Tablets instead of textbooks, and other education ideas from Candidate Quinn

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Quinn at the New School. (Dana Rubinstein)
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Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the early frontrunner in this year's race for mayor, today proposed that the city's school system ditch textbooks in favor of tablets.

"I'm proposing that we move all of our 1,700 schools from a system of textbooks to a system of tablets," she said today, during a broad-gauge education speech at at the New School.

"And if you think that sounds like it costs a lot of money, listen to this," she continued. "We currently spend more than $100 million a year on textbooks. That's enough money to buy tablets for every student in New York City's public schools, and covers costs to make sure these online texts are meeting rigorous standards."

Asked following the speech whether there was any precedent for this sort of thing, Quinn said she couldn't recall off the top of her head. "But why not be the first?" she said. "Who the heck wants to follow people? That's boring."

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The rest of the speech offered a little something for everyone, including those who like Mayor Michael Bloomberg's stewardship of the school system, and those who consider him unbearably autocratic.

"Mayor Bloomberg and the [Department of Education] have taken key steps in the right direction," she said. "But I don't think anyone in this room, or anywhere in the five boroughs, would argue that our schools are where they need to be."

Quinn supports mayoral control of the school system, charter schools, and the rent-ree colocation of charter schools with district schools, but she also thinks parents should have more input into how their schools are run, the number of charter schools we have is "at a good level," and colocation can be done more transparently. 

"I support charter schools," she said. "They're part of our system, and I believe we waste far too much time and energy in this city debating something that has already been decided. But when we first opened the door to charters, we promised they'd be laboratories for innovation and we'd take their most successful strategies citywide. Well, it's been 10 years, and unless your child goes to a charter school, you probably haven't seen any benefit at all."

Quinn called for the creation of something she's calling the Systemwide Success Study, which would would identify best practices at successful schools and apply them elsewhere.

She also called for a reduction in school closures, something that's been a hallmark of Bloomberg's education policy.

Quinn said such closures should be used only as a "last resort" and that she would instead create a "red alert" system that would, based on indicators like absentee and graduation rates, identify struggling schools before they needed to be closed. 

A reporter asked Quinn what would be her threshold for actually closing a school and what would the red alert system trigger to prevent school closures.

"Well, you know, what would be the X causes Y, that's something I think I would want to develop with input, obviously from staff at the D.O.E., from teachers, from parents, from an analysis of schools that are out there," she said.

Here are some of the Council speaker's other proposals: the city should create a cadre of mentor teachers from the ranks of its most successful educators and require all new teachers to be paired with a mentor for a year; the city should foster greater parental involvement via an online "parent university" where parents can brush up on class subjects their kids are studying and better understand how to prepare their children for college; schools should keep more students in school until 6 pm; the city should create more "community schools" that house health and social services inside school buildings; the city should have a deputy mayor for education and children to oversee all agencies that interact with children; the city should eliminate field testing by education companies like Pearson; and the city should rely less on testing and more on portfolio assessments, which allow teachers to evaluate student performance using broader criteria.

Quinn also thinks computer science should become part of the core curriculum.

Without much elaboration, Quinn also called for the "most intensive" literacy support program in the country.

According to the speaker, her proposals would cost about $300 million, which could be covered by redirecting some of the $1.2 billion a year the city now spends on contracts and consultants.

"We can find those funds in-house with what we have through better management and better programs," said Quinn.

As of yet, neither the teacher's union nor StudentsFirst, the school reform advocacy group run by Michelle Rhee, had any comment.

UPDATE: In a statement, UFT president Michael Mulgrew said, "I want to applaud Speaker Quinn for a speech that was full of great ideas—from making sure we have health and social services in our schools to bringing parents back into the education process and reducing the time kids spend on standardized tests."