Governance

In a major profile of the new chancellor of New York City's schools, the Sunday Times headline writer sums up Dennis Walcott nicely: A Schools Chief With a Knack for Conciliation. While, over in the Windy City, the Tribune went to slightly greater length to explain the appointment of Jean-Claude Brizard to head its schools:? New CPS chief leaves old district mired in questions, controversy.

Other than the size of the challenge (New York's is the largest school district in the nation; Chicago, the third largest), one of the things the two appointments have in common is that they are creatures of mayoral authority.? Michael Bloomberg, who stumbled into his third term as major domo of the Big Apple (no one calls it that any more), tripped badly when he tried to force another non-educator on the system.? He recovered quickly and moved one of his loyal deputies,? Walcott, into the job.

Chicago, on the other hand, is about to get a new mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who, while no slouch in the politics department (serving six years in Congress and several as a senior advisor to two presidents, including two as Barack Obama's chief of staff), has never run a city, much less an education system.? He might do well to talk to Adrian Fenty, the one-term mayor of Washington, DC., as well as Bloomberg, since, at first glance, Emanuel seems to have tripped coming out of the gate (he's not sworn in until next...

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The Centennial State has a great track record in education reform--bipartisan, even--which is why it was so disappointing to so many people when Colorado didn't win Race to the Top funds last summer, and now it looks like we're going to be disappointed once again. Not by Washington this time but by the state's very own Board of Education, which yesterday named a thoroughly lackluster pair of finalists for the key role of education commissioner.

No doubt they're both swell fellows. One is a veteran school administrator (and current acting commissioner), the other a former Air Force general who has recently been running a mid-size district in suburban Denver. They have acceptable credentials. But there's precious little evidence that either is a dedicated reformer, a visionary leader, a rocker of education boats, or a fit colleague for the burgeoning crop of "chiefs for change" in places like NJ, NM, TN, LA, VA, RI and on and on and on.

Never mind Colorado's honorable past as a reform leader in charter schools, teacher evaluations and more. This is no time to rest on laurels. The heavy lifting is really just getting underway. (There's reason to worry, for example, that IMPLEMENTATION of historic Senate Bill 191 is off to a vexed start; there's reason to fear backsliding on "common core" standards; there's talk of canceling future assessment of student writing; the state's U.S. history standards suck. Etc. Etc. Etc.)

In short, it's a time for forceful reformist energy...

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This article originally appeared in the April 21 edition of The Education Gadfly newsletter. You can sign up for The Education Gadfly or read an overview of the latest newsletter.

Along with paralysis over the budget (and so much else), there's enduring paralysis on Capitol Hill?over federal education policy. While 2011 has brought a flurry of promising reform activity at the state level, we detect barely a heartbeat in Washington when it comes to updating the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, currently NCLB), even though an overhaul is at least four years overdue and just about everyone agrees that it's not working very well.

A year ago, the Obama Administration offered a decent ?blueprint? for reauthorization; but in Congress there are major fissures within each party?and little evidence of desire to cooperate across the aisle. Most commentators agree?and staffers privately admit?that chances are slim for an update before the 2012 elections. Sadly, they are probably right. It's a major abdication of responsibility by our nation's lawmakers.

Click to read our ESEA briefing book

And what makes it especially painful is that there's a pretty obvious path forward, not too different from the Administration's proposal. We sketch it out in a new ESEA reform proposal released this week. It capitalizes on some key realities:

First, NCLB has done a pretty good job of sensitizing the country to the...

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No one ever said that education reform was easy.? And no one said that Race to the Top, the Obama administration's signature education law, was perfect.? But when David Steiner, a reformer's reformer, announced last week that he was giving up the reins as New York state's Commissioner of Education, the education world seemed to take a collective deep breath. Steiner's announcement, after less than two years on the job, was what Philissa Cramer of Gotham Schools called a ?rattling? surprise.

The announcement rattled me, since I was just finishing up a feature story for Ed Next on Steiner's brilliant leadership in taking the moribund Empire State to the RTTT winner's circle in nine short months ? the equivalent of turning on a dime in the education reform world.? Much of the credit, of course, goes to RTTT itself, which set broad but rigorous reform goals, then dangled a nice prize in front of cash-strapped states ($700 million in New York's case) that proved they were serious about attaining them.? States rushed to join in the competition. But no one gave New York much of a chance ? and in fact it finished far out of the money in Round 1.? Steiner arrived in October of 2009 and by the end of May the following year, at three in the morning, stood with Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and his deputy John King, in the State Assembly and watched the vote that raised the state's charter cap...

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There is a wonderful moment in Jonathan Mahler's arresting New York Times Magazine story this morning about an inner city public school, when its entrepreneurial principal wanted to start the school day ten minutes earlier than the union contract called for.? Instead of yet another account of union intransigence,?Mahler quotes principal Ramon Gonzalez:

The research says it's better to start your school day later?? But those researchers don't live in my neighborhood.

As Mahler writes, Gonzalez's neighborhood is in the poorest Congressional district in the nation and most of his students live in one of five sprawling nearby housing projects.? Violence is a big part of his students' lives and the reason for starting school earlier is a nod to the realities of the street: he wanted to create more time for tutoring after school so he could get the kids home before dark.?

The?story is deftly reported and admirably written, and the Times should be applauded for allowing Mahler the space to show the nuances of the small victories and major challenges that illustrate some of the?secrets of ?Gonzalez's success; there is no secret sauce,?it seems, other than that of grinding dedication, intense focus on details,?and hard work.? The title of the story is apt: The Fragile Success of School Reform in the Bronx. After seven years under Gonzalez, who opened M.S. 223 in 2003, as?one of Joel Klein's first new schools, ?student proficiency levels in math have jumped 360 percent and in English by 200...

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?David Steiner got none of the negative press that Cathleen Black received when he was appointed Commissioner of New York State's Education Department in October of 2009. ?But it seems that the boot that Black got this morning may also have hit Steiner, whose resignation (now set for the end of the year) was announced?this afternoon. ?

In fact, the two education leaders couldn't have been more different. Black was a non-educator; Steiner was the real deal and his appointment?was hailed by educators as a major step forward for New York.? In a few short months, he turned New York State from an also-ran?in the Race to the Top competition to a winner.? As I write in a forthcoming story for Education Next about Steiner, ?Perhaps not since William T. Harris, the 19th century's last U.S. commissioner of education and founder of the first philosophical periodical in America, have we had such a deep and agile mind in such a key position of public school responsibility.? ?

What happened???While the Black exit was predictable ? and predicted, by Mike Petrilli ? Steiner's departure came as a shock to many when New York State Chancellor Merryl H. Tisch announced it today.? The press release reads:

We recruited David because he is one of America's leading education reform visionaries, and as Commissioner he has delivered - leading New York's successful Race to the Top application and guiding this department through an amazing array of reforms.? As he approaches the

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[caption id="attachment_16080" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Photos by GothamSchools and Louise Docker"][/caption]

Mike's on the road today, but he wanted to make sure Flypaper readers saw: Cathie Black is stepping down as chancellor of New York City schools, to be replaced by Deputy Mayor Dennis M. Walcott.

For those who don't remember, Mike predicted a pre-Easter Black departure in his 7 for '11 predictions back in December 2010:

1.????? Cathie Black will be gone by Easter. A betting man might say that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg will stubbornly hold fast to his choice, but I foresee a breaking point a few months hence. It'll go down like this: Her gaffes continue, she loses support even among middle-class Gotham parents, she botches the release of teacher effectiveness data, and she stumbles with the politics of budget-cutting. Worried about a mass exodus of the Department of Education's senior staff, and sensing vulnerability on a marquee issue in his presidential run, Bloomberg finds an excuse to show her the door.

Black's gaffs might not have been as egregious as Mike originally anticipated, but her loss of support, even among middle-class Gotham parents is sure. A poll given earlier this week tallied her approval rate at a scant 17 percent.

So, go ahead and gloat a bit Mike?and be sure to buy a lottery ticket today. (If you win, I expect lunch for the office.)

...

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It was standing room only yet again at Monday night's meeting of the board of education, of which I am a member, in our 2000-student upstate New York school district; nearly 200 people were jammed into the high school cafeteria when I arrived.? This was not good. As a member of the board, you always survey the crowd (which is normally a group of 15 to 20 die-hards and union reps, maybe a reporter or two, and a couple people with ?issues?) and, depending on who is there ? and how many -- you can usually tell how the meeting will go. A big crowd is usually a harbinger of some drama.? Monday night did not disappoint.??

There were several dozen teachers (wearing their black union t-shirts), several dozen students, several dozen parents, and assorted knots of district employees and ordinary citizens. Our security guard, who does not normally come to meetings, smiled at me from the back of the room.? I knew just about everyone and I knew they were not there for the Board of Cooperative Education Services report or for the Walking School Bus program PowerPoint.

In fact, because it's a small town, I knew that most of the people were there for an item that was not even on the Agenda: ?the board's decision the previous week not to allow the varsity baseball team to play its home games at a nifty new stadium, owned by the town, just down the road. ?For some...

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As I was writing up the account of my recent board meeting, I had to keep pinching myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming. ?And just at that moment, it seemed, there came a flurry of emails from a listserve I am a member of --? to remind me that I am not alone in my experience of the world of local school governance.

The Irvington Parents Forum, which was started in 2006 by Catherine Johnson, co-author, with Temple Grandin, of Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior,?for parents in this upscale Westchester town who wanted to discuss?issues in their schools.? Irvington?is about the same size as my district, but with a considerably different demographic.

It is refreshing to know that the professional class is as ornery as the working class; that a district that has lots of local money (i.e.?Irvington gets little state aid) has governance challenges similar to our district, which?has very little local money. This doesn't mean there aren't major differences in educational outcomes -- and?folks in Irvington are surely more comfortable at the keyboard than in my district (where I have an education listserve that is almost inactive): the Irvington forum now has 312 members and they've generated an impressive 5,691 (as of this writing) messages over the last five-and-a-half years. The writing is?often witty and wise, sometimes angry, and relatively uncensored (though anonymous posts are frowned on and Johnson is a dedicated moderator).? She is...

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Liam Julian

Some are less than pleased with Florida's governor, Rick Scott, who, it seems likely, let it be known to certain persons that he wanted a new state education commissioner. Eric Smith, the current commissioner, resigned this week, noting that he was leaving so Scott could have input ?on the type of leader to pursue his goals for education.? But there is dissent among those who sit on Florida's Board of Education, which appoints the commissioner (confused?); board Chairman T. Willard Fair of Miami, for instance, called Scott's actions on the issue ?distressing,? noting that Scott, since his inauguration in January, had not even met with Smith. Fair resigned from the board, and in so doing wrote, ?As my final act as Chairman, I reject Commissioner Smith's resignation.?

?Liam Julian, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

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