Fariña's past offers possible clues about future of Common Core rollout

When Carmen Fariña became deputy chancellor a decade ago, educators were reeling from a recent Education Department policy that required most schools to adopt standard literacy and math programs.

Some critics considered the new approach to reading and writing, called “balanced literacy,” to be too unstructured. Some called the math program, which favored concepts over formulas, “fuzzy math.”

“I’m going out there to explain to people what is really meant by the new curriculum,” Fariña told reporters in 2004, after she was tapped as deputy chancellor for teaching and learning. “What happened is that in the translation and somehow in the need to do things quickly, I think we may not have always explained what we meant by it.”

Fariña faces a strikingly similar challenge today as she takes charge of a school system that is scrambling to adjust to new curricula, standardized tests, and instructional approaches ushered in by the tougher Common Core standards, which New York adopted in 2010. Educators have criticized the city for providing too little training and curriculum support during the standards’ implementation, arguing that the rush created confusion in the field.

Several people who worked in the school system when Fariña was deputy chancellor said her deep instructional knowledge helped many schools successfully adopt the different teaching programs. But others said many educators felt “micromanaged” both before and during her tenure.

Now, Fariña will likely draw on this earlier experience as she tries to smooth the rocky transition to the Common Core as schools chancellor.

“It’s an impossible job for anybody,” said Medea McEvoy, who was a teacher at P.S. 6 when Fariña was its principal. “But if anybody can make a dent in it, it’s Carmen.”

A hands-on superintendent

When then-Chancellor Joel Klein announced in 2003 that all but the highest-performing schools would use the new teaching approaches and materials, Fariña was a regional superintendent in Brooklyn.

She already had extensive experience with balanced literacy, a workshop approach pioneered by the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, which trades classroom libraries for textbooks, lets students choose books tied to their reading levels, and keeps teacher lectures to a minimum. Fariña had used the approach as a teacher and principal, and she counted its architect, Lucy Calkins, as a mentor.

In her region, Fariña encouraged administrators and reading coaches to visit other schools and teachers to visit other classrooms to see the literacy program in action, according to principals who worked in the region at that time. She also pushed teachers to plan and problem solve together, sometimes during working lunches or after-school sessions.

She also installed trusted colleagues in schools that needed help transitioning to the new programs, according to Laura Scott, the principal of P.S. 10. Fariña made Scott the school’s assistant principal when she took over the region.

“Carmen felt that she needed to strategically place people in schools that would help them embrace balanced literacy,” Scott said, adding that P.S. 10 had not used that approach before she came on.

She and another Fariña-placed assistant principal took P.S. 10 staffers to observe 11 different schools that year that were experienced with balanced literacy, and also taught model lessons, Scott said. Several staff members left the school after that year, she said.

Carmen Fariña at the Bronx’s M.S. 223, which she visited on her first school day as chancellor. There she said she supported the Common Core standards, but that teachers need more support. (Patrick Wall)

Some schools flourished under Fariña’s guidance as superintendent.

“She is by the far the smartest, best instructional leader I’ve ever had the privilege to work with,” said Ailene Altman Mitchell, principal of M.S. 88 in Brooklyn’s District 15, where reading scores rose under Fariña.

But Fariña was also exacting about the way schools should carry out the literacy program that she knew so well, according to a principal in Fariña’s former region who asked to remain anonymous to avoid straining ties with the new chancellor.

“She was a purist for balanced literacy in the Lucy Calkins model,” the principal said, adding that district staff would observe lessons and suggest changes. “It did become micromanaged.”

Deputy chancellor during a major transition

In early 2004, midway through the first year of the instructional overhaul, Fariña was appointed deputy chancellor.

As teachers tried to carry out the balanced literacy approach, some complained about rigid dictates specifying the exact length of each lesson part, the arrangement of furniture, and the look of bulletin boards. In 2005, some 400 teachers rallied outside a superintendent’s office chanting, “Let teachers teach!”

“When they micromanaged things, it’s kind of a slap in the face to us as professionals,” said Richard Skibins, a 25-year veteran teacher.

Lisa North, a teacher at P.S. 3 who was a literacy coach at the time, said many of the problems had started before Fariña became deputy chancellor and that some of the dictates stemmed from administrators’ misunderstandings. She added that the city had tried to roll out the new program too quickly, before teachers were fully trained and classroom libraries fully stocked.

“Which is a little bit what I feel like is going on with the Common Core,” she added.

In 2006, Fariña retired. She cited personal reasons at the time, but has since said she disagreed with the administration over cuts to teacher professional development.

“While we didn’t always agree with her, particularly on the micromanaging of classroom instruction, she always acted professionally and wanted New York City’s public school children to have the very best education possible,” Randi Weingarten, then president of the city teachers union, said at the time.

Meanwhile, Klein began to worry that balanced literacy did not systematically teach students the background knowledge required to read complex texts. He grew so worried about this “knowledge deficit” that he launched a pilot program in 2008 to test a literacy curriculum, called Core Knowledge, which is devoted to teaching students that background information.

Both Calkins and Fariña have criticized Klein’s pilot study, which found greater reading gains at the Core Knowledge schools than ones using balanced literacy and other programs, saying it was flawed and too limited. The city’s new recommendation list of of Common Core-connected curriculum options includes Core Knowledge, but not Calkins’ balanced literacy materials.

Steering another shift, now as chancellor

Today, Fariña returns to a school system undergoing an upheaval around curriculum and instruction. This time, she must also contend with growing public resistance to the changes — spurred especially by the Common Core-aligned state tests — and a teaching force that simultaneously faces a new evaluation system.

Fariña has said she supports the standards, but that teachers need much more and clearer guidance to implement them. Last week, in her first school day on the job, she made remarks that echoed those she made a decade earlier about a different reform effort.

“The Common Core I think has been misunderstood by a lot of people,” she said. “And sometimes, I think it just wasn’t explained correctly.”