After 100 days of running the city school system, Carmen Fariña took stock on Saturday, repeating her commitment to making teachers and principals feel respected and previewing changes to the Bloomberg-era system of school accountability.
She also unveiled new initiatives aimed at the city’s more vulnerable students, including a new science and technology program for English Language Learners and the doubling of program meant to curb summer learning loss for low-income students.
Her remarks, delivered Saturday morning at Teachers College, departed rarely from the themes she has focused on since Mayor Bill de Blasio chose her as chancellor. She championed a number of what she called “amazingly simple” solutions centered on forcing people to solve problems by talking to each other.
“We don’t need to cook up some secret sauce for success,” Fariña said.
Looking ahead, Fariña offered some specifics about how the Department of Education will enact de Blasio’s campaign promise to eliminate the city’s system of assigning letter grades to schools. She twice said the current system can be “arbitrary,” citing the 75 schools that earned a C, D, or F on their progress report even though their students scored above average on state exams.
Those progress reports weigh student progress more heavily than overall achievement, and were a centerpiece of the Bloomberg era of school accountability. That system was designed to more equitably measure the success of both typically high-achieving and low-achieving schools, but it also often distressed schools where students do well but don’t meet the city’s progress targets.
Today, Fariña promised that the grades will be replaced by a report that includes “qualitative measures,” something even the architects of existing system acknowledged was necessary last year.
“Accountability must occur in a way that’s conducive to achieving results, because you don’t reach historic heights for kids when morale in our system has plummeted to all-time lows,” Fariña said.
The most visible education initiative in Fariña’s first 100 days has been the mayor’s own push to secure funding for an ambitious pre-kindergarten expansion, which has been largely directed by City Hall. Fariña praised the pre-K effort on Saturday, pointing to one classroom she visited where four-year-olds were tackling the word “carnivorous.”
“But make no mistake: our efforts to provide every child with an excellent education do not stop here,” she added.
That begins with making sure that what teachers are doing is aligned with the Common Core learning standards, she said, which will improve student achievement.
But for all of her alignment with the mayor’s pre-K vision, her speech revealed one continuing distinction from her boss: she refuses to say the school system she runs is “falling short” or “failing.”
De Blasio has been much more direct in saying he believes the city’s schools aren’t up to par. “We need to be able to say that despite the good efforts of so many, the school system is still broken in so many ways,” the mayor said in his own education speech three weeks ago just one block from Teachers College.
Fariña spent little time addressing the charter school space controversy that led to de Blasio’s speech, though she noted that the city was committed to working with all of its students.
“Space-sharing has often been distorted as an us-versus-them battle, particularly between district and charter schools,” Fariña said. “We seek progress by getting out of headquarters, inside schools, and to the bottom of problems.”
The chancellor announced that she was working with universities in the city to forge partnerships with district schools, though she didn’t say what those partnerships would provide. To help low-income students, the city is looking to double the number of spots available in Summer Quest, a program designed to keep kids reading. (Last year, though, that program was not shown to have an impact on summer learning loss.)
She also announced that the department’s Division of Students with Disabilities and English Language Learners will be renamed the Division of Specialized Instruction and Student Support, and that the city would be launching a new science, technology, engineering, and math initiative specifically for bilingual students.
“These are the types of programs that will help level the playing field,” Fariña said.