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!)


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.”