changing of the guard

New accountability chief says he'll carry on Liebman's legacy

Shael Polakow
Shael Polakow-Suransky, the city's new accountability chief.

Accountability czar James Liebman is officially leaving the Department of Education, but he isn’t going far. From his office at Columbia University, he will help the city win federal stimulus money to boost the very programs he pioneered during his three-year tenure.

In an interview today, Liebman said he’ll go back to teaching criminal law this fall. But he’ll also help the department put together “the most powerful proposal” for federal innovation funds, he said. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said that New York City’s accountability and teacher pay initiatives are top candidates for a $650 million grant program meant to spur innovation.

Liebman is leaving behind an accountability system that has divided educators and parents. “I think [he] has forever changed the way this public school system thinks about accountability and the way public school systems around the country will think bout accountability in the future,” said Eric Nadelstern, the department’s chief schools officer.

But some principals reacting to the news of Liebman’s departure this afternoon showed relief. One laughed joyfully when she saw the city’s press release at an event today. Another jokingly wrote to a fellow principal, ‘No more progress reports?’

Shael Polakow-Suransky, the former principal who is replacing Liebman, said the basic tools created by the accountability office would not change. Those tools include the progress reports, which give each city school a letter grade; the quality reviews that explain how well schools work internally; the periodic tests that students take to generate performance data; the ARIS data warehouse; and the inquiry teams that encourage teachers to use data to improve their work.

“The building blocks are in place, and now we have to figure out how to get people using them well as they do their day-to-day work,” said Polakow-Suransky, who in 2008 participated in the Broad Superintendents Academy, a program meant to turn educators and business leaders into reform-minded administrators. During the last year, he divided his time between Nadelstern’s and Liebman’s offices.

“He’s been part of the thought processes in designing the accountability instruments right from the start,” Nadelstern said. “He understands them deeply, knows where they’re working well and where we need to work on them harder.”

Ann Cook, a principal who has been critical of the department’s accountability push, said it’s promising that Polakow-Suransky came up through the rank of educators. “We need to have a return to a more balanced approach to teaching and learning,” she said.

An oft-cited risk in the accountability system is that it pushes schools to focus their efforts only on what will yield higher test scores. Polakow-Suransky said that risk is a real one. “It takes time to adopt and understand what this stuff means, and there will be places where people have a knee-jerk instinct to go the easy route,” he said.

“My job is not to intervene at an individual school level and suggest a change, but to provide rich, data-based portraits and qualitative portraits using the quality review so that the folks that are supporting schools can help the school go to its next step,” he said.

Meanwhile, Liebman will return to Columbia after a longer-than-expected leave. “The point has come when I think my work needs to be back in the university, and the university would like my work to be back there,” he said. He added that Columbia is asking faculty members to teach as many courses as they can to reduce costs during the financial crisis.

Liebman is the fourth top official to leave the department in recent weeks. Garth Harries, who most recently studied the system’s special education offerings, began work this week in New Haven, Conn. Linda Wernikoff, the city’s special education chief, and Marcia Lyles, the deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, both left the system at the end of June. Lyles was appointed superintendent of a small city school district in Delaware.

CORRECTION: This post has been corrected to clarify the specific pot of federal funds the Department of Education will apply for — not the Race to the Top funds, which are restricted to states, but a separate $650 million pot that districts can apply for separately.

CORRECTION 2: We originally misquoted Suransky as advocating “database portraits” of students’ learning. In fact, he said “data-based portraits.” (Which makes more sense!)

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.