so far so good

How is Carranza’s big shake-up going over? So far, educators are optimistic.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Chancellor Richard Carranza tours Staten Island's New Dorp High School with Principal Deirdre DeAngelis.

Principals across New York City already complain about being buried in mounds of paperwork, compliance items, and mandates from their superiors.

So at first glance, it may sound like bad news that a system shake-up announced by Chancellor Richard Carranza on Wednesday centers on adding another layer of bureaucracy to the system’s management.

But instead, the chancellor’s plan to add nine executive superintendents is being met with cautious optimism from some principals and school advocates, who say the new structure could provide a clear point person to contact when they need support. It may also streamline communication between management and principals, cutting down on the amount of paperwork principals are required to complete, they say.

“They are making sure that those lines are clear, that the principals knows where they’re going to get their support,” said Mark Cannizzaro, the head of the city’s principal’s union. “When it comes to being burdened with paperwork and bureaucracy, my view is that it should be reducing that.”

At the core of Carranza’s plan is an effort to bring together two entities that have been operating separately for several years: superintendents and Field Support Centers. The superintendents are tasked with overseeing principals and shaping instruction, while the support centers provide logistical help to schools in areas like teacher training or budgeting.

The problem for some principals, however, has been that it is not always clear who is charge or where to turn for assistance. For instance, while principals are supposed to work with superintendents to improve instruction, the resources to do that are governed by the support centers — requiring two autonomous entities to work together.

“You really feel as if you’re dealing with two sets of divorced parents,” said Ari Hoogenboom, principal of Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn. They want you “to succeed,” he says, “but their notions of what will make you successful and happy are different.”  

Hoogenboom said putting the two entities under the single umbrella of an executive superintendent may help stem some of the confusion. (He likened the role to that of a marriage counselor.)

Edgar Rodriguez, principal of the Academy for Careers in Television and Film, said that he is also encouraged by the streamlined structure. “I will say for myself and for many of my colleagues, one of the main challenges has been a clear delineation of responsibility between those two entities,” he said.

Under the old system, he said, he would often get two sets of compliance items from the Field Support Centers and the superintendent. He remembers thinking, “I just answered this question for so-and-so, how is that this information hasn’t gotten to the right place?”

The city’s current system was crafted by former Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who wanted to give more power to superintendents, who could be her “eyes and ears,” in her words. Her systemic shifts came after the previous mayor, Michael Bloomberg, sought to give principal’s maximal autonomy.

While some critics complained about Bloomberg’s governance, which they said lacked support for struggling principals, others thought Fariña’s management style took too much power away from principals on the frontlines and bordered on micromanagement. In an account of one early meeting, two principals complained that their newly-empowered superintendents had ushered them into a meeting with “random speakers” including Miss New York, who spoke with them about “baton twirling.”

Carranza’s system may be seen as doubling down on Fariña’s approach, by giving power to another set of higher-level superintendents, who will make at least $190,000 each, costing the city an additional $2 million in central-office costs. But Cannizzaro says the structural change is not necessarily a sign of a larger philosophical shift.

“I don’t see this structure as dictating, one way or another, what the philosophy is going to be,” Cannizzaro said. He noted that while the plan looks good on paper, it will be crucial to see how it is implemented over the coming months.

The reorganization also left some leaders of private groups that manage smaller networks of public schools — such as Urban Assembly and New Visions — encouraged.

Former Chancellor Fariña wanted to shrink the role of those networks, which were favored by Mayor Bloomberg and were designed to allow groups of schools to share ideas and best practices. In the past, networks were supervised by an overlapping patchwork of superintendents. Carranza’s reorganization, by contrast, creates a new superintendent position to oversee just those networks.

“We feel embraced by this structure,” said Kristin Kearns-Jordan, CEO of the Urban Assembly network, which manages 21 New York City public schools. “It signals good support for our work.”

Josh Starr, a former schools superintendent in Connecticut and Maryland who is currently the CEO of PDK International, an association for educators, said it is not unusual for new district leaders to make big structural changes when they take office to put their own imprint on schools.

But imposing a new supervision structure on a massive system of 1,800 schools won’t come without challenges. Starr said Carranza will need to publicly communicate a concrete theory about how the new executive superintendents will improve student learning, and how this work will be evaluated.

“Rich is going to have to be very, very clear about what that work looks like and what his expectations are and what support [school supervisors] are going to get,” Starr said. Otherwise, “Do you just create layers of bureaucracy?”

Another challenge will be finding sufficient talent to fill the new superintendent positions, given the many scores of schools serving thousands of students — and uncertainty about whether the roles will last beyond the remainder of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s three years in office.

Still, Starr is optimistic. “Rich is known out there as one of the good guys and he has a strong network and a lot of people want to work for him.”

Top teacher

Former Tennessee teacher of the year wins prestigious national award

Cicely Woodard, an eighth-grade math teacher in Franklin, receives the 2019 NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence. (Photo courtesy of NEA)

Former Tennessee teacher of the year Cicely Woodard has received the nation’s highest teaching honor through its largest teacher organization.

The eighth-grade math educator in Franklin accepted the Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence from the NEA Foundation. The honor, which includes a $25,000 prize, was presented Friday at a gala in Washington, D.C.

“Teaching can be time-consuming, challenging, and sometimes overwhelming,” said Woodard. “But the impact that we make on the lives of students — and that they make on us — is powerful, life-changing, and enduring.”

A graduate of Central High School in Memphis, Woodard has been a teacher since 2003. She taught in Nashville public schools when she was named Tennessee’s top teacher in 2018 and has since moved to Franklin Special School District in Williamson County, south of Nashville, where she teaches at Freedom Middle School.

Woodard was among 46 educators nominated for the NEA Foundation award by their state education associations and was one of five finalists who received the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence, which carries an additional $10,000 prize. The Member Benefits Award winner was announced at the finale of the gala attended by 900 people.

“Cicely has been selected for this award by her peers not only because of her mastery as an educator, but also because of the empathy and compassion she shows for her students,” said Harriet Sanford, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation.

Known for her inquiry-based approach to mathematics, Woodard holds a bachelor’s degree in math from the University of Memphis and a master’s degree in secondary math education from Vanderbilt University.

She has had numerous state-level roles, including serving on the education department’s teachers cabinet and on the testing task force created by former Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. She also is on the steering committee for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a Nashville-based education research and advocacy organization.

You can watch Woodard in her classroom in the video below.

Penny Schwinn

What we heard from Tennessee’s education commissioner during her first week

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn (right) speaks with students during a visit to LEAD Neely's Bend, a state-run charter school in Nashville. (Photo courtesy of LEAD Public Schools)

From students in the classroom to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Penny Schwinn introduced herself as Tennessee’s education commissioner this week by praising the state’s academic gains over the last decade and promising to keep up that momentum by supporting school communities.

Schwinn toured seven schools in Middle and East Tennessee during her first three days on the job to get a firsthand look at what’s behind the academic growth that she’s watched from afar as chief accountability officer for Delaware’s education department and more recently as deputy commissioner over academics in Texas. She plans to visit schools in West Tennessee next week.

The goal, she said, is to “listen and learn,” and she told a statewide gathering of superintendents at midweek that Tennessee’s successes can be traced to the classroom.

“It has to do with the hard work of our educators … every single day getting up, walking in front of our children, and saying ‘You deserve an excellent education, and I’m going to be the one to give it to you,’” she said.

On policy, she affirmed Tennessee’s decade-long blueprint of setting rigorous academic standards, having a strong assessment to track performance, and holding school communities accountable for results.

“If we can keep that bar high … then I think that Tennessee will continue to improve at the rate that it has been,” she told legislators during an appearance before the House Education Committee.

Schwinn was the final cabinet member to start her job after being hired by Republican Gov. Bill Lee just days before his inauguration on Jan. 19. Her whirlwind first week began with school visits on Monday and concluded on Friday by attending a policy-heavy session of the State Board of Education.

But perhaps the biggest introduction came on Wednesday before district leaders attending a statewide meeting of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, also known as TOSS. These are the local administrators she’ll work with most closely to try to improve student performance.

The superintendents group had stayed neutral about who should succeed Candice McQueen in the state’s top policy job but hoped for a leader with extensive experience both in the classroom and as a Tennessee school superintendent. Schwinn is neither, having started her career in a Baltimore classroom through Teach For America and later founding a charter school in her hometown of Sacramento, California, where she also was a principal and then became an assistant district superintendent.

She appeared to wow them.

“Our job at the state Department of Education is to figure out what you all need to help your teachers be the best that they can be for our students. My job is to lead this department to ensure that this happens,” she told the superintendents.

Schwinn shared a personal story about adopting her oldest daughter, now age 6, and the “powerful moment” at the hospital when the birth mom said she loved her baby but couldn’t provide her with the future she deserves. “I think you can,” she told Schwinn, “and so I’m giving you my baby.”

Penny Schwinn speaks to the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. (Photo courtesy of TOSS)

“When I think about my responsibility as a teacher or a principal or as commissioner of the state of Tennessee, I think about all of our parents … who pack up lunches, pack up backpacks, drop them off at the door and they give us their babies,” she said.

“That is the most powerful and important responsibility that we have as educators,” she said, “and I take that very, very seriously.”

Several superintendents stood up to thank her.

“I am encouraged. I feel like you have the heart that we all have,” said Linda Cash, who leads Bradley County Schools in southeast Tennessee.

“What she did most is she listened,” said TOSS Executive Director Dale Lynch of his earlier meeting with Schwinn. “As superintendents and directors, that’s very important to us.”

Here are other things we heard Schwinn say this week:

On whether Tennessee will continue its 3-year-old literacy program known as Read to be Ready:

“It is incredibly important that we have initiatives that stick and that have staying power. I think we’ve all had the experience of having … one-and-done initiatives that come and go. … From [my early school] visits, it was underscored time and time again the importance of initiatives like that.”

On the role of early childhood education:

“I think that early education — and that’s both academic and social development — is incredibly important to ensure that we get kindergartners who are ready to learn and ready to be successful.”

On the state-run turnaround district for Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools:

“High expectations are the vision of the Achievement School District, but I think there’s a lot of work to be done candidly. There are good conversations to be had and some questions to be asked. But I will say that I am committed to ensuring that our lowest-performing schools achieve and grow at a much faster rate than they have been.”

On Texas’ academic growth in the 1990s that later flattened:

“They got very comfortable. It was, ‘We’re just doing just fine, we’re doing a great job,’ and then slowly some of the big reforms that they put into place in the ’90s started peeling back little by little. … It’s hard to get things done, but it’s really hard to hold the line.”

Here are six other things to know about Penny Schwinn.