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New Haven A Leader On Schools

In New Haven, the discussion is about something that really matters: public education

Rick Green

December 03, 2010

It seemed like Paul Bass, reigning impresario of Connecticut's new journalism, had hoodwinked me.

The inspired founder of the online New Haven Independent news website, Bass invited me to join a three-ring "education summit" at a city high school this week. In the auditorium at Cooperative Arts & Humanities Magnet High School, Bass orchestrated a public education happening, jockeying between a panel discussion, bloggers and lively citizen participation both online and in the audience.

But as one of the blogging panelists, I listened to the rhetoric and soon felt like a Republican sucker at Dan Malloy's Christmas party. This seemed more pity party than summit.

My problem is I'm intrigued and fascinated by experiments like charter schools, more choice for parents and the idea of rewarding teachers handsomely when they succeed. You might even be able to talk me into vouchers for children trapped in miserably failing schools.

These things won't solve the woes of urban education, but they are small ideas that might force us to think differently, which might lead our public schools to new places. They aren't a threat, they are laboratories for research and development.

At this education summit, it seemed, these were poison potions infecting public education.

Panelists, audience members and online participants roundly blamed poverty for the mess in our urban schools, which conveniently also let everyone in the room off the hook. They blasted standardized tests. I heard an audience member declare he had walked barefoot, inexplicably to Washington to protest the biggest evil of all, the No Child Left Behind law.

I winced when I heard a prominent education writer that I respect a great deal, Diane Ravitch, complain about asking our poor and minority schools to compete. (Better to leave that to the white suburban kids, I guess, who know that competition is a critical part of succeeding in life beyond the classroom.)

Ravitch author of a provocative new book called "The Death and Life of the Great American School System" and the evening's honored guest kept talking about how the real problem is teacher-bashing and schools that are now teaching to the test.

"We are relying on very flawed measures of success,'' she told us. "We are judging students by the test score. The search for accountablity is turning us all into consumers and not good citizens. Schools are not baseball teams," Ravitch said at one point.

I sat wondering, and blogging, about what's wrong with trying to assess whether a fourth-grader has the essential literacy skills and whether that child's teacher actually has the ability to teach reading. And why shouldn't we be comparing school performance like fantasy football? The more parents know, the more they will demand from their schools. Suburban parents have been playing this game for years.

But then I grasped the larger, essential, point, which the crafty Bass knew all along: New Haven, despite the overheated bloviation at the education summit, is actually trying out these dangerous behaviors that Ravitch warns against. Bass is just trying to get everybody to talk.

And nobody seems to feel like they are losing. In fact, Ravitch told me New Haven is a model for the country.

"People don't think they have one answer,'' said Bass, whose online New Haven Independent has made public education one of its founding causes.

In New Haven, there are privately run public schools. Teachers are going to be more rigorously evaluated and (hopefully) dismissed if they aren't up to snuff. There are charter schools, schools that teach parents how to be parents and even provisions in a new labor contract where teachers might get paid more based on whether children are actually learning.

Mayor John DeStefano, a blogging panelist with yours truly, knew this, too. Instead of debating whether to have a pro hockey team, he told me New Haven is holding a lively and ongoing community discussion among its citizens about what matters most for a struggling city: the public schools.

In New Haven, they've made room for plenty of discussion. And all varieties of a solution.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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