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Steiner and Tisch: "The times are a'changing" in state ed dept.

New York State education commissioner David Steiner and Board of Regents chancellor Merryl Tisch declared this morning that the state education department is entering a new era.

Speaking to a packed room at the annual meeting of the New York State School Board Members Association, they said that after years of acting as a regulatory body following an outdated curriculum, the department would now focus on innovation.

“We spend an enormous amount of effort regulating districts that frankly would do very well without us,” Tisch said. She said that her goal was to remove as much unnecessary regulations from school districts as possible.

“I would like people to say that we re-invigorated the concept of the state education department, that we re-invented what a state education should be across this state,” Tisch said. “The only way to do that is to restore our integrity. Every chit that takes away from our credibility needs to be addressed.”

Steiner and Tisch sketched out an ambitious vision in which tests are redesigned to assess real knowledge and skills, curricula are updated and technology is more widely incorporated into classrooms and teacher development.

Criticizing the state’s tests, Steiner said they give undue weight to reading and math over other vital subjects like economics and the arts.

“Why are we stuck in a curriculum and assessment system that actually doesn’t respond to the world we live in?” Steiner asked. “These are fundamental questions. And then why can’t we figure out how to do assessments that honor the skills and knowledge that we want to teach?”

Most importantly, Steiner emphasized, teachers need to be better trained, and the best teachers must be sent into the classrooms that need them most. Doing so would be a crucial first step in closing the gap between the academic performance of New York’s neediest students and the wealthiest, he said.

Steiner also elaborated on how the state might incorporate new technologies into both teaching and teacher preparation. He has often spoken of his fondness for using small, inexpensive flip cameras to record teachers-in-training so that instructors can get feedback later from instructors and each other. Today he suggested that the education department might use a similar technique to build a video bank of best practices for teachers.

Tisch also addressed the State Education Department’s organizational restructuring, which the Board of Regents has been steering since before Tisch became chancellor earlier this year.

She acknowledged that given the state’s looming budget cuts, the prospect of restructuring had put department employees on edge. “We take their professional lives very seriously, with the understanding that what exists today is very different from what we want to transform to,” she said.

Steiner added that his goal was to make the work of education department employees more meaningful. “We have to get to a place where their pride is honored by the tasks that are put before them,” he said.

After the panel, Steiner said that meeting school board members from around the state was an essential part of his job as commissioner.

“I love it. I love it. It makes the position less abstract,” he said. He noted that everyone in administrative jobs runs the risk of losing touch. “It’s the real stories from real schools and districts that ground you in reality. And that’s got to happen again and again.”

Steiner has spent his first few weeks on the job busy in these kinds of meetings. The day he was sworn in, he announced that he would go on a “listening tour” around the state. And school board association spokesman David Albert noted that even before Steiner officially took office, he and Tisch traveled to Malone, N.Y. to address a regional meeting of school board members there.

“They’ve been very gracious about spending time with board members,” Albert said.

After the panel ended, crowds circled around both Steiner and Tisch. As one woman walked away from Steiner, she told her companion, “he gives me hope.”

The superintendent of the East Syracuse Minoa Central School District, Donna Desiato, said that she was completely behind Steiner and Tisch’s goals for the state education system.

“Since the early 1990s, there’s been this continued emphasis on regulation and compliance,” she said. “Now we’re moving to innovation and collaboration.”

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