'We Want Thinkers, Not Robots'

Interview: NYC Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña

Carmen Fariña is chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, the largest school district in the United States, serving 1.1 million students in more than eighteen hundred schools. Named to the position in January 2014 by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, she has worked some fifty years in education, including more than two decades as a teacher and a stint as deputy chancellor in the administration of former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. She spoke with Commonweal Digital Editor Dominic Preziosi about Common Core and student testing; her Catholic elementary- and high-school education; and how her upbringing as the child of immigrants continues to guide her in running one of the most diverse school systems in the country.

Dominic Preziosi: Let me start by asking if you think that, as we hear so often, American public education is in crisis.

Carmen Fariña: I can’t speak for the rest of the country. But if there is a crisis, there’s also an opportunity, and here in New York City we’re seizing the opportunity. If you talk with parents who have been in public education you can see there are a lot of wonderful things happening. It could always be better. But it depends on what measures you’re using to define success.

DP: There seems to have been an increase, nationally and in New York, in rhetoric that sets public education and unions against charters and privatization. Is this putting public education under pressure?

CF: We need to take these conflicting views and find where the commonalities are. Because of all my years in the system, I do not see unions as the “anti” by any stretch. And I was criticized for that in the beginning. I feel very strongly that my workforce is the teachers and principals of the city. So when we went into contract negotiations, we went in with more of a collaborative spirit. Sitting at the table as partners is crucial. In some other parts of the country, where they come at each other confrontationally, that’s a mistake. A lot of the things we’ve been able to do in the past year-and-a-half, we’ve been able to do because we collaborate.

In terms of charters, I visit a lot of charter schools and I think they’re all my kids. We have to stop saying “all charters” or “all public.” There’s good of everything and bad of everything. How do we get the best of both sides and learn from each other? The skill we use the least but is most effective is good dialogue. One-on-one conversations will get you a lot farther. The more we fight each other the less likely anyone is to win.

DP: What do you make of the increasing criticism of Common Core, coming from both ends of the political spectrum? Would you have imagined it becoming a possible issue in the 2016 presidential election?

CF: The problem with Common Core is that very few people know what it is. Common Core is not a curriculum but a series of strategies that the workforce saw the kids would need—such as: Can you speak before an audience and think analytically and critically?—things I can’t see any sane person disagreeing with. I will say that Common Core may not have been implemented in the best possible way. Teachers were asked to do things without any training, and in New York we’ve gone back to try do a lot more professional development to address that.

The other thing about Common Core is that it was supposed to have said that across this country there were certain consistent expectations. If you look at countries that are admired in terms of educational outcomes, all of them have a state curriculum, all of them have state-level exams, all of them have certain expectations. I think it’s become political because you always need a hot-button issue for people to rally around. But the thing is to explain it correctly, admit what went wrong—and the implementation could have been done a heck of a lot better—and then go back and correct the mistakes.

DP: It was reported that nearly 50 percent of public school students in Long Island opted out of Common Core testing in spring 2015, a phenomenon being seen to greater or lesser degree around the country. How are you trying to strike a balance between these competing needs—testing on the one side, and student well-being and even “parental rights” on the other? 

CF: Look, I have twelve years of parochial school in my background, and I’m a firm believer that you need challenges. We took tests, private-school kids take tests—no parents complain when their kids take gifted-and-talented tests. But testing should be diagnostic; it should tell teachers what they did well. So getting the results after kids leave the classroom is not the best thing. And I don’t think teacher evaluation should be focused totally on test scores.

DP: So does testing play too big a role in the evaluation of teachers?

CF: I think a portion of evaluation has to be based on test scores. I was a teacher for twenty-two years, and if my kids didn’t progress, I hadn’t done my job. But progress is different from absolute achievement. And I do think we have to strike a balance. You can’t take a child who’s been in this country for three months, for example, and expect her to take a test and get great scores. But if a child is with you over the course of a year, I expect to see some progress.

DP: You’ve spoken of the importance of principal leadership in turning under-performing schools around. What qualities do you look for in a leader?

CF: I look for a principal who knows her staff, and who knows her curriculum. A good leader listens to the people who work for her, and has high rates of staff retention. Leaders should be able to articulate a vision, and do more than use buzzwords. “I believe that all children can achieve”—as far as I’m concerned, that’s nonsense. What do you mean “achieve”? How do you feel some children “achieve”? Do they do it in one way, or in another way? A leader also removes ineffective teachers, which I think is crucial. Leaders don’t treat all their teachers the same, they differentiate the teachers, and they expect the teachers to be able to differentiate the students. Leaders know the student body, and they should also be able to build parent confidence. It’s one thing to say to them, “Send your child to my school,” and another to promise you’re going to graduate a child better educated than when he or she came in.

DP: About those twelve years of parochial school: How did that shape your experiences?

CF: I was a student at St. Charles Borromeo in Brooklyn for elementary school. In those days, forty-eight kids in a classroom was the norm. Almost all of us were children of immigrants. I was taught by nuns, Sisters of Mercy, but even with forty-eight students in a class, they understood that children needed individual attention. There was always a personal touch, and that personal touch made a real difference. It helped me when I became a teacher—I wanted to be that teacher who saw kids as individuals.

For high school I went to St. Michael’s Academy in Manhattan, and that was transformational. It was an all-girls school, and I had some of the brightest nuns—lay teachers too—but two nuns in particular took a special interest in me. One of them, Sr. Leonard, is the reason I’m here today. She understood that because my parents were immigrants, we didn’t know the process for going to college. In those days, in my culture in particular, you didn’t aspire to go to college. You’d like to go if you wanted to be a teacher, but my parents didn’t know how to fill out applications and they didn’t know about scholarships. Sr. Leonard in my sophomore year saw I wasn’t on the right track to be able to apply to college. So she made it her business to change my trajectory. I got a commercial diploma—I know stenography, I can type—but I also was able to get things like the three years in math that I needed. I got my years in Latin. She made sure I got all the credits and then also helped me through the scholarship process. I ended up going to New York University on a four-year scholarship.

I learned a lot at St. Michael’s. I learned by protesting things: I protested against Franco in Spain, I protested against the whole political structure. It was the McCarthy era, and all my teachers thought he was a god and I didn’t. My father encouraged me to protest that. I was suspended for a day, but I lived through it. And I learned to have a lot of respect for the women who at that time were sacrificing to become teachers—Sr. Leonard in particular, who had a doctorate in mathematics.

You know, there’s something about paying that back. That’s one of the things about immigrant kids, they pay it back. As a regional superintendent I did a poll of my 150 principals and asked how many were first in their families to go to college as I was, and it was more than 70 percent. There’s something to be said for that. When families care about education and you’re the first in your family to go to college, you pay it back in a different way.

DP: How has being a child of immigrants affected your approach to education?

CF: I put a big emphasis on knowing another language. I really take exception to the idea that speaking a native language here is a deficit. No! How do we encourage these kids to keep their language while learning English? I started parochial school not speaking a word of English. We only spoke Spanish at home. I think that’s great—families should keep whatever their language is, as well as learning another. I’m focused on new dual-language learning programs in the city; we’ll have forty locations in September. I’d like to see, in a city like New York, everyone able to speak two or three languages. One of the things Common Core should have emphasized (but didn’t) is that in this day, in this world, speaking two languages is an economic plus.

DP: How do you handle diversity in a system said to be the most diverse in the nation?

CF: We have something like a 156 languages, and I think that’s wonderful. The biggest challenge, though, is making sure everyone’s voices are heard. We’ve tried to do that by adding Muslim holidays to the school calendar [starting in the 2015–2016 school year, New York City schools will be closed for Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr]. I also have made a point of bringing social studies back to the schools, because that’s a way to acknowledge and work with diversity, with different cultures. It’s exciting.

DP: Was there a formative experience you had—either in your upbringing or in the classroom—that has really played a part in how you approach education?

CF: I was raised in a home where eating around the dining-room table and talking about politics was very accepted. So when I went into the classroom, in my beginning years, I thought that having open discussions with kids about serious topics was part of what I was meant to do. It got me into trouble more than once. But it showed me early on that we need to have thinking, analytical students. And then as a principal I always wanted a school where kids talked all the time, where they had opinions and wrote petitions when they didn’t like what I was doing. Even today I don’t expect people to follow everything I say. We want thinkers, we don’t want robots.

Published in the September 25, 2015 issue: 

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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