An open question about top Department of Education deputy Shael Polakow-Suransky is to what extent he is a protege of Joel Klein — and to what extent he is a product of his distinctly progressive, anti-testing education at Brown University.

new story in Brown’s alumni magazine argues that Polakow-Suransky’s chief influence is Ted Sizer, the progressive educator who chaired Brown’s education department for many years — and was Polakow-Suransky’s thesis advisor.

Sizer, who died two years ago, founded the Coalition of Essential Schools, to which more than a dozen city schools still belong, and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform. That institute, based at Brown, supports the city’s Coalition for Educational Justice, which has lobbied against school closures and budget cuts.

From the article:

For his senior thesis — Sizer was his adviser — Polakow-Suransky compared the South African school in which he’d volunteered with the Providence-based group Direct Action for Rights and Equality, which fights for greater access to public education. Again, Polakow-Suransky focused on the role of schools in transforming society, or, as he describes it, “How do you use an educational process to shape a process of change?” He says in South Africa the skills and values instilled in students led to a profound sense of mutual responsibility. They learned to offer one another help on everything from finding a lawyer to finding temporary shelter.

The students there also took what they learned in school and applied it in the larger community, raising consciousness about apartheid’s evils. “One of the most powerful things that schools can do,” Polakow-Suransky says, “is create a sense of agency and capacity, really giving kids what they need to be active citizens.”

But the article also points out that learning a philosophy of education isn’t the same as being able to put into practice — a lesson Polakow-Suransky learned when opening Bread and Roses Integrated Arts High School in 1997.

In one of Ted Sizer’s classes at Brown, students had to design a new school. A group of outside experts then reviewed their plans. This, Polakow-Suransky says, prepared him for the New York City approval process, but not necessarily for implementing a plan. “We made every single mistake you could make in creating a school,” he says.