Sunday, November 14, 2010

Public Schools, Unions, New Haven Promise, and GPFM

Last week, my alma mater Yale University announced that the university would work together with New Haven to fund "New Haven Promise," a program which would provide funding to New Haven public school students who attend colleges in Connecticut. The program promises scholarships for New Haven public school students with only a few weak restrictions. For example, students with less than 90% attendance rates in highschool are not eligible.

There are a number of possible criticisms of this program. The most serious criticism to me seems to be the simple one that this program is not Yale's job. Alumni donate money to Yale with certain expectations. They might also donate money to other causes. But there is a basic expectation that money that goes to Yale will be used for Yale purposes such as going to scholarships for poor students at Yale, not to students at random other schools in Connecticut.

There are additional problems with this program. My little brother wrote an op-ed in the Yale Daily News arguing that this program would in fact cover up the real issues in the New Haven public school systems which need to be addressed. He argues that the teacher unions and the lazy and incompetent teaching which they allow are much more of a root cause of the problems. I'm not convinced of his claims. I'm especially unconvinced by his line that "Instead of staying after school to tutor or help run an extracurricular, unionized teachers typically leave as soon as the final bell rings" which seems to underestimate the great difficulty that even hard-working teachers need to put up with daily.

However, I do think that more broadly speaking there's a clear problem with unions in our public schools which prevent the removal of all but the most egregiously bad teachers. For example, consider the case of eighth grade science teacher John Freshwater in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Freshwater taught science so badly that other teachers in later years had to specifically reteach Freshwater's students. Freshwater told students that Catholics were not real Christians. Freshwater burned crosses into students' arms using a tesla coil. Despite all these issues, it has taken more than 2 years to have Freshwater removed. Thus, while I don't have enough detailed experience to personally evaluate whether the unions are a problem in New Haven (although my limited anecdotal evidence suggests that they are a problem), it does fit the general pattern of what is going wrong with American public schools.

Nathaniel's piece generated a variety of responses such this one by a New Haven public school teacher, this one by a New Haven alderman, and this one by another Yale student. Nathaniel has responded to the last piece here. All of these pieces are worth reading.

1 comment:

cipher said...

Joshua, I've been barking about this since I was a child. Unions, irrevocable tenure - they've contributed to the ruin of our public educational system. I remember being incredulous when I first learned of it. I had a teacher who gave me a very hard time, complained to my mother, and she replied, "They can't do anything about it, they can't fire her - she has tenure." No other profession has that kind of safeguard built into it.

In fact, my sister had a teacher, a woman who was clinically mentally ill, who terrorized her and her classmates. For a while, she was literally living in the psych ward of our local community hospital, leaving during the days to "teach" and going back at night, and there was nothing the school administration could do about it - or, more likely, nothing they cared to attempt, as they were probably terrified of a lawsuit.

An extreme example, certainly, but it shows how bad the system was even then, nearly forty years ago - and I see no evidence to convince me it's gotten any better since.