News and Speeches

Deputy Mayor Walcott Discusses the Future of New York City Public Schools at The Phyllis Kossoff Lecture on Education and Policy at Columbia University


The following is the text of Deputy Mayor Walcott’s address as prepared for delivery on Saturday, April 16, 2011

“Good morning. I am so happy to be here with all of you today at Teacher’s College. As everyone knows, it’s been a really slow, dull couple of weeks for me. So when Susan asked if I could fill in today I thought, why not? Not much else going on.

“But seriously, I am very happy, and very humbled to be here today. I first want to thank my predecessor, Cathie Black, for all she did to further the interest of children and her willingness to serve this great City. Being Chancellor of New York City’s public schools is job unlike any other. Even after a lifetime working in education and on behalf of our City’s youth, I can honestly say that I never imagined this for myself when I was growing up.

“As I said on the day the Mayor appointed me, I’m just a kid from Queens. I grew up in a working class neighborhood. My friends and I rode our bikes, we played basketball and baseball in the streets, and we went to New York City public schools. And the reason I am standing before you today is that I had parents who cared deeply, a community that cared deeply, and teachers who cared deeply about whether I worked hard and succeeded in life. Unfortunately, that is not a storyline we hear as often as we should today, especially when it comes to education.

“The current debate hasn’t been about how to instill and promote the value of education in our communities. The conversation we hear is about the poor and the wealthy; charter schools versus district schools; and who is to blame for the failures of our education system. People on both sides of this debate have been guilty of contributing to the current polarized atmosphere. That poisonous debate is hurting our children. And they don’t have time to wait for us to grow up.

“The problems facing our schools are complicated. They can’t be summed up in 10 word sound bites. And above all, they can’t be solved until we start listening and working together. In the interest of our children, that has to start today. I view my transition to the role of Chancellor as an opportunity for us to begin anew. Because 1.1 million students are counting on us to get it right.

“Yesterday I was at an elementary school in Brooklyn:  P.S.10. As many of you know, I was there to make waffles for the children and fulfill a promise I made months ago. And, if you saw the paper today, you now know that despite this cool, sharp demeanor, I am apparently not cool enough to pull off a ‘kiss the chef apron’ and plastic gloves. 

“Despite all of the attention that has been paid to my waffle recipe, I think the recipe we really need to focus on is PS 10’s. Because PS 10 is a wonderful school that is getting it right for our children. They have a strong leader in Principal Laura Scott, a great teaching staff that collaborates and learns from one another, an incredibly enthusiastic group of students, and a very engaged parent body. It’s the kind of school we would all want to send our children to. It’s the kind of school that has helped generations of families, of poor and working and middle class children achieve the American dream. And as I start this new journey, which I view as the most important of my career, it is with the goal of working with all of you – with our students and families, with our teachers and principals, and our larger communities as a whole. Toward making sure we have the right recipe for every school, and creating a better and brighter future for all of our children. And to do that, we are going to have to stop talking past each other.

“Now, I don’t want anyone to think for a minute this doesn’t mean there won’t be times where we disagree, or that I am not willing to make the hard decisions. My decision-making will be guided entirely by what is best for our 1.1 million students, and I don’t plan for a second to take my foot off the gas when it comes to advancing reform. After four decades in and around our school system – as a student and parent, as a teacher, as a member of the old Board of Education, as the Deputy Mayor of Education – I have seen what has worked and what hasn’t. We know what a great school looks like, what it feels like when you walk in the door. When you see whether the children are smiling and respectful, whether they are raising their hands to participate or putting their heads down on their desks. We know the right ingredients. Just look at how far we’ve come from where we started.

“When Mayor Bloomberg took office, just 50 percent of ninth graders graduated from high school in four years. One out of every two students that walked through the door didn’t graduate. And it had been that way for decades, so people accepted it as reality. The size of the system was so daunting, and filled with so many challenges, that people simply threw up their hands. Nine years later, we are graduating close to two-thirds of our students. That number is still not high enough, but thousands more students today are graduating our schools and going to college. Those are lives forever changed.

“I know that change would not have been possible if Mayor Bloomberg had not sought and won responsibility for our school system. It started with a simple idea – accountability. The Mayor believed, and continues to believe, that there is no more valuable contribution we can make to society than providing our students with a high-quality education. So he asked to be held accountable, not just for the successes, but also the failures, of our schools. He dramatically increased City funding for education, and provided teachers with a better quality of living so that we could attract and retain the best talent. We closed nearly one hundred failing schools and then opened more than four hundred and eighty new schools – some charter, mostly not – that have produced far better results for our students and helped narrow the achievement gap. And, we improved student test scores on the NAEP exam, the gold standard of national testing. We proved, in the words of my friend, Joel Klein, that poverty doesn’t have to be destiny. Joel, who like me was just a kid from Queens, believed passionately that we could, and must, do better for our children. He set a clear path for reform. And my hope for all of us, is that moving forward we will walk that path together. Because for too long, what’s important has been lost in this fight, and the realities of what it really takes to educate our young people have been drowned out by adult rhetoric.

“As a father, and now a grandfather, the most important thing to me has always been ensuring that my children and grandchildren are safe and happy, and offered a life filled with promise. That is the same dream and hope all of our parents have. Whether we live in Queens, Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx or Staten Island – we all want the same thing for our children. But if we are ever going to get there, we need to start talking honestly about the challenges we face educating our children. We must acknowledge, for example, that the problems of poverty and education are deeply intertwined.

“Right now, on one side of this increasingly bitter dispute, people are saying: ‘no excuses’.  They say that there is no problem that can’t be overcome in a child’s life if they have access to a great school. On the other side people say that until we solve poverty, we can’t solve education and it’s unfair to ask our teachers to work miracles, or hold them accountable for student success. Of course, as happens so often in life, there is much that is right – and much that is wrong – on each side of this argument. 

“We know that a child coming from the most difficult set of circumstances, who goes to a great school, or has a caring teacher or mentor, can succeed at the highest possible levels. But we also know that very same child is at risk, no matter how great his school, if every day, he goes back to a neighborhood where violence and drugs and gangs exist, and education isn’t valued.  Poverty cannot be an excuse for failure.  But we can’t ignore the impact it has on our children.

“I can’t ignore a mother who tells me it’s hard for her son to do his homework when there is a rat running across the kitchen table. Or that he can’t keep up in class because she cannot afford the glasses he needs to see the blackboard. That’s real life. So, yes, we must set high academic standards for all of our children. But we also must better leverage our resources to our neediest students, and together find ways to provide our children more support and out-of-school-time activities to help them meet those high standards. Because if we oversimplify the issue, we aren’t being true to the experience our families live, and we aren’t serving our students well.

“The same is true for the rhetoric around our 75,000 teachers. I started my career as a teacher. It’s one of the hardest jobs I have ever done. But too often, we hear that all of our problems would be solved if we could just get rid of bad teachers. I’ve been in hundreds of our public schools over the last nine years, and the overwhelming majority of our teachers are hardworking individuals, committed to helping our children succeed. But just like our students, who are being held to a new, higher bar, our teachers need support and guidance if they are going to succeed. That means not only having a better teacher evaluation system, but also defining for our teachers where they need to improve, and providing them the support to actually do it.

“On the other side though, we must demand accountability, and have agreement that as professionals, teachers – and the teachers union – will not allow unfit or incompetent teachers to stay in the system. It’s bad for our schools and more important, bad for our children. And if we truly believe that the most important component to student success is the quality of the teacher standing at the front of the classroom, then we cannot allow outdated, unfair laws like ‘Last in, First out’ to remain on the books. We also cannot back off the need for clear assessments that tell us both how our students, and our teachers, are doing.

“I know that some of our parents and teachers – not to mention students – think we put too much stock in testing. Let’s not forget, it wasn’t too long ago that we literally had no idea which schools were succeeding and which were failing our students because we didn’t have the tools to measure them. I have never been shy about the fact that I wasn’t a straight A student. But I think it’s critical that we keep challenging ourselves, and challenging our children to work harder. That’s how we learn where we need to improve. We can and will improve those tests, and be more thoughtful about the types of writing and reading and thinking our students are being asked to do. But at the end of the day, tests are a part of life. And it’s up to us to help ensure our children not only meet the bar, but surpass it.

“Last, I want to talk about the debate over charter schools and district schools, something I really think has gotten out of hand. For me, whether it’s a traditional public school or charter school – I don’t care, so long as it’s a good school. That’s what this is supposed to be about: what is best for our students. Not what it’s called or who is managing it or what the rules are in the building. It’s what is best for our children. I am 100 percent committed to promoting the growth of high-quality schools.

“Make no mistake – we will open dozens more charter schools before Michael Bloomberg leaves office in 2013. We will also open many more district schools, including a new, dynamic elementary school in District 5 that we are opening in close partnership with Teachers College next fall. It’s about providing great choices for parents. Everything else is just noise. And the thing is – what gets lost in the noise is the shared love we have for our children.

“This is the greatest city in the world. We’ve rallied together from challenges that would have driven others to despair. Think what we can do if we choose to stop shouting, and instead rally around our children –and do what is necessary for their future, and their children’s future. That’s the New York City I know and love. So it’s up to all of us moving forward, to turn down the volume, and really focus on what is going to help our students move forward.

“Over the next few weeks and months, I will be out in our schools, in your churches, in your community centers – listening and talking and learning. We won’t always agree. But I’ll always be open to hearing what you have to say. We all have to be invested in our students’ success. That’s the only way it’s ever going to work. I am committed. The Mayor is committed. Our teachers and principals are committed. And we need our communities – and everyone – to join us in this effort. We have so much work to do, and our children are counting on us to lead the way.

“Thank you.”