Dennis Walcott's Next Steps

He's changed the dialogue but needs to change the policies.

By Gabe Pressman
|  Wednesday, Apr 27, 2011  |  Updated 6:51 AM EDT
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Dennis Walcott has moved from the background to center stage.

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Dennis Walcott, New York City’s School Chancellor, has been conciliatory toward parents, teachers and children in his first days in office.

He posed as a tree with first graders at P.S. 261 in Brooklyn. He spoke to third graders there, played kickball, posed like a flower with other youngsters. And, according to GothamSchools.Org, he tried the alley cat dance with the children.

One first grader said: “I feel like I’m in a commercial,” GothamSchools.org reported

Walcott laughed and said: “Some people may see it that way.”

He’s right about that. Walcott has been engaged in a charm offensive and, to an extent, it’s working. He’s just  being himself but that seems to bring big dividends.

City Hall News reports that he is getting shout outs on the street, like the man who slowed down his black SUV to yell:  “You’re doing a great job.” Walcott gave him a thumbs up. On another day, a man shouted to the chancellor from across the street: “We know you’ll do the right thing!”

Walcott’s reply: “Thank you. I’ll try.”     

In the meantime, he’s been open to informal conversations with parents. It seems like a new ball game, or is it? Mayor Bloomberg has said often that he wants to be judged by his educational legacy. Walcott in personality is a big departure from the Mayor and former Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.

For more than nine years, the faces of the school system have been these two gentlemen who have not acted benign toward parents.

Indeed, at the very outset of the Bloomberg takeover of the public schools, he fired three members of the panel that was supposed to advise him on educational policies. The issue before them was whether to impose strict promotion standards on third graders. The three ousted members had dared to oppose Bloomberg.

He promptly fired them, declaring: “This is what mayoral control is all about. In the olden days we had a board that was answerable to nobody….Mayoral control means mayoral control, thank you very much.”
           
It’s much too early to tell whether Walcott will do anything substantial to end the hostility between City Hall -- and parents and teachers. Betsy Combier of Parents Advocates sees Walcott’s attitude as only a slight improvement in the situation.

She told me: “He has a warm personality.But his basic approach is: ‘We all have to get along. We’re going to do a great job together. The best he can do is improve the atmosphere but the policies will still  be set by Bloomberg and he’s not a flexible person.The Mayor is a man who can’t ever admit he’s wrong.”

It’s not hard to discern the basic problems Walcott must confront in the last two years of Bloomberg’s term:  

1. Test scores. Obviously they have been inflated. Teachers and principals have been  
teaching to the tests -- and neither can be judged by how children do on exams where they are coached
in advance on the answers. Nor can a fair evaluation of the children be made either.

2. There must be a system devised to evaluate teachers based less on a principal’s estimate of their work than on something more objective, like a video camera recording each teacher’s approach to the education of her children.

3. There is a great need, almost a desperate need, to get parents more closely involved with education. Sometimes, as in the firing of the board members on the educational panel, it has seemed that parents were the enemy. They could not be allowed to interfere with the brilliant leadership of the multi-billionaire businessman mayor or the former federal prosecutor [Klein].

Education is a heavy responsibility for City Hall. It’s also a heavy responsibility for the parents of more than one million school children.

The change in leadership in the Department of Education is an opportunity. As a major national leader once said of his enemies: “They never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

Bloomberg’s opportunity to do better on education is now.

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