changes at the top

Merryl Tisch, NY’s education leader through Race to the Top era, will step down in 2016

Merryl Tisch, who has served as New York’s top education official since 2009 and come to represent the changes of the Race to the Top era, will step down from the Board of Regents next year, she announced Monday.

Tisch’s term ends in March 2016. When she steps down, it will represent the end of a turbulent period in New York education policy during which the state adopted the Common Core learning standards and overhauled teacher evaluations to account for student test scores, sparking an anti-testing backlash but also coinciding with rising graduation rates.

“I say we disrupted stagnation,” Tisch said Monday of her tenure. “We disrupted complacency and we tried to imbue the system with urgency. I say we took critical steps to reignite and reinvigorate change.”

Tisch has served on the Board of Regents, the state’s 17-member education policymaking body, since 1996. She took control of the board six years ago, and along with education commissioner John King oversaw the implementation of a host of programs spurred by the $700 million federal Race to the Top grant New York won in 2010.

That funding — and Tisch’s influence — transformed the role of the Board of Regents and its chancellor. Once a job that drew little attention, Tisch turned the chancellorship into the face of public education policy in New York.

But in the last two years, Tisch has lost allies and her policies have lost momentum.

King departed for the federal education department at the end of last year. Sheldon Silver, who controlled the Regents selection process, was another important ally, but stepped down as Assembly Speaker earlier this year after being indicted on corruption charges.

A number of Regents supportive of Tisch have left and been replaced with more skeptical appointees. That has lead to some awkward moments this year, with Regents speaking out during meetings in opposition to policies that she shepherded through.

At the same time, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has tried to wrest more control of education policy, pursuing a series of changes to teacher tenure rules, evaluation methods, and the state’s role in overseeing struggling schools last year. The final dollars from the Race to the Top grants are being disbursed this year, leaving state policymakers without key levers to prompt districts to make changes. And the Obama administration this weekend acknowledged that the push for testing in schools had gone too far.

Tisch said she’d made up her mind nearly a year ago to leave at the end of her term and had discussed her decision with several board members. Still, some board members said they did not know what was coming on Monday morning.

“I’m stunned,” said Regent Kathleen Cashin. “I’m in a state of shock.”

Although her tenure will likely be seen favorably by those who wanted New York to make dramatic changes to education policy, she was critical of some change efforts. She was a public critic of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s school closure strategy, which she believed resulted in some large high schools “warehousing” groups of the neediest students. This summer, she said she would understand if parents opted out of state tests if their child had a severe disability.

As she made her announcement, though, she pushed her fellow Regents to stay the course, offering a forceful defense of the state’s push to raise standards and improve its assessments and teacher evaluations.

“We cannot back away from standards,” she said. “We cannot back away from assessments that give us an accurate measure of student performance and that informs instruction and curriculum. We cannot back away from the idea that a system like the one that we had for generations where the only way to evaluate a teacher was to rate them satisfactory or unsatisfactory and where almost everyone was always satisfactory can be tolerated as best practice.”

“It’s not good for teachers,” she added. “It’s not good for principals. It’s not good for students and it’s not good for communities.”

The immediate reactions to Tisch’s announcement reflected her polarizing status among New York’s sharply divided education groups, who tend to view Tisch either as a champion of sorely needed reforms or an apologist for misguided and poorly executed overhauls.

Jenny Sedlis, executive director of StudentsFirstNY, an advocacy group that backed the state’s move toward tougher learning standards and teacher evaluations, said in a statement that she was “deeply disappointed” that Tisch would not seek reelection, adding that she had served with “integrity and independence.”

But Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters and a longtime critic of Tisch’s policies, wrote on Twitter: “Terrific news.”

During the last months of her tenure, Tisch said she hopes to “calm the waters” and around some of the most contentious education issues, including standards and testing. After she steps down, she says she plans to remain a presence in state education policy.

“I plan to continue to be an independent and — you all know — outspoken voice in all of these debates,” she said.

Decision makers

5 things to know about Austan Goolsbee, the high-powered new addition to Chicago’s school board

PHOTO: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
In 2013, Austan Goolsbee testified before the Congressional Joint Economic Committee on Capitol Hill about the nation's economic recovery

Chicago’s school board is once again complete after outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel chose a University of Chicago economist to fill a long-vacant seat.

Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, will round out the seven-member, mayor-appointed board that sets education policy in the city.

Here are five things to know about Goolsbee:

  1. Like Emanuel, he served in the Obama White House. Goolsbee was as a close adviser to President Barack Obama, eventually becoming chair of his Council of Economic Advisors. The Chicago Teachers Union see this tie as a liability. “Mr. Goolsbee comes into a board responsible for students and their schools being starved of resources for the last eight years by the man who appointed him,” the union said in a statement. “Those same neighborhoods continue to struggle from the consequences of a foreclosure crisis that the administration he served in Washington failed to address.”
  2. He has weighed in on education before. A prolific opinion writer, he has written favorably about the economic arguments for universal prekindergarten, a priority for the outgoing mayor, saying that expanding early childhood education is a bargain over the long term. In a 2015 survey of economists’ positions on public issues, Goolsbee expressed optimism about “value-added” measures that try to isolate the impact of individual teachers on student test scores — though he qualified the approach as having “lots of noise and unobservables.” Expressing uncertainty about vouchers, Goolsbee said he fears that letting parents use public funds to pay for private school tuition could harm public schools, which have fixed costs cannot easily be reduced when students leave them. (A tax-credit version of vouchers launched in Illinois last year but now faces an uncertain future under a new Democratic governor.)
  3. He’ll bring a focus on fiscal policy to a board that oversees a big and uncertain budget. A close economic adviser to President Obama and prolific commenter on matters of economic policy in the national media, he’s joining a board that oversees $8 billion in outstanding debt. Chicago has credited the passage of an equitable funding bill, in 2017, for helping stabilize its finances. But the district’s economic future is uncertain, especially as families continue to leave the city.
  4. His personal public school experience is limited. He attended an elite private high school in the suburbs of Boston where he grew up, and his children attended the University of Chicago’s Lab School both before and after the family’s time in Washington, D.C., he has said in interviews.
  5. He’s got a following, and a sense of humor. For proof, check out his Twitter feed, which has 80,000 followers, and his October appearance on the popular NPR quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Plus, his official University of Chicago profile lists a special interest in improv comedy. That sets him apart from the rest of the school board members, who tend to keep a low public profile.  

How long Goolsbee serves could depend on what happens after Emanuel leaves office in early 2019. Chicago’s mayor has controlled the city school board since 1995, but Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third term has heightened debate about whether the city’s schools have benefitted.

In 2011 and 2015, voters backed non-binding resolutions that would make the board democratically elected. Now, two of the leading candidates in the mayor’s race, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and state comptroller Susana Mendoza, have said they’d support an elected school board — reducing their own power over education if they become mayor.

How soon a change could happen is unclear, but state lawmakers who would have to sign off on such a change have an ally in Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker, who has said he supports the call for an elected school board.

The issue was a point of debate at a Chalkbeat Chicago event this week at Malcolm X College. At the event, titled “Education for All? Chicago’s Next Mayor and the Future of Public Schools,” some panelists voiced concern that elections would be dominated by well-organized factions, such as the teachers union, that would have the ability to outspend other candidates.

Super Search

The pressing question at Denver’s final forum: How will Susana Cordova tackle inequity?

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Susana Cordova poses for a portrait in December 2018.

The challenges that Susana Cordova will face if she’s hired next week as superintendent of the Denver school district were laid bare at a public forum Tuesday night.

Standing in a high school cafeteria with a microphone in her hand, the deputy superintendent and sole finalist for the top job faced tough questions about why struggling schools have high numbers of inexperienced teachers, whether she would commit to removing all police officers from schools, and what she would do about what one student called the “charter-ization” of Denver Public Schools — that is, the district’s practice of replacing low-performing district-run schools, sometimes with charter schools.

The most heated and emotional exchanges, however, were about inequities: Why is the district not serving black, Latino, and Native American students as well as white students? Why do test score gaps exist between students from poor families and those from wealthier ones?

Onecia Garcia, a senior at East High School, the city’s largest school and one of its most diverse, told Cordova there is a noticeable gap at East between the kids whose parents have money to pay for tutors and SAT prep courses, and the kids whose parents don’t.

“I want to know what your plan is to get that gap in order,” Garcia said.

In response to Garcia’s question and others like it, Cordova acknowledged that institutional racism exists in Denver Public Schools and has contributed to those gaps. She said the district needs to do a better job informing families about opportunities such as free SAT help and concurrent enrollment classes that allow students to earn college credit while in high school.

Cordova, who grew up in Denver and climbed the district ranks from teacher to her current position of deputy superintendent, talked about making it mandatory for all teachers to undergo training on bias and being culturally responsive, instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova said one of her top priorities would be to take the myriad and disparate efforts the district has started over the years to address specific inequities and combine them into one comprehensive plan. She called it “an equity plan that is for all kids, but that also has the specifics for African-American kids, for Latino kids, for low-income kids.”

“It is important that we’re not introducing too many things that you can’t keep a focus,” she said. “I think that’s a valid criticism of the work that we’ve done: We’ve introduced too many things that have made it hard to understand what is the progress that we’re trying to get at.”

But after the forum, Garcia said she didn’t feel Cordova had fully answered the questions. Other students who attended said they felt the same way.

“She wasn’t willing to commit to anything,” said Jonathan Bateman, a freshman at George Washington High School, where the forum was held.

“She answered questions like a politician,” said Carlye Raabe, also a freshman at George Washington.

Cordova emphasized that if she’s hired as superintendent, she’ll approach the job differently than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, who stepped down in October after nearly 10 years of leading Denver Public Schools. Boasberg was often criticized for not listening to the community.

“I believe deeply in the power of relationships,” Cordova said. “I think it’s really important that we’re not just listening to people who think like I think or who sound like I sound, but who have different experiences, because Denver is an incredibly diverse place.”

The school board is expected to vote Monday on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.