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Q&A: David Steiner aims again for nonpartisan education policy

Two years removed from his post as New York State’s schools chief, David Steiner is back in his old office with his old job. But Albany gave Steiner, serving a second stint as dean of Hunter College’s School of Education, a vision for how education policy can and should be shaped.

That vision is coming into fruition today with the formal launch of the CUNY Institute for Education Policy, a nonpartisan think tank that Steiner is directing.

In an exclusive interview, Steiner described his vision for a one-stop shop for policy makers to seek guidance, education leaders to settle disputes, and reporters and members of the public to get the straight story about education policies. Speaking in his corner office at Hunter’s Lenox Hill campus, Steiner spoke carefully about the lessons he learned in Albany during a transformative tenure that included the overhaul of state tests, the adoption of Common Core Standards, and an ultimately successful bid for federal Race to the Top funding. And he shared insights about the craft of teaching and the challenge of being non-partisan in a highly polarized climate.

What makes a great teacher?

I saw it very recently at NEST+M [an ultra-selective school in Manhattan]. We actually had a visit from [AFT President] Randi Weingarten when I was there and she was rightly just taken by the extraordinary quality of the teaching that she saw.

It’s a combination of the passion for your subject, passion for communicating it; an awareness of every child in front of you, of their attentiveness, ease and unuease of the material that you’re sharing with them. There’s almost a sixth sense there of differentiating one’s attention without appearing to.

When did you get the idea to start an education policy institute at CUNY?

I think it really started when I was coming to the close of my commissionership and I was considering options about what would come next. I realized that I wanted to remain involved in the pragmatics of education policy. I didn’t want to simply come back and work only on the issue I’m passionate about, which is teacher preparation, principal preparation. I didn’t want to let go of what I had been absorbed in for the previous two years.


Not only did CUNY, as the nation’s largest public urban university, not have a go-to place for debate, research, policy discussion of education but, actually, there was no obvious go-to place in New York City that was an institution solely devoted to discussion of PK-20 education policy.

And I wanted very strongly to be non-aligned [ideologically]. That’s tricky because funding in this country for institutes tends to be easier to achieve if you can say to funders, “I stand for this point of view.”

Being very firm that we want to be a pragmatic center that looks at policy recommendations, policy as executed based on its merits and not on whether it’s the darling child of the left or the right or that it happens to be the idea of the day for management or for unions or for any other group, is not easy from a funding perspective.

CUNY, by definition, is politically non-aligned. It is a public university in the public service. It’s enormous. Many folks don’t realize that if you put the full-time and part-time students together, you have almost a half a million students. Therefore to have a center for the discussion of public education issues for a major great urban university makes every sense.

How do you respond to those who say it’s not possible for you to be nonpartisan, given the reforms enacted under your leadership as commissioner?

I think if you look at the record, people would have a hard time saying, “You obviously fit into this camp.”

For example, it’s absolutely true that I was working with the chancellor and the Board of Regents, rightly, on issues of teacher evaluations, which were part of Race to the Top, and part of what we put in practice and remain controversial.

At the same time, I pushed very hard to include funding for curriculum in our Race to the Top application, which to the best of my knowledge, no other state did. The reason I did that is that I was convinced then — and I am convinced now — that without content-rich sequenced curriculum, standards and evaluation aren’t going to get the job done. It is not only how you teach something or how effectively you teach something, but what you teach and your readiness to teach it and the availability of really outstanding resources for you to teach it make for success.

That was one of the reasons why, in the negotiations with the teachers unions, frankly, I think there was perhaps a more amenable partnership — not to say that we didn’t have our differences, of course. It was tough and we made compromises, but I think from the beginning they recognized my commitment to that side of what is so important to effective teaching, and of course my commitment to preparing effective teachers.

Considering the priority you placed on curriculum development, is it fair that assessments in New York are being rolled ahead of curriculum?

I’ve made it a rule not to comment on the policies of folks who are now responsible. All I have always said and continue to say is that I had the privilege of working with John King and Merryl [Tisch] and the Board very closely, and as you know John [King] was the senior deputy. And the passion for raising the quality of education — most especially, for underprivileged students, but for all students — is absolute.

I think no one should underestimate how difficult the implementation is. We are trying to do a lot of things, many of which, frankly, are overdue. I’m not going to get into questioning the particular strategies, timing, whatever. They’re sitting on information that I don’t see.

How did your time in Albany influence your work on the Institute?

One of the things we would like to do is create a safe space for folks who might otherwise have found themselves partially in different places — even in opposed places — in the public debate, to come and discuss differences. So one of the ambitions for the institute one day — and this isn’t tomorrow morning — would be perhaps to act as a facilitator for sensitive conversations of that kind.

That really came out of my experience that sometimes, because of the very glaring fishbowl nature of education policy, particularly in this state — though it’s true to some extent everywhere in the United States — that we really needed some spaces for quiet dialogue that weren’t in front of the cameras.

Second, we would love to help act as an arbiter of new research. We get education research reports one a week — often more — and the question for journalists such as yourself is, where do you go to get a fair reading on the Gates MET study, for example?

We would like one day to be a place that you naturally pick up the phone and say, has the institute done an analysis of this report? What’s your reaction to it? What do you see as the couple of big issues, what’s reliable, what’s not? Because very frankly, as in all professions, research can be terribly misused, research can often be misjudged, it’s often hard to read.

That came out also of the fact that as commissioner, you get bombarded with a lot of research. And your colleagues are working very long hours to help you execute on education policies in the best possible way. You don’t have time, frankly, to really dig in.
What did being commissioner teach you about how education policy that you didn’t already know?

The best book on this is [education historian David Tyack’s] “Tinkering Toward Utopia.” The challenge is always as new ideas come on board, they have to be rendered usable by superintendents, principals and teachers, and parents, and students. So pure ideas rarely survive the cauldron of real practice and you learn rapidly that for any policy maker, the distance between your desk and Ms. Jones’ classroom at 9:05 in the morning is a long distance. And you had better remember Ms. Jones, because in the end it’s what happens in her classroom that’s going to make the difference. And so you always have to try to have a real sense of how any policy is going to manifest itself in the realities of our schools.

You do your best and you make your best judgements and you watch as it happens and you make adjustments. I think it is a pragmatic enterprise and it will always be imperfect. You will never get a clean, perfect, elegant policy. You’re always dealing in imperfections. You’re trying to make policies that will help people who will become more effective, give them tools.

But I do think in general that you learn that you have to take some risks. You won’t make everyone happy. That’s a cliche, but it’s very true in education.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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