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Six weeks into de Blasio's term, unanswered school questions abound

What to do about struggling schools, school-support networks, services for special-needs students, teacher evaluations, curriculum, school progress reports, standardized testing — the list of education issues staring down Mayor Bill de Blasio could go on.

But six weeks into the job, the mayor has given little indication of how he will will address many of those issues, or shown that the main work of the city’s school system — educating students from kindergarten to 12th grade — will be a target of his major plans.

Monday’s State of the City speech was no exception, as de Blasio kept a sharp focus on continuing to make the case for a large-scale pre-kindergarten expansion funded by a tax surcharge on the city’s highest earners.

That plan helped fuel de Blasio’s electoral victory and has been the subject of an intense lobbying effort and a headline-grabbing showdown with Albany since he took office. But the mayor’s all-hands-on-deck approach to pre-kindergarten and after-school programs has left some wondering when he and his schools chief will publicly address the many other questions hanging over the nation’s largest school system.

“There are a number of very large issues that they’re going to have to begin to speak to more directly about,” said Pedro Noguera, an education professor at New York University. “People are anxious about getting more details.”

De Blasio filled his campaign with critiques of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s handling of the school system, including his administration’s emphasis on standardized test scores, its shuttering of low-performing schools, and its enthusiastic backing of charter schools. His 19-page education platform also included specific plans on issues ranging from class size to classroom breakfast, special education to sex education, struggling schools to school safety.

But since taking office, he and his schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, have offered few clues about exactly how they will address some of the biggest issues facing students and educators, or how much they will focus on broader challenges like graduation rates.

Some of those gaps could be strategic, given the need to prompt quick decisions from the state about how those pre-K and after-school programs will be paid for and their desire to stay away from issues likely to come up in contract negotiations with the teachers union.

Even so, Fariña’s frequent remarks about smaller policy changes have left some educators “reading tea leaves every time there’s a quote in the paper,” as Noguera put it.

Beyond pushing for the pre-K plan, Fariña has talked about plans to improve middle schools and parent engagement. Fariña has also suggested that schools may need teaching materials better aligned to the new state standards and that test scores could be removed from decisions about student promotion.

At a meeting last month with principals, she previewed some specific changes, such as the formation of policy advisory panels, new requirements for would-be principals, and the expansion of school leaders’ email inboxes. But she mainly emphasized the “softer tone” this administration would take with schools.

That shift in tone has been Fariña’s public focus, and she has avoided broad criticism of the school system at events, focusing her critiques on things like the way educators and parents were communicated with by the previous administration. At that principals meeting, only de Blasio explicitly mentioned the need to improve academic results.

“We don’t stand pat and say that’s acceptable,” he said.

The only new education initiative in de Blasio’s State of the City speech involved bolstering science and engineering programs at the City University of New York to help more high school graduates snag in-demand jobs. De Blasio called for high schools to emphasize skills needed for work in growing industries such as health care, engineering, and technology.

While de Blasio spoke on Monday, the rollout of the Common Core learning standards were coming under fresh attack in Albany, as the group responsible for steering state education policy recommended Monday that the rollout of the Common Core learning standards be slowed down.

But De Blasio’s speech did not reference the tougher learning standards, which have ushered in new tests, teaching methods, and curriculum materials during a years-long rollout that has been criticized at both the state and city levels. It also did not address the teacher evaluations, which are likely to be part of the city’s negotiations over the teachers union contract—one of more than 150 unsettled municipal-labor contracts.

David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, noted that de Blasio has been careful not to discuss contract issues. But he expected the speech to say far more about the mayor’s plans for kindergarten through high school and to lay out a “coherent vision for what a de Blasio Department of Education will look like.”

“It was surprising that the speech was thin not just on education proposals,” Bloomfield said, “but also on their specifics and even in soaring rhetoric.”

In contrast, Bloomberg used his inaugural State of the City speech in January 2002 to call for mayoral control of the school system and the dismantling of the local school boards. Saying that the city must “fix our school system,” he also argued for major changes to teacher accountability and pay, the role of principals, and even classroom management.

“All of us in this room were elected to improve education,” Bloomberg told the gathered city politicians in his speech. “And that does not mean simply rearranging the deck chairs on the deck of our educational Titanic.”

Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director for the Alliance for Quality Education and a member of de Blasio’s transition team, said it made sense for the new mayor to focus his initial efforts on securing pre-K funds, since the state budget is due April 1. After that, she said, she expects the mayor to “switch gears” and say more about his other education plans.

She acknowledged that many people are eager to know what school changes are coming, but she said she is confident those will be revealed soon.

“I think there is a K-to-12 plan in place,” she said Monday. “I just think it wasn’t articulated today.”

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