New Schools Chancellor Brings Applause—and Some Concerns

Monday, December 30, 2013 - 03:53 AM

(Stephen Nessen)

Carmen Fariña has held a lot of titles in the city's Department of Education over her 40 years of service: teacher, principal, superintendent and deputy chancellor. Her promotion to chancellor is being cheered by educators who are happy to see one of their own running the nation's largest school district.

"A school system as vast and complicated as New York City needs someone with superior organizational skills, but it also needs someone with instructional expertise," said Dan Feigelson, who replaced her as principal of Manhattan's P.S. 6 and now works for the D.O.E. running a network of schools. "I can't think of anyone more qualified than Carmen."

Fariña's appointment was also praised by the teachers and principals unions, along with outgoing chancellor Dennis Walcott. 

Most notably, the appointment marks a return to an experienced educator running the city school system. Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed an attorney and a publishing executive as chancellor. Walcott was a deputy mayor who had taught kindergarten earlier in his career.

In contrast, Fariña will be the first chancellor since Rudy Crew who will not need a waiver from a state law requiring the chancellor to hold a superintendent's license. She also has a background in primary education, unlike many of the top level administrators at the D.O.E. who came from high schools and who put a big focus on the testing grades. Educators say her appointment not only sends a political message but also marks a different approach to leadership.

"One of the things that stands out about Carmen is her focus on collaboration and her ability to create line alliances and think tanks and partnerships," said Lucy Calkins, a Teachers College-Columbia University professor who co-founded an approach to teaching called the Reading and Writing Project. Fariña has worked as a consultant at Teachers College since she retired in 2006.

Calkins said Fariña was dedicated to sharing what worked as a principal and superintendent. She called tours through schools "glory walks," and said they were for educators to see good teaching in action all over the city. As principal of the prestigious P.S. 6 on Manhattan's Upper East Side, Fariña would occasionally loan her teachers to struggling schools for a few days, Calkins said.

“She would say, ‘It does so much good to go out to other schools and help the other schools. It does my teachers good as well as people receiving it,’” Calkins said.

Fariña's ability to build relationships by pairing different types of schools was also praised by Liz Phillips, principal of P.S. 321 in Park Slope, who recalled Fariña's style first as a district and then as a regional superintendent. "Being exposed to different kinds of instruction, different ways of providing professional development, different approaches to parent involvement, was helpful to all schools," she explained. "But definitely to more struggling schools." 

Katherine Moloney, principal of P.S. 100 in Coney Island, said Fariña came to her school 10 years ago. "She was so inspiring and to this day, one of the reflective questions she encouraged us to ask ourselves and our staff was, 'What is one thing you do well that no one has ever asked you to do,'" Moloney recalled. "This  still resonates with me and helps me motivate our school community."

But while Department of Education insiders praised Fariña as a master educator and collaborator, she is also known for toughness. When she led P.S. 6, a 1999 profile of her in the New York Times described her as "the principal everybody loves to fear."

After years of rising in graduation rates under the Bloomberg administration, there are also those who now worry Fariña may undo some of the mayor's reforms. Supporters of charter schools are wary of de Blasio's plan to charge the privately managed schools rent, based on their means, if they take space in public school buildings.

"I know Carmen well and she is an educator who cares," said Eva Moskowitz, C.E.O. of the Success network of charter schools and a target of de Blasio's critiques of charters. "The question is will she protect and expand public charter school options for families who need and are demanding them?"  

Eric Nadelstern, a Teachers College professor and a former deputy superintendent for school support and instruction during the Bloomberg era, also acknowledged Fariña was qualified. But, as a former high school leader who worked on raising graduation rates, he questioned whether she's the right person to keep making progress with the more than 30 percent of students who don't graduate on time.

"Can she attract some of the leading thinkers in education reform from around the country to put together the kind of comprehensive strategic plan that will provide confidence that we are going to make serious inroads during her tenure?"


Comments [3]

Mike from Brooklyn

How exactly did Nadelstern "work on raising graduation rates"? I've heard through the grapevine that as principal he expected his teachers to pass all their students. Could he be the person behind the DOE's "80% passing rule" that caused so much misery among teachers [and that the Times still refuses to report on]?

Read John Owens' book "Confessions of a Bad Teacher" for a great account of this madness.

Jan. 02 2014 06:39 PM

I remember having walkthroughs when administrators who had never raised a reading school, would come sniffing around looking to see of bulletin board were neat, since that is all that they could see, and that the standards were posted all around the rooms, which kids never would read. There had to be a "spelling wall", no matter if it was updated or not.
In the late 90's teachers were able to show how their reading scores went up, and not due to a dog and pony show. We would get the reading results since each child had a percentile showing how they fared with other children, some went up and some went down. This was useful knowledge for a teacher. At some point we stopped getting these results and the kids were sliced into norm referenced 1,2,3,4 "proficiency levels". "Grade level" had previously been the mean of any test population. Reading scores became arbitrary. Good teachers had no way of affirming their ability and senior teachers were hounded to the point, where they were forced from the schools to bring in younger teachers and lower salaries. Many teachers began to leave the profession and the trend has not diminished.

Jan. 02 2014 07:39 AM
Angela de Souza from Manhattan

I am so happy to have an educator in charge of the DOE. Just two observations. When I was a teacher trainer working with the Chancellor's District, "glory walks" were then known as "walk-throughs." They were a sham. The school giving the 'walk-through- would spend days preparing. Teachers would have to update bulletin boards in hallways. Classroom libraries on the route would be put into order- reverting from messy or deficient to splendid. A teacher and class would be designated to receive the guests. Of course, the lesson would be carefully rehearsed. And the guests would leave remarking on the excellence they had seen and giving great kudos to the principal. A total sham!
Second observation. The Bloomberg years have been years of great academic fraud and dumbing down of curriculum and expectations. Graduation rates have gone up because of this fraud and dumbing down. Principals ask teachers to change grades, they dictate how many students a teacher can fail, they go after teachers who have low passing rates. The public wants to hear that graduation rates have gone up. Ask the community colleges, now turned into remedial institutions, what they think of the preparation students are receiving. AND IT IS NOT THE TEACHERS' FAULT.
My New Year wish and hope--. That Ms Farina will let teachers teach, will allow them to demand that students do the work, will allow teachers to enforce their expectations for students and grade students accordingly, and that she will finally stop going after the instructional 'flavor of the month' and address the reality of why inner city students don't learn.

Jan. 01 2014 11:23 AM

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