Three finalists to become the next Massachusetts commissioner of elementary and secondary education were interviewed in public Friday at the Omni Parker House in Boston.
All of them stressed they would work collaboratively with teachers, local school administrators, parents, and students, if chosen for the job.
The 11-member Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is scheduled to vote Monday on a recommendation, which will need at least two-thirds support. The nomination will then be forwarded to Education Secretary James Peyser, who has final say.
Here’s a rundown on each finalist — all of whom have school-age children:
Deputy commissioner of the Office of Instructional Support P-12, New York State Education Department
Interview time: 1 hour 51 minutes
Infante-Green, who has received endorsement from several Latino organizations and educators, quickly established a rapport with the board, mixing humor with substantive conversations on education policies and the inner workings of a state education agency. She also avoided jargon, believing it can be a barrier between effective communication between educators and parents as well as the broader community.
One of her longest exchange with the board involved teacher evaluations. Infante-Green suggested that local school districts should decide how to perform teacher evaluations instead of having the state strictly regulate the practices. (Teacher evaluation has been a hot-button issue across the country. In Massachusetts many teachers, parents, and administrators are unhappy that the state is requiring the use of student test scores to gauge educator effectiveness.)
“That needs to be left to the local level and we need to come up with a way to measure [the effectiveness of teacher evaluations].”
Board members pressed her on how the state could develop a system to adequately monitor the effectiveness of evaluations if every district did it differently. Infante-Green insisted it could be done.
“What you have here [at the state education department] is an incredibly strong research department and probably one of the most robust data systems. I think there is a possibility for us to be innovative and look at this differently,” she said.
Infante-Green apparently made an impression on the board, when she explained that she eschews the use of the word “disabled,” believing it focuses on what students cannot do. Instead, she uses the term “differently enabled.”
Superintendent and receiver of the Lawrence school system
Interview time: 1 hour 18 minutes
Riley was the best-known candidate among the group. As the state-appointed receiver of the Lawrence school system for the last six years, he has routinely appeared before the board to give progress reports on his work. Along the way, the board has gained a fairly strong understanding of his philosophies and management style. On Friday, the board sped through its questioning.
The most tumultuous chapter in Riley’s career has been as state receiver, a role that gave him the power to make broad changes to schools and staffing without having to seek approval from a school committee. Asked how the state should conduct such interventions in the future, his answer was delicate.
“When you do a receivership it should be a point of last resort. . . . When I came to Lawrence, some people looked at me like I was Darth Vader. . . . But at the same time we were able to rally people together to bring consensus to make it work.”
On teacher evaluation, he gave the state credit for coming up with a system that is user-friendly for administrators, but also expressed some reservations.
“I’m not sure we have come to universal agreement on what quality instruction looks like, and I’m not sure we have done the work to kind of beta-test ourselves to make sure what is happening in Athol is happening in Arlington.”
Chief deputy commissioner of academics at the Texas Education Agency
Interview time: 2 hours 15 minutes
Schwinn, who founded a charter school and briefly served on a school board in California, came to the interview amid controversy at home, as Texas has been accused by the federal government of illegally excluding thousands of students from special-education services. She answered the board’s questions unfazed.
She faced the toughest questions about her involvement in a no-bid contract for a company that collected educational plans and other data on special-education students, creating an uproar among parents and advocates that forced the department to cancel the contract last month.
“I was charged with writing a recommendation letter for a sole-source contract. I did so. I submitted that to our purchasing-and-contract department. . . . We did not bring in many of our parent advocacy groups and that was a mistake. . . . Those parents should have been at the table making the decision.”
Schwinn spoke a lot about compliance and “performance management.”
“In some cases, the role of the state, especially when you think about accountability, is identifying areas where there is high needs, areas where performance is not happening in those cases. You invite yourself into the home — sometimes asked, sometimes not — and you help to figure out solutions or facilitate conversations in order to help those districts meet expectations parents have for those schools.”