While New York governor Andrew Cuomo is busy condemning teachers as incompetent and raging against “government monopoly” schools, New York City’s school chancellor, Carmen Farina, who has been on the job for only thirteen months, has been methodically instituting policies that, she insists, will improve the schools that struggle hardest and at the same time enhance the school day for all of the district’s 1.1 million students. While critics say she may be trying to do too much too fast, Farina must be congratulated for substituting a school improvement philosophy for Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s long and intense test-and-punish, close-struggling-schools philosophy.
Farina has recently announced a new administrative accountability network, a plan for addressing child poverty right at school through new community schools, and major new strategies to enhance academics. The challenge will be for Farina to coordinate and harmonize all of the changes and ensure that school achievement rises, dropout rates decline, and services support all children in the huge and potentially unwieldy New York City system.
A recent NY Times report summarizes: “In the little more than a year since Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed her to lead the city’s Education Department, Ms. Farina has presided over a methodical dismantling of the policies of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s first and last chancellors, Joel I. Klein and Dennis M. Walcott. She inherited a department that tracked data closely and used it do decide schools’ fates, rating schools annually from A to F. Principals, many of whom during Mr. Bloomberg’s tenure were drawn from the ranks of novice teachers and given managerial training, were given as much freedom as possible. If their schools did not score high enough on an array of data points—graduation rates, attendance, the number of students passing classes and going to college—they were subject to being closed. In 12 years, the Bloomberg administration either shut down or began to phase out 157 schools and opened 656 new, smaller schools.”
According to the NY Times‘ analysis, “Ms Farina, in contrast, believes that principals need both more experience and more supervision than they had during the Bloomberg years. She increased the requirements for new principals’ teaching experience to seven years from three… And last month she re-established the importance of the system’s superintendents, whose role in overseeing principals had diminished during the Bloomberg years. Rather than closing struggling schools, she has said she will support them with more guidance and an infusion of social services, from family counseling to optometry. Shutting schools is to be a last resort.”
Earlier this year, Farnia eliminated Bloomberg’s A-F grades for schools. In a major policy address on January 22, Farina announced a new system for district-wide administrative accountability. Farina has put in place 45 area superintendents with at least 10 years of teaching experience, including three years as a principal. “They will be my eyes and ears… Going forward, there will be consistency across and within the system.” Farina announced she will eliminate 55 offices called Children First Networks, set up under Bloomberg’s school chancellors to support school improvement. Farina explains: “Superintendents had the authority to rate and fire principals but they didn’t have the tools they needed to help principals improve. Instead, that responsibility fell to 55 Children First Networks, which had access to resources designed to help schools improve.” The Networks had long been criticized as ineffective. Farina continues, “The leaders of these networks had the inverse of the problem facing the superintendents—despite working closely with principals, they had no authority to rate or fire them.” Moving forward, Farina announced she will create seven geographically located Borough Field Support Centers that will, among other improvements, help coordinate and articulate programming across elementary, middle and high schools in particular areas of the city.
In her address, Farina described six characteristics that mark quality schools and schools moving toward improvement: rigorous instruction; collaborative teachers; a safe, orderly and respectful school climate; strong ties to family and community; effective leadership; and a climate of trusting relationships among administrators, teachers, and families. These characteristics were identified by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, which has developed a survey tool by which schools and school districts can measure qualitative improvement in these six areas. Farina said she is instituting use of the surveys as a way to track progress. “We will be evaluating every school in terms of the six measures. We will target support to areas where a school is weak, and we will hold the school accountable for demonstrating improvement.”
In her address Farina announced plans to flood the district’s lowest achieving schools—94 schools Farina is calling Renewal Schools—with support. All 94 Renewal Schools will become full service community schools that surround students—right at school—with health clinics, social services and parent support. Community schools are formed through formal contractual arrangements with the city’s organizations that currently provide medical and social services; the Community School becomes the central site for the massing of the services families need. Some have criticized this aspect of Farina’s plan as overly ambitious. Patrick Wall, writing for Chalkbeat New York, worries that the formal school-social service-medical partnerships are being undertaken in too many schools all at once: “The turnaround plan, dubbed ‘school renewal’ will connect the schools with agencies that will bring in physical and mental health services for students, after-school programs, tutoring, and perhaps job training or housing assistance for parents.” “Unlike a smaller program de Blasio launched earlier this year that asked eager principals to apply for money to create community schools, the turnaround plan compels leaders of struggling schools to adopt that approach regardless of whether they appear willing or able.”
In her address, Farnia described additional academic changes at the district’s 94 struggling Renewal Schools. Renewal Schools are being paired for collaboration with schools that are currently thriving. Each school will add an hour of extra instruction every day. Renewal Schools will receive extra support for more seats in the district’s expanded after school program. Teachers in these schools will have added training with intensive coaching from experts. Summer programs will be targeted to these schools. School achievement at Renewal Schools will be tracked closely. Schools whose test scores fail to rise over three years will, according to Wall, “face leadership changes or even closure.”
Major program changes have been underway all year. In her recent address Farina reported that 53,000 four-year-olds are now enrolled in quality, full-day, pre-kindergarten. The school district has broadly expanded after school programming for students in middle school. Farina is asking Renewal schools to return to “balanced literacy” reading instruction which incorporates time at school for children to read for enjoyment books they choose and write about their personal experiences. “I think it was a misinterpretation that all reading has to have an end-goal that is a test,” said Farina recently about reading instruction that she believes focused far too much on close reading of short expository passages and writing responses to the prompts in the state’s standardized tests. Farina is also launching 40 dual-language bilingual education programs that use New York City’s diversity and size to advantage. “A vast majority of the programs will be in Spanish, but there will also be some in Japanese, Hebrew, Chinese, French and Haitian-Creole.”
Lots of people are watching to see if Farina and the New York City Schools will fail. Are expectations too high and too fast? I am going to be looking for the successes instead. Bloomberg’s strategy—founded in competition by schools to raise their aggregate test scores— punished principals and teachers and created incentives for pushing struggling students to the schools that struggled themselves—ensuring that those schools would score lower and lower until they were closed.
I am going to assume it is possible to improve public schools by building accountability through a strong network of experienced superintendents and principals, creating geographically based support services, making medical care available for children and social services accessible for families right in school buildings, intensively training teachers, and adding after school programs, preschools, and new and enriched academics. I’ll be looking for some exciting developments.