School & District Management

Naming a Top Educator Seals Waiver Deal in NYC

By Christina A. Samuels — December 07, 2010 6 min read
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A promise to name a chief academic officer as the No. 2 official of the New York City schools cleared the way last week for publishing executive Cathleen P. Black to succeed Joel I. Klein as the district’s next chancellor.

The compromise plan, announced amid intensifying debate over her selection by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, won a state waiver necessary for Ms. Black as a noneducator.

Whatever the lingering questions about the appointment, the plan to pair Ms. Black with an experienced district educator cast a fresh spotlight on the position of chief academic officer, or CAO, which has become common in larger districts. Such a management setup has many supporters, but requires a strong sense of teamwork and a shared belief system to work well, education observers say.

The list of districts with such a post includes Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, San Diego, and Seattle, according to Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of urban districts.

Superintendent Shuffle

Urban superintendents generally have shorter tenures than their counterparts in rural and suburban districts, staying at the helm for three to four years before moving to another position, researchers say. They often are then hired by another large school district.

San Francisco
District of Columbia

Los Angeles
Los Angeles
New York City
Prior to 1993
Pasadena (11 years)
San Jose (2 years)
San Francisco (6 years)

New York City
Tacoma, Wash. 1989-1993

San Diego
Guilford County, N.C.
Williamson County, Tenn.
Prior to 1996
Five posts in Calif., N.C.,
Ohio, S.C., and Texas

Newark, N.J.

Newark, N.J.
District of Columbia
Rochester, N.Y.

San Diego
Oklahoma City
Eugene, Ore.
Springfield Township, Pa.

Recovery School District of Louisiana

Montgomery County, Md.
Guilford County, N.C.
Towanda and Coffeyville, Kan.; Great Falls, Mont.; Durham, N.C.; and Sioux Falls, S.D.
Uniontown, Kan.

SOURCE: The Hechninger Report
The Hechinger Report is a nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet affiliated with the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

“Good leaders have the ability to see where they’re not really strong, and get someone around them to support that,” said Joseph F. Murphy, a professor of educational leadership at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tenn. The question that remains to be answered in New York is how much autonomy and power will be wielded by the person occupying the new position, he said.

Under the deal announced last week, Ms. Black will tap Shael Polakow-Suransky, a former Bronx high school principal and currently the district’s chief accountability officer, to be the chief academic officer. The job’s responsibilities are to include managing all the educational initiatives of the district.

“My suspicion is, they’re prepared to make it work,” said Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, referring to the key figures in the New York arrangement. As Mayor Bloomberg, who has served since 2002, looks to the end of his tenure in three years, he has an incentive to protect his legacy in education, Mr. Henig suggested.

But if disagreements were to develop between the chancellor and the CAO, what would happen? “The answer is, we don’t know,” Mr. Henig said. “But the mayor’s made it clear that [Ms. Black] is in charge.”

Pedro Noguera, an education policy professor at New York University, said that Ms. Black’s lack of education experience is not necessarily a disqualifying factor. What’s still a concern for many New Yorkers, he said, is how little they know about her.

Ms. Black, who will take office after Mr. Klein steps down at the end of this month, was maintaining a low profile as of last week. She has made visits to the district’s central offices and to schools, but those visits have been closed to the public to encourage frank discussion, district officials say.

“I don’t see that it is a problem that she’s going to have a team, and that Shael Suransky is going to be a major part of that team,” Mr. Noguera said. “I think it’s troubling that the mayor has not let her have a press conference, or let her field questions.”

There is recent precedent in the district for the job that Mr. Polakow-Suransky will have.

Soon after assuming the chancellorship in 2002, Mr. Klein announced that he was picking a former superintendent, Diana Lam, to serve as a deputy chancellor overseeing teaching and learning to compensate for his own lack of education credentials. Mr. Klein had also required a state waiver for his appointment.

Within two years, Ms. Lam resigned amid accusations that she had helped her husband get a job in the school system. Having a chief academic officer was not a condition of Mr. Klein’s tenure, and after Ms. Lam’s departure, her position was de-emphasized, with several deputies overseeing instructional issues over the years.

‘Exceptional Record’

Because Ms. Black, the chairman of Hearst Magazines and a former publisher of USA Today, has no educational administration or teaching experience, Mayor Bloomberg had to request the waiver from state Commissioner of Education David M. Steiner to hand her the reins of the 1.1 million-student system, the nation’s largest school district.

In late November, an eight-member advisory panel Mr. Steiner had convened on Ms. Black’s qualifications offered a split decision on Mr. Bloomberg’s selection. Four voted against granting a waiver, two voted yes, and two voted “not at this time,” meaning they would reconsider their positions if the job of chief academic officer were created. (“Panel Fails to Back Mayor’s NYC Schools Chief Pick,” Dec. 1, 2010.)

After the panel’s position was publicized, Mr. Bloomberg amended his waiver request, sayingthat Ms. Black planned to elevate Mr. Polakow-Suransky to such a position.

Mr. Steiner said that with the move to appoint Mr. Polakow-Suransky, Ms. Black’s management experience and background were “substantially equivalent” to the certification requirements set forth in New York law.

Her “exceptional record of successfully leading complex organizations and achievement of excellence in her endeavors” qualified her for the role, where she would have the support of a team of experienced educators, Mr. Steiner wrote in his Nov. 29 letter granting the waiver.

Colorado Example

The creation of a chief academic officer position can be an asset to a district’s top executive, some education experts say. John L. Barry, a retired U.S. Air Force two-star general, created a CAO position when he was hired to become the superintendent of the 39,000-student Aurora, Colo., district in 2006.

Mr. Barry is a graduate of the Broad Superintendents Academy in Los Angeles, an intensive 10-month training program that prepares educators and executives to enter high-level district administrative positions.

Of the 88 graduates of the program currently working as school district executives, 17 come from strictly noneducation professional backgrounds, such as the military or private industry.

Mr. Polakow-Suransky, who has spent his career in education, is a 2008 graduate of the program.

Mr. Barry hired William M. Stuart as his district’s chief academic officer, to work directly with principals on matters such as curriculum development. Mr. Barry also noted that one of his first hires was a deputy superintendent, Tony Van Gytenbeek, to oversee issues cutting across management areas, such as curriculum and finance.

The superintendent stressed that a strong management team has been essential to Aurora’s success. Mr. Barry was recently named the 2011 Colorado Superintendent of the Year by the state’s association of school executives.

Delegation Key

Mr. Stuart, the Aurora CAO, said that he heard some questions about how a military officer would be able to adjust to public education. But, he said, “in the military and in his career, [Mr. Barry] was a teacher”—just in a different context. “Teaching and learning came naturally to him,” Mr. Stuart said, “and it made the transition really smooth.”

Thomas M. Brady, another Broad Academy graduate and the current superintendent of the 24,000-student Providence, R.I., district, also has a chief academic officer, who was in place when he arrived in 2008.

Mr. Brady’s primary experience was in the U.S. Army, from which he retired as a colonel. But he also had stints as an administrator in the Fairfax County, Va., District of Columbia, and Philadelphia districts before arriving in Providence.

Even a top educator in the superintendent’s role may find his or her attention diverted by the other needs of a district, Mr. Brady said. So, both nontraditional superintendents and superintendents who come from education backgrounds need someone who can devote full attention to academic matters, he argued.

“Having a great CAO is important,” Mr. Brady said. “A superintendent needs an academic driver.”

But Mr. Brady emphasized that a superintendent can’t delegate outreach. It takes training to learn how to communicate well with parents, teachers, and school administrators, he said.

“You can’t walk in out of the blue and be able to do something like that. Something like a year’s intensive preparation gives a military leader or a business leader enough information to understand what they don’t know,” he said.


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