Marc Sternberg, the Department of Education official who has spearheaded controversial school closures and co-locations since 2010, is leaving the city to oversee education philanthropy at the Walton Family Foundation.
Starting next month, senior deputy chancellor Sternberg will be Walton’s executive director of K-12 strategy. Walton’s education agenda focuses on promoting choice and competition, and includes creating charter schools, promoting school choice, and improving teacher quality. The foundation spent more than $158 million on education initiatives last year, and this year has made sizable gifts to Teach for America and Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst nonprofit.
Sternberg’s departure comes as his division of the Department of Education has set in motion a bevy of plans to take effect after Mayor Bloomberg leaves office.
The department has asked the Panel for Educational Policy to sign off on dozens of new schools and space-sharing arrangements to begin in 2014 or beyond. But those plans could be in jeopardy regardless of the panel’s vote this year, as Bill de Blasio, the Democratic candidate for mayor, has said he would cancel any space planning that the department does between now and the end of the year that he deems negative for schools.
Sternberg’s level of involvement in those changes — which map closely to Walton’s priorities — over his final few weeks at the department remains unclear. A department spokeswoman said Sternberg had consulted with the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board to ensure that his ties with Walton would not compromise planning that takes place now.
“Marc sought advice from the COIB and conformed his conduct to that advice so there is no conflict,” said spokeswoman Erin Hughes. She said Sternberg would not be part of discussions before the Panel for Educational Policy when the appointed body votes on the proposals next month.
More broadly, Sternberg’s portfolio at the department is directly in de Blasio’s line of fire. Sternberg oversaw opening and closing schools and was instrumental in identifying space for charter schools to expand in public school buildings. (After a state Supreme Court judge gave a light to a set of school closures in 2011, he invited colleagues at the department to celebrate at a happy hour.) In addition to pushing back against the city’s immediate space plans, de Blasio has said he would charge rent to charter schools if elected, which could make it difficult for many of them to continue operating inside city-owned buildings.
The city’s top two other deputy chancellors oversee initiatives that are more likely to continue under a new mayor. Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky supervises academics and school accountability, while David Weiner oversees teacher evaluations and labor negotiations.
Sternberg was promoted to senior deputy chancellor for strategy and policy just this April after serving as deputy chancellor for portfolio planning since 2010. He became a teacher through Teach For America, and before joining the department he started and was principal of the Bronx Lab School and spent a year working under U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
Sternberg becomes the first deputy chancellor at the Department of Education to leave with the Bloomberg administration’s term nearing its close. Other top officials moved on earlier in Bloomberg’s third term, particularly during the rocky period after Joel Klein resigned as chancellor and was replaced briefly by media executive Cathie Black.
Sternberg’s last day at the department is Oct. 4, and he’ll start at Walton’s Washington, D.C. office on Oct. 28. Saskia Levy Thompson, who is currently a senior advisor to Chancellor Dennis Walcott, will take over for him at the Department of Education. Before joining the department’s central administration, Levy Thompson was an author of a 2010 research study that found benefits to the city’s small high schools. She began her career as a kindergarten teacher at P.S. 110 in Manhattan.
“Our loss is the Walton Family Foundation’s gain and I am excited that Marc will continue his work around providing high quality school options for families across the country,” Walcott said in a statement.
This story has been corrected to reflect Saskia Levy Thompson’s current position at the Department of Education.
ALBANY — When Principal Alonta Wrighton wanted to open up P.S. 11 a week earlier than normal to prepare teachers for a year of big changes, red tape blocked her.
First, Wrighton said, she needed a permit and $2,200 to pay to keep the school open longer than normal.
And then she still couldn’t require her staff to show up, since the week before Labor Day was not among the training days listed in the city’s contract with the teachers union.
Both issues inhibited city schools’ ability to implement the Common Core standards, Wrighton said during a panel discussion of educators at Monday’s Board of Regents meeting in Albany.
“[Professional development] should be looked at as a given,” Wrighton said. “I should not have to use my budget to open up my building early and train my teachers.”
Wrighton’s concerns were among many raised by the five educators invited from around the state to speak about the challenges that continue to face schools in the second year of the standards’ rollout. Her request for more required training time reflected a contract issue between the city and the United Federation of Teachers, but it also illustrated the depth of support that educators say is needed to successfully transition to the Common Core.
State Education Commissioner John King said time for teacher training would be a crucial issue for the next New York City mayor to tackle when he sits down with the teachers union next year.
“I think one challenge, when contract negotiations happen for the New York City UFT contract, will be to look at the question of professional development and how much time is set aside, how are costs covered, and those kinds of questions,” King said.
Monday was the first meeting for Board of Regents, which sets policy for the State Education Department, since the school year began. It also came a day before the Regents policies are set to come under scrutiny at the first of four hearings that State Sen. John Flanagan has called to take a critical look at how teacher evaluations and Common Core have rolled out since last year.
The panel discussion at the Board of Regents meeting wasn’t as contentious as the hearings are expected to be, but several educators did echo criticism that’s been lodged since last year.
“We’ve got to find a way to slow down where we can slow down,” said Mike Ford, superintendent of Phelps-Clifton Springs Central School District, a rural school district with many low-income students.
Ford said his teachers were “flying blindly” in preparing for the state tests and he urged state officials to release test items as a way to help guide what to teach. Officials have declined the request in recent years, though they released a small selection of items from this year’s tests, the first to be tied to the Common Core, over the summer.
While several of the panelists said they used the state’s Common Core curriculum web site, EngageNY.org, to source curriculum materials, they also said the site still did not have enough resources for all grades and subjects.
Angelique Johnson, who runs one of the state’s 125 teacher centers, which offer professional development services to teachers, said that her budget is a fourth of what it was just a few years ago. She said that teacher centers could be an important way to provide training to teachers on Common Core, but said that budget cuts were a restriction.
Former Francis Lewis High School Principal Musa Ali Shama said he is concerned that high schools would see the same dramatic declines that elementary and middle schools experienced this year once the Regents exams are aligned to the new standards.
The annual standards provide a framework to guide how to develop curriculum modules and lessons that build on each other over time, beginning in the earliest grades. Shama argued that since this year’s ninth-graders, who will take a new Common Core-aligned math test this year, did not benefit from years of the standards, they will unfairly receive low grades.
“You would hate to hear that only 30 percent of your students are prepared for college,” said Shama, who is now overseeing principal evaluations for the city Department of Education.
Wrighton suggested that her school’s math test results this year bore out Shama’s argument. P.S. 11′s third graders, who entered kindergarten when P.S. 11 fully adopted the new math standards, significantly outperformed students in higher grades, bucking a statewide trend.
Wrighton credited her school’s math specialist, Rasheda Rand, and Rand’s content expertise — Rand was a math major in college — as a reason for her school’s strong math scores.
Wrighton said that hiring restrictions in the city limited principals’ ability to bring on the people they need to reach the new standards. Out of 50 candidates she interviewed over the summer, she said just four were ones that she’d consider hiring.
Principals need the opportunity to hire the “best, smartest and brightest minds,” Wrighton said, “not just warm bodies, not just certifications and diplomas.”
The Regents will turn their attention to teacher preparation today during their higher education meeting.