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Blackboard Awards on the 2013 Mayoral Candidate Forum on Education

Tonight, I had the distinct pleasure of attending the Blackboard Awards’ 2013 Mayoral Candidate Forum on Education at the Fordham Law School, moderated by Philissa Cramer of GothamSchools and Lindsey Christ of NY1, Time Warner Cable’s main New York City news station. Five out of the six main mayoral candidates (City Council Speaker of the House Christine Quinn, former city comptroller Bill Thompson, current city comptroller John C. Liu, media mogul Tom Allon, NYC public advocate Bill DiBlasio) showed up to this event. Even for someone with good knowledge of the candidates’ positions, the candidates had a few surprises up their sleeves, particularly Tom Allon, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

I’ll summarize what I got from each candidates’ positions on Christ’s and Cramer’s questions, and then give my opinion. Let’s go:

Mayoral Control

None of the candidates seemed to want to relinquish mayoral control, but all of them had a different spin on it. DeBlasio called it a step forward, but thinks the way it was implemented took education in New York City a step back. Allon called it a step froward as well, but thinks Bloomberg got it wrong by trying, for example, to take big schools and make them small. For him, teacher preparation and professional development are essential, and we should make the teaching profession like the medical profession in the way we groom teachers. Liu thinks mayoral control is hard to measure because it’s worked for some schools, but not for others. It’s also hard to do a study because the benchmarks have moved so much, it’s literally like comparing apples to oranges. One thing’s for sure: he would end the collocation of charter and non-charter (their terms) schools. Thompson thinks the promise of mayoral control has not been fully realized; there’s been too much emphasis on standardized testing versus preparing students to think critically. He also gave a nod to improved curriculum. Quinn thinks progress has been made, but not enough. Under Bloomberg’s tenure, there are lots more specialized schools, but the overall system needs to do a better job of focusing on educating the whole child.

Vilson: I’m not sold on mayoral control as a policy at all. I don’t know of any city that’s done mayoral control well yet. While it’s true that “democratically elected” school boards have worked well, we have to come up with a better system of assuring that the elected officials we put in office can’t corrupt or politicize (too much) what actually works for children. Until then, we need to make our checks and balances really work for the people, not just for the very few.

Pick A Policy You Would Implement

Liu said he’d put in more guidance counselors. He thinks having more counselors would relieve the current (absurd) workloads our guidance counselors face. Thompson thinks the next chancellor should be a real educator, and that there should be a moratorium on school closings. Allon thinks we should end standardized testing for children from 1st through 5th grade, and have things like a richer science curriculum. Quinn wants to tone down the rhetoric of blaming teachers. She also thinks DOE should have a better strategy for intervening in schools before any shutdown occurs. [I missed what DeBlasio said here.]

Vilson: While I agree with everyone on the panel about their policies, I might also add that we need to reduce (in consortium with other departments within the NYC government) a way to reduce child poverty.

On Whether The Next Chancellor Should Be An Educator

Four of five said the next chancellor should, with Allon as the only dissenter. Thompson said he would search for the best and brightest outside of the current DOE. DeBlasio said that the mayor can choose the next chancellor, but he or she ought to have a public screening, and not forced down our throats. He alluded to the way Cathie Black was chosen as chancellor. Allon included these “eclectic” names to his pool of candidates for education head honcho: education researcher extraordinaire Linda Darling-Hammond, former NYC head of instruction Eric Nadelstern, president of Hunter College Jennifer Rabb, and Louisiana Schools chief John White, the last of whom drew groans from the audience. In response to whether he would choose someone from within the current DOE, Liu said there are certainly lots of hardworking and dedicated people within the current DOE, but he would broaden his search to include people from outside. Quinn didn’t want to rule anyone out because they worked under any particular administration or because they don’t exactly have the resume. She mentions Rabb as an example of someone with no education experience, but still manages to run Hunter very well.

Vilson: I agree with Liu that I wouldn’t limit my search because there are people within DOE who haven’t been “corrupted” and who might bring some perspective of what’s right and wrong with the current NYC system. Having said that, having fresh blood and having little tie-in or experience with any of the NYC politics from the last decade and a half might serve education well. What matters most to me is that the chancellor is in fact an educator and prioritizes children over contracts.

Merit Pay

Four out of five teachers didn’t like merit pay for the individual, Allon again dissenting. DeBlasio thinks merit pay isn’t a proven reform policy, but sees lots of progress with tenure reform. Allon agrees with merit payand having tiers for teachers’ careers. He also wants to weaken tenure. Liu questions what people mean by the issue of merit. He says most teachers want a real evaluation system, but it needs to actually reflect their teaching. He cited the teacher data reports as an example of reform gone wrong. He found some of the margins of error (anywhere from 45-50%!) render the entire teacher data report program useless. Liu also said that you can’t start your state of the city address by badmouthing teachers. Thompson doesn’t want to take anything off the table, but merit pay just hasn’t worked in NYC in any of the programs that have run through here. Thompson favors supporting teachers because, if they are leaving at the 50% clip per five years that Allon mentions, it means the system has to do a better job of supporting them when they walk in. Plus, education is a collaborative process. Quinn gives props to Newark for working with their teachers union’ (so did DeBlasio). She believes that incentivizing teachers who work at the lowest performing schools in the highest need areas is a good policy. She also believes the reason why merit pay hasn’t worked is because teachers didn’t come to education for the money, and don’t work on commission. They came for the kids.

Vilson: Frankly, teachers should get paid more period. No merit pay individually, by school, or any other demographic. I agree that we need tenure reform because most teachers actually want a real evaluation process, but one that comes from real educators doing real work, not an arbitrary measure by people untrained or uninterested in real education. Notice my emphases.

Collocation

Quinn wouldn’t end collocation of public / charter schools, but she would want to see some tweaks to the system. DeBlasio thinks the root of the problem (and many others) is that, at this point, DOE has ignored the voice of parents experiencing collocation. All the checks and balances like the CECs and PEP should be democratic avenues where parents and others can initiate dialogue about what’s happening in schools, not “kangaroo courts” that rubberstamp everything the mayor says. Thompson gives us a narrative of what collocation looks like: the charter side gets the fresh paint and clean hallways where the public side gets looks dingy and unkempt. Plus, in this debate, he alludes to the argument of charters versus non-charters as uneven since charter schools serve 50 thousand students whereas public schools serve one million students, so the argument isn’t as clear to him. Thompson also drops the “equity” word, thinking that, if collocation does continue, we need to reform how we support both public and charter schools equitably. Allon mentions that charters started as labs for innovation, but lost their way along the way. He thinks new reforms can pull it back to its original vision. He also cites the Frank McCourt School as a place where charter and public co-exist in a good partnership.

Liu retorts that the McCourt school is an exception. He would put a temporary moratorium on collocation until a real system where all sides can sit and work out differences is worked out. Allon pulls the conversation back to small schools, which he mentions is a Gates Foundation creation. He then says Bill Gates refuted his own work on small schools later on. It’s probably one of the biggest failures of the current administration. Quinn brings it back to leadership, and the need for great principals. Professional development of teachers comes from great principals, she says.

Vilson: Collocation is more often than not a disastrous undertaking. While some may not see it at first hand, it does something to the psyche of kids knowing that, in the same exact building, there are two or three separate schools, all of which get separate and unequal treatment. Thompson mentioned that some schools have access to the gym or the auditorium (and it’s normally given to the charter), and I agree. If indeed charters are as public as some say they are, they should have the same resources the public school does.

Class Size

Liu thinks class size matters, and as the comptroller, he thinks people present a false choice between the cost of having more teachers and the having smaller class size. He says we have a bank of teachers being underutilized, too. Allon finds it tough to do for 1.1 million kids, but says that DOE would need to prioritize. Having small class size in the early grades specifically matters, along with having expanded curriculum in science and language for them matters, too, just like private schools do. Thompson prioritizes time on task, and includes having better after-school and extended time programs for kids. DeBlasio emphasizes he stands with parents, and thinks that some of the money can be found in the DOE contracts signed to third-party vendors. Quinn agrees with most of these positions, but wants to see a long term plan for what happens when the country gets out of the recession. She also includes bilingual classes as needing smaller class size.

Vilson: We need to have lower class size across the board. Say what you will about any recent research, but anyone who’s spent time in the classroom can tell you how much more effective they are when they’re working with 20 students instead of 25 / 30 / 40 at a time.We should reduce class size across the board, but start with the early grades because little children probably do need more attention.

Mayoral Control Pt. 2: Would They Keep It?

Every candidate wants it, but with their modifications. Adding to what I’ve already written above, Quinn wants to make the NYC Department of Education a full city agency, so the city council can have the legislative power to make amends. Instead of trekking it up to Albany, parents can speak to their local superintendents or their local city councilman. Allon calls mayoral control a red herring, like standardized testing, because what really matters is teacher preparation and making sure the teacher in front of the classroom is at their best. Liu supported mayoral control when it first started, but he wanted more accountability, but control in the way it’s implemented now. He would want to push it back to the original vision of mayoral control. Thompson says that mayoral control is really about who the mayor is. He wants more collaboration in the department, and real leadership as well.

Vilson’s Overview

Generally, I agreed with almost everyone on their education perspective. I was particularly surprised with Allon namedropping Linda Darling-Hammond as a potential chancellor of schools. Allon seems to have positioned himself as a worldly education savant, whereas everyone else sounded more concerned with local politics. Allon was the only one of the four who hadn’t worked recently for local government. I liked Quinn’s views on whole child education. I appreciated DeBlasio’s voice on democratizing our education process. I’ve supported both Liu’s and Thompson’s points of view multiple times.

I would like to see who they choose as their advisers on education. Not specifically asking they choose me, but if they choose a K-12 teacher who knows what they’re talking about, I could ride with four out of five. I take issue with Allon thinking standardized testing is a red herring when we spend far too much time on it and not enough on actual learning. I take some issue with Quinn’s role in ensuring Bloomberg’s third term.

Today’s platform definitely developed very clear lanes for the candidates today. Let’s see what they do with it.

Jose, who thanks Philissa Cramer for the invite …

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