An interview with The Paper
Dr. Diana Bowers began her duties as superintendent of schools at the Haldane Central School District on July 1, taking over from John Chambers who had served in an interim capacity after long-time Superintendent Mark Villanti retired at the end of January. The Paper’s Michael Turton recently interviewed Bowers, covering a wide range of topics from her classroom experience and her views on key issues in education to her favorite kind of pizza. Bowers’ responses have been lightly edited.
The Paper: Where did you grow up?
Dr. Bowers: Hartsdale, in Westchester County. I’ve worked in this region most of my life – including in the Carmel and Croton school districts.
Is education in your family’s genes?
My mother was a second-grade teacher and my sister teaches at Cornell.
Where did you attend university?
I did my undergraduate degree at SUNY Plattsburgh and my masters and doctorate at Fordham University.
Is there an educator who has influenced you most in your career?
Two actually. Marjorie Castro, superintendent at Croton and Tom Higgins, Superintendent at Carmel. They helped guide my philosophy in education to make me the type of administrator I hope to be.
What sort of classroom teaching did you do?
I taught high school science for a total of 10 years – in New Jersey, Brewster and Sleepy Hollow.
Do you miss it?
I do. I still feel teaching is in my blood. I’ve also taught at the university level – at SUNY Plattsburgh in the Education Administration Masters Program.
When you were teaching, what was the biggest challenge?
There are so many facets, but probably the greatest challenge was to capture the students’ interest – and hold it to the point of generating excitement.
Has the challenge changed for today’s teachers?
It’s the speed at which change is happening – especially in New York State. Staying true to what they believe in as teachers while achieving mandates. Sometimes there isn’t enough time. You have to prioritize and choose what is most important.
You deal with trustees, teachers and support staff, students, parents and the community. In your role as superintendent, who’s at the top of your list?
The students. No question.
How has the size of the districts you’ve worked in influenced your career?
I started in Monroe-Woodbury, a district with 6500 – 7000 students, and then went to smaller districts. As a superintendent I wanted to be in a place where I could be closer to the students.
If not education, what field might you have chosen?
I never really thought of any other field. Medicine maybe? I always had a clear path to where I felt I belonged.
It’s often said that listening is the one communications skill that is not taught. Do you agree?
Actually in New York State listening is part of English Language Arts from K- 12. Reading, writing, listening and speaking are the four sub-categories.
In a recent interview on NPR, Wesleyan University President Michael Roth commented that SAT and ACT scores are emphasized too much. What are your thoughts?
They’re a snap shot …to be considered as part of a greater whole. A student who does not score well can still be an outstanding student. It [test results] can be what makes or breaks a student but should be considered only part of the [college acceptance] process.
How has education changed in preparing high school students for college?
Our charge is to create 21st century learners – that is very different than 15 years ago. Content used to come from a book that contained all they needed to know. Now there is so much information and data that a student can research a topic for days. They have to be able to prioritize, ask questions and sort information – in addition to learning it. Teachers have gone from being “the sage on stage” to become learning coaches.
There is a shortage of skilled trade workers in the U.S. and other countries – jobs that pay quite well. Should more students be looking to BOCES, apprenticeship programs and the like rather than choosing university so routinely? Should a well-rounded high school education include things like basic carpentry?
I think kids should go to programs they have a passion for and an interest in. Would it be helpful to be able to know [carpentry]? You bet. But we shouldn’t be choosing that for the student – they should be. There should be opportunities there for them if they choose to diverge from the traditional pathway.
The Common Core has been strongly criticized by some. What has the problem been in your view? Rolling it out too quickly? Ineffective communication with the public? Or the content itself?
All of the above. The speed with which the reform agenda was rolled out was problematic. For many parents it’s the degree of testing and the scripted learning within the mandates that are challenging. These are actually elements within the New York State Education Department’s Reform Agenda. The Common Core Learning Standards, by themselves, are essentially good documents that have a lot of potential. Haldane has adapted the mandates and our teachers still have the ability to teach what they believe in. This may not be the case in other places.
Tenure has been criticized by some parents in this community as being too automatic and simply a matter of course. You can’t really comment on Haldane yet but is that a valid criticism overall? Can teacher performance be evaluated more effectively?
There are pros and cons on both sides of tenure. As long as educators are striving to be the best they can be – that’s all we can ask of any employee. If we provide the support and the opportunities, we can all refine our skills. The same is true of teachers and the administrators that evaluated them.
Are extra-curricular activities such as sports, music and drama vital – or are they emphasized too much?
Bowers: I think they help create well-rounded students and are exceedingly important. They’re another form of teaching – involving social skills, getting along with each other, working together and learning how to collaborate.
Is there such a thing as optimum class size?
There does come a point when you lose the kids if classes are too big. But they can also be too small. In a class of six or seven you don’t get the collaboration you see in a class of 15. Once you get into the mid-20s you start moving into a different form of education. The teacher might use study groups or small group instruction. Collaboration in the classroom has a beauty of its own.
What are your views on lengthening the school day and/or the school year as a means of improving student performance?
It certainly allows for more instruction time, more learning. There are pros and cons. Our students need to have the skills to be competitive globally. I think we will look at this issue more in the future once we get beyond the financial difficulties we’re currently experiencing.
If you could wave a magic wand and change one aspect of education in New York State what would it be?
Probably that we focus on students’ interests…and individual measures of student achievement. And that we realize each student has his or her own learning style – and be able to help that along.
What’s your favorite kind of pizza?
What was the last book you read for fun?
Divergent, a young-adult novel, part of a trilogy by Veronica Roth. I try to read what the kids are reading.