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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.

weekend update

How the education world is reacting to racist violence in Charlottesville — and to Trump’s muted response

PHOTO: Andrew Dallos/Flickr
A rally against hate in Tarrytown, New York, responds to the violence in Charlottesville.

For educators across the country, this weekend’s eruption of racism and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, offered yet another painful opportunity to communicate their values to families, colleagues, and community members.

Many decried the white supremacists who convened in the college town and clashed with protesters who had come to oppose their message. Some used social media to outline ideas about how to turn the distressing news into a teaching moment.

And others took issue with President Donald Trump’s statement criticizing violence “on many sides,” largely interpreted as an unwillingness to condemn white supremacists.

One leading education official, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, followed Trump’s approach, criticizing what happened but not placing blame on anyone in particular:

DeVos’s two most recent predecessors were unequivocal, both about what unfolded in Charlottesville and whom to blame:

Leaders of the nation’s two largest teachers unions responded directly to Trump:

The American Federation of Teachers, Weingarten’s union, is supporting vigils across the country Sunday night organized by chapters of Indivisible, a coalition that emerged to resist the Trump administration. The union also promoted resources from Share My Lesson, its lesson-plan site, that deal with civil rights and related issues.

“As educators, we will continue to fulfill our responsibility to make sure our students feel safe and protected and valued for who they are,” Weingarten said in a statement with other AFT officials.

Local education officials took stands as well, often emotionally. Here’s what the superintendent in Memphis, which is engaged in the same debate about whether Confederate memorials should continue to stand that drew white supremacists to Charlottesville, said on Twitter:

Teachers in Hopson’s district return for the second week of classes on Monday. They’ve helped students process difficult moments before, such as a spate of police killings of black men in 2016; here’s advice they shared then and advice that teachers across the country offered up.

We want to hear from educators who are tackling this tough moment in their classrooms. Share your experiences and ideas here or in the form below. 

Betsy DeVos

‘Underperformer,’ ‘bully,’ and a ‘mermaid with legs’: NYMag story slams Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: New York Magazine
A drawing of DeVos commissioned by an 8-year-old starts the New York Magazine article.

A new article detailing Betsy DeVos’s first six months as U.S. education secretary concludes that she’s “a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.”

That’s just one of several brutal critiques of DeVos’s leadership and effectiveness in the New York Magazine story, by Lisa Miller, who has previously covered efforts to overhaul high schools, New York City’s pre-kindergarten push, and the apocalypse. Here are some highlights:

  • Bipartisan befuddlement: The story summarizes the left’s well known opposition to DeVos’s school choice agenda. But her political allies also say she’s making unnecessary mistakes: “Most mystifying to those invested in her success is why DeVos hasn’t found herself some better help.”
  • A friend’s defense: DeVos is “muzzled” by the Trump administration, said her friend and frequent defender Kevin Chavous, a school choice activist.
  • The department reacts: “More often than not press statements are being written by career staff,” a spokesperson told Miller, rejecting claims that politics are trumping policy concerns.
  • D.C. colleagues speak: “When you talk to her, it’s a blank stare,” said Charles Doolittle, who quit the Department of Education in June. A current education department employee says: “It’s not clear that the secretary is making decisions or really capable of understanding the elements of a good decision.”
  • Kids critique: The magazine commissioned six portraits of DeVos drawn by grade-schoolers.
  • Special Olympics flip-flop: DeVos started out saying she was proud to partner with the athletics competition for people with disabilities — and quickly turned to defending a budget that cuts the program’s funding.
  • In conclusion: DeVos is an underperformer,” a “bully” and “ineffective,” Miller found based on her reporting.

Updated (July 31, 2017): A U.S. Education Department spokesperson responded to our request for comment, calling the New York Magazine story “nothing more than a hit piece.” Said Liz Hill: “The magazine clearly displayed its agenda by writing a story based on largely disputed claims and then leaving out of the article the many voices of those who are excited by the Secretary’s leadership and determination to improve education in America.”