On the Agenda

While revealing $7 billion education plan, Nixon criticizes schools that leave kids ‘destined for jail’

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon walks away from a speech at Borough of Manhattan Community College.

Gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon outlined her education agenda on Wednesday, promising to tackle what she called the “unholy trinity” of racial segregation, underfunding, and over-policing in schools.

The plan’s central element is billions in extra cash, which Nixon would funnel into schools to reduce class size and hire more counselors and teachers. Many elements of the plan explicitly tackle race, including pushing districts to reduce suspensions for black and Hispanic students, attract a more diverse teaching workforce, and create curriculum that explores the history of students of color.

“We have two different education systems in our state – one that sends wealthy white children to college, and another that sends poor children of color to prison,” Nixon said.

Many elements of the plan like sending more money to needy schools and reducing the emphasis on standardized testing continue recent trends in state policy.

But the plan is likely to face a number of obstacles. The price tag will make it a hard sell, particularly in a state that already spends more on education per student than any other state in the country. And Nixon, who left without taking questions from reporters, has yet to explain how she plans to handle other contentious issues like charter school policy or widespread school segregation.

Here’s what you should know about Nixon’s plan for New York’s K-12 schools.

School funding: A massive boost

Nixon has spent 17 years protesting to push more state money into schools. So it’s not surprising that a massive school funding boost is the bedrock of her agenda.

Nixon wants to increase education spending by $4.2 billion over three years, money that advocates say schools are owed based on the terms of a 2006 settlement. She also wants to invest $200 million annually statewide on 500 new community schools, which add non-academic services such as vision and mental health care.

The tough part, of course, is paying for it. Nixon’s plan relies on tax hikes on the wealthiest New Yorkers and on corporations.

She did not shy away from the hefty price tag on Wednesday, insisting that it is necessary to have an expensive plan. “You know what?” she said. “It is and it should be.”

Officials from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office point out that he has increased education spending by 36 percent since 2012, and say there is no legal mandate to spend billions more on schools in the state.

“Cynthia Nixon has been wrong on the facts on every issue she discusses. The difference between advocacy and government is the difference between fiction and non-fiction,” said Cuomo spokeswoman Dani Lever.

School discipline: Replace metal detectors with counselors

Nixon’s motto for the education package was “schools not jails.”

The gubernatorial candidate says schools are over-policed, with too many students of color being suspended or arrested. Nixon said she would trade metal detectors and tough discipline policies for social workers and school counselors.

Specifically, she would require school districts with high suspension rates to undergo “school climate assessments” and ban suspensions for students from pre-kindergarten to third grade.

Those changes would require navigating tricky territory. While some agree that schools are over-policed, others say some suspensions and metal detectors keep schools safe and running smoothly. While the city has moved to reduce suspensions, it’s prompted pushback from others arguing the changes have made schools more unruly. Additionally, a plan to block suspensions for young students was met with resistance from the city’s teachers union.

Inside schools: More diverse teachers and curriculum

In New York City, more than 80 percent of students are black, Hispanic, or Asian, while only 39 percent of teachers are, according to a recent analysis. Nixon says she wants to tackle this teacher diversity gap across the state by investing $6 million annually in the Teacher Opportunity Corps, a state program designed to recruit and train more teachers of color.

Additionally, Nixon said she wants to invest in creating curriculum that pays more attention to the culture and history of students of color. She would spend $20 million in such “Culturally Responsive Education” efforts, which would include outreach to parents and training for teachers.

Testing: Less of it

New York’s math and English tests have become a political lightning rod, as nearly one in five families have boycotted the tests to protest a suite of education changes they felt focused too heavily on the exams.

The state has tried to address some of these concerns. Officials reduced the number of testing days and temporarily paused the use of grades 3-8 math and English tests in teacher evaluations.

Nixon suggested an even more aggressive rollback of the use of standardized tests. She wants the state to “significantly reduce” the amount of testing and “eliminate” serious consequences from being levied based on the tests. She expressed support for the ability to opt out of the exams and is calling for a total repeal of the state’s current teacher evaluation law. (That’s a more substantial change than what the state teachers union is pushing for.)

What she didn’t say

In the 24-page document, Nixon does not take a stance on charter schools, though the state is responsible for deciding how many new charter schools can open and for funding the schools.

A Nixon spokesperson said charter schools were intentionally left out of the plan to avoid distracting from the candidate’s plan for district schools, and that Nixon will share her thoughts on charters in the near future.

Also, though Nixon repeatedly mentioned segregation in her speech, she has only one element in her plan designed to diversify schools — supporting the mayor’s plan to diversify eight specialized high schools. She does not appear to have a more comprehensive plan to integrate schools in New York.

Interview

McQueen: Working with Haslam on education was ‘a perfect match’ — and it’s time to move on

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen meet with members of his teachers advisory group in 2015.

When Gov. Bill Haslam recruited Candice McQueen to take the helm of Tennessee’s education department in 2015, he wanted someone close to the classroom who shared his passion for preparing students for the jobs of tomorrow.

Four years later, the former teacher and university dean calls their work together “a perfect match” and her job as education commissioner “the honor of a lifetime.” But she says it’s also time to transition to a new challenge as Haslam’s eight-year administration comes to an end.

In January, McQueen will become CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, a nonprofit organization that works to attract, develop, and retain high-quality educators.

Haslam announced her impending departure on Thursday from a job that has elevated McQueen as a national voice on public education, whether testifying before Congress about Tennessee’s work under a 2015 federal education law or serving on the boards of national organizations seeking to improve student achievement.

The announcement ended months of speculation about whether the 44-year-old McQueen would stay on in Gov.-elect Bill Lee’s administration, either as an interim chief or permanently (although headaches from the state’s testing program last spring decreased the likelihood of the latter).

McQueen said the institute was among a number of organizations that approached her this year as Haslam’s administration was winding down.

“I had a conversation with Gov. Haslam some time back to let him know that I was most likely going to be making a decision about one of these opportunities,” she told Chalkbeat in an interview following the announcement.

Asked whether she had entertained a role in the next administration, McQueen said her focus had been on her current commitment.

“When I came into this role, I came to work with and for Gov. Haslam. I always felt that four years was the right time period for me to accomplish as much as I could, and that’s what I’ve done. It’s been remarkable to work with a governor who has been so intentionally focused on improving education on the K-12 and higher education side and be able to connect the dots between them.

“It was a perfect match in terms of vision and what we wanted to accomplish,” she added.

"I always felt that four years was the right time period for me to accomplish as much as I could, and that’s what I’ve done."Candice McQueen

Under McQueen’s tenure, Tennessee has notched a record-high graduation rate of 89 percent and its best average ACT score in history at 20.2 out of a possible 36, compared to the national average of 20.8. The state has risen steadily in national rankings on the Nation’s Report Card and pioneered closely watched reforms aimed at improving teacher effectiveness.

McQueen called her new job with the teaching institute an “extraordinary opportunity that I felt was a great fit” because of its focus on supporting, leading, and compensating teachers.

“It’s work that I believe is the heart and soul of student improvement,” she said, citing research that high-quality teaching is the No. 1 factor in helping students grow academically.

At the institute, she’ll be able to leverage nationally the work that she’s championed in Tennessee. The group’s goal is to ensure that a skilled, motivated, and competitively compensated teacher is in every classroom in America.

“Coming in as a CEO of an organization that breathes this work around human capital is the work I want to be part of going forward,” she said. “And CEO roles of large national nonprofits don’t come around every day.”

A Tennessee native, McQueen will work from Nashville under her agreement with the institute.

In announcing her hiring, Chairman Lowell Milken said the organization will open a Nashville office, with much of its teacher support work moving from its current base in Phoenix, Arizona.

McQueen will succeed Gary Stark, who stepped down over the summer after a decade with the organization.

Exiting

Tennessee schools chief Candice McQueen leaving for job at national education nonprofit

PHOTO: TN.Gov

Tennessee’s education chief is leaving state government to lead a nonprofit organization focused on attracting, developing, and keeping high-quality educators.

Candice McQueen, 44, will step down in early January to become the CEO of National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.

Gov. Bill Haslam, whose administration will end on Jan. 19, announced the impending departure of his education commissioner on Thursday.

He plans to name an interim commissioner, according to an email from McQueen to her staff at the education department.

“While I am excited about this new opportunity, it is hard to leave this team,” she wrote. “You are laser-focused on doing the right thing for Tennessee’s students every single day – and I take heart in knowing you will continue this good work in the months and years to come. I look forward to continuing to support your work even as I move into this new role with NIET.”

A former teacher and university dean, McQueen has been one of Haslam’s highest-profile cabinet members since joining the administration in 2015 to replace Kevin Huffman, a lawyer who was an executive at Teach For America.

Her tenure has been highlighted by overhauling the state’s requirements for student learning, increasing transparency about how Tennessee students are doing, and launching a major initiative to improve reading skills in a state that struggles with literacy.

But much of the good work has been overshadowed by repeated technical failures in Tennessee’s switch to a computerized standardized test — even forcing McQueen to cancel testing for most students in her second year at the helm. The assessment program continued to struggle this spring, marred by days of technical glitches.

Haslam, who has consistently praised McQueen’s leadership throughout the rocky testing ride, said Tennessee’s education system has improved under her watch.

“Candice has worked relentlessly since day one for Tennessee’s students and teachers, and under her leadership, Tennessee earned its first ‘A’ rating for the standards and the rigor of the state’s assessment after receiving an ‘F’ rating a decade ago,” Haslam said in a statement. “Candice has raised the bar for both teachers and students across the state, enabling them to rise to their greatest potential. I am grateful for her service.”

McQueen said being education commissioner has been “the honor of a lifetime” and that her new job will allow her to “continue to be an advocate for Tennessee’s teachers and work to make sure every child is in a class led by an excellent teacher every day.”

At the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, she’ll work with states, districts, and schools to improve the effectiveness of teachers and will operate out of the organization’s new office in Nashville. The institute’s work impacts more than 250,000 educators and 2.5 million students.

“Candice McQueen understands that highly effective teachers can truly transform the lives of our children, our classrooms, our communities and our futures,” said Lowell Milken, chairman of the institute, which has existing offices in Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and Santa Monica, Calif.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, McQueen said numerous organizations had approached her about jobs this year as Tennessee prepared to transition to a new administration under Gov.-elect Bill Lee. She called leading the institute “an extraordinary opportunity that I felt was a great fit” because of its focus on supporting, leading, and compensating teachers.

“It’s work that I believe is the heart and soul of student improvement,” she said.

McQueen’s entire career has focused on strengthening teacher effectiveness and support systems for teachers. Before joining Haslam’s administration, the Tennessee native was an award-winning teacher; then faculty member, department chair, and dean of Lipscomb University’s College of Education in Nashville. As dean from 2008 to 2015, Lipscomb became one of the highest-rated teacher preparation programs in Tennessee and the nation. There, McQueen also doubled the size and reach of the college’s graduate programs with new master’s degrees and certificates, the university’s first doctoral program, and additional online and off-campus offerings.

As Haslam’s education commissioner the last four years, McQueen stayed the course on Tennessee’s 2010 overhaul of K-12 education, which was highlighted by raising academic standards; measuring student improvement through testing; and holding students, teachers, schools, and districts accountable for the results.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been commissioner of education for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam since 2015.

One of the plan’s most controversial components was teacher evaluations that are tied to student growth on state tests — a strategy that McQueen has stood by and credited in part for Tennessee’s gains on national tests.

Since 2011, Tennessee has seen record-high graduation rates, college-going rates, and ACT scores and steadily moved up in state rankings on the Nation’s Report Card.

Several new studies say Tennessee teachers are getting better under the evaluation system, although other research paints a less encouraging picture.

Her choice to lead the national teaching institute quickly garnered praise from education leaders across the country.

“The students of Tennessee have benefited from Candice McQueen’s leadership, including bold efforts to ensure students have access to advanced career pathways to lead to success in college and careers, and a solid foundation in reading,” said Carissa Moffat Miller, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Louisiana Education Superintendent John White said McQueen brings ideal skills to her new job.

“She is not just a veteran educator who has worked in higher education and K-12 education alike, but she is also a visionary leader with a unique understanding of both quality classroom teaching and the systems necessary to make quality teaching possible for millions of students,” White said.

Read more reaction to the news of McQueen’s planned exit.