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In first policy speech, Walcott to focus on moving "the middle"

Since becoming chancellor in April, Dennis Walcott has made many public appearances but few policy pronouncements.

That’s set to change tomorrow morning, when Walcott is set to deliver the first policy address of his tenure, a speech at New York University titled “Why We Can’t Rest: How To Move the Middle.”

The city is mum on what exactly the speech will be about, but it’s clear that Walcott has spent some time talking about middle schools in the last week. On Thursday, he met with roughly a dozen principals of high-scoring middle schools — both district-run and charter — to ask them a question that has long bedeviled educators and policymakers: How to curb the performance drop-off that takes place after students leave elementary school.

The 2011 state test scores released last month told a familiar story: Middle school students scored proficient at a far lower rate than students in the elementary grades.

“We still need to increase our focus on those years,” Walcott said at the time.

It wouldn’t be the first time that the city has made improving middle schools a priority. In 2007, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn convened a task force on middle schools and brought on Pedro Noguera, an NYU professor, as its chair. When its recommendations came out, Mayor Bloomberg announced that he would follow several of them, pitching in $5 million a year for 51 low-performing middle schools and appointing a DOE official to focus only on middle schools.

Four years later, the school where Bloomberg made the announcement, M.S. 44 in Manhattan, has closed because of poor performance. The middle schools czar left within a year, and the 51 schools have seen their budgets wither during three straight years of citywide cuts. And performance hasn’t improved.

But the annual funding is still in the DOE’s budget and hasn’t been allocated for this year, according to Carol Boyd, who met with Walcott last week when he sat down with members of the Coalition for Educational Justice, which has long raised the alarm about failing middle schools. She said Walcott was tight-lipped about plans to improve middle schools but suggested — as CEJ has — that simply giving principals of struggling middle schools an extra $100,000 a year to use as they please hasn’t paid off.

“Instead of just doing that in lean times and times of accountability, they want to make sure it’s more targeted,” Boyd said. “That’s the best I could ascertain.”

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