Before he became leader of the nation’s largest school system in 2011, current Chancellor Dennis Walcott was a social worker, nonprofit executive, Board of Education member and deputy mayor. His short-lived predecessor at the Tweed Courthouse (the New York City school department’s headquarters) was Cathie Black, who’d been a publishing executive. Joel Klein, who ran the DOE from 2002 into 2010, had been a top US Justice Department official and Harold Levy, who preceded Klein, was a corporate lawyer.
The last actual educator to head New York’s school system, Rudy Crew, left in 2000. But neither Crew, who arrived in 1995, nor Ramon Cortines, who ran the schools from 1993 to 1995, had experience in New York City schools before taking over the department. In fact, the last person with prior NYC education experience to serve as chancellor was Dr. Harvey Garner, who in 1993 ran the schools for two months.
All this is to say that the appointment of Carmen Fariña to be Bill de Blasio’s schools chief is a significant departure from a pattern set by at least the past three mayors of looking for outsiders, and even non-educators, to serve as chancellor.
This wasn’t the only change evident at the Monday event when the mayor-elect introduced Fariña. Rejecting a key doctrine of the Bloomberg era—that outside advice from consultants was essential to school reform—Fariña said, “We need outside experts at times, but we know what needs to be done,” adding later that if New York City doesn’t have the capacity to address a question about urban education, who does?
She also called for more art, science and social studies instruction—noting that those areas of learning are important not just to children’s larger lives, but to their performance on the all-important tests. She suggested neither a refusal of philanthropic help nor an embrace of all the strings that come attached to that generosity, saying: “Public education is an investment, not a charity.”
Most strikingly, she talked about an absence of “joy” in today’s school system. “Teachers and administrators have been maligned as not wanting things to work,” she said, mentioning at several points how important it will be to celebrate school success and tell teachers, “You’re doing a damn good job.”
There hasn’t been a lot of talk about joy during the Bloomberg years. Not many pats on the back for teachers either.
Progressive voices in education cheered Fariña’s selection. “I think it’s an excellent choice: The first chancellor we’ve had in years who actually understands curriculum and instruction and that it takes more than pressure to help schools improve,” NYU’s Pedro Noguera told me. “I think she will do a terrific job.” Brooklyn College professor and education advocate David Bloomfield noted that, “Fariña brings experience to the job that we haven’t seen in decades. Even prior to Mayor Bloomberg, recent chancellors were selected from outside the system. Carmen’s deep knowledge of New York City and its schools, prior to and including the Tweed bureaucracy, is of incalculable value. Her practice and celebration of language diversity is similarly a great new asset.”
There didn’t even seem to be any upset over the fact that de Blasio, who had at points in the mayoral campaign promised an open and transparent process for selecting the chancellor, actually conducted his search in the standard, secretive fashion.
Fariña’s selection was the biggest appointment de Blasio he’s made since naming Bill Bratton to run the NYPD almost a month ago. It came at an opportune time, with concerns starting to grow over the pace of the transition, and with eyebrows being raised about the ethnic makeup of de Blasio’s team (and about the Bratton selection itself).
Angelo Falcon, the director of the National Institute for Latino Policy and one of the observers who’d questioned de Blasio’s commitment to diversity, told me he’s reserving judgment but noted the import of the selection of Fariña (an immigrant from Spain): “The schools chancellor position is of special importance to the Latino community because the largest group of public school students are Latinos and yet we have been poorly represented in policymaking positions in the Department of Education.”
The big question, of course, is what it will mean in practice, in the schools. Fariña politely rebuffed most specific policy questions on Monday, saying she’s still studying up. So most of what Fariña and the mayor-elect had to say was about process, with a heavy emphasis on a changed tone.
The key phrase, from the chancellor-designee: “This progressive agenda says we know there are things that have to happen but they need to happen with people, not to people.”
There’s no doubt that tone was one of the problems with Bloomberg reforms, with parents and teachers often feeling dismissed or devalued. But some policies are tough sells whether you say them with a smile or not—and some education policies will be hard for the incoming administration to escape.
Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, a professor at City College and a keen analyst of education and the way the system has historically harmed students of color, told me, “Fariña is a good choice because her pedigree and orientation towards education is very different than Bloomberg’s cabinet and approach to education. However…if New Yorkers are interested in schools that work well for all children, they will need to continue advocate for progressive educational policies. In the coming term as mayoral control ends the role of community control will be critical. It’s critical that Fariña is receptive to a wide range of voices that are interested in driving up the quality of public education, both traditional public and charter schools. She is a good strategic choice because we know a good degree about her political leanings, but know little about what her policies will look like on the ground.”