Opinion: Focus on What Works in NYC Schools

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As politicos dissect the meaning of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s appointment of Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, New Yorkers are looking for what really matters: results.

Fortunately, so is she. Carmen Fariña has a proven, serious track record in her approach to education reform. She knows the importance of cutting through the ideological clutter that so often surrounds education debates, and focusing on proven solutions.

This fall’s elections suggest voters want serious progress from the new administration in closing the achievement gap. Chancelor Fariña will have a tough job here. Fortunately, there are many partners who are invested in her success, including the city’s philanthropic community.

In fact, Chancellor Fariña is remarkably well positioned to take advantage of a decade of strategic investments in innovative projects and ideas seeking to improve city schools, including more than $2 billion in private philanthropic dollars invested in education during the Bloomberg administration.

To ensure that philanthropic dollars support better results for our students, a group of us created the Education Funders Research Initiative. Our researchers identified six priority areas for improving college and career readiness for all New York City public school students, as well as a number of exemplary programs that have demonstrated real success.

Chancellor Fariña can continue to rise above the fray by focusing on the following priorities:

1. LITERACY: We must take action to dramatically improve literacy in the early grades, so more students are prepared for high school, including: intensive interventions for struggling readers, expanded early education, full-day pre-kindergarten, and targeted investments in community-based supports, especially for low-income families and black and Latino students. This cohort study tracked 77,501 students through the Bloomberg years and found numerous indicators reinforcing the need to focus squarely on this area.

2. COMMON CORE: Use the newly adopted Common Core standards to promote college readiness, by investing greater attention and resources into the teaching of reading, writing, research, analysis, problem solving and other academic behaviors, as well as social and emotional skills to prepare students for rigorous coursework before they graduate. Check out our EdForum roundtable on this much talked-about issue which features diverse perspectives from policymakers and practitioners, including school administrators and teachers.

3. COLLEGE AND CAREER PLANNING: Concentrate more resources, either directly or through partnerships with community based organizations, in early and ongoing support for college and career guidance, especially for the majority of young people who don’t have support in their own families. iMentor, The Opportunity Network, and the Internationals Network for Public Schools are among the successful programs philanthropy is supporting to provide young people from low-income backgrounds support, and with great results.

4. ACCOUNTABILITY: Ensure a strong accountability system that uses a wider range of performance measures, making it more informative for and responsive to the needs of school leaders, school staff and families. One example: New Visions for Public Schools works with 75 public schools a year on using accountability measures productively in one-on-one teacher development.

5. SCHOOL LEADERSHIP: Retain principals’ important ability to control hiring, budgets and curriculum, but establish a clear chain of command that provides supervision and also appropriate support by superintendents and/or network leaders. Aided by philanthropy, the Uncommon Schools network provides a great model of how intentional school leadership can make a clear difference in student performance.

6. SYSTEMIC SUPPORT: Strengthen traditional zoned neighborhood schools and develop structures to connect all schools—neighborhood, magnet and charters alike—within given geographic areas or networks. Cypress Hills LDC is among the successful philanthropy-backed organizations experimenting with providing students systemic, wrap-around support.

Education funders stand ready to work with  Chancellor Fariña, and we were delighted to hear many of our priorities echoed in her remarks Monday. Our goal: to align private and public dollars to build on what’s working, and to align new initiatives with research conclusions that support specific priorities so that every student can graduate from high school ready to succeed.