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The New York Sun
Susana Torruella Leval: Education Policy Casualty
By JACK NEWFIELD
March 30, 2004
How could Mayor Bloomberg have been so foolish to fire such an exemplary public citizen as Susana Torruella Leval from his advisory panel on educational policy?
This was my first thought after a 90-minute interview with Ms. Leval at The New York Sun's office.
Ms. Leval is a thoughtful, classy, independent woman with a sense of civic duty. She has no agenda and an open mind.
She was a mayoral appointee who should have been rewarded and replicated. Instead, she was fired because she was about to vote her conscience against an incomplete, politicized, and hastily designed retention policy for third grade.
During our interview, Ms. Leval was reluctant to criticize the mayor or Chancellor Joel Klein. She voted for Mr. Bloomberg in 2001 and supported mayoral control of the schools. She still has a positive opinion of Mr. Klein, but seems to feel the system is unresponsive to constructive criticism, too autocratic, and moving too fast.
"My story is over," she began. "I don't want to be in the public eye. I'm happy to return to my life in the world of art and museums."
Ms.Leval, 60,was visiting our office reluctantly, having been invited in for a cup of coffee by the editor of the Sun, who wanted to hear her side of the story after he was told by the Manhattan district attorney, Robert Morgenthau, what an extraordinary individual she is. In an editorial, the Sun had supported the firing of the education panel members.
Ms. Leval's husband is the noted federal appeals judge Pierre Leval,a former assistant to Mr. Morgenthau. Ms. Leval is also a member of Governor Pataki's state Council on the Arts; the former director of El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem - where she learned how to be a manager - and is a member of the board of the museum of Jewish Heritage.
She was raised in Puerto Rico and attended Manhattanville College.
Susana Leval is not a defender of social promotion. I do not know a single person who actually admits to favoring the perpetual promotion of failing students to a higher grade. The issue is a political straw man. The UFT came out against social promotions before either Mr. Bloomberg or Rudolph Giuliani was elected mayor.
"I thought we could have reached a consensus on this issue if we had only been given 30 days more to keep talking," she said. "We were modifying the concept. We added a whole new set of interventions, with input by teachers, and an appeals process, to help students.
"The entire weight of all the academic and educational literature concluded that one high-stakes test in the third grade was wrong. Even the people who created this test told us it was never designed for this purpose.
"We were making progress on refining the retention policy. We would have had a consensus solution in 30 days. We were reducing the impact of the one high-stakes test. I wanted an educational solution to social promotions. Giving a test is not an educational remedy. It's an administrative remedy."
Last week, the Chicago school board voted to ease its strict retention policy that was the model for the Bloomberg-Klein initiative. Chicago's seven-year experiment in administrative toughness without extra help did not improve test scores, but did increase dropout rates.
The preponderance of the evidence shows that smaller class size in the early grades improves learning and achievement more than being left back in third grade with no supports.
The mayor and some of his aides have suggested that Ms. Leval cried when she was fired, but she has too much dignity for that ugly stereotype. And while the mayor can act tough with 8-year-olds, he was not tough enough to fire Ms. Leval himself. He used a deputy mayor as the messenger.
What are we teaching our children "if you stack a process with such manipulation?" Ms. Leval asked.
Ms. Leval is worried about what will be done educationally to help the 15,000 third-graders who will be held back to repeat their grade, "which is already overcrowded."
The Department of Education just convened a secretive committee to develop a remedial program for these 15,000 students last week, after the retention policy was rammed through as a result of the three firings.
Ms. Leval sees a clash of "two cultures" at the center of the city's school policy debates.
"There is an education culture and a managerial culture of lawyers, investment bankers, and consultants," she said. "As an arts person, I felt closer to the education culture."
"The managerial people speak a different vocabulary than the educators. With this new policy on retention, I fear the balance has been tipped too much against professional educators. Most of these young managers have never taught in a classroom. They come from the corporate and consulting worlds. You have to find a balance between these two cultures."
Ms. Leval makes a dazzling impression and a lot of sense. She combines the two cultures of education and management with life experience. In an ideal world, where quality and merit mattered most, Ms. Leval would still be making a contribution to education policy.
And the mayor and chancellor - two noneducators - would be listening more to parents and teachers, instead of using their mayoral control of the schools to play re-election politics.