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University Dean at City University of New York: Nicholas Michelli
by Joan Baum, Ph.D

In a way, the University Dean for Teacher Education at The City University of New York (CUNY) Dr. Nicholas M. Michelli has been preparing for this position—which includes a joint appointment as Professor in the University’s Ph.D. program in Urban Education—all his life, bringing to it a long interdisciplinary career in public policy and teacher education. Although Dr. Michelli retains the title of professor and dean emeritus at Montclair State University, where he served as Dean of the College of Education and Human Services for 20 years, his head and heart are clearly centered on the “challenge” of overseeing education at the 10 senior colleges and 6 community colleges that constitute the nation’s largest public urban university. He talks about his “vision” for the New York City schools with an enthusiasm that borders on mission but draws on years of practical and political expertise.

Masters work at NYU in African Studies, followed by a doctorate at Teacher’s College, Columbia University, fired Dr. Michelli’s sense of wanting to connect education with national endeavor, he says. The creation of a democratic nation should reflect and direct the role of education, he believes. Historically, the purposes of urban education have been confused. Yes, higher performance on standardized tests is important but this is not the “purpose” of education, it is only an “indicator.” The purposes of education have “moral dimensions” to them, and an element of social justice. Education must be for all children “the vehicle by which they will find their way.” Children must finally see themselves “as having the ability to create knowledge instead of seeing it passed on to them.” This means, he says, that children will have good economic opportunity; that they will have rich and fulfilling lives; and that they will become active and empathic participants in our democracy. His job? To ensure the very best preparation of teachers and principals who will instill these purposes.

The timing is good. The first class of teachers to be graduated under the new state certification standards in 2004 will move into the classrooms with a major in a subject area. Of course, he points out, New York City is an “abstraction”; the reality is that the New York City education system is an amalgam of different school districts. Changing the system means changing schools a district at a time. Competition will eventually mean survival of the fittest but with a sense of what’s appropriate for each district. There are, for example, approximately 75 different math programs in the schools and any number of ways to teach literacy. What works? With CUNY colleges partnering with neighboring schools, it will be easier to tell. The dean’s got a lot of promising initiatives under way—“balanced literacy,” for instance, which focuses on comprehension with phonics and other skills taught in the context of meaningful learning, includes healthy doses of both phonics and reading comprehension.

Dr. Michelli is especially energized by the challenge of getting 11,000 certified teachers into the classrooms by September 2003. He smiles, the eyebrows go up but the voice more than suggests he is determined to recruit and retain. Approximately 50 percent of new teachers have been on the job for less than 5 years. The dean is understandably critical of past policy to assign novices and uncertified teachers to the more challenged schools. He is also shrewdly optimistic about what higher salaries may effect. His particular charge, he says, is to provide the best possible educators and then support them with professional development wherever it’s needed. He points with pride to particular initiatives in teacher preparation such as “cultural passports,” which he hopes will connect the colleges (both senior and community colleges) with institutions all over the city that may enhance curricula, along with a long standing commitment to work with the Lincoln Center Institute and the American Museum of Natural History. The passport is “a great idea,”he says, and suggests how many poorer urban school districts are a lot like rural districts in being deprived of opportunities to expose prospective teachers to the arts.

Another initiative noted by Dr. Michelli is an idea launched by philanthropist and former CUNY Board of Trustees Vice Chairman Edith Everett—a “school operating officer” program which provides a kind of chief operating officer who will oversee various non-academic matters in the schools, such as bus schedules, cafeteria, and testing, thus freeing up principals to assume full pedagogical leadership. Also high on the dean’s list is two-way audio/video conferencing between schools and colleges that will allow teacher preparation classes to observe in real time “the real world.” And then, of course, there is the continuing connection of colleges with their community schools, probably at the heart of improving teaching preparation.

The discussion with the dean barely touches on other connections, many of which have to do with his determination to ensure strong support at federal, state, and city levels for enacting the promises of urban education. More than once, he articulates his belief that the fate of the city, of the country, depends on the success of the city’s public schools. A published author on the subject, a member of various professional boards and committees, and an award winner for his dedication to teacher education, Dean Nicholas Michelli, a former social studies teacher and a semi-pro drummer (with a recent gig at a major conference with his CUNY Graduate School colleagues), is prepared to meet the beat of the times. Maybe even set it.#




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