Thursday, April 28, 2011

Assessing New York’s Commissioner of Education

Peter Meyer with a well-deserved profile of NY State Ed Commissioner David Steiner, who regrettably is leaving that position (but not the bigger fight):

David Steiner's leaving rattled people. His elevation to head the state's education system in October of 2009 had been hailed as a providential pick. With a philosophy degree from Oxford and a doctorate in political science from Harvard, and following stints at the National Endowment for the Arts and Boston University's School of Education, he was most recently head of Hunter College's School of Education. Steiner, then just 51, was the education reform world's dream because he was an insider. And he charged out of the gate, instituting tougher benchmarks for the state's 3–8 tests, initiating a major effort to write a statewide curriculum, and leading the charge to win a berth in the Race to the Top winner's circle.

…Saying that Tisch had "plucked" him out of academia to "plant a vision," to find the funding for it, and to launch a radical reformation of the New York education system, Steiner is satisfied that "we've done that…. Chapter one is written. The key to chapter two is grinding implementation. And if you know me, you know that is not what I'm suited for."

Indeed, Steiner's chapter one is not a bad start. When I first interviewed him last December, he seemed fully engaged in the grinding implementation. Though he admitted that "the economic conditions on the ground are a huge, huge contextual challenge," I was less interested in those challenges than in how, in a few short months, he had helped turn the Empire State from a poster child for education indolence, overregulation, overspending, and underperformance—an also-ran in Education Next's poll of expected RttT winners (see—into an animated system with audacious academic strategies and goals, new (and higher) standards, aggressive timelines for meeting those goals, and, defying the odds, a silver medal and $700 million for finishing second in last summer's RttT competition.

It is in that story that we can understand the bittersweet feeling of many New York educators that they have lost their leader before they got to the Promised Land.

Perhaps it was all just a coincidence, but David Steiner was the right man, in the right place, at the right time. He was savvy enough to understand the importance of Race to the Top and able enough to turn the state's education energies toward it.

The article has a nice mention of DFER's critical role in the reform bills Albany passed (somewhat miraculously):

They were helped by a lobbying blitzkrieg led by Joe Williams and former Bloomberg campaign manager Bradley Tusk, who put together, with ample funds from Wall Street, Education Reform Now (ERN), a group with a single purpose: to bring the state legislature into the RttT reform fold.

Williams spread ERN money around on everything from brochures and mailings to door knocking in key legislative districts. "We ran $4 to $5 million worth of television ads," Williams recalls, "blaming the teachers union for losing the chance to win $700 million in round one and urging the legislature to bring home the money for New York."

The Williams team crafted a campaign not about teacher evaluations or firewalls or charter schools, but about "whether New York should get $700 million from Obama," says Williams. "We wanted this to be an up or down vote on progress and the money."

"The union, in my view, did not want to be blamed for not getting Race to the Top," recalls Joel Klein, then chancellor of New York City's public schools, which enrolled almost half the K–12 students in the state. "But I don't think for a second that they were prepared to agree with lifting the [charter school] cap….

…But ERN had also found the key public relations nuance that made the money work: Walking away from $700 million in a recession was not smart. No one would get lost in the weeds on that message.

…It was important enough to New York's legislature that, on Friday, May 28, just a few days shy of the June 1 deadline, the Senate and Assembly voted on Chapters 100, 101, 102, and 103 of the Laws of 2010, to remake the teacher evaluation process—40 percent of the "composite effectiveness score" would be based on student achievement—allow for 260 more charter schools, and appropriate $20.4 million for a new longitudinal data system.

"It was an extraordinary moment," says Steiner, who had gone to the Assembly Hall at three in the morning with Tisch and King to watch the vote. "I had tears in my eyes."

"What had been considered impossible months before was now a done deal," recalls Williams.

Here's the conclusion:

Steiner could have stayed, but he may be a man who knows his gifts and his abilities as well as his limitations. One of those limitations, in the political world, is his unflinching ability to see past the politics. He's a "wonderful man," said one insider, "but he is an academic thrown into a knife fight—usually not a good thing."

"I suspect the endless political battles wore on him," says Whitney Tilson, the hedge-funder turned education reformer. "Given the vicious, and I use that word deliberately, tactics often employed by defenders of the status quo, reformers need to have absolutely extraordinary levels of stamina, patience, thick skin, and a willingness to do battle in dirty, muddy trenches every day. I know I couldn't do it—it drives me nuts just watching it!"

"The part of David Steiner that will be missed," says Joe Williams, "is the refreshing disrespect he paid to the education bureaucracy." That may be true or not, but it is true that Steiner had a surprising success turning that bureaucracy around. Finding the person who can steer it through a radically changed landscape will be New York's next challenge.


Assessing New York's Commissioner of Education

With Steiner's sudden resignation, will the state continue its Race to the Top?

By Peter Meyer

Summer 2011 / Vol. 11, No. 3

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