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Bloomberg's Education Pick Gets a Deputy

Cathie Black's lack of education bona fides threatened to sink her candidacy for schools chancellor. A new appointment will likely save the bid.

Apparently Cathie Black's highly touted Shaolin management skills weren't enough to make her New York City's new schools chancellor. The former media executive needed a waiver from the New York State education commissioner in order to take the post that Mayor Michael Bloomberg tapped her for, due to her lack of experience in education.

After initially denying the waiver request, Education Commissioner David Steiner appears ready to grant it now that Black will have a deputy serving in the role of "chief academic officer." The new deputy will be Shael Polakow-Suransky, 38, who has spent his entire career working in the city's schools, rising from a middle school math teacher to a founding principal of a school in the Bronx to an executive in the city's Department of Education. The Gothamist blog likens the co-management arrangement to that between Michael Scott and Jim Halpert on the NBC sitcom The Office.


A piece in The New York Times asserts that Polakow-Suransky, who was of-late in charge of doling out school and teacher grades through the DOE's accountability system, will carry on much of the legacy left by outgoing Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. Klein, for instance, was an outspoken proponent of small, themed schools; and the schools Polakow-Suransky founded was one such school that targeted children of impoverished immigrant families.

The best reporting on the news thus far has come from the online publication GothamSchools, which went as far as to look into the success of other Batman-and-Robin-type setups in the city school systems of Chicago, San Diego, and Detroit. In addition, the publication also used a recent interview it did with Polakow-Suransky to highlight four key elements that he will bring to his position—one of which happens to be a different perspective than that of Klein.

Many officials in Joel Klein’s administration, including Klein himself, emphasize structural changes to improve the New York City schools. They favor policies such as closing down struggling schools, offering pay bonuses to educators whose students improve their performance on tests, and giving more power to principals to determine their own curricula and tests.
Suransky approaches improving education policy from the opposite direction. Suransky looks through the lens of instruction — that is, the relationships between teachers and students — rather than starting with incentives or organizational structures.
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According to GothamSchools, Polakow-Suransky advocates that changes only be made that will create a richer classroom experience. That interest feeds into another of the facets that he'll bring: a desire to rejigger standardized tests—according to the new Common Core State Standards—so that they will result in better instruction for students.
If he can help accomplish the latter, this spat over Black's appointment will have been entirely worth it.

Photo (cc) via Flickr user gothamschools

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