Q&A

Richard Carranza wants you to know he isn’t afraid to take a hard look at New York City’s school system

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza during a recent interview with Chalkbeat at Tweed Courthouse.

When Richard Carranza was tapped to be the new chancellor of New York City schools, his predecessor beamed as he spelled out his philosophy for sparking change in schools.

His beliefs about making regular school visits, supporting struggling schools, and providing steady directives from the top of a massive bureaucracy all mirror policies that were championed by the retired chancellor, Carmen Fariña.

But in a Wednesday interview with Chalkbeat, Carranza began to make clear that his tenure will also feel different in some important ways. Though he may agree on the substance, he is already raising questions about whether every element of the current agenda has been implemented effectively.

The mayor’s high-profile Renewal turnaround program doesn’t have a clear enough “theory of action,” Carranza said — a pointed assessment of a program he is inheriting.

And despite his philosophical alignment with his predecessor, he is already taking a slightly different tack. Where Fariña famously said she favored stories over statistics and refrained from explicitly referencing school integration, Carranza talked about how data will help guide his decisions and has said the city’s entrenched segregation is unacceptable.

“I’m finding evidence that there’s really good work that’s happened already,” he said. “And I’m also finding evidence that not all of that has trickled down yet to the classroom.”

Here’s our interview, lightly edited for length and clarity.

You said you spent a lot of your first week in policy briefings and meeting your co-workers. I’m curious what you learned in that process that you didn’t know before taking the job.

There’s a lot of detail work that’s happening in the department of education that, as an external potential candidate for the chancellor, I wouldn’t be privy to. I was very aware of some of the big topics. Like everything you cover, I was able to find, thanks to you, a lot of coverage. But the next level of inquiry down — what’s the historical context from the department of education’s perspective, who’s been working on things, what has gone wrong — that whole other nitty-gritty side to the work that has been going on in the department, that’s what I have been diving into the last week, and then this week as well.

The previous administration operated under the theory that schools needed to be radically changed to address glaring inequities in the system. You have already pointed out that there are achievement gaps that need to be addressed here, but have also said that schools are in “very good shape.” Can you help us understand whether the system is in urgent need of change — or whether everything is basically on the right track as long as the city stays its course?

I think you can’t paint the continuum in such stark terms. There’s always room for improvement, and you have the most massive system in the United States in New York City. But what I do want people to understand is that, the sky isn’t falling. And when you think about what we do in public education in America — every student has a right to a free and public education in America. We take anybody, regardless of any characteristic. We take everybody. Not all nations across the world take everybody and educate everybody.

Because of that, we have some real opportunities here to do things that others perhaps don’t do. But we also have to understand that, because we take everyone, that we have challenges that students and families come to us with — particularly when they live in an urban environment. It’s stressful living in an urban environment. That’s why when we talk about social-emotional learning, trauma-informed instruction, it’s a real thing for us. Because there’s trauma living in an urban environment.

My philosophy is that the work of school improvement and building great schools, when you take everyone, is not sexy work. It’s not. It’s blue collar, roll-up-your-sleeves, pay attention to lots of things. But what is really, really provocative is when you can put those systems and structure in place and you get really accelerated outcomes for students and you’re developing and graduating students, that really is sexy.

So if the sky isn’t falling, then why do you and the mayor say there needs to be such a sense of urgency around making changes to the system?

Because we still have students in communities around the city that haven’t yet received the benefit of a great public education. It’s not like the entire system needs to completely be revamped.

I’ll give you an example, recently, with the NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress] scores and TUDA [Trial Urban District Assessment]. We know what the national headline was [scores were flat], we know about fourth-grade math in New York City [there was a 7-point decrease in the proportion of fourth graders considered proficient in compared with 2013].

But I’ll tell you what I’ve asked staff to do is: Give me some schools in our very school system that have all of those indicators with sub-groups that would make a traditionally very difficult academic road to hoe, and show me: Are there any schools that, even with those very characteristics, are just knocking it out of the park? I have a whole pageful of places.

So part of what we’re doing is, instead of going and buying a program, we’re going to those schools, we’re working with those principals, we’re talking to those teachers, we’re looking at how they’ve structured their math instruction. Because we want to capture those best practices and then we want to elevate those and make them a systemic way that we do the work that we do. Why? Because we have evidence right here in our own backyard that it’s working. That’s the kind of work that I’m talking about.

The mayor has set a goal of having every third-grader reading on grade level by 2026, and has begun placing literacy coaches to work with teachers in high-need districts. De Blasio recently said that you’d be ‘supercharging’ the education department’s early literacy efforts. What does that mean?

My perspective has been that, if you don’t have a systemic approach to the initiatives that have been articulated, then you’re not going to get deep implementation of any initiative. So what I’m trying to really wrap my head around is: What is the systemic, systems-approach that we’re using to make sure that our early literacy initiative is actually permeating to the classroom?

Any decision that I make, I always put two hats on: I put my teacher hat on, and I put my principal hat on. The reason I do that is that, one of the reasons I went into administration was because as a teacher, I kept saying to myself, ‘Who’s the bonehead who decided this? Because they have no idea what this is doing to me in the classroom.’ So I put my teacher hat on. And then I put my principal hat on, because I found myself as a principal saying, ‘Who’s the bonehead who decided this? They have no idea what the effect is on my campus.’

For example, in how you provide early literacy — so what is our philosophical basis for believing in literacy? Do we believe in a balanced literacy approach? Do we believe in direct instruction? Where does phonics play? Do we believe in Lucy Calkins [an approach from Teachers College at Columbia University that was favored by Fariña, and was created by one of her close educational allies]? There are all these questions that then define how you’re rolling out PD [professional development for teachers], how you’re implementing it as the school-site level.

And now, because we’re in the executive budget season, I’m looking at the budget that we’re proposing and saying, ‘Can I find a line item in the budget that speaks to the priorities that we’ve talked about?’

Embedded in your answer, were you suggesting that there isn’t necessarily one early literacy approach that the city is using, or there are multiple approaches in place and you’re trying to figure out what’s working?

I’m not saying this is the number, but if you have 30 different approaches as an example — this was the case in my previous school district — 30 different approaches to teaching early literacy, then how do you as organization support 30 different approaches? It makes it very difficult, if not impossible. Well, now multiply that times 75,000-plus teachers in our school system. Then how are we supporting teachers to build capacity to do whatever they’re doing around early literacy?

Now, I’m not Attila the Hun and I don’t believe that everyone should be lock step. But I do believe that there should be coherence. And a teacher who’s coming into the system should understand that if I log in to our portal, there are going to be certain resources that are going to be available to me, but I also know that there is a schedule of professional development that’s going to help to sharpen my skill set. That’s the kind of coherence that I’m talking about.

And I would also say that, as the mayor and I had our conversations about implementation, I was really, really specific with the mayor that my approach is always a systemic approach. That’s my role as a system leader.

Are you saying that because you feel like the approach hasn’t entirely cohered yet?

I’m finding evidence that there’s really good work that’s happened already in the department of ed. And I’m also finding evidence that not all of that has trickled down yet to the classroom — and there are other reasons for that, too. You have new teachers who come in, you have teachers who have moved. So what I want to be able to do is, in very short time, be able to come out and say, ‘Look, this is what I have found. This is the approach that we’re going to be using moving forward. And for a teacher in the classroom: this is what you can expect.’

Is there anything in particular that you think has happened, policy-wise, that hasn’t quite trickled down yet?

I’ll give you an example, Renewal schools… What’s our theory of action? I keep asking that question, and I get different answers. Now, they’re all great answers but my perspective is you should have one theory of action: If we do this, and we do this, and we believe in this, then we expect that. A theory of action that’s tight, cohesive, every Renewal school should know it — everybody who works with a Renewal school, every New Yorker should know it. If that’s our theory of action then, how are we aligning systems and structures to support that? That’s the kind of work that I’m talking about. But again, you can only do that once you’re in the system and able to ask those questions and get follow-up.

Renewal is probably one of the highest-profile programs that has launched in the last four years, but also among the most controversial. It’s cost almost $600 million so far and it’s been three-plus years — and results have been fairly mixed and it’s future is uncertain. How you plan to evaluate the program and determine what it’s future ought to be?

I would just challenge the notion of anybody who thinks our approach to supporting schools that have are historically underserved is going to go away. It’s not going to go away.

You mean Renewal in particular?

Well, whatever Renewal is. And the reason I phrase it that way is, again, absent a very concrete theory of action, and then a framework that’s very transparent about how we’re going to approach supporting these kinds of schools, then I think it makes it difficult for us to talk about, what really are the outcomes that we’re looking for? So that’s the work that we’re going to engage in very, very quickly right now.

That being said, there are some really good components of what the Renewal schools approach has been. I think it’s been very clearly articulated: We’re going to invest in resources. We’re going to give you some time. If, at the end of the time, there’s not improvement, you haven’t moved to the Rise cohort of schools, then there are some consequences that come. Because we can’t afford for students not to be served. I’m wanting to understand and trying to understand exactly how we’ve approached that conversation with Renewal schools.

That being said, components of the Renewal schools have been some of the work strands that I’ve had in some of the other systems that I’ve worked in. So I think it’s really important that you’re looking at principal leadership: the right leaders in the right schools in the right circumstances. I think it’s really important that you have teachers who want to be in that school with those students. And then, how we as a central administration support the work that’s happening in the Renewal schools.

There is this separate “community schools” program that has a lot of similar features as the Renewal schools. All Renewal schools are community schools. Chris Caruso, who runs the community schools program, has repeatedly said it’s not, by itself, a turnaround strategy. It’s just one of many components. Are you committing to having a program that is turnaround in nature, that is designed to take schools that the city has identified as low-performing?

Absolutely. I think you can’t have an urban school system where you’re not paying attention the schools that are not providing good academic outcomes for kids. That being said, community schools is a powerful strategy for providing equity for many schools that have real challenges — either because of the community that they live in, or the circumstances their students come from.

So I don’t disagree with Chris. I just think there’s a little more amplification to the fact that community schools is part of a strategy to empower schools and school communities to improve. But it also is just a good practice for any school community.

Do you think that strategy, infusing social services and having a nonprofit partner, will create academic gains? Or is that a necessary but not sufficient condition?

I think it’s an important part of creating academic gains. I think it’s an important part of creating conditions that students, from an equity lens, are able to meet the high bar that we’ve set.

Now, I want to be really clear, there’s not a direct cause and effect here. There seems to be in the nomenclature out in the community, that, well if you have a community school then you’re going to lead to academic improvement. Well, no. Because a community school doesn’t cause academic improvement.

A community school, in conjunction with a strong curriculum, in conjunction with strong wrap-around supports, in conjunction with the entire package, leads to creating conditions that schools can improve.

The Renewal program doesn’t have a permanent leader right now and I’m wondering whether you’re planning on naming someone, and if so, what the timeline might be?

I think you have to have somebody who owns any particular approach. So there will be somebody in that role and I can’t commit to a timeline only because I’m still getting to know folks.

In her final days as chancellor, Carmen Fariña somewhat famously said that she believes in stories over statistics as indicators of the system’s health and the impact of her policies. How important is data in guiding your policy choices?

I don’t think it’s an either-or, and I have a lot of respect for chancellor Fariña. I’ve been a big fan of hers for a very, very long time. I also value stories. I think it’s important because it gives you context. We ask teachers to differentiate in the classroom for different students. I think we also have to, at a systemic level, differentiate for communities based on context —  not lowering the bar, not having a different bar, but just understanding the context so that we can empower communities. So I think that’s why stories are really, really important.

But I also think that data is critically important. I’m looking at performance data. Now, is that the only guide that I’ll use to make decisions? Of course not. It’s the mixed-research method. You have your qualitative, and you have your quantitative.

Carmen Fariña felt that plans to address segregation needed to come “organically” from local communities. In Houston, you were willing to propose changes to the way students are admitted to magnet schools, which are segregated. What role or responsibility does the education department have in proposing solutions when it comes to segregation?

I think we have a role, in communication with our communities. And we have a role in communication with the broader New York community.

So when you have a school, a specialized school that has 10 African American students that are admitted, that’s a conversation we need to have. Now, keep in mind, there is state legislation that requires us to have a single test. But I think that’s a conversation we need to have about perhaps changing that law. Because students aren’t the sum total — I’ve said this very clearly — aren’t the sum total of one test. But how can we in a democracy, in a public school system, be OK with minimal numbers of students?

Is the solution completely in our realm? Probably not. I think there’s a broader conversation about gentrification in the city. There’s a broader conversation about where people choose to live and not to live in the city. There’s a number of citywide conversations New Yorkers need to have.

The conversation about segregation often focuses on race, but there is also intense academic segregation here: over half the students who took and passed the eighth-grade state math exam in 2015 wound up clustered in less than 8 percent of city high schools. The same was true for those who passed the English exam. Is that acceptable to you?

Of course not. That is not acceptable. And as I wrap my head around the data, those are conversations that I’m looking forward to having with my colleagues. And my colleagues are principals, and teachers, and superintendents, and deputy chancellors. I think we have to have a systemic conversation about that. But no one can say that’s OK.

You pushed back earlier on your comment that opting-out of state tests was an ‘extreme reaction’ and I’m just curious why you walked that back a little bit.

I don’t think I have. What I tried to do was clarify that. The conversation that we’ve had about testing and the opt-out movement, I think there’s room in New York City for a much more nuanced conversation.

The extremes of the conversation that I’ve heard are: One extreme says, we need to be data-driven. We need to have a metric for every single thing that happens in schools. We should be doing testing at regular intervals. We should have a lock-step curriculum. That’s an extreme. And then you have the other extreme that says: We should have no testing in schools. It should be an organic experience and that students should be, almost a montessori-like, writ-large, approach to school.

I think any extreme is not a fruitful conversation. I think we should have a nuanced conversation. What is the appropriate role for testing, number one. Number two: Are we testing too much? And what are the tests we have to do? Some are required by state law. Some are required by federal. And I would say, parents who want their children to go to college, those students are going to have to take the SAT, the ACT, unless their parents are independently wealthy and can just go wherever they want to go.

But even for admissions, students are going to have to take tests in the future. So I think there is an appropriate role for that conversation, but I just want to make sure that we are having a much more nuanced conversation about the issue, rather than just saying it’s either-or.

And I give a lot of credit, by the way, to the conversation that has happened around testing. Because of those conversations, the testing window is now shorter, there’s no time limits, New York teachers have a voice in developing what those questions are, so they’re aligned to what’s being taught. So I think there’s a lot of good things that have come from the conversation.

Is there anything we haven’t asked you about that you want us to know about?

I think that we’re going to look back to the issues that we talked about today and I think what you’re going to see is a consistency a year from now, two years from now, of what we’re looking at.

I’ll give you a good example: So in Houston I took a lot of bullets around really lifting that magnet conversation and calling it out, and saying, that from an equity perspective, some communities were not being served well. The Houston Chronicle just published a story, a whole report, where they are basically affirming what I was saying the whole time about the choice process.

So I’m not going to be so busy keeping my job that I’m not going to do my job. And I think that’s why I’m so excited about being able to be here with Mayor Bill de Blasio, because he philosophically feels the same way.

Future of Schools

Indianapolis Public Schools budget plan could include layoffs and salary freezes

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Indianapolis Public Schools is cutting spending across the district.

Schools across Indianapolis’s largest district could face hiring freezes and layoffs as the district seeks to balance its budget, according to a document published on the district website.

The finance update, which is expected to be presented Thursday for discussion to the Indianapolis Public Schools Board, outlines a plan for cutting nearly $21 million from the cash-strapped district’s $269 million general fund budget for 2018-19. Some of the potential cuts include educator layoffs based on subject area, salary freezes, and reductions in custodial services and substitute teachers.

It is not clear whether all the potential cuts will be made. The district declined to immediately comment on the proposal but said staff would be available to answer questions Tuesday.

Cuts to school and certified staff budgets could save about $8.9 million. Those could include freezing external hiring, early retirement, and layoffs. Districtwide cuts — which could include freezing pay and reducing substitute teachers, custodial services, and service contracts — could save about $9.2 million. Those savings could also include proceeds from real-estate sales. About $2.75 million could be cut from special education and English language learner services.

The district could also cut transportation for field trips and after-school activities, saving about $1.5 million from the $37.7 million transportation budget.

The plan is the first detailed look at how Indianapolis students, educators, and schools could be affected by a growing financial crisis. And more cuts may come if referendums to increase property taxes in order to boost school budgets fail later this year. Those measures were originally on the May ballot, but when they received little public support, the school board suspended the campaign. District leaders are now working with the Indy Chamber to craft a proposal that’s expected to be on the November ballot.

The Chamber expects to release the results of an analysis of the district’s finances by July, according to Mark Fisher, the organization’s chief policy officer. But district leaders say they will begin making the case to voters that the property tax hikes are needed before then, through meetings with school staff, parents, and community groups.

Last week, before the details of the potential cuts were revealed, Superintendent Lewis Ferebee told Chalkbeat his administration is dedicated to planning the budget for next year.

“The focus for the administration has been on ensuring that we make the necessary reductions that we need to make right now,” he said. “Those are important messages that families need to hear from us. And we will do a lot of that between now and the end of the school year, just educating families of where we are on the finances.”

Schools are already making cuts this year, with reduced staffing and hiring, according to the document.

Earl Phalen, who heads a charter network that runs two schools in the Indianapolis Public Schools innovation network, said the district already told schools they cannot plan field trips for students. “Those are important educational experiences for children,” he added.

While some of the proposed cuts may seem small, Phalen said they would have an impact on students. Campuses might be able to get by with fewer janitors, he said, but they don’t have “lavish resources.” Cutting those positions will mean that children go to schools that are not as well maintained, he said.

 

“You cut away a janitor, well, maybe the building is not going to be quite as clean. The children deserve to have a building spick-and-span,” he said. “You cut away a media specialist, well, then scholars don’t have the experience of going to a library and having that as one of their specials.”

MERGE AHEAD

Wadleigh middle school is safe — for now — after Harlem community rallied to stop its closure

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A Wadleigh graduate addresses the crowd at a rally outside the school. Students, parents and community leaders spoke against the city's plans to close the Harlem performing arts school.

Supporters scored a partial victory in their fight to keep the middle school alive at Wadleigh Secondary, a politically connected and historically important performing and visual arts school in Harlem.

Marking one of Richard Carranza’s first major moves as chancellor, the education department on Monday pulled its proposal to cut Wadleigh’s middle school grades — just days before the Panel for Educational Policy was scheduled to vote on the school’s fate. But the department also announced that it will begin laying the groundwork to combine Wadleigh with another district middle school in the building.

The school, which was saved from closure once before after a public outcry, will continue to serve students in grades six through 12 for the next school year.

“After listening to extensive feedback from Wadleigh families and community members, the chancellor is withdrawing the proposal to truncate the middle school grades at Wadleigh Secondary School,” the education department confirmed in an email.

The fight for the school, which is part of the city’s high-profile Renewal turnaround program, is likely not over. Saying the middle school’s academic performance is “not acceptable,” the education department announced it will begin a planning process to combine Wadleigh with Frederick Douglass Academy II. For school communities, such mergers can feel just like a closure, with one school often retaining its name, keeping the same leadership, and preserving its unique approach to teaching.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” said Gigs Taylor-Stephenson, president of the Wadleigh PTA. “The whole idea was to maintain our identity as an arts school with an strong academic component. It doesn’t seem like that’s the case, and we’ve argued time and time again that we don’t want to be a separate middle and high school.”

Education department spokesman Michael Aciman stressed that the plan to combine the schools is still in the early phases and said “the community will help shape and decide what the proposal looks like.”

The decision marks Carranza’s first foray in the controversial school closure process since becoming chancellor earlier this month. Kim Watkins, president of the Community Education Council in District 3, which includes Wadleigh, said the chancellor met with parent leaders and elected officials to hear their pleas to save the middle school.

“Something wasn’t right, and it was very reassuring to our council and to the community in Harlem that our chancellor took an interest,” Watkins said. “His fresh eyes, in conjunction with the hard work of community leaders, led us to the update we’re hearing today.”

Monday’s about-face marked at least the second time supporters beat back a proposal to shut down the middle school at Wadleigh, which has long struggled academically but enjoys a remarkable constituency. When it was targeted for closure in 2011, the famed philosopher Cornel West was among those who rallied to keep it open — and so did Mayor Bill de Blasio, who at the time served as the city’s public advocate. A new principal was installed but Wadleigh landed on the city’s list of struggling schools just two years later, and officials drew up an “action plan” to help turn things around.

After de Blasio was elected, Wadleigh became a part of the city’s latest improvement efforts: the Renewal program, which infuses schools with added resources and tacks on extra time to the school day. Still, the school has continued to struggle. In December, the education department recommended shutting down the middle school, citing low enrollment and three years without a single student scoring “proficient” on state math exams.

The latest battle to keep Wadleigh alive drew support from the NAACP, the local Community Education Council, elected officials including a state senator and the city comptroller, along with countless parents, students, alumni and school staff. Many argued the school still hasn’t received the help it needed to boost test scores. City data shows Wadleigh enrolls students who are usually the toughest to serve: Many enter middle school already lagging behind their peers, almost all come from economically needy families, and a disproportionate number have special needs.

“How about you just help us and keep this school together,” one student asked at a rally on Friday outside Wadleigh. “I don’t want this school to close down.”

This time around, the education department says it will appoint an assistant principal to focus on the middle school grades in both Wadleigh and Frederick Douglass. Starting next school year, the middle school grades will begin working together on math instruction and share arts resources, and staffers will train together, according to the education department.

Planning for combining both schools will start this year, with the merger set to take effect for the 2019-20 school year.

The announcement could deepen a clash between city officials and the popular but controversial Success Academy charter network, which also runs a school in the same building. Just last month, Success founder Eva Moskowitz stood outside the school and said the city has ignored Success’s requests for more room there. The network has filed a complaint asking state education officials to intervene.

A spokesman for Success declined to comment Monday, but the network’s leaders have said the charter school enrolls one-third of the students in the building, with only a quarter of the space.