Adieu Chancellor Tisch: Some Thoughts

 

Resolution 1078

NOLAN

LEG. RESO. – Honoring Dr. Merryl M. Tisch for her many years of distinguished service to the New York State Board of Regents

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The magisterial New York State Assembly Chamber “designed in a Moorish Gothic” is a truly impressive room; a high vaulted ceiling with stained glass windows allowing the light to be cast across the room. From September through June the 150 members gather to debate and pass bills and resolutions. On Thursday a resolution flashed across the screen honoring Dr. Merryl Tisch, the Chancellor of the Board of Regents and Monday, March 21st will be her last meeting; her term expires at the end of March.

Member after member rose to extol the tenure of the Chancellor, a tenure that has been characterized by both sweeping changes in the role of the board and controversy.

Tisch has served on the board for twenty years and was elected by her colleagues as chancellor in 2009.

Commissioner Mills left under a cloud and the Tisch board selected David Steiner as commissioner. Traditionally commissioners had been selected from among the senior superintendents in the state. Steiner was Dean of the School of Education at Hunter College. Almost unnoticed the board selected as deputy commissioner a young scholar with no experience in public schools, John King.  The leaders of education in the State of New York with no experience running a school district.

Tisch and Steiner jumped headfirst into the swirling pool of education reform trumpeted by the White House. An application for the Race to the Top dollars and the crafting of a teacher evaluation plan were launched.

At an ABNY breakfast attended by the educational glitterati keynote speaker Randi Weingarten urged John King, who replaced Steiner after his precipitous resignation, to delay the implementation of the teacher evaluation plan – a moratorium.

Tisch and King rejected the suggestion – the move to the full implementation of the Common Core, testing and test result-based teacher evaluation moved forward.

The Common Core and the teacher evaluation plans were increasingly resisted by active parents and the teacher union.

A  NY Times appraisal of Tisch’s tenure begins, “She tried to do too much, too fast.”

The article goes on,

If she could take one thing back, Dr. Tisch said, it would be having rolled out the standards and the teacher evaluation system at the same time, “because I think the debate over how to evaluate a teacher contaminated the more important work.”

Dr. Tisch said she believed that the anger about the standards was stoked by the state teachers’ union, which fought the evaluation system, and noted that most of those who opted out came from wealthier suburban districts.

Last year the legislature dumped longtime allies of the chancellor and selected four new members who were clearly critical of the teacher evaluation system. The troubles of Assembly Speaker Shelton Silver, a friend of Tisch since childhood changed the chemistry in the legislature as the new speaker wanted to ameliorate the conflicts with parents and teachers.

In retrospect there is no evidence that the Common Core is an “answer” to struggling schools populated by students of color. The academic community has increasingly chided testing associated with the standards.

The Washington Post writes,

More than 100 education researchers in California have joined in a call for an end to high-stakes testing, saying that there is no “compelling” evidence to support the idea that the Common Core State Standards will improve the quality of education for children or close the achievement gap, and that Common Core assessments lack “validity, reliability and fairness.”

The dense teacher evaluation algorithms have been sharply criticized by most experts in the world of statistics.

Yes, rolling out both the Common Core, Common Core testing and teacher evaluation at the same time doomed the initiatives from the start, a larger question is whether jumping on board the White House driven reforms would ever achieve the anticipated goals. At the time it might have made sense to be the “first in the nation” to adopt the Obama education plan, in retrospect, a mistake.

In my view Tisch fell victim to the same wave that has vaulted Donald Trump to the top of the presidential primaries. The anger, the disgust with all politics, the “snarkiness,” has rolled over the reforms coming from the Board of Regents. The anger of the opt-outs, the anger of the mass of voters is intertwined.

Other actions of the chancellor have gone underreported.

Tisch made every attempt to thwart the plundering of schools by an Orthodox School Board in East Ramapo. She forced reluctant school boards to register undocumented minors and provide an appropriate education, in spite of substantial local opposition.  The chancellor has visited scores of schools, frequently accompanied by a Regents member who was a former superintendent.  She has acknowledged the glowing jewels in the system, i. e. the Internationals Network of schools that serve new immigrants with wonderful results. After years of delays the regulations impacting English language learners were promulgated.

Regents meetings are usually one speaker after another, one power point after another with comments only from the members of the board. Merryl frequently interrupts a speaker with an incisive question. Whether the commissioner, a state ed staffer or a guest Tisch “cuts to the core;” she asked the crucial question, a question that commonly resulted in the speaker stumbling.  (I loved it!!)

Critics of Tisch are legion, and clearly she made decisions that in retrospect required more thought and more buy-in. Chancellors are selected by their colleagues; however, the governor and the legislature have enormous power; for the last two years major education policy was set by the governor.  The major current policy initiatives are the twenty “recommendations” of the Cuomo Task Force. The board may be the constitutional body to devise education policy – in the “real world” the governor is the major player.

As March draws to a close the legislature and the governor will agree upon a budget. Over the last decade budgets have eroded funding to the State Education Department, a subtle way of expressing disagreement with the policies of the board.  The legislature doesn’t need angry voters and the governor wants to both take credit for successes and avoid negative electoral consequences.

Merry Tisch fell victim to a generalized dissatisfaction that is sweeping the nation.

I read an Internet cry, “We want a president who will make America great again,” which received a response, “Do you mean when basketball stars were white?”  Race, gender, class and generational conflict have spilled over – Merryl Tisch fell victim to the anger.

The next leader of the Regents faces a daunting task.

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