principal power

New York City principals want to know: How much power will they have under Chancellor Carranza?

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Richard Carranza, Houston Independent School District superintendent, hugs Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

Some principals already bristling at the tighter controls they’ve faced under Mayor Bill de Blasio might feel uneasy when they read that incoming chancellor Richard Carranza’s centralized some power in the last school system he ran.

But perhaps they shouldn’t panic yet. Carranza also says he trusts principal decision-making — after all, he was a principal himself.

“I’ve been a principal in two different schools in two different states, so I tremendously have faith that principals can make great decisions at the local level,” Carranza said during his first press conference in New York City on Monday.

But, he added, “there are some things you cannot just decentralize. So you need to have some central direction.”

That sentiment echoes outgoing Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who reorganized the school system to allow superintendents more authority to shape instruction and ensure principals follow the rules. Without tighter oversight, Fariña has argued, schools could have uneven instruction and practices leading to greater inequality across the school system. That was a major shift from former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his chancellors, who favored wresting decision-making out of the hands of central office staff and giving principals more power.

And indeed, in interviews with more than a dozen principals this summer, school leaders complained to Chalkbeat about intense scrutiny of their daily tasks bordering on micromanagement. Many said the more centralized management style came with endless emails, compliance items, and paperwork, that robbed them of precious time they could be in classrooms or working on more innovative education practices.

Some principals are hoping for relief from the new chancellor.

“The job under the current chancellor has definitely become stifling in certain ways,” said a principal from the Bronx who asked to remain anonymous to avoid criticizing his boss. “It’s just like big-ticket [education department] branded initiative after initiative that feels very disjointed and doesn’t feel connected to the work that’s happening here at schools.”

Other principals don’t see a disconnect between centralization and their goals. “As long as it’s in line with collaboration between schools with central supports, I think that’s a great way to grow our system,” said Anthony Cosentino, principal at PS 21 in Staten Island.

New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres said that how Carranza handles the school system’s management will be a defining part of his tenure.

“If he could reverse the centralizing legacy of Carmen Fariña I’d be a happier man,” Torres said. “The question mark for me is how he’s going to grapple with the centralizing legacy of his predecessor.”

Carranza’s past record on principal authority is mixed. Most recently, in Houston, he supported taking some budgeting power back from principals and said during Monday’s press conference that decentralization in Houston had “run amok.”

Instead of giving principals a pot of money and providing them with the full authority to spend, Carranza supported attaching restrictions to the funding in order to ensure each school had an adequate number of administrators, teachers, and other school staff, such as nurses. But this budgeting arrangement may have been specific to Houston — in an interview with a Houston television station, Carranza said he supported this change only because Houston was facing a dire budget situation.

“We’re not going to take innovation away from principals,” Carranza said in the interview. “But what we’re going to say to principals, instead of you getting a pot of money and then having to kind of knit together what your staffing is, it’s going to be really transparent.”

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Chancellor Carmen Fariña spoke to principals, superintendents, and network officials last month.

Josephine Rice, the executive director of the Houston Association of School Administrators, said principals were vocal about their concerns when Carranza first proposed the budget changes. But he listened to their worries, and towards the end, principals felt they would receive more flexibility and that the plan was generally headed in the right direction, she said.

The model still has not been finalized and that leaves a lot of uncertainty among Houston principals at the moment, Rice said.

“While principals feel better about the staffing model,” she said, “they’re still not feeling good because there are so many questions that are out there.”

Houston Board trustee Sergio Lira said he would not expect Carranza to implement the same policy in New York unless it was necessary  and that Carranza’s style is to listen to educator concerns before acting. “Tell the principals [in New York] they’re lucky,” Lira said. “They’ve got a good guy.”

In San Francisco, where Carranza served as superintendent for four years, he attracted money from the Salesforce Foundation to start a Principal’s Innovation Fund, which awarded grants to principals and allowed them to allocate money as they saw fit. Marc Benioff, the chief executive of Salesforce, praised Carranza’s decision to delegate authority to the principals in a recent New York Times story.

Carranza also stood by principals by respecting their choice to hire teachers from Teach for America, despite the school board’s opposition.

The new chancellor should resist the urge to stick to a centralized system, said David Baiz, a former East Harlem Middle School principal who left the position last year to to get his doctorate in education leadership at Harvard. Baiz believes that the current administration forced principals to follow central directives instead of doing what was best for their schools — and it’s something he hopes the new chancellor changes.

“I would suggest for him to find a way to bring innovation back to New York City,” Baiz said.

Alex Zimmerman contributed reporting.

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
Eric Contreras is stepping down as principal of Stuyvesant High School.

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.