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Columbia Spectator Staff

The long drive to reform New York schools has become an urgent race to the top. The national Race to the Top competition offers $4.3 billion to states that initiate compelling education reforms and is funded by the federal stimulus package. On Monday night, New York State Education Commissioner David Steiner and New York State Board of Regents Cancellor Merryl Tisch—BC '77 and a Teachers College alumna—appeared at TC to discuss the state's plans for education reform. To qualify for funding, states must create a database with educational information for students in pre-kindergarten through college; establish common standards for English, language, and math curricula; close failing schools; and meet teacher accreditation standards. While the competition is fierce, as 43 states are applying, Tisch said New York would be a strong contender. If New York receives stimulus money, Steiner wants to increase funding for high schools with graduation rates under 50 percent as well as those that pass students unprepared for the next grade. Steiner emphasized that the proposals the state is developing extend beyond the immediate context of stimulus funds. "We have not tailored our sails to the Race to the Top," he said. "We have not undermined our mission for federal dollars. Where there is overlap, we welcome it." He noted that teachers must be encouraged "to teach in the most challenging schools, to focus on rich educational experiences and pedagogical skills," and he presented a pilot program—controversial among some attendees—under which teachers could receive a master's in education without attending an institute for higher education. Steiner called on the Board of Education to draft curricula emphasizing metacognition skills such as problem solving and critical thinking in addition to the basic areas of language, grammar, and math. Two panelists at the discussion, TC Associate Dean of Teacher Education A. Lin Goodwin and TC sociology professor Aaron Pallas, analyzed the initiatives Steiner presented and the overall educational policy in New York. "Good teachers are never against accountability—what they are against is using small snapshots of information to determine teachers' evaluations," Goodwin said, criticizing the practice of evaluating teachers based on their students' test scores. Goodwin cited studies showing that elementary and middle school students are devoting more time to test preparation and less time to subjects like social studies and art that foster critical thinking and creativity. He also noted that the initiatives Tisch and Steiner are spearheading could address that problem. "Is learning just about the test?" she asked the audience comprised mostly of educators. "It ought not to be, but we are moving in that direction." Pallas was more critical of Tisch's and Steiner's proposals. "The state assessment system is broken and can't be fixed overnight," Pallas said, asking, "How much is the Board of Education willing to invest in seeing how teachers teach students to act and think?" Echoing Goodwin, he emphasized that the teacher assessment process requires more comprehensive measures than simply analyzing test scores. Pallas was skeptical of the Board of Education's proposal to award master's degrees independent of higher education institutions, calling it "a serious threat to the nature of graduate education." He added, "This turns the Board of Education into a giant education school—doesn't the organization have enough problems?" to which the audience responded with roaring laughter. Steiner responded by stating that the proposal "is just the beginning of a conversation" and noted that the current teacher education system is not working either. "Students come out of graduate schools and are unprepared to teach in urban settings," he said. The audience response was largely positive. "No doubt we can have better teachers," said Tonia Lovejoy, program manager for Reach the World, a nonprofit that works with New York City public schools. She added, "But we need to focus on the quality of administration"—an issue the panel did not address. Like Pallas, Laura Anglin, president of the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, was most concerned about the master's degree initiative. But she said she was "happy with the Board's open lines of communication with the stakeholders, so that we can ensure that the changes will be beneficial for everybody."

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