Four things New York City schools chancellor Richard Carranza says he’ll focus on this year

Richard Carranza spoke before an influential group of business and education leaders Friday morning to reiterate his vision for New York City schools in what has become a rite of passage for new mayors, new chancellors, and other top city officials.

His appearance before the Association for a Better New York was Carranza’s first since arriving as chancellor last April.

The group’s high-profile breakfasts are a frequent forum for city leaders to announce bold new initiatives, and in his first five months on the job, Carranza has captured plenty of headlines with pointed critiques of the school system he inherited. On the morning after a state primary that may have reshuffled the political deck in the city and state, he didn’t introduce any grand new plans, but kept to a muted stump speech as he introduced himself and his philosophy.

Carranza described the four pillars that he hopes will lift the system to greater heights. These priorities include supporting top-notch instruction, empowering parents, investing in the workforce, and making the school system more fair.

David Bloomfield, a Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center professor of education who was at the breakfast, called the chancellor’s priorities “generic and vague” and questioned whether the bolder changes Carranza embraced soon after his arrival in New York — such as shaking up the department’s leadership structure — will pan out as expected. But Richard Buery, a chief policy director for the KIPP charter network and former city deputy mayor, jumped to his feet in a standing ovation for Carranza at the end of his speech. (Carranza has taken a less antagonistic position towards the sector than his predecessor sometimes did.)

“Creating the political will for change is key, and I am confident that he can be the leader who brings the will to change,” Buery said.   

Demanding and supporting top-notch ‘instruction’

The first pillar of any school system, Carranza said, is focusing on what happens inside classrooms, calling teaching and learning “our bread and butter.” With so many schools under his watch, Carranza said one way to better instruction was to introduce better leadership.

Carranza has already overseen a shake-up at the district’s central office, where he reinstated a chief academic officer and added nine new executive superintendents. The new structure, he said, will “bridge the divide” between schools and Tweed, where the education department is headquartered.

The other key aspect of this pillar, he said, is setting high expectations for students — for example, by providing anti-bias training to their teachers. Since arriving, Carranza has accelerated the timeline for teachers receiving this training and made it mandatory.

Empowerment — not engagement

Carranza’s second pillar has to do community “empowerment” — a concept he prefers to mere “engagement,” which he called “a very low bar” for schools and families to clear.

The education department, Carranza said, should be dedicated to arming families with the kind of information that only some parents have access to now. He wants all families to be equipped with the resources necessary to navigate a vast school system, especially one that relies heavily on parent and student choices.

“Privilege isn’t a bad thing — as long as we share it,” he said.

This summer, for example, the city hosted its first specialized high-school fair entirely in Spanish, as debate raged over how to integrate the city’s sought-after schools.Families packed the auditorium of Bronx Science to learn all about the admissions process, entrance exam, and key deadlines.

‘Develop our people’

Carranza’s third pillar, he said, is investing in the district’s  “most important asset”: its workforce.

“If we expect our students to achieve excellence,” he said, “then we must support our teachers and leaders, and all our staff members to that end.”

Carranza’s predecessor, Carmen Fariña, also cared deeply about training teachers and thought it was central to boosting student achievement. But professional development is notoriously difficult to get right, and under Fariña’s leadership, some principals and teachers complained that the support they received was far removed from what was really needed.

Mark Cannizzaro, the head of the principals and administrators union, said school leaders are hopeful the new executive superintendents will draw clearer lines of responsibility. Cannizzaro says his members are waiting to see how the changes play out.

“The real hard work is getting not only the message down to the ground, but filtering back up so the implementation is there,” he said.  

Advance equity

Carranza said these three pillars can’t stand without a fourth: creating a school system that is fair to all students.

“We cannot have excellence, we cannot improve outcomes without tackling the inequities that exist in our system,” he said.

His approach, he says, will be two-pronged: not just investing in schools but also integrating them.

Echoing his boss, de Blasio, Carranza has called for more “resources, time, attention, and direction” for underserved schools and their students. That might mean making sure that all high schools offer advanced placement courses, as the city’s AP for All program does.

But, for Carranza, creating a more equitable school system also means explicitly pursuing integration. In the country’s most segregated school system, this is a massive undertaking full of political perils, and de Blasio has appeared less eager to embrace this goal.

Since arriving in April, Carranza has taken a much more blunt approach to naming the problem and promised to spend the next year looking at admissions policies from pre-K through high school that may disadvantage certain students. Hinting at the furor that’s erupted over admission to the city’s specialized high schools, Carranza was adamant that integration “is good for every child.”

While Carranza has been eager to raise critical questions about the way the school system works, he has also said that will take time and lots of feedback to implement large-scale changes. But now that many in the city have heard his vision, some are eager for action. Others are watching intently to see whether his priorities become a reality — not just when it comes to diversity, but system-wide.

“I think that people are hopeful,” Cannizzaro said. “I think they recognize the fact that this has to be implemented, and things trickle down.”