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When David Banks took the reins of New York City’s public schools, he offered a blunt diagnosis. The system is “fundamentally flawed,” he said, and in need of complete transformation.
Nearly two years later, the chancellor’s vision for improving the system is coming into sharper focus. Rather than pursuing aggressive changes in many areas of the system, he has prioritized one problem above all others: Nearly half of students aren’t proficient readers.
In a wide-ranging interview with Chalkbeat, Banks indicated the nation’s largest school system is too unwieldy to change on many fronts at once. And if children graduate without basic reading skills, little else matters, he says.
So far, the literacy overhaul has been swift and bumpy, with some elementary school teachers saying that they haven’t felt prepared enough to deploy new reading curriculums this fall — reports that Banks acknowledged while defending the pace of the rollout.
But even as Banks makes reading instruction his signature issue, the system is still facing many other challenges. Roughly $7 billion in federal relief funding is drying up, and Mayor Eric Adams is ordering significant cuts on top of that. There are a growing number of significantly under-enrolled schools — some of which Banks said will likely need to be consolidated. And the city is also contending with a massive influx of migrant children, many of whom have faced significant trauma and disruptions to their schooling.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’re coming up on two years running the nation’s largest school system. What surprised you most about the role that you didn’t anticipate?
I think the level of distrust that so many people have about the quote unquote ‘DOE’ [Department of Education]. It’s almost like we can’t trust whatever you say. When I say that, I’m talking about community members, for the most part — parents. There was a heightened state of agitation. And not something that I did. It was just…they were almost ready for battle at every moment.
And I think it was Deputy Chancellor Kenita Lloyd who said to me, ‘There’s been a broken trust.’ And it demonstrated itself in ways like the PEP [Panel for Educational Policy]. You have the PEP meeting that goes all night long.
I said, ‘This doesn’t even make any sense to me.’ People have to stay up ‘till 2, 3 o’clock in the morning for their two minutes. I think the sense was that people didn’t feel like they were being heard. So they’re ready to be really loud to try to be heard.
Once I got in and I got settled I could understand what it was. And I think it’s also my greatest achievement of having been here so far, which is I think we’ve done a lot to help to rebuild a level of trust with communities.
When you were first appointed, you offered a fairly dark assessment of the city’s public school system, saying it was ‘fundamentally flawed.’ You suggested there were too many people working in central jobs away from school. What is your assessment today? Have you done anything to trim the central office other than eliminating the executive superintendent roles?
We have moved, since I’ve been here, over 300 people off of our payroll, number one. Number two, through the local superintendents, we have moved dozens and dozens of people closer to the action into the superintendents’ offices.
What I came to realize is that the narrative of this bloated bureaucracy that’s uncaring — is actually not true. There are a lot of people here, who care deeply about what goes on. I think that’s why the NYC Reads stuff [the reading curriculum overhaul] is so important to me. Because I think we’ve not gotten the results in our schools, which has caused everybody to be turned off. And it’s caused even the people who work here to be deeply frustrated.
Some of your early rhetoric suggested that you were interested in a total transformation of the system. It seems like that kind of rhetoric has given way to a more pragmatic set of initiatives focused on improving the quality of early literacy instruction, and also exposing more students to career options before they graduate. Are there any other big projects on the horizon?
My legacy work will really be around what we’re doing with literacy. And then I think the work we’re doing on career-connected learning and pathways will be right behind it.
But I’m really staking my reputation on reading in particular. Because I do believe that fundamentally, as somebody who’s been in the classroom for years, and has led schools, that it’s the foundation. If you don’t get that right all these other things don’t really matter. It’s the reason why you don’t hear me talking about 20 different things, although we’re doing lots of other things.
I can connect those to other areas that I think are really important and where we’re going to be going as a system. And that would really be around virtual learning, artificial intelligence, the use of technology. I think those kinds of things will fundamentally, whether we like it or not, change not just our system. All systems across America are in for a sea change in that regard. So I’m doing a lot of work behind the scenes to try to figure out how we can get out in front where New York City can lead on that.
But none of that will even matter if kids can’t read.
Your background is mostly in working with middle and high school students. How did you become persuaded to make early literacy your signature thing? Was it a conversation with the mayor?
The mayor focused when we came in on dyslexia, and so we were all in on the dyslexia and the screenings, and really making sure that we’re getting those kids the kinds of interventions or whatnot that they really need to put them on track. But in the midst of that, as I moved all over the system, I was reminded over and over again, beyond the kids with dyslexia, just the average kid who doesn’t have any of those kinds of text-based challenges, they don’t know how to read.
It was over a series of visits and conversations, and talking to teachers who were saying, ‘We are off track. Not only my school, but as a whole system.’ I would hear that over and over again. And people would say, years ago, kids learn through phonics, we learn the phonetic approach to teaching reading.
And then I think, when I listened to the podcast [“Sold a Story”]...that was the first thing that really crystallized these conversations that people were sharing with me, it framed it for me. And then behind that, when I saw the documentary, “The Right to Read,” the combination of those two, fully crystallized these loose conversations that I was having with folks. And I got to the ultimate ‘aha,’ this is where the issue is.
I’ve been spending some time recently talking to teachers who are in the first phase [of the literacy curriculum mandate]. And one of the things I’ve heard from a lot of them is they feel like this happened really fast. Some felt unprepared to teach the new curriculums. What is your message to those teachers?
I’m certainly not surprised by any of that as a response. We are all in a process of trying to catch up because there’s a sense of urgency. In the best of all worlds, we would have studied this for the next three or four years. We would’ve done all kinds of surveys. But when you add the ‘aha moment’ that it is time to move, you have to move, knowing that it’s not going to be perfect. We are building the plane as we are flying it because kids’ lives are actually hanging in the balance.
I do not expect us to have some dramatically different results over the next two to three years. But I do think you will see constant gains over the next several years. And I think you will see dramatic gains over the next five, six years.
One of the biggest challenges for the system right now is financial. About $7 billion of federal relief money is drying up, which has been used to expand summer school, keep school budgets steady despite enrollment drops, hire counselors and fund some of your own initiatives. On top of that, Mayor Eric Adams is ordering pretty significant budget cuts. Can you give us a sense of what criteria you’re using to determine which programs get cut and which don’t?
We’ve not finalized decisions. And these are not all fully just my decisions either. The mayor and the City Council are really going to have to come together and figure out what happens. Everything is on the table to see some level of reduction. I’ve made it clear that I think what we’re doing on the reading, and the [career] pathways as my priority areas. So we’re gonna do everything to fight like heck to protect those. Everything else is subject to it.
Listen, I’m a champion of the arts. I don’t want to see any reduction in the arts. So I’m going to be fighting as well. But we got dozens and dozens and dozens of other initiatives. I think Summer Rising has been a wonderful program. We had 110,000 kids last year, we could easily have 150,000. But it may be reduced because it is the fiscal reality that we are facing.
I’ve heard a lot of City Council folks say, ‘We’re going to fight like heck to make sure there’s no reductions in school budgets.’ That’s great, right? But the funding is going to come from somewhere.
Do you anticipate having to reduce the department’s headcount significantly over the coming years?
The mayor is on record as saying that we’re not going to be letting go of employees. So we’re not going to excess folks. We’re not getting rid of folks, we’re not laying people off.
The challenge is going to be where do we find it programmatically and how much our school budgets [are] ultimately impacted.
New York has seen a large influx of more than 20,000 migrant children. What’s your sense of how that is affecting schools? Can you point to examples of schools that are doing a really effective job?
We can certainly give you a list of schools. All of these schools that I have continued to visit — amazing. These folks lead with their heart. And it goes well beyond even what’s in their particular budgets. You got parent coordinators, who are leading clothing drives and food drives. You got principals who are just organizing their entire school community as a family to wrap their arms around so many of these young people, it is amazing. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, it is New York City at its best, when you see how we are responding.
I haven’t visited one school, Alex, when people are like, ‘We are at our wits end, we cannot help these kids anymore. We don’t know what to do.’ I’ve never been at one school where I’ve heard anybody say that.
The city doesn’t have a great track record of equitably distributing students who enroll after the traditional admissions process. There was some research a few years ago that found that high school students who enrolled midyear were disproportionately clustered at lower-performing schools. Does the city have an overarching enrollment strategy for migrant children? How do you think that students should be distributed in a way that’s equitable?
There’s a wide range of students. For the younger children, we’ve done everything we could to get them into the school that they are kind of zoned for. That’s been dictated by where these shelters have been. We don’t want a child who’s in a shelter in the Bronx and send them to the second grade in Queens.
While we want to get them as close as possible, we cannot overwhelm any individual school. So if that means we’ve got to go to the next neighborhood over with some of those schools who are saying, ‘We would love to have more students,’ many of these schools, you have to remember, are experiencing enrollment decline and low enrollment. We want to make sure that they’re the right kinds of programs and supports in those schools.
One of the other big structural issues that you’re facing is a growing number of really small schools, which are expensive to operate, and also sometimes struggle to offer a full range of programs given that a school’s budget is determined on a per-student basis. I’m wondering if there’s a cut off below which you think at school is just too small to be sustainable?
No specific number, but we had dozens and dozens of really small schools. When I say really small, I’m talking about schools with 125 kids and less. I ran a small school, but my small school had 450 to 500 kids, which was what the initial definition of a small school was. It’s hard to figure out how people can run a full comprehensive high school with 80 kids as your entire school. And we have schools with those numbers.
And should we expect to see that starting this year?
You should probably expect to hear community conversations around that this year. And we will see where it will lead us. But the notion of some level of consolidation is something that I think we would be irresponsible if we were not looking at that, particularly in light of the fiscal challenges that we’re having. So we’re looking at it — nothing definitive yet.
I’m leaving a lot of that to the superintendents themselves who know their school communities best and are already meeting with principals around the city to start those conversations.
The latest round of national test scores indicate that student achievement took a big hit during the pandemic, particularly in math. How worried are you about the lingering effects of the pandemic on student achievement? Is there anything new on the horizon to help schools close those gaps?
I was not surprised at all by the learning loss and the scores and everything else. You know, the immediate shift into virtual learning was a tremendous challenge for everybody. I think the upside is that we got a lot better at it. It’s one reason I’m really excited about some of our virtual schools work that we’re doing, because we see that as a beacon and a blueprint also for the rest of the system. But I do think we’ve got real work to do.
We’re allowing schools to provide a range of supports. Some of them are doing high-dosage tutoring, some of the buddying students up — we leave a lot of that sort of to the schools themselves. We don’t try to mandate everything. What we are mandating is this approach to the science of reading, which I think will ultimately bear fruit in ELA and math, over a period of time.
Alex Zimmerman is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Alex at firstname.lastname@example.org.