David Steiner on How New York Won the Race to the Top

I was as surprised as anyone by the announcement last week that David Steiner was resigning as New York State Education Commissioner, effective sometime this summer.  I’ve spent the last year following New York education politics for an article that was just published by EdNext, “Assessing New York’s Commissioner of Education,” and I’ve been greatly impressed by Steiner.

EdNext just published highlights of an interview I conducted with Steiner on Monday about what he sees as the most promising education policy developments in New York.

In a separate interview I did with Steiner late last year, he talked more specifically about the adrenaline-filled months leading up to New York’s bid to win Race to the Top funds.  Below are highlights from that interview, which took place in Steiner’s Manhattan office on December 17, 2010. Later this week you will be able to read my interviews with other New York educators who figure in my story about the Race to the Top and what it meant for New York.

Education Next [EN]: So how did you do it? How did you manage to turn around a sclerotic and belligerent bureaucracy and focus it on winning Race to the Top?

David Steiner [DS]: The first response is that it wasn’t any one person… It really did take a large number of people to make something like this happen.  And that is very important. When you look back, you can see everyone from the Board of Regents, to our staff, to the unions, to the legislature, to the Governor, to New York City, to the Mayor, to Joel Klein [then Chancellor of New York City schools], to USDOE itself, to many folks who helped along the way. This is not a story about a handful of people.

EN: But you failed the first time.

DS: We were serious about putting in the best application we could [for the first round] and we were particularly concerned to tell our story…. That story, while it was inestimably strengthened with the legislation put through supporting the Regents reform agenda [in the second round], didn’t change.  Which was that we wanted to make a commitment not just to the accountability side of the reforms, but also to what might be called the instructional core and to invest in capacity and the capacity of people on the front lines of the educational systems; to give them better preparation, to give them better tools, to give them better professional development.  To hold them accountable, certainly, but not until and unless we’ve done everything we could to provide a different environment about instruction.  We were passionate about that and we remain passionate about that today.

EN: What are the biggest differences in the two applications?

DS: The fact that the Regents supported – and the legislature went along with it – the raising of the charter school cap is very important, without question.  Secondly, the negotiation with the teachers union and the subsequent ratification of that agreement by the Regents and by the legislature, putting into place the teacher/principal evaluation piece.  Very important. There were some smaller pieces around that, including the introduction of educational partnership organizations, more commonly known as Educational Management Organizations. And some very strong state support for new data systems, which were important in Round Two. …  The other less-noticed change, and I think in fact commentators have not seen this, is that in Round Two we had a much more sophisticated model… of how to deliver the reforms. … There was a very tough question in Round One, a very appropriate question, which was, All right, we get what you’re trying to do, but how do you take it from the idea stage to the thousands of schools and the hundreds of thousands of classrooms? And we developed for Round Two a model of how we thought this might happen. Not perfectly – I don’t want to be naïve – but much more effectively than we did in Round One.

EN: The money is spread out over four years – how will we know it’s working?

DS: There are timelines for each of the major deliverables.  This is not a backloaded timetable. This has substantive deliverables all the way through it.  In fact, the pressure is the other way. ….  For example, we are currently discussing with the Regents working group — which is teachers, principals, superintendents, researchers — the teacher evaluation system. This year [2011] we have to deliver [that evaluation metric] for the tested subjects.  So you will see that by early next year [2012] we have to deliver on the first model, which is [teacher evaluations in] the tested subjects.  That’s one year. Then we have only one more year to get the evaluation model done for all the other teachers, from music teachers to high school physics teachers – where we don’t have annual tests. And that’s a huge challenge.

EN: Who is delivering what to whom?

DS: We took the commitments we made [in the successful application] and backtracked, back engineered, to today. And we said how are we going to get there? … Not all of this detail was in the application. Some of it was. The actual laying out of this, month-by-month, that was the work we’ve done since we won…. This is why John King and I have no sleep.

EN: Despite all the federal funding, there’s no money in here for going out and hiring or keeping teachers. Right?  How is the RttT money going to impact – or counteract – the current huge budget squeeze?

DS: This is a difficult question. .. The money that has been given to the state … is fundamentally going to create the tools and the training for the network teams that will bring that level of expertise to the schools. That is crucial because the bet on reform is a twofold bet: one, that we will bring the best accountability structures we can statewide, which means teacher/principal evaluation systems and a world-class data system to track performance… And the other half is the instructional core. Which means not only the implementation of the new common core standards, but curriculum building — statewide curriculum building, which is very challenging. And it means rethinking teacher preparation. It means totally new concepts of certification. It means a whole new assessment system.

EN: A little ambitious?

DS: The key for us is that we believe that these are the core drivers of better education outcomes. We know that at the same time some districts will have to lay off people, tragically in some cases, and in other cases those districts will have to cancel afterschool programs. They will have to make judgments about the allocation of scarce resources. But that means that it’s even more important that the core gets delivered. If everything else goes, what you need are effective teachers.

EN: How can we be sure that effective teachers are so important?

DS: I had the incredible privilege of being in Tbilisi a couple of years after the Russians walked out and the terrible civil war that was there. I can assure you that some of the classrooms I was in barely had ceilings. There were no books. There really were no books.  The Russians took everything. The teachers were teaching at an unbelievable level, because they had been trained, ironically, in the Soviet system where they had memorized huge chunks of information. And they were passionate about it. This was the first time that they were allowed to teach Georgian history as opposed to Soviet history.  And I saw that when everything else goes, a highly passionate and effective teacher is everything.

EN: Is it really everything?

DS: It can’t be either better content knowledge or more effective delivery – it’s gotta be both.  We have to raise the standards for our content knowledge and our pedagogical content knowledge…., but we also have to make a real dent on the history of teacher preparation, in the sense of its focus on one side of that equation – its focus on the academic, textbook preparation of teachers as opposed to the clinical practice.  And we’re working with our deans of schools of education and we’re working with our teachers unions to really push for a re-centering, if you will, towards that clinically-rich experience, towards that performance-based assessments of student teachers.

EN: Did you win or lose on the charter parts of the legislation?

DS: The charter cap bill is a complicated bill.   It involves concerns, rightly, about special education and ELL and the particular environment and the needs of the district. … It was not just a numbers crunch. Again, like the teacher evaluation bill, it gave some people what they wanted and others not.

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