Fariña adds detail to her promise of ‘real change’

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Fariña. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
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New York City schools chancellor Carmen Fariña laid out a partial blueprint for improving student performance across the school system in an interview with Capital on Wednesday, after months of questions on how she plans to implement the sorts of systemic change she's talked about in broad terms.

Fariña said the current state of the city’s vast school system is more complex than any one statistic can measure, and indicated that her theory of reform will be to work with clusters of 100 or so schools at a time in order to eventually improve much of the system. 

"I believe strongly that what we missed in the past was that we worried so much about structures, that we forgot that real change happens in the classroom,” said Fariña.

Fariña said she does not believe the school system can “handle” a series of large, system-wide changes, as were implemented during the Bloomberg years.

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“This is not about making change for its own sake to create a chaos theory,” she said, adding that professional development, which she called a “missing piece” during the Bloomberg years, “is the only thing that’s going to change the system.”

Fariña, who served in Bloomberg's education department under then-chancellor Joel Klein as deputy for teaching and learning, faces a formidable set of challenges. Only 24.4 percent of the city’s graduating high schoolers were deemed ready for college or careers by the state Board of Regents, and the graduation rate is barely topping 60 percent, with significantly lower rates for black and Hispanic students, particularly males.

Students and teachers are struggling to adapt to new Common Core standards, and Fariña will have to balance the administration's ambitious expansion of pre-kindergarten with the need to find space for a steady stream of charter schools entering the system. She says her first point of action is her grade-by-grade benchmark plan.

Fariña said she has identified second, seventh and tenth grades as those benchmarks for determining success in literacy, social-emotional growth, and college readiness. Her goal is to have all second graders reading at or near grade level; all seventh graders socially and emotionally ready for middle school, and all tenth graders actively preparing for college.

The plan is unusually technical for Fariña, who has mostly talked publicly during her first six months as chancellor about less tangible goals, like “boosting collaboration” between schools, improving communication with parents, and bringing “respect and dignity back into the classroom."

“Second grade is very strategic because if the kids aren’t reading by the end of first grade we need to intervene,” Fariña said in the interview, adding that her reinstated Department of Intervention has a “tool kit” of early reading improvement strategies. She said students must be reading on grade level by the end of second grade in order to move into the more content-heavy third grade year, “where you get deeper into the social studies, complex tests, and sciences.”

For her benchmarks program, Fariña has instructed principals to move some of their best teachers into second grade, which breaks with tradition, she said, since second grade has long been considered a year in which “kids didn’t have to learn something new.”

The Department of Education has set up an algebra institute for middle school teachers this summer to try to boost math performance in seventh grade, Fariña said, and is working to integrate more arts and after-school programs into seventh grade curricula to improve attendance rates and get middle schoolers interested in school.

“Seventh grade is really important because we know that many kids get turned off school in that grade, and if we don’t turn it then, it’s useless,” Fariña said.

And once students get to tenth grade, Fariña said, “they are most likely going to graduate.”

“Are they going to graduate in two years, three years, or four years, and are they going to be on the right path to going on to college? The college readiness rate in high school is crucial, it’s not about graduating per say, it’s about if you go to college, will you stay here,” Fariña said.

Fariña attributed part of the bleak college and career readiness figure to the emphasis on rote memorization and standardized testing, saying, “if all you’re going to do is test prep, and you’re learning for a robotic system, when you get to college that’s not really going to help you.”

Fariña’s most far-reaching policy change of her chancellorship, ensuring that promotional decisions from grade to grade are not based solely on test scores, reflects her ambivalence about standardized testing. Fariña’s other major policy initiatives—a so-called "learning partners" program that matches struggling schools with excellent schools, and City Hall-based plan to create 200 community schools—affect a narrow swath of the city’s roughly 1,800 schools.

When pressed on how she would work on scaling her programs to reach more schools, Fariña said she will continue to group clusters of schools together in order to focus on what certain types of schools need most. She said the department would announce some of those groups in the next few weeks, and added that all told there will be a “tremendous amount of little groups” in clusters of about 100 schools.

“Scale can be handled if the right people are doing the visiting and sharing the information,” the chancellor said, adding she visited 60 schools this year, and that between her, the D.O.E.’s four deputy chancellors, and their staff, officials toured about 500 schools in total in the last six months.

Fariña said she expects that number to grow considerably next year, and is asking all members of the Panel for Educational Policy to start visiting schools according to areas of specialty that she is determining.

Fariña said the department’s greatest struggle continues to be accommodating English language learners and special needs students, and says much of the negative feedback she receives is from parents of those students.

She said that she’s “absolutely” become more comfortable with the politics of her job, after stating her ambivalence about that aspect of the position following her now-infamous “beautiful day” gaffe.

She said she now has a sign reading “It’s a beautiful day” on her desk.

"Every one of my jobs, especially my principal job," said Fariña, "was very political."