Carmen Farina_photo web.jpg

An Educator in Charge: Can Carmen Fariña ‘Put the Joy’ Back in Education?

Brian Jones Jan 21, 2014

An educator has been put in charge of New York City’s Department of Education. With 1.1 million students in some 1,700 schools, the Big Apple has the largest K–12 school system in the country. Carmen Fariña, the new chancellor, has worked in the public schools for 40 years. She has been a teacher, a principal, a superintendent and a deputy chancellor. Although Fariña’s appointment has elicited strong responses — cheers from the ranks of progressive educators and jeers from the corporate education “reform” crowd — it may not be time for activists to lay down their picket signs just yet. 

Fariña’s predecessors were largely recruited from the corporate reform camp. They favored applying free market ideas to schools: more competition based on standardized test scores, more “choice,” more reliance on private vendors and education “providers” and, crucially, fewer unionized teachers. To build a cadre of educational administrators devoted to these principles, the corporate reformers have had to look largely outside of the pool of people who have actually taught. In some cases, they thought the less experience, the better. For the past 12 years, New York City has epitomized this trend. Added together, the years of K–12 classroom teaching experience of the last three NYC schools chancellors — Dennis Walcott, Cathy Black and Joel Klein — was nearly zero.

Chancellor Fariña and Mayor de Blasio are on record as critics of some of the hallmark education “reforms” from the Bloomberg era: especially the reliance on standardized tests as the ultimate arbiter of student progress and teacher effectiveness. Whereas previous administrations closed schools with callous disregard for community input, de Blasio has promised a moratorium on school closures and Fariña has vowed to make all parents feel welcome in the schools. 

“We’re going to have a system here, where parents are seen as real partners,” she said.

Enthusiastic Response

Many progressives and educators are enthusiastic about the appointment, and are optimistic about the direction Fariña is likely to take as chancellor. 

“She is what she seems to be,” said Dr. Nicholas Michelli, professor of education at the City University of New York Graduate Center, “genuine, progressive and open.” 

Education historian Diane Ravitch called Fariña’s appointment “a new day in New York City.” “The era of punishing, blaming, and shaming professional educators is over,” she wrote. 

Citing Fariña’s 22 years in the classroom, Julie Cavanagh, a special education teacher at PS 15 in Brooklyn and member of the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE) said, “She was a teacher. She gets it.” Cavanagh added, “We have a lot of reasons to be hopeful. We will see parent empowerment, democracy and those kinds of things come back to public education in NYC.”

On the other hand, those who favor free-market-oriented (also known as “corporate”) education reform have expressed skepticism about Fariña’s appointment. In an editorial, the Wall Street Journal called her a “competent steward of the failing status quo.” Infamous charter school CEO Eva Moskowitz praised Fariña as “an educator who cares” but questioned whether she would allow more charter schools to open.

Joe Williams, executive director of the pro-corporate reform group Democrats for Education Reform told the Washington Monthly that Fariña is not likely to reverse the changes of the past decade. “The Bloomberg haters are going to have to settle for a change in style rather than major changes in substance,” he said. “Rich kids will continue to have good public school options; poor kids will play the lottery.”

Fariña’s History

Is Fariña’s appointment more a shift in style than substance? A review of her career in New York’s public schools may offer some clues. 

At her appointment ceremony, Fariña emphasized her own story as a student in the public schools. The painful experience of having her name mispronounced and being marked absent under the wrong name was a defining one. For Christina Fuentes, a DOE director of English Language Learner Instruction, the prospect of a chancellor who understands the importance of respecting the cultures and languages of New York City’s students is thrilling. “I was heartened by what Carmen said about the need to see second languages as an asset and not a deficit — that’s great,” she said. “I’m excited about the possibilities of doing second language acquisition right, and making it attractive to everyone.” 

Fariña was a teacher for most of her career, but when she became a principal in District 2, she was part of a massive — and controversial — reform effort under the leadership of district superintendent Anthony Alvarado. In her book, Death and Life of the Great American School System, Ravitch recounts the process by which standards-based reforms (some of which are ostensibly progressive, such as “Balanced Literacy” and a constructivist approach to math) were implemented in a heavy-handed way throughout the district, disregarding concerns and complaints from parents and teachers. At the same time, Fariña’s widely praised effort to turn around her own school, PS 6, involved turning over 80 percent of the staff and recruiting wealthy parents to pad the budget.

The plot thickened when researchers and politicians seized on the test scores of some of District 2’s schools and decided that the achievement gap had been “solved.” As Dr. Lois Weiner, a professor of education at New Jersey City University, pointed out at the time, researchers acting more like “cheerleaders” overlooked the fact that District 2 was rapidly becoming one of the wealthiest districts in the United States (not just in New York City), and that the wealthiest and whitest students had the highest scores, while the poorest schools with the most non-white students had the lowest scores. 

Nevertheless, this very same educational model was exported to San Diego, and later re-imported to New York City by none other than Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his first schools chancellor, Joel Klein. Under Klein, Fariña rose to the rank of superintendent. There is some evidence that, at the time, Fariña embraced Klein’s appetite for “creative disruption” as a means of education reform. 

In 2003, Fariña was quoted in Business Week praising the infamous CEO of General Electric whose management style was hailed by Bloomberg as an ideal model for running New York City schools. “Jack Welch said one thing that really struck me,” Fariña said. “You can’t allow an organization to grow complacent. When you find those kinds of organizations, you have to tear them apart and create chaos. That chaos creates a sense of urgency, and that sense of urgency will ultimately bring [about] improvement.” The chancellor’s office did not respond to an offer to comment on that statement.

Fariña’s emphasis on the quality of teaching and learning is refreshing, but may come at the expense of other issues that stakeholders care about, such as class size. In 2005, when then-City Councilmember Eva Moskowitz called for a report on class sizes throughout New York City, Fariña, now elevated to the rank of deputy chancellor, testified that while she favored reducing class size in general, she was opposed to mandating lower classes in the city. Instead, she favored giving school leadership teams flexibility on how to use those funds, arguing that ultimately “teacher quality trumps everything.”

Fariña retired in 2006, citing philosophical differences with Bloomberg, but remained involved in education. After PS 15 in Red Hook, Brooklyn, was co-located with a charter school, Fariña chaired the Friends of PS 15 Committee, which tried to publicize the school and bring in donors to support its growth and expansion. A new library in PS 15 is the result of this committee’s work and “Carmen’s Corner” — filled with books donated in her name — is an indication of her role in the effort. When another District 15 school, the School for Global Studies, was selected as a site for co-location with one of Moskowitz’s Success Academies, Fariña suggested that the introduction of a new early childhood center would be a better way to meet the needs of the community. Both of these efforts earned Fariña a reputation as someone who sought creative alternatives to competitive co-locations. Given this history and Mayor de Blasio’s softening rhetoric on charter schools (from charging rent to charging rent to “those that can afford it”), it seems likely that the mayor and chancellor will neither promote charter schools (as the last three chancellors did) nor directly confront their powerful backers.

Democratic Party Agenda

Fariña may try to distance herself from the Bloomberg agenda, but its main tenets are also the agenda of the Democratic Party. From the White House to the Governor’s Mansion, the Democrats have thoroughly embraced nearly everything that New Yorkers came to associate with Bloomberg: the Common Core standards; evaluating students, teachers, and schools primarily by standardized test scores; closing schools with low scores; promoting charter schools; and encouraging market competition as the driving force of reform. 

Municipal leaders across the country have, in some cities, bypassed democratic structures by granting mayoral control over the schools. Neither de Blasio nor Fariña have spoken against mayoral control. Sam Anderson, a member of the Coalition for Public Education and the Independent Commission on Public Education (iCOPE) suspects Fariña will carry out “business as usual with a different style.” “We have to be about reconstruction,” he said. “Like the radical Republicans did after the Civil War — you can’t reconstruct in a democratic way if you maintain mayoral control.” 

Still, Fariña portrays herself as someone who will bring a different ethos to the school system. She has said that she opposes competition in education, and seems to have backed that up in practice. Zipporiah Mills, principal of PS 261 in the Boerum Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, credits Fariña with instituting collaboration as policy. 

“A lot of the things that are now regular practice in the schools are her creation,” Mills said. “Teacher study groups, visiting each other’s schools, sharing best practices — those are things that were almost non-existent as policy before Carmen.”

Troubling Signs

But as The Indypendent went to press, the Department of Education seemed poised to increase competition between schools by following through with Bloomberg-era plans to roll out the Kindergarten Connect system — an online application process that pits every one of the roughly 900 kindergarten classrooms citywide against each other. The system uses algorithms developed by the Institute for Innovation on Public School Choice to “match” students to schools based on parent rankings. But only the DOE will be able to decide which student can attend which school. In a letter to the chancellor, several public school parents (including some elected parent representatives) from across the city pointed out that this program will disempower parents who don’t have the language or technical skills to navigate the online process and will potentially push many parents towards charter and private schools, since it results in the selection of a single, take-it-or-leave-it school “match” for each child.

Fariña says that she opposes the overuse of high-stakes standardized tests, but some of their uses are beyond her control. Evaluating teachers by test scores is now mandated by state law, for example, and federal policy requires standardized testing for grades 3-8 and for high school graduation. 

As of this writing, Fariña has not spoken publicly in favor of City Council Resolution 1394, which would place a moratorium on all high-stakes testing in New York City. Additionally, some who have high hopes in Fariña were alarmed to learn that she supports the new standards. “My biggest concern about her is her support of Common Core State Standards, which have not been proven to work and there is no safety net if they fail,” said Diana Zavala, a District 6 parent who is also a member of the anti-testing activist group Change the Stakes.

Mayor de Blasio has said that he will impose a moratorium on school closures and abolish the letter grading system for schools. Those are welcome changes. School closings are precisely the kind of “chaos” that has led to so much demoralization among parents and teachers, and the fact that schools were graded on a curve guaranteed that a predetermined percentage of them would be labeled as failures each year.

Some of the proof of the new administration’s progressivism will be in its handling of labor contracts. Mayor de Blasio has spoken forcefully about economic inequality, but seems disinclined to grant retroactive pay raises to the 300,000 city employees — nurses, firefighters, sanitation workers, teachers and so on — working without a new contract for as long as the last five years. On the flip side, the Bloomberg administration was infamous for wasting millions on no-bid contracts with private vendors. How Fariña’s distaste for standardized testing abuse collides with New York State’s $32 million contract with test publishing behemoth Pearson, Inc. will be revealing. 

Furthermore, just before the clock ran out on the previous administration, the DOE put out a call for proposals for the development of standardized tests for early childhood grades. Although top DOE officials have gone on record opposing standardized testing in early grades, the contract solicitation calls for “Computer Adaptive Testing” software graded by artificial intelligence for pre-K through second grade. Will Fariña put a stop to the proliferation of these tests in early grades?

Some educators suspect Fariña’s administration — even if it rolls back some of the excessive abuses of standardized testing — won’t go far enough. “The challenge,” Dr. Weiner said, “is to do what wasn’t done in District 2 and still has not been done: to acknowledge and confront the contradictions of class and race in the school system today.”

Pushing for Real Reform

Whether Fariña’s term as chancellor amounts to a change of style or substance remains to be seen — and is not entirely up to Fariña to decide. In the Bloomberg years, many parents, teachers and students felt they had no choice but to protest, march and picket to make themselves heard. Progressive faces in high places creates opportunities and dangers; opportunities, perhaps, to push for real reforms that were previously never under consideration and dangers in that a friendly face can more effectively demobilize us than a hostile one. 

With Fariña at the helm, some people who care about specific issues — class size, standards, budget cuts — may experience pressure to be quiet so as not to embarrass “our chancellor.” In truth, we’re a long way from having the schools our children deserve, so this is not the time to be quiet. Now is the time to push for the full implementation of the promises Fariña has already made and to continue to raise our own demands. 

MORE, the social justice caucus of the UFT, is circulating a petition calling for full retroactive pay for municipal employees who have been working without a new contract for five years. iCOPE published an open letter to Mayor de Blasio listing 20 steps a progressive administration could take immediately to reverse Bloomberg’s legacy and create a truly humane, democratic school system. The list includes a program for recruiting and training Black and Latino teachers from New York City, and opening an office of Multicultural Curricula. Citywide, activists are gearing up to teach even more parents about how to exercise their right to opt their children out of standardized tests.

Fariña has said that she wants to do reforms “with” people, not “to” them. If this truly is to be a new day for New York City schools, parents, teachers and students will have to hold her to that promise.

Brian Jones taught elementary grades in New York City’s public schools for nine years and is currently a doctoral student in urban education at the CUNY Graduate Center.

What do we want Chancellor Fariña to do in 2014?

(Crowd-sourced from social media.)

– Place a moratorium on school closures.

– Stop ranking schools by letter grades.

– Get rid of the Danielson rubric, or use it appropriately — to help teachers develop, not as a high-stakes evaluation.

– Get rid of “talent coaches” (DOE officials who teach principals how to evaluate teachers).

– Allow more time for teacher preparation and collaboration during the school day.

– Promote democratic, parent and community decision-making power at the school level.

– Crack down on abusive, capricious building leaders.

– Provide bi/multi-lingual education for every child.

– Replace Teachers for America and Teaching Fellows with “Grow Your Own” programs to recruit and train teachers of color from New York City.

– End contracts with Pearson and stop hiring expensive contractors for endless data gathering and data management, and use savings to fund:

          – More art, more music, more drama and more physical education in schools.

          – Smaller class sizes.

          – Full-time assistants in every classroom pre-K to second grade.

          – Healthier food options in school cafeterias.

          – The return of team sports.

          – Paid maternity and paternity leaves.

Join the fight for Real Reform of Public Education in NYC

Movement of Rank and File Educators
The social justice caucus of the United Federation of Teachers.

New York Collective of Radical Educators
A group of educators committed to fighting for social justice in school and society.

Change the Stakes
A group of parents and educators who oppose the misuse of standardized tests.

New York City Public School Parents
A blog of independent NYC public school parent voices, edited by Leonie Haimson.

Coalition for Educational Justice
Community-based organizations and unions fighting to end inequities in the public school system.

Teachers Unite
An independent membership organization of public school educators collaborating with youth and parents to transform the city’s schools.

Coalition for Public Education/ Coalición por la Educación Pública
An independent coalition fighting for democratic, quality public education for all children.

Independent Commission on Public Education
A volunteer, grassroots think tank.


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