change of the guard

Accountability guru Liebman out; former principal will fill spot

James Liebman. (Photo courtesy of NYC Department of Education)
James Liebman. (Photo courtesy of NYC Department of Education)

James Liebman, the law professor mastermind behind the Bloomberg administration’s school accountability system, is resigning, Chancellor Joel Klein just announced.

A former principal, Shael Polakow-Suransky, will replace Liebman on an “interim acting” basis. The swap transitions the Office of Accountability to the hands of a longtime educator from those of a outsider criticized for having no teaching experience.

The accountability system constructed by Liebman, a law professor at Columbia University, changed the tone of many schools in the city, sometimes dramatically. The new focus on improving students’ test scores drew both sharp criticism from some city educators who said it narrowed curriculum and created incentives to cheat — and a carnival of visitors from around the country and abroad hoping to model the system in their schools.

The matrix of tools built by Liebman includes report cards that assign each school a letter grade; quality reviews that evaluate schools’ use of test score data to inform teaching; a data warehouse searchable by teachers and, now, parents; so-called “formative assessments” that help teachers diagnose students’ strengths and weaknesses before state test time; and a “data inquiry team” system that encourages teachers to make curriculum decisions by referring to students’ test scores.

Liebman will return to teaching at Columbia full-time, but will continue to work on special projects for the Department of Education, Klein’s press release said. Neither Liebman nor Klein could be reached for an immediate comment.

Updates to come. Here’s the full press release:

CHANCELLOR KLEIN ANNOUNCES THE RESIGNATION OF JAMES LIEBMAN AND THE APPOINTMENT OF SHAEL POLAKOW-SURANSKY AS INTERIM-ACTING CHIEF ACCOUNTABILITY OFFICER

Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein today announced the resignation of James Liebman as Chief Accountability Officer and the appointment of Shael Polakow-Suransky as interim-acting Chief Accountability Officer, effective July 20. Mr. Liebman, who is also a professor at Columbia Law School, will resume teaching full time while undertaking special projects for the Department of Education. Mr. Polakow-Suransky currently serves as Deputy Chief Schools Officer and collaborated closely with Mr. Liebman in designing the Department’s accountability tools and achievement resources.

“Jim has led some of the most revolutionary work in public education in recent years, work that has helped accelerate the progress our students and schools are making,” Chancellor Klein said. “People from school districts around the world regularly visit New York City to learn about the accountability tools he has developed. Jim will be greatly missed, but both he and I agree that Shael is the right person to continue this important work.”

Before becoming the Department’s first Chief Accountability Officer in January 2006, Mr. Liebman built a distinguished career as a public interest lawyer and a law professor. A public school parent, he has written and taught extensively in the fields of public education and public institutional reform.

As Chief Accountability Officer, he has led the Department’s efforts to provide parents and educators with information they can use to improve student results and hold schools and educators accountable for helping all students make academic progress. He has built the Division of Accountability and Achievement Resources and overseen the development of the most comprehensive set of school accountability tools and achievement resources in the nation, including:

  • Progress Reports, which grade schools based on the amount of academic progress their students make each year;
  • Quality Reviews, which provide an analysis of how well each school is organized to respond to the learning needs of its students;

(More)

  • the annual School Survey—the largest survey in the country other than the U.S. Census—which asks parents, teachers, and students what their schools are doing well and how the schools can improve student learning;

  • a comprehensive and flexible package of no-stakes Periodic Assessments that educators can use to assess students’ strengths and needs, diagnose areas in which instruction is not working for particular students, and tailor lessons to the match the learning needs of each child; 

  • the Achievement Reporting and Innovation System (ARIS), a data system that gives administrators, teachers, and families access to critical information about students’ academic performance as well as to lesson plans and other resources and collaboration tools they can use to improve performance; 

  • Inquiry Teams, groups of teachers and administrators in every school that develop strategies to help struggling students;

  • and enhanced data verification, integrity, and governance systems to assure the accuracy and usability of data for educators, families, and the public.

Mr. Polakow-Suransky has compiled a long record of raising student achievement in the New York City public schools during the last 15 years. He is currently the Department’s Deputy Chief Schools Officer, helping to oversee the work of the School Support Organizations and Integrated Service Centers. He began his career as a math and social studies teacher. In 2001, he became the founding principal of Bronx International High School, which has served as a model for the development of many of the City’s new small schools. He has also served as a Leadership Academy facilitator, the Deputy Chief Executive Officer for the Office of New Schools, and the Chief Academic Officer for Empowerment Schools, which he helped build into the Department’s largest School Support Organization.

Mr. Polakow-Suransky holds a bachelor’s degree in education and urban studies from Brown University and a master’s degree in educational leadership from the Bank Street College of Education. He recently graduated from the Broad Superintendents Academy.

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Contact: David Cantor / Andrew Jacob (212) 374-5141

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”