meet the maverick

David Steiner crib sheet: New schools czar to focus on teaching

David Steiner
David Steiner. Photo courtesy of state education department.

For years, one pesky paper has stalked David Steiner, the man elected New York’s education commissioner this morning. The paper, published in 2003, while he was a professor at Boston University, attacked education graduate schools as intellectually weak and ideologically slanted, marking Steiner as a brave “maverick” among those critical of traditional teacher education — and enemy no. 1 among those who defend it.

Steiner, who was raised in England but was born in America and spent one year at P.S. 41 on West 11th Street, has shrugged off the to-do in the years since. He kept a reasonably modest profile as dean of CUNY’s Hunter College School of Education for the last four years. In conversations, he calmly insists that there is a middle ground in the fierce debate about how to improve public schools.

But the paper that marked him also foreshadows some of the innovations he has tested out at Hunter and the thinking he might bring to the state Education Department, where he is set to become commissioner Oct. 1, replacing Richard Mills, who announced his intention to retire last year. Mills had served in the position since 1995.

The position means Steiner will run the state Education Department, the large bureaucratic organization that enacts education policy set by the state Board of Regents and oversees both universities and public primary schools.

At Hunter, Steiner pioneered the use of tiny Flip cameras to improve teacher instruction by having all teachers in training at Hunter videotape their lessons — and then scrutinize them for do’s and don’ts. Presenting the paper at a conference, Steiner said that “perhaps most shocking” was the fact that just three of the 16 schools he studied used video- or audio-tape in instructing on teaching methods, according to a report by Education Week.

He has also joined with three charter school operators, Teach For America, and the city Department of Education to remake teacher training from the ground up, at a new initiative called Teacher U, where teachers will not receive certification unless they pass certain benchmarks.

Another partnership, which Steiner launched with the nonprofit New Visions for Public Schools and is beginning right now, is bringing the first teacher residency program to New York City, installing 23 teachers in classrooms where they work alongside a master teacher to learn the craft.

The program is funded with a mix of a federal Department of Education grant and private dollars, Robert Hughes, the president of New Visions said.

Hughes praised the Board of Regents’ selection. “I think the biggest changes in education will come if we focus on the small changes that need to happen to ensure that more kids are effective in the classes they’re in,” Hughes said. “David just gets that to his core, it’s intuitive for him.”

Frederick Hess, who directs education programs at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, which hosted the conference where Steiner’s controversial paper was first presented, said the experience made Steiner a stronger leader.

“It’s a formative experience,” Hess said. “Every time somebody winds up in a position of authority of authority who has been raked over the coals and personally attacked by the conventional powers that be — they’re certainly going to be less deferential, and more open to rethinking business.”

At a press conference this afternoon, Steiner said he plans to study everything from the rate of teacher certification across state education schools to the issue of teacher tenure to the question of raising academic standards when he takes over on Oct. 1.

“New York has consistently led the nation in raising academic standards, and it may well be time to do it again,” Steiner said.

He also targeted the state’s 92% average passing rate on a teacher certification test, which state schools chancellor Merryl Tisch highlighted in a recent Daily News op/ed. “Now, we have extraordinary teachers in New York, don’t misunderstand me,” he said. “Nevertheless, it seems to me that a gateway certification test that has that high a pass rate should give us pause, and we need to take a look at that.”

Steiner called the role of teacher tenure “an extremely complicated question” that should be addressed by administrators and teachers together. “We’re going to be thinking about this in the long term,” he said. “For the moment, I’m going to say, ‘Let’s take some time on this issue.’”

Asked how the state can pay for the overhaul he is outlining in this tough budget climate, Steiner replied, “I think we have a lot of opportunity to rethink our approach, and thinking, fortunately, is free.”

Joe Williams, the executive director of the lobbying group Democrats for Education Reform, said Steiner’s main test will be “whether he can tame the out-of-control SED bureaucracy.” “You’ve got to be a pit bull,” Williams said.

Steiner, who also formerly served as director of arts education at the National Endowment for the Arts after leaving Boston University, said he plans to push for arts education. Steiner’s father, George, is the prominent cultural critic who contributed to the New Yorker for many years.

A group of New York education leaders issued a statement praising Steiner’s selection today, as did the president of the state school boards association. The first statement is below:

July 27, 2009 (ALBANY, NY) – A coalition of education leaders issued a statement today on the appointment of Dean David M. Steiner as New York State Education Commissioner.

“We applaud the selection of David Steiner as Commissioner of Education.  Commissioner Steiner is an accomplished educator who throughout his career has sought – and found – fresh answers to some of the most difficult issues we face in education.

“David Steiner knows that New York must streamline and increase state standards, dramatically improve teacher training and support, upgrade the capacity to use data to improve results, openly and intelligently embrace innovation and work to ensure that the State Education Department is ready, willing and able to clear the path for great schools and the teachers and leaders in them.  Steiner is a strong, visionary leader who will unite all of us that care about public education and he will inspire by example.

“As dean of one of the most respected schools of education, he has sought innovative solutions to improving the quality of teachers in the classroom, recognizing the absolute and critical link between quality teachers and student achievement. We are confident he will bring this same energy and commitment to all the challenges that he will confront as our state’s chief education officer.

“We congratulate Chancellor Tisch and the Board of Regents for their bold and wise choice.  With Commissioner Steiner at the helm, New York is better positioned to not only compete for much needed federal education funds, but in the longer term to realize the vision of educational excellence that parents and President Obama have challenged us to achieve.”
The statement was signed by:
* Geoffrey Canada, President and CEO, Harlem Children’s Zone
* Robert L. Hughes, President, New Visions for Public Schools
* James Merriman, Chief Executive Officer, New York City Charter School Center
* Ariela Rozman, Chief Executive Officer, The New Teacher Project
* Jemina Bernard, Executive Director, Teach for America – New York
* Joe Williams, Executive Director, Democrats for Education Reform
* Bill Phillips, President, New York Charter Schools Association
* Sy Fliegel, President, CEI-PEA
* David Umansky, Chief Executive Officer, Civic Builders
* Luis Miranda
* Richard A. Berlin, Executive Director, Harlem RBI

pre-k for all

New York City will add dual language options in pre-K to attract parents and encourage diversity

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Carmen FariƱa, back right, visits a Mandarin pre-K dual language program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver on the Lower East Side.

Education Department officials on Wednesday announced the addition of 33 dual language pre-K programs in the 2018-19 school year, more than doubling the bilingual opportunities available for New York City’s youngest learners.

The expansion continues an aggressive push under the current administration, which has added 150 new bilingual programs to date. Popular with parents — there were 2,900 applications for about 600 pre-K dual language seats last year — the programs can also be effective in boosting the performance of students who are learning English as a new language.

Another possible benefit: creating more diverse pre-K classrooms, which research has shown are starkly segregated in New York City.

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the new programs reflect the city’s commitment to serving all students, even as a national debate rages over immigration reform.

“It’s important to understand that immigrants or people who speak a second language are an asset,” Fariña said. She called bilingual education “a gift that I think all schools should have.”

Included in the expansion are the city’s first dual language pre-K programs in Bengali and Russian, which will open in Jamaica, Queens, and the Upper West Side, Manhattan, respectively. The other additions will build on programs in Spanish, Mandarin and Italian. Every borough is represented in the expansion, with 11 new programs in Manhattan, nine in Brooklyn, six in Queens, five in the Bronx, and two on Staten Island.

In the dual-language model, students split their time between instruction in English and another language. At P.S. 20 Anna Silver, where the recent expansion was announced, pre-K students start the morning in English and transition to Mandarin after nap time. Experts say the model works best when the class includes an equal mix of students who are proficient in each language so they can learn from each other as well as the teacher, though it can often be difficult to strike that balance.

Officials and some advocates view dual-language programs as a tool for integration by drawing middle-class families eager to have their children speak two languages into neighborhood schools that they otherwise may not have considered. Research has shown that New York City’s pre-K classrooms tend to be more segregated than kindergarten. In one in six pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students are from a single racial or ethnic background. That’s compared with one in eight kindergarten classrooms, according to a 2016 report by The Century Foundation.

Sharon Stapel, a mother from Brooklyn, said she knew early on that she wanted her daughter to learn another language and strike relationships across cultures. So she travels to the Lower East Side with her four-year-old, Finch, to attend the Mandarin dual-language pre-K program at P.S. 20 Anna Silver. On Wednesday, the city announced it will add a Spanish dual language program at the school.

“We really see it as how you build community with your neighbors and your friends,” Stapel said. “It was also an opportunity for Finch to become involved and engage in the cultures and in the differences that she could see in the classrooms — and really celebrate that difference.”

Citywide, about 13 percent of students are learning English as a new language. That number does not include pre-K since the state does not have a way to identify students’ language status before kindergarten. However, based on census data, it is estimated that 30 percent of three- and four-year-olds in New York are English learners.

Dual-language programs can benefit students who are still learning English — more so than English-only instruction. Nationally and in New York City, students who are learning English are less likely to pass standardized tests and graduate from high school. In one study, students who enrolled in dual-language courses in kindergarten gained the equivalent of one year of reading instruction by eighth grade, compared with their peers who received English-only instruction.

The city has been under pressure to improve outcomes for English learners. Under the previous administration, New York City was placed on a state “corrective action plan” that required the education department to open 125 new bilingual programs by 2013. Though the city fell short of that goal, the current administration has agreed to place every English learner in a bilingual program by the 2018-19 school year.

Among the greatest barriers to achieving that is finding qualified teachers, Fariña said. In some cases, it can be hard to find teachers who are fluent in the target language. In others, teachers who are native in a foreign language may only be certified in their home country, and it can be hard to transfer that certification to New York.

In order to open an Urdu program recently, Fariña said, the teacher, who holds a degree from another country, went through Teaching Fellows, an alternative certification program that usually caters to career-changers or recent college grads.

“I think the biggest challenge we have right now is ensuring our teacher preparation courses are keeping up with our need and demand for teachers who can teach another language,” she said.

college plans

As Washington decides their fate, ‘Dreamers’ preparing for college are stuck in limbo

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Randi Smith, a psychology teacher at Metro State University, marched to support Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals during a citywide walkout in downtown Denver, CO.

While many high schoolers spend spring of their senior year coasting through classes and waiting to hear back from colleges, undocumented students who hope to attend college spend their time calling lawyers, consulting school counselors, and scouring the internet in search of ways to pay for school without the help of federal financial aid or student loans — assuming they even get in.

That process, anxiety-provoking even in a normal year, has become incalculably more chaotic this admissions season — even traumatic — as these young undocumented immigrants watch President Trump and lawmakers wrangle over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program that has until now allowed them to remain in the country without having to fear deportation.

As the policy battle nears a climax, these students aren’t just breathlessly waiting to learn whether they’ll be accepted into college — they’re waiting to see whether they have a future in this country.

“It’s different for me. It’s definitely more stressful and there are times when you want to give up,” said an undocumented student at KIPP NYC College Prep High School, who is graduating this year and applying to colleges. She requested anonymity because of her legal status. “But then I remind myself that regardless of what’s going on, I’m still going to do what I’ve set myself to do.”

High school counselors are also feeling the strain. They already faced the difficult task of helping undocumented students compete for private scholarships, and finding schools that will support those students once they’re on campus. Now those counselors also must monitor each twist and turn of the immigration debate in Washington, while, somehow, trying to keep their undocumented students focused on college.

One of those counselors is John Kearney, who works at Guadalupe Centers Alta Vista High School, a charter school in Kansas City, Missouri. Dozens of his soon-to-graduate students are beneficiaries of DACA, a program created under former President Obama that allows undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to avoid deportation and work here legally. Lately, they have been asking him why they should even consider college when their fate in the U.S. is so uncertain.

“The big question is, ‘Why? Why go to college, and then I can’t even work, then why?’” said Kearney, who also helped start a nonprofit that provides scholarships to undocumented students. “It’s a really tough question.”

As of Friday, President Trump and lawmakers were still locked in heated negotiations over DACA, which Trump said this fall that he would eliminate unless Congress enshrined it in law. Without an agreement, it is set to expire March 5, just as graduating seniors firm up their college plans. If that happens, young immigrants, often called Dreamers, could lose the few crucial protections they have. For many, their DACA status has already lapsed.

Even with DACA’s protections, Dreamers face massive hurdles to enroll in college: They don’t qualify for federal aid or loans, and, in some states, are barred from receiving financial aid or even attending public universities. Out of the estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school every year, only 5-10 percent enroll in college.

Following Trump’s announcement in September, counselors have also had to race against the clock counting down to DACA’s expiration: That meant juggling college application deadlines with the October cutoff for students to apply for renewed DACA status.

The KIPP charter school network received a donation this year to help students pay for the renewal fee, which has been a godsend for many students — including the young woman who is graduating from KIPP NYC College Prep High School.

As soon as she learned the school would pay the fee for her, she immediately called her father, who is also undocumented and repairs beauty-salon equipment for a living.

“My dad was definitely trying to round up the money before the deadline, so it was a blessing that the school was able to find a donor,” she said. “I told him not to worry about it and it was a relief — like a weight off his shoulders.”

If the girl was trying to relieve her father’s stress, her college counselor, Rob Santos, was trying to do the same for her. Even as she balanced college-application essays, transcripts, and the rest, she was also coming to realize how quickly her life would change if DACA is not extended.

“There was definitely extra emotional support that I’ve had to provide this year,” Santos said. “I definitely had my DACA student in my office, and tears were happening.”

Santos keeps a running list of the colleges that accept students who don’t have permanent legal status and the few scholarships available to them. Many of those scholarships require undocumented students to have DACA status. If the program ends, it’s unclear whether students will still be eligible.

Still, Santos said his dreamer student rarely talks about the political furor surrounding her future in the U.S. as she awaits her college-acceptance letter. Instead, she’s more likely to discuss her hope of one day studying business and fashion.

“Our DACA students are resilient. They’re optimistic,” Santos said. “But they’re also realistic for what could actually happen.”