On the heels of Tuesday's announcement that New York receive $700 million in Race to the Top Funds, WNYC's Beth Fertig spoke with State Education Commissioner David Steiner and Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch about how the funds will be used.
WNYC: This money is not supposed to be plugging the gap that we hear about in the state’s education expenses.
STEINER: That’s correct. This money is dedicated to specific education reforms. Primarily the following areas. First, turning around lowest performing schools. Absolutely critical, it’s a moral dilemma that we face and we’ve got to solve for our students. Second, the preparation and support of outstanding teachers and principals, from the moment that they enter their training programs in preparation, to their entire professional careers. Third, providing our teachers and principals and parents and districts with world-class data systems so that we know in real time what is being done in the classroom, what’s working, what isn’t working, what needs to be changed. And, beyond that, working on our assessments and curriculum, so that the materials that teachers share with children really do prepare them for further education for university, college, and the workplace, and the assessments give us an accurate reading of how those students are doing.
I want to ask you about that because recently we saw that the assessments were not accurate when you recalibrated the pass rate for the state exams and suddenly the percentage of students meeting proficiency in math and reading fell dramatically. So I guess my question is how do you propose raising the bar and assuring that more students pass? In your proposal for how to spend this money you’ve said that you want to raise the scores for math and reading on the national exams by 10 to 13 points and that sounds very ambitious when only about a third of the city’s fourth graders, or a third of the state’s fourth graders, are reading at the proficiency standard. So how are you going to move that many children?
STEINER: I think it’s primarily about two things, though many other factors enter into it. Number one, we want to be the first major state in the country to have an integrated year by year month by month curriculum. Because we have more variation from school to school, district to district, than we can handle. It’s a fragmented system, we will make it unified. Secondly, we cannot just prepare teachers in an academic textbook way and abandon them once they enter the schools. We need a full program of clinical preparation and then continued support for those teachers and, above all, making sure that their preparation and their curriculum line up against the new common core standards. And that then they’re held accountable in a reasonable, but accurate way, for their performance. I think, in short, for the first time, we have that critical triangle of curriculum, assessment, and accountability, lined up for the sake of moving the performance of every student.
What will that look like for students and for teachers in classrooms?
TISCH: Generally, I think what it will look like is we’re going to ask that teachers be professionally developed around a common curriculum. And so teachers will know what to teach and what the standards are, rather than our 700 districts across New York State writing their own curriculum. And it just seems to me that teachers have been asking for this in New York State for 20 years! So it’s very common sense and frankly is one thing that the teachers union was way out ahead in front of all other education reformers in this state in actually seeking a statewide curriculum.
Can you talk about the role of teacher preparation because I know that you’d like to have other ways of developing teachers and training them and the principals as well. So what’s going to change with that?
TISCH: Let me say that a year ago David Steiner was hired to be commissioner in New York State and we interviewed a lot of people, but the reason David Steiner was hired to be commissioner is, first of all, he’s a wonderful man with enormous integrity and great capacity in education reform. But it is no accident that he is a national leader in teacher preparation, and so we knew across New York State…
Because of his role at Hunter College?
TISCH: Absolutely. Because of his role at Hunter College and because how his work in teacher preparation has been recognized nationally. We knew in New York State that in order to take reform and student progress to the next level, we were going to have to have a very critical look in how teachers come into the system from their beginning entry point to how they ultimately achieve their teacher certification, which they get, their permanent certification, at the end of five years. And that is the window of opportunity that Commissioner Steiner is looking to redefine.
STEINER: I would say that the critical mission here is to shift the emphasis for all teacher preparation programs and all principal preparation programs from learning by textbook, and often textbooks frankly that have little to do with the skills you need in the real classrooms of today, to the practice on the ground supervised by master teachers, supervised by people who’ve made getting good results their life blood. And then, having assessments that instead of being paper and pencil tests, that frankly well over 90 percent of all candidates continually pass, to shifting to an assessment that is skills-based and that for professional certification which as the chancellor just said, is the gateway to a lifetime of professional teaching, that that credential for professional certification be based, in part, on showing that you’ve achieved student growth and academic results.
TISCH: This is a very complicated drill, because we are asking schools of education to rethink what they do. And we’re going to use alternative models to schools of education. Some people are even saying to us, what you’re really doing is starting charter schools in terms of professional development of teachers. And perhaps that is the way to look at it. We need to find alternative pathways to reignite the capacity of schools of education to be focused on where our needs are. And our needs have been the same for 40, 50 years. There are shortages in special education. There are shortages in bilingual education. There are shortages of people who can teach science, math and technology. We need to change the equation, and that’s what this is.
There’s a huge emphasis now on evaluating teachers and, in your proposal and the legislation that was passed, 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation will eventually consist of test scores. And yet you’ve left the actual implementation of that to the local districts and I’m wondering if you’re thinking that it may be very hard to get the districts to agree on the exact evaluation system for these teachers because it’s still a little vague.
STEINER: Let me be very accurate here: 40 points out of 100 go to academic performance of students. Out of that, 20 and eventually 25 points are based on state tests, so that is not locally negotiated. The balance of the 40 points is indeed locally negotiated, but subject to commissioner’s regulations that are in turn, governed by the Board of Regents. So this is not a free for all. This is a set of responsibilities at the local level that will be constrained that we at the department and the Board of Regents will lay out.
TISCH: And Race to the Top, frankly, gives us the opportunity to incentivize districts to negotiate at the local level on these evaluation systems and I think Race to the Top not only gave us the platform from which to kind of build this, but actually gives us the dollars to kind of force the implementation through the pipeline.
You’re proposing to spend $60 million on creating a new statewide data system for tracking the progress of students from prekindergarten through college. And you’ve based this largely on a system that’s already being used here in New York City, which generated a lot of complaints and had a lot of bumps when it was rolled out, in terms of teachers feeling like they weren’t prepared to use it, or they didn’t think it was useful. How do you think you’re going to design a system based on that model when you’ve already seen problems in New York City and mixed opinions?
TISCH: Well across the country there’ve been a number of models that have been successful. There’s the model in Colorado that people are talking about. There’s the model in New York City that people are talking about. The city is actually looking to this as an opportunity, frankly, to take what they’ve done and move it to the next generation. This is a very complicated system to build and I think if you ask Joel Klein what his next level of challenge will be, his challenge is frankly to work on working out the kinks. And together we’re going to learn from what happened in New York City and with the help of New York City, build it out so that it has a statewide applicability.
New York City never achieved the kind of social media function of teachers sharing information that you’re proposing to do in this statewide system. So do you see that as an obstacle and you may have to scale back your goals?
STEINER: No, and I think what we can take advantage of is precisely the experience here and elsewhere that is behind us now. So for example, one of the critical components of reform here have been the inquiry teams at the school level. They’ve had their kinks too. They’ve been working out some issues and we absolutely want to learn from that. I think in many ways the good fortune here is that this funding has come at a moment when as we might put it, we’re moving to the 2.0 model of reform. New York City took courageous leadership in putting in place systems of data and school reform that frankly had no track record in the past. They had to invent this. They had to take those risks. They’ve learnt some lessons, they’ve taken some knocks. But by in large, they have made real progress, and we can take advantage of that and we can hand to them now an opportunity to take what they’ve done and move it to the next level as well.
What do you say to skeptics who say: does this amount to throwing more money at an intractable problem? The state, through the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit, ended up spending billions more on education, although it never committed to spending the entire amount because of the deficit. And yet, test scores are still languishing, there are still problems in education. How do we know that this $700 million is really going to be useful?
STEINER: I think the blunt answer to that, frankly, is that when you write large checks of a generic kind, that are not focused on things that you can hold yourself accountable for, measure, and not focused on the inputs that research shows actually make a difference, you’re unlikely to make a major move. So that I think the transformation is that we’ve looked not just nationally, but internationally, at what the research tells us, and it tells us that every country in the world that is making serious progress in education focuses on two things above all else: selecting and training the best possible teachers from the labor force that they can find, and providing those teachers with the professional development and the curriculum that children need.
TISCH: I want to add to that. There’s also something else. We’re purchasing a few big ticket items that are going to be in place for generations. A data system is an expensive item. It will be in place. Developing a statewide curriculum is not, as David says, a two-minute drill. It is something that will be in place. These are expensive things to develop, so there are actually going to be tangible purchased goods that will just permeate through the system for a generation. And that I think is different than other federal dollars that have been spent before, where there was nothing really tangible. You tried a little bit of this, you tried a little bit of that. Money flew through this title, through that title. Here we are being given the opportunity to buy real goods and I think that’s significant.
But these are goods that some people would say are still untested. These are reforms that are still being tried.
TISCH: Yes, that is true. But in New York State we have the opportunity to build on the experience of the largest school district [New York City], which houses two-thirds of the kids in need, and 40 percent of the teaching force, which has already experimented with this on a very large scale. So we can learn from that experiment, improve on it, and move it forward. You know, no big system works day one to perfection. But that doesn’t mean that you walk away from it because the tool that is, how it informs instruction, how it helps teachers, how it helps in the evaluation of an entire system, I don’t think anyone denies.
Will $700 million be enough at a time when the state is cutting its own budget? Will the state be able to commit its own resources to make this happen?
STEINER: Look, we can always use more dollars. The fact of the matter is that we spend over $17,000 a child in the public school system in this state. You know, well over $50 billion a year. I think that the first thing we have to do, and maybe the last thing we have to do, is make sure the money is well spent. I think that if we could assure ourselves that every teacher had the training she needed to be effective, every school had curriculum that would take their students to college and career readiness, if we had the data systems in place, then this particular money will genuinely be well spent.
Transcript prepared by Gotham Schools.