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Interview with Shael Polakow-Suransky

The incoming Bank Street College of Education head talks about the NYC DOE and his hope for Common Core success.

He was barely 40 when he rose to second-in-command as chief academic officer of the massive New York City school system three years ago. Along the way, Shael Polakow-Suransky was a teacher, founding principal at Bronx International High School, and the district’s head of new schools and performance and accountability under Joel Klein. Like many other Bloomberg-era administrators, he’s departing the New York City school system—to take over as head of Bank Street College of Education later this spring.

Q | What would you say is your signature accomplishment working as a teacher, principal, and district leader in the New York City public school system?
A | I led one of the first large New York City high schools to be transformed into [a group of] small schools, and then helped reorganize district practices around school transformation that had become heavily structured around the needs of adults versus the needs of kids.

Q | Do you still believe that large, low-performing high schools can be saved?
A | At my school [Bronx International], as well as at others, the graduation rate on the campus more than doubled, growing from 31 percent to 72 percent over the course of five years. We turned that school around—and hundreds of others.

Q | What have you learned about relying on quantitative measures of school performance?
A | The instruments that were originally developed were too blunt. There wasn’t the correct balance between quantitative tools and qualitative measures, and so we had to take the time to devote resources to develop a strong qualitative measurement.

Q | Where do you stand on the Common Core, which has been especially controversial in New York State?
A | The Common Core presents a tremendous teachable moment for our schools, a chance to ask, “How good is good enough?” We found tremendous enthusiasm among teachers to engage in planning and professional development around how to teach critical thinking, writing, and problem-solving skills.

Q | Given the tight timeline, among other things, how did New York City measure up against the rest of New York State on the first administration of Common Core exams?
A | The results for New York City in the first year of Common Core testing showed that we have largely closed the gap with the rest of the state in terms of how we do on the state assessment, despite much higher poverty, and our growth scores for our teachers showed twice as many highly effective teachers as the rest of the state.

Q | How will the Common Core standards really improve classroom instruction?
A | They send a very different signal to teachers about having space to do richer and more interesting assignments, things like a research paper instead of drill-and-kill test prep. The standards are not perfect and we have a long way to go before we have the right curriculum, particularly at the early-childhood level, but they are a good step in the right direction.

Q | Are you still a believer in A–F letter grades?
A | The challenge of a letter grade is that you sum everything up but you’re actually looking at a dozen different metrics combined into one score. That’s not easy to do at any level—not at the individual student level or at the school level. The other challenge is that the information you need to manage and improve schools is often different from the information parents want. One of our mistakes was attempting to combine these two streams of data into one score.

Q | Is there a way to improve accountability in other ways, then?
A | I’m a fan of Quality Reviews, as is the new chancellor [Carmen Fariña]. The Quality Review is an extended visit by senior educators to look at classroom practice, school culture, and professional supports. It’s a foundation that will serve the new administration well, if they expand it or give it more prominence. They may move away from the letter-grade system, but I think they’ll continue to look at the data that’s produced and use that to make important decisions.

Q | What’s the fairest way to measure schools?
A | It’s important to be honest about the fact that test scores, while they are important, will never tell you the whole story. You have to balance any data based on testing with other kinds of data, which includes grades teachers are giving, samplings of student work, surveys of students, teachers, and parents, and Quality Reviews.  

Q | Is resistance to change from teachers and community members inevitable?
A | When you’re trying to change a system that’s become deeply dysfunctional over many decades, there are strong interests, lots of money, and political power involved that hold that status quo in place, so you will generate a lot of conflict when you make changes. There’s going to be a fight. That doesn’t mean the way changes are made should be disrespectful or ignore legitimate feedback and concerns from educators and families.

Q | What’s the best way to develop ­teacher buy-in and leadership?
A | The vast majority of teachers are doing really good work. What they need are really good leaders and systems of professional support. We’ve seen tremendous growth in strong leadership at the school level. Schools have become engines of leadership development in many parts of the city.

Q | How well did New York City engage parents and teachers in its reform efforts?
A | There’s always more you can do to build buy-in from educators and parents, and we did not do enough on that front. I think the challenge is to build a functional partnership with your teachers and parents, because there’s no way to sustain effective reforms without a real partnership.

Q | Should states continue to try to evaluate teachers based on Common Core results?
A | We have much less evidence at this point that the data is solid, and less experience in how to draw the correct conclusions. Some states, like Colorado, have passed thoughtful laws. In others, like New York, the laws passed to evaluate teachers have been incredibly prescriptive and have led to lots of unintended consequences. But it’s a work in progress, and as much as I’m concerned about the way that law was structured—and I believe it has to become more flexible to ensure that principals have the final word on rating their teachers—we do have an emerging system for teacher accountability and feedback for the first time. It’s a step in the right direction.

Q | How much will things change in NYC schools under Mayor Bill de Blasio?
A | I think there are going to be adjustments. This was a “change” election. The way that accountability works is likely to change. But there are lots of points of consensus with the administration coming in. The new chancellor is a strong supporter of Common Core, and I think she is going to marshal even more resources and time around professional development for teachers. 

Spring 2014—

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