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At Columbia, Walcott says "poisonous debate" is hurting kids

Dennis Walcott at Teachers College.
Dennis Walcott at Teachers College.
Stephanie Snyder

In his first speech since being named chancellor, Dennis Walcott poured on the charm, asking everyone to “dial down the rhetoric” and giving no hints of any new reforms he’s planning.

Walcott spoke at Columbia University’s Teachers College on Saturday morning, filling in for ousted Chancellor Cathie Black, who was originally scheduled to speak as part of the day-long “academic festival.”

While Black quickly gained a reputation for verbal faux pas and blunt remarks, Walcott was warm and light, cracking jokes about his recent high-profile stint making waffles for students — and even jokingly flirting with the namesake of the morning lecture, Phyllis Kossoff.

Walcott’s charm even moved the crowd to applaud the much-maligned Black.

Carefully avoiding new policy announcements, Walcott focused most of his speech on trying to bridge different sides in the reform debate. He told the crowd about his childhood in Queens — noting that he grew up, and attended public schools, in the same borough as ex-Chancellor Joel Klein — and the role that great teachers had in his success.

“Unfortunately that’s not a storyline we hear as often as we should, especially when it comes to education,” Walcott said. “The conversation we hear about is poor versus the wealthy. Charter schools versus district schools. And who is to blame for the failures of our education system.

“People on both sides of this debate have been guilty of contributing to the current polarized atmosphere,” he said.

“The poisonous debate is hurting our children, plain and simple. And they don’t have time to wait for us to grow up,” he continued. “The problems facing our schools are extremely complicated. They can’t be summed up in 10-word sound-bites. And above all they can’t be solved until we start listening and working together.”

Walcott said he wants high-quality schools in the city, regardless of whether they’re traditional public schools or charter schools. “I want options. I love options. … I want people to be able to choose.”

Other highlights from Walcott’s speech:

  • He didn’t distance himself from previous administrations, saying he and Klein talked regularly and were “joined at the hip” — to the point that their wives wonder why they speak to each other so often. But he also talked up his relationship with union leaders, and especially UFT President Michael Mulgrew, as well. (Mulgrew has not exactly welcomed Walcott warmly.)
  • In an interview after Walcott’s speech, Teachers College professor Jeffrey Henig pointed out that Walcott mentioned his relationship with the unions much more than his relationship with Klein. “That was very important and welcome,” Henig said.
  • Walcott acknowledged that the “problems of poverty and education are deeply intertwined.”
  • He also said the “last-in, first-out” policy of seniority-based layoffs can’t be allowed “to remain on the books.” In response to an audience question, he shot down the argument that ending LIFO might result in principals laying off the best-paid teachers, saying — not completely accurately — that the way schools are funded gives principals no particular incentive to do so.
  • Walcott said “the jury is still out” on incentive pay, but indicated he “has some ideas” along those lines that he plans to raise with the union. He said he’s very open to “creative ways of paying our teachers.”
  • He pointedly declined an invitation from a teacher in the audience to visit her charter school in Philadelphia — which is part of the Mastery chain — saying he’ll be busy visiting New York City schools instead. In fact, Walcott said he plans to spend most of his time in the city’s schools—and that the press will need track shoes to keep up with him. “I’m an open book … I’m going to be accessible,” he also said.
  • Despite a conciliatory tone and lack of specifics, Walcott said Mayor Bloomberg’s education reforms aren’t dead and he won’t shy away from them. “I believe in tough decisions,” he said. “I don’t plan for a second to take my foot off the gas.”
  • Henig said that Walcott’s remarks — and the change from his predecessors in tone, style and approach to stakeholders — likely signal that he’ll assume a lower profile on the national level. “To me that’s suggesting, perhaps, a distinction from Chancellor Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee,” Henig said.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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