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Administrative History

Dr. Thomas E. Sobol was born on January 11, 1932, and grew up in Boston, Massachusetts. He attended Boston Latin public school, and graduated from Harvard College with an English degree in 1953. He went on to earn a Master of Arts from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 1954, and then a PhD in Education from the Teachers College at Columbia University in 1969. He gained further experience as an educator during this time by teaching English and acting as a school administrator in both Massachusetts and New York. After receiving his doctorate, he was appointed assistant superintendent of Great Neck, NY schools, serving for two years. Then, in 1971, he was selected as superintendent of schools in Scarsdale, NY, and held this position for 16 years.

On March 24, 1987, he was chosen by the Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York to replace Gordon M. Ambach as New York State Commissioner of Education. Selected amidst concerns amongst some Regents and lawmakers who were seeking either a minority candidate or one who had more experience in lower-income communities, Sobol reached out to them by adopting many of their concerns as his own. He quickly became an advocate for increasing state aid to both poor urban schools and traditionally neglected rural areas, for adding more material about the history of minorities in America to social studies curriculums, and for improvements in bilingual education.

One of his major accomplishments was "A New Compact for Learning," a policy statement designed to shift responsibility and power from centralized educational bureaucracies to parents and teachers at the local level. The Compact was adopted by the Board of Regents in 1991 as part of their efforts toward systematic education reform and improved academic standards, though they removed Sobol's original plan to include a vouchers system. Both the Commissioner and the Regents hoped to promote greater educational performance from students through rigorous standards and assessments, while at the same time allowing greater local control over how these improvements were to be attained. In this, they saw the New Compact as part of a nationwide trend towards academic decentralization at the state level.

Following up on the recommendations of "A New Compact for Learning," in 1992 Sobol undertook a major reorganization of the New York State Education Department. In response to staff reductions, and what he saw as the need for greater cooperation, efficiency, and customer focus, Sobol abolished the department's bureaus and divisions, and restructured staff into interdisciplinary teams responsible for policy, central services, and regional services. In addition, the functions of higher education services and regulation of professions were merged into the Office of Higher and Professional Education.

Sobol served as Commissioner of Education and President of the University of the State of New York until his resignation on June 30, 1995. He cited irrevocable differences with new Governor George Pataki's philosophy of government as the reason for his stepping down. Their relationship had been strained through Pataki's attacks on the Board of Regents and the State Education Department, and his promise to trim what he viewed as the Department's excessive bureaucracy and elitism. Sobol did not entirely disagree with the goal of reducing bureaucracy, but felt that the Governor went too far in his pursuit of it, and was advocating policies that would deprive schools of needed funding. Upon his resignation, Sobol accepted an endowed position of Christian A. Johnson Professor of Outstanding Educational Practice at Teachers College, Columbia University, which he held until 2006.