Exit The King….An Opportunity for Union Leadership?

Dr. John B. King Jr., the Commissioner of Education and President of the University of the State of New York, is stepping down from that position and will become a senior adviser to United States Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.  While the announcement drew praise from the usual suspects who support Dr. King’s agenda of charter schools, Common Core State Standards, high stakes testing, and teacher evaluations based on test scores, supporters of traditional, fully public, schools had harsh criticisms for the outgoing Commissioner. Education activist and director of Class Size Matters, Leonie Haimson stated:

John King was the most unpopular commissioner in the history of NY State.  He showed no respect for parents, teachers or student privacy.  Ironically, he was intent on protecting his own privacy, and routinely withheld public documents; our Freedom of Information request of his communications with inBloom and the Gates foundation is more than 1 ½ years overdue.  His resignation is good news for New York state; hopefully he will be unable to do as much damage at the US Department of Education.

Dr. King’s problematic tenure began in May, 2011, and he swiftly moved to push through the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and accompanying testing systems that his predecessor Commissioner David Steiner had committed to when Dr. King served as his Deputy Commissioner.  This editorial, appearing in the Hudson Valley paper The Journal News, summarizes Dr. King’s time as Commissioner as “tone-deaf” and characterized by his inability to listen to criticism:

Many parents and educators in this region have offered reasonable, passionate and often convincing arguments against the growing state focus on testing, data-crunching, and evaluating teachers with a formula that is easily picked apart. But King has not been willing to engage his critics. This position has enraged many and created a bizarre stare-down between the state Education Department and many school districts that are supposed to be part of the same team.

The problems with Dr. King’s governance of NYSED are multifaceted.  The EngageNY website, set up by the State Education Department as a clearinghouse of information on the Common Core State Standards and materials designed for leaders and teachers, was quickly called out for hurried and poorly designed “resources” placed on the site when it debuted.  New York Principal Carol Burris documents in this article parents who found links to inappropriate materials under “make test prep fun”, and materials posted for modules on 8th grade algebra which included links to topics that are taught in calculus.  As with many things associated with the Common Core, the rush to both develop and implement the standards has led to a “get the product out and clean it up later” mentality that is emblematic of Dr. King’s leadership and many other reformers.

Questionable materials from EngageNY might have been overlooked by many in the public, but the CCSS are tied to high stakes testing on student proficiency in the standards — and Dr. King has been moving New York at a rapid clip in that direction as well.  Predictably, those who have had close contact with the exams have noted, within the allowed parameters of a nondisclosure agreement with testing giant Pearson, how the exams are confusing and inappropriate for the age of students who have to take them, another likely effect of their being rushed to meet Dr. King’s implementation schedule.  Principal Elizabeth Philips of PS 321 in Park Slope noted earlier this year in the New York Times:

In general terms, the tests were confusing, developmentally inappropriate and not well aligned with the Common Core standards. The questions were focused on small details in the passages, rather than on overall comprehension, and many were ambiguous. Children as young as 8 were asked several questions that required rereading four different paragraphs and then deciding which one of those paragraphs best connected to a fifth paragraph. There was a strong emphasis on questions addressing the structure rather than the meaning of the texts. There was also a striking lack of passages with an urban setting. And the tests were too long; none of us can figure out why we need to test for three days to determine how well a child reads and writes….

…At Public School 321, we entered this year’s testing period doing everything that we were supposed to do as a school. We limited test prep and kept the focus on great instruction. We reassured families that we would avoid stressing out their children, and we did. But we believed that New York State and Pearson would have listened to the extensive feedback they received last year and revised the tests accordingly. We were not naïve enough to think that the tests would be transformed, but we counted on their being slightly improved. It truly was shocking to look at the exams in third, fourth and fifth grade and to see that they were worse than ever. We felt as if we’d been had.

As troubling as the quality of the exams used to assess students’ “College and Career Readiness” AND their teachers’ effectiveness is, the way that the scores were deliberately (and opaquely) engineered to rate only 30% of students as proficient and highly proficient is worse.  State officials, including Dr. King, warned that the scores from the first round of CCSS aligned testing would produce dramatically lower results, but those warnings were predicated on schools not having sufficiently aligned curriculum materials yet.  However, Principal Burris provided an in-depth analysis of how the cut scores for each level of achievement were determined, and her conclusion is troubling:  Dr. King asked for a specific analysis from the College Board on SAT scores that predict “success” in first year courses at 4 year colleges and universities, and the result of that analysis was used to determine what scores on the CCSS aligned tests would be labeled as “proficient” and “highly proficient” as the committee worked through the materials with representatives from the State Education Department.  The result was that 31% of students taking the tests scored as proficient and highly proficient — and the evidence points to the conclusion that Dr. King and the SED wanted that result.

By the way — the percentage of New York residents over 25 with a BA?  32.8%Far from finding a vast educational wasteland where only a third of students succeed, the tests found the percentage of students likely to pursue higher education.

Not that Dr. King, the Regents, or anyone from the Cuomo administration was eager to explain it that way and justifying it as a good assessment system for the entire student population.  This became painfully clear when Dr. King attempted a publicity tour of town hall meetings that erupted disastrously in Poughkeepsie  in Fall of last year.  While keeping his usual calm and soft-spoken demeanor in face of extensive and heated criticism, Dr. King also remained entirely impervious to the concerns of the gathered parents and other community stakeholders.  After the Poughkeepsie forum, he also changed the schedule, canceling meetings, and switched formats so he appeared with a number of other state officials — and despite claiming the goal was to listen to concerns, nothing has dissuaded Dr. King from barreling on at full speed.  In early April of this year, he told an audience at New York University that New York was on the right path and “We’re not retreating” from the combined reforms ushered in during his tenure. In the same talk, he essentially dismissed parents who were opting their children out of the testing by saying “they are now denying themselves and their teachers the opportunity to know how their children are performing against a common benchmark used throughout the state.”  While Dr. King’s steadfastness earned him high praise from allies like Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and reform organizations, some lawmakers in Albany noted his poor representation of his ideas and his unwillingness to listen to others’ ideas, leading to bipartisan calls for his improvement or resignation last year.  Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti (D. Westchester) noted:

“For quite some time, Education Commissioner John King has closed off all meaningful conversation with parents, educators, administrators, and elected officials who have highlighted serious deficiencies in State Education Department policies,” Abinanti said. “He has exhibited a conscious disregard for their concerns.

“He should be listening, educating where criticisms are unfounded, and adopting changes where criticisms are valid,” the lawmaker continued. “His rigidity makes him unsuited for the position of Education Commissioner. Commissioner King should resign immediately.”

Assemblyman Abinanti was joined in this criticism by Republican Senator Jack Collins and New York State Allies for Public Education, and they were joined in April of this year by the New York State United Teachers’ Delegate Assembly who withdrew support for New York state’s Common Core implementation, supported parents who opt their children out of state examinations, and called for Dr. King’s removal as Commissioner.

But being a failed education reform leader is a lot like being a failed hedge fund manager — others have to live with the consequences of your actions while you get a quiet send off to another lucrative position, so Dr. King is off the join Secretary Duncan in Washington, D.C.

Dr. King is obviously a greatly intelligent man.  His academic accomplishments, which include a B.A. from Harvard University, a J.D. from Yale Law School, and both an M.A. and Ed.D. from Teachers College at Columbia University, are appropriately described as impressive as hell.  He was born in 1975 which means that he was 22 in 1997.  According to his biography, he taught for 3 years, and joined the founding leadership team for Roxbury Prep charter school, and from there moved to become Managing Director of the Uncommon School charter network, a chain on “no excuses” and extremely high attrition charter schools in various urban communities.  Dr. King was 34 years old when he was tapped to become Deputy Commissioner of NYSED, and he was 36 years old when he succeeded David Steiner as Commissioner and became the daily leader for the 7000 public and private schools, the 270 private and public colleges and universities, the 7000 public libraries, the 900 museums, the 25 public broadcasting services, and all of the different licensed professions that comprise the University of the State of New York.  He had never led a fully public school as principal, and he had never been in the leadership of a public school district.

Dr. King is an excellent example of how experience and specialized knowledge matter.  He is an impressively intelligent man who clearly impressed some very important people with his intelligence and commitment to a set of ideas for education reform.  However, understanding the complexities of public education requires both special knowledge and experience.  Public school governance is a peculiar case study where a structure that looks like a typical hierarchical bureaucracy is subjected to multiple levels of democratic control and where various stakeholders have overlapping sets of both complimentary and competing interests.  These same stakeholders are not limited in their access to the organization by the rules of top down corporate management either, and they can access the different layers of authority and practice without having to go through official channels.  Governing such a structure, as any principal or superintendent knows, takes more than intelligence and knowledge; it takes leadership, political acumen, negotiating skills, and flexibility in the face of emergent needs and complications.  While these skills may be innate, all of them are honed by experience.

If Dr. King had been a superintendent of a complex school system for ten years when he was tapped to become Deputy Commissioner, his intelligence and knowledge may have been tempered by a proper understanding of the complexities of public education and the skills needed to leverage the various stakeholders.  Instead, he clearly had no idea how to work with those constituencies and frequently favored opacity and rigidity when implementing major changes to something both parents and teachers take incredibly personally.

With Dr. King on the way out, there is an opportunity for New York and national union leadership to leverage a difference.  The next Commissioner will be appointed by the Regents, so the next Commissioner will still be committed to CCSS, high stakes testing, VAM based teacher evaluation, and charter schools.  However, there is no need for the next Commissioner to be closed off to all stakeholders outside of the NYSED, and there is every possibility that a Commissioner with genuine school and district leadership experience will understand how to negotiate and how to adapt to changing circumstances.  A Commissioner who has led a complex school district will be more likely to understand that leveraging complex changes requires time, resources, development, and a constant process of revising plans to respond to emergent needs that are inherently unpredictable.

I have no doubt in my mind that such a leader is exactly the kind of person that Regents Chancellor Dr. Merryl Tisch has no interest in appointing. But a public campaign to explain the need to the state could pressure her to seek an appointee interested in her reform agenda but with the skills that would blunt it. That is far from perfect, but the current leadership in Albany precludes the perfect.

Last month, I wrote an open letter to AFT President Randi Weingarten, and to my surprise, she contacted me directly and responded on my blog.  She responded to my concerns that union leadership was so concerned with maintaining a “seat at the table” with policy makers that the union was failing to vigorously oppose and denounce damaging policies that were coming from politicians from the union’s traditional political allies:

To advance this mission—which is the soul of the union—we have to use every single tactic and strategy available. That means at the ballot box, the bargaining table, the town square and the picket line, and it also entails the building of community and school partnerships, devising solutions and taking the risk to try things–provided they are good for kids and fair to educators. We must always work as a democratic institution that builds the trust, the agency and the activism of our members. That’s what we mean when we say solution driven, member mobilized and community engaged.

When we have the responsibility of being the bargaining agent, we can’t walk away from the table. It is at the table where we have a legal voice—a voice that many governors, like Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin or soon-to-be former Gov. Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania, have rushed to obliterate.

More important, if we want to make a difference in the lives of our students, our communities and the wonderful people we represent, we need to be able to both fight back and find common ground. It can’t be either/or. We can’t take only one of these approaches. Which approach depends upon what will best serve our students, our schools, our profession and our communities. And while those decisions on which tools to employ and which strategies to adopt will vary under the circumstances, our values must always be firmly held. It is about keeping “our eyes on the prize.”

I won’t say that President Weingarten and I are seeing exactly eye to eye here, but perhaps we are on the same step ladder.  And while the union has been more clear of late in challenging the anti-public school rhetoric coming from Albany, the compromise of continuing to engage with the policy makers, of staying at the table, is a compromise that should give the NYSUT and its parent AFT some chips to cash in.  I hope that in the coming weeks, the Regents will hear clearly, forcefully, and PUBLICLY from the teachers’ strongest representatives that our state needs a Commissioner who understands public education, knows the perspectives of the communities, parents, students, and professionals who make up public schools, and is willing to make education reform an iterative process instead of a set of rigid commandments.

New York State’s 600,000 professional teachers and million of public school students deserve a Commissioner with these experiences and skills.  And we need the most powerful voices in the state to call for that in public.

1 Comment

Filed under Common Core, New York Board of Regents, schools, Testing, Unions

One response to “Exit The King….An Opportunity for Union Leadership?

  1. amerigus

    This should be a moment for a referendum on policies that are not working, using a very public debate to make details known to the parents of NY state and the casual taxpayer.

    For example, most teacher evaluations are still based on scores from tests in subjects teachers do not teach. If this was properly headlined in media, the absurdity would embarrass state officials into action and these polls would move in the right direction.

    Another issue is secret funding of charter lobbies. There is no reason why public money should go to schools that are not above board about their leadership and motives.

    If NYSUT can spend millions on negative campaign ads, surely they can inform the public about this corporate takeover of school funding and the designs on expanding charters by continuing to cherry pick students.

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