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He's Back! Cortines Tackles New Job at ED

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Ramon C. Cortines is working in Washington--again.

He's here to get a major project started--again.

He promises his stay will be temporary--again.

The Clinton administration's jack-of-all trades returned to the Department of Education a few months ago--this time to lay the groundwork for the president's new national testing plan.

In his previous tenure here in the early 1990s, Mr. Cortines helped select the team to run the department during the president's first term. He had the chance to stay on in a high-level job, but instead went to New York City in late 1993 to serve as chancellor of the public schools there.

Even after his rocky tour in New York ended in October 1995, he shunned Washington and returned to his native California. From there, he was a part-time adviser to the department on urban education.

Now, he's back in Washington, but not planning to stay.

Mr. Cortines said he likes his new assignment as acting assistant secretary for educational research and improvement. But he doesn't want it to last past August.

"People ask me what I do; I tell them: 'I'm a teacher,'" he said.

When he led the San Francisco Unified School District from 1986 through 1992, he was a substitute teacher several days every year. In New York, he once broke up a fistfight in a school.

But his current post as a high-level federal official leaves him little time to be in classrooms.

"In this job, it is easy to lose sight of what we're about: the improvement of teaching and learning," Mr. Cortines said.

A Testing Diplomat

Once he's done here, he will head back to Stanford University, where he runs a school reform project working with seven school districts. He also will remain on call for Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley.

The latter job makes him "the Henry Kissinger of the Department of Education," Mr. Cortines said. He seeks support for department policies, advises superintendents who call with questions, and performs "all other duties as assigned," he joked.

Even though Mr. Cortines prefers the classroom, he's willing to dedicate his energy to the bureaucracy for now. Mr. Clinton's planned voluntary national assessments of 4th graders' reading and 8th graders' math competence, he said, will be a learning tool for teachers, administrators, and parents.

"We've talked about standards a great deal in the past five years, but we've not had the accountability," he said in his office in the American Federation of Teachers' headquarters five blocks from the Capitol--space the department leases. "For the first time, we're beginning to correlate the testing process" with standards.

With the individual student data that Mr. Clinton's tests will yield, parents will know exactly what and how well their children are learning, administrators will understand what changes they need to make to their curricula, and teachers will learn about their strengths and weaknesses in the classroom, he said.

"This test will help us to deal with the issue of lifelong learning, not only for parents, but for the professional educator," he said. "If it doesn't influence the pre-service and professional development of teachers, then we're missing the boat."

Critics of the testing plan counter that the federal government should not be involved in collecting student data and that any national tests would be too far removed from classroom practice to be useful to teachers.

But Mr. Cortines said educators already have learned valuable lessons from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study. In results released this month, the study showed that American 4th graders are near the top in science achievement and are above the international norm in mathematics. ("4th Graders Do Well in Math, Science Study," June 18, 1997.)

"I hope the nation will begin to look and see that a majority of teachers are doing a hell of a job," he said. "But I hope people don't take satisfaction with them. I hope it motivates them."

While that is the aim of Mr. Clinton's proposal, its design is unlikely to give that information, one testing expert said.

"It doesn't give the kind of background information that the TIMSS does," said Gerald E. Sroufe, the director of governmental and professional liaison for the Washington, D.C.-based American Educational Research Association.

Peripatetic Path

Since leaving his job as San Francisco's superintendent in 1992, Mr. Cortines has crisscrossed the country.

First, he chaired the Department of Education task force on President-elect Clinton's transition team, helping select people for key positions. He also secured his own nomination as assistant secretary for intergovernmental and interagency affairs.

But he left for the New York City job in September of 1993 before the Senate confirmed him in the intergovernmental post. After two tumultuous years in New York, he resigned after a well-publicized fight with Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani over control over the schools. ("Cortines Resigns as N.Y.C. Schools Chancellor," June 21, 1995.)

Despite the political spats that marred his tenure, test scores improved throughout the system.

"We proved that those children have just as much potential as kids in Middle America," Mr. Cortines said.

He then went back to the West Coast, where he balanced the two roles for Stanford and the Department of Education. Now he's back in the capital in a temporary job.

His biggest task is to ensure that the 4th grade reading test and the 8th grade math test are ready, as the president has promised, in the spring of 1999.

He has hired nine testing experts to review proposals from outside contractors and to oversee their work.

But he's not committed to staying. "I wouldn't want to be here forever," Mr. Cortines said.

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