Steel is currently an adjunct assistant professor at Bowling Green State University, his alma mater, where he teaches a course in critical thinking in the Honors Program.
From 1994 to 1997, Steel was a teacher at Toledo Public Schools. He taught chemistry, biology and environmental science at Waite High School and also served as an advisor for a number of extracurricular activities.
A graduate of Clay High School, Steel earned his undergraduate degree from BGSU in Comprehensive Science Education, his masters in Science Curriculum and Development and his doctorate in American Culture Studies.
“We are doing a lot to meet the challenge, but we are not playing on a level field,” said Steel in response to our inquiry about charter schools.
“We have charter schools consistently in academic emergency but incurring no death penalty from the state. The challenge has helped produce TPS charter schools—Old West End, Grove Patterson, and Toledo Technology Academy so TPS has been very innovative … the new pre-college high school at Scott Park is a great opportunity. So there has been a lot of innovation out of these challenges.”
Have the innovations been concentrated too much so in the central city, we asked, which is a criticism offered by another candidate for school board?
“It’s not as if we are done innovating,” replied Steel. “But the whole notion of this challenge is that there was supposed to be a study conducted [by the state] after the first five years on the charter schools. That hasn’t happened and even though it’s seven years later.
“They are draining tax dollars into underachieving entities. Then there is that attendance cut-off in October. That’s when the money goes out and after that it doesn’t matter if kids go back into TPS, TPS will not get the money to educate them for the rest of the school year.”
How satisfied is the candidate with the level of teacher competence and this district’s efforts to recruit a diverse teaching staff?
“Overall, I’m very satisfied, of course. Anytime you have thousands of teachers you might have a very low percentage who don’t care or are not competent. Having been in the classroom, I have had the opportunity to observe this about those who work there – those who don’t enjoy it are getting constant negative feedback from the kids. That results in a natural weeding out process.
“As for diversity, we do not have adequate diversity in our schools, but I don’t think anyone here even thinks that we need to change standards in order to improve diversity. But take a look at the colleges TPS draws from, they are not that diverse. I teach at BG and I know that.
“I think there are ways of making [the profession] attractive for African-American and Hispanic males. If we can do that, it’s going to open up for young black or Hispanic males the idea that they can go on to become educators themselves.
“We have to look at improving salaries and enhancing the cultural notion of public service … at a certain level we have to make it attractive.”
We had this conversation with Steel just as rumors were picking up steam that TPS would stay in continuous improvement for the second year in a row. What does Steel think about the current status of student achievement?
“Student achievement exists on so many levels,” replied the critical thinking instructor. “You have to define student achievement and how to measure it and what is going to improve or contribute to it. Starting with a high-stakes multiple choice test to determine that is a flawed assumption.”
We suggested to Steel that perhaps the question of whether such testing was a valid barometer of achievement was no longer a moot point—at least from the standpoint of governmental policy.
“If student achievement means succeeding on a test, we have done that,” he said. “There are test-taking methods of teaching. If you give me a test, I can teach you how to pass it, but does that mean you are achieving?
“Given that that is the process, I believe the tests accurately show the result of what the tests are meant to show. And there are lots of innovative curricula that are helping to get students to read.
“But what has been lost? The kinds of things that are meaningful for child development—play, for example, critical thinking, flights of imagination—those are things that contribute to a meaningful learning experience. Are we building good robust citizens? I’m not hoping to train kids, I’m looking to build an informed, engaged citizenry.
“TPS seems to be meeting standards set for it by the state and the nation. But how can we do it in the least painful way. We have to let Johnny grow and there’s a lot more to a full life than getting good grades.”
Our last topic of discussion was the Toledo Plan, sometimes known as the Peer Review Program or the Intern Program. By any name, Steel has a working knowledge of the program. He was an intern himself when he started his teaching career at TPS. His memories of his intern consultant are fond ones because, as he said, “my intern consultant was very much a mentor.”
As Steel explained, a newly-minted teacher arrives from his or her student teaching experiences full of spirit and that spirit is apt to “ebb during the middle of the first year.” A good mentor, said Steel, has the ability to reduce the lows. “A lot of that has to do with the relationship that is built. If you have a bad relationship [with the intern consultant] that can make the lows even lower.
“Conceptually, I think the plan is awesome. I think it’s essential and I think it’s about making teaching a profession.”
Are you happy with the evaluation process, we asked?
“Nothing I just said was about evaluation,” said Steel.
“Dr. Kaboolian [Dr. Linda Kaboolian, associate professor at the Kennedy School of Government of Harvard University completed a review commissioned by TPS of the Toledo Plan during the past academic year] said that the functions should be separated. Evaluation and mentoring was not a problem for me, but evaluation can, in general, lower the mentoring function. The evaluation function should be performed by someone who observes you frequently.”
As a candidate, Steel has the endorsement of the Toledo Federation of Teachers. Such support does not come without a certain amount of baggage, particularly to those who feel that a board member should be independent of any such outside influences. Complicating the situation in Steel’s case is the fact that his wife, Catherine Hernandez, a teacher with TPS, is on the board of TFT.
“To suggest that I might not have the best interest of the TPS students in mind is to ignore the bulk of my life,” he said in response.
“I’m a very independent thinker. I care about what happens to the students and I’m no one’s puppet. As I make decisions, however, there are a lot of influences but the kids who have walked through the classroom doors are the biggest influence on me.
“At a fundamental level, I believe that the interests of the administration, the teachers, and the students are fully aligned.”