matching black

Meet Shael Polakow-Suransky: DOE's new second-in-command

State Education Commissioner David Steiner is expected to grant Hearst Magazines executive Cathleen Black the waiver she needs to become schools chancellor on Monday, on one condition: that she appoint current Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky as her chief academic officer.

Polakow-Suransky, who has worked in the city schools for 16 years, will be responsible for the administration of the city’s education policies and serve as Black’s chief advisor, according to a letter Mayor Michael Bloomberg sent Steiner today.

Here are four things to know about the city’s new educator-in-chief, who will serve as second-in-command to Black’s manager-in-chief:

1. His theory of change revolves around improving “instruction,” which is a different way of thinking than that of many people at Tweed.

Many officials in Joel Klein’s administration, including Klein himself, emphasize structural changes to improve the New York City schools. They favor policies such as closing down struggling schools, offering pay bonuses to educators whose students improve their performance on tests, and giving more power to principals to determine their own curricula and tests.

Polakow-Suransky approaches improving education policy from the opposite direction. He looks through the lens of instruction — that is, the relationships between teachers and students — rather than starting with incentives or organizational structures.

“What [Polakow-Suransky] is particularly strong at is at taking [classroom] experience and translating it into useful information for decision-making at a policy level,” said Garth Harries, who oversaw Polakow-Suransky in the city’s New Schools Office and then worked as a colleague as Suransky advanced in the department.

When Harries — a lawyer by training who was charged with determining how New York City uses its school building space — began making policy, he turned to Polakow-Suransky to figure out how dividing large school buildings into multiple small schools would affect the classroom.

“[Polakow-Suransky] was someone I could sit down with and have a very deep conversation about the instructional needs that students and teachers have and how that translated into space needs,” said Harries, who now works in the New Haven public school system. “It ended up being used on the operational side of the house, but it was designed with instructional needs in mind.”

Another case in point is the “data inquiry team,” an innovation school officials credit Polakow-Suransky with creating. Inquiry teams ask groups of teachers to meet and use evidence of student learning – everything from test scores to student work — to determine how they should improve their instruction. Polakow-Suransky spoke at length about the idea and its importance to him in a sit-down interview with two GothamSchools reporters last month.

The main purpose of the interview was to talk about his plans to improve the city’s online data warehouse system, ARIS. But in the free-flowing conversation, Polakow-Suransky repeatedly emphasized that all of his policy work aims at improving the way teachers teach their students — which he called “instruction.”

He also emphasized his insistence on making policies such as data inquiry teams voluntary for teachers, rather than mandatory. He argued that change is more likely to occur if teachers choose to make it, rather than being forced. In a 2009 interview with GothamSchools, Polakow-Suransky 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.

2. His own education was at progressive public schools and at Brown.

Polakow-Suransky is a graduate of Community High School in Ann Arbor, Mich., a small progressive school founded in 1972. The small public magnet school is designed as an “open campus” where students design their own courses of study, and sometimes design their own courses.

From there, Polakow-Suransky moved to Brown University, where he finished with a degree in education and urban studies.

Polakow-Suransky also possesses all of the credentials that state law requires to lead a school district without the waiver that his soon-to-be boss will receive. He earned a master’s degree in educational leadership from the Bank Street School of Education, and he received a New York State District Administrator Certificate in 2006. He is also a 2008 graduate of the Broad Superintendent’s Academy, a leadership program designed to train a new breed of management-minded education officials.

3. He taught math and history for six years before founding one of the first small Bronx high schools.

Polakow-Suransky’s career in the New York City public schools began in 1994, as a history and mathematics teacher at Crossroads Middle School in Manhattan. After teaching there for three years, he moved to Bread and Roses Integrated Arts High School, where he continued to teach math for another three years.

He then spent one school year as the assistant principal at Bread and Roses, and then left to found the Bronx International High School in 2001. The school, which was designed specifically to serve students learning English, was one of the first small schools to be opened in the city. The movement to open small high schools has since become one of the hallmarks of the Bloomberg administration.

“He was really on the cutting edge of the small school movement in the city and really helped shape what happened in the Bronx and then throughout the whole city,” said Robert Hughes, the head of New Visions for Public Schools, the organization dedicated to launching and supporting small schools in the city.

“He’s a little like a really skilled surfer who rode the wave of small schools as it moved through the Bronx and then the city,” Hughes said.

After leaving the Bronx International High School in 2004, Polakow-Suransky has held a variety of positions within the Department of Education, first in the Office of New Schools, which oversaw the opening of more than 200 new small schools during his time there.

He then oversaw academic support services for the city’s networks of schools. And when the city’s accountability czar James Liebman left the DOE in 2009, Polakow-Suransky took his position. He was named Deputy Chancellor of Performance and Accountability earlier this year.

4. He is obsessed with making better tests and is working on the national effort to build them.

In addition to his duties overseeing the city’s school accountability policies, Polakow-Suransky has been tasked with helping schools introduce the Common Core standards into their classrooms. Under Polakow-Suransky, city schools began that effort even before New York State officially adopted the standards.

Polakow-Suransky is also part of the leadership team of the group of 26 states that won a federal grant this year to build new assessments based around the Common Core standards. Those tests, which New York State has committed to using by 2014, will overhaul both what kinds of state exams students sit for and when they sit for them, Polakow-Suransky has said.

As part of that work, Polakow-Suransky has worked closely with state officials, particularly Deputy Education Commissioner John King. The strong impression Polakow-Suransky left on state officials was part of the reason he got the nod today to ascend to the city’s number two position in the school system, said a person familiar with the negotiations.

At a recent panel on how federal education policy is affecting local school districts, Polakow-Suransky described his interest in standardized tests as being rooted in everyday teaching:

[U]ltimately the reason for assessment is to motivate what happens in the classroom. If it doesn’t actually lead to good practice in the classroom then it’s undermining practice in the classroom. And so this is an opportunity. This is a moment where there’s an opportunity to shift the direction of practice in the classroom and to push on the level of rigor and to actually figure out what is it that kids and teachers need in order to engage in that type of practice.

First Person

First Person: Why my education nonprofit is bucking the coastal trend and setting up shop in Oklahoma

PHOTO: Creative Commons

“Oklahoma?! Why are you expanding to Oklahoma?!”

The response when I told some people that Generation Citizen, the nonprofit I run, was expanding to central Texas and Oklahoma, quickly became predictable. They could understand Texas, probably because our headquarters will be in the blue-dot-in-sea-of-red Austin. But Oklahoma?

My answer: Generation Citizen is expanding to Oklahoma City because no one would expect us to expand to Oklahoma City.

Our nonprofit is dedicated to empowering young people to become engaged citizens by reviving civics education in schools. We help middle and high school students learn about local politics by guiding them as they take action on issues they care about, like funding for teen jobs or state resources for teenage moms.

I founded the organization after graduating from Brown University in Rhode Island in 2009. Since then, we’ve expanded our programming to Boston, New York City, and the San Francisco Bay Area. All are urban areas with wide swaths of low-income young people, unequal schools, and disparate power dynamics. Our work is needed in those areas.

At the same time, all of these areas have predominantly liberal populations. In fact, according to The Economist, they are among the 10 most liberal cities in the country.

Generation Citizen is a non-partisan organization. We do not wish to convince young people to support a particular candidate or party — we just want them to engage politically, period. But the fact that we are preparing low-income young people in liberal urban centers to become politically active complicates this narrative.

So despite the fact that we could work with many more students in our existing cities, we made a conscious decision to expand to a more politically diverse region. A city that had real Republicans.

As we started talking about expansion, I realized the extent to which the dialogue about political and geographic diversity was a rarity in national nonprofit circles. While several large education organizations, like Teach for America and City Year, have done an admirable job of in working in conservative and rural regions across the country, a lot of other organizations follow a more predictable path, sticking largely to cities on the east and west coasts and sometimes, if folks feel crazy, an Atlanta or Miami.

There is nothing wrong with these decisions (and we were originally following this trajectory). A big reason for the coastal-focused expansion strategy is the availability of financial resources. Nonprofits want to raise money locally to sustain themselves, and those cities are home to a lot of people and foundations who can fund nonprofits.

But a more problematic reason seems related to our increasing ideological self-segregation. Nonprofits lean toward expanding to places that are comfortable, places that their leaders visit, places where people tend to hold similar values and political views.

One of the fault lines in our democracy is our inability to talk to people who disagree with us (highlighted daily by this presidential election). And non-profits may be exacerbating this reality.

This schism actually became more apparent to me when our board of directors started having conversations about expansion. Oklahoma City had come to the top of my proposed list because of my personal and professional contacts there. But I quickly realized that no one on my board lived more than five miles from an ocean, and save a board member from Oklahoma, none had stepped foot in the state.

“Are we sure we want to expand there? Why not a gateway city?” (I still don’t know what a gateway city is.)

“We can hire a Republican to run the site, but they can’t be a Trump supporter.”

“Are we sure that we can raise enough money to operate there?”

It wasn’t just my board. Whenever I talked to friends about our plans, they’d offer the same resistance.

The stereotypes I heard were twofold: Oklahoma was full of bigoted conservatives, and it was an incredibly boring location. (The dullness narrative got an unquestionable boost this year when star basketball player Kevin Durant left the hometown Thunder. It became quite clear that a main rationale for his leaving the team was Oklahoma City itself.)

But as I met with folks about Generation Citizen’s work, I met citizen after citizen who was excited about our mission. The state is facing tremendous budget challenges, and its voter participation rates amongst the worst in the country. Given these realities, there seemed to be widespread recognition that a program like ours could actually be helpful.

I did not talk about national politics with most people I met. Indeed, we might disagree on whom to support. But we did agree on the importance of educating young people to be politically active, shared concerns about public school budget cuts, and bonded over excitement for the Thunder’s playoff chances.

Still, the actual expansion to Oklahoma will be a challenge for our organization. Despite our local ties, we are coming in from the outside, and we do have the perception of being a progressively minded organization. What will happen if one of our classes wants to advocate for open carry at schools in response to a shooting? How will my board handle working in a site where they wouldn’t ordinarily visit?

I am excited to tackle all of these challenges. And I would push other similarly sized non-profits to think about working in a more diverse set of areas. It is not possible to be a national organization and avoid entire swaths of the country. But more importantly, given these tenuous political times, it feels important to interact with people who may not hold our beliefs.

Nonprofits can’t fix our national dialogue alone. But by expanding where we work, we might help improve the conversation.

honor system

Meet Derek Voiles, the Morristown educator who is Tennessee’s newest Teacher of the Year

PHOTO: Tennessee Department of Education
Derek Voiles, Tennessee's 2016-17 Teacher of the Year

Derek Voiles, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher in Morristown, is Tennessee’s 2016-17 Teacher of the Year, the State Department of Education announced Thursday.

One of nine finalists for this year’s award, Voiles teaches at Lincoln Heights Middle in Hamblen County Schools in East Tennessee. He received the top teacher honor at a banquet in Nashville.

Voiles, who has been teaching for six years, has long shared his teaching practices publicly — on Twitter, through a blog he wrote with a colleague, and as a state ambassador for the Common Core standards. In recent years, according to a state news release, his classroom became a hub as teachers from across his district observed his teaching in hopes of replicating his practices, which often improved the performance of students far behind their peers.

“All students are capable of achieving great things, and all students deserve a teacher who believes this and will do whatever it takes to make it happen,” Voiles said in the release. He is also a doctoral candidate at East Tennessee State University.

Now, Voiles will gain an even wider stage, as Tennessee’s representative to the National Teacher of the Year program. He will also share insight from the classroom as part of committees and working groups with the Tennessee Department of Education.

All nine Teacher of the Year finalists, representing each of the state’s regions, will serve on the Commissioner Candice McQueen’s Teacher Advisory Council during the 2016-17 school year.

The department also recognized two division winners from Middle and West Tennessee. Cord Martin, a music education and enrichment teacher at Whitthorne Middle School in Maury County, was recognized for his innovative teaching strategies and connecting content to contemporary culture. Christy McManus, a fifth-grade English language arts and social studies teacher at Chester County Middle School in Henderson was honored for equipping her students with the end goal in mind: a college-ready twelfth grader.

Voiles follows Cathy Whitehead, a third-grade teacher from Chester County, who served as Tennessee’s 2015-16 Teacher of the Year. Whitehead teaches at West Chester Elementary School in Henderson in West Tennessee.