An Interview with Seymour Fliegel, President and Gilder Senior Fellow at the Center for Educational Innovation - Public Education Association (CEI-PEA) By Dr. Pola Rosen
Transcribed by Elise Grace & Mohammad Ibrar
Dr. Pola Rosen, Education Update: I’m honored to be here today with Mr. Seymour Fliegel. He is the president and Guilder’s Senior Fellow of the Center for Educational Innovation and Public Education Association (CEI-PEA). I’m interested in your own personal trajectory: from teacher, to principal, to superintendent, to CEI-PEA, and to the White House. One of the missions of CEI-PEA is fostering the support and creation of new public schools. Can you expand on that?
Seymour Fliegel, President of CEI-PEA: We have been fortunate enough to help some really outstanding schools get started. For example, the KIPP Academy located in New York — we made that happen with David Levin. But, of course, the system created the school. It was not a hard process. Here’s the story: David Levin was in Houston, Texas. His mother called me up and said, “My son is in Houston. I’d like him to be in New York.” I met David and his friend; both were teachers at elementary schools. I asked him if he’d like to go to New York. I had got him into the South Bronx school system. He was doing a great job, and … that was about ten years ago. Now, he has about five schools in New York City.
Fredrick Douglass was another school that was created. We approached Lorraine Monroe, who was retired at the time. I had convinced her to come back and asked her to create a new school. She agreed, and that’s how the Fredrick Douglass Academy came about. We were also involved with Carolyn Joeridge, when she started to work with children. So, people find us and say that we would like to create a school, and now it’s mainly charter schools. We help them create the school: select staff, principal, teachers, and we give them guidance once the school is opened. But, the key always was to select a really outstanding principal. Leadership of the school is the critical factor, because the leader sets the culture of the school.
PR: Absolutely. So, what would you say are some of the salient ingredients of their success?
SF: Each leader has a dream or a vision, and it all depends where you are on the political spectrum. They all had a vision of what they wanted for a school, and they all had the ability to communicate that vision. The ability to communicate that vision is the distinction between great leaders and just a leader.
Next, high expectations are also critical. How do you communicate high expectations to teachers and students? I believe it’s how you treat them. If you treat youngsters as thugs they’ll become thugs. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve visited a school and told students that they have a job — a job as a learner. Even for teachers — if you want teachers to act like professionals, treat them as professionals. This is critical.
PR: We both know that the most important ingredient to education is the teachers. How do we prepare and keep the best teachers in our schools?
SF: There are two ways: We have to elevate the profession of teaching so that our brightest students want to become teachers. Currently, one of the positive signs is Teach for America, because it brings many intelligent people into the field of education. In Finland, the No. 1 school system in the world, the top 10 percent of the graduating class goes into teaching. We have different values in our society, and everyone wants to be a hedge fund manager. So, we have to change how we train teachers, and schools of education have to adapt. Great teachers should be educating other new and upcoming teachers. The schools of education need to be more involved with schools. We have to upgrade the meaning of a teacher, in order to attract more people into the field.
PR: The last question is about special education. What kind of educational system is set up for students who require special education?
SF: Special education was set up to serve children, but basically it serves adults. Once you entered special ed, you seldom left special ed. So, we developed Project Mainstream, where we took a special ed teacher and a regular teacher and we asked them to mainstream these students. We placed special ed students in regular classes. We then asked teachers about students who weren’t special ed, but needed extra attention and we would be happy to work with them. There have to be opportunities for special ed. students to be integrated with other children. Unfortunately, there isn’t much change, so students who are in special ed. remain in special ed. and aren’t given high expectations. These students are entitled to a great education and shouldn’t be treated any differently. I believe they can be educated to level where they can become a productive citizens. #