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.”

End of an era

Longtime deputy chancellor Kathleen Grimm to retire

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Department of Education Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm (left) at a City Council hearing to discuss the department's five-year capital plan in March 2014.

Kathleen Grimm, the deputy chancellor for operations and a fixture in the Department of Education under four chancellors, is stepping down, Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced Wednesday.

Grimm oversaw a sprawling portion of the department, including the offices overseeing safety, school support, school food, athletics, space planning, enrollment, human resources, and construction. The only official to have remained in a top post at Tweed since the beginning of the Bloomberg era, Grimm saw her responsibilities expand even further under Fariña, who moved some offices under Grimm when she shrunk the department’s cabinet.

“It is with deep personal regret that I announce a leave pending retirement of Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm, an esteemed colleague who has worked tirelessly to create safe, nurturing environments in which all of our students can learn and thrive,” Fariña said in an email to department staff members.

Grimm, a tax lawyer, was brought on in 2002 for her budgeting and finance expertise and experience in navigating city and state bureaucracy. She had previously served in the state comptroller’s office and the city finance department.

Over her 14-year career at the Department of Education, Grimm preferred to stay behind the scenes, but was thrust into the spotlight when changes to school bus routes, budget cuts, and space planning made headlines.

Her oversight of the city’s transportation of students meant she faced fierce criticism when repeated changes to bus routes angered parents and City Council members. Her oversight of the capital budget and the Blue Book, which sets guidelines for school space use, also made her a frequent target of class-size reduction advocates, who often said the city’s calculations did not reflect reality.

But Grimm was revered within the department for her calm under pressure. She frequently defended the school system in front of the City Council, bearing the brunt of then-education committee chair Eva Moskowitz’s relentless criticism of the city’s toilet-paper offerings in 2004 and, more recently, testifying at hearings on toxic lighting fixtures and school overcrowding.

“Cool and effective, Kathleen stayed for the full twelve years of the Bloomberg administration and did a tough, unglamorous job with distinction,” Klein wrote of Grimm in his memoir “Lessons of Hope.”

On Wednesday, Fariña offered her own praise. “As a senior member of my leadership team, Deputy Chancellor Grimm has provided a strong foundation for our most critical initiatives, including Pre-K for All, Community Schools, and our expanded school support and safety services,” she said.

Grimm’s chief of staff Elizabeth Rose will take over as interim acting deputy chancellor during a search for Grimm’s replacement, Fariña said.

year in review

In first year as chancellor, Fariña counts on fellow educators to drive changes

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Chancellor Carmen Fariña speaks to superintendents and principals overseeing the city's designated renewal schools.

To understand how things have changed since Carmen Fariña became schools chancellor, consider where she has chosen to be on roughly 200 occasions this year, often five times per week: in schools.

She uses the hour-long visits to find model schools that other educators can tour and to size up principals, noting whether teachers seem surprised to see their bosses (a sign they aren’t poking into classrooms enough) and if the principals bring any deputies along for the tours (a hint they know how to delegate). She inspects students’ writing and asks the principal to show her a strong teacher in action and a weak one.

Twelve months into her stint leading the nation’s largest school system, Fariña’s attention to such details seems misplaced to some critics, who worry that it comes at the expense of big-picture thinking and suggests a shift away from the greater autonomy that principals gained under the previous administration.

But to her many admirers, the visits reflect a belief that even in a system of 1.1 million students and 75,000 or so teachers, change can happen school by school and classroom by classroom when educators are empowered, without the seismic policy shakeups that seemed to occur routinely under her recent predecessors. As Fariña, who has spent nearly half a century working in schools, likes to say, “The answers are in the classroom.” In other words, this is educator-driven education reform.

“There’s a sense,” said Alison Coviello, principal of P.S. 154 in the Bronx, “that we’re all in this together.”

When Mayor Bill de Blasio pulled Fariña from semi-retirement last January, she decided that she would have to roll back the Bloomberg-era policies she disagreed with even as she put her own into place: To “undo while [she’s] doing,” as she told Chalkbeat earlier this year.

And that’s just what she’s done. She downsized the office that helped create new schools — a signature Bloomberg initiative — while resurrecting the department devoted to teacher training. She re-empowered superintendents, who were marginalized under Bloomberg, and insisted that would-be principals and superintendents both spend more years in schools (a rejection of the Bloombergian idea that talent trumps experience). And she axed the Bloomberg policies that tied student promotion to test scores and assigned schools letter grades as she launched her own signature program, which sends educators to visit successful schools to pick up ideas.

That program, called Learning Partners, exemplifies Fariña’s approach. It is educator-led, cooperative, and subtle, allowing Fariña to spread her ideas through proxies rather than edicts.

“We have gotten more schools to change practices not by mandating, but by collaborating,” she said in an interview Monday. “I could have said across the board, ‘Every middle school needs to do X, Y and Z.’ And we didn’t do that.”

She also helped forge new contracts with the principals and the teachers unions, which had given up on negotiating with the previous administration. The teachers got a big payout in the contract (though not big enough to satisfy everyone), while Fariña was able to embed time for training and interacting with parents into teachers’ weekly schedules (at the cost of student-tutoring time, which was repurposed). Cynics charged that the city secured the contracts by giving into most of the unions’ demands, but Fariña argues that they were the product of her collaborative approach.

“What we got out of those contracts,” she said, “probably would not have been possible without that kind of partnership.”

She also helped the mayor fulfill his promise to get 53,000 four-year-olds into classrooms.

“How could I forget?” Fariña said. “Pre-K!”

For all that she has already done and undone, Fariña has a big year ahead of her. On Monday, she ticked off a few of the biggest items on her to-do list.

First, she must help de Blasio add the 20,000 additional pre-kindergarten seats he has promised, even as charter schools demand more space of their own. Then, she must turn two of his most ambitious plans into reality: to convert nearly 130 schools into service hubs for students and their families, and to turn around more than 90 low-performing schools.

That last task will be especially daunting. Rather than shut down chronically underachieving schools or replace their staffs, Fariña has proposed lifting them up through a mix of supports for students and coaching for educators. That is a big gamble, which Fariña made clear at a meeting Monday with the leaders of those struggling schools.

“I’m holding you even more accountable,” she told the principals. “Because I went out on a limb, as did Mayor de Blasio, and said, ‘We’re not closing schools. We’re giving everybody a second chance.’”