For New Schools Chief, a Policy Statement in Tones of Harmony
A nice cover story in today's NYT about Dennis Walcott (with a quote from DFER's Joe Williams):
Three months after his surprise ascension to head the nation's largest school system amid its worst leadership crisis in recent memory, Mr. Walcott, 59, has worked hard to improve the administration's relationships with key constituencies through frequent, sometimes unannounced, school visits and constant contact with the teachers' union. But even after a tumultuous year in which parents, educators and advocates were shocked by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's appointment of a publishing executive with no education experience — and her subsequent implosion and ouster — Mr. Walcott still sees his role as building support for, and tweaking — not changing — policies.
His biggest achievement, he said in an interview Tuesday, was helping to avert teacher layoffs in a deal with the United Federation of Teachers. The deal came Friday after he personally went to union headquarters, the city school system's equivalent of the Hatfields' visiting the McCoys.
But principals are still smarting from the third year in a row of significant budget cuts. Heated opposition continues over the rapid expansion of charter schools, many of them fighting for space with traditional schools — the subject of a divisive lawsuit. And recent data from the state show fewer than a quarter of the city's graduates are ready for college work.
Yet, after eight years of Joel I. Klein, who as schools chancellor had a confrontational style and favored rapid, radical change, and four months of Cathleen P. Black, the publisher whose learning curve and frequent gaffes made her untenable, many see Mr. Walcott's style of smoothing feathers, nurturing relationships and promoting stability as its own kind of policy statement.
A month after a Quinnipiac poll found the public's opinion of the mayor's handling of education profoundly negative, the warm applause that Mr. Walcott, who attended city schools and sent his children to them, received at graduation ceremonies in all five boroughs signaled that a more approachable messenger might be nearly as important as the content of the message. The question, observers said, is whether he will be satisfied in the coming years with being a competent caretaker or use the growing good will to further a controversial agenda of school closings and high-stakes standardized testing.
"That's a debate that is taking place all over the country," said Joe Williams, the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform. "Can you make real change without offending people? We are about to see."