Change in city schools' data czar as number-crunching goes on

As the city prepares to release another edition of performance grades to more than 1,700 schools in the coming weeks, it will be doing so without the person who was behind the project last year.

Martin Kurzweil, a lawyer who most recently oversaw data-crunching for the Department of Education, exited this summer to take an academic fellowship at Columbia University Law School.

Kurzweil’s departure is part of a steady drip of directors and program leaders to have exited the department in recent months. This summer also saw the departures of Deputy Chancellor Laura Rodriguez; Rodriguez’s deputy in special education, Lauren Katzman; and public affairs director Lenny Speiller. In the spring and winter, the department lost its top lawyer and communications chief, as well as most of its press officers. Jessica Scaperotti, promoted in July to take over the newly consolidated External Affairs office, left in August.

“It’s a great loss,” said Clara Hemphill, senior editor of The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, who worked with Kurzweil often when presenting school data on InsideSchools, the website she runs. “He’s a really smart, good guy who understood that there’s more to schools than numbers.”Middle management turnover has long been an issue at the department. But with Mayor Bloomberg’s term ending soon, every departure could be considered a possible warning sign. Already, insiders say experienced and talented officials no longer view some city agencies as an attractive place to work.

Kurzweil, who joined the education department in February 2010, handled a number of initiatives that sought to assess and measure the performance of teachers, principals, and schools in the New York City School system. As the executive director of the city data and accountability office, his portfolio included the progress reports and school surveys, two measures that are regularly cited by top officials in school closures. Kurzweil also gathered data and interpreted state policies required of the No Child Left Behind law.

This summer, one of Kurzweil’s final projects for the department included verifying data to comply with another state mandate: New York State’s evaluation law, which will link student performance on standardized tests to teacher evaluations.

Before he joined the department, Kurzweil practiced law at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, but his background was steeped in academic research. As a 22-year-old research assistant, Kurzweil gathered data on the admissions processes from 19 colleges and crunched them based a broad range of demographic and socioeconomic factors. That work led to a book about the research.

But Kurzweil, a volunteer tutor for high-need middle school students in Boston while he attended Harvard University, has made it clear that although he originally thought data could be used as a solution to problems facing the public school system, his work at the department changed his mind.

“I think I have really grown to appreciate the value of other non-quantitative measures of school quality,” Kurzweil said at an InsideSchools event that unveiled its own version of school report cards this summer.

“I thought that school evaluation was a problem with a solution and one that you could reach by logic or math,” he added. “I very quickly realized how complicated it is.”

Kurzweil declined to be interviewed, but he said in a statement that he was most proud of his work on aligning the school progress reports to measurements of college and career readiness.

In returning to academia, Kurzweil said he will focus on education law and policy.

“Although I will miss working so closely with my smart and dedicated colleagues at Tweed, networks, and schools, I look forward to focusing on issues of equity, educational quality, and system design from a new perspective,” Kurzweil said in the statement.

Former deputy chancellor Eric Nadelstern, among the top aides to leave the department following Klein’s resignation, said he didn’t expect middle management departures to have a big effect of the city’s ability to carry out its major initiatives, which include the special education overhaul, common core standards rollout and forthcoming teacher evaluations.

“When the deputy chancellors start running for the hills, that’s when you have to start worrying,” Nadelstern said.

Simone D’Souza, who served as a deputy under Kurzweil for more than a year and who helped lead the work on developing the college readiness metrics, will take over his responsibilities. D’Souza previously worked at Ascend Venture Group, a private investment firm, and Goldman Sachs. In between, she earned master’s degrees from the University of Pennsylvania in business administration and education.