A commission of outsiders

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012 at 3:58 pm by

Earlier this week, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the membership of the Education Reform Commission he promised in his State of the State address in early January.

It will be chaired by Richard Parsons, a retired chair of Citigroup, who was once an assistant counsel to Governor Nelson Rockefeller, among other roles.

The members include State Education Commissioner John King, the Chancellors of the State and City University systems, the Chairs of the Assembly and Senate Education Committees, and many accomplished and impressive people from the non-profit and higher education sectors.

More than a few leaders in public education have remarked, however, on the absence of anyone currently working in a public school or serving on a school board in the state.

I’ll go back to what I said and wrote when the Governor first unveiled the plan, after declaring himself, “the students’ lobbyist.”

Speaking to the New York Times, I said,

“There are a lot of people who would disagree with the governor’s rhetoric and parts of his analysis, but would agree with the big picture:   how do we produce more learning for students with the resources our taxpayers can provide?”

I added that a commission could provide the focus for an extended statewide conversation aimed at answering that question.

As I explained in an earlier blog post, I made some additional points about a commission on a statewide cable news program back in January:

Capitol Tonight’s Liz Benjamin said she had the sense the Governor would look to fill the commission with people from outside the state’s education system.

I said I hoped it would include insiders as well, because they could speak to what is working well now, and what isn’t.

I also said that it would be a mistake to assume that everyone working in schools now is wedded to the status quo.  Again, they entered education to positively affect the lives of young people.

I went on to add that even if some are wedded to the status quo, the status quo is changing – we have had three years of state aid cuts or freezes [again, this was before the latest state budget was approved, with an aid increase], now the tax cap, and continuing cost pressures from pensions and health insurance.  Schools have to change.

A commission can’t just point to what schools are doing wrong, however.  A corollary question for it must be what does the state need to change, in order to help schools produce more learning for students with the resources the taxpayers can provide.

Now we know.  The commission includes no one currently working in or helping to lead a public school district in New York State.  The membership is also skewed towards New York City.

The points I made back in January remain valid – people working in schools today can speak authoritatively to what is and isn’t working now.

But I’ll add one more point:  The morale in many schools now is very poor.

Some of this derives from the difficult budgeting choices districts are going through as they head toward May 15 tax levy votes.

Some of it comes from fears – warranted or not – over what new evaluation procedures will mean for teachers and principals.

Some comes from the overall pace of change thrust on schools with the implementation of new evaluations, new standards, new assessments, and so on, much of it coming with murky guidance from the state and generating deep doubts about whether any returns will ever justify the effort expended.

And some of it arises from a prevailing atmosphere of skepticism and hostility toward government and public employees.

Any education reform agenda emerging from any source will be carried out chiefly by people working in public schools today.

So, with or without direct participation by practitioners, the commission must be attentive to the demands schools are grappling with every day.

Asking New York’s public schools to take on added assignments conceived without appreciation for the demands they are already straining to meet would be a recipe for frustration and failure.

Superintendents are leaders.  One of the first duties of a leader is to provide hope — a plausible vision of a better future with a route to reach it.  So part of the Council’s response to the commission — and to prevailing circumstances — should be to define our own vision for leading schools beyond present challenges on to a more promising future.

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