Carranza stands by NYC’s ‘Renewal’ program for struggling schools, but asks, ‘What’s our theory of action?’

After a week and a half on the job, New York City schools chancellor Richard Carranza said the city needs to be clearer about how it intends to boost performance at struggling schools — a pointed assessment of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s high-profile “Renewal” program.

“What’s our theory of action? I keep asking that question, and I get different answers,” Carranza said about the city’s Renewal schools during an exclusive interview with Chalkbeat Wednesday. “They’re all great answers, but my perspective is you should have one theory of action.”

A “tight, cohesive” theory of action, Carranza said, would spell out exactly what the city’s 78 current Renewal schools are expected to do to improve student performance and what the measures of their success are.

Without clearer guiding principles, he added, “it makes it difficult to talk about what really are the outcomes that we’re looking for. So that’s the work that we’re going to engage in very, very quickly right now.”

Carranza’s remarks represent his most critical public assessment so far of initiatives he has inherited. Still, he said he intends to continue the Renewal program, likely with some changes.

The Renewal program, which infuses schools with extra social services and academic support and has cost nearly $600 million since 2014, is one of de Blasio’s most high-profile education initiatives. The mayor made an ambitious bet that the city could turn around the city’s lowest-performing schools instead of closing them — the preferred policy under his predecessor.

Carranza’s arrival in New York comes at a delicate moment for the program. De Blasio initially promised that the program would stoke “fast and intense” improvements within three years, yet more than three years later many schools have not shown significant gains. The Renewal program is also without a permanent leader, and the city’s plans for its future have been unclear.

The new chancellor seemed to put some of those questions to rest, saying the education department would continue supporting the program and that he planned to name a new leader to run it — though he declined to offer a timeline.

Carranza also indicated that he is eager to get under the hood of the program, and still has lots of questions about it.

“How are we looking at the curriculum that is being used in these schools and what’s the alignment between the curriculum and how we’re monitoring student progress?” he said. “How are we actually empowering community school approaches in these particular schools?”

Among the questions he wants to answer: whether the education department has been clear with communities about exactly how much progress schools need to make before suffering consequences, including closure.

Parents and teachers have repeatedly criticized the education department for closing Renewal schools that appear to perform better than others that remain open. (City officials have argued that their approach is holistic, making it impossible to set precise cutoffs that make schools eligible for closure.)

“There is a component to Renewal schools that, after a certain number of years, then we either merge, we truncate, we change, we close,” Carranza said. “So, do communities really understand that? I’m not convinced that I have enough information yet that, ‘Yep, we’ve had a robust community involvement, community engagement process. People know what we’re trying to do and how to do it.’”

Renewal isn’t the only area where Carranza said he has questions about how successfully ideas have translated into action at the department he now runs.

“I’m finding evidence that there’s really good work that’s happened already in the department of ed,” he said. “And I’m also finding evidence that not all of that has trickled down yet into the classroom.”