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News and Speeches

Remarks of Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott on the Future of New York City Education


As Prepared For Delivery at the Manhattan Institute Breakfast Forum

Thank you, Michael, and good morning.

It’s good to be here, and it’s good to be back on a stage.

You laugh, but I spent most of June on stages across the city—I attended 21 graduation ceremonies, plus ceremonies for valedictorians and salutatorians and high school graduates who have overcome extraordinary adversity.

Each time, I was on the stage to shine a light on what our students have accomplished, with the help of their teachers, principals, and families.

Today, I want to go a step beyond celebrating these individual accomplishments and talk about the hard-won progress our schools have made over the last decade.

At the same time, I acknowledge that there is more work to be done.

Last month, when I was speaking at graduations, I saw and heard things the Schools Chancellor couldn’t have back in 2001.

First, there were more students.

Back then, only half of our students were graduating in four years—and almost a quarter were dropping out. Thanks to the education reforms implemented under Mayor Bloomberg, two out of three students are now earning their high school diplomas—and more of this year’s graduates were Black and Hispanic—sharing these gains for the first time in history.

There was also something else that was different at this year’s graduations: students, families and educators were celebrating commencement in the true sense of the word—as a new beginning.

That expectation was not there in 2001. Back then, high school graduations had a feeling of finality, a sense that for most of the students this event marked the end of the road of educational achievement.

Although the old Board of Education collected a variety of statistics, there was never a mention of college and career readiness.

This administration was the first to develop an objective standard to measure college readiness and since 2005, we have seen the rate nearly double.

I believe that we are approaching a tipping point and that within the next five years there is a real chance to take our schools from good to great— there is a real chance to cut the drop-out rate in half again and to double the college readiness rate again.

Today’s global economy demands more from our graduates, and while we have reshaped our schools to prepare students to meet this need, we know that more work lies ahead if our students are to compete in the 21st century economy.

According to new research by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, over the course of this decade there will be 3.3 million job openings in New York State, the vast majority of which will require a college education or higher.

In fact, only 8 percent of those new jobs will be open to candidates without a high school diploma.

So think about this: despite the fact that we have cut the dropout rate in half —from 22 percent in 2005 to 11 percent in 2012—that 11 percent represents 9,096 students.

On average, over the course of their lifetimes, those 9,096 students will each earn $331,000 less than their peers who graduated from high school. Collectively, they will earn $3 billion less.

The economic health and prosperity of our city is dependent on the strength of our schools.

If the city’s next leaders want to see this progress continue so we can reach this tipping point, there are key levers they must support and build on.

First, preserve principal autonomy.

This administration has always recognized that it is our principals who drive our schools to greatness.

Just yesterday I met with 115 aspiring principals. I told them that they have the most important jobs in the city—far more important than being Chancellor because they are on the front line changing the lives of their students.

In the past, Board of Education leaders were not focused on empowering principals. Prior to 2002, favoritism, nepotism, and corruption in many of our District offices handcuffed our principals from running their schools.

Back then, principals were middle managers.

They lacked the resources, decision-making authority, and transparent school budgeting process to make financial decisions that would best serve the needs of their students. This was particularly true in schools serving the most challenging student populations.

They also didn’t have final say on hiring, one of the most important and fundamental decisions made by the leader of any organization. Union contracts forced principals to fill vacancies based on seniority—regardless of quality.

We have worked hard over the past decade to give our principals the respect and autonomy they deserve to run successful schools.

We replaced the old District offices with streamlined and efficient networks, eliminating a significant expenditure that didn’t show results for our students.

Our network structure was recently recognized by the Kennedy School of Government as one of the top 25 innovations in government in the country.

Today, our principals control their own budgets, design their own professional development, make independent staffing decisions, select their own curriculum, and set the instructional focus for their schools.

Our principals will tell you how critical these freedoms are to their ability to lead their students to better outcomes. We stood up for our values and our students are better off for it.

We must not turn back the clock to a time when District offices and union regulations undermined our principals.

Second, continue the portfolio strategy of replacing failing schools and expanding choice.

Yes, the school closure policy is controversial. Yes, it is hard for communities.

But let me be clear about something: no one enjoys closing schools, especially when these schools have come to hold memories and meaning for a community.

We have a strong track record.

Ninety eight percent of our schools are getting the job done. Where we have intervened with targeted support—from operational to instructional—we have seen gains.

But, each year, only a minority of cases—fewer than two percent of schools—require us to take such significant action.

Where all else fails, phasing out a school is a powerful strategy.

At a certain point, the needs of students must trump all else.

It is unconscionable not to phase out a school with an endemic culture of failure and low expectations. Any would-be Schools Chancellor’s must have the courage to make the tough decisions on behalf of our students.

I’m a big believer in choice and ensuring that students have an opportunity to choose between multiple high quality options. In the last decade, we have introduced schools and programs that are as unique as our city.

By September 2013, we will have opened 656 new, mission-driven schools, giving families unprecedented choices.

We have “green” schools, charter schools, single-sex schools, and schools that offer careers in everything from software engineering to emergency management.

Our new grades 9 through 14 schools graduate students with an associate’s degree as well as a high school diploma.

Governor Cuomo wants to replicate this ground-breaking model across the state and

President Obama is trying to take it nationwide.

The popularity of these new schools has skyrocketed in this city, as increasing numbers of parents across the full spectrum of neighborhoods have sought out these dynamic new opportunities for their children.

We also have greatly expanded our highly sought-after charter school options.

In 2002, we had just 17 charter schools across the city.

In the fall, we’ll have 183 charter schools projected to serve over 60,000 students, and another 53,000 students are on a waitlist for a charter school seat.

And, contrary to what our critics claim, our new high schools serve more Black, Hispanic, and English Language Learner students than the citywide average.

Any way that you cut the data, our portfolio strategy has transformed the educational landscape in this city.

Third, champion the Common Core standards and embrace the new teacher evaluation system.

The new rigorous coursework marks a sea change in the way we teach our students.

You can see a different type of learning taking place the moment you enter a classroom.

Students no longer sit planted in their seats, memorizing facts. Now, their teachers push them to think critically, defend their ideas, write more and solve problems together.

For the past three years, we have been supporting the new, more rigorous state exams that reflect the richer and more challenging coursework of the Common Core.

It’s only natural for some students to struggle at first to meet the higher standards.

State test scores announced later this month will likely reflect this transition. Other states have seen results on these more rigorous assessments that are 30 percent lower than the old basic skills test results.

Wherever the new results fall will create a new baseline. The next administration must persevere and maintain the higher expectations we have set. With support and time, our students will rise to the challenge as they have so many times in the past.

I agree that exams shouldn’t result in mindless test prep, and as the assessments improve, quality instruction will be the best preparation possible.

As tests ask students to cite evidence from text to defend their ideas, and not just to find a word in a certain line of a paragraph, rigorous instruction will become even more important.

If the Common Core defines what skills students need to master, our new teacher evaluation system describes how our schools teach those skills.

I know first-hand that teaching is one of the most challenging professions around. Feedback and development are critical for our teachers to see growth.

I want to recognize our teachers and the important, hard work they do on behalf of our students. Great teachers change lives and I’m grateful to have such a dedicated teaching force.

The new teacher evaluation system, for which we fought long and hard, will enable our principals to provide their teachers with meaningful guidance and support to help them improve.

Teaching is not for everyone— but now under our new evaluation system, if a teacher, even a tenured one, consistently fails, he or she can readily be removed.

Adjusting to the new teacher evaluation system and the Common Core will be a challenge in the next school year. That is why we are doubling the amount of professional development that schools receive, to over $100 million.

The next administration must stand strong against the pressure to halt the evaluation system or abandon the rigor of the Common Core.

Focus not on the conflict, but on the prize for our students: the promise of a quality teacher in every classroom.

Fourth, recognize the benefits of a balanced accountability strategy.

Over the last decade we have sought to find accurate, reliable, and balanced ways to measure how well schools and teachers are preparing our students for the challenges beyond the doors of their classrooms.

It isn’t easy to capture the difference a teacher and a school are making, but it is possible, and it is absolutely critical, and make no mistake—tests are a vital piece of that puzzle.

Tests can measure a student’s grasp of particular concepts, and the resulting feedback can be valuable for students, teachers, and families.

But tests don’t paint the full picture of a student’s capabilities or of a teacher’s contributions.

The same is true when evaluating teachers. That’s why we use multiple measures.

Most of teachers’ ratings come from principal observations based on a proven rubric for effective teaching.  The rest of the rating comes from a combination of test scores and other measures.

And, when we’re evaluating schools, we consider a variety of factors, including course outcomes, student, parent and teacher surveys, attendance rates, progress made on closing the achievement gap, and college enrollment rates.

We hold our students accountable every day and ultimately, our accountability system holds our schools and our leadership accountable.

Measuring school quality is one of the most powerful tools we have to improve the opportunities available to our students—a rich and transparent set of data on each school allows educators, parents, and those supporting schools to make critical decisions about where to go to school, how to teach, and how to strengthen teaching and learning.

We can continue to improve on these tools but watering them down is not an option.

I could fill another hour with examples of lessons learned over the past eleven years. Instead, I will leave you with the promise that the strategies I have outlined this morning will continue the paradigm shift taking place in our schools.

They work.

They are policies that can continue to work should the next administration have the sensibility to maintain them or the vision to take them to levels we can’t even imagine.

Halting the momentum of this extraordinary transformation when we are so close to the tipping point would be a tragedy. For there is nothing more important to the future of our city than continuing to prepare our students to succeed in the 21st century.

Thank you.