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:


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;


  • 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.


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

the aftermath

What educators, parents, and students are grappling with in the wake of America’s latest school shooting

Kristi Gilroy (right) hugs a young woman at a police check point near the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School where 17 people were killed by a gunman in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

It’s hard to know where to start on days like this.

The shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead on Wednesday has elicited both terror and anger — and raised debates that are far from settled about how to keep American students safe.

Here are a few storylines we noticed as the country again grapples with a tragic school shooting:

1. You’re not wrong to think it: There have been a lot of mass shootings, and many recent ones have been especially deadly.

Data on school shootings specifically, though, is notoriously murky. As the Atlantic recently noted, varying definitions can contribute to either “sensationalizing or oversimplifying a modern trend of mass violence in America that is seemingly becoming more entrenched.”

But by NBC News’ count, 20 people have been killed and more than 30 have been injured in school shootings this year. That’s a lot — and more news organizations are now trying to keep a careful tally.

2. The consequences of traumatic events like the shooting at Stoneman Douglas are likely to be felt for some time.

A number of studies have found that violent and traumatic events in and outside of school do real damage to student learning, as we’ve reported — particularly among students who are already struggling. Here are some resources for teachers who need to talk to their students about trauma.

3. The tragedy is already renewing debates over whether or how to arm teachers.

Education Week gathered some of those calls from politicians Thursday. “Gun-safety advocates say that teachers can’t safely and quickly move from the mindset of teaching to being asked to fire a gun at an active shooter,” the story also notes.

This doesn’t even get at the debate about whether anyone should have access to the kind of gun the shooter used. Students from the district, for their part, told Broward schools chief Robert Runcie Thursday “that the time is due for a conversation on sensible gun control,” the Miami Herald reported.

Whether other technology and infrastructure can help keep students safe is a topic of ongoing discussion in communities across the country. Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill to help schools buy communications systems that would allow them to talk directly to police and other emergency responders. Officials from districts that already use this equipment described them as a way to increase safety without “turning our schools into prisons,” even as they also assured lawmakers that the radios were just as useful for serious playground injuries and broken-down buses as for the much rarer active shooter situations.

In Tennessee, one school district near Nashville announced plans to close schools next Monday to review all safety plans with school staff and local law enforcement.

4. In some places, the shooting is unlikely to change the school safety debate at all.

In New York City, for example, conversations about school safety in recent years have revolved around discipline policies and metal detectors (though police have seized an increasing number of weapons from city schools). There’s little appetite there to arm teachers.

5. But all across America, the shooting and others like it have added a frightening tone to what it means to teach and learn in schools today.

“I know you are waking up this morning to a nightmare,” a former educator wrote in a “love letters to teachers” on Teaching Tolerance. “I know you are frustrated, tired and weary of the news. I know you are wearing your coat of bravery today.”

“I’m so, so angry and I’m having a hard time today looking at my students and not thinking about what happens when it’s my school’s turn,” wrote one commenter on the Badass Teachers Association Facebook group.

getting to graduation

New York City graduation rate hits record high of 74.3 percent in 2017

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the 2017 graduation rate at South Bronx Preparatory school.

New York City’s graduation rate rose to 74.3 percent in 2017, a slight increase over the previous year and a new high for the city.

The 1.2 percentage point increase over the previous year continues an upward climb for the city, where the overall graduation rate has grown by nearly 28 points since 2005. The state graduation rate also hit a new high — 82.1 percent — just under the U.S. rate of 84.1 percent.

The city’s dropout rate fell to 7.8 percent, a small decline from the previous year and the lowest rate on record, according to the city.

“New York City is showing that when we invest in our students, they rise to the challenge and do better and better,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement Wednesday.

More graduates were also deemed ready for college-level work. Last year, 64 percent of graduates earned test scores that met the City University of New York’s “college-ready” benchmark — up more than 13 percentage points from the previous year. 

However, the gains came after CUNY eased its readiness requirements; without that change, city officials said the increase would be significantly smaller. But even with the less rigorous requirements, more than a third of city students who earned high-school diplomas would be required to take remedial classes at CUNY.

Phil Weinberg, the education department’s deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, noted that CUNY’s college-readiness requirements are more demanding than New York’s graduation standards — which are among the toughest in the country.

We will work toward making sure none of our students need remediation when they get to college,” he told reporters. “But that’s a long game for us and we continue to move in that direction.”

The rising graduation rates follow a series of changes the state has made in recent years to help more students earn diplomas.

The graduation-requirement changes include allowing students with disabilities to earn a diploma by passing fewer exit exams and letting more students appeal a failed score. In addition, students can now substitute a work-readiness credential for one of the five Regents exams they must pass in order to graduate — adding to a number of other alternative tests the state has made available in the past few years.

About 9,900 students used one of those alternative-test or credential options in 2017, while 315 students with disabilities took advantage of the new option for them, according to state officials. They could not say how many students successfully appealed a low test score; but in 2016, about 1,300 New York City students did so.

The news was mixed for schools in de Blasio’s high-profile “Renewal” improvement program for low-performing schools. Among the 28 high schools that have received new social services and academic support through the program, the graduation rate increased to nearly 66 percent — almost a 6 percentage point bump over 2016. Their dropout rate also fell by about 2 points, to 16.4 percent, though that remains more than twice as high as the citywide rate.

However, more than half of the high schools in that $568 million program — 19 out of 28 — missed the graduation goals the city set for them, according to a New York Times analysis based on preliminary figures.

Graduation rates for students who are still learning English ticked up slightly to 32.5 percent, following a sharp decline the previous year that the state education commissioner called “disturbing.” City officials argue that students who improved enough to shed the designation of “English language learner” in the years before they graduated should also be counted; among that larger group, the graduation rate was 53 percent in 2017.

Meanwhile, the graduation-rate gap between white students and their black and Hispanic peers narrowed a smidgen, but it remains wide. Last year, the graduation rate was about 83 percent for white students, 70 percent for black students, and 68 percent for Hispanic students. That represented a closing of the gap between white and black students by 0.4 percentage points, and 0.1 points between whites and Hispanic.

Asian students had the highest rate — 87.5 percent — a nearly 2 point increase from the previous year that widened their lead over other racial groups.

Christina Veiga contributed reporting.