Mayoral Candidates Tackle Education in Forum

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Five mayoral hopefuls gathered for a forum on education Monday, Nov. 19, to kick off Manhattan Media's 10th annual Blackboard Awards. The hour-long discussion moderated by Philissa Cramer of Gotham Schools and Lindsey Christ of NY1 gave the presumptive candidates the opportunity to outline their proposed plans for New York City's education system, and to criticize the education policies of the current administration. "I think our school system is largely stalled right now," asserted New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, one of the forum's three undeclared Democratic candidates along with City Comptroller John Liu and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. "We need a very serious reset." De Blasio focused on the importance of early childhood education throughout the discussion, an issue which all potential candidates supported. He called for universal pre-kindergarten programs and expanded extracurricular activities across the city, arguing "that's the kind of investment we need to make, or we're not serious about turning the corner with our school system." Liu emphasized the necessity of preparing students to not only enter college, but to graduate from it as well. To keep students on track, he proposed hiring more guidance counselors and reducing the current system's heavy focus on standardized testing-another issue that the potential candidates uniformly agreed needs to be addressed-as well as cultivating better communication with students' families, whose voices, he argued, are too rarely considered. "We need to engage the public more in terms of what the schools need, what communities need, what families and parents need," he said. Quinn, who is considered an ally of current Mayor Michael Bloomberg, agreed that the current administration still has many shortcomings that need to be overcome. She supported an evaluation system that would weed out bad educators, and argued that reducing testing would grant teachers more freedom and creativity in their lesson plans. "For a child who might not learn in the traditional way," she said, "having that level of attention on standardized testing significantly reduces or eliminates the moments where that child's mind might get passion or a spark might get set off." She noted, "Clearly progress has been made, but not enough." Tom Allon, CEO of the forum's sponsor Manhattan Media and a declared Republican candidate, advocated what he called a "medical model" of teacher training to ensure that they have proper experience before taking over a classroom. Through a tier-track system and mandatory three-year in-class training period, the city would boost its low teacher retention numbers, he asserted. "What [the Bloomberg administration] has missed is the fundamental problem of education," said Allon, "which is that we're just not properly training teachers before they get into the classroom, and we're not giving them proper instructions once they get into the classroom." The only declared Democratic candidate, former city comptroller and 2009 mayoral candidate Bill Thompson, focused his criticism on chronic school closures, the root of a tension between public and charter schools. He spoke of the particular difficulties of the recently popular "co-location" of public and charter schools in the same buildings, where public schools are often inferior in resources and appearances. "The children feel as if they're second-class citizens," he argued, which creates disruptive rifts in what is supposed to be a mutually beneficial approach to learning. Thompson agreed that early childhood education is essential, and that teachers need more professional development opportunities and support. "Education is collaborative," he said. "The schools that do better are the schools that have individuals who work together with one teacher to help improve another teacher." The forum, held at Fordham University, was the first joint appearance of the five mayoral hopefuls since the presidential election earlier this month, and also since Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, a presumed mayoral candidate, announced that he would run for city comptroller instead. The forum was considered an unofficial and symbolic start to the 2013 race, which will conclude next November.

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