Future of Schools

Three lessons Newark’s new schools chief can learn from New York City’s retired chancellor

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark superintendent Roger León, and retired New York City chancellor Carmen Fariña.

She is the daughter of Spanish immigrants who spent over 40 years in the New York City school system before being appointed chancellor.

He is the son of Cuban immigrants who spent 25 years in the Newark school system before being chosen as superintendent.

She took the reins after a controversial predecessor closed schools, fueled the growth of the charter sector, and made it easier for principals to remove teachers.

He is about to do the same.

She is Carmen Fariña, who in March stepped down as chief of New York City schools, and he is Roger León, who in July will take over as Newark’s new superintendent. As León gears up for the job, Fariña’s tenure across the Hudson may offer some lessons about steps to take and snares to avoid.

Of course, there are big differences between their neighboring districts. New York City’s serves vastly more students – 1.1 million, compared to 36,000 in Newark – and is controlled by the mayor, while Newark schools are once again overseen by a school board.

Yet Fariña’s efforts to stabilize a system that was still reeling from the seismic policy shifts of her predecessors could provide clues about how León might manage a similar transition in Newark. And Farina’s missteps, and the resistance she encountered, could serve as a cautionary tale for Newark’s new schools chief.

“Only when we are able to be contemplative and meaningful,” León said at a recent forum, “are we able to avoid repetition of history.”

Here are three lessons that León can take from Fariña’s tenure:

  1. Set your own agenda — “not reform” is not enough.

Fariña, like León, took over after a period of contentious changes billed as urgent reforms. As she quickly found, that made it easy for critics to attack her as anti-reform.

The system she inherited had been fundamentally reshaped by Joel Klein – a former prosecutor who during his eight years as schools chief became a hero of the so-called education reform movement, which sought to overhaul urban districts through a focus on achievement data and accountability. Graduation rates rose under Klein and funding from wealthy donors poured in. But many teachers felt unfairly blamed when students did not do well on tests, and many parents railed against school closures and the placement of charter schools in the same buildings as district schools.

Fariña, who was handpicked by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014, took an entirely different approach. She got rid of Klein’s school letter grades, signed off on teacher raises, and talked about turning schools into “stress-free zones.”

She called this strategy of reversing past policies while enacting new ones “undo while you’re doing,” and people’s views on it depended on how they felt about her predecessor. Klein critics celebrated her style as empowering to educators, while his supporters panned it as backward-looking and complacent.

One of those supporters was Christopher Cerf, a former Klein deputy who became New Jersey’s state education commissioner and later Newark’s superintendent before stepping down in February. When he was asked earlier this year whether he was concerned that some of his policies could be reversed as Klein’s had been in New York, he slammed that approach.

“When your reform strategy is organized around reversal and retrenchment and revenge, that’s not a strategy,” he said, without naming Fariña.

In fact, Fariña did more than unwind Klein-era policies. She laid out a theory of school improvement that emphasized cooperation among educators, and designed a school-to-school mentoring program to bring her vision to life. Still, the anti-reform critique was hard to shake.

Roger León will soon take the wheels of a system that underwent many of the same upheavals as New York when Cerf and his predecessor, Cami Anderson, brought parts of Klein’s reform playbook to Newark when it was still under state control.

León will likely face pressure – including from some of his bosses on the school board – to reverse certain policies that Cerf and Anderson enacted, including one that folded charter and district school admissions into a single system. But he will also be expected to define his own vision and agenda, and to craft a plan for carrying it out.

“There’s a lot of folks in Newark who will welcome a respite from big-R Reform,” said Jeffrey Henig, a political science and education professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. “But at some point, [León’s administration] is going to have to show that they stand for something other than ‘not reform.’”

  1. Pick your fights carefully — especially with well-funded adversaries.

New York City, like Newark, has its fair share of charter school skeptics. But, as Fariña learned when she poked them, charter schools also have many defenders — including deep-pocketed donors and state lawmakers — who are eager to do battle.

In early 2014, Fariña and de Blasio tried to block three schools in a high-performing charter network from moving into city buildings. That fateful decision sparked a campaign by charter advocates — financed by wealthy donors and national philanthropies — that resulted in a new state law forcing the city to provide charters with building space or funding.

But charter backers didn’t stop there. They continued to jab Fariña and de Blasio at every turn, organizing parents to rally against policies they opposed, and even attacking them on issues unrelated to charters, such as school discipline. With little control over the charter sector or its powerful allies, the mayor and chancellor found themselves in a longstanding feud with foes they had little chance of defeating.

Newark’s charter sector could prove an equally fearsome adversary for León. It serves a larger share of students than New York’s — 33 versus 10 percent — and gets financial support from some of the same national donors. And in recent years, the sector has become more politically active, with schools encouraging parents to vote and charter supporters backing candidates in school-board elections.

But even though charter schools compete with the district for students and funding, León does not appear eager to confront them. In fact, in an interview with Chalkbeat last week, León took pains to praise the innovations of several charter networks and said district and charter schools should share best practices.

Eventually, some school board members may urge him to take a tougher stance on charter schools – perhaps pushing him to block them from renting additional space in district buildings or to revamp the combined district-charter enrollment system.

But, for now, he seems to have decided that it would be counterproductive to pick a fight with a sector whose growth he can’t control (the state approves charter expansions), and whose families often also have children in district schools. Whether he realizes it or not, he’s already steering clear of a conflict that dogged Fariña’s administration for years.

“We’re going to work together to help children in Newark do better,” León said in the interview, “better in all of our schools.”

  1. The honeymoon ends quickly — so enjoy it while it lasts.

Many New Yorkers rejoiced when Fariña was named chancellor.

Educators, who often referred to the new chancellor as “Carmen,” delighted in her pledge to bring joy and dignity back to their profession. Parents celebrated her vow to de-emphasize standardized tests and to boost arts education.  

But, as every elected official learns, the goodwill fades fast.

Within weeks of starting the job, Fariña angered many district parents by downplaying a blizzard that snarled families’ commute to school, and later upset charter school supporters by suggesting that they push out unwanted students. Later, some principals would complain she had curtailed their autonomy, while advocates accused her of ignoring the school system’s pervasive segregation.

For now, León is savoring his honeymoon phase as congratulatory messages pour in and warm applause greets him on school visits. But he’s already planning for the difficult work ahead.

He has begun meeting with district officials to take stock of existing programs and budget items, which he will have to decide to keep or scrap when he takes over next month. And in last week’s interview, he promised to meet regularly with community members — though he warned that not everyone will agree with his decisions.

Soon, he will also have to manage the expectations of the newly empowered school board members and, most likely, the power brokers who backed their campaigns. It is a part of the job that his state-appointed predecessor and the mayor-appointed Fariña never had to deal with.

“It’s a challenge,” said Domingo Morel, a political science professor at Rutgers University-Newark. “But that’s the challenge of democracy.”

Frequently asked

New Denver teacher contract: We answer the most common questions about the tentative pact

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Students in class at Dora Moore ECE-8 during the second day of the Denver Public Schools teachers strike.

One reason many Denver educators didn’t like the district’s old ProComp pay system was that it was too complicated and unpredictable. Both sides agree that the deal reached early Thursday morning creates a much simpler pay system for teachers.

But educators — and the general public — still have a lot of questions about the tentative ProComp agreement, which still needs to be ratified by union members and the Denver school board. Here we’ve answered some of the most common questions we’ve heard since the end of the strike.

How do I place myself on the salary schedule?

The salary schedule is made up of “steps” and “lanes.” The “steps” represent years of service for which a teacher had a positive evaluation. The “lanes” represent levels of education. The new schedule has 20 steps and seven lanes.

Worked in Denver Public Schools for five years and have a master’s degree? Go to step five and then slide your finger over to the master’s degree lane. That’s your base salary.

Did you have a year when your evaluation wasn’t good? Go back one step. Have an additional 18 credits on top of your master’s degree? Go up one more lane.

Teachers can also go up a lane once they hit the 10-year mark because the district wanted to reward longevity. Other milestones that merit a lane change: earning national board certification or an advanced license, or completing six “professional development unit” training courses.

Still not sure? Denver Public Schools plans to put a salary calculator on its website soon.

What if I have more than 20 years of experience?

If you have 20 or more years of experience, you’re placed at the top of the salary schedule, on step 20. After step 20, you’ll get yearly cost-of-living raises. You’re still eligible to change lanes, but you won’t get any more step raises.

Does the district know everything it needs to know about individual educators to pay them the correct salary?

Denver Public Schools plans to send letters or emails this spring to every teacher and special service provider (nurses, counselors, and others) covered by the contract, laying out where the district believes that employee falls on the schedule based on information they have on file. Educators will have a certain amount of time to correct any wrong information and get on the correct step and lane for the 2019-20 school year.

Under the new salary schedule, it looks like I’ll earn less next year than I do now. Am I taking a pay cut?

No. The agreement includes a “hold harmless” clause that ensures everyone will get a raise next year. Those whose salaries are higher now than they would be under the new schedule will get a cost-of-living raise each year until the salary schedule catches up with them.

How are bonuses and incentives different under the new contract?

The bonuses and incentives are different in three ways: There are fewer of them, the dollar amounts are different, and the dollar amounts won’t change year to year.

This year, there are six bonuses and incentives offered by the district: one for educators who work in Title I schools where 60 percent or more of the student population qualifies for subsidized meals; one for educators who work in hard-to-fill positions; one for educators who work in “hard-to-serve” schools; one for educators who work in one of 30 “highest-priority” schools; one for educators who return year over year to those schools; and one for educators who work in schools deemed top-performing or high-growth, as based on school ratings.

Here’s what’s left in the new contract: Teachers in Title 1 schools and those in hard-to-fill positions, such as secondary math, will get $2,000 a year. Teachers who return year over year to 30 highest-priority schools will get $3,000 a year. Teachers in 10 schools deemed “distinguished” will get $750 a year, with the criteria to be determined by the district and the union.

Why aren’t the district and the union tying bonuses to test scores anymore?

Unions have traditionally been skeptical of paying teachers based on student test scores because the scores are so closely correlated with factors like race and household income. In Denver, these bonuses were also less predictable for teachers because the district often changed the criteria it used to rate schools and award “top-performing” bonuses.

The district also came to see these bonuses as canceling out the effects of bonuses for teachers at high-poverty schools. A teacher could get nearly the same kind of monetary reward by moving to a more affluent school or by staying in one where students face more challenges. The new bonus system provides clearer monetary benefits to working in a high-poverty school.

Why did the union agree to keep the incentive for highest-priority schools, when that had been such a sticking point?

In any negotiation, there’s give and take and a lot of moving pieces. 

Here’s what lead negotiator Rob Gould said to district officials during bargaining: “We are open to the incentive because we know it’s important to you. And we’re willing to entertain your ideas if we can get the base salary schedule that our teachers need. Because if we can get the base salaries we need, we can keep our teachers in Denver.”

This was also an issue that divided teachers, with some teachers at schools that received the highest-priority incentive pushing to keep them.

Did teachers get a better deal out of the strike than the district’s last offer before the strike?

Teachers were getting a raise no matter what. The district was offering an average 10 percent raise before the strike (this included a cost-of-living raise that was agreed to back in 2017). Now teachers will get an average 11.7 percent raise, though individual teachers will see a wide range.

The district is putting the same amount of new money — $23.5 million — into teacher compensation as it was offering before the strike. It can give a larger average raise with that same amount of money because the incentives are smaller than under the previous proposal and because of limits on how teachers can use training to get raises. That gives the district more predictability about how many teachers will get raises each year.

Union leaders call the deal a win. They secured more opportunities for teachers to earn raises and move into higher categories on the salary schedule, including through completing training partially during work hours at no additional cost. And teachers can get to $100,000 in 20 years, rather than the 30 years in the last district proposal.

However, individual teachers aren’t necessarily getting more base pay next year than they would have under the district’s last offer. Early-career teachers without advanced degrees would have earned more in base pay under the district’s last offer. The teachers who do better under the deal reached after the strike are veteran educators with more education.

To take two examples: A second-year educator with a bachelor’s degree and no extra credits or training would have earned $47,550 in base pay under the district’s last offer before the strike but will earn $46,869 under the deal reached this week.

But a 20-year educator who has a master’s degree and an advanced license who has been with the district for 10 years will earn $88,907 in base pay under the new agreement, compared with $87,550 under the district’s last proposal before the strike.

The union fought for this kind of salary schedule in part to address a longstanding complaint that teachers have little reason to stay in a district where base pay levels off.

You can see the salary schedule from the district’s last offer here and the schedule from the tentative agreement here.

Is this deal financially sustainable for the district?

Denver Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Mark Ferrandino says that is the “million-dollar question,” perhaps closer to the “half-billion-dollar question,” since that is roughly how much the district spends on educator compensation.

Ferrandino believes the answer is yes, with the standard caveat that all projections are just that.

What will be cut to pay for this?

The district plans to cut $20 million from administrative costs over the next two years. That includes cutting 150 jobs in the central office and ending all executive bonuses. The bulk of it — $13 million — will go to fund the ProComp agreement.

District officials have not yet said which central office jobs will be cut, though Superintendent Susana Cordova has said cuts will be to “discretionary” departments. Departments that will not be cut include special education, English language acquisition, and transportation, she said.

Teachers will get a raise. What about paraprofessionals, bus drivers, custodians, and cafeteria workers?

These other district employees, much lower paid than teachers, are not covered by the contract that was the subject of the strike. Cordova has said these workers also deserve raises and a portion of administrative cuts will go to pay for them.

But how much of a raise will they get? That will all be worked out over the next few months and include discussions with the unions that represent these employees.

Will striking teachers get back pay?

Not according to district officials. After this story was published Friday, we asked for further clarification on this. We received this statement Saturday morning:

Superintendent Cordova understands that when teachers make the choice to strike, they are doing so to make a statement and bring attention to the importance of the issue at hand. Foregoing pay during the time that a teacher is not working is a challenging decision that no one makes lightly, and consequently, brings with it an impact that is intended to push for change.

DPS did not feel that it would be fair or appropriate to provide back pay to striking teachers when many others — including more than 40 percent of classroom teachers — chose to remain at work this week. However, DPS is working with the DCTA to offer all teachers the opportunity to attend a Saturday session to replace the professional development day that was cancelled in the days leading up to the strike. Any teacher who attends will be paid a day’s salary.

When will the new agreement go into effect? How long will it last?

Assuming both sides ratify it, the new agreement technically (and retroactively) went into effect Jan. 19, the day after the old one expired. But educators won’t start receiving the new salaries, incentives, and bonuses negotiated under it until Aug. 1. The agreement expires Aug. 31, 2022.

Teens Talk Back

‘Mr. Mayor, we cannot afford to wait.’ Teen group says New York City diversity plan doesn’t move fast enough.

PHOTO: Courtesy/Teens Take Charge
Teens Take Charge members at a "virtual" press conference in New York City on Thursday

A teen group representing students from more than 30 New York City high schools sharply criticized a recent report from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s School Diversity Advisory Group as offering no real solutions for increasing integration in the city’s starkly segregated high schools.

At a virtual press conference on Thursday, broadcast live on Facebook by Teens Take Charge, students expressed support for the report’s broad policy aim of achieving greater integration but also disappointment that the findings offered few specifics for how to reach this goal. The mayor’s Diversity Advisory Group has said a follow-up report will provide more details later this year.

“We have been told to wait, to be patient, that change is coming soon,” said Tiffani Torres, a junior at Pace High School in Manhattan. “Mr. Mayor, we cannot afford to wait any longer.”

Teens Take Charge has long advocated for greater efforts to end segregated enrollment patterns in the city’s high schools. Sokhnadiarra Ndiaye, a junior at Brooklyn College Academy High School, said that students’ expectations of the mayor included his announcing “a comprehensive plan” — even if it took years to realize — “to racially, socioeconomically, and academically integrate high schools before the end of this school year,” she said.

Among Teens Take Charge’s specific recommendations are doing away with academic screens for admission to the city’s high schools, a more transparent process for applying to them, and more resources for low-income schools. Early last year, the group produced an Enrollment Equity Plan for increasing educational opportunities for low-income black and Hispanic students.

And because concrete plans for increasing integration would take time, Ndiaye said the teen organization supports several interim measures as well to address inequities in the school system. These include providing more college and career counseling for junior and seniors at low-income, under-resourced high schools. The teen group would also like to see the city provide vouchers to low-income families to access extra-curricular activities and programs offered by private companies or the ability to participate in such programs at other public schools if theirs don’t offer them. (Some city teens joined a class-action lawsuit against the education department and Public School Athletic League for allegedly denying black and Hispanic students equal opportunity to play on school sports teams, in violation of local human rights law.)

Torres described how Teens Take Charge has had “several meetings and phone conversations with Department of Education officials over the past year,” and schools chancellor Richard Carranza has stated that students have his ear. “We’re listening,” he tweeted in response to a Chalkbeat story with excerpts of the students’ views.

In December, the city’s education department posted a new job listing for a “Student Voice Manager” who would gather students’ thoughts on education policies. But while acknowledging this seat at the table, several students expressed frustration at the slow pace of change.

Bill de Blasio’s office declined to comment about Teens Take Charge’s concerns or their specific recommendations, beyond referencing remarks the mayor already made about the School Diversity Advisory Group report.

Doug Cohen, an education department spokesman, said in a statement, “We’ve taken real steps toward school integration,” pointing to initiatives such as a $2 million diversity grant program for school districts and communities citywide to develop their own local diversity plans, and a program that enables middle-schoolers to visit college campuses. “We know there is more work to do, and we thank Teens Take Charge for its continued advocacy on these issues,” he added.

Students at the group’s event urged swift change. “They know our plan; they have our information,” said Sophie Mode, a sophomore at Brooklyn Millennium. “They need to take action now.”