Carmen Fariña to head D.O.E

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Carmen Fariña, a Department of Education veteran and a longtime informal adviser to Bill de Blasio, will be named chancellor Monday after months of speculation about who would manage the city’s school system.

De Blasio will name Fariña head of the nation's largest public school system at M.S. 51, the Park Slope middle school his children attended.

Friends and colleagues of Fariña and de Blasio say they share a single educational philosophy, with a focus on progressive education, a skepticism of standardized testing and charter schools, and a focus on racially and economically integrated public schools.

Fariña, who is 71 and retired from the D.O.E in 2006, will have her work cut for her.

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Experts say she'll face the immediate challenge of overseeing the negotiation of a contract with the United Federation of Teachers, whose members have been without a contract since 2009. She and de Blasio will have to decide who to appoint to the Panel for Educational Policy.

Then there are the longer term questions: How the de Blasio administration will treat the city's growing charter school movement; how to raise graduation rates; the fate of increased standardized testing in the city's schools; and how to continue to implement the Common Core after waves of criticism over the new standards along with the new teacher evaluation system. 

Former D.O.E. officials and city education experts say Fariña will have to balance a delicate set of priorities in her first hundred days as schools chief.

Eric Nadelstern, a former deputy chancellor under Joel Klein credited with helping to implement some of the Bloomberg administration’s biggest educational reforms, says the first months of Fariña’s tenure should be marked by a clear commitment to raising the graduation rate, which is still below 70 percent.

“I don’t think the chancellor should come and nitpick their way through the system, saying ‘I like this’ or ‘I don’t like that,’” said Nadelstern.

“I think the first 100 days needs to be about putting together the most talented team they can possibly find and then working with that team to develop a long range plan on how to to go from a 66 percent graduation rate to a 100 percent rate in five years,” he said.

Critics of the DOE's controversial new teacher evaluation system will also lobby for changes and updates to the system, which some advocates say relies too heavily on the results of standardized tests. 

Adjusting the teacher evaluations would require altering the consequences of new, Common Core-aligned exams and negotiating with the state education department about changes to the system.

“Clearly the teacher evaluation system will be on the table immediately,” said David Bloomfield, a professor of educational leadership at CUNY, “that would be my day one activity if it hasn’t started already.”

Bloomfield added that he expects the de Blasio administration to make an announcement on the D.O.E.’s current grading system for schools — which de Blasio has vowed to do away with — shortly after the mayor-elect takes office. “Getting rid of the grades is wholly within de Blasio’s power,” Bloomfield said.

Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at NYU, said the network system that replaced the traditional district model of school organization could be reconsidered early in Fariña’s tenure. “Given that there’s some evidence that these networks haven’t worked better in a lot of cases, they might consider going back to the district model, they might consider a hybrid with some district level support and leave the networks that are working well alone,” he said.

Noguera also said Fariña will need to double down on the continued Common Core rollout. “The department will need to figure out how to make sure they don’t take as big a hit this year as they did last year.”

De Blasio is in luck on that matter: Fariña is well-known for her focus on professional development, which both advocates for and critics of the Common Core agree is needed to improve outcomes on the Common Core-aligned curricula and exams.

Bloomfield also predicted that Fariña and her staff would implement a longer-term cultural change at Tweed. “There will be a new system-wide respect for educational experience,” he said, “there are a lot of people fresh out of college who either as a matter of data expertise or particular program expertise tell principals what’s needed. There will probably be an early but not immediate conversation from a technocratic staff to a deeper educational staff. People who have taught, and really taught.”

And then there are the immediate logistical issues. Fariña will have to consult with de Blasio about whether they will want to reverse some of the most controversial charter school openings and co-locations pushed through by Bloomberg’s P.E.P during the administration’s final months. Public Advocate-elect Letitia James has said she'll push for the reversal of some of the proposals. 

Getting students to school after winter break may also prove to be a serious headache after one of the city’s largest busing companies, Atlantic Express, filed for bankruptcy in November, leaving 20 percent of the city's bus routes unaccounted for.

Fariña and de Blasio have known each other for years, and worked closely together when Fariña was superintendent of District 15 in Park Slope and de Blasio, whose children attended P.S 372 in Park Slope, sat on the D15 school board.

Dorothy Siegel, a fellow member of the D15 school board and a longtime friend of Fariña’s, called de Blasio “a pupil” of Fariña.

Fariña’s extensive history as an educator provides major clues both how she’ll lead as chancellor and what her top priorities might be.

Her former colleagues say she has been on the forefront for a battle for racial, socioeconomic and academic inclusion in the city’s public schools.

While she was the principal at P.S. 6 on the Upper East Side, long considered one of the city’s best public elementary schools, Fariña disbanded the school’s gifted and talented program and made the school entirely general education.

One of District 15’s most popular schools, the Children’s School, where de Blasio sent his two children, is the city’s only all-inclusion elementary school with a mix of special needs and general education students in every class.

Fariña took a stand against what she perceived as an over-reliance on standardized testing at P.S 6. In a teaching and learning guidebook for instructors, Fariña wrote, “My dilemma upon assuming the principalship was that the students scored high on the standardized tests while little student-centered learning was going on. Veteran teachers, for the most part, ran traditional classrooms. How could I effect change in an environment where many parents and teachers were content with the status quo?” One answer was a significant staff turnover: she replaced 80 percent of the staff in eight years.

While Fariña recently avoided criticizing charters, she actively fought against one of Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academies moving into her neighborhood in 2011. After Fariña retired from the D.O.E. as a deputy chancellor under Joel Klein, she teamed up with a local assemblywoman to counter Moskowitz’s plan to open a Success Academy in Cobble Hill, where Fariña worked and currently lives, with a proposal to open a pre-K center. Success eventually won the battle for the space.

As a teacher and administrator, Fariña was known for her focus on creating literary-focused curricula, teaching students about Civil War history by having them read historical novels from the time period, or visiting the Brooklyn Museum to look at Civil War-era art. She often held workshops for other teachers on how to construct their own curricula, according Siegel.

Fariña’s name has been floated for the position for months, as she seemed the most obvious choice in a pack of contenders who were either uninterested in the job or would have been politically risky choices for de Blasio, who ran and won his campaign partially on the promise of a new educational agenda for the city with less emphasis on testing and a moratorium on charter school co-locations.