Straight Up Conversation: Former New York Commissioner David Steiner

Back in April, New York’s classy commissioner of education David Steiner discreetly announced that he’d be stepping down in July. This was shortly after Cathie Black’s tumultuous departure as NYCDOE Chancellor, so David’s announcement drew less attention than it probably merited. A lifelong academic, with a philosophy degree from Oxford and a doctorate in political science from Harvard, Steiner may have been the most erudite state chief in recent memory. Before taking the appointment, he’d previously served as the dean of the education school at Hunter College, where he oversaw the creation of the heralded Teacher U training program. (Back in February, Teacher U split off into its own degree-granting institution, Relay School of Education, designed to train current teachers in 10 U.S. cities.) During his two years as commissioner, Steiner helped New York develop tougher standards and guided the state to a successful Race to the Top round two victory.

As he returns to Hunter, I thought it timely to chat with David about a few of his takeaways and lessons learned from his time running the New York state education agency. This is a topic that’s been particularly on mind, given our just-issued Center for American Progress-AEI study on the challenges of SEAs and what it’ll take for them to succeed in an era of increasing responsibilities.

Rick Hess: Looking back on your time in New York as commissioner, what stands out most?
David Steiner: I think the opportunity to move reform for New York…[entailed an] ambitious but vital agenda that addressed three legs of the reform tripod. First, the standards we put in place, to which we added a commitment to standards-based curriculum. Then, a commitment to improve our assessments at the state and to contribute to the PARCC consortium work. And third, putting in place a teacher and school leader accountability system. I think those three elements must work together, and we were able to plan them together and get them funded through RTT. I would put as equally important the work we did to rethink and redesign teacher and principal certification as a way of ensuring the quality of crucial personnel in our schools.

RH: So, what were your one or two big successes?
DS: I would point to two as being successes, though still works in progress, and that weren’t embraced by other states. First, the ability to use RTT-funding for launching statewide curriculum is a critical part of the work we did. Clearly, there are constraints in what the federal government can do in the area of curriculum, but I am convinced that standards without curriculum are just half a loaf, so that has been a really important part of the work. And second is this complete redesign of teacher and principal certification. In New York state, we have moved from an essentially academic approach to a system that we’ll put in place in a few years based on performance assessment [including] value-added requirements, as well as the use of video and attached rubrics, that focus on the practice of teaching. I’m convinced that what you teach and how effectively you teach it are the two most important determinants of the quality of the education that students receive.

RH: Is there one thing that comes to mind that you’d regard as a big accomplishment that hasn’t gotten the recognition it deserved?
DS: The redo of the teacher certification has not been largely recognized, and I’m not sure why. Partly I think people don’t realize that you can’t teach in the state of New York after a certain number of years without professional certification. Historically, no one has paid attention to it because it’s been synonymous with the Master’s Degree, but now what we’ve done is make the certification a real credential in the practical sense of the skills of teaching. My guess is as people begin to see the new assessments we’re putting in place around the skills of teaching, this will be recognized as a major reform.

RH: What would say were your biggest disappointments during your tenure?
DS: I wouldn’t describe them as disappointments, but instead as work unfinished. The first is that we were not yet able to address the barriers of entry to the teaching and principal profession. I’ve become convinced that we need to look at how we recruit and how to generate the conditions that will try to ensure a stronger and stronger labor pool…In the end, it’s crucial to prepare the teacher candidates you have to the best possible level, but it’s also important to think about how you change policies to attract a stronger pool of teachers. Second, I’m a complete supporter of the need for high-quality assessments. In the end, the high-stakes test is the definition of what we think successful education stands for, for better or worse, and I think it’s still an open question whether the next generation of assessments will really match our aspiration to encourage rigorous, deep thinking rather than the rote-like product from the testing regime.

RH: What surprised you about the Commissioner’s job?
DS: You have to be very humble about the impact on the classroom practices of anything that you do because there are so many levels in between. It’s such a vast system, and one has to realize that just because you pull the lever in Albany it will not necessarily impact practice in district X or school Y. The second is there is an enormous investment in the status quo, even from those you would think would have an incentive for change. As soon as policy is fixed, people dig in around it and build their assumptions, practices, and professional life around it, and there is enormous pressure against moving the stake in the ground.

RH: Can you offer an example?
DS: When we think about the work we did in opening up teacher preparation to non-schools of education, inevitably the reaction was quite strong from the existing schools of education; but it was even cautious from some of those institutions that one might have thought would be less risk-averse. Sometimes I would look out from the offices in Albany and ask where the allies were. There didn’t seem to be a natural constituency for the reform work, and that remains a deep challenge.

RH: What are some of the challenges of running a state education agency? Any tips you might share?
DS: I would caution that the situation is different and unique in each state. The work that needs to be done to build trust and an effective working relationship with every stakeholder cannot be underestimated.

RH: How big a staff did you have to help you with this?
DS: The staff was large, but shrinking because of budget situations. Before I arrived the numbers were well over 3,000. By the time I left, they were closer to 2,700. We lost over a third of our state support because of the budget, and that has affected our overall funding. Uniquely in the state of New York, the commissioner is not only responsible for K-12 but higher education and a whole set of issues that normally would be outside the commissionership. It’s an enormous range of responsibilities with a declining number of employees.

RH: Were you able to offer the kind of pay you needed to attract the kind of staff you needed?
DS: The fact of the matter is that the Commissioner only has about five percent of the staff that is not civil service. Civil service schedules are what they are, and the discretionary hires are quite small in number. One of the things we did through the leadership of the Chancellor was to develop a private funding initiative to support Regents Research Fellows, a new group of invaluable policy experts who are working with the new Commissioner on developing policy initiatives around complex regulatory structures surrounding such things as accountability.

RH: One thing recently noted in our SEA report was the tension created by federal funding streams, and some of the challenges that created in trying to forge a coherent SEA culture. Any thoughts as to whether that rings true or not in your experience?
DS: I think there were some issues that were not so much anyone’s fault but just became striking. Because of federal largess, we had at some points in the agency over 40 experts in nutrition around the issue of school lunches. At the same time, we had one person who was an expert on science education because the federal funding was there for the nutrition experts, but we had to rely on state funding for the science curriculum expert. That wasn’t an intended consequence, but sitting where I did with the staff I had, you can imagine that may feel a little odd.

RH: How did you make all these reforms even in tight fiscal times?
DS: We had to battle through. No one is going to pretend it hasn’t hurt. However, we were able to assemble a leadership team that was capable of creating the reform vision and making it granular. First, second, and third is the caliber of the leadership team that you are able to put together and their capacity to engage the energies of good people.

RH: Finally, you’re now returning to your position as Dean at Hunter College’s School of Education. What are your plans there?
DS: First, I’ll be subject to my own regulations! I hope and intend that Hunter remains a leader in implementing the practice of high level guidance and mentorship and instruction in the complex practices of teaching, and developing research around it. We [as an education community] don’t have a sophisticated research base in terms of matching different teaching practices to outcomes, and I want Hunter to be a critical part of that work. I’m excited about building an institute in New York that will be a real center for discussion and debate of educational values and reform direction, and again hope to have a voice in national education reform.

-Frederick Hess

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