Sunday, April 10, 2011

Andy Wolf: Formal Search Needed for New York Schools Chancellor

From all we’ve seen, Dennis Walcott, Mayor Bloomberg’s choice as the city’s new schools chancellor is a fine fellow, a loyal deputy to the mayor, and a knowledgeable public servant.
Loyalty and knowledge are admirable qualities, but are they all that are needed to bring success to New York’s students? Recent events lead us to suspect not.
Mr. Walcott will be the third person appointed by the mayor as Chancellor of the New York City schools and shares two attributes with his predecessors: he lacks the required professional credentials for the job, and thus requires a waiver from the State Education Commissioner, and was appointed without an extensive public search.
It is clear that Mayor Bloomberg has contempt for educators. Not only his chancellors, but much of the top leadership at the Tweed Courthouse are non-educators. Mr. Bloomberg blames the educational establishment for the poor results posted by the old Board of Education, a perception that may have appeared to have some validity in 2002 when the mayor was first granted control of the schools, but is less compelling today after nine years of experience with the fruits of his stewardship.
One can debate some of the philosophical issues raised by the mayor and his “reform” allies. Certainly New Yorkers are sympathetic with many of those initiatives. But what should now be beyond dispute is that whatever one thinks of the mayor’s policies, he has failed to deliver any significant measure of improved academic performance.
This failure is compounded by a huge increase in expenditures for the education sector that have contributed mightily to the deficits of both the city and state.
The “historic gains” boasted of during the mayor’s 2009 reelection campaign have given way to the sobering realization that those scores were inflated by the state, and confirmed last year by their own admissions.
As a number of critics sounded the alarm, Chancellor Klein refused to acknowledge or understand the extent of the deception. He continued pursuing initiatives that were dependent on accurate test scores, such as evaluating teacher performance by measuring gains on tests from year to year, report cards that rated schools based on their performance, and even giving bonuses to teachers and administrators to reward them for increasing scores.
It’s hard to say whether a professional educator would have recognized the shoddy job being done by the state in preparing, grading and evaluating these standardized tests. But Mr. Klein, as brilliant attorney as he is, was duped, and squandered billions on programs dependent on accurate and honest educational data. A professional might not have been so quick to accept such clearly flawed testing.
During the past three months a gifted and highly regarded business leader was put in charge of the city schools, Cathie Black. But her success in publishing didn’t translate into an understanding of the complexities of educating children. This may have been an extreme case, but in hindsight even Ms. Black acknowledges how ill-prepared she was for this difficult job.
So maybe the state regulations requiring certain qualifications for leaders of school districts might not be so far off the mark after all.
The speed with which all three of Mayor Bloomberg’s chancellors were selected might also have contributed to the less than memorable progress we’ve made thus far. It seems to us that at least the appearance of an extensive search may well be in order.
Wouldn’t it be wiser to conduct an open national search to attempt to find the best possible qualified candidate, rather than to once again go to the state education Commissioner in Albany, hat in hand, asking for a waiver for yet another candidate lacking the requisite credentials?
And if we do submit the name of a candidate who requires a waiver, the Cathie Black affair should serve to teach us that these required credentials do mean something, and they should be taken seriously. By the mayor and the state education commissioner.
Commissioner Steiner’s initial decision to reject Ms. Black turned out to be right on the money. The strident calls on other pages demanding that he approve any candidate the mayor proposes (after all, “isn’t that what mayoral control means?”), turn out to be the wrong advice.
The “compromise” then demanded by the commissioner, requiring the appointment of a fully qualified “number two,” didn’t correct Ms. Black’s miscues, and the failure to now appoint Deputy Chancellor Shael Polokow-Suransky to succeed Ms. Black demonstrates just how meaningless this gesture was.
Commissioner Steiner’s tenure (and he coincidentally announced his forthcoming departure this summer the same day as Ms. Black was cashiered), will forever be linked to his mistake of granting a waiver to Ms. Black. This is too bad, because unlike Ms. Black, Mr. Steiner will be missed. It was he who blew the whistle and restored integrity to the state testing process, which now enables us to view Mr. Bloomberg’s report card in the harsh light of the truth.
It isn’t too often that one gets a second chance, so it behooves Mr. Steiner not to rubber stamp the request for yet another waiver for yet another under-qualified candidate yet again chosen without a serious search.

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