David Steiner
David Steiner. Photo courtesy of state education department.

For years, one pesky paper has stalked David Steiner, the man elected New York’s education commissioner this morning. The paper, published in 2003, while he was a professor at Boston University, attacked education graduate schools as intellectually weak and ideologically slanted, marking Steiner as a brave “maverick” among those critical of traditional teacher education — and enemy no. 1 among those who defend it.

Steiner, who was raised in England but was born in America and spent one year at P.S. 41 on West 11th Street, has shrugged off the to-do in the years since. He kept a reasonably modest profile as dean of CUNY’s Hunter College School of Education for the last four years. In conversations, he calmly insists that there is a middle ground in the fierce debate about how to improve public schools.

But the paper that marked him also foreshadows some of the innovations he has tested out at Hunter and the thinking he might bring to the state Education Department, where he is set to become commissioner Oct. 1, replacing Richard Mills, who announced his intention to retire last year. Mills had served in the position since 1995.

The position means Steiner will run the state Education Department, the large bureaucratic organization that enacts education policy set by the state Board of Regents and oversees both universities and public primary schools.

At Hunter, Steiner pioneered the use of tiny Flip cameras to improve teacher instruction by having all teachers in training at Hunter videotape their lessons — and then scrutinize them for do’s and don’ts. Presenting the paper at a conference, Steiner said that “perhaps most shocking” was the fact that just three of the 16 schools he studied used video- or audio-tape in instructing on teaching methods, according to a report by Education Week.

He has also joined with three charter school operators, Teach For America, and the city Department of Education to remake teacher training from the ground up, at a new initiative called Teacher U, where teachers will not receive certification unless they pass certain benchmarks.

Another partnership, which Steiner launched with the nonprofit New Visions for Public Schools and is beginning right now, is bringing the first teacher residency program to New York City, installing 23 teachers in classrooms where they work alongside a master teacher to learn the craft.

The program is funded with a mix of a federal Department of Education grant and private dollars, Robert Hughes, the president of New Visions said.

Hughes praised the Board of Regents’ selection. “I think the biggest changes in education will come if we focus on the small changes that need to happen to ensure that more kids are effective in the classes they’re in,” Hughes said. “David just gets that to his core, it’s intuitive for him.”

Frederick Hess, who directs education programs at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, which hosted the conference where Steiner’s controversial paper was first presented, said the experience made Steiner a stronger leader.

“It’s a formative experience,” Hess said. “Every time somebody winds up in a position of authority of authority who has been raked over the coals and personally attacked by the conventional powers that be — they’re certainly going to be less deferential, and more open to rethinking business.”

At a press conference this afternoon, Steiner said he plans to study everything from the rate of teacher certification across state education schools to the issue of teacher tenure to the question of raising academic standards when he takes over on Oct. 1.

“New York has consistently led the nation in raising academic standards, and it may well be time to do it again,” Steiner said.

He also targeted the state’s 92% average passing rate on a teacher certification test, which state schools chancellor Merryl Tisch highlighted in a recent Daily News op/ed. “Now, we have extraordinary teachers in New York, don’t misunderstand me,” he said. “Nevertheless, it seems to me that a gateway certification test that has that high a pass rate should give us pause, and we need to take a look at that.”

Steiner called the role of teacher tenure “an extremely complicated question” that should be addressed by administrators and teachers together. “We’re going to be thinking about this in the long term,” he said. “For the moment, I’m going to say, ‘Let’s take some time on this issue.’”

Asked how the state can pay for the overhaul he is outlining in this tough budget climate, Steiner replied, “I think we have a lot of opportunity to rethink our approach, and thinking, fortunately, is free.”

Joe Williams, the executive director of the lobbying group Democrats for Education Reform, said Steiner’s main test will be “whether he can tame the out-of-control SED bureaucracy.” “You’ve got to be a pit bull,” Williams said.

Steiner, who also formerly served as director of arts education at the National Endowment for the Arts after leaving Boston University, said he plans to push for arts education. Steiner’s father, George, is the prominent cultural critic who contributed to the New Yorker for many years.

A group of New York education leaders issued a statement praising Steiner’s selection today, as did the president of the state school boards association. The first statement is below:

July 27, 2009 (ALBANY, NY) – A coalition of education leaders issued a statement today on the appointment of Dean David M. Steiner as New York State Education Commissioner.

“We applaud the selection of David Steiner as Commissioner of Education.  Commissioner Steiner is an accomplished educator who throughout his career has sought – and found – fresh answers to some of the most difficult issues we face in education.

“David Steiner knows that New York must streamline and increase state standards, dramatically improve teacher training and support, upgrade the capacity to use data to improve results, openly and intelligently embrace innovation and work to ensure that the State Education Department is ready, willing and able to clear the path for great schools and the teachers and leaders in them.  Steiner is a strong, visionary leader who will unite all of us that care about public education and he will inspire by example.

“As dean of one of the most respected schools of education, he has sought innovative solutions to improving the quality of teachers in the classroom, recognizing the absolute and critical link between quality teachers and student achievement. We are confident he will bring this same energy and commitment to all the challenges that he will confront as our state’s chief education officer.

“We congratulate Chancellor Tisch and the Board of Regents for their bold and wise choice.  With Commissioner Steiner at the helm, New York is better positioned to not only compete for much needed federal education funds, but in the longer term to realize the vision of educational excellence that parents and President Obama have challenged us to achieve.”
The statement was signed by:
* Geoffrey Canada, President and CEO, Harlem Children’s Zone
* Robert L. Hughes, President, New Visions for Public Schools
* James Merriman, Chief Executive Officer, New York City Charter School Center
* Ariela Rozman, Chief Executive Officer, The New Teacher Project
* Jemina Bernard, Executive Director, Teach for America – New York
* Joe Williams, Executive Director, Democrats for Education Reform
* Bill Phillips, President, New York Charter Schools Association
* Sy Fliegel, President, CEI-PEA
* David Umansky, Chief Executive Officer, Civic Builders
* Luis Miranda
* Richard A. Berlin, Executive Director, Harlem RBI