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


Newark schools would get $37.5 million boost under Gov. Murphy’s budget plan

PHOTO: OIT/Governor's Office
Gov. Phil Murphy gave his first budget address on Tuesday.

Newark just got some good news: Gov. Phil Murphy wants to give its schools their biggest budget increase since 2011.

State funding for the district would grow by 5 percent — or $37.5 million — next school year under Murphy’s budget plan, according to state figures released Thursday. Overall, state aid for K-12 education in Newark would rise to $787.6 million for the 2018-19 school year.

The funding boost could ease financial strain on the district, which has faced large deficits in recent years as more students enroll in charter schools — taking a growing chunk of district money with them. At the same time, the district faced years of flat funding from the state, which provides Newark with most of its education money.

“This increase begins to restore the deep cuts made to teaching and support staff and essential programs for students in district schools over the last seven years,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, who noted that a portion of the increase would go to Newark charter schools.

Newark’s boost is part of a nearly $284 million increase that Murphy is proposing for the state’s school-aid formula, which has not been properly funded since 2009. In the budget outline he released Tuesday, Murphy said the increase was the first installment in a four-year plan to fully fund the formula, which calls for about $1 billion more than the state currently spends on education.

Even with Murphy’s proposed boost, Newark’s state aid would still be about 14 percent less than what it’s entitled to under the formula, according to state projections.

Murphy, a Democrat, is counting on a series of tax hikes and other revenue sources — including legalized marijuana — to pay for his budget, which increases state spending by 4.2 percent over this fiscal year. He’ll need the support of his fellow Democrats who control the state legislature to pass those measures, but some have expressed concerns about parts of Murphy’s plan — in particular, his proposal to raise taxes on millionaires. They have until June 30 to agree on a budget.

In the meantime, Newark and other school districts will use the figures from Murphy’s plan to create preliminary budgets by the end of this month. They can revise their budgets later if the state’s final budget differs from Murphy’s outline.

At a school board meeting Tuesday before districts received their state-aid estimates, Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory said he had traveled to Trenton in December to tell members of Murphy’s team that the district was “running out of things to do” to close its budget gap. He said the district wasn’t expecting to immediately receive the full $140 million that it’s owed under the state formula. But Murphy’s plan suggested the governor would eventually send Newark the full amount.

“The governor’s address offers a promising sign,” Gregory said.

Civics lesson

With district’s blessing, Newark students join national school walkout against gun violence

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Thousands of Newark students walked out of their schools Wednesday morning in a district-sanctioned protest that was part of a nationwide action calling for an end to gun violence.

At Barringer Academy of the Arts and Humanities in the North Ward, students gathered in the schoolyard alongside Mayor Ras Baraka and interim schools chief Robert Gregory, who offered support to the protesters and even distributed a “student protest week” curriculum to schools.

Just after 10 a.m., hundreds of students watched in silence as a group of their classmates stood in a row and released one orange balloon every minute for 17 minutes — a tribute to the 17 people fatally shot inside a high school in Parkland, Florida last month.

While the Barringer students and faculty mourned those victims they had never met, they also decried gun violence much closer to home: siblings and relatives who had been shot, times they were threatened with guns on the street. Principal Kimberly Honnick asked the crowd to remember Malik Bullock, who was a 16-year-old junior at Barringer when he was shot to death in the South Ward last April.

“Too many lives have been lost way too soon,” she said. “It is time for us to end the violence in our schools.”

School districts across the country have grappled with how to respond to walkouts, which were scheduled to occur at 10 a.m. in hundreds of schools. The student-led action, which was planned in the wake of the Florida mass shooting, is intended to pressure Congress to enact stricter gun laws.

Officials in some districts — including some in New Jersey — reportedly threatened to punish students who joined in the protest. But in Newark, officials embraced the event as a civics lesson for students and a necessary reminder to lawmakers that gun violence is not limited to headline-grabbing tragedies like the one in Parkland — for young people in many cities, it’s a fact of life.

“If there’s any group of people that should be opposed to the amount of guns that reach into our communities, it’s us,” Baraka said, adding that Newark police take over 500 guns off the street each year. “People in cities like Newark, New Jersey — cities that are predominantly filled with black and brown individuals who become victims of gun violence.”

On Friday, Gregory sent families a letter saying that the district was committed to keeping students safe in the wake of the Florida shooting. All school staff will receive training in the coming weeks on topics including “active shooter drills” and evacuation procedures, the letter said.

But the note also said the district wanted to support “students’ right to make their voices heard on this important issue.” Schools were sent a curriculum for this week with suggested lessons on youth activism and the gun-control debate. While students were free to opt out of Wednesday’s protests, high schools were expected to allow students to walk out of their buildings at the designated time while middle schools were encouraged to organize indoor events.

In an interview, Gregory said gun violence in Newark is not confined to mass shootings: At least one student here is killed in a shooting each year, he said — though there have not been any so far this year. Rather than accept such violence as inevitable, Gregory said schools should teach students that they have the power to collectively push for changes — even if that means letting them walk out of class.

“Instead of trying of trying to resist it, we wanted to encourage it,” he said. “That’s what makes America what it is.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Students released one balloon for each of the 17 people killed at a high school in Parkland, Florida last month.

After Barringer’s protest, where people waved signs saying “Love,” “Enough,” and “No to gun violence, several ninth-graders described what it’s like to live in communities where guns are prevalent — despite New Jersey’s tight gun restrictions.

Jason Inoa said he was held up by someone claiming to have a gun as he walked home. Destiny Muñoz said her older brother was shot by a police officer while a cousin was recently gunned down in Florida. The Parkland massacre only compounded her fear that nowhere is safe.

“With school shootings, you feel terrified,” she said. “You feel the same way you do about being outside in the streets.”

Even as the students called for tougher gun laws, they were ambivalent about bringing more police into their schools and neighborhoods. They noted that the Black Lives Matter movement, which they said they recently read about in their freshmen social studies class, called attention to black and Hispanic people who were treated harshly or even killed by police officers.

Ninth-grader Malik Bolding said it’s important to honor the victims of school shootings like the one in Parkland, Florida. But the country should also mourn the people who are killed in everyday gun violence and heed the protesters who are calling for it to end, he added.

“Gun violence is gun violence — it doesn’t matter who got shot,” he said. “Everybody should be heard.”