School & District Management Q&A

Departing N.Y.C. Schools Chief’s Advice for School Leaders

By Denisa R. Superville — March 15, 2018 13 min read
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At the end of the month, Carmen Fariña will wrap up a 52-year career as a New York City educator, rising from an English-learner student in the country’s largest school district to the top job there.

“This is the best job I’ve ever had,” said Fariña, who came out of retirement in 2013 to help Mayor Bill de Blasio implement an education agenda markedly different from his predecessor, Michael R. Bloomberg.

“I’ve loved it,” she told Education Week in one of her last interviews with the paper. “Everyone thought I was crazy when I un-retired to take this job... . The reality is that I have loved it, and I have loved it because I know that I have made a difference in the lives of children in this city. That’s what I set out to do, and that’s what I’ve done.”

Under Fariña’s watch, New York City students’ performance on state tests improved, programs for English-learners—including dual-language programs—were expanded, and, as part of its equity agenda, the city made it easier for students to take the SATs by scheduling the exams during the week. But some have criticized the city for its plan to improve its lowest-performing schools. Others remain dissatisfied with the city’s plan to address school segregation.

New York City’s school system is unique—its sheer size with its 1.1 million students and mayoral-run governance structure are just two things that set it apart from most of the country’s school systems— yet Fariña has insights for other superintendents and district leaders about what worked in New York City that might be useful for school systems regardless of location and size.

Our conversation started off with school safety, which has led the news since the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Fariña does not think it’s a good idea to arm school teachers. But she does believe in having a central plan and in having every stakeholder—from first responders, principals, teachers, police, and parents—know their roles, what’s expected of them, and how to respond during and after a school shooting or other emergency. That plan, she said, must also be in writing. Parents also have a role to play in monitoring students’ social media presence, she said.

Fariña also discussed ways that districts can improve English-learner education, including expanding bilingual programs, forging partnerships with foreign governments, hiring educators who are passionate about working with English-learners, and training more teachers to work with English-learners. It’s a topic that’s extremely personal to her.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

EW: The National Institute for Early Education Research recently reported that while enrollment in state-funded pre-K programs has increased, the enrollment is just not where it needs to be. Given the early success of the city’s pre-K program, what advice do you have for districts that want to expand access to high-quality early-childhood education?

CF: First of all, I think we have to start by telling politicians that you can’t increase high school graduation [rates] when you are in high school. Increasing high school graduation has to start from the moment of birth to some degree, from zero-to-three-year-old.

In a city with so many English-language learners, the sooner you can speak in class, the sooner you become confident in how you are able to succeed as a student, the more likely you are to come to school every day.

The other thing about early childhood is it’s much easier to hook parents to come in to [the schools] to improve their own parenting skills with the younger kids. You’re not going to have a high school student wanting their parent in school, learning how to teach them to read or to take a test.

We have found that with our pre-K parents, inviting them to come for coffee hours, inviting them to come to learn how to read to their child, do math at home—it’s been really important.

We’ve also had a cadre of outreach workers that...ring door bells and let parents know [about the program]. We have done the outreach in, I think, eight different languages.

We have done such a good job, and we have over 70,000 four-year-old in our schools. We’re now moving to three-year-olds.

It’s a lot easier to sell the [program for] three-year-olds because the [program for] four-year-olds... is already getting well known.

If it were up to me we would start working with them even younger than that.

We have made a big effort to recruit the best teachers—teachers who are well-trained in early childhood. We can’t teach a three-year-old the same way you teach a four-year-old. We have been very clear to teachers if they want to teach in these grades, they have to go back to school, generally during the summer, for retraining.

It also means that you just don’t take kindergarten work and lower the grade, take four-year-olds and lower it to three-year-olds. We have developed a curriculum guide that is specifically geared to each of these grade levels. We have a pre-K literacy guide that all teachers have to follow. We have a specific curriculum that everyone has to follow. We have supervisors to help teachers and coach them that only work with that grade.

It’s about literacy, but it’s also about making sure that by the time every child gets to second grade they will be reading on grade level.

I think getting parents mobilized around this issue to make their elected officials and their governors get involved in this decision—it’s a surefire political win for anyone who advocates this. This is about cities figuring out where they have money that they can reallocate to this. The bottom line is, would you rather be spending your money in the juvenile system many years down the line or would you want to say that every dollar invested in high-quality early education saves taxpayers money...?

At one time the people who had access to early childhood were your middle class and your upper middle class. This should be about equity, and every family should have access to quality early childhood education.

EW: Districts are always under pressure to improve low-performing schools. On the one side, there’s the argument that those schools should be shut down and students moved to higher-performing ones. Others argue those schools should be flooded with resources for teachers and students. You entered with an approach that seemed more firmly in the second camp, but you have closed some schools. What’s your advice for district leaders facing this perennial challenge to turnaround schools in the fastest possible timeframe?

CF: I think first and foremost, the only thing that research absolutely proves without a shadow of a doubt is in order to turnaround a school you need a wonderful principal. You need a principal who is willing to make difficult decisions, and a principal who then will hire the best teachers possible, and then train them in what we call intervention strategies.

In the first year and a half of this program in New York City, a lot of the assessment was ‘Did we have the right principals in all of these schools?’ We’ve had an almost 75 percent turnover of principals for these schools. I think if you look at the schools that are moving faster, it’s the ones [that] have had either new principals or the same principals with a lot of extra supports. That’s one approach.

On the other hand, there are schools that no matter what you do are not going to pull it off. We need to close them or we merge them. ...You cannot turn a school around with very little resources. And if you have a school that has less than 150 students, the chances of that school being successful are little to none.

We have done a lot of analyzing in New York City about which of the approaches [are best]. And it’s not one size fits all. In some schools we might try more of this; in others something else.

[The education website Chalkbeat New York has diligently chronicled the city’s Renewal Schools program since the program’s launch. In October, the website reported that 45 of the 78 schools that were in the program at that time had had a new principal since the program’s start. The success of the Renewal Schools Program has been mixed. The Manhattan Institute, a conservative think-tank, found that academic achievement improved in Renewal schools, but did so at a significant expense. The city has also had to close some schools in the program because they continue to struggle. Others showed enough improvement to graduate from the program.]

We also have found that investing in teacher-training has really made a difference. One of the things I would say to superintendents is those of you who can negotiate your own teachers’ contracts, getting extra time on the calendar every single week for teacher professional development is money well spent.

We have an additional 80 minutes in New York City. Every Monday, we have teachers in every single school getting more training, and we have an additional 40 minutes on Tuesdays for parent workshops and parent outreach. These two things alone that we put into our last teachers’ contract I think have really been game-changers. I think the superintendents who can negotiate the contracts, this is certainly time worth putting in.

We also have a lot of professional development for principals.

We also moved from a competitive model for schools to [a] collaborative [approach]. ... I want superintendents to visit each other’s schools. I want teachers to visit each other’s schools and share their best practices.

All schools have to be the best. In our equity and excellence movement...getting the best principal in every single school, and the best teachers, regardless of where they are, to me, is paramount.

EW: What advice do you have for new superintendents?

CF: Become a good listener. Start having one-on-one conversations.

I have met—and I have 44 [community and high school] superintendents—for one hour with each of these superintendents at least once a year. And I ask them questions like ‘Why do you want to be a superintendent? What do you think you bring to the table that’s unique to this job? How are you going to evaluate your principals? Outside [of] assessment tests, what are the things that you’re going to look for when you walk into a school?’

If you haven’t had that personal touch with the people who work for you...people [will] follow the rules, but they will not follow your spirit. And to me, it’s really important that you get the hearts and minds of the people engaged in the work.

New superintendents, in particular, have to be good listeners and [do] less talking about themselves and the mandates of what everybody has to do.

And you need to look at the data because you need to know what to work with. Even one-on-one with the principals to say ‘What does the data tell you about ...your school?’ And when the principal looks at you blankly, like they don’t know what their data is, then you’re in trouble. Even if they know the data, the next question is ‘So what are you going to do about it? How are you going to program your school differently? How are you going to look at your resources differently? Which teacher are you putting in this classroom? Which afterschool program are you going to invite to your school?’

If [superintendents] stay focused on only academics, [they] lose what kids are going to be like when they graduate. We are not just teaching kids to graduate or ace a test. We’re teaching them to be lifelong citizens in this country. And if they haven’t been exposed to the beauty of a museum or a music program, they are not going to be citizens of a democracy.

Superintendents, now more than ever, have to become the Pied Pipers to some degree of what makes a good citizen for a democratic world. I’ve done that for 52 years now, and I’ll do it even when I am retired.

It’s really important as a superintendent to be inspirational. I spoke to all my superintendents this morning and it was interesting that what seemed to be a common thread around the room was they’re going to miss my stories. Good superintendents are story tellers. I think that’s something—don’t ever be afraid to be a human being as well as a strong CEO.

EW: Do you have any specific advice for your successor?

CF: Take time to listen to everybody before you make major changes. Listen to what they value, what they think is working, but also ask the question—and I did it when I came on board—'If you were me what would you do, what would you do differently, and what would you keep the same? And after you hear the same thing over and over again, make your own independent decision. Again, [do so] based on data.

Hire to your weakness. If the person that’s coming in is a very strong educator...then what are the things that you are not as comfortable in, and make sure you hire people who work for you who are really good at that.

In building a team, that shouldn’t be competitive either. It should be hiring people who are good at what you are not and being very open and vocal about it... .

Being very public with your compliments—I think that is really, really important.

Some people tend to compliment themselves over and over again. There’s nothing in this job—and remember I have the largest system in this country—that can be done by a person. We are a team.

EW: What would you cite as among your biggest accomplishments?

CF: I think the most important thing is bringing back the morale. Teachers were feeling disrespected. They were not feeling happy about what they were doing. Many teachers have said that ‘you’ve brought back the dignity of teaching, you brought back the pleasure of teaching.’

I think making sure that I developed a good emotional climate for the professionals—and that includes principals as well—has been a big accomplishment.

But certainly, I would say increased graduation rates, more kids—particularly minority kids—taking the SATs. We now have a new system, they don’t have to pay for the SATs. They take it in their schools. [It’s] looking at where there is an obstacle to success and tearing down that obstacle and putting something else in its place.

We have increased our arts programs—almost double. The AP classes in the city tripled what they were four years ago, and that’s just in four years.

Our city’s schools have never been stronger, the achievement has never been higher, and we’ve never had the high level of parent engagement and involvement as we have now. More parents are going to schools, attending teacher conferences, workshops.

The list of successes is endless, and most importantly I am proud of the fact that we also have some of the best principals in the country, all in one city.

[While reading and math proficiency rates in the traditional school sector has improved, New York City’s charter school sector posted higher proficiency rates in both subject areas.]

EW: Is there anything you would have done differently?

CF: I think if we could have done some things deeper, sooner. But when you make changes you have to be very careful that when you [implement] them, that they are going to be successful.

I think slow and steady wins the race. But most importantly I just wish I had an additional 24 hours per day to do even more of what I did. School visits to me were crucial. If I could have doubled the number of school visits I would have done that.

EW: Were there any programs you were thinking about when you said you wished you had done some things deeper, sooner?

CF: I think our professional development has been very rich, but it takes time to write curriculum. When we look at our social studies, I wish we had the social studies curriculum done a year earlier.

We also have a philosophical stance that all curriculum is written by teachers for teachers. Finding the right teachers took us a while, then making sure they all were good writers [also took time].

I think that everything we’ve done, we could have done them a little sooner, but it’s not really something that I regret doing.

I think if there’s anything that’s a big challenge for the next person—and something we’ve tried to deal with but had so many obstacles that we’ve been only somewhat [successful]—and that’s how we deal with children in temporary housing and homeless shelters.

We have 100,000 students that don’t have a home to call their own. ...Everything that is an impediment for that group in society is double work for us. We wish we had a magic bullet for it. We don’t.

Photo caption: New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña poses for a portrait in 2016.

--Victoria Will for Education Week-File

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.