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Steiner’s Paper Trail

This past week, David Steiner sparked considerable controversy when he expressed skepticism about lifting the charter-school cap. Steiner made his offhand comments after being sworn in as New York State’s 13th Commissioner of Education.

After this controversy blows over, more may be on the horizon. The controversy will come because Steiner is such an atypical appointee. At a time when cautious appointers crave candidates who leave no trace, Steiner — a first-rate intellectual with an iconoclastic mind — has quite the paper trail and a healthy measure of provocative ideas.

Steiner reminds me, in some respects, of a mannerly version of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. This is not a political statement; politics or ideology is not what animates Steiner. But like Scalia, Steiner is a voluminous and gifted writer with a distinctive voice, strongly held views, and a talent for penning a memorable phrase — and he often is the smartest guy in the room.

Steiner attended Perse School for Boys, an English boarding school, and later Balliol College at Oxford University and then Harvard. Although Steiner claims he was not schooled by his Cambridge professor parents, his household backdrop was an intensely intellectual one, with a Broadband piano that once graced Charles Darwin’s home off to the side, walls of books, stimulating travel throughout Europe, and dinner guests defending themselves, in Steiner’s words, “against rapier-like animadversions.”

Plopping the likes of Steiner into Albany’s political swamp is certainly one of state Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch’s boldest plays.

What can we tell about Commissioner Steiner’s views from his pre-appointment writings? A lot. Consider just four issues:

Core Curriculum: Perhaps Steiner’s biggest beef is the current “everything goes” approach to education, which he views “as a retreat from judgment in American education.” Steiner, a big fan of teaching the traditional canon, has criticized loose general-education requirements that “resemble shopping malls, where Chinese, Italian, German, Japanese, and Burger King ‘restaurants’ offer students academic food that strangely tastes more and more the same.” He notes: “[T]here is a world of difference between mindless wanderings and informed intellectual adventure.” Not the language of a bureaucrat.

Assessments: Steiner has criticized state and national assessments that focus too narrowly and overuse multiple-choice questions.

But he is not anti-testing. In Steiner’s words: “[T]he problem is not assessment per se: the argument that children’s learning should not be regularly tested and the results used to inform differentiated instruction is like maintaining that doctors should not use thermometers to determine if a patient is sick.”

Steiner, however, does oppose the “exclusive use of high-stakes multiple-choice tests in the humanities, social sciences, an even the science and mathematics,” and terms them “a poor if not damaging educational strategy.”

Steiner also favors terminal high-school exams that test college-readiness, citing the national “A-level” examinations in England where he was educated.

Equity: Steiner has been critical about what he terms “warehouse schooling for the poor.” Steiner has noted that the desire of some parents for neighborhood schools is “actually fairly transparent code for a desire that their children be educated in a social milieu that maximizes the hierarchical possibilities for wealthy families and rationalizes the minimum opportunities for the poorer families.”

Pedagogy: Steiner has criticized the one-side pedagogical focus of many education schools, which favor a progressive “child-centered” or “constructivist” approach.

In his words: “Educating children through constructivism for a system of tests designed around the back to basics agenda cannot represent an effective design for success. Ours may be the only country in which teachers are academically prepared to embrace exactly that set of pedagogic beliefs that our public education officials believe to be most damaging of student learning.” Well, that cuts to the core!

I can’t wait to watch the erudite Steiner fielding dumb questions at state legislative budget hearings. Perhaps it will invigorate his passion for raising the quality of education in New York.

I have no doubt David Steiner is ready for his new position as state education commissioner. But, is Albany quite ready for David Steiner?

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