NYU Panel (Part 2): Where are the Policymakers? (Certainly Not Currently Listening to Families and Teachers and Principals and Scholars)

A really effective moderator can turn bland speeches into scintillating dialogue. At the NYU Steinhardt breakfast the moderator, Joseph McDonald was superb. He pointedly keep the panelists on task, chided the audience members who stepped to the microphone, “No speeches, ask questions.”

Pedro Noguera, Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education at NYU asked a simple question,

“Where are the policymakers?”

The core decisions driving education policy are made by Bill Gates and Eli Broad, the playbook, developed in April, 2009, “Smart Options: Investing the Recovery Funds for Student Success,” lays out the policies that drive education policy from Washington to the mean streets of the South Bronx.

Take a look at the Report: http://www.broadeducation.org/asset/429-arrasmartoptions.pdf, especially the list of the report writers. No teacher union reps, no principals, no teachers, no academics, the “Klein Crowd,” Michelle Rhee and a long list of the think tankers from the right: the market-driven approach to schooling.

While the Report supports, “Create fairer, more accurate and more useful teacher evaluation systems, developed with teachers and their unions,” and “Train teachers, unions and school leaders in the new systems” it excludes the very same people from the table.

The “Broad/Gates” playbook is not based on peer-reviewed evidence, not based on the experience of classroom teachers or principals or deep thinkers in the universities, it ignores the representatives of communities of color, it represents a 21st century “noblesse oblige,” perhaps harsh, it reeks of rich and powerful white guys deciding what is best for the poor, powerless communities of color.

Back to the panelists:

Professor Okhee Lee, an expert on English Language Learners, an English Language Learner herself, a member of the just released Next Generation Science Standards(NGSS) team strongly advocated,

“…having students develop models, construct explanations, and argue from evidence enables these diverse learners to understand core ideas within science while acquiring technical aspects of language like vocabulary or sentence structure … this is extremely important since the Common Core State Standards are moving more heavily towards building content standards across academic disciplines for all students.”

The policymakers in Albany, the State Education Department have been fumbling with Part 154, the regulations governing instruction for English Language Learners in NYS, regulations that are basically unchanged for thirty years, regulations that may protect jobs but certainly do not drive instructional practices that are both effective and evidence-based. While English Language Learners are stumbling across the state there are exceptions – a handful of schools are in agreement with Professor Lee, and the results are impressive, yet the policymakers diddle, again, politics trumps what has been developed at schools by teachers and principals.

Randi Weingarten, President of the AFT chided the Obama administration, 350 million to develop tests and zero dollars to develop curriculum, as well as Kentucky and New York State for “pushing off the diving board” approach to the Common Core, creating both high stakes evaluation of ill-prepared students and hostile and suspicious principals and teachers, is fool hearty.

The April 2009 Gates/Broad Report, four years down the road has been disastrous. The Broader, Bolder Coalition’s in-depth analysis exposes deeply flawed policies,

Top-down pressure from federal education policies such as Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind, bolstered by organized advocacy efforts, is making a popular set of market-oriented education “reforms” look more like the new status quo than real reform. Reformers assert that test-based teacher evaluation, increased access to charter schools, and the closure of “failing” and under-enrolled schools will boost at-risk students’ achievement and narrow longstanding race- and income-based achievement gaps. This new report from the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education examines these assertions by comparing the impacts of these reforms in three large urban school districts – Washington, D.C., New York City, and Chicago – with student and school outcomes over the same period in other large, high-poverty urban districts. The report finds that the reforms deliver few benefits, often harm the students they purport to help, and divert attention from a set of other, less visible policies with more promise to weaken the link between poverty and low educational attainment.

The last audience member standing at a floor microphone was David Steiner, the former Commissioner of Education, current Dean of the School of Education at Hunter College and leader of the new Education Policy Institute at the Roosevelt House.

Steiner was an unusual choice for State Commissioner; after all he hadn’t been a superintendent who worked his way up through the ranks. Each May the UFT convenes its Spring Conference – a couple of thousand teachers pack the Hilton to attend a number of timely panels, listen to a policy address by the union president, give an award to a public figure, and, for me the best part, have the opportunity to meet and engage with someone in the limelight at Operation Soapbox at the breakfast session.

In his first year as commissioner David Steiner connected with the audience – he may have a bit of an upper class British accent, I think he favors the philharmonic over a Jets game – he understands teachers. Many Operation Soapbox participants defend and deflect, David Steiner listened and engaged; it was clear that the Commissioner and Union President Mulgrew actually liked and understood each other. I had the feeling he could be the guy teaching down the hallway. (“Dave, have any ideas on an Aristotle lesson?”)

When Steiner suddenly departed two years ago I was saddened and not too surprised. Commissioners are battered by the winds of politics: a governor running for president, a mayor desperately seeking a “legacy,” superintendents wanting policies to increase graduation rates and decrease costs, agendas that may have nothing to do with the lives of kids and their families.

Steiner began by explaining that he does not comment on his successor, and told us that his successor was deeply committed to supporting the neediest children, sort of “damning with faint praise.”

Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer,
And without sneering, teach the rest to sneer;
Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike,
Just hint a fault, and hesitate dislike.
— “Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot” by Alexander Pope (1688–1744)

Agreeing with Weingarten (and Sol Stern and others) how can we rush forward without a curriculum, without agreed upon “domains of knowledge”? Late in the process the state has purchased and placed online a number of curricula, has begun to train district teams, Steiner reminded us that “retooling” is enormously expensive, the efforts; however, are faltering at best and fail to assuage deep suspicion on the part of teachers and principals.

The Commissioner emeritus ended his remarks by referring to Cuban/Tyack in “Tinkering Toward Utopia,” who reviewed a hundred years of school reform efforts and concluded that unless teachers and parents are on board the reform efforts are doomed.

Didn’t George Santayana remind us,

Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Skepticism, like chastity, should not be relinquished too readily.

To knock a thing down, especially if it is cocked at an arrogant angle, is a deep delight of the blood.

2 responses to “NYU Panel (Part 2): Where are the Policymakers? (Certainly Not Currently Listening to Families and Teachers and Principals and Scholars)

  1. We as a nation just lived through a week which reminded us of our common bond as citizens in a democracy. The ultimate necessity for fostering and expanding that commonality is eduction. The ultimate necessity of a citizenry in a democracy is the combination of being informed and the ability to make informed decisions. Therefore any curriculum must have EQUAL parts of how to get information in out of the information age and how to interpret and utilize it. Common Core does not have the second component equal to the first. It’s about time policy makers- public officials- politicians realize the true vision and mission of education in and for a democracy.


  2. Pingback: NYU Panel (Part 2): Where are the Policymakers? (Certainly Not Currently Listening to Families and Teachers and Principals and Scholars) ← NPE News Briefs

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