Thomas Sobol, New York Educator and Advocate, Dies at 83!

Tom Sobol

Dear Commons Community,

Tom Sobol, a leading educator in New York for decades, died yesterday at the age of 83. The cause of death was Parkinsons’ Disease.  Dr. Sobol was the superintendent of schools in Scarsdale,  NYS Commissioner of Education, and on the faculty of Columbia Teachers College.  The New York Times obituary commented as follows:

“Dr. Sobol, a former schools superintendent in Scarsdale, was the New York State education commissioner for eight years, appointed by Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, a Democrat, in 1987. During Dr. Sobol’s tenure, the percentage of high school graduates going to college increased, as did the number of students passing advanced placement exams.

Despite that success, Dr. Sobol resigned in frustration in 1995, accusing Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican, and lawmakers from both parties of making his department and the policy-making Board of Regents scapegoats for the grinding bureaucracy, violence, family dysfunction, poverty, poorly trained teachers, deficient buildings and inferior learning materials that had plagued public schools.

“We’re an inviting target — nobody loves a regulatory agency,” he said at the time. “So let’s dump on them. Then we don’t even have to talk about the realities. And meanwhile the realities go unaddressed.”

As commissioner, Dr. Sobol had pressed for what he called A New Compact for Learning, a broad manifesto aimed at transferring policy making from sluggish bureaucracies to educators and parents, and at creating grade-specific curriculum standards that local school districts could implement on their own.

“In leading one of the first efforts by any state to set K-12 learning standards, he established a rationale — ultimately applied nationwide — for holding the state accountable for adequately funding all schools,” Susan H. Fuhrman, president of Teachers College at Columbia University, said in an email.

“He cared so deeply about the rights of students to a sound education,” she continued, “that when, on his watch as commissioner, the state was sued by New York City for more school funding, he sided with the plaintiffs.”

Diane Ravitch, the education historian, wrote in an email: “Tom Sobol was the last state commissioner who understood that education means something more than test-taking and high scores.”

Dr. Sobol did a good deal for public education in New York State.  Since he left as Commissioner in 1995, the NYS Department of Education has been largely rudderless and “the realities” have continued to be unaddressed.