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!)

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”