04/12/2011 04:05 pm ET | Updated Jun 12, 2011

A New Chancellor With Kindergarten on His C.V.

Dennis M. Walcott is the New York Times' Man in the News, the blogosphere is buzzing, and the shock waves are reverberating across the pond, in the U.K., where the Guardian proclaims Cathie Black's departure as "only a temporary setback for the 'corporate' reform of public schools." What does this all mean? asks Gotham Schools, a scrappy media venture that bills itself as a "running conversation about what works and what doesn't in NYC schools," and chronicles every tweet, hiccup, and cough of the education establishment.

What does this all mean, indeed.

At Thursday's news conference announcing the changing of the guard, a gaggle of elementary school students gathered, choreography designed to highlight Walcott's more visceral connection to the children of the city's school system. The kids were from Park Slope, and the man they were watching, unlike his predecessor, is a public school alum, whose early career included a stint as a kindergarten teacher. I'd like to believe that Walcott's experience in early childhood, or the "K" of K-12, will make a difference in how he does business. But that's just the problem: in an age where reform has been corporatized, the odds are stacked against an education that fully addresses the needs of children and families.

Walcott's got his work cut out for him. NYC 's achievement gap is persistent, with glaring discrepancies in math and reading scores between African-American and Hispanic third- through eighth-graders and their white peers. The city's high school graduation rate -- a moving target, and subject to much debate -- is substantially lower for black and Hispanic students. And on March 30, the Department of Education confirmed the presence of more than 3,000 children on waiting lists for kindergarten, an increase of 42 percent over last year, and the cause of major agita for parents of kindergartners, who are up nights obsessing about which school house door their children will enter come September.

Meanwhile, in the city's pre-K through third grade classrooms, the push-down and fall-out from the corporate model of efficiency and accountability continues to challenge early childhood educators. Trained to educate the whole child -- with attention to cognitive, social, and emotional development, or what the field calls developmentally appropriate practice -- they're constantly butting up against administrators haunted by the fear of school failure and too often clueless about how young children learn and develop.

The day before Walcott ascended to the chancellorship, a group of early childhood educators, agency leaders, college faculty, policymakers, and other stakeholders gathered at NYU for "Early Care and Education: Forging a Common Mission in New York State," a policy forum sponsored by the NYC Association for the Education of Young Children. After the panelists weighed in on integration of services, agency coordination, collaboration and alignment, early learning standards, and teacher effectiveness, a teacher educator from Brooklyn's Kingsborough Community College brought everyone down to earth, zeroing in on the frustration of young teachers in the field, and their impotence in the face of principals who just don't get it. They don't understand the importance of complex play, which produces greater language and social skills, more empathy, self-control, and higher levels of thinking. Or the variations in children's maturation, which means that a young boy, whose fine-motor skills are still emerging, might have trouble writing with a pencil. Not to mention bubbling in his name on a standardized test.

Panelist Sophia Pappas, the new Executive Director of the DOE's Office of Early Childhood Education, offered up her own experience at a pre-K through 5 school in Newark as a bridge between research, practice, and the policies that drive early childhood educators to distraction. "I saw, as a pre-K teacher, that developmentally appropriate practice, produced better outcomes," she said. Including those critical higher order thinking skills so desperately needed for our children to succeed in 21st-century America.

Take note, Mr. Chancellor. Here's hoping that you remember everything you learned in kindergarten. And that you add Pre-K-3rd: Principals as Crucial Instructional Leaders to the growing stack of required reading on your night stand.