the new search

In search for new chancellor, Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to build on Fariña’s legacy

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Carmen Fariña announces her retirement at City Hall.

As the search for a new leader of the nation’s largest public school system begins, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday that he has a specific type in mind: someone who is a lot like the 50-year veteran stepping down.

At a press conference, de Blasio said he has already begun a national search to replace Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who formally announced her retirement on Thursday. He emphasized that he is not looking for someone to shake things up but rather wants someone who will follow through on the course that he and Fariña set out. He also committed to hiring an educator, an important criteria for the mayor when he chose Fariña that set him apart from the previous administration.

“I’m thrilled with what Carmen’s achieved and I want to just deepen what she has started,” de Blasio said on Thursday. “Am I looking for something we don’t have? No.”

Fariña became chancellor after de Blasio was initially elected mayor in 2013. A longtime veteran in the New York City schools system, she emphasized sharing ideas among educators and infusing schools with resources.

It was long rumored that Fariña, 74, would step down upon de Blasio’s re-election. Her departure, which leaked out on Wednesday, opens up one of the largest jobs in education in the country, with responsibility for overseeing 1,800 schools and 1.1 million children, as well as a large workforce of administrators, teachers, support staff and department officials.

In his first term, de Blasio’s signature education accomplishment was universal prekindergarten, and he has signaled that he wants to double down on his existing policy initiatives. He hopes to expand pre-K to 3-year-olds and carry out his “Equity and Excellence” agenda, which includes offering computer science in every school and improving literacy.

De Blasio lavished praise on Fariña’s efforts to help him tackle big initiatives during his first term, calling her energy “superhuman” and her accomplishments “miraculous.”

“I asked a lot of Carmen Fariña, and she gave me even more,” de Blasio said.

The mayor said he plans to select a new chancellor in the next few months and that he hopes Fariña will continue in her post until then. He gave little information about the search process, saying only that it will be an internal, quiet decision.

For her part, Fariña emphasized many of the same goals that she first set out to accomplish. She focused on valuing collaboration among educators over competition and discussed elevating the teaching profession.

“The thing I’m proudest of is the fact that we have brought back dignity to teaching, joy to learning, and trust to the system,” Fariña said.

The chancellor also said she does not see retirement as “going off into the sunset,” but instead plans to be involved in education projects. In particular, she said she may help educators working at separate schools in the same building find more ways to share ideas. (After her first retirement in 2006, when she stepped down as deputy chancellor of teaching and learning, she continued to work as a consultant in city schools.)

However, she also made it clear that any education initiatives will be a side job and that her primary goal is to relax.

“The next stage of my life, I am not going to have a Blackberry to walk around with,” Fariña said. “I am going to go out to dinner and not have to respond to any emergencies. I’ve already started thinking about at least one vacation with each of my daughters.”

Digging in

‘I do not plan to resign,’ McQueen tells lawmakers over latest testing missteps in Tennessee

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen testifies Wednesday before state lawmakers about technical problems that stalled students' online TNReady tests this week. Beside her is Brad Baumgartner, chief operating officer of Questar, the state's testing company.

Candice McQueen adamantly told state lawmakers Wednesday that she will not step down as Tennessee’s education commissioner over the state’s bungling of standardized tests for a third straight year.

One day after House Democrats called for the embattled leader to resign, McQueen reported that students were testing successfully online on the third day of TNReady. She said the problems of the first two days had been addressed — at least for now.

The commissioner opened a two-hour legislative hearing with an apology to students, parents, and educators for technical problems that stalled testing and affected tens of thousands of students this week.

“We were completely devastated when we heard that districts were again having technical issues yesterday,” she said of issues now being attributed to a “cyber attack” on the data center operated by testing company Questar.

She reported speaking with the head of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation about a possible criminal investigation — but that jurisdictional issues may prevent that since Questar’s data center is located in Minnesota. Immediately, she said, the state will work with Questar to hire an independent investigator.

Rep. Mike Stewart

That plan angered Rep. Mike Stewart, a Democrat from Nashville, who fired off the opening question that set the tone for most of the day’s dialogue.

“Could you answer the fundamental question why you should not use this hearing to resign right now, based on these consistent failures?” Stewart asked, citing problems that go back to 2016 when Tennessee canceled much of TNReady after the state’s first attempt at online testing collapsed.

“I do not plan to resign,” McQueen responded, adding that she expected to power through the next three weeks of testing with “continued improvement and success.”

At her side was Brad Baumgartner, chief operating officer of Minnesota-based Questar, which is under a $30 million annual contract with Tennessee’s Department of Education that expires this year. He took responsibility for this week’s testing failures.

“I think it’s important for members here to understand that the department did everything that they could to thoughtfully plan for this administration, as did the commissioner,” Baumgartner told lawmakers.

“We own the last couple of days,” he added.

That prompted Stewart to ask McQueen why the company that’s acknowledging mistakes is also spearheading the investigation into them.

"Honestly, I can’t think of a single entity less qualified to investigate this problem than Questar, which has consistently failed."Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville

“What I heard is that I don’t have any information, but I want to make an excuse for the person who hired us and gave us a bunch of money,” Stewart said. “… Honestly, I can’t think of a single entity less qualified to investigate this problem than Questar, which has consistently failed.”

McQueen said the state and Questar will consult with the TBI about bringing in a third-party investigator, and she pledged to ask Davidson County’s attorney general to request a TBI probe. (After the hearing, she formally made that request.)

She added that she was open to the idea of suspending accountability measures for one year and holding students, teachers, and schools harmless based on this year’s tests, if that is the will of the legislature. But state lawmakers, who are expected to wind down the 2018 session next week, would have to authorize that change since it’s now part of state law.

In contrast to Stewart, Rep. Mark White came to McQueen’s defense and urged her to dig in her heels.

“Don’t you dare consider resigning,” the Memphis Republican told the commissioner. “The easy thing to do is quit and give up when the going gets tough.”

He recounted how Tennessee was blasted in 2007 for its low academic standards and dishonesty in reporting that its students were doing well on state achievement tests when they were tanking on national tests.

“We were failing our students 10 years ago,” said White, calling the testing problems “hiccups” and hailing the state’s more rigorous standards.

“[Today] we are the fastest-improving state in the nation. We didn’t get there by pushing back and giving up and throwing our hands up and saying, ‘Oh it’s too hard.’”

A former classroom teacher and university dean, McQueen was appointed education chief in late 2014 by Gov. Bill Haslam. On Tuesday, a Haslam spokeswoman said the Republican governor has “complete confidence in Commissioner McQueen.”

You can see McQueen’s presentation below:

Movers and Shakers

Indianapolis Public Schools’ Lewis Ferebee is a finalist to lead Los Angeles schools

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is a finalist to lead the Los Angeles school district, the nation’s second largest, according to Indianapolis Public Schools Board President Michael O’Connor.

Former investment banker Austin Beutner is apparently the frontrunner for the job, according to the Los Angeles Times, which first reported the news. Ferebee is another finalist along with interim Los Angeles Superintendent Vivian Ekchian and former Baltimore Superintendent Andres Alonso. Ferebee didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Ferebee has made a name for himself nationally by overhauling Indianapolis Public Schools, converting low-performing schools into “innovation schools” run by outside charter operators but still under the district’s umbrella.

The selection of Ferebee might signal that Los Angeles is further embracing what some call the “portfolio model” — the idea that all schools should be given freedom to operate as they see fit, but held accountable for their results, largely through test scores.

Under Ferebee’s tenure, IPS has embraced key tenets of the approach, including a common enrollment system for district and charter schools and an initiative that turns over district schools to nonprofit or outside charter operators who handle daily management. Some Los Angeles school board members have suggested the district move in a similar direction.

O’Connor said that Ferebee’s selection as a finalist in such a large district is “a sign that both he and the school system are doing things that people are paying attention to and in many places want to emulate.”

He said that Ferebee told him that he was approached by a hiring firm that asked him to be in the pool of candidates for the Los Angeles position. O’Connor noted that Ferebee has been with the district for nearly five years, longer than is typical for urban superintendents.

“We’ve been lucky,” O’Connor said.

The average urban tenure of superintendents leading urban school districts is just over three years, according to a 2014 survey conducted by the Council of Great City Schools.

Even if Ferebee does not leave Indianapolis, the public confirmation that he is interested in other jobs could handicap his ability to win community support at pivotal time for Indianapolis Public Schools. The district will close nearly half of its high schools at the end of this year. And leaders are in the midst of a rocky campaign to seek more funding from taxpayers — an appeal that was first scaled back and then suspended. The district is now working with the Indy Chamber to craft a new proposal that leaders expect to put on the ballot in November.

Chamber chief policy officer Mark Fisher said that the campaign cannot hinge on a individual. Ferebee’s selection as a finalist in Los Angeles reinforces the need for a strong school board, which oversees the district and would hire his replacement if he leaves.

“Nobody is irreplaceable,” Fisher said. “He is an exceptional leader. But I have full faith in the board.”

If Ferebee took the helm of the Los Angeles school system, it would be a dramatic move. The Los Angeles district has more than 640,000 students, about 20 times as many students as Indianapolis Public Schools.

Ferebee came to Indianapolis in 2013. He previously served as chief of staff for the superintendent of Durham, N.C. Until coming to Indianapolis, he spent most of his career in traditional public school systems in that state.

Since Ferebee took the helm at the city’s largest school district, Indianapolis Public Schools has significantly improved its graduation rate to 83 percent, up from about 68 percent. The district has not seen improvement in scores on ISTEP, the state standardized exams.

Read more about Ferebee here: The basics of Lewis Ferebee: An IPS superintendent pushing hard for change