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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

How Public Is the Public School System?

By Peter DeWitt — September 21, 2013 4 min read
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When I was a teacher working in a small city school, the superintendent was married to the mayor of the city. Some of the board members worked for the mayor, and some of the school employees were related in some way to the superintendent. It was a good place to work, but it seemed like it was more of the superintendent’s kingdom rather than a school district. When I spoke with my former colleagues I told them the story of the small city school kingdom and they couldn’t believe that a school district like that existed.

Unfortunately, our present leadership at the state level in NY is not that different. It seems as though most people at the top know one another, are related in some way, and those in the trenches can’t help but feel frustrated. It seems like an insiders’ system in which the connected and powerful run the show. And the public has very little input.

The most powerful player of all is NY State Board of Regent Chancellor (since 2009) Merryl Tisch. A 2009 NY Times article that introduced her said, “Speaking to a group of Catholic educators in a conference room high above First Avenue, Merryl H. Tisch interrupted a dry barrage of bureaucratic references to attendance mandates and Title 2A with a seeming non sequitur.”

The N.Y. Times article went on to say,

When my refrigerator is broken, I don't call the service department," said Dr. Tisch, the newly elected chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents and, by marriage, part of one of New York's wealthiest families. "I call the head of G.E."

Tisch’s relationships are awe inspiring. In the same 2009 Times article, we learned that, “She has enjoyed a decades-long friendship with her Upper East Side neighbor Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. She has celebrated Passover Seders with Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein. She counts among her closest friends Iris Weinshall, the wife of Senator Charles E. Schumer.”

Believe me, I understand that connections are important. Everyone has said at some point in their lives that getting a job is about, “who you know.” However, I have always held the belief that public schools were community based and designed to be responsive to the public.

But now we know there was very little public input into issues like evaluation and the adoption of the Common Core State Standards. Parents, teachers, students and educated professionals at the “ground level” are showing concern about the Common Core State Standards and the developmental appropriateness of them (Read here).

It just seems that something troubling is happening now and decision making power is being shifted from local school boards to Albany. The connections at the top, and the control and money that they have, gives an oversized role to Ms. Tisch and her friends.

How Public is the Public School System?
A 2011 NY Times article (Winerip) stated,

In December, the chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents,Merryl H. Tisch, announced a new program: 13 research fellows would be selected to advise the education commissioner and the 17-member board. The fellows would be paid as much as $189,000 each, in private money; to date, $4.5 million has been raised, including $1 million donated by Dr. Tisch, a member of one of New York's wealthiest families."

The same 2011 Times article went on to say,

Public education has never been so divided, between those like Dr. Tisch, Commissioner John B. King Jr. and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg who support the Obama administration's signature Race to the Top initiative and its emphasis on standardized tests and charter schools; and dissenters on the board, who call it a Race to the Bottom and put their faith in teachers as well as traditional public schools. The Race to the Bottom folks warn that the supposedly free fellows come at a stiff political price."

There are two ways to look at the Fellows and donations that put them in place. One might see their appointment as needed help at a time of change, financed by generous donors. On the other hand, their appointment can be viewed as a gross attempt by Ms. Tisch to impose her will on the State Education Department and its policies. After all, when she has a problem with her refrigerator she calls the head of G.E....

Death Penalty for Public Schools?
In schools we have a shared decision-making process. The people who share in the decision may not agree with everything but they agree to what will be the strongest decision from the collective wisdom of everyone on the committee. It’s not easy, and getting people who are typically on opposite sides of the fence is a difficult process. However, “at the end of the day”, it’s about making the best decision for all of the stakeholders in the school.

Public school advocates are thankful for regents such as Kathleen Cashin, Roger Tilles, Betty Rosa, and former regent Saul Cohen because they speak up against the grain...when they get the opportunity. Winerip went on to write, “Saul B. Cohen, a former president of Queens College who retired in December after 18 years as a regent, is angry that the board was not consulted about selecting the fellows. “They’re supposed to be advising us, but we had no role,” he said.”

Since the appointment of the fellows, public educators’ trust in the in New York State Education Department has dwindled to nothing. Unfortunately, looking back at those articles makes me feel as though the public should have seen this coming, especially when we consider the recent comments by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

During a speech in Western N.Y. Governor Cuomo asked for a “A death penalty for failing schools, so to speak.” Although he mentioned failing schools, Governor Cuomo has not been supportive of public schools for quite some time. Times Union (Albany) writer Fred Lebrun responded by writing,

So who or what would the governor sacrifice with a death penalty for failing? The teachers and administrators? He's been beating that dog over public education ills across the state for two years now. Enough. It was insulting to begin with and is now just infuriating and grossly unfair. Andrew Cuomo has done more to demean public education and those who try to make it work than anyone in the history of the state."

What Needs to Change?
There was a time when I thought my experience in the small city school district was unique, and that no other school district in the state could be run as if it was a kingdom. I can now see that I was naïve because the state’s public education system seems to be a kingdom that very few of us have access to.

I am not a conspiracy theorist, and I value the government, but I value a government that runs effectively. Over the past few years there has been an increase in testing, teacher and administrator evaluation are all tied to assessments that educators only see on the day of the test, and everything seems to be run top-down...and now they are facing a death penalty.

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Update (9/23): Included new link on concern about the CCSS to recent story in Maryland.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.