Now and Then

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.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
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.

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.”

here's the plan

After long wait, de Blasio backs plan to overhaul admissions at New York City’s elite high schools

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Stuyvesant High School will begin participating in the Discovery program this year.

After sustained pressure from advocates, Mayor Bill de Blasio is backing a two-step plan to reform admissions at eight of the city’s elite high schools and endorsing a specific replacement for the single-test admissions system.

The city’s specialized high schools — considered some of the crown jewels of New York City’s education system — accept students based on a single test score. Over the last decade, they have come under fire for offering admissions to few students of color: While two-thirds of city students are black or Hispanic, only about 10 percent of admissions offers to those schools go to black or Hispanic students.

De Blasio’s solution, laid out in an op-ed in Chalkbeat, would set aside 20 percent of the seats at the eight schools for students from low-income families starting next school year. Students who just missed the test score cut-off would be able to earn one of those set-aside seats through the longstanding “Discovery” program. Just 4 percent of seats were offered through that program in 2017.

The mayor also said he plans to push state lawmakers to change a law that requires admission at three of the schools to be decided by a single test score. That’s something de Blasio campaigned for during his run for mayor in 2014 but hasn’t made a priority since.

Most significantly, de Blasio says for the first time that he backs a system of replacing the admissions test with a system that picks students based on their middle school class rank and state test scores. The middle-school rank component is especially notable, as an NYU Steinhardt report found that the only way to really change the makeup of the elite high schools would be to guarantee admission to the top 10 percent of students at every middle school.

If all of these changes were implemented, de Blasio says that 45 percent of the student bodies at the eight high schools would be black or Latino.

Together, the proposals reflect the most specific plan yet to change a system that, year after year, becomes a symbol of New York City’s racially divided schools. But the changes de Blasio is proposing won’t come easily — and might not come at all.

The part of the plan that the city is promising to do on its own, expand the Discovery program, will only modestly improve diversity by the city’s own admission. And the plan’s more ambitious elements would require buy-in from state lawmakers who have repeatedly resisted de Blasio’s agenda and attempts to change admissions rules.

Meanwhile, the mayor’s plan does not include a move that many legal experts consider to be low-hanging fruit: changing the admissions rules at five of the eight schools without state approval.

While the city’s official position has long been that admissions at all eight schools are set by law, only three schools — Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School — are specifically mentioned, leaving room for the city to reclassify the others. (De Blasio recently said he would ask lawyers about that change, but has not signaled he plans to act.)

The Discovery program has also proved problematic for de Blasio, in part because it is open to all low-income students — something that is not equivalent to black or Hispanic in New York City. The de Blasio administration has already tripled the program’s size since taking office, but its share of black and Latino students has also shrunk.

A lot of questions about the plan remain unanswered. It’s not clear whether the 20 percent of set-aside seats will be spread across the eight schools evenly, for one, or whether some schools like Stuyvesant will have fewer seats earmarked for Discovery. De Blasio doesn’t explain exactly how an admissions system reliant on middle-school grades and standardized test scores would work.

It’s also unclear how the mayor plans to push against opposition from alumni groups and parents who may worry that changing the admissions rules will lower academic standards, though his rhetoric was sharp in the op-ed.

“Anyone who tells you this is somehow going to lower the standard at these schools is buying into a false and damaging narrative,” de Blasio wrote. “It’s a narrative that traps students in a grossly unfair environment, asks them to live with the consequences, and actually blames them for it.”

So far, de Blasio’s incremental steps to boost diversity at specialized high schools have made little change to the overall student body — and therefore garnered little pushback.

It’s unclear whether the lackluster results caused him to switch strategies. More recently, de Blasio has also been under pressure to address school segregation in the city as a whole.

He may also have been pushed by his new schools chancellor, who has been outspoken on the subject since taking the helm of the school system about two months ago. Chancellor Richard Carranza has been talking about the issue since his very first media interview, and has repeatedly hinted that he is interested in changing their admissions process.

“From my perspective it’s not OK to have a public school in a city as diverse… and that you have only 10 African-American students in a high school,” Carranza said in April. “So I’m looking at that, absolutely.”

sorting the students

Mayor Bill de Blasio: Our specialized schools have a diversity problem. Let’s fix it.

PHOTO: Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio hosts a town hall in Brooklyn in October.

I visit schools across this city and it never fails to energize me. The talent out there is outstanding. The students overflow with promise. But many of the smart kids I meet aren’t getting in to our city’s most prestigious high schools. In fact, they’re being locked out.

The problem is clear. Eight of our most renowned high schools – including Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Technical High School – rely on a single, high-stakes exam. The Specialized High School Admissions Test isn’t just flawed – it’s a roadblock to justice, progress and academic excellence.

If we want this to be the fairest big city in America, we need to scrap the SHSAT and start over.

Let’s select students for our top public high schools in a manner that best reflects the talent these students have, and the reality of who lives in New York City. Let’s have top-flight public high schools that are fair and represent the highest academic standards.

Right now, we are living with monumental injustice. The prestigious high schools make 5,000 admissions offers to incoming ninth-graders. Yet, this year just 172 black students and 298 Latino students received offers. This happened in a city where two out of every three eighth-graders in our public schools are Latino or black.

There’s also a geographic problem. There are almost 600 middle schools citywide. Yet, half the students admitted to the specialized high schools last year came from just 21 of those schools. For a perfect illustration of disparity: Just 14 percent of students at Bronx Science come from the Bronx.

Can anyone defend this? Can anyone look the parent of a Latino or black child in the eye and tell them their precious daughter or son has an equal chance to get into one of their city’s best high schools? Can anyone say this is the America we signed up for?

Our best colleges don’t select students this way. Our top-level graduate schools don’t. There are important reasons why. Some people are good at taking tests, but earn poor grades. Other people struggle with testing, but achieve top grades. The best educational minds get it. You can’t write a single test that captures the full reality of a person.

A single, high-stakes exam is also unfair to students whose families cannot afford, or may not even know about, the availability of test preparation tutors and courses. Now, I’d like to stop and say, I admire the many families who scrape and save to pay for test prep. They are trying in every way to support their children.

But let’s ask ourselves: Why should families who can ill afford test prep have to spend their money on it? Why should families who can easily afford test prep have an advantage over those that cannot?

My administration has been working to give a wider range of excellent students a fair shot at the specialized high schools. Now we are going to go further. Starting in September 2019, we’ll expand the Discovery Program to offer 20 percent of specialized high school seats to economically disadvantaged students who just missed the test cut-off.

This will immediately bring a wider variety of high-performing students, from a wider number of middle schools, to the specialized high schools. For example, the percentage of black and Latino students receiving offers will almost double, to around 16 percent from around 9 percent. The number of middle schools represented will go from around 310 to around 400.

This will also address a fundamental illogic baked into the high-stakes test. A great score and you might be in, but beware a point too low and you might be out. Now, a disadvantaged student who is just a point or two shy of the cut-off won’t be blocked from a great educational opportunity.

For a deeper solution, we will fight alongside our partners in the Assembly and Senate to replace the SHSAT with a new admissions process, selecting students based on a combination of the student’s rank in their middle school and their results in the statewide tests that all middle school children take.

With these reforms, we expect our premier public high schools to start looking like New York City. Approximately 45 percent of students would be Latino or black. As an example of growing geographical fairness, we will quadruple the number of Bronx students admitted.

I’ve talked a lot about bringing equity and excellence to our schools. This new admissions process will give every student in every middle school a fair shot. That’s equity. The new process will ask students to demonstrate hard work over time, and show brilliance in a variety of subjects. That’s excellence.

Anyone who tells you this is somehow going to lower the standard at these schools is buying into a false and damaging narrative. It’s a narrative that traps students in a grossly unfair environment, asks them to live with the consequences, and actually blames them for it. This perpetuates a dangerous and disgusting myth.

So let me be clear. The new system we’re fighting for will raise the bar at the specialized high schools in every way. The pool of talent is going to expand widely and rapidly. That’s going to up the level of competition. The students who emerge from the new process will make these schools even stronger.

They will also make our society stronger. Our most prestigious public high schools aren’t just routes to opportunity for deserving students and their families. They are incubators for the leaders and innovators of tomorrow. The kind of high schools we have today, will determine the kind of New York City we will have tomorrow.

Bill de Blasio is the mayor of New York City.