Monday, November 29, 2010

Local Boy Makes Good In A Very Big Education Fishbowl

I spent this past weekend in the New York area.
I was shocked to see the name of someone that I actually had met more than once running across the trailer at the bottom of the screen on ABC News. Truthfully, that doesn't happen all that often.

And I was so very, very interested to read this article in the New York Times:
Mayor and State Reach Deal On A Schools Chief.

If you've been following this issue at all, you know that New York City is a huge, urban school district. In fact, it is the largest public school district in the world, and the school chief is appointed by the mayor. And Mayor Bloomberg has just appointed Cathleen Black, who has absolutely no education background, to be chancellor. Not only that, but she never even attended a public school. Read about the requirements for the New York City chancellor--this requires a waiver, which has just been given.

[The idea is, I believe, that schools can be run like businesses. I don't believe they can--first, because kids are not a product or service, and second--perhaps more importantly--because in a for-profit business you can try to control both your income and your expenses, and in the non-profit education world, you typically only get to control your expenses. But I digress.]

So anyway, to pacify the people who are outraged that she would be chosen (because there was a possibility that the New York State Education Commissioner could veto her appointment), Mayor Bloomberg suggests a compromise. . . a number 2, a deputy chancellor, who actually knows something about education.

And this is where the "local boy makes good" part comes in, and this is why I was so interested in the article. The local boy is Shael Polakow-Suransky, who got his high school education at the fine local institution, Ann Arbor's own Community High School. He also has the distinction of having a mother, Valerie Polakow, who is a professor of Teacher Education at Eastern Michigan University; and a father, Leonard Suransky, with a PhD from the University of Michigan who is a professor in the Netherlands.

Reviews of Polakow-Suransky's work from the education community in the New York area seem to be pretty positive. (See for an example.) The real question of NYC activists, though, is whether Polakow-Suransky will have any power at all.

That is likely because the New York Daily News reports Mayor Bloomberg responding to this question:
Q: How much autonomy will the chief academic officer have?
A: I think it'd be inappropriate to speak while we're waiting for the. . .  for David Steiner to act but there will be one person in charge. Make no mistake about that.

I like what quotes Polakow-Suransky as saying:
At a recent panel on how federal education policy is affecting local school districts, 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. (Emphasis added.)

It's not really a side note to say that I also had lunch with a few friends whose children are making their way through the NYC public schools. Suffice it to say that ensuring that your children get into the "good" schools might require that you yourself have an advanced degree. For high school, there is a huge book of school choices--which you get to wade through and rank order. . . and if your grades weren't good in 7th grade, you may have ruined many of your chances. . . if your test scores were poor, you can forget a different set of schools.

It's also not a side note to say that I'm sure Shael is influenced in the way that he thinks by his parents' work--in particular, Valerie Polakow's work on children and poverty. As it states in her biography on the EMU web site:
My scholarship is dedicated to advocacy on behalf of women and children in poverty, and in my writings I have attempted to document the lived realities of those who have been shut out— from early childhood education, from K-12 education, and from post-secondary education; and to give voice to those whose rights have been violated by poverty, race and gender discrimination.

In fact, Valerie Polakow is the co-editor of a journal I had never seen prior to looking up her biography. It is called PowerPlay: A Journal of Educational Justice and it looks interesting. [See, for instance, the lead article in the most recent issue: The Persistent Issue of Disproportionality in Special Education and Why It Hasn't Gone Away. And that topic is very related to an earlier conversation--see the comments section--on Ann Arbor Schools Musings.]

So, I admit, I was curious to see what someone I had met when he was a teenager looks like now.

Answer: he has a lot less hair!  In any case--good luck Shael!


  1. One of my friends in New York wrote to me last night that the problem with Shael Polakow-Suransky isn't a problem with him per se. Rather, the problem is that his appointment sealed the deal that allowed somebody who is, in her words,"completely unqualified" to be appointed Chancellor.

  2. On a related topic, there are some letters to the editor in Sunday's NY Times concerning performance in schools. They address what we hear all the time.... that US students have fallen way behind other countries. One profeesor points out that in the countries like Denmark and Finland that outperform us, the poverty rate is 3% compared to 21% here. He maintains that middle class American students attending well financed schools actually outscore nearly all other countries. He confirms the contention that our education "problem" is really a social/economic problem with no easy fixes.

  3. what is this about?

  4. Well on the simplest level this is about someone who grew up in Ann Arbor and is getting some attention in New York, and it is just a human interest story. But on a larger scale this relates to whether education is simply about technical things like budgets and managing teachers, or whether educational skills are important. In fact, that discussion is happening around the country, as noted in the Assorted Stuff blog here.

  5. And NOW--Cathie Black is out after doing a spectacularly bad job, according to the New York Times. The proposed new chancellor, Derek Walcott, has some education credentials but would himself need a waiver. Until that happens, our "local boy," Shael Polakow-Suransky, will be the interim chancellor.

    Read more here: