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Steiner's challenge: how to make big change from little money

David Steiner is making raising standards and the overhaul of teacher preparation his major goals as education commissioner. But his ambitious agenda for reform may be slowed by a grim financial climate and a large, unwieldy bureaucracy, education leaders said in interviews last week.

Steiner, who was sworn in as commissioner of the New York State Education Department last Thursday, has long argued for making the teacher certification process more rigorous and for adding more in-the-classroom experience for teachers in training.

In his first moments in office, he acknowledged that he has a difficult mandate. But he also pointed to circumstances that he said would help push his agenda forward.

“A lot of powerful forces are coming together,” Steiner told reporters. He noted that the state Board of Regents and the federal government seem to be aligned in a strong commitment to raising academic standards and that he thought parents were becoming more committed to their children’s education than ever before.

“So while this is a very challenging moment, fiscally and otherwise, it’s also a moment of extraordinary opportunity,” he said.

Observers and stakeholders around the state also emphasized the moment of opportunity.

“What’s exciting now is that there’s a pause to think,” said Maria Neira, vice president of the New York State Union of Teachers. “The system has moved along and after a while you do things the way you’re used to doing them. Now you’re taking the automatic pilot off.”

Neira, along with NYSUT president Richard Ianuzzi, met with Steiner on Friday morning. Neira said she came away from the meeting optimistic that Steiner will involve teachers at the policy-making level in a way they have rarely been involved.

Neira also said she was encouraged by the hands-on, in-the-classroom clinical approach to teacher training that Steiner has pioneered, both in his most recent position as dean of the Hunter College Dean of Education and before.

“But the challenge is, how do you scale that up?” she said. “The conversations we’ve had have not been in the operational pieces of it, but rather in the overall view.”

Steiner has made it clear in the months since he was elected commissioner that he intends to focus on improving teacher quality and training.

Sandi Jacobs, vice-president for policy at the National Council on Teacher Quality, said that in New York, Steiner has his work cut out for him. The Council grades each state on their policies to retain high-quality new teachers. Last year, it gave New York a D. The Council particularly criticized New York’s teacher evaluation system, which it said does not sufficiently incorporate information about how effective a teacher is, and the pay and benefits system, which it said disadvantages new teachers.

Jacobs said that momentum around the country is building towards an overhaul of the way teachers are trained and certified, pointing out that Texas and Indiana have recently passed legislation changing their teacher preparation programs.

“If you make big changes in New York, just because of the sheer number of students there, you’ll see a significant impact around the country,” Jacobs said. “It’s exciting for a real reformer to take the reins.”

But Jacobs cautioned that much of the real impetus for reform will likely have to come from the state legislature.

Another possible impediment to drastic change could be teacher’s colleges’ reluctance to reform quickly. “Higher ed is a very effective lobby, and this is not new ground for them,” Jacobs said. She said that the degree to which education colleges will throw political weight behind preserving the current teacher training system is unclear, but other observers have suggested that the schools are likely to strongly resist drastic change.

Several observers also noted that the state fiscal crisis will likely tie Steiner’s hands in his reform efforts. Steiner acknowledged last week that one of his biggest challenges will be “to do less with more.”

Timothy Kremer, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, noted that the vast majority of school districts around the state are dependent on a declining property tax base. Steiner may have yet to realize how much that could tie his hands, Kremer said.

“I represent 680 school districts, and none of them are like New York City,” Kremer said. “I hope he’s ambitious. But you also have to respect what happens locally.”

Budget constraints will also make the state heavily dependent on federal assistance, several stakeholders observed, and so the pressure to bring New York policies in line with the priorities of the Obama administration will be heavy.

“His challenge will be, how do I take this and make sure that it’s good for New York and not just done because the federal government says so,” Neira said.

At Steiner’s swearing-in ceremony last week, Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tish said that his challenge will be to change the state department of education from a “regulatory bureaucracy” to a “repository of best practices.” Steiner’s appointment comes as the state education department is launching an internal restructuring, geared towards making the department more oriented to providing services to support school improvement.

Several observers noted that peeling the unwieldy bureaucracy away from the state education department may be one of Steiner’s most difficult tasks.

“He’s got a department that is going through a lot of changes,” Kremer said. He noted that there are several other new faces at high levels of the department, including Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, who was elected in March, and new deputy commissioner John King.

Kremer said that handling such a large department in a time of transition could prove difficult for Steiner, whose background is in academia, not management. “He’s taking on an agency that is going to need a lot of help,” he said.

Steiner has also drawn some immediate criticism for comments on New York’s charter school cap that he made on the day he was sworn in.

“A cap is a way of saying, let’s not just go mindlessly into the future,” Steiner said, adding that he thought this was the correct path forward. Critics quickly pointed out that the state could be close to hitting the ceiling on the number of charter schools and that eliminating charter school caps is one of the requirements for eligibility for the next round of education stimulus funds.

But Frederick Hess, who directs education programs at the American Enterprise Institute, said that Steiner’s work with charter school networks such as KIPP and Achievement First at Hunter College has given him credibility within the charter school movement as a reformer.

Hess said that Steiner will almost certainly handle any challenge in a diplomatic and thoughtful fashion, but that observers can also prepare to be surprised by him.

“There are always situations where you don’t know where he’s going to draw the lines in the sand,” he said.

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