Interview with Tony Alvarado former Chancellor of the NYC Schools

 Now the #2 Man under Alan Bersin in SD Schools
 Interview April 20 2001 San Diego State University

Alvarado worked with Skip Meno, now the dean of the college of education at SDSU, in NY state. Meno, introducing him, said, “Tony has been on the cutting edge of standards based education, committed to children and poor children in particular.”


What is the theoretical basis of our work? We found students performing below our standards because of the pathetic level of interaction with the TEACHER (his emphasis). We are concerned with what and how we teach and we have to improve that. All roads lead to professional development, and we must improve the quality of interaction, beginning on the ADULT side. The emphasis that holds together the focus is the TEACHER. There are many problems, class, race, and so on, but they just allow the system and the teachers to dodge the bullet.

It is surprising that students are performing as well as they do given the pathetic quality of instruction, especially in reading. The quality of instruction, especially in the first grade, is horrible. With all the mentor programs, with all the business adoption programs, nothing is changing the quality of instruction for the kids.

The problem is what adults know and are able to do

This has nothing to do, nothing, with poverty, broken families, and so on. This is about what the adults in the school know and are able to do. We know we have good classrooms, good teachers, in bad schools. and good schools in bad areas. We are especially concerned with the kids at the bottom of the performance scale, though most kids are performing below capacity, kids in the bottom quartile in elementary school will not be able to do high school. The standards movement has been about ratcheting up expectations. 

SD schools: 30% of the kids ‘disappear.” Maybe they drop out. 42.9 percent are not at grade level on the SAT9. Of the kids who graduate from SD schools, and try to go onto UC or CSU schools, most of them have to take remedial classes. The SD system is woefully inadequate, deficient, like many other places, outside of a completely dysfunctional place like LA, where reform is nearly impossible. 

My biases, we do not wait for consensus in the system. WE have now almost no negativity from the people in our system, the unions aside. School systems are used to pilots, incremental tentative change, and there is no evidence that change takes place like this.

I do not bash higher ed. If you were the perfect institution, 80% of the teachers’ work on the job would still be the responsibility of the school system at k12. The culture of the schools will not support good teachers.

Universities deal with research and knowledge. I believe that it should be practicable knowledge, not ‘nest’ knowledge. You are not here because you are expert practitioners, you are here because you are researchers, theorists. Yet your task is to produce quality practitioners. So you need to partner with us, the schools, those who know about teaching and practice and concrete projects.

Why reform is hard: Here are lots of issues; unions, budgets, politics, leadership, capacity, etc. Each has a stake in inertia. Each is related to the other. Still the greater the amount of consensus building the better, but consensus buildings offers no evidence of change, results.

There are no outstanding school without outstanding principals. There are very few examples of good principals. They mostly come from old boys’ clubs. Most principals know little about instruction, most of them CARE, but they don’t know what they are doing.

There is little evidence of quality training for principals.

THE SD BLUEPRINT (the strategic plan for SD schools). Was an attempt to play out what we intended to do, to direct the money to research based strategies, in the first gatekeeper skill, reading, and the second skill, math, and now we are going to go to the third skill , science,. We are going to require physics, chemistry, and biology, to graduate. 20% of the kids in the US take physics. 11% in SD take physics.

70% of the SD kids do not meet UC entrance requirements.

WE must have accountability, from the superintendent to the teacher, and vice versa.

Last year over 85% of SD teachers were involved in professional development. People flock to the professional development classes, the classes on the standards. They want P.D. That is the driving force of the Blueprint. But we will NOT lower the standards. WE have some evidence of gains, but we have only been at this a couple of years. In math, well, most teachers are out of their league in math. But we do know what a standards based classroom looks like. We lift the ceiling by lifting he floor.

In response to questions, Alvarado added:

It is difficult to do school reform without economic reform, but I only work on the corner of the world I am responsible for. I do a good job. Perhaps the other sectors will come along. If we can show that a poor kid tests well, that may help economic reform, may not. I cannot do everything, but I must do something. We are working on specific issues, reading literacy, math, science, and we cannot do everything, cannot deal with economic reform now.

Jonathon Kozol is my dear friend, as he told you last week. We are close personal friends and allies. He is an old testament prophet, as he shows in his book Rachel and her Children. I was superintendent in the district he was writing about. We are ideologically on the same page, in practice we have some secondary differences about methods. 

We will retain in grade at the first grade level, in SD schools, about 600 of 10,000. In 6th grade we will retain maybe 1700 of 10,000. 

We are trying to reduce class size, find quality teachers, provide professional development, and offer a second teacher, a reading specialist, in many classes. 

What is a quality teacher? Each teacher has to try to get better. Ours is a student centered approach, you must be able to assess student work. I must know where each kid is individually, in a large group, and in a small group,, how to select texts for them. I must be a problem identifier, and seek to solve problems collegially. A good indication of my teaching is my kids learning. If you taught it, they learned it. and they got it and they can show it. If they did not get it, you did not teach it.

WE are going after his hard because the school will not change fast enough. We cannot wait for a little bit of innovation. We must act now, for the kids. You would not dribble out action or reform if you need a heart operation and the poorest kids have the worst teachers with the weakest pedagogical knowledge and this is not acceptable. 

We oppose frontal directive pedagogy. Our focus groups reports with kids are SO SAD. The kids are overwhelmingly bored, say learning is getting a grade and that learning and getting a grade have nothing to do with real learning. They blame themselves. They say those who don’t learn are the ones who don’t want to learn. They say they don’t know what is expected of them. They like the social culture of school. They see no connection between school and life. They don’t even know what a GPA is, what credits are, and they have little animosity toward the adults who were supposed to teach them. Again, we believe in an inquiry based education promoted through massive professional development. 

The only reform movement that works in secondary schools is the small school movement that is lead out of the Midwest, and Linda darling Hammond says that only works a little.

Secondary teachers are tied to their subjects, not to teaching. We know that at every level there is massive grade inflation, kids with a’s or b's know nothing, nothing about their subjects.

The key thing you need to understand about this is, above all I have said, is that we are all in the same boat, rich and poor, black and white, all races and classes, in trying to solve educational problems for the good of the nation. Above all, I believe that.


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