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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Should N.Y. State Commissioner King Be ‘Optimistic?’

By Peter DeWitt — November 06, 2013 4 min read
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I am incredibly optimistic about where we are in this work.” N.Y. State Commissioner John King

In Can You Listen Too Well? (Educational Leadership. 2013) Thomas Hoerr wrote,

Listening is something all good leaders do. Sure, leaders have vision and they frame issues and they make hard decisions, but listening is what distinguishes leaders who care about the people with whom they work from leaders who are only concerned about getting the job done. Good leaders solicit input, they welcome feedback, and they take the time to hear what is being said."

Most of us who are school leaders have structures in place that help keep the lines of communication open. We may have a Principal’s Advisory Council (PAC), faculty meetings, PTA and scheduled time to meet with our building level union leaders. We also schedule time with students and keep our doors open so they can come to us with a problem. If we stay focused in those conversations, and really listen, we can better meet our goals.

In his article, Hoerr raises a good point when he asks, “But is it possible to listen too well? Can there be a cost to being too good of a listener?” He is not trying to make the point that school leaders shouldn’t listen. Quite the contrary, but he does suggest that we move forward...with as many stakeholders as possible. He wrote,

I don't listen nearly as well as I should (doing better at listening is always one of my annual goals), but I routinely survey my teachers. I ask for their thoughts about the August inservice training, I periodically touch base during the year to see how things are going, and in the spring I request their feedback about my performance: "What should Tom stop, what should Tom start, and what should Tom continue doing?"

Unfortunately, N.Y. State Commissioner John King either didn’t read Thomas Hoerr’s article or he missed the point.

Ignorance is Bliss?

Recently, at the New York State School Boards Association Conference (NYSSBA) John King gave an interview where he said, “I am incredibly optimistic about where we are in this work,” - though he acknowledged “it is hard.”


After one PTA meeting in Spackenkill, NY, John King cancelled the rest of the PTA sponsored Town Hall Forums scheduled around the state. The crowd was so angry that the state police had to be present. A week later, he rescheduled a “Listening” tour and did his first one at Harriet Myers Middle School in Albany. Most of the attendees there were not supportive.

In his Educational Leadership article, Hoerr wrote, “I often solicit parents’ thoughts about their children’s education. Each spring, parents receive a survey of a dozen questions, including some that ask whether I have been friendly and supportive and whether they feel their child’s individual needs have been met.” Many school leaders reach out and ask those questions, and it’s important that parents feel as though their feedback was heard, and that something is changing.

It makes me wonder whether Commissioner King has been listening. If he has been, he has no reason to suggest that he is optimistic. Who is he talking with that provided him with the impression that he should be optimistic?

In the past year John King has taken a great deal of grief. The New York State Education Department (NYSED), under the guise of Chancellor Merryl Tisch and John King, forced schools to implement the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in a way that make many educators and parents question the legitimacy of the Common Core...they aligned high stakes tests to the CCSS, and tied them to teacher and administrator evaluation. It was the first time teacher and administrator evaluation was a mandated law.

A month before the test scores were even given, King said that scores were going to be very low across the state. The scores came out about 5 months after the tests were given, without an item analysis to help schools understand where instruction needs to improve, and many parents across the state sent their scores back to the state education department. It’s partly why the forum in Spackenkill went so badly.

I’ve been a leader for a little under 8 years, but if my parents were that upset with what I was doing in the building, I would not be optimistic, and I certainly would be looking for a new job. We do not get a second chance to make a first impression, and there is too much at stake.

King said, “There’s no question that the work of implementing higher standards, raising the bar for students, the work of transforming the way we evaluate teachers and principals - all of that is hard work and it’s challenging work. But I’m incredibly optimistic because of the leadership in this room.” I wonder how optimistic the leadership in the room felt?

In the End

N.Y. State public education is in desperate need of experienced leadership. Someone with teaching experience, building and district experience, who can meet with all stakeholders and rebuild relationships with school leaders, teachers and parents. Someone who understands what students need. Someone who can provide a moratorium on testing to give time to adapt to the other changes we are going through. We no longer need leaders who cancel meetings and reschedule them under a new name. And we need a change from someone who creates more and more accountability without giving proper direction.

Instead of working with schools and parents, Commissioner King merely shows up to “listen” and then leaves the forums saying that he is “optimistic.” If cancelling meetings with parents because it was too tough wasn’t a sign of poor leadership....his comments at the New York State School Boards Association Conference certainly were.

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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.