Monday, July 27, 2009

Bold New Choice for State Education Commissioner

"[A] visionary who can inspire department personnel and, indeed, the entire educational community to break with embedded practices."
-Regent Saul B. Cohen, describing newly appointed Education Commissioner, David Steiner.

Saul Cohen, at first glance, is not the kind of person from whom one would expect to hear bold new thinking. The octogenarian Regent has been around a long time and accomplished much in life. He's also been a Regent since 1993 and just received another five-year term from the state legislature this year. Cohen looks to give the state Education Department, which is overseen by the Cohen and his fellow Regents, a new boss unlike any in memory. That's a good thing.

David M. Steiner, graduate of Oxford and Harvard, is a genius. A good start, but hardly sufficient. Intellect does not always translate to strong leadership, if history tells us anything. Fortunately, Mr. Steiner also is bona fide education reformer whose career indicates he's not afraid to be "outside the box," to coin a shopworn phrase. He currently serves as Dean of the School of Education at Hunter College of the City University of New York where he lead a national partnership with KIPP Academies, Uncommon Schools and Achievement First -- all successful charter school operators -- to form Teacher U to reform teacher training and preparation. Steiner also serves on the board of the Harlem Success Academy Charter School.

Steiner's close and contemporary connection to New York's charter schools gives charter supporters a reason to be optimistic about his appointment as Education Commissioner. Of course, he's done much more, as the Education Department describes here.

Credit for this bold, unexpected appointment has to go to Regents Chancellor, Merryl Tisch. Having just assumed her leadership role on the board, coinciding with an outgoing commissioner, she has made the most of her opportunity to lead the effort to fill this important position. Just to give you an idea of the kind of reformer he is, two of Steiner's resume references were NYC Schools Chancellor, Joel Klein and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education and currently Fordham Foundation president, Chester Finn - both strong charter school supporters.

Rethinking the Education Bureaucracy
David Steiner has his work cut out for him. Shifting the focus of the state Education Department from a regulatory-frenzied group to more of a partner and support organization, as recommended by a recent consultant study, will be a challenge.

Viewing the recent Regent actions on charter schools, at the behest of the Department, provides rich examples of the bureaucratic absurdity that State Ed has become. The same set of Regents meetings at which Steiner is appointed, the Regents are voting to allow a charter school to change positions on its organizational chart; allow another school to increase its enrollment by a whopping 6 percent; still another charter school to change class sizes; and another school to locate in a neighboring community school district based on building space provided by the City. Another school has so many picayune changes (e.g., adding three signatures instead of two for school checks over $5,000 rather than $3,000), it's laughable the Regents would be bothered having to deal with such nano-management.

This is what charter oversight has become: monitoring and approval by the Department and Board of Regents for the smallest, most trivial operational changes that naturally occur during the course of running a charter school. With 19,000 entities overseen by the Regents, including public schools, libraries, colleges and proprietary schools, why are they voting on a change to a school's org chart, or its check-writing threshold?

David Steiner would be off to a great start by revisiting what has become a mockery of the vision of charter schools, one of whose statutory objectives was to "provide schools with a method to change from rule-based to performance-based accountability systems." We are a long way from that.

Regent Cohen's vision to "break with embedded practices" cannot come soon enough.

Peter Murphy
for The Chalkboard

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