An Interview With Shael Polakow-Suransky, Chief Academic Officer, NYC Dept. of Ed.
There are some people for whom no matter where the conversation goes, or what topic it covers, he or she would have something intelligent to say, some valuable piece of knowledge to share. That’s Shael Polakow-Suransky, the second in command for the Department of Education, under the new chancellor Dennis M. Walcott.
Polakow-Suransky readily showed his breadth of knowledge, experience, and insight. A former principal and a graduate himself of a progressive school in Ann Arbor, Mich., it became obvious as to why Polakow-Suransky is so highly regarded as a forward-thinking reformer.
Take, for instance, the question of why Scandinavian schools are the envy of the world.
Polakow-Suransky said that in Finland, the top quartile of college graduates are applying to be teachers, whereas in the U.S, top performers often go on to careers in law or business, not education.
“Creating a situation where more of those folks want to be teachers is key, and part of that is making sure that there is sufficient compensation.” He said that in Washington, D.C., teachers could opt for less job security and higher pay earlier in their careers. “That’s a really interesting model that we should consider,” he said.
Polakow-Suransky’s reality is focused on shoring up regular deficiencies in the New York City school system as a whole, as well as reversing the current impediments on public schools at the local, state and national level. One such failure, or “train crash,” as Arne Duncan has referred to it, is No Child Left Behind, the 2001 law designed so that each state would reach a proficiency standard by 2014.
“The ironic thing about it is that it asks states to design their own tests. Most states have designed tests that are norm-referenced, which means they are essentially graded on a curve, which means by definition that some groups pass the test and some groups don’t. There’s no logical way mathematically for those two things to work well together. You aren’t going to reach your goal of everyone passing,” he said.
Similarly, while Polakow-Suransky notes that New York City has increased graduation rates from 50 percent in 2002 to 65 percent now, he is equally concerned with making sure that graduation means something substantive, in that graduates should be ready for college-level work. This means developing skills like “using evidence in your writing to support your ideas,” he said, or “taking information and using it, not just in the situations where you first experienced it, but in new situations,” goals which the new proficiency standards are meant to address.
Many of these new goals require giving teachers and administrators more tools to help them succeed.
“Teachers can be very isolated from one another and if there’s not a structured place to examine what they’re doing and reflect on it, then they might never get around to it,” he said. “I think everyone needs to be learning and growing. If you aren’t, you’re going to feel frustrated and stagnant. Having a structured place to have that kind of conversation among colleagues is very important.”
It is for this reason that he advocates for “teachers’ teams,” a popular model in Europe, where teachers meet regularly in order to look at their students’ work and discuss how to improve their teaching strategies.
For those wary of bold reformers, they should take solace in knowing that Polakow-Suransky is intimately aware of what it takes to implement a novel educational policy, as he was the founding principal of Bronx International High School in 2001, a school of 350 students designed specifically to serve those who score at or below the 20th percentile on the Language Assessment Battery and have been in the U.S. for fewer than four years. In spite of the challenges this school would naturally face, it has been a model of efficiency, earning consistently high scores on peer-review measures.
Navigating the oft-contradictory goals of innovation with consistent quality is a task Polakow-Suransky seems uniquely qualified to undertake. #