together so that we are able to look at the scope and sequence, put in the [accompanying] lesson plans and then come back look at the data in the same system. So the difference might be that we have tried to become even more tightly aligned and tried to refine our processes. But there has been no major change in the ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Widen the Spotlight

"Do charter schools deserve the spotlight?" asked the National Journal. "Yes--oh yes!" cried the lucky few they allowed to answer.

OK, I should be fair. Three of the people the Journal invited to answer said no. And who were the other ten? We have one person who funds charter schools, three people in think tanks that promote charter schools, two heads of associations that represent charter schools, one person who founded a network of charter schools, one superintendent who champions charter schools, one consultant who caters to charter schools, and one anti-union activist. Did anyone wonder where this debate might be heading?

Charter schools are in the spotlight in large part because the people who start them, fund them, govern them, write about them, consult with them and lobby for them put them there. When journalists ask those same people whether charters deserve all that attention and praise, they create a classic feedback loop.

And you need look no farther than Monday's New York Times to discover that charters have become the new "it" charity. When the Times profiled the young hedge fund managers who are flocking to charter schools, it did so in the Style section. Very glam.

Oddly enough, though, most of the National Journal's charter supporters ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Back to the Future

Will Craig Jerald effect a truce in the 21st-century skills fight? Read his new report for the Center for Public Education and draw your own conclusions.

In case you don't know what I'm talking about: Almost a year ago, a battle erupted between champions and skeptics of 21st-century skills. Some skeptics charged the champions with pushing fuzzy skills at the expense of content knowledge. Some champions charged the skeptics with turning facts into fetishes and all but ignoring vital skills like problem solving and critical thinking. Along the way, people on both sides held out hope for common ground.

Jerald's report reads like an attempt to stake out that common ground. He takes 21st-century skills seriously and does much more than most to define slippery concepts like problem solving, collaboration and creativity. He also insists that such skills "are best taught within traditional disciplines."

As Jerald defines them, some of those 21st-century skills seem just as at home in the nineteenth. Creativity, for example, is the ability "to combine disparate ...

vonzastrowc's picture

Alert the Media

Education Sector's charter school report has not yet got the media's attention, and that's bad news.

For those of you who don't already know, the report questions the ability of the best Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) to expand without damaging their schools' quality. And the final report is much tamer than the original draft, leading some to argue that Education Sector censored the report to please its patrons.

This tussle has gotten attention in some quarters. Blogger Alexander Russo was the first to report that something was amiss. Blogger Marc Dean Millot found and published the original draft. Deborah Viadero at Education Week wrote a story on the controversy. Linda Perlstein covered it in her blog. Tom Hoffman zeroed in on one of the most startling passages in the original draft. And Millot questioned Education Sector's ethics.

But only education insiders got to see any of this. The report has yet to make a ripple outside the eduworld.

Note to journos: This is a great story. Neither version of the report will make everyone happy. The biggest opponents of charter schools hardly come away unscathed in Toch's draft. And, as I've noted before, the final version should be enough to curb the enthusiasm of politicians and pundits who are peddling ...

The education establishment cares more about adults than about children. This has become a favorite talking point among those who push the small handful of strategies they deem "true reform." It popped up again in a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Harold Ford, Lou Gerstner and Eli Broad. "For decades," the trio writes, "adult interests have been at the forefront of public education." This conceit has become an intellectual easy chair.

Here's how the argument seems to go. If you have concerns about charter schools or performance pay, then you hate children. Or maybe you like them well enough, but you like those high teacher salaries and cushy teaching conditions even better.

The argument leaves no room for principled concerns about reform strategies. Just in the last few weeks, we've interviewed an award-winning teacher who ...

Dr. Jerry Weast has presided over a decade of strong and steady gains in Montgomery County, Maryland. How did his district do it? Not by using any of the cure-all strategies that have captivated the national media.

Weast recently told us the story of his school district's success. Several big themes stand out:

  • Stop the blame game and start collaborating. Big fights between administrators and teachers are catnip to reporters, but they don't do much for children.
  • Set common goals and figure out how to reach them. In Montgomery County, everyone could agree that students should leave high school ready for college.
  • Create a system that helps everyone be successful. It's not enough to let 1000 flowers bloom.
  • There's more to equity than equality. Weast describes a "red zone" where most of the county's low-income children live. It's not enough to treat those children and their wealthier "green zone" peers equally. The children in the "red zone" need much more systemic support.

There's much more to Dr. Weast's vision than I can sum up here. Here's the story as he told it to us in a phone conversation last week:

There are some structural issues in the way that we are thinking about American education. You see little Kindergartners come to school, and they believe that they can learn anything. Their parents do too. And so does everybody else who meets them. But a few years later, because of the sorting process and the type of structure that they are in, a lot of that belief is taken away and there are huge achievement gaps.

Then you see beginning teachers. They come in and they feel like they can take on the world and do anything. But within five years about half of them have left the profession.

There is something structurally wrong with a system where about a third of the children in America ...

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