Interview with Carmen Fariña
The NYC schools chancellor on testing, recentralizing control, and tech initiatives. By Alexander Russo
It’s been a little more than a year since Chancellor Carmen Fariña took over as head of the New York City Public Schools. Appointed by incoming mayor Bill de Blasio, the longtime educator came out of retirement to accept the job and has thus far avoided stepping into one of the many political and logistical sinkholes that make district leadership so challenging.
Looking back on a frenetic first year, Fariña talks about recentralizing control under regional superintendents, addressing parents’ concerns about overtesting, encouraging more sharing of ideas among teachers and schools, and avoiding ed-tech mishaps like Los Angeles Unified School District’s iPad debacle.
Q | What’s your favorite part of the job, besides visiting schools?
A | This is my 49th year as an educator in this system, and I love being able to take everything I’ve learned—from my own experiences as well as my interactions with other educators, parents, and students—and turn it into priorities and policies that serve our students. Another favorite part of my job is meeting with stakeholders. I deeply value my parent meetings, teacher meetings, principal meetings, and superintendent meetings.
Q | What changes have you implemented since you took over a year ago—and what else are you planning?
A | There’s a renewed emphasis on collaboration over competition; a real mutual respect and positive working relationship with the principals and teachers who are educating our students; and a focus on understanding and meeting the whole needs of students and families, both in and out of the classroom.
Q | What specific district successes and accomplishments have occurred in recent months?
A | We have more than 53,000 students in full-day, high-quality PreK—more than double last year. We launched the largest expansion of after-school programs for sixth to eighth graders in New York City’s history. We also established a separate Department of English Language Learners and Student Support, and I recently announced that 40 new dual-language programs will open across the city in September 2015. Our new Learning Partners Program and Showcase Schools initiatives are bringing together teachers and schools from across the city to work with, and learn from, one another—these are programs that really underscore the importance of collaboration and innovation in our system.
Q | How have you addressed parent and teacher concerns about overtesting and too much class time spent on test preparation during the year?
A | We have stressed that good, rigorous teaching is the best test preparation for our students. We have encouraged additional vocabulary work in every academic area to prepare for tests, and we changed the promotional criteria from being solely based on a test score to a more balanced approach. Life is full of challenges, and I think this commonsense approach works best.
Q | What’s the new division of responsibilities among school principals and district superintendents that you are moving toward, in terms of budgets, programs, and hiring?
A | I recently announced a new structure streamlining support and supervision, which will heighten accountability, especially for our most struggling schools. Beginning in the fall of 2015, superintendents will support and supervise schools, period. However, principals will retain control over their budgets, curriculum, and hires. These are the crucial levers of management.
Q | How has New York City thus far avoided the ed-tech deployment mishaps that have plagued other big-city school systems like LAUSD?
A | Our approach to technology is the same as it is for everything else: Does this benefit the students? Does it improve learning? That’s how we make our decisions, and I think it’s going to help us continue to use technology in positive, educationally beneficial ways.
Q | Can you change the pattern of some schools having all-star faculties of experienced, highly credentialed (and more expensive) teachers, and other schools having lots of rookies and subs?
A | We now have 80 additional minutes of professional development each week for every teacher in the city, plus numerous trainings and sessions that hardworking teachers are signing up for because they want to improve their craft. I also believe that the spirit of collaboration over competition can take us a long way, as teachers have so much to learn from one another, whether it’s speaking with colleagues at their own school or visiting other schools with strong practices through our Learning Partners and Showcase Schools programs. I am also amazed by the work teachers are doing—whether serving students with high needs or lower needs—at schools where there is a high level of trust.
Q | How much further can New York City schools go toward reducing out-of-school suspensions and other disciplinary measures without eroding school safety?
A | We have a ways to go to preserve school safety while being fairer about school discipline. We can reduce ineffective suspensions and keep schools safe. But this is something we want to do right—that’s why we’re developing discipline policy reforms that work better for our students and families. We are also investing in many restorative approaches that teachers can use to increase positive classroom management and de-escalate [tense] situations.
Q | What myths or misunderstandings do parents and the public have about New York City public schools?
A | My goal is to make sure that all families in our system feel welcome and invited into their school buildings. And for parents who may not speak English as their first language, I want to make sure that they are directly encouraged to become involved in their child’s education and make a difference in their school district.
6 Fast Facts About Chancellor Fariña
• Generally perceived as a friend to teachers, Fariña replaced 80 percent of the teachers at P.S. 6 in Manhattan when she was principal there.
• Fariña retired from the DOE in 2006: initially she said she wasn’t interested in being chancellor.
• She's from Spain—not Puerto Rico or Mexico, as many assume.
• Fariña met Mayor de Blasio when he was serving on a community school board and she was a principal.
• While many big-city systems are now run by non-educators (like her predecessor, Joel Klein), Fariña is a career teacher and administrator.
• The new standards and tests have been controversial in New York, but Fariña is a Common Core supporter.
Source: Adapted from "9 Things You Should Know About Carmen Fariña" (Huffington Post)
Image: Bryan Thomas/The New York Times/Redux