High-Stakes Test

Fariña brings experience to a wide set of urgent policy questions

PHOTO: Anika Anand
Carmen Fariña at an event this month where she was named schools chancellor.

The populist poetry of Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s campaign has officially entered prose mode with his appointment of Carmen Fariña as chancellor.

Fariña is a longtime educator who was a teacher, principal, superintendent, and instructional chief during her four-decade career in the city schools. After a seven-year retirement, she returns as chancellor to confront the pressing policy issues that face the nation’s largest school system.

Her appointment came with a pledge of a “progressive agenda” but few details about her positions on specific policy issues. Yet in the coming months, Fariña will have to bring her extensive experience to bear on thorny terrain that includes union contracts, charter schools, universal pre-kindergarten, struggling schools, curriculum, and much more.

Below, we run through a few of the education conundrums de Blasio and Fariña must confront — and some answers they might consider — as they begin the messy work of governing.

How should the city provide universal pre-K?

De Blasio’s central campaign pledge — to fund full-day pre-kindergarten for all New York City children by taxing the city’s highest earners — is both tricky and ambitious.

On the funding front, de Blasio must either convince Republican legislators and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to sign off on his proposal to raise income taxes for the city’s top earners, or figure out another way to generate $530 million over five years to pay for the pre-K expansion.

Fariña will likely leave the negotiations to de Blasio’s political staff. But if the money comes through, she’ll play a major role in figuring out how to provide full-day preschool to about 50,000 additional four-year-olds. Where will they go? Who will teach them? And what will they learn?

Fariña was already proposing space solutions months ago, suggesting at a public forum that real estate developers be required to build early childhood education centers that would also serve as community centers for middle school students. Underused city school buildings, out-of-use Catholic schools, public-housing community centers, and local nonprofits could also all potentially host the new pre-K seats.

Fariña’s résumé suggests that she would pay close attention to the quality of the instruction offered by the new programs. But while there are successful early childhood programs that could be mined for curriculum, finding and training people to staff the programs could be a steep challenge, in part because pre-K teacher pay can lag nearly $19,000 behind that of a starting kindergarten teacher.

Setting up the sites and hiring the teachers so that the expansion starts by next September, as de Blasio has promised, will not be easy.

“Realistically, getting that done in a year strikes me as extremely optimistic,” said Teachers College professor Aaron Pallas.

How should the city work with the teachers union?

Sources say Fariña was not the top choice for some in the United Federation of Teachers, which did not endorse de Blasio in the primary election. But Fariña’s experience as an educator earned her quick support from the city’s teachers and principals unions, and her remarks today indicated that she is serious about showing respect for the work that educators do.

Whether that tonal shift will translate into material gains for city teachers remains to be seen. After years of bitter clashing with the Bloomberg administration, the UFT hopes to win retroactive pay raises and other desired contract terms in talks with de Blasio and Fariña. Raises for the UFT and the principals union, which have gone for years without contracts, could amount to more than $3 billion.

Again, the financial picture is likely to remain mostly in City Hall’s purview. And de Blasio has said full retroactive pay for all municipal unions won’t happen, that any retroactive pay must be offset by cost savings, and that the UFT’s snub of him in the primary means he is not beholden to the union.

But Farina, who as a young teacher joined her colleagues in striking over the loss of planning periods and other affronts, will influence any changes to work rules for educators. She has said she wants to see a reduced role for test scores, suggesting that she might be receptive to requests to change the city’s teacher evaluation rules, and she is also likely to support calls to give teachers more time for training and collaboration.

Whatever deals de Blasio and Fariña hammer out with the UFT will send a strong message to the city’s 75,000 teachers, said David Steiner, the state’s former education chief.

“The shape of a contract is inseparable from the shape of the work in the schools,” he said.

How should the city handle struggling schools and teachers?

One of the biggest challenges that de Blasio and Fariña face, like their predecessors before them, is how to turn struggling schools around. The Bloomberg administration focused on closing low-performing schools and opening new ones in their place, an approach that followed a system of intensive support for weak schools that did not result in many closures.

Neither de Blasio nor Fariña has said that school closures should be taken completely off the table, but both have said the step should be taken only after aggressive efforts have been made to help schools improve. De Blasio has said he’ll establish an “early warning system” and deploy experienced principals and other staff to struggling schools.

And Fariña has proposed pairing pair principals from schools with similar student populations but widely varying student achievement to exchange ideas about what works and what doesn’t — something that she did as superintendent of District 15.

“Principal-to-principal, teachers-to-teachers, are the best vehicle to professional development that I know,” she said this fall.

Whether that will be enough to revamp chronically low-performing schools or bring about widespread change remains to be seen. According to a 1999 New York Times profile, Fariña’s strategies to overhaul P.S. 6 on the Upper East Side included introducing selective admissions criteria — a move that would hardly solve citywide issues.

Fariña will also have to decide how to adapt the Bloomberg administration’s school and teacher rating systems. De Blasio has promised to do away with the A-to-F letter grades that schools have gotten annually since 2007. But he has not said whether his administration would tinker with the existing system, for example by improving the school “peer group” system or adding more information for families, or overhaul the ratings system more substantially. Given that elementary and middle school grades have been based almost entirely on test scores, it seems likely that Fariña would push for change.

She’ll have somewhat less latitude in adjusting a new teacher evaluation system that UFT President Michael Mulgrew called an “unmitigated disaster.” There, Fariña will have to figure out how, if at all, to change the rules while still adhering to state law.

How should the city deliver support to schools?

Of all of the education policy questions facing the new administration, the one where Fariña has the most experience — how to deliver support to schools — is also where she has the most latitude to make change.

After several shakeups, the Bloomberg administration landed on an organizational structure that lets each school join a multi-borough support network of their choosing, while still being evaluated by local district superintendents. Critics of the arrangement say it can be confusing and result in too little guidance for struggling schools, while advocates say it allows schools to get exactly the help they need.

Whether to preserve the network structure was a major debate during the mayoral campaign, and some 120 pro-network principals recently wrote de Blasio urging him to create a “hybrid system” where principals who like their networks could keep them, while others could lean more on their districts.

Fariña hasn’t publicly spelled out a future for the network structure, but her long track record in the system will give her ample insight to draw on when devising a system of school support. As a former district and regional superintendent, she will have as good answers as anyone about how to balance superintendents’ authority with school autonomy and how to incorporate local stakeholders without cutting off cross-district ties.

Fariña’s avowedly progressive pedagogical preferences suggest that she might want to preserve the way that principals affiliate based on philosophy under the network model. But Elizabeth Phillips, the principal of P.S. 321, said that in her experience, Fariña successfully fostered collaboration among principals from schools with different cultures and student demographics within the district structure.

“One of the things I was so impressed with was how she brought together principals from very diverse districts,” Phillips said.

Even though Fariña doesn’t have to get anyone’s permission to craft a school support system, her vision could be constrained by politics. Even as critics of the current structure, like Mulgrew, say they’re open to compromise, it’s clear they’re pushing for big changes. “There’s no tweaking here,” the union leader said. “It’s just not working.”

How should the city treat charter schools?

During the campaign, de Blasio did not mince words about charter schools, saying they diverted attention and resources from the city’s traditional public schools and that the Bloomberg administration added “insult to injury” by offering them free rent in public-school buildings. He promised to halt such space-sharing arrangements and charge rent to some charter schools.

The question now is whether he can actually rein in charter schools without undermining the high-performing ones or pushing their powerful backers into attack mode.

One possibility would be to phase in the rent plan over several years, giving the schools time to adjust their budgets or look for cheaper facilities, said Pallas, the Teachers College professor. Another way to appease both sides could be to create a system for studying and sharing the innovations of the most successful charter schools, in an outgrowth of the collaboration that Fariña has said should be fostered.

Pedro Noguera, a New York University education professor, cautioned the new mayor not to devote too much time to making decisions about charter schools, which serve only about 6 percent of the city’s public school students.

“The more you’re fighting about charter schools, the less time you have to solve other problems,” he said.

That’s an attitude that Fariña seemed to share when she appeared with Diane Ravitch, the education historian who has fiercely criticized charter schools, at a Brooklyn school earlier this month. While she said she did not support the rigid approach of some charter schools, she also said the charter-district divide can mask areas where district schools should improve.

“Let’s worry more about what we need to do and how we need to do it positively than worry about them,” Fariña said. “Because, you know what, they also have our kids in their buildings, and to me, kids are kids.”

How should the city establish and advance broad ideals?

De Blasio and Fariña will have to decide how to deliver on other pieces of campaign rhetoric, including how to give parents a real voice in some decisions. They are starting that right away, they said today, by bringing the Department of Education’s Division of Family and Community Engagement directly under Fariña’s supervision and by scheduling a series of meetings with parent leaders in each district.

Fariña will also have to take stock of what is and isn’t working in terms of curriculum at a time when teaching and learning are receiving renewed emphasis. She has praised the new Common Core standards, which are meant to propel students toward college readiness, but is certain to scrutinize the curriculum choices that the Bloomberg administration made to help schools transition to the standards.

That scrutiny will come with the eye of someone steeped in literacy instruction and with a reputation for imposing instructional approaches on schools. When Fariña retired in 2006, then-UFT chief Randi Weingarten said that while the union respected her, it had also seen her dictates as “micromanaging of classroom instruction.”

Now, Fariña’s curriculum choices carry even higher stakes: Some educators and parents are already unhappy about the transition to the Common Core, and missteps early on could cost the new chancellor dearly.

The new administration will have the chance to reexamine broader ideals, too. School choice — letting families pick among diferent kinds of schools — was a hallmark of the Bloomberg era, but also a lightning rod for critics who say the system favors families able to navigate the sea of choices. Those critics will want De Blasio to revamp the school choice and enrollment system so that it benefits more families and a more diverse group of students end up at the most selective schools.

As a district chief, Fariña opposed tracking, or achievement segregation, within schools. But her record from P.S. 6 — and today, when her appointment was made at a middle school that screens students in part by their test scores — also suggests a tolerance for selective schools within the broader system.

How she and de Blasio choose to balance the needs of individual families, single schools, and the broader system in order to give all city students a fair shot at a great education cuts to the core of the de Blasio message, said Noguera, the education professor.

“If he recognizes that inequality is the big question facing New York, how is that going to show up in his education agenda?” Noguera asked. “And it’s got to be much more than just preschool.”

here's the plan

After long wait, de Blasio backs plan to overhaul admissions at New York City’s elite high schools

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Stuyvesant High School will begin participating in the Discovery program this year.

After sustained pressure from advocates, Mayor Bill de Blasio is backing a two-step plan to reform admissions at eight of the city’s elite high schools and endorsing a specific replacement for the single-test admissions system.

The city’s specialized high schools — considered some of the crown jewels of New York City’s education system — accept students based on a single test score. Over the last decade, they have come under fire for offering admissions to few students of color: While two-thirds of city students are black or Hispanic, only about 10 percent of admissions offers to those schools go to black or Hispanic students.

De Blasio’s solution, laid out in an op-ed in Chalkbeat, would set aside 20 percent of the seats at the eight schools for students from low-income families starting next school year. Students who just missed the test score cut-off would be able to earn one of those set-aside seats through the longstanding “Discovery” program. Just 4 percent of seats were offered through that program in 2017.

The mayor also said he plans to push state lawmakers to change a law that requires admission at three of the schools to be decided by a single test score. That’s something de Blasio campaigned for during his run for mayor in 2014 but hasn’t made a priority since.

Most significantly, de Blasio says for the first time that he backs a system of replacing the admissions test with a system that picks students based on their middle school class rank and state test scores. The middle-school rank component is especially notable, as an NYU Steinhardt report found that the only way to really change the makeup of the elite high schools would be to guarantee admission to the top 10 percent of students at every middle school.

If all of these changes were implemented, de Blasio says that 45 percent of the student bodies at the eight high schools would be black or Latino.

Together, the proposals reflect the most specific plan yet to change a system that, year after year, becomes a symbol of New York City’s racially divided schools. But the changes de Blasio is proposing won’t come easily — and might not come at all.

The part of the plan that the city is promising to do on its own, expand the Discovery program, will only modestly improve diversity by the city’s own admission. And the plan’s more ambitious elements would require buy-in from state lawmakers who have repeatedly resisted de Blasio’s agenda and attempts to change admissions rules.

Meanwhile, the mayor’s plan does not include a move that many legal experts consider to be low-hanging fruit: changing the admissions rules at five of the eight schools without state approval.

While the city’s official position has long been that admissions at all eight schools are set by law, only three schools — Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School — are specifically mentioned, leaving room for the city to reclassify the others. (De Blasio recently said he would ask lawyers about that change, but has not signaled he plans to act.)

The Discovery program has also proved problematic for de Blasio, in part because it is open to all low-income students — something that is not equivalent to black or Hispanic in New York City. The de Blasio administration has already tripled the program’s size since taking office, but its share of black and Latino students has also shrunk.

A lot of questions about the plan remain unanswered. It’s not clear whether the 20 percent of set-aside seats will be spread across the eight schools evenly, for one, or whether some schools like Stuyvesant will have fewer seats earmarked for Discovery. De Blasio doesn’t explain exactly how an admissions system reliant on middle-school grades and standardized test scores would work.

It’s also unclear how the mayor plans to push against opposition from alumni groups and parents who may worry that changing the admissions rules will lower academic standards, though his rhetoric was sharp in the op-ed.

“Anyone who tells you this is somehow going to lower the standard at these schools is buying into a false and damaging narrative,” de Blasio wrote. “It’s a narrative that traps students in a grossly unfair environment, asks them to live with the consequences, and actually blames them for it.”

So far, de Blasio’s incremental steps to boost diversity at specialized high schools have made little change to the overall student body — and therefore garnered little pushback.

It’s unclear whether the lackluster results caused him to switch strategies. More recently, de Blasio has also been under pressure to address school segregation in the city as a whole.

He may also have been pushed by his new schools chancellor, who has been outspoken on the subject since taking the helm of the school system about two months ago. Chancellor Richard Carranza has been talking about the issue since his very first media interview, and has repeatedly hinted that he is interested in changing their admissions process.

“From my perspective it’s not OK to have a public school in a city as diverse… and that you have only 10 African-American students in a high school,” Carranza said in April. “So I’m looking at that, absolutely.”

sorting the students

Mayor Bill de Blasio: Our specialized schools have a diversity problem. Let’s fix it.

PHOTO: Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio hosts a town hall in Brooklyn in October.

I visit schools across this city and it never fails to energize me. The talent out there is outstanding. The students overflow with promise. But many of the smart kids I meet aren’t getting in to our city’s most prestigious high schools. In fact, they’re being locked out.

The problem is clear. Eight of our most renowned high schools – including Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Technical High School – rely on a single, high-stakes exam. The Specialized High School Admissions Test isn’t just flawed – it’s a roadblock to justice, progress and academic excellence.

If we want this to be the fairest big city in America, we need to scrap the SHSAT and start over.

Let’s select students for our top public high schools in a manner that best reflects the talent these students have, and the reality of who lives in New York City. Let’s have top-flight public high schools that are fair and represent the highest academic standards.

Right now, we are living with monumental injustice. The prestigious high schools make 5,000 admissions offers to incoming ninth-graders. Yet, this year just 172 black students and 298 Latino students received offers. This happened in a city where two out of every three eighth-graders in our public schools are Latino or black.

There’s also a geographic problem. There are almost 600 middle schools citywide. Yet, half the students admitted to the specialized high schools last year came from just 21 of those schools. For a perfect illustration of disparity: Just 14 percent of students at Bronx Science come from the Bronx.

Can anyone defend this? Can anyone look the parent of a Latino or black child in the eye and tell them their precious daughter or son has an equal chance to get into one of their city’s best high schools? Can anyone say this is the America we signed up for?

Our best colleges don’t select students this way. Our top-level graduate schools don’t. There are important reasons why. Some people are good at taking tests, but earn poor grades. Other people struggle with testing, but achieve top grades. The best educational minds get it. You can’t write a single test that captures the full reality of a person.

A single, high-stakes exam is also unfair to students whose families cannot afford, or may not even know about, the availability of test preparation tutors and courses. Now, I’d like to stop and say, I admire the many families who scrape and save to pay for test prep. They are trying in every way to support their children.

But let’s ask ourselves: Why should families who can ill afford test prep have to spend their money on it? Why should families who can easily afford test prep have an advantage over those that cannot?

My administration has been working to give a wider range of excellent students a fair shot at the specialized high schools. Now we are going to go further. Starting in September 2019, we’ll expand the Discovery Program to offer 20 percent of specialized high school seats to economically disadvantaged students who just missed the test cut-off.

This will immediately bring a wider variety of high-performing students, from a wider number of middle schools, to the specialized high schools. For example, the percentage of black and Latino students receiving offers will almost double, to around 16 percent from around 9 percent. The number of middle schools represented will go from around 310 to around 400.

This will also address a fundamental illogic baked into the high-stakes test. A great score and you might be in, but beware a point too low and you might be out. Now, a disadvantaged student who is just a point or two shy of the cut-off won’t be blocked from a great educational opportunity.

For a deeper solution, we will fight alongside our partners in the Assembly and Senate to replace the SHSAT with a new admissions process, selecting students based on a combination of the student’s rank in their middle school and their results in the statewide tests that all middle school children take.

With these reforms, we expect our premier public high schools to start looking like New York City. Approximately 45 percent of students would be Latino or black. As an example of growing geographical fairness, we will quadruple the number of Bronx students admitted.

I’ve talked a lot about bringing equity and excellence to our schools. This new admissions process will give every student in every middle school a fair shot. That’s equity. The new process will ask students to demonstrate hard work over time, and show brilliance in a variety of subjects. That’s excellence.

Anyone who tells you this is somehow going to lower the standard at these schools is buying into a false and damaging narrative. It’s a narrative that traps students in a grossly unfair environment, asks them to live with the consequences, and actually blames them for it. This perpetuates a dangerous and disgusting myth.

So let me be clear. The new system we’re fighting for will raise the bar at the specialized high schools in every way. The pool of talent is going to expand widely and rapidly. That’s going to up the level of competition. The students who emerge from the new process will make these schools even stronger.

They will also make our society stronger. Our most prestigious public high schools aren’t just routes to opportunity for deserving students and their families. They are incubators for the leaders and innovators of tomorrow. The kind of high schools we have today, will determine the kind of New York City we will have tomorrow.

Bill de Blasio is the mayor of New York City.