Carmen Fariña's game plan to undo (and redo) the Bloomberg years

Mayor Bill de Blasio has tasked schools chancellor Carmen Fariña with helping to extend the Department of Education in new ways—first and foremost through the city’s much-hyped expansion of pre-kindergarten. But as she settles in to her job, Fariña is simultaneously focused on turning back the clock.

When we sat down with Fariña this week, she made it clear that she’s working to make the department look more like the one she left almost eight years ago, bringing back experts, positions, priorities, and entire divisions that got short shrift or eliminated altogether during the later years of the Bloomberg administration. 

She also revealed some concrete plans for changing how superintendents and network leaders interact, explained why calling individual parents will actually save her time, and told us how she wants her success as chancellor to be measured. (Spoiler alert: It’s not by test scores.)

Here are a few excerpts from our conversation, condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Chalkbeat: It’s been only a short time, we see that, and it’s clear what City Hall’s big priorities on education are at the moment. But we feel like we haven’t heard all that much from you about your vision for K to 12 during the school day, which is of course what the meat is here. So what is that vision, and when is the public going to start hearing about it?

I think you’re going to get the rollout plan probably relatively soon. But at the very least, this is what we’ve already started to put in place.

We have resurrected the professional development department. Anna Commitante is heading that, and we’re staffing it with someone who’s going to have a special focus on literacy, social studies, STEM, science, technology, math. Their job is going to be to go back and visit the Common Core, and look at it with new eyes—figure out where it’s working out there in the city and finding schools that are doing it particularly well.

A lot more selling of the Common Core to parents. I just did a short thing with the Manhattan elected officials about what it is and what it isn’t, which I think surprised them. Because it’s not that difficult, but you’d have to know what it is. So I’d say certainly Common Core, professional development, make it easier for people to understand.

The second thing is we’re focusing very strongly on middle schools. I have visited around 18 middle schools. The purpose of the 18 middle schools is to kind of get a sense of what’s similar across the middle schools and what’s different. And what I’m finding is there’s a lot more differences than similarities.

We’ve also kind of compressed the leadership team at Tweed. There are four deputy chancellors, each with a very definitive role, so that instead of 18 people I can have a meeting with five people.

Note: Those four are Dorita Gibson, senior deputy chancellor; Phil Weinberg, deputy chancellor for teaching and learning; Kathleen Grimm, deputy chancellor for operations; and Corinne Rello-Anselmi, deputy chancellor overseeing students with disabilities and English Language Learners.

Dorita’s job is really to look at principals, superintendents and network leaders, and one of her major tasks, which she’s already set up is superintendents and network leaders should start working together. Which is really a really, really very different way of looking at things.

Chalkbeat: What does that mean practically? What’s an example of something they weren’t doing that now they should?

A superintendent in the past was not allowed to come to a school without an invitation from the principals. Network leaders I don’t know exactly but there are 55 of them and they all do it differently. The task that we gave them is that each of them should figure out two schools in the district that need the most support.

[Superintendents] should talk to the network leaders of those particular schools and they should go in together and develop a plan of support. Not a plan of closure, but a plan of support. And then let us know what support they need from us.

Chalkbeat: In 2004, 2005, you were kind of out in front on the changes to promotion policy that Bloomberg was talking about. Have there been things in the intervening years that have made you change your mind about any of that?

I believe in [there being] a grade which you look at more strongly. And I do believe third grade is the grade.

What I fought for at the time, and got, was a tremendous amount of money for intervention strategies. We not only got all this money, but I was able to hire a whole intervention team here at Tweed, and we had one at every region. Remember, before I left we still had the regional structure. After I left, I think within a few days it all went down the drain.

We had in every single region a head of intervention and an intervention person in every school where they had a tremendous amount of struggling students. To me, if you’re going penalize kids, if you’re going to hold kids back, you then have a responsibility to support them to succeed better. So every child who was on that list for retention then had an individual IEP — not a special ed IEP, but something that said, you’re going to have this extra support. That was all thrown out, gone away. So now what you do is hold a kid back but you’re not supporting them in the way they need to be supported.

The other thing we’re bringing back in additional to professional development: we’re recreating our whole intervention strategy. Dr. Esther Friedman is going to head that department, and she’s going to put in place what we call the Toolkit, which we used to have way back when. Which is a list of the 20 most commonly used intervention strategies for struggling readers. That hasn’t gone out to the field in years.

Chalkbeat: It sounds like from everything we’ve heard, pre-K, after school, these are going to be expensive changes. I’m wondering where the flexibility is going to come from to pay for more interventions.

What has happened here is that a lot of the people who were trained in all these things have all been given different hats. And we all don’t know exactly where everybody is. So we’re looking for them. And Esther’s job has been to research, where have all these people relocated and actually bring them back to us so they can do this. We’re actually already paying a lot of these people, but they’re not necessarily in a place where they can be the most effective.

It’s not about adding extra money, it’s how do we take the money we’re using already and maybe relocating it to where it’s the most effective and most necessary right now. That’s certainly something we’re looking at.

For example, the ELLs department, Claudia Aguirre, just brought back Aida Walqui. She’s the foremost national, probably international expert on English Language Learners. She had done a tremendous amount of work with us when I was deputy chancellor. She was summarily told we don’t need her anymore. And yet her results nationally show tremendous growth for ELL kids. She’s coming back.

Chalkbeat: You’ve said, we’re bringing this back, we’re bringing this back. Is there an example of something new, a new expert, a new strategy, that you’re hoping to push out that wasn’t one you worked with before?

I think the demonstration sites are going to be very different, that hasn’t been done before. I think we’re also looking at what’s working out there at schools and saying to them, if you have it and we can afford to pay you for it, give it to us, so we can collaborate better. I certainly feel that the notion of superintendents and network leaders actually working together is a big deal, which it shouldn’t be but it is.

I think going out there and doing a lot of parent workshops — I think I’m scheduled for 20 parent workshops between now and the end of May. A listening tour, [saying] what can I do for you? Always with follow-up phone calls. Parents have been kind of surprised on a Saturday mornings to hear it’s the chancellor calling.

Chalkbeat: We heard about those. How are you picking those people?

I only pick up the phone to call people who asked a question that I have an answer to pretty clearly. A lot of questions about co-locations, space, Blue Book, whatever. To the degree I have an answer and didn’t get to it at the meeting, I call them up and give them the answer. More than anything, it’s just communicating that I do read these cards.

Chalkbeat: I’m just wondering how your finding an answer and telling someone, how that translates system-wide.

Because I think the word gets out that you’re willing to listen. Remember, a lot of people don’t want the specific answer. They want to know that you listened to what they had to say.

People say, oh my God, you’re back, thank God, you’re one of us, you care. If that gets out there, people are not going to drive you crazy about other things. It gives you breathing space to get the work done.

You have to do two things simultaneously in this job, and that’s the one thing I probably did not expect — you have to undo while you’re doing … I’ve been working all these years, but I’ve been working mostly with principals. So I had a pretty good idea of what wasn’t working. But I had no idea that what was at Tweed had to be undone; a lot of stuff. I would say it’s the undoing first, and then doing. And sometimes doing them simultaneously.

Chalkbeat: So the big overarching concept of the Bloomberg years, and Joel Klein’s vision for schools, was more autonomy and more accountability. I’m just wondering how you feel about that bargain. Was that a good one?

I don’t feel that they had more autonomy, I’ll be honest with you. I think I as a principal under Tony Alvarado had a lot more autonomy than most principals had. I think there was more accountability, probably, but was it the right kind of accountability, I would have a question mark. I think you can only be accountable for what you’re a part of deciding, but I will let the principals answer that.

Chalkbeat: One thing that I’ve heard when I’m at certain schools is, principals and teachers, especially in some more impoverished areas, are excited to have you here but there is lingering skepticism — ‘Is District 15, is the Upper East Side, are those strategies going to work here?’ What would you say to them?

The proudest work I ever did was as regional superintendent: [districts] 13, 14, 15, and 16. High poverty in 16. Mixed in 13. And 14 was probably one of the hardest districts to change, because of the politics that were ingrained in District 14. So I have had all that.

In my last few years of consulting, I have been all over the city, particularly in the Bronx. Spent a lot of time in the Bronx, the Rockaways. Which was really interesting, particularly after Sandy. So I have had a lot of experience in all those areas. So do I know what that’s all about? In fact, I would say if anything, the people in the Bronx were the ones who embraced me the most because that’s where I have worked the most recently. In terms of the last few years, a lot of the work I did with Teachers College was in the Bronx.

And my answer is, good education is good education no matter what, except that you need to have more of these interventions. And that’s what I really felt bad about. We had a system for helping struggling kids … things that somehow got lost in the process.

Chalkbeat: What do you want your legacy to be?

I should survive! I think that people say, she did the best she could, and as a result, our kids are in a better place.

Chalkbeat: And how should we be measuring that? What yardsticks matter to you?

I think retaining the best principals, rather than having them leave. Making sure that teachers see that teaching can be a career, not just a stepping stone to something else. Making sure that parents understand that their neighborhood schools are good choices for their kids, that they shouldn’t be despairing that they have to go far afield to find the right place. I think all those are very important yardsticks.

Sure, the standards matter, and the scores. But I think the scores, once we teach people a little bit more, give them more confidence to use the Common Core, they’re going to go up. I have no doubt about that. I’m not saying this year — most change takes two to three years to really solidify.

To me, good educational policy is, when you’re no longer here, your successor wants to continue the policy. If your successor comes in and the first thing they’re going to do is get rid of some of the policy, then it probably wasn’t good policy in the first place.

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.