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Peter Meyer
Mr. Rivera Goes to Albany
Is Spitzer’s new education lieutenant a genuine reformer?
6 April 2007

Almost lost in the hubbub over new governor Eliot Spitzer’s gifts to all sides in the New York education wars—he has promised “the largest infusion of resources in our state’s history,” which will make the teachers’ union happy, but he also wants more charter schools and tough accountability measures—was his creation of a new position: secretary for education.

The new job is in the Executive Office of the governor, who, with the exception of creating budgets, has more bully pulpit power than legal authority over education policy. You’d expect a governor with a tough-guy reputation to appoint a hard-nosed litigator or a master-of-the-universe CEO as secretary for education. Instead, Spitzer chose a mild-mannered, soft-spoken former teacher, principal, and national Superintendent of the Year: Manuel Rivera.

It was a promising sign, perhaps, that the 57-year-old Rivera, a grandfather, had turned down a cushy $300,000 offer to take the reins of Boston’s 150-school district in order to try to fix—with no real power and a mere $169,000 salary—New York’s 4,448 schools. He had to be nuts—a plus when doing real education reform.

“Did you have your head examined?” I asked Rivera when I caught up with him in early March, barely a month after his appointment. “No,” he laughed, “but I did do some soul-searching.” Rivera was still moving into his large, airy office in the state’s historic 150-year-old Capitol and still driving (225 miles each way) between Albany and Rochester, where he started his teaching career in 1975 and has spent the last five years as schools superintendent. “I realized that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. To stay here in New York, to really push change at a state level and perhaps even have an impact nationally.”

Though “pushing change” is the new buzz phrase in public education, kudos still go to educators who make incremental improvements. Thus, while it sounds pretty awful that 43 percent of Rochester fourth-graders still fail the state’s English Language exam, it’s a damn sight better than the 57 percent who were failing when Rivera took over three years ago. And taking those fourth-graders from a 43 percent failure rate in math to 28 percent during the same period has earned Rivera national acclaim.

Even modest improvements like these are hard to come by in troubled districts like Rochester, the state’s third-largest city, where one-quarter of the population of 220,000 lives below the poverty line. How did he do it? “It’s very hard to pinpoint cause and effect in these things,” says Michael Washousky, a supervisor overseeing Rochester for the New York State Education Department. “But Rivera was very good with strategic planning and accountability systems. He set up clear benchmarks for each school and communicated them clearly, so that teachers, administrators and parents knew exactly where they needed to go.” He also put reading and math specialists in each of the district’s buildings. “He had the whole conglomerate of programs,” says Washousky. “And he made it work through clear communication and faithful and consistent implementation.”

Even if Rivera did work some magic in Rochester, which has fewer than 40,000 students, is he Merlin enough to help New York’s 697 semi-autonomous and very troubled school districts? Over 500 of the state’s public schools have been identified as “in need of improvement” under No Child Left Behind guidelines. Rivera himself has already targeted 111 districts for the “Contract for Excellence,” the accountability document that the governor wants education administrators to sign. If the contract’s terms are not met, it could mean dismissal for administrators as well as school board members.

Rivera has shown an ability to keep the 600-pound bureaucratic gorilla happy. When he took over in Rochester, initially on an interim basis, Rivera formulated a plan to do away with most of the city’s middle schools and trim $29.9 million from the district’s perennially troubled budget. He “pushed the envelope while fighting for reform,” commented a local Hispanic leader.

Rivera also has a rags-to-riches biography that makes people want to applaud him just for showing up. He and his two sisters were raised by their single mother, a nurse’s aide, in a New London, Connecticut, apartment, with no heat and no bathtub. Manny earned a track scholarship to Brandeis—he was state high school champion in the half-mile—and graduated with a degree in urban studies. Then he went to Harvard for a master’s in education and a doctorate in education administration.

“He’s brilliant,” says a reporter who has watched him, “one of those guys who can relate to just about anybody.” Entrepreneur Chris Whittle, founder of one of the nation’s first for-profit school management firms, lured Rivera to his privately managed Edison public schools as an executive vice president for development for six years in the mid-1990s and remains “a huge fan of Manny’s.” In Rochester, Rivera had both the administrators’ union and the teachers’ union behind him in his plan to phase out middle schools. “He’s honest. He’s real. He wants to work in partnership with others,” Rochester teachers’ union president Adam Urbanski says. “That’s rare.”

Rivera says that he will push the governor’s initiatives, which he helped create as a member of Spitzer’s education-policy transition team; they include detailed accountability standards and the Contract for Excellence, which obligates educators to spend money on “what works.” But what does work? If Rivera has a weakness, it is that he’s inclined to focus on what Kati Haycock of the Education Trust says are “all the things [he] can’t change, and not those that [he] can.” Rivera talks a lot about social and background factors in getting students “ready to learn,” but does not talk about curriculum unless asked.

I mention this apparent omission to Rivera and he quickly responds, “I agree wholeheartedly that curriculum is important.” He then points out that Rochester’s strategic planning process last year identified curriculum, especially at the high school level, as a key area for revamping. Indeed, the new plan is on the school district’s website—but it would take several mouse clicks to find “curriculum.” And though the plan’s main goal is “100% High School Graduation,” its “curricular framework” is just that: a sketch, with jargon such as “rigorous, relevant, and culturally responsive,” and vague prescriptions for “delivery of student-centered behavioral, academic, and environmental expectations and norms.”

Without the management skills and personal magnetism that Rivera seems to have brought to the task of implementation and accountability, it’s unclear whether Rochester will be able to derive benefits from this amorphous plan. And while management skills and accountability measures are surely necessary ingredients in a public education sector that seems to acknowledge no connection between dollars and sense, they are no substitute for sound curriculum reforms.

“Creating great schools is not rocket science,” says Rivera, with a confidence that flies in the face of decades of failures in the nation’s schools. He’s sure that the key lies in “measuring schools against known standards.” Unfortunately, Rochester’s middle and high school students, unlike its fourth-graders, are still failing at high rates—and showing little improvement. The jury remains very much out on whether Rivera was on the right track in Rochester, and we can’t be sure yet if Rochester’s loss will be New York’s gain.

Peter Meyer is a Contributing Editor of Education Next.

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