These days, New York City school principals answer to data. Their schools, and their own futures, ride on whether graduation rates and test scores rise or fall. But several years back, when superintendents actively supervised, Kathleen M. Cashin led principals in some of the city’s worst neighborhoods, with notable success.
Born in Brooklyn, Dr. Cashin spent six years as a teacher, 16 years as a principal, and a dozen years as a superintendent, mostly in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn. When mayoral control started in 2003, the super-size region she led, which included some of the poorest neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, promoted writing, science and nonfiction reading, showing the city’s strongest gains on annual reading and math tests.
“We had extensive student writing everywhere,” she recalled on Monday. “We had children reading books over and above what was required.”
Now Dr. Cashin has a new platform: Last week, she became one of three new members of the State Board of Regents, which oversees state education policy. She raised her hand when the regent who represented Brooklyn stepped down, and she was approved by the State Legislature. The position is unpaid.
As a regent, Dr. Cashin will weigh in on issues like the ongoing political battle over last-in-first-out teacher layoffs, which she says has shifted the focus from what’s really important — training good teachers to become great. “I think we need to provide enormous support before we pull the plug on someone,” she said. “My preference would be support, support, support. I’m not worried about how to get rid of someone — I was always able to do that, tenured or not,” she said. “My concern was how do you bring your teachers up to a new level.”
She suggested that “principal empowerment” can sometimes pit principals against their teachers, instead of promoting collaboration. “You become empowered when you have teachers and principals working together,” she added. “Not by your title.”
On the question of curriculum, she said the new core standards, which are being adopted by states nationally and run dozens of pages in length are helpful, but there are too many of them, and they need to be simplified. “Curriculum is critical, to do in depth, and to do extremely well on what you do. You can’t cover everything. Then you water down your effectiveness.”
And finally, there needs to be a renewed focus on teaching and learning, she said. There is no longer a curriculum office at the city’s Department of Education headquarters, indicating its lack of centrality. But that is starting to change, she said.
“I think that the focus is on the preparation for the assessments,” she said, referring to standardized tests. “I am concerned about that. Very.”
“Everybody wants to do their own thing, but there are basic strands of knowledge that every American child needs to know,” like civics, the Constitution and geography, she said. “People are starting to realize we need a curriculum.”
Something tells me somebody who not only thinks critically of the standardized testing culture, the accountability culture, the principal empowerment jive and the Common Core isn't long for education leadership - somebody from the Broad or the Gates-backed schools of corporate ed deform will knock her off.
But it is good to see somebody say these things.