Susana Torruella Leval
For 19 months after its creation, the Panel for
Educational Policy worked in relative obscurity. The
state legislature established the unpaid 13-member
group in 2002 when it gave the New York City mayor
control of the school system and abolished the Board
of Education. In contrast with its more powerful
predecessor, the new panel, the law said, "shall
exercise no executive power and perform no executive
or administrative functions." And Mayor Michael
Bloomberg said of his appointees, "Their job is to
give advice to the chancellor, not advice to the
press. I do not expect to see their names, ever, in
the press, answering a question either on the record
or off the record."
But the panel garnered attention last week as it
prepared to vote on Bloomberg's plan to leave back
third graders who score poorly on a standardized test.
Fearing he would lose the vote, Bloomberg requested
the resignation of two members who had indicated they
would vote against the policy.
The ousters came after a week of turmoil at the
Department of Education. Only days before, Deputy
Chancellor Diana Lam, the department's top educator,
had to resign in the wake of nepotism charges. The
department's top lawyer also stepped down.
Susana Torruella Leval, a former director of the Museo
del Barrio, was one of the Bloomberg appointees
dismissed from the Panel for Educational Policy. In an
interview with Gotham Gazette, Leval describes what
led up to the ouster of the panel members and spoke
about the role of the group and the state of
educational reform in New York City:
Advisors, Not Rubberstampers
It was a great honor to be on the panel. When the
mayor appointed me I remember saying, "You know Mr.
Mayor, I'm not an education expert so are you sure
that I should be taking the place of an educator on
this panel?" He said, "Oh certainly, because what we
want are people from other worlds, other perspectives.
What we want is a different point of view."
I'm a private citizen. I have no agenda. I'm a person
from the art world, and I'm an ex museum director.
Perhaps because I was not from the world of education, I
took great pains to educate myself on all the issues
that were coming up before us.
We were not hired to rubberstamp the mayor. Who would
go on a panel if that were the purpose? The panel's
role was advisory, and perhaps it was naĂŻve that we
took this to be real. We worked very closely for a
year and half with the chancellor sometimes but mostly
with the staff that does the day-to-day work.
I was privileged to be on the inside looking at this
extraordinary team of people, a team that in my mind
included the work of former Deputy Chancellor Diana
Lam, which was excellent work no matter what happened
later. It was a privilege to observe the team and to
have an interaction with them as advisors. They took
us very seriously. We were refining and tinkering with
proposals that came up and in some cases even
challenging them, but we always got to the other side.
I am very sad to not be able to continue to serve with
the wonderful colleagues on the panel and with the
Whether the panel can continue to do good work if what
the mayor wants is simply approval and not advice, I
don't know. The members of the panel all felt that
they were on a real advisory panel. No one would have
signed on to be on a rubber stamp panel. If you look
at the people on the panel, they are people of weight,
intelligence and experience. And there was immense
passion and belief in this reform.
Confusion and Complaints
It's extraordinarily courageous of the mayor to take
on educational reform as a test of his mayoralty. I
thought that, in the past, the system has been in such
shambles that, of course this is going to be good.
Change is very painful, and change makes people
unhappy, and change takes time. We have not seen any
statistics yet because the school year isn't even
finished. But most of the comments that the panel has
gotten from parents and teachers have not been very
positive. On the administrative side, there seems to
be great confusion and on the curriculum side there's
a lot of complaining too.
The reform could still turn out to be very good news
in the end. It's just how can you expect to turn a
whole system upside down and get immediate good
results? You can't. Maybe you can do that in a
corporation. In the real world, it doesn't work that
Objections To The Third-Grade Promotion Policy
Promotion was one of the first issues that people on
the panel were seriously and intellectually divided
Absolutely no one in the panel is for social
promotion. So, I'm puzzled and actually sad that there
are descriptions of the members who were going to vote
against this as "foes of the mayor" or people who are
against reforms. I wasn't voting in defiance of the
mayor. I was voting because my brain of 60 years has
taught me to look at things and analyze both sides.
What most of us were listening to and reading
about were the very serious objections from the expert
professional educational and scholarly community.
Those objections were mainly twofold. They were
against high-stakes testing. There seems to be immense
proof that high-stakes testing is a very bad practice,
and even the test makers have said that they don't
agree that it should be used as a sole measure. No one
is against tests, and no one is against standards.
What we are against is using one test -- and
exclusively that test -- as the marker of what should
retain a child.
The second issue that expert opinion seemed to not be
divided on is on retention. They do not see retention
as a solution. That does not mean that social
promotion is the answer. Neither retention nor
promotion are solutions.
There are a lot of very serious and good educators on
the panel. Led by them, we had proposed a whole host
of interventions and programs for reading remediation
-- including smaller classes, of course -- that would
prevent the problem of having a third grader not
knowing how to read.
There was a mayoral mandate in January for immediate
implementation. The test is in April. We were all
arguing for more time. We felt that if we had one year
more -- in other words if whatever initiative to end
social promotion was implemented in 2005 -- that we
would have the next year to work with the chancellor's
staff. What we were arguing for was a
well-thought-through educational plan that could take
a year to put in place; maybe it would have taken
less than a year.
The resolution looked totally different on March 15
than it had even one week before. Thinking how much
the resolution had changed in one week, I really feel
that if we had had another year, even another month,
we would have ended up in a better place. We have a
new vice chancellor, Carmen FariĂ±a. It would have been
very interesting to see if she could have helped come
up with new aspects that would have made most of the
panel comfortable with the resolution.
Slowing Down; Leaving
Over the last year and a half, the haste of some
reforms have caused a lot of criticism. If you slow
down, you can think things through.
I am sad to say that Diana Lam's leaving contributed
to the atmosphere of chaos. She was in favor of the
promotion policy, but she had expressed the ability
to listen to taking more time, to slowing down.
Despite her public persona, I always found her to be
thoughtful and willing to listen.
I had been in conversation with the mayor and people
close to him. We had been having what I thought was a
real debate. That debate continued until noon on
Monday. Then I got home at two on Monday and had a
call from a mayor's representative who said, "If you
cannot vote for this resolution, then the mayor would
like your resignation." And that was it.
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