Friday, April 08, 2011

Andy Wolfe Nails One

Dennis Walcott is more of the same: Bloomberg's new chancellor once again lacks classroom experience

Friday, April 8th 2011, 11:15 AM
What is most surprising about the departure of Schools Chancellor Cathie Black is not that she is leaving - no one should be shocked that someone so ill-suited and ill-prepared for the job was doomed to fail - but that Mayor Bloomberg is making the same mistakes in finding a successor.

Dennis Walcott will be the mayor's third appointee to the post that will require a waiver from the state education commissioner, as well as the third "quick-fire" appointee - after Black and her predecessor, Joel Klein - chosen without a true, extensive search. Bloomberg seems to believe that those who toil at the hard business of educating children are the problem. He is wrong.

As Black (and, to a lesser extent, Klein) has proven, maybe there is something, after all, to knowing about what goes on in our classrooms, the true front line in the battle to educate our children. Someone who is steeped in curriculum and teaching methodology brings an enormous advantage over the well-meaning but clueless management gurus we have seen leading school districts here and elsewhere in recent years. Instructional savvy is what will make actually improving our schools possible.

The first step is for City Hall to acknowledge that miracles just aren't possible. As the state Education Department has admitted, test scores have been wildly inflated, demonstrating that there has been little, if any, gain in student performance since Bloomberg took control of the schools.

Similarly, graduation rates may have been overstated, according to an audit conducted by state Controller Thomas DiNapoli. Moreover, the state now admits that granting a Regents diploma is meaningless if the recipient cannot adequately perform academically. That's why of city high school graduates who head to a City University campus for college, some 75% need remediation in reading, math or writing.

These disappointing results come despite unprecedented increases in expenditures on education, which has been adding over $9 billion annually to the city budget since 2002, according to the city's Independent Budget Office.

While Dennis Walcott certainly has an understanding of the policy side of education, he still lacks the instructional experience to actually fix what is going wrong in our classrooms. Moreover, as the deputy mayor who has had the education portfolio since the inception of mayoral control, he must share responsibility for the many failings of this administration. This is hardly the clean slate Bloomberg would like us to believe we're being handed.

Indeed, now would be the time for Bloomberg to take a different approach and find a true educator with an instructional vision that reflects his administration's aspirations for our children. But that is not something that can, or should, happen overnight.

The state education commissioner, David Steiner, must now consider a waiver for Walcott, as he did for Black. Certainly the Black fiasco left more than a bit of egg on his face. Perhaps that's why he, too, has announced that he will be leaving his position later this year.

The idea that an under-qualified chancellor can be bolstered by a knowledgeable and certified No. 2 - the condition that swayed Steiner in Black's favor - must also be reexamined. The presence of Deputy Chancellor Shael Polokow-Suransky at Black's side certainly didn't prevent her from failing so spectacularly. We need a chancellor who can stand on his or her own.

From school grades to value-added data, there is a plethora of highly complex issues confronting our schools that require an experienced educator. Along with much of the nation, the state is engaged in the creation of a rigorous new "common core" curriculum, the implementation of which will require deep knowledge of classroom practice.

Developing and implementing truly objective standards to evaluate teachers is another area where good intentions cannot replace experience. The extreme rhetoric of recent months has been counterproductive to the system as a whole. A chancellor with the right experience would go a long way to restoring morale and confidence among the professionals we are counting on by presenting a clear explanation of how teachers will be assessed, hired and fired.

That's why this might be a good time to reflect as to why state law requires specific certification for the leaders of our school districts. I submit that the type of experience one needs to obtain such certification is important and cannot be glossed over.

Steiner needs to think very long and very carefully, as he again may be put in the position of possibly facilitating an awful mistake, one that will be paid for not by any adult, but by our public school children. He should consider it a God-given opportunity to prevent Mayor Bloomberg from making the same mistake - thrice.

Wolf wrote a regular column on education for The New York Sun. He can be reached at

Read more:

No comments: