Education Opinion

Commissioner King at a Dangerous Crossroad

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — October 15, 2013 5 min read
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Carol Burris, Long Island’s award winning principal has written a piece that captures the field response to the New York State Reform Agenda and the man who represents it, Commissioner John King. She argues that part of the problem is that he did not come up through the system where he would have learned to deal with “emotional and boisterous groups.” She ends her piece saying:

In many ways, it is a sad tale. One might imagine that if John King had first been a principal of a New York City public school, or the superintendent of a district, he would have become skilled in dealing with emotional and boisterous groups. In doing small-scale reforms in a district, he could have practiced effective pacing. John King would know, as Sergiovanni taught, that the heart of good leadership is the development of followership. Without followership, no reform has a chance.

We don’t agree that coming through the system necessarily prepares you for what he endured at his recent forums, but we do agree that pacing and followership is important... especially if you have time, the change required is small and you intend to lead rather than disrupt. Herein is where the questions about intention arise.

On Sunday, October 13th, we posted a piece about respect and civility based upon King’s Poughkeepsie meeting. In it we considered questions about the behavior of the audience. Respect and civility are increasingly perceived to be signs of weakness in America. Public contempt for individuals with positional authority is blatant. At a moment when issues are exceedingly complex, we strive for simple answers. Is that possible?

Burris’ account of the history of this implementation is accurate. It has been fast and laden with accountability for everyone in the system. The field believes King is unable or unwilling to listen. Burris reports that his responses were defensive, and as a the result, people felt they were told they were wrong or misinformed. King’s unfortunate statements following the Poughkeepsie meeting regarding the audience being co-opted by special interest groups gave confirmation that he was discounting the audience.

We could not continue to fund a public system where so many children were not successful. If we can accept that as a starting point, perhaps dialogue can occur. In the midst of anger, frustration and fear, let’s as leaders, be clear. The Reform agenda was launched by a Board of Regents, led by Chancellor Meryl Tisch, before John King became Commissioner. As with every board, the Regents looked to the CEO to carry out the agenda. With determination, he is. And, if being heard means hitting the pause button, taking a reflective break, or easing off any part of the reform or its speed, then he is not listening to the field.

In Poughkeepsie, a woman in the audience addressed the Commissioner with, “You are a Nazi” and held out the straight-arm salute, so offensive an expression it is now outlawed in Germany, Austria, and the Czech Republic. Will that really help? Will it cause him to change his position? If anything, it contributed to his entrenchment in the belief that the audience was a host of interest groups concerned more with self-interest than with children. Are we are the stalemate where no reasonable people can enter with a thoughtful dialogue and make good decisions about the system, children and change? It depends. Does the field object too much to being pushed about by an intelligent, young black leader, with an ivy-league education and a charter school background, for him to accomplish anything? Or does his personality render him unable to captain the ship through this storm?

Let us stand as models and engage with our reformers with dignity while we protect the children from what we can. He, alone, cannot be blamed for making schools environments of stress for children; we are doing that with him. As parents and educators, protecting children from stress and danger is paramount. Teaching them how to work through it is our job. In most school districts, this imperfect reform agenda is being implemented with purposeful compliance. Leaders, teachers, parents and students are doing it as best they can. We are in this now. On the ground, in the field, we fight against the imperfect parts while keeping the school experience a healthy one for our students. In the rush forward, errors are being made and children are hurting. Teachers are too.

Former Commissioner Tom Sobol, in his book, My Life in School, described his own his experience of being derided first, for being chosen (albeit the second choice) as Commissioner. He had always worked in schools in wealthy communities and there were educators who thought he wouldn’t be able to truly understand their needs and concerns. And then, as he ushered in the New Compact for Learning, and a valiant effort at creating an inclusive curriculum he reports,

Neither the Board of Regents nor I was riding on a long crescendo of acclaim during those years. From the time A Curriculum of Inclusion first appeared, much of the press and many people in public life and academia assaulted my motives, my plans, my intelligence, even my good faith. Time magazine wrote, “American kids are getting a new - and divisive--view of Thomas Jefferson, Thanksgiving, and the Fourth of July...The Wall Street Journal, in an article called ‘Curriculum of Diversion,’ opined that ‘little is likely to be accomplished until educators stop chasing the latest fad and get back to basics (p. 117).

He too had to hunker down and endure the attacks. But in Sobol’s case, he understood something else.

Our education reform plan had to build on what people wanted. We would have to do a lot of listening...The meetings (around the state) were open to everyone, but were attended mostly by parents, teachers, and administrators...After the hearings we would talk in the car, on the drive back, about what we had heard” (p.119).

If we are to influence changes to the process, how shall we proceed? One of our followers noted, “Respect and civility matter. However failure to listen and create understanding leads to (and is) disrespect.” How insightful. The lack of listening is both. It is disrespectful and it generates disrespect in return. So, will the Commissioner continue to dig in his heels, batten down the hatches, and move forward? Will some among us rise, not in hostility or opposition, but with the wisdom of elders to guide and open a path? There are among us those who have suffered the joy and pain of our work, who have the experience of age and a dose of common sense to dispense. They are those who can see beyond the battlefield to the new land and who can guide the young warrior if he listens. We must try again, and again, in another way, in another forum, with our bridge builders at the helm. We think another man named King would agree.

Sobol, Tom (2013). My Life In School. Scarsdale, New York: Public Schools of Tomorrow

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.