Cuomo Commission Needs to Look at the Big Picture

Tuesday, February 14, 2012 - 08:12 AM

When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced last month that he planned to create an education commission to promote performance and accountability in New York State and become a “lobbyist” for our children, educators across the state cheered. But our excitement is tempered by the knowledge that numerous attempts to reform education in this country have fallen into the trap of looking at the education of our children through a narrow lens, and not taking a holistic approach.

DESCRIPTION Danielle Moss Lee

In order to give the commission the best chance for success, its composition and mission must truly take a big picture approach -- one that looks at the issues we face in a “kid-centered” way. The members of the commission must have a deep commitment to social change -- not just deep pockets. Most importantly, the task force needs to represent the entire community of individuals who influence our young people.

The education of our children does not take place solely in the classroom. Therefore, numerous influential groups need to have a voice on the governor’s commission, including parent associations, community-based organizations, and teacher training institutions. And of course, there has been much debate about the role that unions should play in education.

This commission is an incredible opportunity to create new dialogue with the United Federation of Teachers and to forge a commitment of openness from those on both sides of the debate.

Once the commission is formed, the big picture approach must continue with the setting of goals. On the surface, Governor Cuomo’s outlined mission of promoting performance and accountability seems like a worthy one. But this is a narrow view of what it takes to improve our educational system that neglects to address the outside factors and non-instructional needs that influence student performance.

Acknowledging the multiple influences in a child’s life is not an attempt to let educators off the hook, but it can open the door to more seamless integration of the services students need to develop fully.

Ultimately, the focus must expand beyond test scores. The commission needs to look closely at family stability -- working with numerous groups to understand and foster an environment where children can reap the benefits of a high-quality education. Our community-based organizations are overlooked, underfunded, and dismissed in the education conversation -- even when they are positively influencing young people’s chances to thrive socially, emotionally and educationally.

For example, one critical issue we face is declining funding for robust after-school programming. Studies have shown that most destructive tween and teen behaviors -- including drug use, petty crime and teen pregnancy -- take place between the hours of 3 and 6 p.m. But when given other opportunities, our young people can use those three hours for academic, physical and social enrichment.

I agree that the commission should address accountability, as Governor Cuomo suggests, but I urge it to consider the additional factors influencing student and teacher performance. All schools are not created equally. Should a school in an affluent neighborhood be judged the same way as one from an area with a large immigrant population?

No one would argue that teacher quality isn’t an integral aspect of school improvement. But that improvement won’t happen until we significantly improve working conditions for teachers. When a teacher has to reach into his own pocket to buy chalk for a classroom, the system is broken.

We need to provide incentives to master teachers to stay in the classroom instead of leaving for educational administrative jobs or another career. New York’s best private schools tout the lengthy tenure of its teachers in their marketing materials. We need that from our public schools, too.

I recognize that we won’t be able to do everything to revolutionize the educational system, but we need to do something -- now. Our state and our nation are facing an education crisis that runs deep, wide and across all racial and socioeconomic barriers. It seems to me that if you’ve been called to fish the survivors of the Titanic out of the water, you don’t sit there arguing about what color lifeboat they should climb into. You roll up your sleeves and get to work.


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