Education commissioner finalists interviewed

State board slated to make pick on Monday

THE THREE FINALISTS for state education commissioner each faced close to two hours of questioning on Friday from the state panel that now must decide who will lead the system serving nearly 1 million Massachusetts students.

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will meet on Monday to deliberate publicly and then vote on whether to have the system led by Jeff Riley, the state-appointed receiver for the Lawrence schools, Penny Schwinn, the deputy state education commissioner for academics in Texas, or Angelica Infante-Green, deputy commissioner for instructional support in the New York state education department.

If there was a moment of tension it came when Riley engaged in an awkward exchange with Education Secretary Jim Peyser in which it became clear they were not on the same page when it comes to high-stakes math and English testing. While some have seen Riley, the lone in-state candidate, as the front-runner, the display of differing views on the crucial issue seemed to underscore that the outcome is far from certain. Infante-Green, meanwhile, has drawn the vocal support of Latino leaders and organizations eager to see the first person of color atop the state education agency.

Below are summaries of some of the ground covered in the interviews.

PENNY SCHWINN

On the question of what to do to boost 3rd grade scores, which are a key predictor of long-term student success, Schwinn said that work must start much earlier. “We almost lose four years of instruction. It is so critical that we start that literacy instruction in kindergarten, day 1,” she said.

Asked about the role of a state education agency, Schwinn said it is “to set expectations through standards. What is it we expect students to learn? How will we measure that? How will we will hold districts accountable? And what are the supports and services to make sure it happens?”

Beyond that, she said the state role should not be overly prescriptive. “You are the architect,” she said. “You’re building the framing of the house, not picking the decorations or picking out the paint colors.”

Penny Schwinn.

Asked about her short stay at recent jobs – Schwinn has worked in three states over the last five years – she said she’s had lots of opportunities early in her career. With her career more advanced, and with two daughters for whom she’d like a stable childhood, Schwinn said she would make a long-term commitment to Massachusetts if chosen.

She agreed that the current focus on math and English test scores has crowded out other subjects. “You’re speaking to a former social studies teacher, so I will admit to some bias,” said Schwinn. She said schools should be incorporating literacy skill-building into every content area.

Though Schwinn founded a charter school in Sacramento, she had the least to say of the three candidates when asked what she thought the role of charter schools was in public education, saying only that they’re one of many kinds of school choices available.

Board chairman Paul Sagan asked for her account of a controversy over special education in Texas. A recent US Department of Education report concluded that districts there were capping special education enrollment, based on a state “indicator,” at 8.5 percent of their student population, a violation of federal law.

Texas has a more than 14-year year history of “not doing right by students with disabilities,” said Schwinn, who arrived there two years ago.  “It is challenging, it is frustrating, and it is deeply, deeply troubling.”

“This is what happened in the past. I am responsible for what we do moving forward,” she said of her job to make sure students who are eligible for special education are being identified and getting appropriate services.

She was also asked about a contract she oversaw with a company compiling data aimed at determining whether special education students were getting the right services. The contract was cancelled by the state last month after privacy issues were raised by advocacy groups. Board member Margaret McKenna wondered why, in light of the controversy over the 8.5 percent enrollment target, the state was focusing on that issue rather than “all the students who are not getting services.”

Schwinn said the state was trying to address “two massive problems” at the same time.

Though she was raised in California, Schwinn said both her parents grew up in Massachusetts – though in markedly different circumstances. Her mother, who ended up being a teacher for more than 30 years in Sacramento, grew up with her family in Natick, while Schwinn’s father spent his childhood in foster care and was homeless for a period of time in high school, “living in the woods,” she said, and showering in gym class in high school. Schwinn said she was inspired to go into education by both parents’ experiences.

ANGELICA INFANTE-GREEN

Infante-Green, whose parents immigrated to New York from the Dominican Republic, has been a champion for bilingual education as well as special education services. She has overseen bilingual education for the state system and directed the Office of English Language Learners for the New York City Schools.

Infante-Green, who has a son with autism, helped develop the nation’s first dual language program for students with autism. “You will not hear me say ‘disabled,’” she said. When we use that term, “we’ve almost placed a cap on what a kid can do,” she said.

She said Massachusetts should take a year for planning new bilingual programs following recent passage of legislation allowing bilingual classes, which had been effectively banned since passage of a 2002 ballot question.

Angelica Infante-Green.

She called charter schools “part of a tool kit” of options in public education. “My belief is that every parent and every family should have access to a high quality instructional program,” said Infante-Green. “I think charters is one of those options.” She also name-checked the Springfield Empowerment Zone, a state-district partnership operating a number of schools in Springfield with more autonomy than traditional district schools.

She acknowledged the acrimonious Massachusetts ballot question over charter schools in 2016 and said the state needs to “heal what has happened, put that in the rearview mirror and move forward.”

In contrast to concerns about a cap on special education services in Texas, Infante-Green expressed concern about an overrepresentation of minority and low-income students in special education in Massachusetts.

She said the issue of teacher evaluation should be left up to districts “and the voice of the teacher needs to be part of that equation.” Asked if that meant the state had no role, Infante-Green said the state should make sure local evaluations meet its basic standards, though she acknowledged there was no example of a state doing that.

She called testing “an important part of our accountability system” and how schools “take the temperature of what’s happening.” She agreed, however, that math and English testing were narrowing the curriculum and said extending the school day could be one way to address it.

Infante-Green emphasized the dire choices families face in searching for a good school – and the lengths to which they will go on behalf of their children – with the story of her own childhood. She described the school options when she was growing up in Brooklyn as a better school “up the hill” and a struggling school down the hill.

Her mother “took every dollar she had – and I don’t condone this – and paid a secretary $200 to get me into the higher performing school,” said Infante-Green. “Her rule-breaking saved my life. It ensured that I could rise out of poverty and stand before you today.”

JEFF RILEY

Riley is the known quantity in the field, and it was evident that he and board members knew each other well from his regular appearances before the board to provide updates on the Lawrence receivership. But Riley showed he was also keenly aware of the fact that he is up against two women, one of whom is Latino, in a state that has never had anyone but white men helm its education department.

“As a white man I’m very cognizant of the fact that I have privilege in this world,” he said in response to a question about diversity. “I have spent most of my life trying to get good results for city kids, most of them low-income kids of color,” he added.

Citing research showing it can have a positive impact on student learning for minority students to see teachers that look like them, he said Lawrence has more than doubled the number of Latino teachers since he took over as receiver in 2012, and tripled the number of teachers who are Lawrence residents.

Jeff Riley.

He said the achievement gap starts in early childhood, where disadvantaged children hear 30 million fewer words than their better-off peers by the time they enter school, and said said there should be “an educational campaign across the state” to make families aware of the issue.

Though he leads the most sweeping state intervention in a Massachusetts district, Riley said that type of state action should be “a point of last resort,” and when done, “it should be done very delicately and cautiously.”

“I was viewed as Darth Vader,” Riley said of his arrival as the Lawrence receiver.  He said he had to convince the community “we are not here to blow everything up.”

Riley said Massachusetts has “the single most effective charter school sector in America,” but he called himself a “moderate” on the issue and said the state needs “a more collaborative spirit on both ends” of the battle lines that have formed over charters.

He said poverty is “a real factor” in the achievement gap. Lawrence has extended the school day for all K-8 students, and Riley said the best way to for schools to “beat back poverty” is to give students “more time with great teachers.”

He agreed with other candidates that math and English testing has crowded out other subjects and said that students need a much richer curriculum. He pointed to everything a student gains, for example, from performing in front of an audience of 500 people.

“But aren’t there some non-negotiables around those basic skills as well,” asked Peyser, the state education secretary, returning to the question of math and English proficiency.

Riley didn’t commit to the idea. “What I’m looking to do is to maximize students’ achievement,” he said, and offered the example of a student from his time in the Boston public schools who excelled in theater but was profoundly dyslexic and might not have been able to ever test as proficient in English language arts. Is he “scoring as high as he possibly can on his math and English given whatever constraints that he has? If the answer is yes, then I feel like we’ve done our job.”

The idea that all students need to reach proficiency in those subjects has been a cornerstone of the state’s education policy, including the high-stakes MCAS test 10th graders must pass to graduate from high school.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Riley acknowledged that he doesn’t have experience in a state education agency and that he would face a learning curve when it comes to state policy issues and politics on Beacon Hill.

“There are always unknowns” he said. “What I do bring is a passion for education in Massachusetts and a huge willingness to learn.”