Is Carmen Farina the cowardly lioness? Why the NYC chancellor of schools needs to get tough

              
 
“Carmen Fariña is the principal everybody loves to fear,” began a 1999 Times profile of the current chancellor when she ran the Upper East Side’s P.S. 6 “with a no-nonsense style and gets results through Darwinian selection.”
 
Where is that woman with the “imposing character”?
 
Instead, we have someone consistently describing herself as a grandmother, little more than a figurehead whose bravest act was embracing the teacher’s union president over a contract that largely sold principals, still without an agreement, down the river.
 
In the new school year, it’s time to bring back the old Carmen. The cowardly lioness needs to restore some of her old courage.
 
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, left, and Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina. File photo. (AP Photo/The Wall Street Journal, Andrew Hinderaker, Pool, File)
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, left, and Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina. File photo. (AP Photo/The Wall Street Journal, Andrew Hinderaker, Pool, File)
 
Perhaps it made sense for Fariña to affect a soft, sunny mien in recognition of the public’s apparent frustration with the hard-charging Bloomberg/Klein years. She then withdrew further from controversy when cavalier statements toward snow days and charter students led to early public criticism.
 
Our schools — our children — are in deep trouble, requiring tough choices and steely follow-through, not politically calibrated bromides about “four pillars” or “four c’s and an e“. There is so much to do: improved literacy and math instruction at all levels (including adults as necessary partners), violence prevention and suspension reduction, a broader curriculum, and parent empowerment. So much to do. “Grandma” just won’t cut it.
 
David C. Bloomfield
David C. Bloomfield
 
To accomplish these and other urgent goals, Fariña needs first to become a better executive. Complaints abound that the new chancellor has failed to enact a coherent managerial vision, retaliates against DOE staff associated with the last administration, and presides over an increasingly disorganized bureaucracy. Those still there from Bloomberg/Klein/Wolcott days must be granted amnesty, evaluated for their current work, not perceived sins of association. Lines of authority need clarity. Overburdened principals now have multiple, overlapping yet independent support/oversight offices to juggle: re-empowered superintendents, networks, “learning partners,” separate arrangements for students with special needs and English language learners, not to mention myriad data analysts and technical specialists including duplicative operations personnel in every division. The chancellor keeps promising to announce yet another bureaucratic layer to support low performing schools. Adding to the confusion, these non-school staff must somehow coordinate their work with each other without stepping on toes and bumping knees. Impossible.
 
The chancellor needs to step out nationally and state-wide. As the leader of the largest school system in the country, she has a responsibility to lend her voice to the national education debate since, while she focuses on classroom dynamics, teachers’ and parents’ main complaint — aside from thin budgets — is that testing mandates have swamped instruction. If she really believes in the mandated Common Core de-linked from high stakes tests for teacher evaluation, she should lobby the state and federal education departments, speaking out against opposing views. On race, she must energetically participate in the president’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative for young men of color and is in a unique position to lead a charge to expand that vision to include young women.
 
No less important are her instructional obligations here at home, where English language learners continue to languish for lack of adequate services and support. Fariña has been silent on the numbers of refugee students re-locating to the city from Central America this fall. What schools will be most impacted? Will charters accept these children? Will the new Community Schools initiative or other resources be adjusted so that they have adequate medical and social services, in addition to instructional supports from qualified teachers?
 
Perhaps of greatest concern, the chancellor underplays the extent of student needs by failing to publicly address equity issues, though much of student progress depends on access to quality, integrated schools. One pressure point for a solution is to reform school choice at all levels. While city officials are understandably concerned about the Pre-K roll out, the kindergarten choice system remains problematic, with wealthier families and districts disproportionately driving applications and seat allocation in the more popular programs, displacing low-income students in those lotteries leading to the upper grades. One principal advises holding 40 percent of seats in upper income neighborhoods for free-and-reduced lunch eligible students, a common-sense solution to equity and diversity concerns ignored by the chancellor who, when confronted by gross inequality in our gifted and talented programs, caved to upper income parents.
 
And, on the issue of high school equity, Fariña needs to lay out a plan for changes to high school choice and admissions to selective high schools.
 
These and other challenges require not a new chancellor but the chancellor we thought we had last January. So as school begins, just as our children cannot be daunted by the enormous challenges ahead, they must be joined by a re-energized Carmen Fariña, ready to revert to type and fiercely protect their interests.
 
David C. Bloomfield is Professor of Educational Leadership at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center