Education

Bloomberg’s Schools No. 2 Pick: Test-Prep Principals Are “Weak”

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So now that it looks like Cathie Black will become chief publisher of the New York City Department of Education, so long as Mayor Bloomberg appoints longtime school administrator Shael Polakow-Suransky as her editorial director, what do we know about her prospective sidekick?

The Daily News helpfully informs us that Polakow-Suransky’s wife died tragically young of breast cancer last year, spicing up its story with lifted Facebook posts from the grieving widower. The Times notes, more substantively, that he’s a former teacher and principal who for the last year and a half has been running the city schools’ “accountability” program — i.e., school progress reports. (Times reporter Fernanda Santos also oddly credits Polakow-Suransky as “a byproduct of a public school system,” which makes him sound like something that’s only useful for making bioplastic.)

Back in January, I spoke to Polakow-Suransky at length for this article in the Voice Education Supplement on high-stakes testing and the likely implications for city schools of coming changes in the No Child Left Behind thresholds. (Quick précis for those who can’t be bothered to click the link: By 2014, everything goes kablooey.) Most of it didn’t make it into the paper then, but now it can help provide one window into the mind of the man who would be Cathie Black’s pedagogical brains.

Do you think that the school progress reports and other accountability measures are doing what they’re meant to?

“As I see it, for the first time over the past three years, the Department of Education as an organization has set up a set of expectations for schools around what students should learn and how much they should learn. It’s really been part of a larger reform that’s attempting to recognize that the real decisions about instructional practice need to live as close as possible to the people that have to implement those decisions, and that’s teachers and principals. But in a context where there’s increased empowerment, it’s really important to also be very clear about what people are accountable for, and specifically what students need to be able to do and learn.

“And that’s a big change. Principals were held accountable for all kinds of things — the number of fire drills they did, the number of times they got in the newspaper — but they didn’t necessarily get held accountable for how much their kids were learning.

“It has shifted the conversation in schools — it has created a different kind of focus in student learning — and we’ve seen substantial gains in terms of students’ performance partially as a result of that. There’s lots of debate about are the state tests hard enough, and should they be more rigorous, and I’d be the first one to advocate for increasing the rigor of those exams. [Ed. note: The state did so, and wiped out most of those “substantial gains” in the process.] But the fact that we’re even having that conversation of ‘Are the state exams rigorous enough?’ is an indication that the accountability system is working.”

Is it reasonable to use state tests for the city’s school progress reports if the state exams have been inconsistent with regard to difficulty level?

“There are folks who have argued in the past three years, based on anecdotal evidence, that the tests have gotten easier. My sense, having analyzed this pretty carefully, is that they haven’t actually changed that much, that the same basic indicators are being tested each year. If anything, that may be part of the explanation, in that they haven’t necessarily tested quite as broad a range of indicators as they might have from amongst the state standards, and so schools that are thoughtfully looking at data and analyzing what their students have done in previous years, are able to target with more focus where kids’ skills’ gaps are and what they likely need to learn in order to be successful.”

Does a system of high-stakes tests just encourage teaching to the test, as many parents charge?

“Part of what the quality reviewers look at is is there a simplistic knee-jerk test prep culture in a school, or is there real intellectually rigorous instruction going on? There are always going to be cases where you have weak leaders or weak teachers that, when they have an accountability that they’re encountering, they go to what they see as the shortest path to the solution. I don’t think that’s the dominant response in most of our schools.

“I don’t think that the dichotomy that’s often drawn in the public discourse is a necessary dichotomy from the perspective of an educator. I know from my own experience as a teacher and a principal that you don’t have to choose between getting kids to be successful in their basic skills, which is largely what the tests are focused on, or pushing them on the higher order, more complex or creative skills.

“I think we’ve got a lot of cases where both of those are happening in a successful way. So part of what I see our job as is to help people who don’t know how to do that to learn how to do that.

“There is a risk that people get scared and say, ‘Oh, I have this accountability and I need to focus on getting these bubbles right on the multiple choice.’ That’s not going to get you very far, quite honestly. You can get a slight bump if you do that kind of teaching, but you’re quickly going to plateau, because it doesn’t lead to high levels of student engagement.

“I think part of my approach to this work is it’s complicated work. It’s important not to make perfect the enemy of the good. You’ve got to take a stand and start working from there, and then you look at what’s happening, and you figure out how do you make it better? And there’s always going to be insights that we gather as we work through this process to strengthen it.”

If there’s a takeaway here, it’s that Polakow-Suransky is less a loyal Joel Klein flunky, as some critics have charged, than a thoughtful educator who has always been stirring up the same Kool-Aid as Klein and Bloomberg in terms of increased testing being the best way to ensure quality education. GothamSchools says that he’s interested less in data itself than in how it can be used to change instruction; other education bloggers are less convinced.

Assuming Black and Polakow-Suransky are confirmed as the DOE’s tag team, we’ll find out who’s right soon enough. That is, if educational policy objectives still mean much amid the rising tide of red ink.

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