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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.

magnetic fields

Three Indianapolis schools recognized for diversity, but local efforts to integrate are still underway

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
School 27

Three Indianapolis public schools can claim a new title: 2017 National Magnet School of Distinction.

The prize, given annually by a national group promoting the themed schools, recognizes schools that boost student achievement, promote diversity, and have strong community ties. Among this year’s 244 winners nationally are Center for Inquiry Schools 2, 27, and 84, all part of the Indianapolis Public Schools district.

“Being recognized as a Magnet School of Distinction provides just one affirmation to the collective CFI School family that their philosophy, tireless work ethic, community support, and relentless journey to provide students with the absolute best inquiry based education is paying dividends to their students, to IPS, and to the larger community,” said Greg Newlin, the district’s academic improvement officer, in a statement.

The three schools use the International Baccalaureate curriculum. And their students are more likely to be white and more affluent than at the average district school. The schools’ demographics vary widely: School 27 is well integrated, with about 39 percent white students and 41 percent black students. In contrast, School 84 is nearly 83 percent white this year in a district where students of color make up 80 percent of enrollment.

That could soon change. After a series on segregation from Chalkbeat and the Indianapolis Star exposed how rules about magnet school admission gave the most privileged families in the district an edge at sought-after schools, the school board last year voted to adopt policies designed help more low-income students win admission to magnet schools. The new policies could reshape who enters the schools this fall.

“Magnet schools were born out of the civil rights movement and were intended to help school districts to reintegrate,” IPS board member Gayle Cosby said at the time. “We want to make sure that magnet schools are not actually serving a different purpose in our district.”

The award to the Indianapolis schools is the second tier that Magnet Schools of America hands out. Schools that have especially strong academic performance can earn a different title: schools of excellence.

First Person

I’m a teacher, not an activist. Here’s why I’m joining the March for Science this weekend

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Jeremy Wilburn

I became a science teacher because there’s nothing I love more than talking about science. This Saturday, I’ll march for science in Cleveland because there’s nothing I believe is more important than defending science in our society and our classrooms.

My love affair with science goes back to my seventh-grade teacher, Mr. Hurst, who took a hands-on approach to science education. Through labs and real-world investigations, my classmates and I discovered the complexity of scientific discovery. While I originally pursued a career in lab research, I soon realized that my true passion lay in teaching – that I could fulfill my love of science by delivering the same quality of teaching that I’d received to the next generation.

I’m marching for science on Saturday because every student deserves such a strong foundation. A well-rounded education should be a reality for every child in America – and that must include science, technology, engineering and math. Without it, our country won’t be able to solve the very real crises looming just over the horizon.

The world’s population is growing exponentially, consuming a limited supply of natural resources at a faster pace. We rely on nonrenewable forms of energy that we’ll inevitably exhaust at a great environmental cost. Medical advances have slowed the spread of infectious disease, but our overuse of antibiotics is leading to a new generation of drug-resistant pathogens.

Our children need to know what they are up against so they can design their own solutions. They need an education that enables them to think analytically, approach a problem, tackle new challenges, and embrace the unknown. That’s exactly what good science education does.

Still, I understand that some may wonder why teachers are marching – and even if they should. Some will inevitably accuse teachers of “politicizing” science or stepping “out of their lane.”

But marching for science is distinct from the kind of political statements I dutifully avoid in my role as a teacher. To me, marching is a statement of fact: without science teachers, there is no science education; without science education, there is no future for science in America. Science teachers and their classrooms are the agar in the petri dish that cultures our students’ scientific minds. (Did I mention there’s nothing I love talking about more than science?) In any movement for science, teachers have a role to play.

Marching, like teaching, is to take part in something bigger. Years from now, if I’m lucky, I might glimpse the name of one of my former students in the newspaper for a scientific discovery or prestigious award. But by and large, it’s my job to plant seeds of curiosity and discovery in a garden I may never see.

On Saturday, I’ll be there alongside doctors and nurses, engineers and researchers, and citizens from all walks of life who love science and want to see it valued and respected in our country. We might not see the fruit of our labors the day after the march, or even after that, but the message we send will be clear.

If you’re a parent or student – maybe one of my own – I hope you see that passion for science on full display around the nation this Saturday. I hope you see why having committed science teachers like myself and my colleagues is inextricably bound to the fate of our world. I hope that recognition grows into action to support teachers and demand universal access to an excellent science education, like the one I strive to provide every day in my classroom.

Sarah Rivera teaches engineering, biology, biomedical science, and environmental science at Perry High School in Perry, Ohio. She is also a member of 100Kin10’s teacher forum.