Steiner Wins Race to the Top but Won’t be Going to the Promised Land

No one ever said that education reform was easy.  And no one said that Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s signature education law, was perfect.  But when David Steiner, a reformer’s reformer, announced last week that he was giving up the reins as New York state’s Commissioner of Education, the education world seemed to take a collective deep breath. Steiner’s announcement, after less than two years on the job, was what Philissa Cramer of Gotham Schools called a “rattling” surprise.

The announcement rattled me, since I was just finishing up a feature story for Ed Next on Steiner’s brilliant leadership in taking the moribund Empire State to the RTTT winner’s circle in nine short months – the equivalent of turning on a dime in the education reform world.  Much of the credit, of course, goes to RTTT itself, which set broad but rigorous reform goals, then dangled a nice prize in front of cash-strapped states ($700 million in New York’s case) that proved they were serious about attaining them.  States rushed to join in the competition. But no one gave New York much of a chance – and in fact it finished far out of the money in Round 1.  Steiner arrived in October of 2009 and by the end of May the following year, at three in the morning, stood with Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and his deputy John King, in the State Assembly and watched the vote that raised the state’s charter cap by 260 and dismantled the “firewall” between teacher evaluations and student performance. Said Joe Williams of Democrats of Education Reform, “What had been considered impossible months before was now a done deal.” My story takes you through the story of how Steiner and his team were able to accomplish this minor miracle.

You can also read excerpts from my April 11 interview with Steiner, just four days after his resignation announcement, and hear him describe what he tried to accomplish and what comes next. In some ways, however, my interview with Steiner last December (excerpted here) is more revealing, as he speaks candidly about the “huge challenge” of implementing the ambitious program that he had helped design. By April 8, the day after the resignation announcement, in a brief phone conversation, he told me that he had decided that the “grinding implementation” was not his cup of tea.  Still diplomatically tight-lipped about the exact reasons for leaving – “an academic thrown into a knife fight,” one insider explained – Steiner will be missed in New York.

–Peter Meyer

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