EDITORIAL: Don’t call it reform yet

IF THERE’S ONE THING Governor Andrew Cuomo knows how to do it’s get attention. He’s had exceptional mentors in his father and his former boss, Bill Clinton, but he has mastered the art in his own way. It’s an important skill for a governor to have.

He knows how to pick the big fights and then follow through with the support of what used to be seen as a dysfunctional legislature. Meanwhile, the Assembly and state Senate look more and more like well-oiled agencies of the governor’s office. And the more Mr. Cuomo has accomplished the more popular and powerful he’s become.

He once again seized the initiative in his State of the State address earlier this month, declaring that children in the state’s public schools lacked a lobbyist of their own and that he will now fill that role. Did he forget that advocating for education is one of any governor’s primary duties? No. By stating the obvious with such flair and bombast, he makes voters see his plans for reform as a them-versus-us struggle in which we will all have to choose sides, and we’d be smart to choose his. But this posturing doesn’t tell us much about what he has in mind for the five relatively small school districts in Columbia and the taxpayers who support them.

The governor has chosen to emphasize the evaluation of teachers as a key component of his reform effort. That’s not surprising because millions of dollars in federal aid hinges on the state having methods in place for examining the performance of all teachers, weeding out the bad ones and, possibly, rewarding those who succeed. It’s not clear yet that this state or any other has devised a fair and effective way to distinguish between good and bad teachers on a mass scale, but the state Board of Regents, the top education policy body in this state, says it has a test.

At the same time, the governor has hammered on a theme he introduced last year, that school bureaucracies are top heavy and wasteful, and that these local officials bear as much responsibility as bad teachers when students don’t learn. He may have a point about administrative bloat in specific districts and some warrens of the state Education Department, but one of the aspects that the governor has yet to explain is who will evaluate teachers if administrators are purged too?

Like other parents whose kids have gone through public school in this state, I’ve met crappy teachers and rotten administrators. I’ve met inspiring educators too, and maybe the evaluation process the state has in mind would distinguish between them. But beware this blunt instrument, especially after the revelation last year that some of the highly touted standardized state tests–the previous cure-all for what ails education–were so bad that kids who thought they were learning at grade level were actually falling behind.

The governor’s proposals arrive against the backdrop of two years or more of budget crises, when hundreds of teachers in this county were laid off so school districts could pay their bills. Were those the good teachers or the bad ones? Many were just the younger, more energetic teachers who lacked the seniority to hold on to their position. What effect has that had on education here? Has anybody in state government offered a nuanced answer to that question?

Oh, and what about mandate relief, which might give schools a chance to succeed on their own? Who’s the lobbyist for that?

Common sense and good research tell us there is no single solution to the problems faced by our besieged education system, nor is any one group the only villain or savior of our schools. Public education is essential to the maintenance of our democracy, but progress is incremental and subject to setbacks along the way.

I admire Governor Cuomo for taking on educational performance as a personal crusade. He’s put his popularity at risk to change things, and he asks us to trust him that his changes will improve public education. That’s not a solution; it’s how a political leader mobilizes the public to reject complacency and despair in favor of action. Good for him. Really. He may well be able to change public education by issuing edicts from Albany. But if he fails to address what we need here in our districts his changes won’t make public education any better.

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