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.”