Setting the Bar

James S. Liebman

Higher Standards

In a matter of three short years, Professor James Liebman went from concerned parent to one of the nation's foremost educational reformers

By Amy Miller

Winter 2010

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Like others who came of age in the 1960s, Columbia Law School Professor
James S. Liebman always thought he would “make a revolution.” He just never expected to do it as head of accountability for New York City’s public school system. Nevertheless, the reforms Liebman put in place at the country’s largest school district are changing the way people think about education. “Helping the city shake up the bureaucracy and motivate and empower educators to accelerate the learning of all kids is as close as I’ll come to that revolution,” he says.

Liebman has returned to the Law School after three years as the school district’s chief accountability officer. Thanks to his leadership, New York’s school teachers have more information than ever about how much their students are, or aren’t, learning. He helped develop an $80 million data system to track student performance in minute detail and worked to create teams of teachers in every school who are experts in using the data to diagnose and treat student needs. Liebman is also the man behind the city’s A-through-F report cards for its schools. The tools he put in place have become models for educators nationwide. “There are precious few systems like this anywhere in the world,” he says.

Liebman faced plenty of criticism from educators and parents along the way. But the results of his ambitious initiatives speak for themselves: Standardized test scores are up, and city teachers now have the tools to figure out which students are struggling, and why. Michael Rebell, director of the Campaign for Educational Equity at Columbia’s Teachers College, was pleasantly surprised with what Liebman
was able to accomplish. While Rebell says he is skeptical about accountability systems based on a single number or grade, he nonetheless deems Liebman’s achievements “remarkable.”    

“I know the ins and outs of what goes on at the board of education, and grand ideas just get ground up,” says Rebell. “Jim took a lot of heat and a lot of criticism. But he didn’t get ground up. He came up with a very profound scheme, and he got it implemented. It doesn’t always happen like that.”

But then again, Liebman isn’t your run-of-the-mill policymaker. He has spent most of his career writing and teaching about inequality in school and criminal court systems. In the 1980s, he represented the plaintiffs in a school desegregation case in Kansas City. Joel Klein, the future chancellor of New York City Public Schools, represented the state of Missouri in the case.

In 2002, Liebman and Klein met again, via email, after Klein became chancellor. Liebman’s children were attending public school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and the concerned father emailed Klein suggestions for saving a dual-language program. When they met in person, Klein asked Liebman to work for the school district. “Of course, I promptly turned him down,” Liebman recalls.

After talking with others in the department about his ideas for change, Liebman says he reconsidered. When he completed a six-year project documenting errors in capital convictions and sentences, he accepted Klein’s offer and took a leave of absence from the Law School beginning in January 2006.

Three years and an array of reforms later, Liebman has returned to teaching law full time. (While with the school district, he taught one or two courses each year.) But he continues to ponder new ways to improve the country’s public schools, and his ongoing thoughts about how best to spur change are not limited to the education realm. Liebman is convinced that lawyers can be invaluable in efforts aimed at reforming institutions. He hopes to train law students to work with professionals in other fields to bring change to a range of public entities. “Lawyers,” he says, “have a lot to offer when it comes to institutional reform.”

Amy Miller is a staff reporter at Corporate Counsel and The American Lawyer magazines.

Illustration by George Shewchuk

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