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Hunter Dean David Steiner & UFT President Michael Mulgrew Discuss Issues in Education
By Mariah Klair Castillo


(L-R) Michael Mulgrew & David Steiner
(L-R) Michael Mulgrew & David Steiner

Recently, the CUNY Institute for Education Policy (CIEP) held a discussion with Dr. David Steiner, Director of CIEP and Dean of the Hunter College School of Education, and Michael Mulgrew, President of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). Mulgrew has taught at the William Grady High School in Brooklyn.

This wasn’t the first time Steiner and Mulgrew held such a discussion. In 2010, they teamed up with former NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein (whom Steiner has also hosted at CIEP), during Steiner’s tenure as NY State Education Commissioner. Together, they helped NY State win $700 million from the US Department of Education’s Race to the Top competition.

The exchange began with reference to the aforementioned competition. Citing historically high graduation rates from the K-12 system and some (modest) closing of some achievement gaps between different student populations, Steiner challenged Mulgrew to thank public school teachers for their hard work and the Obama/Duncan regime for its successful policies. Mulgrew was “happy” to do the former but only very partially the latter. He reflected, “All the states’ economies across the country were devastated at that time, and the federal government’s saying ‘We’ll give you a couple hundred million dollars to save your education system.’” Since 2010, he went on, “all things went awry; the only thing that we actually got was the testing. It really was a major missed opportunity, because a majority of the money ended up in state accountability systems and not into teacher training or curriculum development.”

Steiner noted that New York had been the only state to put “millions of dollars” for curriculum construction into its Race to the Top proposal. “The challenge, in part,” he stated, “was that teachers were divided on whether they wanted a curriculum given to them or to design it themselves.” Mulgrew replied, “I don’t think it’s a great divide. They would like a curriculum to work from, and then to be allowed customize it to suit the students they are serving.”

Their conversation then moved to the Common Core Standards. “Clearly the standards are in some political difficulty. What’s going on?” asked Steiner. Mulgrew answered, “The politics went wrong because the adults weren’t doing their job.” He recalled testifying for the Common Core at the state level over the past five years. In his first year, he argued that a curriculum must be built to accommodate the new standards at least two years before testing is implemented. However, he lamented, “That work is not done. We’re testing [the children] on something we don’t have a curriculum for. They will fail the test, but that is not a proper measurement of their learning. You set this up for them to fail.” He argued that creating a curriculum wouldn’t be too hard, if a group of educators made it. “A framework that goes into some depth that teachers can work off of, on each subject area, across each grade level, is what we owe the educators.”

But despite his critique of the current state of standardized testing, Mulgrew did affirm the need for teachers to be held accountable, saying that those found inadequate to the task ought to pursue another career. There followed a tough exchange on teacher accountability, with Mulgrew citing dismissal numbers and Steiner responding that the number were “tiny.” Mulgrew pushed for evaluations that focused on student development as well as on the teacher’s administrative responsibilities to the school. One example of a broader measure of achievement to be used alongside test scores is a long-term project, for which students have done research and created the final product.

In response to Steiner’s pressing on the difficulty principals faced in removing teachers for poor academic results, Mulgrew argued that reforms had been made in the disciplinary and teacher development processes and cited poor teacher retention rates as a result of the disciplinary process. He also lamented the stigmatization of teachers who are exonerated after going through the disciplinary process. “We are absolutely believers in a fair process and a fast process,” said Mulgrew.

He and Steiner also discussed the political and operational issues associated with charter schools. Citing the very strong academic results in NYC charter schools, Steiner asked if Mulgrew could “make his peace” with these schools. When Steiner asked specifically whether Mulgrew would support charter schools if they mirrored the NYC district schools’ percentages of Special Education and ELL students, and if they further dealt with the back fill issue by accepting students at each grade level to fill empty seats, Mulgrew said that he would. The final issue for charter schools, specifically in NYC charter schools, is space. “If we build/fill every single seat that is already funded, we’re going to be 45 thousand seats short just in elementary schools. If we build every seat funded for high schools, we’re going to be short 85 thousand seats.”

This led to a more general exchange about special education and ELL issues. Mulgrew pointed out that the classification of various disabilities is neither uniform nor always clear, which may lead parents to push for their children with disabilities to undergo a program that may not be right for them. Reflecting on the ELL population, Mulgrew noted, “What had happened under the school accountability system in New York City was it became clear to principals that if you had ELL students, you didn’t want them. So principals quietly started closing their ELL programs because they don’t want to take the children. And then you saw certain schools have population explosions.” He also pointed out the lack of hiring of teachers for ELL programs, saying that in a study corroborated by the NYC Department of Education, they’re lacking 3,000 ELL teachers needed to fulfill the ever-growing need.

Moving on to Universal Pre-K, Steiner and Mulgrew agreed upon the need to ensure quality, as opposed to mere quantity in Pre-K education. Mulgrew wanted the increased quality of Pre-K education to continue to at least third grade. “Research shows that if we lock that in by third grade, then we run.”

Mulgrew and Steiner next exchanged views on tenure and teacher training. While they did not agree on a set time frame for public school teachers to apply for tenure, or even whether tenure at the public school level is even necessary, both Steiner and Mulgrew expressed dismay at the high attrition rates of the teachers in New York’s school system. They agreed that clinical training, and the more sophisticated residency programs, have proven the most efficacious preparation. The problem is their high cost. Mulgrew pointed out that the NYS Governor’s budget calls for only $3 million for such programs, and Steiner remarked that, unfortunately, very few universities are committed to fundamentally restructuring their teacher development programs.

These two leaders also discussed various reforms that United States could take on from other countries and industries. One such country is Finland, where teachers come from the top ten percent of high school graduates. Finland also has a compressed salary structure, meaning that individual teachers earn increased salaries sooner. Mulgrew pointed out that in other professional industries, it is possible to reach peak salary by the seventh or eighth year, whereas in teaching peak salary comes after the twentieth.

Both Mulgrew and Steiner were knowledgeable about the various issues in education specific to New York as well as across the United States. Their discussion on teacher quality, standardized testing, charter schools, and education funding and policy are at the heart of the current discourse on education today.#



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