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NY Superintendent: State Leaders Have Given Up on Democracy

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Steve Cohen, superintendent of schools in Shoreham-Wading River (NY), wrote a column in Ling Island newspapers criticizing the state’s heavy-handed method of mandating change.

For his courage in speaking truth to power, I add Superintendent Steve Cohen to the blig’s honor roll.

Cohen points to a letter from Merryl Tisch, chancellor of the Néw York State Board of Regents, to Governor Cuomo’s representative, outlining her goals.

He writes:

“What’s striking in Ms. Tisch’s recommendations to the governor is the unstated proposition that there is a big difference between public education and state education, and that state education is far superior. From the chancellor’s point of view, public education hasn’t just failed poor, black and Hispanic children the most, but has somehow even failed kids in Great Neck, Jericho, Scarsdale and Garden City — even though many of them go on to the best universities in the nation.

“The remedy? State education.

“Public education is an old and very familiar institution. To be sure, school districts get their authority from New York State. But despite state guidance, school boards, and the administrators and teachers who work for these boards, have broad latitude to define curriculum and instruction.

“These boards and the superintendents they hire have authority over hiring and evaluating teachers and principals. The boards have a duty to propose a spending plan every year to district voters. Public education, in short, means “local control.”

“Public education is democracy in action. It has all the virtues and vices of our form of self-government. This democratic system has worked well in many districts, especially in those whose residents are relatively wealthy and thus able to afford the resources commonly found in thriving schools.

“But in poorer districts, and especially in large cities, democratic “local” control of education has not worked as well as we would all wish. The state Legislature has wrestled with this problem for generations and, in fact, is now under a Court of Appeals order to address fiscal inequities among districts.

“Public education is a complex, immense, difficult institution. Poverty and wealth more than anything tend to determine the outcome of its efforts.

“But it’s also among our most democratic institutions.

“Ms. Tisch, most of her non-elected colleagues and our current governor, however, seem to have arrived at the conclusion that local control of education does not, and cannot, work.”

“Now comes the chancellor’s suggestions that locally elected school boards should no longer have control over determining whether teachers and principals do a good job and that all teachers and principals who do not meet the state’s standard of successful teaching or supervising two years in a row must lose their jobs.

“Chancellor Tisch suggests that the content all children must learn and the methods teachers must use to teach that content will be determined by the state, not local residents in accord with professional educators, acting through democratically elected school board members. She suggests that charter schools, over which local residents have little if any control, would be completely free to flourish (or not!) and to replace democratically run local schools….

“So the non-elected chancellor and the current governor believe local control of education has failed. The great experiment is dead. What will take its place is a technocratic process so complex that it is almost impossible for parents, residents and educators to understand — much less embrace.”

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