The Promise and the Prep

fishing pole (Jinjin Sun/YH)

Two weeks ago, in Akron, Ohio, Kelley Williams-Bolar was convicted for lying about her residency in order to send her kids to a better public school in a neighboring district. School officials asked her to pay 30,000 dollars in back tuition. Williams-Bolar will spend 10 days in jail and three years on probation.

She has become a living embodiment of the skewed state of America’s public school system, where school funding depends on property taxes and the quality of public schools varies as widely as the districts they serve.

In a climate of incessant speculation about education reform, Yale’s decision to fund New Haven Promise, a merit-based, citywide scholarship program, has received widespread acclaim. But while news of the Promise reached the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, Yale quietly pulled the plug on its Teacher Preparation program.

Yale has said that the two announcements, which came within days of each other, were unrelated. But the comparison is difficult to ignore. Yale has swapped one commitment to education for another. “What a coincidence,” remarked one Yale professor.

The switch in funding has caused some to question the University’s commitment to education, while others heap praise on President Richard Levin’s forward thinking. Are the two really incompatible?

New Haven Promise has a simple approach that is undeniably attractive. There is no committee approval, board restructuring, assessment of accountability, or any of the other complexities that plague education reform. If you live in New Haven, attend public school, and meet the program’s academic requirements, it will cover your entire tuition at a public university in Connecticut.

Joel Klein, who served as chancellor of the New York City Department of Education for eight years, was unabashedly enthusiastic. “It’s very exciting,” he told me. “Nobody can object to saying to a kid who does well and maintains his GPA, ‘We’re going to help you and give you a scholarship.’”

Offering incentives to learn is nothing new. I asked Klein what has been tried. “We gave kids everything from pizza parties to monetary incentives,” he said. “We have a program where if a kid does well on his AP exams he gets 500 to a 1,000 dollars.” One program offered students cell phones in exchange for high achievement.

A cell phone is no college education. New Haven Promise, said Klein, is an incentive of a different order. He and the program’s other enthusiasts hope it will inspire kids to do better in school. “Too often in education reform, the focus is on adults, on what they are and are not doing,” said Emily Byrne, the executive director of New Haven Promise. “New Haven Promise is a program that really focuses our attention on students. It says, ‘If you work hard, play by the rules, we’ll help you and support you to the next level.’”

But the Promise program may not be a panacea, even in conjunction with New Haven’s other School Change reforms. It’s not clear that incentives can transform student behavior. Michelle Shortsleeve, GRD ’10, a graduate of Yale’s Teacher Prep program, disputed the power of incentives: “Research has shown that incentives don’t change results. For the kids who are going to get there, it’s great. For the kids who aren’t, it may not make much of a difference.”

Yet the Promise model has exploded in popularity since its inception in Kalamazoo, Mich., in 2005. Place-based scholarships have begun to pop up across the country. Kalamazoo’s public school enrollment rose 14 percent in three years. Over a hundred American communities sent representatives to the first PromiseNet conference in June 2008.

Promise programs are about more than just education reform. “The three goals of New Haven Promise,” said Byrne, “are to build an aspiration for college-going students, build community and cultural engagement, and grow economic development for the city.”

It was this last goal that intrigued me. It’s one of the reasons that place-based scholarships have exploded from Denver to Pittsburgh to El Dorado, Ark. in the five years since the Kalamazoo Promise was promised. Experts believe that Promise programs can improve real estate values, and they can be tailored to suit a city’s needs. In Hammond, Ind. the Promise program requires home ownership, thus motivating citizens to buy homes and boosting that statistic in the city.

New Haven has the strictest academic requirements of any of the nation’s 20-something Promise programs, which has earned it some criticism from teachers who say it won’t help lower-achieving students. But it may provide enticement for a suburban middle class to think about moving to New Haven, thus raising property values, building the tax base, and in turn bringing more money into the public school system. Here, in its marketable simplicity, the Promise may have a direct advantage over programs aimed at improving teacher quality.

John Bryant Starr, who teaches “Public Education and Public Policy” at Yale, told me that it would take years to tell if the Promise had worked as an economic development initiative. But, he conceded, “Put yourself in the position of a parent in the vicinity of New Haven. Would you move to New Haven in order to take advantage of the Promise program? Would you move to New Haven if New Haven decided to spend more money on teachers? The answer, clearly, is that you would move to New Haven in order to take advantage of the scholarship program.”

Part of Byrne’s job is raising awareness for the program, for local students as well businesses, real estate brokers, rotary clubs, and local chambers of commerce. There are info sessions throughout the month at New Haven public schools, and ads have begun appearing on the sides of buses, and will soon be broadcast on WYBC and La Fiesta, a local Spanish-language radio station. This year’s high school seniors will be eligible for a 25 percent scholarship, and by the time the class of 2014 graduates, they will qualify for 100 percent funding at a Connecticut public university.

Kalamazoo’s program brought national recognition to the city with the funny name. Fast Company magazine put Kalamazoo in its annual “Fast 50” list of change-makers. Kalamazoo rose into the “100 Best Communities for Young People,” according to the organization America’s Promise. Kalamazoo received one of three Entrepreneurial American Leadership Awards from Partners for Livable Communities, and a host of other accolades.

New Haven is hoping something similar happens here.

Byrne asked me about my own decision to come to New Haven. “What did you know of New Haven other than Yale?” she asked. I had to confess I knew nothing.

“We want to be a city that stands for something, and I think this is the best way to do that.”

For three years in a row, the biggest post-graduate employer at Yale has been Teach for America (TFA). Eighteen percent of the class of 2010 applied to the exclusive two-

year placement program, and it’s likely that number will rise for the class of 2011. About a thousand undergrads—nearly a fifth of the college—are on the Dwight Hall education network panlist.

Yale’s Teacher Preparation Program has, for the last five years, trained and certified both undergraduate and graduate students to teach in public schools. When Yale cancelled the program in the days after funding New Haven Promise, students came out in force. They circulated a petition and acquired more than a thousand signatures, enough to convince the administration to forestall the program’s demise for one year and allow several juniors to finish their certification process.

It was a victory for students like Tom James, PC ’12, who is working towards certification while he majors in Computer Science and Mathematics. Next year, James will spend second semester teaching full time at a New Haven public school. But he and his few peers in the program will be the last to have that opportunity. The program’s supporters feel abandoned by the university.

Brian Bills, ES ’12, is not enrolled in the Teacher Prep program, but you might think so having heard him defend it. “The fact that so many students are interested in TFA shows that so many Yale students are interested in education,” Bills told me, “shows that now, more than ever, we should have a teacher preparation department. Not necessarily for certification. I recognize how few students go through certification. But if you’re doing TFA, taking a class that actually puts you in a classroom is a fantastic way to learn about education.”

Just last March, Dean Mary Miller told the Yale Daily News that Teacher Prep and TFA were a great match: “The Teacher Preparation Program can help provide key, fundamental classes, experiences and preparation for a successful experience in Teach for America,” she said. But in November, following the termination of the program, she took a different tack. The News reported Miller having said, “It’s really clear that Teach for America is the number one gateway for students to enter the teaching profession,” and later, that the University “follow[s] the decisions that Yale students have already made.” In other words, who needs Teacher Prep when Yalies are applying for Teach for America in droves?

It’s true that the program certifies only a few students, and to some, this justifies its cancellation. Minh Tran, MC ’09, who took Teacher Prep classes and later went on to do TFA in New Haven and Los Angeles, was of the same opinion. “I really do think the decision to cut teacher prep was one based on student interest. Every year the number of students who actually get certified—you can count it on one hand.”

But to others, certification was not the point of the undergraduate Teacher Prep program, which offered Yale students experience in public school classrooms. Bills is currently doing an independent study with Jack Gillette, the founder of the program, who did not respond to a request to comment for this article. It’s exactly the kind of small teacher-student relationship that brings kids to Yale.

Bills lamented the loss of this opportunity. “You can take all the education policy classes you want—although there’s really only one offered at Yale. It’s totally different when you actually step inside a classroom and realize what goes on day-to-day.”

The lack of courses has been a persistent concern, and students worry it’s about to get worse. “Jack Gillette’s main class? You’ve got to knock down the door to get into that,” said Bills. Professor Starr is essentially teaching his “Public Schools” course twice this semester to try to satisfy the demand. And “Solving America’s Education Crisis,” a college seminar taught by two grad students, received more than 125 applicants for 18 spots.

Tran agrees the University should be adding more courses. “It’s really unfortunate to see them instead of investing more in the program, cutting the program,” he said. “There is no plan. No alternative.” James thinks it sends the wrong message. “I think it’s a bad sign—it shows education isn’t Yale’s priority at the moment.”

And while Yale has insisted it will continue to offer education-based courses, Bills is wondering who’s going to teach them. Gillette, faced with the prospect of being demoted to an adjunct professor, is leaving at the end of the year. “How is Yale going to attract the sort of faculty it needs to teach these classes if it treats them like that?” asked Bills.

Professor Nick Fiori, who used to teach both undergrads and graduate students in his seminar “The Teaching of Mathematics,” put it this way: “If I was relying on the work in the program as one of my main jobs, and it dwindled down to just the course and none of the other work that I was doing, I’d probably be looking for another job. And if I found it, I’d probably take it.”

For many, the saddest part about the demise of Teacher Prep will be the loss of the graduate program, which has offered a free master’s degree in urban education. New Haven Promise is no answer to that.

Michelle Shortsleeve was part of the program’s five-person class of 2010. She felt the program offered an unparalleled opportunity to be trained as a professional teacher, and she, along with all of her classmates and many of their predecessors, is now teaching at a public school in New Haven.

She saw the program as an intensive and necessary training for a difficult job. “One of our biggest issues is that people don’t often look at teachers in this country as professionals,” she said. TFA, exclusive as it may be, has come under criticism in the media for its retention rate, and may help propagate an image of teaching as a post-grad experiment on the way to law school.

The Master’s Program in Urban Education Studies lined up with Yale Law School and Yale Medical School as post-grad professional schools. Now in New Haven public schools (a three-year commitment to the city is a requirement of the program), Teacher Prep graduates meet monthly to discuss the issues they are confronting in the classroom.

Shortsleeve described her input at the last meeting: “I’ve got 18 individuals in a room yelling at me all the time, and not talking to each other. So the idea was, ‘How do I get the kids to trust each other, and rely on each other, and become more independent?’ And I got a bunch of good ideas, and it really helped.” She and her fellow grads have grown to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. “We’ve done a lot of tearing each other apart, we have each other’s backs, but it’s easy for one my peers to be like, ‘Hey Michelle, you’re being an idiot, this is what you need to do.’”

I asked Professor Fiori about how Yale’s relationship to the New Haven education system has changed with the decrease in funding. Fiori had only good things to say about the Promise program, but he maintained that Yale’s decision represents a fundamental shift in approach.

“The Promise program is a money relationship,” he said. “It’s a great thing but if it was meant to replace the program in any sense, it’s replacing people with money, and replacing help for more students in need with help for students who are already successful.”

So what will the University gain from New Haven Promise?

Minh Tran was one of those who saw different implications in the funding decisions. “It has more to do with Yale showing its commitment to New Haven than Yale showing its commitment to education,” he said. “And that’s why I talked about it being a PR move, because Yale does so many things to win over New Haven. They take a full page out in the New Haven Register every other week to celebrate some awesome high school kids in the area. That’s a PR move, and this to me is another PR move. They want to win over the hearts and minds of New Haven people.”

Others questioned the University’s priorities. “What it says to me is this: The training of professional teachers is not our concern, nor is it something that is necessary. You can go ahead and learn it on the job,” said Shortsleeve. The University’s decision has upset teachers who want teaching to command the same intellectual prestige as other graduate-level professions.

“There’s a whole movement in teacher education right now to point out that it is as intellectually demanding as law or medicine,” said Fiori. “There’s a movement in the professionalization of teaching to remind people that it’s a highly skilled endeavor. If it’s not as intellectual as medicine, maybe it’s more intellectual, because you’re getting kids to engage with intellectual content in a meaningful way.”

Professor Starr agreed. “You’re no stranger to the fact that the teaching profession is not a highly regarded profession in the United States,” he told me. He questioned whether the two decisions were unrelated. “It seemed on the surface to be a financial decision. If we’re going to spend x number of dollars on the Promise, we’re not going to spend it on the Teacher Prep program.”

Others feel that the University could have continued to support the program. “When Yale makes something a priority they find room for it in the budget,” said Bills. “And for them to say ‘No, this is not a priority for us, no matter how many of our students care about it, despite the national moment for education reform.’ It’s inexplicable. It’s confusing, is what it is.”

Whatever the reason, the University has thrown its weight behind what may be a template for a larger movement in education funding. Kalamazoo Promise relies on funding from an anonymous private donation. Pittsburgh’s University Medical Center set out a challenge grant to fund that program. Other cities have used public funds. Georgia’s Hope program relies on the lottery.

New Haven and Yale may have found a replicable model. “I give Rick Levin and the Yale community a lot of credit for it,” said Joel Klein, who got Columbia University involved in public education in New York. “The more you can get universities interested in K-12 education, the better. It’s great that Yale is doing this. Other universities should be partnering as well.” Universities represent a sustainable funding solution to the Promise program, one that could be replicated in other cities.

“What would it be like if every Ivy funded a Promise program?” asked Emily Byrne. “What would it be like if every university funded a Promise program?”

If that happened, the New Haven Promise would be remembered not only for the kids it sent to college, but for the university that funded it.

Graphics by Jinjin Sun,

Cover by Sam Lee and Lucas Iberico-Lozada