It is one of many annual back-to-school rituals: an interview with the chancellor about his priorities for the coming year. Fernanda Santos and Anna M. Phillips sat down with Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott for about 90 minutes last week at the city's Department of Education offices in Manhattan. The following excerpts have been lightly edited:
What's the No. 1 item on your agenda?
Mr. Walcott: No. 1 for me is making sure that parents and families are fully engaged in what’s happening in the life of their child or their children in the school system. That to me is an important thing to do.
They’ll be seeing me out to their schools on a regular basis and we’re looking at a variety of ways to make sure we reach them in a broader sense as well.
Parents need to hear from us from a variety of different mechanisms, and so that will be something you’ll be seeing unfolding during the school year as well.
When you talk about parent engagement through a variety of mechanisms, are you talking about say, having your own Twitter account?
Mr. Walcott: We’re researching a variety of new mechanisms for how we communicate with them. So I have a couple of ideas that we’ll be announcing during the month of September, as far as working with our parents.
What are the other priorities that you have for this year?
Mr. Walcott: One of the priorities is really tapping into the expertise of the team that I have here. I happen to be very, very lucky in that I have a smart committed team of very talented individuals who have expertise in pedagogy and how to improve education, and so part of the priority that you will see is me — not that they were not free before — but definitely turning them loose to do their thing.
I am their leader, I’ll be out front leading them, but at the same time they are the leaders of the education brain trust that we have here. You’ll see that being tapped into in the field.
Could you give example of what that means?
Mr. Walcott: I want them to be on T.V., I want them to be on radio. I’m not sure how Barbara and the press people will like it, but that’s a different discussion, that’s an internal discussion. But I want to tap into their area of expertise. I have people who have been in the field, who’ve been on the ground, who have a great deal of experience who are in key leadership positions and I think it’s important for people to be interfacing with them. Which they are in the field, but the public may not see it.
By getting them out there in more public light and having them in a more public venue being quoted more, being more visible in public debates, forums, to me that starts to define the debate a little differently as far as what’s happening in our school system.
Is this an effort to counter public criticism?
Mr. Walcott: My vision for this upcoming year is not a point-counterpoint. I’m not interested in that type of back-and-forth. I’ll defend what we’re doing and I’ll admit when we need to do something better, but I’m not going to decide on how we shape both the pedagogical vision and then the public vision of our interaction based on someone else’s out there.
After five years of budget cuts and the loss of thousands of teachers through excessing, teacher morale is pretty low right now. Is that something you plan to address?
Mr. Walcott: As far as the excessing and morale, a lot of that is just based on budget reality. A lot of that is based on what’s happening at the school. I can set the tone, I can set the aspirational level, I can deal with the budget issues to the best of our ability and making sure we get as much money — within our budget limits — to our schools. And I will continue to do that. But the teachers I see, the teachers I interact with, even if they express a frustration about a particular issue, their bottom line is being there for our children and doing that and that’s what I expect from them.
I mean the reality is you can have a workforce that’s extremely small and you’ll have morale issues, you’ll have people raising questions, that’s just the nature of a business.
What would you say to parents who are concerned about the effects that budget cuts — the loss of after school programs, school aides, teachers — will have on their schools this year?
Mr. Walcott: As chancellor, I mean, what they should hear from me is that we’re looking to be more creative in how we develop partnerships with other city agencies and maximize the dollars we have. I mean they will hear, I think, the truth from me. I’m not going to snow them. I’m not going to give them false information. (Aside to press secretary: “I’m going to behave, don’t worry, I’m not going to say anything.”) They will not hear things from me that are sugar-coated. The reality is we’re living in an environment where there isn’t as much money as there was before and so we have a responsibility as a system to make sure we plan with the dollars that we have and we look for partnerships with our sister agencies in trying to maximize those services.
The school year hasn't begun yet and people are already talking about growing class sizes and overcrowding. How are you going to reconcile having less money to work with and more demand for public schools?
Mr. Walcott: I mean class size is important, but to me, I’m a firm believer in having an effective teacher is more important than class size. I’m a firm believer in that. And I think we’ve been talking about really, again, looking at spreads, depending on the grade, but a 1.5 student increase on average on class size. While that’s an increase it’s not, again, an increase that is extremely sizable.
I remember going for a visit to a school in Brooklyn — it was a high school. And it was 8 a.m. and one class was jam-packed and one class was really small with a number of students. And I asked the principal, I said, “What’s going on here?” And he said that teacher is a great teacher and the students want to get here at 8 o’clock to be a part of that teacher. And the other one the principal felt wasn’t that really good a teacher and the students were reacting with their feet by not being there. To me a great teacher is one of the most inspiring, stimulating things, to allow a class to flourish no matter how large the class size is.
On an entirely different subject, the city's teachers union just lost its most recent appeal to prevent the city from releasing teachers' effectiveness scores with their names attached. The union is appealing again, but if they lose again, what are you going to say to parents who discover their child's teacher is "developing" and want to change classes?
Mr. Walcott: Using Mrs. Smith as the example, even if Mrs. Smith is a developing teacher, you may see real learning taking place within your child's class with Mrs. Smith and knowing that she still has a long way to go. You may be a developing reporter, I’m a developing chancellor, it doesn’t mean that we’re bad.
The one thing I want to protect against, and I think that goes to your question of making sure people explain it, is that people are therefore not put in a position of being defensive and having newspapers or other media vehicles say ‘the dirty 30’ or ‘the dirty dozen’ or something along that line. And that’s the issue that I really wrestle with because I don’t want our teachers stereotyped. I don’t want our teachers denigrated at all.
We have to make sure from a professional point of view that we, me, are out there explaining what it actually means. And so that will be something that we will have the responsibility to do on a regular basis. But I can’t stop the headlines.
Releasing teachers' data reports was your predecessor Joel I. Klein's plan. But how do you feel about it?
Mr. Walcott: I’ve wrestled with this and all of us have debated and talked about it internally, as far as to release with names. On the one hand, I don’t have a problem with names being out there because we should be transparent. But on the other hand I have a responsibility to make sure that we protect our workforce as well and not to have newspaper stories denigrate my workforce because they’re working their butts off to do their job.
Nationally, the education reform world is divided over this. Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp has said that it's not a good strategy to publicly release teachers' names and effectiveness scores. How would you defend the city's position on this to those who oppose it?
Mr. Walcott: I’m not going to answer you and I’ll tell you why: because I’m not in this to answer Wendy or the reform community. I’m in this about our teachers and our students. To get into that type of back and forth is not how I’m going to engage.
The city has made a concerted effort in recent years to be more restrictive in awarding tenure. Do you think tenure will still be around in 2013 when the mayor leaves office?
Mr. Walcott: What happens by 2013, that I will not predict, but I can tell you my own personal belief. I don’t believe in lifetime guarantees. I think people should have some form of protection, they should have union representation, obviously, but that doesn’t mean that you’re guaranteed a job for life.
Between now and June, what do you want to see happen?
Mr. Walcott: That every article, every article and conversation, is about education and not fighting.