Jim Malatras wants to put your mind at ease about the Reimagining Education initiative announced last week.
“I think as a long-term strategy, you can’t replace face to face education,” he told Spectrum News. “I think there’s an important social connection between an educator and your student.”
So no, it’s not a Gates Foundation scheme to take over education or a plan to replace teachers in the classroom.
Dr. Malatras, who some reporters have dubbed the Gov. Andrew Cuomo Whisperer, is a long-time advisor to the governor. He has served in multiple capacities within the Cuomo administration, most recently as director of state operations.
These days, his “day job” as he calls it, is as the President of SUNY Empire State College. But he will also continue his role as an advisor to the governor on pandemic response and chair the Reimagining Education initiative. He says it the education panel has both short and long-term goals.
In the short-term, its goal is to determine how best to open up schools amid the pandemic.
“How do you make sure you use technology in a smart way to get at some of those issues, like social distancing?” he said.
In the long-term, the panel’s goals will revolve around access.
“If I’m in an upstate rural school and I don’t have access to those same AP courses, because we’re such a small rural school, how can you use technology to connect us to people in other parts of the state with that expertise, in a smart way,” he explained.
The Gates Foundation, Malatras said, has expertise in some of these areas, including technology and healthcare. Not mentioned by Malatras? Gates’ foray into education. However, the governor called Bill Gates “a visionary” whose “thoughts on technology and education should be advanced.”
Indeed, in introducing the initiative to the public during a press briefing last week, the Governor alarmed educators and parents by indicating the Gates Foundation would play a key role in reimagining education. One union official said the shock of hearing Gates mentioned brought on PTSD since many teachers and parents equate Gates with the failed Common Core and the effort to link teacher evaluations to student test scores, policies that resulted in turbulent times in New York’s education history.
“It was like déjà vu all over again in New York when Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he had asked the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to help New York ‘reimagine education in the state’ when schools reopen in the fall,” wrote former teacher and principal of the year Carol Burris in an email to Spectrum.
“We all well remember the last time the vision of Bill and Melinda Gates descended upon New York. It arrived after the last financial crisis via Race to the Top. There was the teacher evaluation system, characterized as a plane being built in the air that landed with a crash. For several years, chaos reigned as the governor pushed for a greater role for student test scores as part of teacher evaluation.”
Burris, who is now with the Network for Public Education, went on to say, “Rather than bringing in a billionaire with a horrible track record to reimagine education, the governor should be asking him to donate funds to help schools to open their buildings safely.”
But according to Malatras, the Gates Foundation will be involved at the same level as others on the panel, including educators, union leaders, innovators, and parents.
A few notable names on the council include Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers; Dennis Wolcott, former NYC Schools Chancellor; Interim State Education Commissioner Shannon Tahoe; as well as teachers, superintendents, and parents.
After the members of the council were made public last week, another round of alarm bells sounded around the state: Why are there no representatives of the disability community? Why are no current New York City educators on the council?
“The main goal, at first, is to reach out to a broad cross-section of the education community, the parent community, and others, and try to get ideas quickly, and make sure we’re getting representation from everyone across the board, because on any council, with only 19 or 20 people, you can’t ever really get everyone on a council represented,” said Malatras. “But you can, as a council, reach out to everyone, bring them into the fold, listen, hear them, and then present things in a way that the public can understand.”
Additionally, Malatras said, there is an educator from Wyoming County on the council who runs a school for children with disabilities, a community that will be one of the key focal points for the panel.
“There are a lot of needs there,” he said referring to children with disabilities. “These students get extra services in summer. We’re going to have to figure that out. And in the long term, I think that is a community that needs some special attention because you don’t want those students to fall behind.”
The Reimagining Education panel will not likely release a White Paper when it’s done deliberating, Malatras told Spectrum News. Instead, the group will release “rolling” best practices for both K-12 and higher education.
The panel’s first organizational meeting is expected to be held next week.