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New State Education Commissioner: A Breath of Fresh Air

The choice of David M. Steiner as New York State’s new education commissioner could mark a new direction in school policies.

Dr. Steiner, the Dean of the School of Education at Hunter College, is positioned to change the policies that have been very rewarding to politicians and school boards, but have shortchanged children in our state.

New York, like many other states, has been engaging in wholesale grade inflation of standardized tests. This is driven by the constant pressure of making “annual yearly progress” to conform with the federal “No Child Left Behind Law,” which demands the impossible result of all students performing at grade level by 2014.

Since we are dealing with human children, this is a highly unlikely outcome. And since the federal government foolishly allowed the states to set their own standards, many states, including ours, have engaged in what can only be described as deceptive practices: making the tests easier, changing the scoring scale to provide better results, and in some cases both.

Politicians love higher scores because they imply higher student performance that reflects well on them. Much of Mayor Bloomberg’s advertising campaign hinges on these soaring scores. But inflated scores don’t mean our children are any smarter.

The fact that New York’s scores have not aligned with the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP tests — scores rising on the state tests while the federal counterpart is flat — is a dead giveaway that something is wrong. Dr. Steiner’s predecessor, Richard Mills, was an unabashed apologist for the inflated state tests, a position that the Board of Regents apparently no longer could condone, paving the way for Mills’ exit.

When the last round of state test results were released this spring, Meryl Tisch, the Chancellor of the Board of Regents, offered repeated words of caution about these scores, much to her credit.

Now the other shoe has dropped.

In choosing Dr. Steiner, I believe that the Regents are sending a clear signal that they expect a new era of rigorous instruction. High standards are what David Steiner is all about.

Dr. Steiner first came to my attention some years back through an article he co-authored critical of the curricula of major schools of education responsible for the training of our teachers. While those schools heavily stress the writings of “social justice” advocates like Jonathan Kozol, casting the students as victims of underfunded schools and all manner of societal ills, Dr. Steiner wondered where the instruction of actual teaching methods and content had gone. Where, for instance, are the ideas of E.D. Hirsch, Jr., who advocates for rich and systemic content instruction throughout our children’s academic careers?

This article, widely quoted, made David Steiner, then an Associate Professor of Education at Boston University, a fresh voice in the tired educational establishment.

Having served as Director of Arts Education at the National Endowment for the Arts, he established a reputation as an advocate for providing students a rich and deep curriculum. As an advocate for the teaching of literature, music, and art, as well as the “tested” subjects of reading and math, he recognized that it is the content of the instruction that makes academic skills worth acquiring.

I suspect that it is inconceivable that Dr. Steiner will permit the continuation of the wink-and-a-nod lip service that school districts in New York pay to arts education in violation of the state guidelines.

As Dr. Steiner has written, commenting on the television program “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader,” “our children are too often deprived of the experience of immersing themselves, losing themselves in creations of complexity, imagination and beauty.”

He draws the distinction between possessing just facts such as knowing that Poseidon was a god in the literature of the ancient Greeks, in itself “useless in promoting economic well-being,” and the actual study of the poetry of Homer and Virgil, noting that “to have these verses as constant companions is to know something a 5th grader does not: to hold beauty in the mind, and to swirl it in the glass of delight.”

If he can fill our children’s glasses with real knowledge, and demand the tough standards that will prepare students to compete in the global marketplace, he will bring a most refreshing change to the schools of the Empire State.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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