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

that was weird

The D.C. school system had a pitch-perfect response after John Oliver made #DCPublicSchools trend on Twitter

Public education got some unexpected attention Sunday night when John Oliver asked viewers watching the Emmys to make #DCPublicSchools trend on Twitter.

Oliver had been inspired by comedian Dave Chappelle, who shouted out the school system he attended before he announced an award winner. Within a minute of Oliver’s request, the hashtag was officially trending.

Most of the tweets had nothing to do with schools in Washington, D.C.

Here are a few that did, starting with this pitch-perfect one from the official D.C. Public Schools account:

Oliver’s surreal challenge was far from the first time that the late-show host has made education a centerpiece of his comedy — over time, he has pilloried standardized testing, school segregation, and charter schools.

Nor was it the first education hashtag to take center stage at an awards show: #PublicSchoolProud, which emerged as a response to new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, got a shoutout during the Oscars in February.

And it also is not the first time this year that D.C. schools have gotten a surprise burst of attention. The Oscars were just a week after DeVos drew fire for criticizing the teachers she met during her first school visit as secretary — to a D.C. public school.

Startup Support

Diverse charter schools in New York City to get boost from Walton money

PHOTO: John Bartelstone
Students at Brooklyn Prospect Charter School in 2012. The school is one of several New York City charters that aim to enroll diverse student bodies.

The Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropy governed by the family behind Walmart, pledged Tuesday to invest $2.2 million over the next two years in new charter schools in New York City that aim to be socioeconomically diverse.

Officials from the foundation expect the initiative to support the start of about seven mixed-income charter schools, which will be able to use the money to pay for anything from building space to teachers to technology.

The effort reflects a growing interest in New York and beyond in establishing charter schools that enroll students from a mix of backgrounds, which research suggests can benefit students and is considered one remedy to school segregation.

“We are excited to help educators and leaders on the front lines of solving one of today’s most pressing education challenges,” Marc Sternberg, the foundation’s K-12 education director and a former New York City education department official, said in a statement.

Walton has been a major charter school backer, pouring more than $407 million into hundreds of those schools over the past two decades. In New York, the foundation has helped fund more than 100 new charter schools. (Walton also supports Chalkbeat; read about our funding here.)

Some studies have found that black and Hispanic students in charter schools are more likely to attend predominantly nonwhite schools than their peers in traditional schools, partly because charter schools tend to be located in urban areas and are often established specifically to serve low-income students of color. In New York City, one report found that 90 percent of charter schools in 2010 were “intensely segregated,” meaning fewer than 10 percent of their students were white.

However, more recently, a small but rising number of charter schools has started to take steps to recruit and enroll a more diverse student body. Often, they do this by drawing in applicants from larger geographic areas than traditional schools can and by adjusting their admissions lotteries to reserve seats for particular groups, such as low-income students or residents of nearby housing projects.

Founded in 2014, the national Diverse Charter Schools Coalition now includes more than 100 schools in more than a dozen states. Nine New York City charter groups are part of the coalition, ranging from individual schools like Community Roots Charter School in Brooklyn to larger networks, including six Success Academy schools.

“There’s been a real shift in the charter school movement to think about how they address the issue of segregation,” said Halley Potter, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank that promotes socioeconomic diversity.

The Century Foundation and researchers at Teachers College at Columbia University and Temple University will receive additional funding from Walton to study diverse charter schools, with the universities’ researchers conducting what Walton says is the first peer-reviewed study of those schools’ impact on student learning.