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Sobol v. Sobol

On the issue of educational equity, Tom Sobol is an unabashed friend of the people. On the the issue of Tom Sobol, he takes a tougher line.
On the issue of educational equity, Tom Sobol is an unabashed friend of the people. On the issue of Tom Sobol, he takes a tougher line

When Tom Sobol was superintendent of schools in Scarsdale, New York, there was a guy named Bob who came to all the budget meetings-'"the classic, thorn-in-your-side self-appointed public citizen who haunts town halls across the nation.

"Bob used to roundly excoriate us for violating the public trust, and I had to hand it to him, he did a great job at doing his thing-'"he knew the budget better than just about anyone except me," says Sobol.

It's a warm spring day, and Sobol, 75, who retired in 2006 as TC's first Christian A. Johnson Professor of Outstanding Educational Practice, is talking with an interviewer in his new office on the second floor of Grace Dodge Hall. (He still teaches one course per semester.) He is a kind-faced man whom time has given the craggy features of an eagle, with a thatch of white hair atop his head. His voice is soft, the result of medicine he takes for a spinal cord disorder that has left him without feeling in his legs, confined to a powered wheelchair; however, his eyes are clear and steady.

"Well, then Bob's wife died, and he stopped coming to meetings. And one year, we were going along, and I knew the annual budget hearings were coming up, and I thought, I wonder how Bob is doing. So I picked up the phone and called him. I said, -'How are you?,' and he said, -'Well, it's hard getting along without Jane.' I said, -'Are you up on your numbers?,' and of course, he was, he wouldn't have been anything else. I said, -'Are we going to see you out there at the meeting?,' and he said, -'No, I can't drive anymore.' And I said-'"and this was before my own legs gave out-'"-'Listen, the meeting is at eight, I'll come around beforehand and pick you up, and we'll go over together.' So I did, and we drove over, and the meeting went along, and around nine o'clock, he stood up and roundly excoriated us for violating the public trust. And afterward I drove him home. I've always felt good about that."

The story captures many familiar aspects of Sobol-'"the good Samaritan, whose many students and friends distributed "Noble Sobol" buttons for his retirement party; the adroit politician whose sense of community interaction (he wrote his doctoral thesis at TC on the subject) helped him become New York State's Commissioner of Education under Governor Mario Cuomo; the dry, self-deprecating wit who effortlessly mixes quotes from Robert Frost, E.M. Forster and May Sarton with amusing stories of being "parked" by his grandchildren so they can ride around on his motorized wheelchair. Perhaps the most singular, however, is the man so concerned about choosing the moral course of action-'"and so committed to public engagement as the best means of arriving at it-'"that he quite literally imports his own toughest critics.

"Becoming moral in my view is the opposite of restraint and detachment," Sobol told listeners in a speech about what he called "defining moments," given this past spring at TC's convocation exercises, where he was awarded the College's Medal for Distinguished Service. "It requires passionate engagement with other humans, stepping in, as [education expert Carol] Gilligan would say, to all of life's confusion and heartbreak and messiness, and losing one's self in something larger than one's self before the self can be defined."
There may be an element of self-flagellation in Sobol's intense self-scrutiny-'"he describes himself as "the lapsed Episcopalian son of a lapsed Catholic"-'"but the more powerful motivator seems to be a genuine desire to do the right thing.

"My dad, he who lifted freight for the railway express in South Boston, always told me to go out and do great things, metaphorically speaking-'"but my mother, who was sort of a Druid-'"a very intuitive lady, very in touch with the weather and people's moods-'"taught me to behave myself and stand up for what I know to be right." Sobol sighs. "I wish I had gotten a little more of my father in the mix. It probably would have gone more easily in certain situations down the line."

The result is that, whether presiding over a public hearing or leading a classroom debate, Sobol has made a point of actively seeking out the kinds of conversations and debates that most politicians-'"and most people in general-'"only say they want to have.

In a course he still teaches on ethics and education law, for example, Sobol uses a book called Defining Moments: When Managers Must Choose Between Right and Right, by Joseph Badaracco, which poses complex moral situations for students. A black corporate executive asked to serve on a project he's previously had nothing to do with, solely to convince clients that the company is racially inclusive; a boss in a 60-hour-a-week corporate environment trying to balance the needs of an employee who's a single mom against the resentment of others who feel she isn't pulling her weight. What would the students do if they had to wrestle with those choices? How to ensure that the way one acts on the job is connected to the person one believes one's self to be the rest of the time?

Certainly he's wrestled repeatedly with those questions himself over the years. As Education Commissioner, he appointed a panel of minority politicians and scholars to report on the condition of educational opportunity for New York State's disadvantaged students and students of color. The document the panel produced was so scathing that one of Sobol's aides urged him to suppress it-'"not to save face personally but because he feared the resulting uproar would prevent his boss from carrying through a planned slate of reforms designed to help minorities. After much agonizing, Sobol released the report anyway, urged on by a black aide who told him, "We may never get the chance to do this again." The first aide's fears proved correct. Still, Sobol, says, "I felt clean. And friends told me that I had made future discussions easier to have. I don't know. They may be right."


One has the sense that Sobol constantly conducts these internal dialogues-'"like Bob, forever parsing the record to make sure he has not violated the public trust. This is so-'"perhaps even especially so-'"in instances where others already have lionized his conduct. Consider, for example, his role in the emotionally charged arena of school finance litigation-'"the wave of lawsuits that, during the past 30 years, have sought more money for poorer schools.

In the lore of these cases, Sobol is known for two shining moments. The first came in 1991 with the publication of a document called A New Compact for Learning, of which Sobol, as Commissioner, had led authorship. One of the first efforts by a state to set precise learning standards at the elementary, middle and secondary school levels, A New Compact also quietly put in place a legal rationale for holding New York financially accountable for the academic performance of its students. After all, it could now be argued, kids can't be expected to perform at a level their schools can't support. (Or-'"as Sobol delights in recounting-'"as Sy Fleigel, then a district superintendent in Queens and later the author of Miracle in East Harlem would tell an arrogant state education official, "We've upped our standards-'"now up yours.")

The second came three years later, when a plaintiff organization called the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) employed precisely this rationale in suing the state (and, by extension, its education commissioner) for billions of dollars in additional funding for New York City's public schools. In a Spartacus-like gesture, Sobol asked to switch sides in the case. He was denied, but the symbolic value of his request was lost on no one.

Sobol is proud of these deeds-'"proud enough to have included the story of his defection in the CFE case in his convocation remarks in May. In a similar vein, he loves to tell the story of the day he testified in court on behalf of CFE and encountered a group of junior high school students who were there to watch the proceedings. In a masterly display of media savvy, he told them he was feeling nervous and asked if they would mind smiling at him and giving him the thumbs up whenever they felt he was doing well. Not surprisingly, the good reviews were forthcoming throughout the day.

And yet Sobol won't let the burnished version of his role in CFE stand without a harder look at his own motivations and history.

"Earlier in my career, I was called upon to defend the way in which schools were financed in New York State," he says, holding his listener's gaze, as though to emphasize the full gravity of the story he is telling-'"and of his own part in it. "And I testified as the representative of privilege. And not just testify-'"I did more than that."

It was back in the early 1980s, during Sobol's Scarsdale years. At that time, a group of parents in Levittown, on Long Island, also were suing the state on behalf of their schools. However, unlike the CFE plaintiffs, who later would argue that all schools should receive a minimum level of funding necessary to deliver a quality education, the Levittowners were demanding that schools receive fair and equal funding. Put another way-'"since school funding is more or less determined by local property taxes-'"they were calling for the unthinkable in America: a redistribution of wealth.

Remarkably, their arguments found favor with the lower courts, the case reached the Court of Appeals (in New York, the highest court) and victory seemed in the offing-'"until Sobol picked up the phone and began calling his fellow superintendents in some of the wealthier districts around the state.

"We put together a coalition of about 50 districts, and we got them to put up about $5,000 each, and then we went into Manhattan and hired a high-powered, well-supported staff of lawyers who could argue the case for what another person would call the privileged people. The argument was that there was enough money in the state, things were growing, the economy was in relatively good shape, and the predictions were it would continue. So when it came time for me to testify, I had worked out a position in my own head whereby all the emphasis of the state was to be devoted to improving the quality of education for those who were getting the low end of the stick. But we would not do it by taking apart the Scarsdales and the Great Necks of the world."

Very much in part because of Sobol's coalition, the appeals court, in 1982, shot down the Levittown plaintiffs' suit. "I still remember one of the justices holding up a copy of the state constitution and saying, -'Where? Show me where does it say "fair and equal?"' A decade would pass before the CFE suit was filed by a New York City councilman, Robert Jackson, and a young lawyer, Michael Rebell, and another 13 more years before, this time, the plaintiffs won. Ironically, they benefited from Sobol's earlier actions.

"Our argument in the Levittown case actually made it easier to craft a case of the sort that Michael Rebell later perfected, and for us to go out and find money that went to the poor kids to help their education, without taking apart the parent system to do so," Sobol says. In other words, any legal solution had to take into account what the traffic would bear, and in America, the traffic has never borne the redistribution of wealth. Still, Sobol will not let himself off the hook.

"I've spent a lot of ruminating time trying to rationalize much of the work that I did in Scarsdale and, in effect, to apologize to myself for doing it," he says slowly. "Because I was this poor kid-'"the son of Joe Sobolewsky-'"who got a job in a rich community and who was trying to ease his conscience in a way that would do justice to the poor without harming the rich, and who now was supporting that on a statewide level. Who the hell was I for representing Scarsdale, anyway? So that when I became Commissioner, I felt that I was back where I belonged to begin with-'"representing the kids of all of the people and not just those of privilege."
So supporting the Campaign for Fiscal Equity was a kind of atonement?

"Yes," Sobol says. "Because Scarsdale is not a needy place. And because I felt guilty about being in Scarsdale to begin with."


In fact, there is something deeply suburban about Sobol-'"something that feels as though it's of the world of John Cheever or Richard Ford. In part, it's the white hair and elegant diction. In part it's because-'"even though his reputation ultimately rests on having championed the cause of inner-city schoolchildren-'"he spent most of his administrative career in places like Scarsdale: Newton, a wealthy Boston suburb, for his practice-teaching fieldwork; Bedford, New York, which was the focus of his doctoral dissertation for TC and where he was briefly Director of Instruction; Great Neck, on Long Island, as an assistant superintendent.

"I've seen the haves, and they have it and have it aplenty," he says.

All of which was very much in keeping with the expected career path of a successful educator of the day.

"In the 1950s, when I was first teaching and then getting my first administrative job, it was not a mark of disgrace to be in the suburbs," Sobol muses. "It was as if, after staggering its way out of World War II and spending a half a decade looking around to see where it was in the 1950s, America decided to go to the suburbs. They weren't going to rebuild Borough Park in any hurry-'"they were going to build Levittown, and they were going to push out into the suburban community and create new suburban communities and school districts. And I was part of that. I had the GI bill, I had a wife and three kids, and a dog and two cars-'"it was a classic American family of the '50s and '60s.

"So when I was a practice teacher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the people making assignments told me with great satisfaction that I would be going to Newton, which was then and still is, I would guess, one of the better educational suburbs in the Boston area. They took that assignment as being a recognition that I was doing well at what I was doing, and the way to reward it was, -'Give him a placement in Newton.' Nobody said, -'Well, I think not. It ought to be in South Boston,' or -'I think it ought to be in Eastie' or some other educationally woebegone place. So I went to Newton, and then eventually to Scarsdale, and I certainly learned an awful lot while I was there."

Yet Sobol's course toward the suburbs had in a sense been set much earlier-'"at the age of 14, when he qualified to attend Boston Latin School, a public school that was a street car ride's distance but a world away from Roslindale, where he lived. Of the 203 students in Sobol's graduating class at Boston Latin, 77 would attend Harvard, including Sobol himself.

"In Roslindale, all the kids were Irish Catholic or Italian Catholic or whatever. They were tough street kids. But at Boston Latin, here were all these Jewish boys-'"because we were all boys, not girls in those days-'"and it was like opening up a whole new culture to me. Where learning meant something, where reading was to be done, where use of the mind was cultivated and applauded and supported. It was wonderful," says Sobol, whose wife, Harriet, is Jewish. "Without that experience, I could never have faced the people in Newton, where I did my practice teaching, and I certainly couldn't have gone to Scarsdale, which was heavily Jewish by the time I got there, and where everybody was smarter than everybody else and they could prove it just by telling you."

He had, in short, been equipped to join privileged America-'"and there seems to have come with that a feeling of noblesse oblige. He enrolled as a doctoral student at Teachers College in 1965 because "while I loved what I was doing as a teacher, I had come to recognize that if the conditions around me were going to change, and if I was going to have any impact on the changes, I'd have to occupy a position of -'leadership.' And for that, I needed-'"or thought I needed-'"a doctorate in order to prepare myself for that increased sort of responsibility."

His time at TC was "intellectual fun," he says, "but there were very few epiphanies. I don't think I really learned much of anything that was lasting, that I hadn't known before I came here."

As New York's Education Commissioner, Sobol says, the doings of the legislature, the press, the teachers union, the school boards and even many not-for-profit groups "were all realities to be dealt with constantly," whereas the work of TC and other education schools in the state "were scarcely a blip on the radar screen." He has since "modified that opinion as a result of being here," he says, citing individual work that he believes has made a difference in the world of practice. "Michael Rebell with the project on equity, for example, or Hank Levin's cost-benefit analyses, or Lucy Calkins, with the wonderful hands-on work she does with literacy." Meanwhile, his strongest criticisms are reserved for what he sees going on in the policy arena.

"I think that absent from current educational policies are fundamental interactions of purpose," he said, in remarks he delivered at a dinner for the medalist recipients held on the eve of Convocation. "When one is through parsing NCLB [the federal No Child Left Behind Act], with all its erroneous assumptions and failure to provide resources, all one is left with is an aching emptiness."

The state courtroom victories nationwide of school finance plaintiffs like CFE offer some hope, Sobol says, but by definition, they don't go far enough.

"Anyone who tells you that money is going to fix everything is wrong. There are just too many things you can't analyze from a cost-benefit analysis perspective. Like when a kid is feeling down, having a concerned adult put an arm around his shoulders-'"though, of course, you're not supposed to do that anymore."

Still, Sobol says, he "can't just leave it where the Hanusheks and Petersons do. [Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institution and Paul Peterson of Harvard are outspoken critics of school finance litigation.] Kids need clean, safe, sanitary spaces, they need textbooks and other resources, they need quality teachers, and where's all that going to come from?"

And as for educational standards-'"yes, having them is important; after all, in a very real sense, he helped write the book on that-'"but "standards should result from lots of schools and experts and communities developing and testing them, not the government saying what they should be."


So what's the solution to educational injustice in America?

For his own part, in his late 70s and with his spinal condition worsening, Sobol has formed a group of current and former big-city school superintendents who are trying to get their criticisms of NCLB and other federal education policies heard and acted upon.

"It's a voice that should be included," he says. "We don't pretend to know everything, but damn it all, we know something after having had those jobs and worked in them for substantial periods of time."

More generally, Sobol told his audience at the medalists' dinner, all of us must think hard about what we want for our children and grandchildren and "take those steps that are more likely to make it happen." We should look to students for answers, he said-'""particularly this one over here." He gestured at his granddaughter, Madeleine, who was sitting next to him. "She's smart, beautiful, very much 14 years old. What do I want for her?"

He ticked the items off on his fingers while the girl's face turned a flaming shade of pink. "To learn in an environment where she is safe and supported by the people around her and protected from the basic cruelty of the world.

"To have unique opportunities to develop her talents.

"To love as much as she can love, to be loved as much as she can be loved. To work as hard as she can work. To build bridges across generations."

When Sobol concluded at Convocation by reciting a Frost poem, "What Fifty Said":

I strain at lessons fit to start a suture
I go to school to youth, to learn the future

the audience rose to applaud him, and there was something especially poignant about the sight of all those people standing while he sat. Again, he seemed Cheeverian, like the title character in the story "The Swimmer"-'"Neddie Merrill, who makes his way home from the back yard of friends by swimming through the pools of everyone in between, his optimism dimming but not extinguished entirely as the day changes from morning to late afternoon and with it, magically, the season from summer to late fall. Perhaps, after all, Sobol is limited to the perspective of suburbia and privilege, just as surely as he is confined to a wheelchair. Yet he continues to wrestle manfully to make the barrier disappear, and you get the distinct feeling that, if they could see him now, the children who watched him testify in court all those years ago would still be smiling, giving him the thumbs up.

Published Thursday, Sep. 13, 2007