new to tweed

New York City’s new chief academic officer has a plan: give teachers resources that work for every single student

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

Two very different teaching experiences inside the same Manhattan school shaped Linda Chen’s career.

When she joined P.S. 163 as a teacher in the city’s sought-after gifted and talented program, Chen found training opportunities that challenged her to improve her craft and the materials she needed to engage her students.

Things changed after she transferred to a general education classroom in the same Upper West Side school, only to find much larger class sizes and fewer resources.

Linda Chen

“I saw equity challenges under one roof that I knew needed to change,” Chen said in an interview with Chalkbeat. “I knew I wanted to do something about that.”

After rising to become a principal here, Chen spent the next decade crisscrossing the country, filling top education roles in urban districts including Baltimore and Boston. When school starts Wednesday, Chen will return to New York City to serve as the new chief academic officer.

In Chen, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza has likely found an ally in his push for more diverse schools. Her approach may feel familiar in other ways, too. Colleagues say Chen cares deeply about helping teachers become better at their jobs — something former Chancellor Carmen Fariña put at the center of school improvement.   

Carranza created the chief academic officer position shortly into his five-month tenure here, saying the massive bureaucracy he inherited has struggled to collaborate in ways that make sense inside schools. The role brings together overlapping departments that touch the classroom in vital ways under the same leadership.

“I had great, hard-working people,” he told Chalkbeat in a recent interview. “But rarely did they work across each other’s silo.”

The last time New York City had a chief academic officer, it was forced to. In 2010, the city struck a deal with state officials: In exchange for approving Cathie Black, a schools chancellor who had no experience in education, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg agreed to appoint a chief academic officer as second in command. Black stepped down after 95 days.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio was elected, he tapped Carmen Fariña to lead the city’s schools. With more than 50 years of experience in the system, Fariña did away with the position. Before she retired this winter, Fariña served as chief executive and top educator, with a cabinet of 22 people reporting to her.

When Carranza came on board this spring, he found an “unwieldy” leadership structure. In schools, that could play out in frustrating ways. Principals and teachers complained about fuzzy lines of responsibility and support systems that were far removed from what teachers really needed.

Mike Magee, the head of Chiefs for Change — an education advocacy group — said that it’s increasingly common for school leaders to rely on a chief academic officer to steer the important work that happens in classrooms. Having someone dedicated to curriculum development and training frees up the chancellor to focus on systems issues, he said — something Fariña was often criticized for neglecting.

“The chief role in a school district, the superintendent role, is a role where you have a wide variety of responsibilities,” he said. “To have a leader on your team who can have a laser-like focus on not just the academic side of the work but on curriculum,” is a smart move.

Starting in 1997, Chen taught in New York City for about three years before joining the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, founded by the influential Columbia professor Lucy Calkins. Chen went on to become principal of P.S. 165 in Manhattan, a dual language school that she said also served a sizable number of students with special needs.

While there, some parents protested Chen’s decision to discipline a well-liked assistant principal. But Calkins said Chen was better known for encouraging active lessons with plenty of opportunities for students to talk and for spending time in classrooms “helping teachers study their kids.”

Chen left New York for Philadelphia in 2008, where she rose to become an assistant superintendent. From there she headed to Boston, where she made sure teacher evaluations and curriculum were aligned with new learning standards, and then to Baltimore, where she was chief academic officer.

The former head of schools there, Greg Thornton, said Chen ushered in new, formative assessments to give teachers more information about what their students really knew, and she was focused on boosting student engagement through the materials that were used in the classroom.

“Student engagement was her really big thing,” Thornton said. “We had kids who were disengaged, and you can’t win that way.”

Chen also helped champion a new way of supporting principals in struggling schools, though some complained it curbed the freedom of school leaders to make decisions. She served only two or three years in each of her roles, though that’s not unusual in the often politically fraught world of education.

Chen thinks things will work out differently in New York City.

“In this case is you have a mayor who has a clear agenda… You have a chancellor coming in  the middle of this who is completely aligned,” she said. “So you can move forward.”

In her portfolio as chief academic officer: the Division of Teaching and Learning, which coordinates teacher training and is responsible for curriculum; the department that oversees special education; and the department that serves students who are learning English as a new language.

It will be up to Chen to make sure all those offices work together to support students and teachers. That may mean that experts in teaching students with disabilities or limited English skills work side-by-side with curriculum gurus to create classroom materials that cater to students’ different needs, but also challenge them. The departments she oversees then might work together to coordinate training, making sure teachers know how to use the new materials well.

“There has been collaboration, but it has been somewhat informal and not structured in a way with the full intent for access,” she said. “I would love for [teachers] to be able to see that there is something in the resources we provide for every one of their students.”

For Chen, that means recognizing the “cultural needs” of students. Integration advocates have pushed the city to focus more on culturally relevant education practices, calling for classroom materials that include representations of different students and also reflect a diversity of viewpoints. In a system that is 70 percent black and Hispanic students, advocates say this is key to engaging students and even boosting academic achievement.

Chen said she looks at the work of culturally relevant education in two ways: Providing classroom materials that are inclusive of all students, and working with adults to recognize inequities in the school system.

“We can create materials and put them in teachers’ hands, but if we don’t attend to their needs and their development in this mindset, then they won’t thrive,” Chen said.

Former colleagues say diversity is an issue that Chen championed in her previous roles. Maria Pitre-Martin, who worked with Chen at the Philadelphia public school district, said it was front-and-center whenever making decisions about classroom materials.

“That was always part of the criteria, and it was pretty much a nonnegotiable, making sure that we had culturally relevant material in front of our students,” ” said Pitre-Martin, who is now a deputy state superintendent for North Carolina.

Chen will also have to coordinate the way the city trains and supports its educators, something the department has sometimes struggled to get right. Teachers in New York City have said the training they’re offered often cuts into their time in the classroom and feels disconnected from their needs.

It’s a notorious issue across the education field. In Jerry Jordan’s more than 30 years as an educator, the head of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers said he has suffered through plenty of useless training sessions. But he said Chen was known for bucking that trend, and delivering relevant professional development in her time in the Philadelphia public school district.

“People learned from it,” Jordan said. “There are times when you attend a professional development session and you say, ‘I just wasted two hours.’”

The right stuff

Who will be Tennessee’s next education chief? Gov.-elect Bill Lee is getting lots of advice

PHOTO: TN.gov
As outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam looks on, Gov.-elect Bill Lee speaks at the state Capitol the day after being elected the 50th governor of Tennessee. His 75-day transition will end with his inauguration on Jan. 19.

The changing of the guard that’s coming to the Tennessee governor’s office will now definitely come also to the department overseeing state education policy.

Candice McQueen took herself out of the running to continue as education commissioner with last week’s announcement that she’ll transition in January to a new job as CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.

While it was unlikely she would have stayed on permanently given the challenges with testing during her four-year tenure, McQueen’s planned departure cleans the slate for Gov.-elect Bill Lee to start fresh in finding the right fit to lead his vision for Tennessee schools.

The Republican businessman faces lots of choices in making one of the most important picks of his 23-member cabinet: Homegrown talent or a national search? Classroom teaching experience or workforce expertise? A quick hire or an extended search?

And he’s been getting a lot of advice.

From advocacy and philanthropic groups to the higher education and business communities, Tennessee has a large number of partners and stakeholders who care deeply about continuing the state’s momentum to improve student achievement.

“We believe that decisions made around talent and who is going to be working on education — either in the governor’s office or state Department of Education — are some of the most important decisions that the next governor will make,” said David Mansouri, president of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, or SCORE, a nonprofit group that works closely with the education department.

“We’re looking for someone who’s going to hold the line on the school accountability framework that the state has worked so hard to build,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, a leader with Conexión Américas, which advocates for Latino families in Nashville. “We want to keep up the urgency around improving performance of different student groups and making sure that we are bringing up all kids.”

Transition period

Since winning the election on Nov. 6, Lee has huddled with a small team of advisers in a windowless office at the state Capitol to plan the transition to a new administration, including sorting through about 600 resumes submitted for various jobs in all departments.

Transition spokeswoman Laine Arnold said the plan is to have the full cabinet in place by Lee’s Jan. 19 inauguration. But, she added, “we will be open to extending this process if needed.”

Lee’s pick for schools chief is considered key — and not just because the governor-elect made education a priority on the campaign trail, including a frequent call for stronger career and technical education.

The new commissioner eventually will manage a department of more than 600 employees overseeing a public school system for about a million students, 78,000 certified educators, and $6 billion in school funding.

And because Congress voted to cede much control over K-12 policy to state officials under a 2015 federal law, the commissioner plays an even larger role than in decades past.

Homegrown vs. national

Because of the high stakes, groups like SCORE are urging Lee to cast a wide net in his search for a successor to McQueen.

“We should aspire to have best-in-class and best-in-the-nation talent, just like we’ve had the last 10 years,” said Mansouri. “That may mean the person is from Tennessee, or from somewhere else.”

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen was one of Gov. Bill Haslam’s most visible cabinet members.

Other groups emphasize the value of being familiar with Tennessee schools.

“As an organization comprised of school district leaders, we believe it would be an advantage for a state commissioner of education to have experience both in the classroom and as a public school system leader in Tennessee,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

Adds Beth Brown, president of the Tennessee Education Association: “The next commissioner should have a practical understanding of what goes on in our public schools. Having that kind of leader in place will go a long way to restoring teachers’ confidence in our Department of Education.”

Last handoff

When Republican Bill Haslam took the baton from Democrat Phil Bredesen in 2011 in the last gubernatorial handoff, he conducted a national search before plucking Kevin Huffman from the ranks of the education reform movement as his point person on schools.

A lawyer who was an executive with Teach For America in Washington, D.C., Huffman was tasked with managing Tennessee’s just-approved overhaul of K-12 schools as part of its $500 million federal Race to the Top award. The Obama-era competition had incentivized states to adopt shared academic standards, improve its lowest-performing schools, measure students’ growth over time, and design policies to reward and retain top teachers.

State education commissioner Kevin Huffman.
PHOTO: TN.gov
Kevin Huffman was Tennessee’s education commissioner from 2011 to 2014.

A polarizing leader, Huffman left after three years of clashing with teacher groups, district leaders, and state lawmakers over policies ranging from teacher licensing and evaluations to charter schools and Common Core.

Haslam then turned to McQueen, a native of Clarksville, Tenn., former teacher, and respected dean of education at Nashville’s Lipscomb University.

“She was a kinder, gentler Kevin Huffman,” said Dan Lawson, long-time school superintendent in Tullahoma. “They shared the same political agenda and underpinning, but Candice was able to deliver it in a smoother, less abrasive fashion.”

McQueen held the rudder steady on the state’s new roadmap, plus bolstered supports for teachers and launched a major reading initiative. But ongoing fumbles delivering a state test took their toll.

Interim or not

The complexities of education policy, including Tennessee’s pioneering changes over the last decade, are why SCORE leaders hope that Lee doesn’t rush to make a hire.

“We think that having a thoughtful approach that looks for the best in the nation is the right one,” said Mansouri. “If that takes time, that’s OK. It’s about getting the right person.”

There’s precedent here.

Before Haslam hired Huffman several months after taking office, he leaned on acting commissioner Patrick Smith, who had led the state’s Race to the Top oversight team under Bredesen.

Other groups agree that a thorough search is in order.

“My sense is that the Lee administration will look for top talent and let quality drive their hiring decisions. But having some ties to Tennessee will be a huge bonus,” said Shaka Miller, state director of the American Federation for Children, a group that Lee has supported and that backs a “school choice” agenda, including charter schools and voucher-like programs.

Qualities and qualifications

On the campaign trail, Lee pledged to hire the most talented and qualified people for his administration.

Arnold adds: “He’s looking for those who share his vision in making Tennessee a national leader, while also ensuring geographic and individual diversity.”

While she declined to discuss names, Lee has sought advice from two superintendents from West Tennessee — Dorsey Hopson in Shelby County and Marlon King in Fayette County — both of whom were on a 72-person campaign list of Tennesseans who supported or advised him on education.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Dorsey Hopson is superintendent of Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest district.

Hopson’s backing of the millionaire Republican candidate from affluent suburban Williamson County raised eyebrows — and some fury — among his mostly urban Democratic district in Memphis, which has the state’s highest share of impoverished students.

Hopson told Chalkbeat at the time that he was “not angling for a job,” but rather that he and Lee had developed a mutual respect while getting to know each during the last year and a half.

“We routinely discussed faith, family, government, and education issues,” said Hopson, a lawyer who has headed Tennessee’s largest district since 2013. “I appreciated the thoughtful and humble way that he sought my input.”

Asked last week about Hopson, Lee told Memphis TV station Local 24 News that he hadn’t spoken with the superintendent specifically about his administration but added: “He has a role. We talk. We’ve become friends. I have a great deal of respect for his expertise.”

Hopson would have to take a pay cut, however, if Lee offered and he accepted the commissioner’s job. As superintendent, he makes $285,000 a year. The salary for the state’s education chief is $200,000.

Follow the ratings

Illinois education officials laud their school ratings — but critics say they don’t go far enough

Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State education officials publicly lauded their new school rating system Friday, even as a new, nationwide analysis of school improvement plans criticized Illinois’ approach as too hands-off.  

While the state developed a clear rating system as the federal government requires, Illinois falls short in follow-through, according to the report from the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit advocacy group, and HCM Strategies, a policy analysis group.  

“The state is taking too limited a role in leading or supporting school improvement efforts,” said the report, which examined how 17 states are implementing school improvement plans under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed in 2015 and replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.

Both those federal laws task states with identifying and helping improve underperforming schools and with creating criteria to judge which schools are doing well. Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State officials disagree with the criticism.

“Illinois is being held up as a model for other states to follow,” said Ralph Grimm, chief education officer of Illinois, speaking at the monthly state board of education meeting on Friday. “The entire (state) team has to be commended for providing useful information.”

Illinois’ rating system places every public school in the state into one of four categories based in part on scores on the annual PARCC standardized tests (click here to see how Chicago schools ranked).

Only about a third of Illinois students scored proficient or higher on PARCC tests administered last spring. In reading, 37 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 met that benchmark, while in math 31 percent did. Despite that, the state awarded 80 percent of its schools a “commendable” or “exemplary” rating. 

The state labeled 20 percent of schools “underperforming” or “low performing,” the only designations that could trigger state action. Intervention measures include improvement plans, visits from specialists, and additional funding.

The state released its ratings just days after Chicago released its own batch of school ratings, which take into account a different set of metrics and a different standardized test.

Grimm said the next step will be asking the state’s lowest-performing schools to draft improvement plans and then connecting them with experts to implement their changes.

The state ratings pay particular attention to how schools educate certain groups of students — such as children of color and English language learners. Improvement plans will focus on ways to raise their achievement levels.

Under the latest state rankings, nearly half of Chicago schools failed to meet the state’s threshold for performance, with a disproportionate number of high schools on the low-performance list. Nearly all of under- and low-performing Chicago high schools are on the South Side and sit in or border on the city’s poorest census tracts.

The state could grant underperforming schools $15,000, and  the lowest performers can apply for $100,000 under its IL-Empower program — which helped schools improve by funneling federal funds to them. Advocates have welcomed the change to a carrot to help schools pull themselves up, after years of sticks that overhauled and cut funding for low-performing schools.

Nationally, the Collaborative for Student Success report applauded Colorado for its streamlined application system, and Nevada for asking districts to directly address equity.

The collaborative criticized Illinois for failing to involve parents and community members in its plan. The group also said the state needs to give districts more guidance on putting together school improvement plans.