opinion

Chancellor Fariña on why losing mayoral control ‘would mean chaos, gridlock and corruption’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As the leader charged with providing a high-quality education to 1.1 million New York City students, I have to be honest with you:

Our school system is headed for disaster. You may have heard something in the news about mayoral control. Let me explain what it is and why losing it would be devastating.

The state government must act to keep the mayor in charge of our schools by June 30. If they don’t, the entire system will slide back into the old, decentralized structure we had before. That would mean chaos, gridlock and corruption. I should know, I’ve been working in city schools since the 1960s. I saw what happened before 2002 when we put the mayor in charge.

First and foremost, today, the leadership of our schools makes sense. I am accountable for continued progress in our schools and the mayor is my boss. That means New Yorkers know exactly who to blame if things aren’t going well and exactly who to call when they need something done. It also means that the largest school system in the nation has an executive with real power to shake things up, innovate on behalf of students and families, and make wholesale changes that benefit all corners of the city.

If Albany lets mayoral control lapse, there will be no one accountable for progress. Our schools have never been stronger, and all that we have accomplished together will be at risk. Instead, power will be in the hands of 32 separate community school boards. That will mean a mountain of new red tape and surging costs due to inefficiency. According to the Independent Budget Office, costs dropped 22 percent after mayoral control was enacted in 2002.

But that’s not the worst of it. The most catastrophic thing is how our students will suffer.

With 32 separate entities in charge of the “system,” it will be nothing more than a constant struggle for resources. Some communities will win and some will lose. Some communities will get more than their share and some will be asked to do with much less. If parents think that’s unfair, who can they complain to?

Having 32 separate school boards is ripe for corruption. Isolated districts are small enough to be taken over by factions who aren’t putting the best interest of kids first. In the past, these boards too frequently ended up as personal property that could be bartered and traded, and used to reward cronies. Under the old system, entire districts did not have well-trained teachers or necessary materials. This isn’t just speculation – again, I was there.

Managers, appointed by the local school boards, inflated the price of contracts to generate lucrative kickbacks that took money directly away from students and siphoned money from taxpayers. One district alone stole $6 million from students, paying 81 employees for jobs they never showed up to. In another, school safety was entrusted to a high-level gang member.

Before mayoral control, graduation rates hovered around 50 percent and many schools simply were not safe. Students in the city consistently did worse than their peers across the state on standardized tests.

In the 15 years since mayors have controlled the school system, New Yorkers have seen a turnaround that has been nothing less than stunning.

Right now, New York City’s graduation rate is the highest in history. The drop-rate rate is the lowest it has ever been. For the first time ever, our students beat the rest of the state on English tests. Crime in schools has fallen 35 percent over the last five years. And we have the highest-ever college enrollment rate.

Mayor de Blasio has brought change to every district in the city. In two short years, we have added free, full-day, high-quality pre-K for every 4-year-old. Now, we are working to do the same with 3-K, instruction for 3-year-olds.

We have after-school programs for every middle schooler and we’ve made investments in school facilities—guaranteeing that every classroom is air conditioned and every school has a gym. All of these accomplishments, and many others, are a direct result of mayoral control.

I want to be clear: This isn’t about the mayor I work for. Mayoral control is vital for New Yorkers no matter who the mayor is.

There is only one proven way to run the New York City school system — that’s putting our schools in the hands of a duly elected, accountable leader, the mayor of New York. The future of our City is at stake unless Albany takes immediate action.

Carmen Fariña is chancellor of the New York City Department of Education.

early childhood

This growing program is addressing Detroit’s literacy crisis — just don’t say it’s filling a “word gap”

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Yuliana Moreno told parents at her LENA Start graduation on Tuesday that her children have become more talkative because of the program.

A small program that started in Detroit last year with an innovative plan to improve infants’ language skills has proved promising and is preparing to expand.

When Concepción Orea entered the program, LENA Start, with her 18-month-old son, the boy was making a few simple sounds. She worried that he was displaying the same delays as her older son, a kindergartner who receives speech therapy.

“Now he grabs a book and pretends to read,” she said, speaking in Spanish at a graduation ceremony for the program on Tuesday. “Watching him pick up more sounds… it’s an emotion I don’t know how to explain.”

Over the course of the free 13-month program, Orea was coached to speak more to her child and read books to him. Her son was outfitted with a recorder that shows his — and her — progress. Each family is asked to place a recording device in a bib near their child’s chest, where it tracks and analyzes the sounds the baby hears at home.

The approach is based on research showing that when parents make a habit of talking to a very young child, that child is more likely to learn to read on grade level, with all the long-term benefits that come with literacy. That’s a big deal in all of the 17 cities where LENA operates, but the stakes are even higher in Detroit, where a tough new “read-or-flunk” state law, taking effect next year, will tighten the screws on a citywide literacy crisis.

“What our data are telling us is that for every one month in LENA Start, there are two months of growth,” said Kenyatta Stephens, Chief Operating Officer of Black Family Development, Inc., one of the program’s funders.

Growth, in this case, mostly means an increase in “turn-taking,” a verbal back-and-forth between parents and children that researchers view as an important sign of healthy language development. Parents are trained to verbalize their thoughts to their children, then look for a response.

A rise in turn-taking also correlates with other benefits: Parents talk to their children more frequently, for one, and kids are exposed to less electronic noise from TVs or cell phones over the course of the program. LENA gives books to parents, and parents typically report reading aloud more to their child.

The program started in Detroit last year with 50 parent-child-pairs. Thanks to promising results, LENA Start’s nonprofit supporters — including Black Family Development, the Kellogg Foundation, the LENA Foundation, the Michigan Children’s Health Access Plan, and Brilliant Detroit — plan to enroll another 150 parent-child pairs in Detroit.

(The Kellogg Foundation funds Chalkbeat. Read our code of ethics here.)

Program leaders say they hope to keep expanding, though the recording technology is pricey.

Using the bib recordings, LENA Start’s computers produce a detailed report for parents. It tells them how much electronic sound the baby is hearing  (differentiating between a computer and a live voice), how much the baby is speaking, and how often the baby “takes turns” in conversation with someone else in the home.

The program draws on  the research of Betty Hart and Todd Risley, the source of the much-cited notion that children from poor families typically hear 30 million fewer words before age three than their non-poor peers. That statistic went viral in academic and nonprofit circles, but it has come under fire in recent years, partly thanks to data collected by LENA programs, which pointed to a gap that is probably closer to 4 million words.

The challenge for program managers in Detroit is working to close the gaps that do exist while rejecting the idea that poor families do less for their children. Framing the problem as a “word gap” can be discouraging to parents and can even cue educators to expect less from children whose families live in poverty.

That may be why Stephens sees the recording data as “an affirmation tool.” Even when parents are stretched thin by poverty, she says they are able to change their speaking habits, especially when they’re given evidence that it is helping their child.

“What’s important is that we’re affirming that they’re already their child’s best teacher,” she said.

That may be one reason that Detroit’s program boasts an unusually high graduation rate — upwards of 90 percent of families compared to the national average of 74 percent.

Graduation ceremonies tend to be loud, Stephens said, because babies become more vocal over the length of the program.

Yuliana Moreno, one of the graduates, entered the program almost by default. She was already at Brilliant Detroit’s Southwest Detroit location at least twice a week before she entered LENA Start, attending infant massage classes for her seven-month-old and English classes for herself.

She said the benefits of the program extended to both of her children, even the one who didn’t attend LENA Start with her. It’s not that she wasn’t talking to them before — it’s just that no one had told her how important her communication could be, and the normal demands of life got in the way.

These days, she reports reading to her children more often, and says she uses her cell phone less while they’re around.

New leader

District chief Joris Ray named Memphis schools’ interim leader

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Joris Ray, center, was appointed interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

Joris Ray, who started his 20-year career as a teacher in Memphis schools, will be the interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

The school board voted 5-4 Tuesday evening to appoint Ray, who as a member of Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s cabinet oversees the district’s academic operations and student support. An audience composed mostly of educators applauded the announcement.

“A lot of people call Dr. Ray, and he gets things done,” Hopson said at the meeting.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Dorsey Hopson and Joris Ray, right.

Ray could be at the helm of Tennessee’s largest district for anywhere from 8 months to 18 months, as the board looks to hire a permanent leader, Board Chair Shante Avant said. Hopson is leaving the 200-school, 111,600-student district after nearly six years; he will lead an education initiative at the health insurer Cigna, effective Jan. 8.

Hopson will still help Ray transition into his new role a few weeks after his resignation takes effect because of his current contract terms.

The other two nominees to serve as interim superintendent were Lin Johnson, the district’s chief of finance, and Carol Johnson, a former superintendent of Memphis schools.

Hopson commended both Lin Johnson and Ray as “truly my brothers in this work.” He also acknowledged the work Carol Johnson has done in recent years to train teachers in her role as director of New Leaders in Memphis.

Some school board members wanted to preclude the interim appointee from applying for the permanent post — especially if the interim selection was an in-district hire — but a resolution formalizing that position failed in a 6-3 vote.

“If it were me… I’d think twice about going up against that person to take the job. I really would,” Teresa Jones, a board member, said. But she said she wants to create an environment “where individuals feel where they can come forward and apply” for the superintendent job.

There’s more from the meeting in this Twitter thread: