David, We Hardly Knew Ya

Last week, New York State Education Commissioner David Steiner announced that he would be leaving his post sometime this summer. The news, which was overshadowed by the announcement earlier that day that Cathie Black was being replaced as Chancellor of New York City’s schools, came as a great surprise to observers of New York education politics. Steiner had been hailed for, among other things, helping New York to win a share of the Race to the Top funds.

A new article, “Assessing New York’s Commissioner of Education,” which will appear in the Summer 2011 issue of Education Next, looks at what has been accomplished in New York, and in particular, how the Empire State came to be a winner in Round 2 of the Race to the Top competition.

Peter Meyer, the author of the article, sat down with David Steiner earlier this week for an interview about what he tried to accomplish in New York and what comes next. (The specifics of Steiner’s resignation were off limits.) What follows are excerpts from that interview, which took place on April 11, four days after Steiner’s shocking announcement, at State Education headquarters in Albany.

Education Next [EN]: Can you say something about your main priorities as Commissioner?

David Steiner [DS]: When I was plucked out of academia, it was clearly to work with the Chancellor and the Board and my colleagues, putting together a vision and a model of education reform.  That model, I think, is now well known across the state: standards-based curriculum, radically better assessments,…a fair but rigorous accountability system which, as you know, the Regents will soon put into regulations creating the framework of evaluation for principals and teachers.

Then, to reanimate the whole system with a radically different vision of teacher and principal preparation–we have made major strides in that direction.  Decisions of the Regents are laying the groundwork for the state to replace the current course credit plus modest clinical exposure model to  one that is squarely on the clinical experience, on performance-based assessments, and on a value-added model for professional certification.  That model has been put together, but of course the second challenge was to get it funded.

I have to say that if you had been looking for odds on New York state winning Race to the Top, being second in the country as points total, I think you’d have gotten very long odds on that when I arrived in 2009.  Not only did we win that competition, but we also have brought in other funds to support it, such as the Teacher Incentive Fund. With the agenda established, key statutes passed by the state legislature and Executive, and the funding secured, and most importantly the Board of Regents putting the crucial regulations in place, the key elements of the reform plans are now present. That was really why I took the job: to work on creating the vision for reform, to help get it funded and to launch it.

Now we move to chapter two and chapter two is an equally important chapter.  It’s a chapter of implementation, of 17 or so requests for proposals, of multiple sets of regulation, of working with our 694 public school districts–and charter school districts beyond that–as we implement, piece by piece, this reform work.  That is a different project.  And it seems to me that my deepest passion has been for creating  the reform vision, sharing it, and gettting support for it.  And I think I honestly can say, that’s a job done.

EN: When coming on board, did you anticipate that kind of delineation happening?

DS: Yes, absolutely.  I was offered and accepted the job because this was a unique moment in New York state’s education reform history.  My predecessor had been, some years before I arrived, instrumental with the Board in helping to put the first standards in place.  I think it’s fair to say that there was then a waiting for a federal opportunity, because it was clear from the state budgets that there was going to be no major new dollars to say the least, in fact, fewer dollars.

EN: Now that you’ve announced that you are leaving, does that make you more intensely focused on accomplishing one or two things before you leave?

DS: Yes, definitely. I would love to see the Board of Regents put the regulations in place for the teacher and principal evaluation piece. That is a major piece of our Race to the Top work. We have also shared, across the state, in multiple forums which I’ve been part of, new ideas of what our education system should aim at by the time a student graduates from high school. It would be exciting to see that debate come to a conclusion.

EN: The Race of the Top negotiations were in no small part about teacher evaluations.  Are we going to see real headway in New York or anywhere else on evaluating teachers and then doing something about the bad ones?

DS: Yes. It may not be a two minute drill.  Look, we’re trying to change the practice – of support and evaluation — in one of the major professions in this country.  You don’t do that in a moment. In fact, if you did, it wouldn’t work because you’d have multiple unintended consequences.  The key here is, first of all, that we negotiated the new structures with the teachers; this was not something that was just done by fiat.

The second important point is that our structure does indeed involved multiple measures, as we always intended.  It has of course, the state tests as element of the evaluation, as it should.  But it does not pretend that those tests are so perfect that they should be some hugely dominant factor in the evaluation.

EN: What do you think the toughest parts are going to be?

DS: I think it’s hard for everyone in terms using the assessments that are not state assessments.  For example, if we don’t have sequential assessments in the arts or in social studies or in science, then the question is, what will be used?  There are, of course, commercially available tests, and many of the districts use them already, but in a very difficult financial climate, that’s obviously a challenge for some districts.

I think the second big challenge will be providing outstanding professional development so that principals are fully ready to use the evaluation rubrics and to ensure  that our districts are in turn fully ready to observe principals and evaluate principals according to rubrics.  There’s a great range of expertise in a state as large as ours and as diverse as ours.  We do have funding in Race to the Top to help with this professional development, but it’s still an enormous task.  On top of that is the need for districts to prepare their teachers to teach the new Common Core standards in ELA and Mathematics.  So there’s a lot on their plate and I think that is going to be a challenge.

EN: How do we get teachers to see the need for a rigorous, aligned, and common core curriculum?

DS: Oh, I think that by and large they do.

EN: And who should write such a curriculum?

DS: Well, first of all, when I discuss the idea of a state wide curriculum with the leaders of both the NYSUT and the UFT [teacher unions], they were and are enthusiastic.  They are our partners in this work and I think that the key is the design.

You don’t want a kind of French straightjacket, where you say that at 11:15 on Monday morning every 11-year-old is opening the same page of the same text.  That doesn’t seem consistent with our traditions, our history, and our culture.  On the other hand, it’s true that right now we have a total fragmentation and even within the same large high school, within the same grade, you might have teachers teaching at a very different content level and [different] content itself.

So how do you build a really attractive, flexible curriculum that has modules that could be used, not only for students who are on grade level, but for those who may be a year behind, for the ELL students, for special needs students?  How do you give examples of best practice, on video and in other ways?  I think we need to bring in our teachers, our university professors, business community and our best technology designers.  We have 22 million dollars or so in Race to the Top for that work.  There is interest from other states as well.  This will be exciting work.

EN: So who’s writing it?

DS: I don’t want to bind my successor, but I’m sure that we will bring together the best expertise that we can find.  This is not an American tradition, and there lies a challenge.  It has, as you know, historically been very much left to not only the local districts, but often the local school and I think while we have standards of course, those standards have translated uncomfortably into what we would call a curriculum.

EN: Can you give teachers the argument for the aligned common core curriculum?

DS: Oh, absolutely.  I mean, there’s every argument for it.  First of all, there’s an equity argument.  We have students in this state who are, through no fault of the teachers, but just because of the history in that school, or the training and preparation of those teachers, or the lack of resources or whatever it may be–those teachers are teaching material that is one year, two years below (in content sophistication) what it needs to be.  That’s an equity problem.

Second, there’s a resource problem.  By having multiple different and fragmented curricula, we can’t get the quality we could otherwise get from a really, superb curriculum that has online, that has multimedia, that creates internal assessments for students that enables the teachers to get data about performance.  All of that is much too expensive for an individual district, still less a school to be able to produce.

And third, we’ve never had a common set of standards before that have been back-mapped from college and career readiness, which is what the Common Core standards are.  And so, for the first time we can say we have a ladder to college and career readiness.  It’s time to build that curriculum on that ladder.

EN: And would you expand the subjects?

DS: Absolutely.  Not only would I, the Board of Regents has approved the creation of curriculum sequentially beyond ELA and math.

EN: To include what?

DS: To include science and social studies initially, and then hopefully other subjects; the arts and beyond.

EN: Please, arts and music.

DS: We hope so.

EN: What will the major changes on the teacher quality front be in the area of teacher preparation?

DS: In terms of preparation, it’s a sea change.  Again, it won’t happen in a moment.

But I think you’re well aware of the work that I’ve led there and I think the challenge there is to work at schools and other possible providers to retool the programs so that we really focus on the skills that matter in the classroom.  That includes very high content level of knowledge for teachers.  I am not at all a person who’s just interested in technique.  Technique is extremely important and it needs to be taught and more importantly it needs to be practiced.  You don’t get better at something unless you practice it.  But at the same time, we’ve got to focus on content knowledge, and pedagogical content knowledge in the sense that Deborah Ball has been talking about.

At the core of it all is a shift away from a situation where what really gets you the master’s degree and the certification, because in this state, the degree has been synonymous with professional certification, is too often primarily the course work.  Instead, we want to know how you’re performing in the classroom as a student teacher.  And that means that as you come back to your school of education, the video has to be analyzed, the observation rubrics have to be in place and used, we have to know what good teaching looks like in a disaggregated form, we have to be able to provide meaningful feedback against a differentiated rubric.  And that’s a new mission for many of the schools of education.

EN: Now what do you say to someone like Rick Hess who says we’ll never have enough great teachers, and that what we need to do is fundamentally rethink the job of teacher, turn some of the job over to technology and let teachers specialize in what they are good at.

DS: Well, I have real respect for Rick Hess.  I was particularly taken by his most recent book in which he  very astutely and cautiously raises questions even about some of his favorite notions and ideas.  I think it’s certainly true that in the next 10, 20 years the role of technology and instruction will be transformational in some respects.

But I think it’s also so true that there is a genuine threat of putting our children in front of a screen for 15 hours a day. Quite apart from what they might or might not learn in terms of content, the social pathologies that would result would be horrifying.  And so I think we have to do serious thinking about what the space of learning looks like and that’s actually one of the things that I look forward to thinking about and writing about in the next professional chapter of my life.

Peter Meyer’s article, “Assessing New York’s Commissioner of Education,” appears in the Summer 2011 issue of Education Next. For a summary, see the press release for the article.

To view New York’s Race to the Top presentation for the U.S. Department of Education, see “What We’re Watching: New York’s RttT Presentation.”

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