ROCHESTER — As New York’s new commissioner of education, David Steiner is tasked with implementing educational policy for 7,000 public and private elementary and secondary schools, 270 public and private colleges and universities, and a host of other educational institutions.
So why did he and several state education-department representatives make a Rochester Catholic school their first stop during a listening tour of several Rochester-area schools Nov. 4?
“We want to learn from the best teaching practices and best educational practices, wherever they may be,” Steiner said in an interview with the Catholic Courier following his tour of Cathedral School at Holy Rosary.
Steiner also was scheduled to stop at Monroe No. 1 BOCES’ Challenger Learning Center program and Genesee Community Charter School, both on the campus of Rochester Museum and Science Center, and the School of the Arts on Prince Street — a stop close to Steiner’s heart, since he previously was director of arts education for the National Endowment for the Arts.
Steiner’s tour of Cathedral School at Holy Rosary was led by Principal Kathleen Dougherty, who showed off the school’s technology and its focus on reading during every subject. Also participating in the tour were Anne Willkens Leach, superintendent of diocesan schools; Jean-Claude Brizard, superintendent of the Rochester City School District; and John B. King Jr., senior deputy commissioner for P-12 education for the state Department of Education.
“We’re thrilled that they are choosing to visit a Catholic school,” Willkens Leach said. “I think that says a lot.”
At Cathedral School at Holy Rosary, Dougherty, staff and students demonstrated for Steiner some of the ways the school uses computers and digital whiteboards with students of all ages. Dougherty pointed out that several students achieved the highest level in the Accelerated Reader program last year by reading and passing quizzes on at least 50 books. During the tour, students danced, ran and sang along with a song that taught action verbs. Volunteers circulated throughout other classes, giving students individual attention. Values literally surrounded the group in the form of faith-based slogans on the walls.
Students at the school were very excited about the visit because they love to share how much they love their school, said school counselor Kristen Baker.
“We hope they really enjoyed our school, because we really enjoy it,” 11-year-old Kaniya McKenzie, a sixth-grader, said after the state representatives had left.
Dougherty noted that the school maintains high expectations and results, even as it serves some of Rochester’s neediest students — 80 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
After the tour, Steiner noted that while hunger, health concerns or other symptoms of poverty can interfere with learning, he believes it is important not to use poverty or other concerns as a reason to not set high achievement standards. Raising the level of achievement for all students in the state and closing the performance gap between high-performing and low-performing students and institutions are his two main goals, Steiner said. Higher achievement in school is needed for New Yorkers to compete in the modern economy, he added.
“It has never been more important to stay in school,” said Steiner, who has a doctorate in political science from Harvard University.
Steiner has gained a reputation in some educational circles as a reformer and maverick, due in part to his work as dean of the Hunter College School of Education at the City University of New York, where he shifted the emphasis of the school’s teacher-preparation program from education theory to practical, real-world preparation.
To that end, he and Hunter’s professors used video recordings of teachers in the classroom to help teachers better connect with their students. Hunter additionally tracks the classroom results of its graduates, helping the school monitor how well it is training teachers. Steiner said one his goals as state education commissioner has been to ensure that teachers tailor lessons to different styles of learning and don’t teach solely to standardized tests.
“We don’t want the test to become the curriculum,” Steiner remarked.
In addition to focusing on teacher preparation, Steiner said he plans to improve principal preparation and provide principals and districts with data and other tools to track their progress.
“If you look at a strong school, often what you see is a strong principal,” he observed.