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New accountability chief says he'll carry on Liebman's legacy

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!)

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