The Mayoral Education Policy Debate: “the imagined perfection of the past” or “real ideas”

What is so frustrating in our cyber age is that policy issues are reduced to a sound bite – a few words or phrases that will catch the attention of the voting public.

Political campaigns have revolutionized the way they target, contact and motivate supporters. Strategists are taking the insights of experimental social science and marrying them to the corporate world’s Big Data marketing tools. The Obama Campaign won in large part by using statistical modeling techniques to identify persuadable voters and to fine-tune persuasive messages. This is politics today and in the future—not only for elections but on issue campaigns for education reform, health care, the environment, labor rights and beyond. (from Center for NYC Affairs website)

Those of us in the field of education are consumed by the issues of the moment – the impending deadline of the teacher evaluation law, schools closings, co-location, etc. Parents, at least today, are consumed by a bus drivers’ strike – how do I get Jane to school?

My neighbors, who are neither teachers nor have school age children, see education from afar. The issues that consume the insiders are peripheral to the vast voting public.

In order to pander to voters the Democratic candidates; the “… strategists are taking the insights of experimental social science and marrying them to the corporate world’s Big Data marketing tools”. i .e., oppose school closings and co-locations. Positions that poll well will attract voters; what happens after election in the real world, murky at best.

Eric Nadelstern in a blog comment is critical, perhaps overly so, of the Quinn policy ideas.

This platform isn’t a new approach. It’s a return to the imagined perfection of the past when we blamed student poverty for school failures, and thought the professional development approach of the moment would serve to eliminate the achievement gap. I’m still hopeful that a candidate with real ideas will emerge.

Policies to attract voters ofttimes are not viable.

Candidates who oppose school closings ignore the federal law.

School closings are driven by federal law which requires each state, using a formula, to identify persistently lowest achieving schools (PLA) and intervene using one of the models required by the feds. If the interventions fail the school must be closed or converted to charter.

Turnaround strategies have been closely studied. The US Department of Education defines the options here. a University of Virginia study points to key successful strategies, an Education Next essay concludes most turnaround efforts have failed.

When Eric writes, It’s a return to the imagined perfection of the past when we blamed student poverty for school failures, I believe he exaggerates. Ignoring poverty is an ostrich strategy, schools alone, no matter the excellence of the staff and leadership, cannot sustain success when they find themselves in a sea of poverty and related pathologies. On the other hand I absolutely agree: to blame poverty is a copout, we must acknowledge poverty as an obstacle and create policies to address both poverty and education. Teachers make the difference – when the anchor is too heavy they can only keep paddling for so long. It is the role of the local government, the mayor and other electeds to create a synergy – making schools the center, the hub, of the many disparate social services that impact families.

Professional development, ongoing learning, a culture of renewal, call it what you may, schools in which the staffs are engaged in discussions about teaching and learning, about the kids they teach, frequently are effective schools. It is the job of the school leader to create the space for the discussions and encourage leadership from within.

Quinn promotes a mentorship program – its currently part of state law, and once was required and funded; unfortunately it was yet another compliance edict. The one intern/mentoring program that works, the Urban Teacher Residency is expensive – and retains over 80% of the mentees.

Eric: I’m still hopeful that a candidate with real ideas will emerge.

I do not expect that any candidate will emerge with “real ideas,” and the political will and expertise to get elected and run the city. Quinn, at least, took the time and effort to collect a range of education options and possibilities – however flawed they go far beyond the polling-driven opposition to school closings and anti-high stakes testing mantra.

What the next mayor has to do is select a chancellor who has the “real ideas” that Eric desires. Our last four chancellors were outsiders – two lawyers, a business woman and currently a public face. The last chancellor with “real ideas” was probably Anthony Alvarado.

Among the harsh critics of the Bloomberg years, and they are legion, there is a yearning to return to the days before – the not so “good old days.” Let’s not fool ourselves – the pre-Bloomberg years produced generations of kids who did not complete high school under the RCT diploma system – an 8th grade level exam. The thirty-two Community School Districts varied enormously – the poorest districts had the lowest level of parent involvement, in some instances rampant corruption while a few others were examples of collaboration and innovation.

Sharp increases in salary, alternative certification programs, a recession and staggering unemployment and higher state certification requirements have attracted many “top of their class” candidates to teaching – many more than we have jobs. In 1995 there were fewer applicants than jobs, now scores, in some instances hundreds of applicants for each job.

Critics cry, why can’t we be like Finland and not give high stakes tests?

Finland also only accepts the top 10% of applicants into education programs – how many current teachers were in the top 10% of their undergraduate graduating class? Finland is a homogenous society with astonishing income equality – comparing apples to oranges is futile.

The ten years of Children First has lurched from highly centralized top-down to a variety of models to the current Ouchi ” Making Schools Work” network model.(Read description here)

I hope the debate that Quinn started will continue – transparent discussions in the ideal world lead to good decisions.

The bottom line, I think Eric will agree, the crucial “policy” decision is the selection of a school district leader, a chancellor who can listen and lead.

Napoleon claimed, “Every French soldier carries a marshal’s baton in his knapsack,” and so do we all. New Yorkers, if you haven’t figured it out, are opinionated and quick to tell the mayor or the team coach or the chancellor how to do their job. Winston Churchill’s famous line, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” captures the moment. A many months-long public debate around the future of public education is healthy and can produce a more targeted, more collaborative, and primarily, a system that works for the million kids in schools and the untold numbers in the pipeline.


2 responses to “The Mayoral Education Policy Debate: “the imagined perfection of the past” or “real ideas”

  1. I am not a fan of Ms. Quinns..Each day it seems that she offers up opinions that cause one pause. Yesterdays declaration that all books should be replaced by Kindles is scary. Books are the cornerstone to civilazation. Every day we are closer and closer to the roots of civilization as hard copy scrolls and indeed pieces of parchment are found in caves and the like. I get that Kindles are cheaper, but they should be seen as partners to books in the delivery of instruction, not as replacements. Book reading, and for that matter newspaper reading are skill builders. In the final analysis,I have not heard where any univresity scholars are advocating the same for their students. I would be very leary of Ms. Quinn’s candiacy at this point.


  2. I’ve become leery of anything Eric Nadelstern says since I watched him renege on so many of his commitments. I’m still believing that he’s crafting/positioning for a new job for himself.

    The electronic devices have an electric Achilles heel as we found out after Sandy. Also,the constant shift of technology makes reading anything electronically written today 50 years from now currently unlikely. We can’t read an electronic document written in 1993 on the word processor of the day–a Wang, or the Apple of that time. I just reread “Alas Babylon” originally printed/published in 1959. Think that possible of something electronic from 2013 in 2063?

    Why are we, educational advocates that we are, still using a 10 month model, or any time-oriented model for judging student success? While we realize that deadlines must be met in the adult world, the permanent penalty exacted by not giving a child the time he needs to master his lessons in unforgivable in 2013. Allow each to progress according to his ability, and hold the support system, as well as the student, including parents and community, responsible for playing their role as supporters of the kids.


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