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State policymaker with a city stake wants to keep networks

A state education policy maker whose name has arisen as a possible contender for chancellor said today that while she thinks Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio should move quickly to change some Bloomberg-era school policies, others are worth keeping.

Kathleen Cashin, a former Department of Education official who now sits on the state Board of Regents, said the new mayor should preserve city schools’ “network” structure of school support while moving quickly to help schools that have many high-need students. She also said the state should be open to changing its approach to teacher evaluation and the Common Core — two initiatives where she has been a dissenting voice in Albany.

In an interview today, Cashin said changing course shouldn’t be seen as a repeal of the reforms and the purpose behind them.

“It’s not a sign of weakness,” she said. “I think it’s a sign of intelligence to revisit some initiatives.”

The comments, made at a small breakfast gathering for principals at the City College of New York’s School of Education this morning, come as New York City prepares for the education policies of the last 12 years to be revised after de Blasio takes over City Hall next month. De Blasio was critical of many of the Bloomberg administration’s school policies on the campaign trail.

Cashin, who supervised schools in de Blasio’s area of Brooklyn, is seen as a possible candidate to head the school system under him. Last month, the Daily News even published an op-ed from one of Cashin’s supporters arguing about why she’d be a good fit for the job.

Cashin declined to comment on the rumors today. But she said that an immediate priority should be establishing a special district for schools with the neediest students, similar to the Chancellor’s District in operation under former schools chief Rudy Crew before Bloomberg took over the schools.

“You can’t wait a year to get something rocking and rolling for the kids that are far behind,” Cashin said.

Cashin had additional advice for the mayor-elect, saying that if de Blasio is successful in securing funding to expand pre-kindergarten access, the department would need to shift quickly toward training people to work in those programs.

“If we do get the pre-K money, I think having a lot of [professional development] so our pre-K’s are second to none,” Cashin said.

But Cashin was not entirely critical of the Bloomberg administration’s school policies. She endorsed the city’s current network structure of school support, saying that it unites principals in a way that had never before been possible under old models, including where she was a regional superintendent. She said a letter in support of the networks, signed by over 100 principals last month, showed that the structure works, “as long as we have a clear chain of command.”

“You know why networks are so important right now? Because they have community and people have been living alone or on their own,” Cashin said.

“It means so much to them to be together,” she added. “I think that’s why they’re objecting to going back to the districts.”

Asking about their experience with their own networks, principals in the audience agreed with Cashin, though they said improvements could be made.

“They step into that gap between policy making and policy fulfillment,” Tammy Pate, principal of Renaissance School of the Arts, who is a part of a network run by the private nonprofit CEI-PEA. Pate said she wants to be able to stay in her network but wants the city to create a better accountability system.

“We’re not sure who’s responsible for what or who has the power to make what decisions,” Pate said.

One area where she said she would appreciate the help of an empowered superintendent, rather than a network leader, is with enrollment. Over 40 percent of her students have disabilities, a rate so high that a former high school superintendent at the event, Joyce Coppin, said she would have never tolerated it had she been in charge.

“A superintendent who had the authority and power to say I have to inspect equity in the district is something that would be the most amazing occurrence,” Pate said.

In her talk to the principals, Cashin emphasized the need for equity and social and emotional support for high need students. Too much of a teacher’s evaluation, 40 percent, is based on student learning when she said so much of that outcome is based on a student’s personal life. She said she thought closer to ten percent should be attributed to a teacher.

She also said the state should change how it’s implementing the Common Core, learning standards that the state adopted last year. She has been asking the state to create an independent committee of teachers to review and amend the state’s Common Core-aligned curriculum materials.