Chancellor Carmen Fariña has a playbook, and she’s sticking to it.
She explains it all in “A School Leader’s Guide to Excellence: Collaborating our Way to Better Schools,” a 2008 book she co-wrote with Laura Kotch, her longtime partner in education leadership, after leaving her job as a deputy chancellor. With its copies of staff appreciation memos and thank you letters she sent to teachers over the years, the book shows how strongly Fariña believes problems can be solved by making teachers and principals feel supported.
The book is more of a guide for an individual principal than a blueprint for running a huge system of diverse schools. But Fariña seems ready to apply many of its principles, and the book’s table of contents reads like a list of the new chancellor’s recent plans and promises:
Some other points of interest:
FIXING A STRUGGLING SCHOOL: Fariña and Kotch write that soon after being appointed superintendent and deputy superintendent, they visited an elementary school with many English language learners that had landed on the state’s list of schools needing improvement. The principal told them she was struggling to deal with complacency among her teachers, but that one teacher in the school really stood out.
“We happily discovered that the fourth grade classroom she [the principal] brought us to aligned with our goals,” Fariña and Kotch write. “We celebrated the interactive learning environment with the students, complimented the teacher, and encouraged the principal to build on the strengths of this classroom by creating a corps of similarly minded teacher leaders who could study together, visit other schools, and begin to establish a collaborative school culture … We told her honestly that the reorganization ahead would not be easy nor accomplished quickly, but that we believed it could be achieved over time.”
They write that the school was off of the state’s list three years later, though they don’t give more specifics about its improvement.
IT’S NOT ABOUT TEST SCORES: Consistent with Fariña’s statements that she wants to lower the stakes of standardized tests where possible, she and Kotch advise principals to “be willing to take a public stand on unpopular issues,” including the emphasis on short-term, data-driven goals.
“Principled leaders look beyond narrow demands such as raising test scores and focus their priorities on more global initiatives such as graduating students who are inventive, analytical, literate, compassionate, artistic, and creative human beings,” they write.
Later, they’re even harsher about judging schools based on standardized test scores, urging schools to come up with “internal mechanisms to evaluate their own progress.”
LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE: Fariña and Kotch bookend their guide with calls to look beyond a school’s obvious problems. “Recognizing and affirming what is working well, even small beginning steps, is often a better vehicle for improvement than mandates, sanctions, or labels ranking one school against another,” they write.
That’s a straightforward rebuke of the accountability strategies being implemented by then-Chancellor Joel Klein when Fariña left the system. Finding the positive aspects of a struggling school is also something Fariña did recently with P.S. 106.
ATTENTION TO STAFF MORALE: A back-to-school letter from Fariña to principals when she was deputy chancellor reminds them to do walk-throughs of their schools before the teachers arrive to make sure the building is clean and that every teacher has a trash can. “Making sure each classroom has a wastebasket seems like a minor detail, but think about a teacher trying to set up a room without one,” she wrote.
In another note to principals before the holiday break, she urged them to “seek out one totally self-indulgent activity,” joking for them to “keep it legal and not deleterious to your health” and then to bring the energy back to their families and schools. Other suggestions include giving teachers throat lozenges and thank you notes after parent-teacher conferences and creating a committee to oversee school celebrations.
BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS: It’s no secret that Fariña sees a big part of her job as repairing the perception of the Department of Education among teachers and parents. They learned big lessons about communicating her vision and asking for feedback as a principal and superintendent, she writes: “Communicating a list of mandates without getting to know the individuals who are expected to follow the mandates guarantees failure.”
CHANGE TAKES TIME: In describing changes at her schools, Fariña notes that many took years to fully take root. As Congress “prescribes radical changes it believes will instantly lead to improved test scores,” educators know that “swinging the pendulum from one extreme to another” is pointless, Fariña and Kotch write.
NEW FORMS OF PARENT ENGAGEMENT: Fariña and Kotch write that their parents were intimidated by their schools, only appearing for brief parent-teacher conferences even though they took great interest in their children’s education. When Fariña arrived at P.S. 6 on the Upper East Side, she found a few parent leaders making big-picture decisions like hiring and firing staff but doing little for the group of children referred to as “the janitors’ class.”
Both experiences influenced Fariña’s views on how schools should interact with parents, including those who can’t be present at their child’s school and those who might be too present. At P.S. 6, those dynamics changed over a period of 10 years, she writes. At the district level, additional translators and parent coordinators helped reach more parents, but calls for the city to communicate better with parents who don’t speak English have only intensified in recent years.
A MOMENTOUS FIRST MEETING: Fariña has long promoted balanced literacy, the approach to reading and writing pioneered by Lucy Calkins that lets students choose their own books from classroom libraries and limits teacher-led instruction. Calkins calls Fariña and Kotch “the best of the best” in her introduction to their book, in which they recount being awestruck at their first meeting.
“All the books and articles we had read could never teach the way being in the presence of an expert and passionate teacher could,” they write of watching Calkins. Fariña advocated for balanced literacy across her Brooklyn districts and then citywide under Klein, although the model fell out of favor by the end of Klein’s tenure.
WHAT’S MISSING: Many of Fariña’s specific ideas, like morning read-alouds with parents or grandparents day activities, are geared toward schools with younger students, while high school gets less emphasis. Her emphasis on literacy—including a detailed breakdown of her book-of-the-month initiative—also means few specific mentions of math or science instruction.
MORE MANTRAS: At Fariña’s appointment press conference, she said she would be focusing on communication, capacity building, curriculum enhancement, celebration and efficiency—or “five Cs and an E.” It’s a strategy she’s used for years to make her goals memorable. Some past mantras: “equity, energy, expectations, entourage/ensemble” and “courage, curriculum, content, capacity, celebration.”
EARLY PRAISE OF BILL DE BLASIO?: “Many of the best politicians get their start in local PTAs and on school boards, mentored by principals who think aloud as they model consensus-building strategies and collaborative decision making,” Fariña and Kotch write. (De Blasio got his political start on District 15’s school board, serving with Fariña.)