Monday, December 6, 2010

The Commish

New York's Commissioner of Education is an interesting guy--a product of British education who, while at Boston U, roundly condemned the way we train teachers; a dean at Hunter College School of Education whose major innovation was the use of the Flip video cam to track and critique teachers' performance. Now he's in charge of the whole pie in NY, and his vision is broad and deep. I like what I've seen; it scares a lot of people, and that, to me, is a good thing.

Today I drove to see him in person at the Owego Treadway Inn, along with district supts, supts, principals, and a few board members from the region. I was glad to have given myself extra time--it took 1 1/2 hours to get there behind scared drivers in the mild blizzards and just 45 minutes to get back.

The Commish spoke about the Race to the Top changes, which affect curriculum, assessment, and accountability. By 2014, we should have all-new assessments that will be used statewide. With them will come (for the first time) a statewide curriculum, not mandatory (politically, that's probably unfeasible), but, he hopes, appealing enough to be broadly used, plus rubrics for teacher performance, ditto. This ties into NY's signing on to the national Common Core standards.

The inquiry teams we're putting in place at the local level are meant to be the liaisons between what's happening in Albany and the local classrooms. He thinks each team should have one or two curriculum folks, a tech & data person, and an assessments & accountability person.

Remarkably few people asked questions--I could have asked questions all day! When they did, most were the "how can we pay for all this" whine that most often comes out of administrators who just had to cut seven teachers to pay for yet another mandate from the state. There will be a huge gap (several million) in the budget for next year's Regents tests. On the table are three possibilities: 1) the legislature steps up and pays the bill as usual, which they claim they will not do; 2) State Ed cuts back the Regents to a bare minimum, just before we have to remake the tests to incorporate Common Core standards; and 3) State Ed charges districts $7-$8 per student for taking the test--which looks like a scurrilous surcharge to me, since, of course, we already pay for the creation, production, and administration of those tests.

I asked a question that's been bothering me--Steiner talks a great game (and I have been saying this for eons) about how the changes to national standards are completely necessary--we've fallen from second to fourteenth in worldwide education levels, we're the only developed nation NOT to have such standards, etc. However, we're burdened politically by something Finland and South Korea don't have--the myth of local control. So I asked how, given this, he would suggest we deal with explaining and supporting the changes at the community level. He agreed that the trickle-down of urgency had not yet happened, but that he was quite convinced that over the next ten years, middle-class families would find more and more that grown, jobless kids would move back in with mom and dad, as they're starting to do, and that this more than anything else would represent at the local level what happens if we DON'T implement change at the state and national levels.

In top schools, the Commish finds that the teachers all know how the kids are doing, and that they think collectively about "our child" rather than "my child"--as a school or district rather than as a discrete classroom. Top schools have master teachers in the classrooms of new teachers, sometimes every hour of every day (rich schools, obviously!) Too many teachers that he sees in his visits are teaching well below students' abilities (he mentioned an 11th grade geography class being pitched at a 6th grade level, but he thinks this is pervasive, and I'm sure that it is).

Lots more, not new stuff, but clarification of how things might work as they go forward. It's a daunting task, but this Commish seems to relish the work, which may or may not be enough to get us somewhere over the next few terrible years.

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