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MAY 2004

An Interview with Merryl Tisch

EU: Which one of your educational contributions has been most important to you?

Merryl Tisch (MT): As a member of the New York State Board of Regents, I bring a slightly different perspective than perhaps the other people in my family that are engaged in education. They deal in very subject specific areas-be it single-sex education or arts education or the rebuilding of the fields for public schools. What I do is marry all of those disparate interests and create policies around schools, particularly public schools, such that physical education, arts education and high academic standards come under my purview. I'm constantly engaged with different people coming from different perspectives. For example, we're now redoing middle school education. One of the proposals coming out of that is to cut the amount of art and music that middle schoolers in New York State would receive. Knowing first hand the work of Laurie's group and the difficulty they had in putting arts back in the schools, I'm able to advocate in a real sense, with a lot of power and documentation behind me, just how important it is to get the arts put back in the school. As a policy board, the last thing we should consider is taking art out of the schools.

EU: Are you the lone voice on the Board of Regents, advocating arts in the schools?

MT: No, I don't think so. I think by persistently talking to my colleagues about it, making a case and talking about how particularly in urban settings where kids have depleted lives in so many other ways, the ability to incorporate some art and music as a part of their education is really very important.

EU: What are some of the issues you're dealing with now?

MT: As a state policy board we are going to look at the effect of the assessments on the kids in the school system to see if it's time for us to readjust what we require for graduation. I'm very interested in whether or not the dropout rates have been affected by the five high school exit exams. What do you do with the kid that passes 4 exams but doesn't pass the 5th? Do you deny him that high school diploma? I'm interested in whether or not students with disabilities get access and opportunity to comparable alternatives so they can be part of the higher academic requirement system.

At a time when we are looking to make the high school diploma in NY State a rigorous and worthy diploma, it's incumbent on us to see what the unintended consequences are of these very stringent policies.

I'm very interested in making pre-kindergarten mandated in NY and having that put in as part of the regents budget proposal. I believe if you want to really close the performance gap, focus with teeth, money and a policy on early beginnings. What's the difference between a parent on the upper east side who really vies to get their kid into the 92nd Street Y program and other parents? Why shouldn't everyone have that access and opportunity to an enriched program for 3-year-olds. The overarching goal is whether we, as a board, are putting into place, policies that address the achievement gap.

EU: How and where do you receive information to shape your decision-making?

MT: We have decided to do it as part of my committee work. I co-chair the elementary, middle and secondary committee and special education. We set up a list of agenda items based on the testing.

I engage to a large extent with the Chancellor's office in NYC. I kind of bridge the dialogue between what NYC needs and what they're trying to do in NYS. I'm very involved in working with Randi Weingarten and alongside the Mayor's office.

EU: Who were some of your mentors? Can you tell us about your own education?

MT: One the greatest mentors was Regent Saul Cohen. Harold Levy, Saul and I would travel together to Albany meetings and the ability to listen to Saul talk on certain key educational issues became, what Harold and I referred to as “our own private university.” I'm also beginning to engage with the new head of NYU School of Education, Mary Brabeck, I think she's going to be a great and exciting leader. I am fortunate to have Arthur Levine as the chair of my dissertation committee—he's a great thinker.

From the CUNY side I have a very close relationship with Al Posamentier, Nick Michelli and Matthew Goldstein. I am fortunate to have the ability to double-check my thoughts with this group of great thinkers in the field.

I went to the Ramaz School and then on to Barnard College. I was an excellent student at all schools, including graduate school, except college. I used to be on the Board of Trustees at Barnard, which was unique–women coming back to putting these institutions on the map.

As the president of a large poverty agency, I saw the needs of children in school environments and teachers under the strain of being social workers as well as psychiatrists.

EU: What advice would you give to young people today?

MT: The most important thing to do is never burn a bridge, always build trust in others. The greatest skill I've learned is to always keep yourself open to hear what other people have to say.#

Education Update, Inc.
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