On Board Online • November 8, 2021
By Cathy Woodruff
A pandemic pause that put initiatives on hold, an influx of federal recovery money and a new governor are among several developments that have created an opportunity for the State Education Department (SED) to renew its focus and rebuild its capacity to support school districts, according to the department's senior deputy commissioner.
Speaking at NYSSBA's virtual member event on Oct. 25, James Baldwin, senior deputy commissioner for education policy, said Commissioner Betty Rosa and members of the staff are aiming to restore SED's identity as a partner to school districts and the larger educational community.
"We're in a very unusual moment," Dr. Baldwin said. "We have a commissioner who has been a teacher, who's been a principal, who's been a superintendent, who's been a chancellor. And we have a chancellor who has been, also, very much socialized in and a leader in the educational system. We are led by a Board of Regents with members who are representative of many of the practitioners in the field.
"So," he said, "there is a desire on our part to establish that partnership with school districts."
That priority will be reflected in SED's budget request for 2022-23, he said. "How do we, as a department, recover from what has been about a decade of loss of resources and loss of capacity to serve the field in an effective way?"
Staff vacancies and shrinking funding for the basic functions of the agency have long been concerns for commissioners and fiscal planners at SED, said Baldwin, who has experience as BOCES district superintendent and served two terms as a school board member.
"We intend to bring to [Gov. Kathy Hochul's] attention and to the administration's attention some of the pressing needs of the State Education Department and the educational community," Baldwin said. "We will make it very clear what the resource needs of the department are."
He said signals and statements from Hochul, who succeeded Gov. Andrew Cuomo in August, have shown an eagerness to address impacts of the pandemic and the needs of schools. "Certainly, the tone in Albany is different," he said.
In terms of specific priorities and challenges on the horizon, Baldwin said staff are reviewing ways the department communicates with "the field," which refers to educators and school leaders.
Also, SED will undertake a review of New York's teacher certification system.
New York has critical shortages in some teaching fields, Baldwin noted, and yet the systems now in place have not effectively addressed those needs. Investments in technology, training and professional development of staff at SED should be part of the solution, he said.
And while regulatory flexibility provided during the pandemic helped ease some certification bottlenecks, "we need to look at more long-term resolution of those issues," he said.
Baldwin also suggested the review will encompass more than certification standards and procedures.
"We need to think about the barriers we've created to teaching and to leadership in our school systems," he said. "Are we making it too expensive for people to become teachers? Are we making it too cumbersome?"
Also, the department will move forward with an initiative to establish new graduation standards, he said.
The next round of public meetings will take place virtually, data will be compiled and a preliminary report will go to the Regents, who will appoint a blue ribbon commission. Recommendations to the Regents are anticipated during the 2023-24 school year.