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The Last Best Hope?

Amidst the shouting, recriminating and celebrating attending Dennis Walcott’s designation as chancellor, even a keen follower of education politics could have missed the news that New York State Education Commissioner David Steiner is stepping down. Steiner cut a low profile in the mass media, so it’s ironic, yet consistent, that his announcement and its implications provoked little discussion in the broader ed reform community.

Steiner struck me as a man with a long-term vision of what it means to be educated, something glaringly absent from the reform debate. At a sparsely attended talk on the Upper East Side last October, Steiner asked how we expect to make the long journey to a “better educated” student population without a detailed map for the trip. Last weekend, speaking at a state teachers union event, Steiner reflected on his tenure, pointing out that if we want to develop such a vision “we do not start by yelling at each other.”

Unnamed “education insiders” say Steiner’s “superstar” deputy, John King, has the inside track. King’s prior work draws hosannas, but his career doesn’t suggest he’s a visionary in Steiner’s mold.

When I heard Steiner speak last fall, we were in the midst of being bombarded with the news that Davis Guggenheim had “cracked the code” in “Waiting for ‘Superman.'” I was fighting apocalyptic thoughts after the New York Times profiled a new middle school suggesting that having failed to engage teenagers, our only option is to have them play video games. And we learned that the average Atheist knows way more about the Bible than the average Christian. A friend neatly captured my concerns when he said, “I weep for the Republic.”

In an essay accompanying his profile of a Bronx middle school this past weekend, Jonathan Mahler neatly channeled Steiner. We shout that only class size matters or the key is accountability, or we need more school days, or we must focus on teacher quality, or grant more charters. As Henry Longfellow wrote (and Barry Manilow made popular), we’re like ships that pass in the night, “only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.” Our current ‘debate’ is not some Hegelian dialectic leading to a vision for the future; it’s a twisted mashup of Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow, a tale “full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing.”

Back in October I foolishly hoped Steiner would bring some balance to these debates. He noted that the vitriol we pour on those with whom we disagree is unique to American “discourse.” In no other country, he posited, is the debate so polarized. As commenters on GothamSchools often fail to recognize, ed reform is not a case where one side is “right” and one is “wrong.” One edu-pundit noted that when you’re told that “research proves” something absolutely, it probably doesn’t.

But in denouncing absolutist positions (“it’s all the union’s fault,” “We’re teaching to the test,” “Charters are privatizing education”), Steiner did not reject the existence of core beliefs, central to success of school reform. Most importantly, he said, we must establish the content we expect kids to know, and teach them the skills needed to acquire it. (And no, these are not “21st-Century” skills; they’ve been around forever). Steiner pointed out that if kids aren’t taught to read or add properly and no one ever checks if they can, encountering Hamlet’s lament:

… that the Everlasting had not fix’d His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!

they’ll only wonder why the troubled prince is talking about artillery pieces. We need to set specific content goals, Steiner argued; if you don’t know where you’re going, how do you know if you’ve arrived? Absent content, all the structure and accountability in the world doesn’t lead to better educated kids.

Steiner said the average ninth-grader in New York reads at a sixth-grade level. From this statistic he drew a line to France, a country long out of vogue for Americans seeking examples of excellence. To graduate from high school there, he said, students must complete an essay, written by hand over four hours, on the topic of whether one can truly know one’s self. Americans well might chuckle at the topic, and make jokes about Camus or Sartre. But do we honestly think the reform path we’re on is anywhere close to enabling the average New York high school graduate to write a free-form essay on any topic, let alone philosophy?

For our most vulnerable children to succeed reformers must put a stake in the ground for content; whether they chose William Shakespeare, Wole Soyinka or William Saroyan, there are many great writers and our children should be able to read their works and place them in context. They need to add and subtract quickly, and make sense of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. Knowledge evolves (think Copernicus) but much of what is important to successful participation in a democracy is fixed in the short run. It’s just unconscionable that we don’t make more than the slightest effort to agree on delivering critical content, especially to our most needy students.

Let me shift the discussion for a moment from the lofty precincts of Albany to my wife’s middle school in East Harlem. Pushed by waves of revolt from Tripoli to Sana, three Yemeni girls in head scarves arrive in mid-March. They know nothing of “Waiting for ‘Superman,'” Dennis Walcott, teachers unions or any of our shibboleths. Bewildered in their classroom these newest Americans-to-be are not looking to construct their “version of knowledge.” They desperately need a school that can say, “welcome to America kids, here’s the deal,” and lay out a fact-based, consistent, vision of what it means to be educated and make something of themselves in their loud, confusing and increasingly fractious country.

A friend asked, “Why do you care about all this?” My stake is the same as all New Yorkers’: A school system that serves most students poorly will destroy my home town. As an employer I won’t find good people to hire, as a citizen I won’t have compatriots to share the burden of governing, and as a human being, I hand off a world far poorer intellectually to my children.

Given our current level of education discourse I’d stake those Yemeni girls less than even odds. But New Yorkers love a come-from-behind story, and if last week’s resignations prod politicians to examine their dogmas, something good may yet come of all this.

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.