New York

The Last Best Hope?

Amidst the shouting, recriminating and celebrating attending Dennis Walcott’s designation as chancellor, even a keen follower of education politics could have missed the news that New York State Education Commissioner David Steiner is stepping down. Steiner cut a low profile in the mass media, so it’s ironic, yet consistent, that his announcement and its implications provoked little discussion in the broader ed reform community. Steiner struck me as a man with a long-term vision of what it means to be educated, something glaringly absent from the reform debate. At a sparsely attended talk on the Upper East Side last October, Steiner asked how we expect to make the long journey to a “better educated” student population without a detailed map for the trip. Last weekend, speaking at a state teachers union event, Steiner reflected on his tenure, pointing out that if we want to develop such a vision “we do not start by yelling at each other.” Unnamed “education insiders” say Steiner’s “superstar” deputy, John King, has the inside track. King’s prior work draws hosannas, but his career doesn’t suggest he’s a visionary in Steiner’s mold. When I heard Steiner speak last fall, we were in the midst of being bombarded with the news that Davis Guggenheim had “cracked the code” in "Waiting for 'Superman.'" I was fighting apocalyptic thoughts after the New York Times profiled a new middle school suggesting that having failed to engage teenagers, our only option is to have them play video games. And we learned that the average Atheist knows way more about the Bible than the average Christian. A friend neatly captured my concerns when he said, “I weep for the Republic.” In an essay accompanying his profile of a Bronx middle school this past weekend, Jonathan Mahler neatly channeled Steiner. We shout that only class size matters or the key is accountability, or we need more school days, or we must focus on teacher quality, or grant more charters. As Henry Longfellow wrote (and Barry Manilow made popular), we’re like ships that pass in the night, “only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.” Our current ‘debate’ is not some Hegelian dialectic leading to a vision for the future; it’s a twisted mashup of Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow, a tale “full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing.” Back in October I foolishly hoped Steiner would bring some balance to these debates.
New York

Lies, Damned Lies, and (Small Schools) Statistics

A study of the city's small high schools illustrates the challenges of making and assessing policy in the accountability era. An editorial about the study underlines the failures of the fourth estate to exercise critical judgment. The closing of 20 large high schools and creation of 132 small high schools is one of many initiatives Joel Klein has taken to close the achievement gap. The theory is that traditional "comprehensive" high schools, often with 3,000 or more students, are too large to offer the individual attention and accountability that traditionally disadvantaged students need to make it to college. The fight over Jamaica High School this past spring was, in a far less academic sense, a debate whether "big schools" serve our children's needs. Into this fray comes the MDRC, a research group focused on poverty. Their report's headline cuts right to the chase: "Transforming the High School Experience: How New York City's New Small Schools Are Boosting Student Achievement and Graduation Rates." This conclusion is interesting because several prior studies of the effort were not positive. The Gates Foundation, which put close to $2 billion into small schools, was so uncertain of the schools' impact that it stopped funding small schools projects in 2008. But MDRC claims that "SSCs [Small Schools of Choice] increase overall graduation rates by 6.8 percentage points, which is roughly one-third the size of the gap in graduation rates between white students and students of color in New York City."