With initiatives around universal pre-K and expanding access to literacy, algebra, computer science and Advanced Placement resources to all 1.1 million of its students, New York City's public school district has arguably one of the most progressive approaches in the nation. And as the nation's largest district, it also finds itself in a position of influence when it comes to best practices.
Leading the charge for the city's 1,800 schools is Chancellor Carmen Fariña, a first-generation immigrant whose experience includes over two decades in the classroom, 10 as a principal, and stints as a superintendent — though, as she recounted during a Wednesday session, it was still fairly unheard of for a woman to be in any of the leadership positions she's held when she first entered the classroom. [Fun fact: She still visits four of those 1,800 schools each week and writes constructive feedback letters to their principals about what she likes and what needs improvement.]
We had a chance to catch up with Fariña after her session to learn more about New York's approach to public education, its efforts to provide preschool to the city's 70,000 four-year-olds, and why it's crucial for schools and districts to build pipelines for future educators and administrators.
EDUCATION DIVE: There’s a lot of talk about the general model of public education and how, because of the way the economy is evolving, it’s advancing beyond that sort of agrarian/industrial model of the last century or so. I was wondering how you think public education should adapt to fit the needs of the changing economy, and to meet that intended purpose of getting students from a diverse variety of backgrounds ready to be productive citizens.
CARMEN FARIÑA: There are many things that we’re doing. We’ve increased our career and technology and engineering programs. We’re going to have 40 additional programs in September, which means there are multiple pathways to the workforce. For some of our students, it’s college. For others, it’s community college. And for others, it’s learning a trade. We’re doing a lot more work with our labor unions — the city carpenters union, plumbers union and so forth — and we’re really also hoping to increase more of the CTE programs in the schools that we already have. That’s really one of our focuses.
I think also the agrarian change is not as drastic as you would think. Remember, New York City includes Brooklyn. Now, we have a lot of farms on people’s roofs. One of the most popular courses we’re giving is actually on sustainability and farming. There’s a lot of things that we’re doing.
We can’t do the job if we work in silos. So we’re bringing in a lot of outside organizations. We work with General Electric, we work with Microsoft. We work with a lot of different partners [including] bankers and lawyers to make sure that the richness of the city enhances the work in the classroom. I think that’s all part and parcel of the work that we’re trying to do.
The question that threw me [during the session] is “Are public schools relevant?” And I just can’t imagine anyone having any doubt about that. It is the most unifying thing we have in our country. It’s where everybody comes together regardless of religion, regardless of anything and has an opportunity to learn to become productive citizens. There will never be a time when you don’t have public education, in my opinion.
Do you think that these sort of changes in the economy and society have also potentially changed the way teachers have to approach the classroom, as well? Like, it used to be the teacher just talking at the students and so on.
FARIÑA: I’m a firm believer — and I’ve been at this a long time — that if teachers do all the talking, students do no learning. I believe strongly that talk in the classroom is crucial, no matter where the kids are in their learning. If you’re a non-English speaker, how are you going to learn to speak English unless you’re in class with other kids who speak English? To me, classroom practices should always be interactive classrooms.
When I was a superintendent, the first rule that I put in for all the schools that I was in charge of was, when I visit a school, I better see student talk. Student talk around the work. If you don’t have kids talk to each other. If you noticed [in the session] we did two turn-and-talks, because if the audience just listens to me talk for an hour, and they don’t get a chance to talk about what I said and digest it personally, they’re not gonna remember it. The same thing is true in classrooms. The kids need to digest it. “What does the American Revolution mean to me?” They have to talk in groups so it then becomes part of their knowledge base and not just something their teacher is spouting.
It’s very threatening in a lot of schools with teachers who are used to doing the chalk-and-talk. I was in a school the other day where the teachers were doing “Romeo and Juliet” in one of the classes. They had the play on the smartboard, they were able to stop, and the kids were able to talk about it. Technology should help us make more interactive classes. A lot of our workshops for teachers are on how they change their teaching practices. It’s crucial.
I was just meeting with the Brazilian delegation that was there [in the session], that big group. They just won an award for being one of the best schools, but they’re the only school in Sao Paolo that does interactive learning. All the others are teachers preaching at the kids, and we don’t learn like that. When I was in college, I was in class with 300 kids, in what they call the core curriculum classes. Unless I was really interested and did some work on my own, I can’t say I really learned from him talking to me. That’s changing, and also schools of education have to change how they train teachers.
What are some challenges to ensuring equity for all students in a city as massive as New York?
FARIÑA: Obviously, one of the challenges — and it’s something the mayor is working on — is how do we build more affordable housing across the city. Because if you’re going to your zoned school, where you live does make a difference. That’s No. 1.
The other is how do we maximize partnerships — which we’ve done already this year — so that if you’re a school in Park Slope, and I can think of one right now, you’re partnered with a school maybe in Fort Greene. If you look at our learning partners programs, some of these principals have schools from a variety of parts of the city.
So you need to at least be able to have some forum where teachers from different kinds of schools talk to each other, because what really has to come across is that if you’re a teacher in Park Slope, you have the same expectations for your kids that someone in Bushwick or Central Brooklyn has. And also, the expectation of parents should be “No matter where I send my kid to school, they should be able to read on grade level in second grade, they should be getting algebra in middle school.”
We’ve made those messages very clear. It’s taking a while to build it in — 1,600 schools, not an easy lift. But I’m pretty proud of the system. I think they’ve done a lot in a very short period of time.
Do you think that districts should also be partnering with their local higher ed institutions to facilitate these efforts?
FARIÑA: Without a doubt. One of our groups was here yesterday presenting. In Staten Island, one of our schools — Port Richmond — is partnering with Wagner College. Wagner College has put their guidance counselors in the high school, and now the high school is putting their guidance counselors in the middle school. This has got to be all hands on deck. We’ve been meeting with the higher ed people about how they change their practices. If I am learning now in an interactive classroom as a middle school kid, then when you go to high school and college, you can’t have lecture classes. The classes also have to be engaging kids and talking. You need to move kids toward independence.
The goal of public education — all education — should be you’re going to get a job and you’re going to move out of your parents’ house. That’s how I look at my goals. You’re not going to do that if you’ve never learned to speak before an audience, if you didn’t have a time to become an independent thinker. This, to me, is crucial. That’s part of the promises I’m making to parents. Pick a school where you know your child is going to have the skills they need to get a good job and also to survive in life.
Concerning the Pre-K For All initiative, there’s a lot of research that shows preschool is crucial to later success, especially in the early elementary grades with math and literacy. With the initiatives for CS, literacy and algebra for all, how important is Pre-K For All in ensuring the success of those initiatives?
FARIÑA: There are several important things about the pre-K. First and foremost is vocabulary development. We know that by first and second grade, there’s almost a 5,000 word difference between kids who come from upper-middle class homes and kids who don’t come from those homes. So our pre-K curriculum, which is universal throughout the city, is very rich in vocabulary development. Our goal is that the 4-year-olds come out of there with vocabulary they wouldn’t have had if they stayed home or in daycare.
No. 2, the pre-K program is very heavily focused on parent engagement and parent workshops. A lot of the workshops for parents are how to talk to your child, how to read to your child. We’re actually doing lessons because with a read-aloud, parents have to read every page and they have to ask questions like what color was the dress she was wearing. Doing workshops with parents on how to parent in an educational vein is very important.
Also, pre-K allows us to get an early start on kids that we’re already seeing that have some form of disability. When I go to pre-K classrooms, I always look at the artwork, because the artwork for me is a defining point of kids who already have some motor coordination issues or other issues. If we can get them at this age, then it’ll be easier for them as they go forward. There’s a lot about pre-K that makes it easier when they get to Kindergarten to be in a much better place.
In your session, you also talked about the importance of nurturing classroom teachers into school leaders. I was also wondering, especially for some underserved communities, how important is it to recognize students who might potentially be good for teacher positions and nurturing them toward that career track.
FARIÑA: This is my pet interest right now in the last three months. We have now asked our high school principals to start creating Future Teachers Clubs in their high schools and teaching them how to go and become mentors in middle school, and then having the middle school kids go to the elementary school. If we don’t expose kids to what the beauty is of working and teaching someone something, we’re going to miss on this opportunity.
I also feel that — particularly in New York City, where we’re opening so many dual-language programs and bilingual programs — the future teachers need to be teachers who experienced this themselves, who have a passion for this. I want to talk to them a lot about paying it forward and doing what they really need to do to ensure we have the teaching staff for tomorrow. Honestly, in New York City, we’re very fortunate. We won an award here yesterday. We’ve done a lot of recruitment of teachers. Our retention of teachers is actually pretty high. That’s also because we’re providing with the support. But I need to know that five years from now, we’re going to have the teachers.
I have an advisory group of teachers, 17 of them, and they came up with some fascinating ideas. I can’t implement all of them, but we’re looking at some of the things that they’re mentioning as possibilities because I want to make sure not just that we have a teacher for every classroom, but we have a good teacher for every classroom.
Another thing that gets a lot of attention nationwide is high turnover among superintendents. How important is stable leadership in getting sustainable, effective change?
FARIÑA: Keep in mind that some superintendents leave on their own, and others respond to school boards. I’ve worked under every process, so I know that. I know the average time for a superintendent is three years or less. But the reality is sustainability is important. What people need to know is that if you’re the leader and asking them to do something, the next person who comes in isn’t going to ask them to do something totally different. Otherwise, they just shrug. “Yeah, this is what she wants, but I don’t have to do it because the next person will ask me to do something different.” It’s really being clear that whoever follows you is going to have somewhat of the same philosophy.
I think it’s all our responsibilities to train the next level of leaders. Certainly when I work with my superintendents, I look at all of them as even more potential leaders. I’ve asked every superintendent to start looking at who of their principals could be the next superintendents. The career ladder has to be on everybody’s mind, but it has to be [a question of] how do you create a culture where what you believe in is totally believed by everybody else. Or are they waiting for you to leave to get rid of what you put in place?
The public speaking aspect of this job, which I always thought was important, I think is actually more important than I thought it was. People want to hear your message. They want to buy into your vision. And eventually, it’s not only their vision, but people who have the same vision want to come up and be the leader. That’s tricky, but I think it’s important.