Institute Forum

Summary: An Agenda for Education Reform in New York February 24, 2010

Education Commissioner: Focus First on Curriculum

New York State spends $52 billion annually to educate 3.1 million schoolchildren. And yet, according to state Education Commissioner David Steiner, its leaders fail to address a question critical to achieving their goal: Just what is an educated citizen?

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Video: David M. Steiner
Video: Question-and-Answer session

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At a Feb. 24 public policy forum hosted by the Rockefeller Institute, Steiner outlined his vision for education reform in New York. He said the current practice of designing curricula to meet a predetermined, standardized outcome — measured largely through the use of multiple-choice tests — “is actually backwards.” Instead, the commissioner argued for a return to developing curricula aimed at cultivating well-rounded thinkers, and preparing teachers to present that curricula.

He blamed a “legacy of localism” within the U.S. for creating a system in which teachers invest too much time developing individual course content.

“Having 700 disticts each trying to design a math curriculum doesn’t make sense,” he said of New York.

Steiner argued for more standardized curricula, at least within states, to free up resources toward training better teachers, contending that “the single most interesting, important, vital part of education, is what happens between a teacher and a student.” Countries that have taken this approach generally perform better than the United States in educating their youth, he said.

“We find that students who come from countries that don't use bubble tests as much as we do, that do have a real national curriculum, that do train their teachers to teach that curriculum — and create their assessments on top of the curriculum and not the other way around — that their students paradoxically do better on the bubble tests than ours do,” he said.

Steiner stressed that he supports assessments of schools' performance. But he indicated he believes the trend toward grading schools has gone too far, and said that to improve schools, such assessments must be more properly balanced with efforts to develop curricula and train teachers.

“We have a responsibility to try to ensure that our next generation of assessments actually assess complex skills,” he said.

Asked about the proper role of local, state and federal governments in education, Steiner conceded that achieving the right mix of involvement from each level of government is complicated. He recommended that local school districts learn from successful charter schools how to be more flexible and provide more choices to students. States should standardize some practices, including curriculum development and defining the qualities of effective teachers, he said. As for the federal government, Steiner said it should promote transparency and accountability throughout the nation's school systems.


The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York, conducts fiscal and programmatic research on American state and local governments. It works closely with federal, state, and local government agencies nationally and in New York, and draws on the State University’s rich intellectual resources and on networks of public policy academic experts throughout the country.