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

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.

parent power

From Amazon to air conditioners, parent leaders quizzed de Blasio and Carranza at forum

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza host a forum for parents in Queens, the first of five stops across the city.

Deborah Alexander, a parent whose school district covers Long Island City, asked Mayor Bill de Blasio Wednesday night why the local Community Education Council wasn’t asked to be on a committee providing input on Amazon’s controversial move to the Queens neighborhood.

De Blasio agreed. “You’re right,” the mayor said,  “the CEC should be on the committee, so we’re going to put the CEC on that committee.”

Not every question received such a cut-and-dry answer at the mayor and Chancellor Richard Carranza’s first “parent empowerment” listening tour event in Queens that drew about 200 local parents who were elected or appointed to certain boards and received invites. The pair faced a host of tough questions from parent leaders about problems including school overcrowding, the lack of air conditioners, lead in water, and busing.

By the end of the meeting, de Blasio told the audience that they should always get quick responses to their questions from the department and “that you can feel the impact of your involvement…that’s up to us to help that happen.”

He also called the listening tour “overdue,” and said that Carranza has told him the city needs to do more to reach out. Parents have often criticized city officials for not being plugged into the community.

Some questions needed more time to be answered. Bethany Thomas, co-president of the PTA at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, asked why the education department had not yet signed off on aspects of the school’s plan to have more than one principal. De Blasio asked Carranza to come up with an answer by next month.

Another parent said students at P.S. 62 were drinking from school water fountains that tested positive for lead last year, even though, according to the parent, the issue had not been addressed. De Blasio asked city officials to visit the school Thursday.

Other comments were even more complicated, often causing de Blasio and Carranza to rush parents along and condense comments to one specific issue. One Asian parent, who serves on a middle school’s PTA, gave an impassioned speech about feeling like “the enemy” after de Blasio announced a proposal in June to scrap the specialized high schools admissions test in order to diversify the schools. Currently 62 percent of specialized high school students are Asian.

“This was not about saying anyone is the bad guy,” de Blasio said, who has defended the plan as a way to bring more black and Hispanic students to those high schools.

Several parents asked why their schools still don’t have air conditioners. After de Blasio and Carranza said there is a plan to put air conditioners in every school by 2021, a mother with children at John Adams High School tearfully explained that her children will be out of school by then.

Carranza said he understood her problem, and the department would follow up, but that electrical wiring at each building makes it tough to solve the problem sooner than planned.

Alexander — the parent who asked about Amazon — questioned Carranza and de Blasio about how parent feedback would be used. She talked about the resolutions her Community Education Council passes that never get responses or feedback from the education department.

“We come, all of us, unpaid, away from our families, away from our jobs, away from bed times and dinners,” Alexander said. “We want to know what we’re doing is impactful, not a checked box.”

De Blasio said the city owes her “a process,” and department officials should respond in “real-time” — which could mean a couple of weeks. Carranza and de Blasio pledged to get a report of the meeting back to the parent leaders, noting how city leaders are following up with concerns.

elected school board

In Chicago, not everyone agrees with the grassroots call for an elected school board

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum on the city's next mayor and public schools included, from left, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, Daniel Anello, Jitu Brown, and Beth Swanson

Despite a growing call for an elected school board, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to Chicago’s troubled public school system.

Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum Wednesday evening split on whether an elected school board would offer more public accountability, especially given concerns that factions such as the teachers union would out-organize, and outspend, other candidates.

Daniel Anello, the CEO of school choice group Kids First, said he worried that an election determined by the size of campaign spending wouldn’t necessarily produce a board responsive to student and family needs.

“You need a school board that is representative of the communities we are talking about, but I worry if you take away accountability from the mayor, the mayor can absolve themselves of schools,” said Anello, noting his worries about big money entering a school board election. “My concern is that it is going to turn into a proxy war of ideology.”  

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
The crowd at the Chalkbeat Chicago Education for All event at Malcolm X College

The conversation was part of a larger discussion, hosted by Chalkbeat Chicago and sponsored by a new AT&T economic development initiative called Believe Chicago, about the next mayoral election and the future of city schools. Of the leading mayoral candidates who were invited, Lori Lightfoot and Paul Vallas attended.

The evening produced little agreement, except that school quality still differs dramatically by the address and race of students, and that the next mayor needs to be willing to have difficult, and even confrontational, conversations.

In addition to Anello, the panelists included Elizabeth Swanson, the vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation and the former deputy chief of staff for education for outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel; community organizer Jitu Brown, who led the 2013 hunger strike that saved Dyett High School; and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a county commissioner and newly elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Brown, who is the national director for the community education group Journey for Justice, made an impassioned plea for an elected school board, calling it one of the few pathways for communities of color to regain any influence over an education system he argued wasn’t working for them.

“In order for us to hold a system that has never loved us accountable, we must have democracy, we must have decision-making authority around how these institutions function in our community,” Brown said. “Is this a silver bullet? No. But is it a necessary ingredient? Yes.”

Another burning question raised during the night:. Should homegrown schools chief Janice Jackson keep her job?

Brown praised Jackson as a talented teacher and strong principal in the black community before her ascent to the central office — but expressed deep concern that she’s unable to run the district “with her instincts and what she knows how to do.”

“I think her work is highly politicized,” Brown said. “National Teachers Academy was being closed over a land grab, and her position on that was not the right position. Parents had to go to state appellate court in order to get that victory. Situations like that give me pause.”

But Anello and Swanson answered with high praise for the work Jackson has done and strong endorsements for her continuing to run the show at the nation’s third-largest school district.

Anello touted Jackson as a down-to-earth and accessible schools chief.

“If you want to have a conversation with her just pick up the phone,” he said. “That is rare in a school leader. It would be a shame and an absolute mistake to tell her to step down when you have a unicorn.”

Swanson said Jackson’s on-the-ground experience in school communities helps her relate to and inspire educators and school leaders, and her experience managing the $5 billion Chicago Public Schools make her a strong candidate to keep the job, whoever occupies the mayor’s office next year.

“I think Janice is an incredible leader, really unique,” Swanson said.

Panelists also diverged on whether the new mayor should freeze charter school expansion in the city.

Garcia questioned whether the city’s more than 100 charter schools have lived up to their billing as laboratories to experiment with and improve education. Chicago, he said, has “been infected with charter mania,” and instead needs to pivot toward the importance of ensuring current schools are adequately funded.

Anello tried quelling the debate on charters vs. neighborhood schools, arguing that parents are agnostic about school type and more concerned about quality education and good schools for their children.

“I would start by listening to communities and families,” he said.