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Remembering Thomas Sobol, former state education commissioner

Thomas Sobol, who served as New York’s state education commissioner from 1987 to 1995, died earlier this month. Since then, many have praised his attention to the needs of urban districts, his advocacy for learning standards and state funding for schools, and his influence over decades of other educators and district leaders.

Below, former deputy chancellor Eric Nadelstern adds his voice, recalling his work with Sobol and the educator’s generosity.

I had been appointed to chair the Commissioner’s Bilingual Advisory Council by Tom Sobol’s predecessor, New York State Education Commission Gordon Ambach. Under Ambach, such special-interest councils helped shape departmental policies that would impact schools throughout the state.

During our first meeting with new Commissioner Sobol, it became clear that Tom understood that his job, and the department’s by extension, was not to distract schools with narrowly conceived policies, but rather to support schools and the achievement of their students and hold them accountable for the results. In this way and in so many other ways, Tom Sobol was ahead of his time.

I never understood how Tom understood poor urban schools as well as he did with a background as a district leader from such wealthy areas as Great Neck and Scarsdale. But deep in his bones he knew that education was about the civil rights of students of color to a free and sound public education, and that too many African American and Latino youngsters were being denied that basic human right. Throughout his eight-year tenure as commissioner, he provided schools with variances in the hopes that doing things differently could result in higher levels of performance for all students.

These reforms were short-lived, as his successor as Commissioner Rick Mills re-centralized authority in the state bureaucracy. Once again, special interest mandates flooded our schools with no recourse to appeal deleterious effects to a higher authority. During those days and as a high-school principal, I sued the commissioner twice to no effect. The past had overtaken the future, and school were once again impeded by a mindless organizations 150 miles up the Thruway. The seeds were sowed then for the parental resistance to standardized tests that emerged years later.

Tom had contracted a mysterious ailment that progressively disabled him and made it impossible to fulfill his responsibilities as Commissioner. He found a new home at Teachers College as a professor of practice, a position I now hold, and continued his good work training and retraining district leaders throughout the state and beyond.

On one occasion, Tom and I were to attend the same meeting at TC. Since one of my legs was in a full-leg cast, he offered to meet me at a side door that entered in to the basement of the College, and led me through a maze of corridors to reach an elevator that would take us to the appointed room without confronting the challenge of a single step. I remember thinking that my leg would get better, but Tom would never again know the freedom of mobility so many of us simply take for granted.

At Tom’s retirement from the State Education Department, I remember him saying that he had entered public education as a teacher in the early 1960s believing that through education we could close the achievement gap and create a more just and equitable society. However, some 40 years later, he was forced to admit that some things take more than a lifetime to achieve.

I now stand at a comparable stage of my career and finally understand why some important things do take more than one lifetime to accomplish. However, I know without doubt that we’re considerably closer than we would otherwise have been were it not for the extraordinary life and work of my friend and mentor, Tom Sobol.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.