What Drives Education Officials

By Maria Mottola, Executive Director, New York Foundation

Dubbed “The Three Tenors of The Education World,” Arne Duncan (United States Secretary of Education), John B. King, Jr. (New York State Education Commissioner) and Dennis M. Walcott (New York City Schools Chancellor) shared the stage at the Annual Meeting of Philanthropy New York on Monday. WNYC reporter Beth Fertig, who moderated the session, pointed out that this was the first time the three had appeared together at a public event.

Unlike those other famous tenors, there were no divas in this group, though Mr. Walcott may have unintentionally upstaged his colleagues at several points with his animated delivery and candid remarks. All three especially lit up when Dr. King recounted a visit to an automotive class where he met a student who was building a Cobra, the kind of car that apparently makes grown men, even wonky education officials, swoon. Dr. King used the story to drive home a point that framed the afternoon conversation: schools need to connect students to what they are passionate about and teach skills that are meaningful beyond the halls of academia.

Secretary Duncan advocated 21st-century skills, describing schools moving from a “manufacturing model” in which they are akin to factories to a “knowledge model” where students are encouraged to think critically, solve problems, work in teams and think creatively. Touting these Common Core Learning Standards, Dr. King said that to make schools effective, it’s important to work backwards from the question, “What does a successful adult need?”

Despite Ms. Fertig’s probing questions, none of the speakers wanted to dive too deep into the more controversial and complex issues like shrinking private resources, budget cuts and schools closings. While Dr. King acknowledged that Pearson “didn’t do as well as they should have” in administering state tests this spring, Mr. Walcott played defense, blaming the testing debacle on “tabloid society.”

The question “what role should private philanthropy play?” was answered with a salute to the field for its support of many innovative and effective projects. The first and only remark to draw a round of applause from the audience was “More support for early education,” Dr. King’s answer to the question of what government should support.

In the end, there were a few surprises. All three seemed mostly optimistic given the hurdles they face. Mr. Duncan boldly courted increased pressure from parents and students, asking funders to support efforts that demand the government pick up the pace of school reform. And finally, Mr. Walcott confessed his desire to someday become a school principal, defying the stereotype that most men imagine themselves in their retirement years driving a fancy sports car.




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