What I Learned At The City Hall / Gotham Schools Panel on Education

Jose Vilson Education, Jose

New York's City Hall

Amazing that, in the midst of getting ready for school, I had enough time to get in an important policy panel today. Before it started, there was already lots of controversy, primarily with the preliminary list lacking teachers of any variety. Eventually, rumor had it that education professor Diane Ravitch declined her invitation to the panel because of the lack of teacher voice. After including Leo Casey and Stephen Lazar, there was further discussion about Educators for Excellence’s Sydney Morris’ presence, drawing attention to what many of us feel is a right-of-center lean for Gotham Schools. Others saw the panel as a way for City Hall News to put themselves at the center of the debate for NYC education. As for me, I came in hoping not to say a word, as I’ve probably said far too much this summer and didn’t get to listen enough.

Full disclosure: Stephen Lazar himself invited me as his guest to the panel yesterday.

These were some of my big takeaways from the panel. I didn’t put them in any particular time order. That’s why I blog and not “report.”:

1. Every time I think I know enough of the “important” people in education, I see a whole new set of people I didn’t consider in this conversation. Out of the 60-80 people who went, I probably knew eight on some level besides the panelists. NYC has its own set of politics that isolates New York from the rest of the state and the country in ways they’re probably aware of.

2. Only one of the panelists (former Comptroller / President of NYC Board of Education and probable mayoral candidate Bill Thompson) was of color. No Asians, Latinos, or indigenous people were included in the panel otherwise. To wit, when Thompson walked into the building at the same time I did, they either didn’t know who he was or thought I was part of his entourage. Was it that I was well dressed? -ahem-

3. Despite the balanced panel of divergent thinkers on education, the audience appreciated UFT VP of Academic High Schools Leo Casey (who got the first round of applause), teacher Stephen Lazar (who got the second round of applause), and chancellor of the NY State Board of Regents Merryl Tisch (who got the third round of applause). Leo’s round of applause came from acknowledging and proffering that teaching is itself a difficult job, so we need to respect that. Stephen got his from saying that teachers don’t get that trust and respect as professionals when some of the state oversights indicate that they can’t re-check state tests, for example. Merryl Tisch said, in response to Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky, that just because students are graduating at higher rates doesn’t make them readier for college. They’re more in need of remediation, and going to two-year colleges to finally get ready for college. Speaking of which …

4. A couple of people commented to me in private that some of these politicians were really liberals at heart, to which I responded that it’s important to look at their actions. Merryl Tisch, for instance, said some really awesome things today about concentrating on core curricula as the center for the classroom and not an assessment. Yet, the teacher evaluation model the Board of Regents has proposed (and was eventually struck down by the courts yesterday) indicated a lack of continuity on that ideal. How do we bridge that gap between ideals and action?

5. I believe Sydney Morris got one question directed to her throughout the panel, and she probably participated four times in the panel, much fewer than Stephen, and far less than everyone else. The panel was politics driven, with Bill and Shael debating and Merryl commenting passionately as well.

6. CEO of Success Charter Network Eva Moskowitz mentioned that the politics in education is formidable, and she thought that she left politics to get into education. I questioned under my breath whether she realizes that her skills as a politician enabled her to move her agenda in a neighborhood like Harlem. She also clumsily walked away from Leo Casey’s argument that privatization is ruining public education as a public good. She had one good thing to say today around making principals into instructional leaders in her schools. I just wonder what might come of some of the coverage around teacher and principal attrition at her schools. Then again, she left before people could ask questions of her, indicative of what people see as an aloofness on her part.

7. Shael Suransky assured the moderators about the oversights that NYC has for its tests, and went through an extensive list of procedures. Bill Thompson discussed the extensive audit his office did during his time as comptroller and agreed in general with Shael’s assessment. He also added that NYC needs to be careful that, in times of high stakes testing like now, there still are some gaps in these procedures. To that end, he said, NYC can’t have enough assurances to make sure that what happened in other major cities doesn’t happen here.

8. The sitting professor on the panel, Hunter College public policy professor Joseph Viteritti, did a great job of bringing context around mayoral control. He essentially said that those checks that intended to democratize mayoral control haven’t worked. “It remains to be seen” whether mayoral control has actually worked as a whole. He also questioned the extensive use of non-educators to run the largest school system in the nation. He dropped the Cathleen Black bomb (thank you), and then said, “By the time Dennis Walcott became chancellor, it was fortuitous that, while he wasn’t an educator, he had already been in the education business long enough to know the business.” Insightful.

9. One of the moderators posed the question about getting a new contract for teachers. Shael thought there would be a chance under Bloomberg so long as all parties came to the table with the same understandings. He also wondered how much anyone could really ask for in these times of economic crisis. Bill thought there’d be no chance because of Bloomberg’s attitude towards municipal workers as a whole. Plus, Bill points out the elephant in the room: union leaders feel with Bloomberg that they’d rather wait for the “next guy.” As Shael and Bill debated, Bill retorted that the current administration’s stance has taken on a flavor of “us vs. them” that wouldn’t allow for mutual respect between parties in good faith to negotiate contract. Merryl shifted the question towards finance, essentially saying that, for all the raises that have happened in teacher salaries, student achievement hasn’t changed much.

10. Overall, the panel felt informative and nuanced. I’m sure WNET, Gotham Schools, and City Hall News will have more on this. I appreciated being there if only to see the perspectives of elected officials and powerful individuals talk about their vision for education. I ignored the first icebreaker question (“What is the purpose of public education?”) because of the generic answers there.

11. While other outlets will certainly pick apart the arguments made by Thompson, Suransky, Tisch, and Moskowitz for stories, I must say I enjoyed Leo Casey’s voice. He sounded confident, calm, and on message. He tailored the message to people who didn’t get why so many of us are angry, and that’s what we needed.

12. Overall, I also must give props to the guy who invited me, Stephen Lazar. Not only did he prove that teacher voice mattered, he probably got some of the biggest reactions from the audience and the panel, an otherwise respectful and still set of individuals. When asked about retaining the best and brightest teachers, Stephen Lazar said that he would never say he doesn’t want more money, but the best way to reward the best and brightest teachers is by giving them autonomy and respect. If he can prove, for instance, that he can get students to go well on the social studies Regents exam for five consecutive years, then they should release him from the chains of those Regents so he can actually get his students to think. Some on the panel crossed their legs harder, a couple winced, and Bill Thompson’s eyes jumped out of his head with excitement.

That’s why, before this panel, I contended that it didn’t matter if we had an exact counter to Sydney Morris, because Stephen couching his arguments in policy as practice would be enough to give him leverage on the panel. I don’t know Sydney personally, but, other than the 3,000 teachers she says helped propose policy for NYC, she didn’t have much to contribute. I constantly advocate for more voices to get out there besides mine. On the other hand, panelists consistently prompted Stephen where they could. I appreciate all the panels I’ve been invited to, but I don’t always have to speak on behalf of teachers. Further, I don’t always think of the same two or three people when I consider who should speak on behalf of teachers. Even some of our activist-type groups still get stuck in the same structures we’re fighting against.

I’ve already gone way over my word count, though. Giving others equal voice matters.

Jose, who keeps it honest even with his compatriots …

p.s. – I started the hashtag #GSonED on Twitter, and others commented under that. In case you missed it, here were the tweets in real time.