Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña's Phyllis Kossoff Lecture on Education & Policy

  • Posted: Sat Apr 12, 2014 Updated: Tue Apr 24, 2018

Presented at Teachers College, Columbia University

Good morning. Thank you. I’m so honored and excited to be here today, to speak to this distinguished group. 
 
I’m especially grateful to Phyllis Kossoff for endowing this wonderful lecture and to Susan Fuhrman, the president of Teachers College, whom I have known for many years.
 
Teachers College, and Columbia University, has played a pivotal role in my life, as I’m sure it has for all of you.
 
As a classroom teacher, I worked with a remarkable educator, Lucy Calkins, and her Reading and Writing Project, an approach that was energizing and groundbreaking at the time. 
 
When I first became a principal, I worked with your clinical psychologist and guidance department with the assistance of one of your trustees, and it was invaluable in moving my school forward. 
 
As a superintendent, TC, as we affectionately refer to this college, was a partner in everything we did, including new approaches to professional development and teaching students with disabilities. 
 
And as a deputy chancellor, I saw the birth of the Cahn Fellows and had the privilege of sitting on its board. 
 
Your work as a university has been exemplary and shows that when smart people get together, anything is possible.
 
Since I became Chancellor, I have been humbled by the overwhelming support I have received from teachers, principals, and parents throughout the City. From large town halls to small gatherings, I have been welcomed with open arms by school communities across the five boroughs. 
 
As a child of Spanish immigrants, I entered school unable to even speak English. My teacher marked me absent every day because I never answered during roll call. Why would I? I never heard my name called. My father eventually discovered that my teacher had been mispronouncing it for weeks. 
 
At the time, I could not have imagined going to college, let alone becoming New York City’s Schools Chancellor. 
 
And today, I’m here to hopefully share a bit of wisdom I’ve gained in my four decades in education. 
 
Today, I’m here to tell you where the answers to some of our more perplexing education problems lie: They’re in the room.
 
We are a system of professionals who are passionate about our work, who have the expertise and experience to lift everyone up. If you’re searching for answers to the challenges of our work—they lie in the room. In this room, and in the classroom.
 
For too long, the education efforts of this City were outside the classroom. That changed 100 days ago.
 
In a system of our scale—1,800 schools, 1.1 million students, more than 125,000 employees—the challenges we face may seem vast. The path to progress may appear labyrinth-like.
 
But the solutions can be simple. We don’t need to cook up some secret sauce for success. Instead, if we approach our work by recognizing that the answer lies within, we can tackle our challenges one student, one classroom, one school at a time.
 
But to do that in a system of our size, we can’t work in silos. We must work together, both within our individual walls and across our expansive system.
 
That must be our standard for excellence—a back-to-basics approach premised on partnership. One person can make a difference, but teams of people can be historic difference-makers.
 
After a career dedicating myself to our City’s classrooms, I’m here today to reflect on my first 100 days in office as Chancellor. People stop me in the grocery store and ask, “Why in the world would you come out of retirement to run the largest, most complex school system in the nation?” A job where you can be tripped up by one of your own sound bites, no less. “It truly is a beautiful day!” Where no matter what you do or how hard you work, you may never please everyone.
 
So to tell you why, I will discuss my vision going forward for the next 100 days, and our achievements of the past 100.    
 
I’ve worked in every level of our system—and over my four decades in City schools, in my time digging deep for answers, I’ve unearthed four pillars, and they will be at the epicenter of everything we do as I oversee our schools as Chancellor. 
 
My first pillar is to return dignity and respect to our work force.
We must honor the teachers, principals, and school staff who are doing the incredibly hard, on-the-ground work. These professionals command our respect, and we are committed to providing them with the support and training they need to hone their craft. 
 
One of my first acts as Chancellor was to convene a meeting with principals. Nearly 1,000 showed up—and expressed their frustration at not being honored and recognized. They hungered to be consulted about decisions that would affect their practice, and to be assisted. As a result of this meeting, we produced an all-day conference for relatively new principals hosted by experienced principals. To my delight, principals have remained in touch with one another and are extending their conversations. 
 
 
We in this room all know that teachers play the most critical role in shaping the lives of children. It’s time we give teachers the respect they are due and give them room to do what they do best and in the process return JOY to the classroom.  The answers are definitely in this room. 
 
My second pillar is to improve student achievement by aligning Common Core strategies with everything we do. 
 
Academics as well as the arts. We must ensure that all of our students, not only graduate, but graduate with a well-rounded education that will enable them to succeed in college and beyond. By stressing the Common Core strategies in everything we do and increasing our use of technology, we increase the opportunities for success.
 
To this end, we are moving professional development into its own department. We are honoring the work principals do by making it a requirement that they have seven years of pedagogical experience before they take charge of a school. This policy, which just got the green light this week, reaffirms the importance of school-based experience. In order to change schools, principals must have credibility, and credibility only comes with experience.
 
Finally, we are offering teachers and principals professional days in which they can share best teaching practices. Taking advantage of the answers that are in the room.
 
 
My third pillar is to engage parents in every aspect of school life.
 
Parents matter. Parental involvement and support are crucial to student achievement. Research shows that parents who engage in read-alouds and nurturing educational practices lay a strong foundation for later success in school. When parents are engaged at the school and district level, children and schools benefit. 
 
We know they’ve been shut out for far too long.
 
We have started to form parent advisory groups and are infusing parents into many of our existing structures. In May and June we are holding three full-day parent conferences on both curriculum and strategies to increase parent involvement in their schools. Parents have not only helped us develop the conferences, they are advising us on how to improve our relationship with them moving forward. We’re also hosting an all-day conference later this month for parent coordinators and 600 people have already signed up.
 
Proving, again, that the answers are in the room.
 
My fourth pillar is to create new collaborative and innovative models within our City and schools.
 
We don’t reach the cutting edge when we work alone. Progress happens when we work together, when we harness the vast and exceptional resources of our city— and one another.  
 
I anticipate deeper collaborations with our cultural institutions and universities in ways that impact our classroom work. 
 
After meeting with over 25 universities and over 100 cultural institutions, it is clear to me that the answers are in the room.
 
These four pillars have become the supporting beams of our school system—and the essence of all of our work going forward. Everything we do will have an impact on the classroom. This is a major shift.
 
But before I talk about the next 100 days, I want to take a minute to reflect on the extraordinary progress we’ve delivered in the previous hundred. 
 
As a non-English speaking child, I understand how important education, in particular early childhood education, is in giving kids the opportunity to succeed.
 
That’s why I’m such an advocate for truly universal, high quality, full-day pre-kindergarten. Had this option existed when I started school, I would have had an additional year under my belt. That’s an extra year of expanding a child’s vocabulary and building critical-thinking skills through rich experiential learning. And, ultimately, an earlier push up the academic ladder.
 
Many of our pre-k classrooms are nothing short of phenomenal. This is not daycare—this is real learning. In one class I visited, I heard four-year olds pronounce multi-syllable words like “carnivorous” and “herbivorous.” 
 
These kids were actively engaged in conversation, demonstrating real understanding and sharing with an audience, all Common Core expectations. 
 
To me, visits to pre-k classrooms are touching not just because of the caliber of learning—the children were being taught by high-quality teachers, who are continually honing their craft. But these visits in particular are touching because you can hear, see, and sense that these students had extraordinary promise simply because they had an additional year of schooling. Progress feels more palpable in these rooms. 
 
And now, because of Mayor de Blasio’s leadership, and with funding in place, the City is moving toward truly universal, high-quality, full-day pre-k. Children in communities across the City will have more time to explore, discover, learn, and make friends during a pivotal time in their development. By the 2015-2016 school year, more than 70,000 students will be able to benefit from this historic initiative. 
 
But make no mistake: our efforts to provide every child with an excellent education do not stop here. 
 
In addition to an early school start, middle school has been a particular focus of my first 100 days.  It’s close to my heart. 
 
As you know, middle school is a tough time for a lot of kids. It’s a time of transition. Kids are discovering who they are. As a parent, I remember this time well. If you’re a parent, I’m sure you remember it too. 
 
The challenge is this: if 7th graders are not totally engaged in academics, many of them do not even reach high school. It’s clear that if we are to increase our graduation and college readiness rates, we must focus on middle schools. 
 
This administration, like none before it, is committed to devoting unprecedented resources to ensure that the best academics are available to all students in middle school grades. This means that all subject areas will be integrated into reading and writing, which is part of Columbia’s philosophy. We want students to be totally engaged in reading—for progress both academically and personally. 
 
But our efforts must extend beyond classroom work. It’s crucial that middle schools have an emphasis on the arts, so that every child can experience chorus or drama or being part of a band. There is no better incentive to be successful in school than to stand before an audience and share your talent. And, by the way, parents choose middle schools that have outstanding extracurricular activities.
 
Something as simple as team sports can also hook kids into school when other things may not. As a superintendent, I urged middle school principals to do phys ed first thing in morning to improve attendance. It worked!
 
Let us not forget that kids also need the opportunity to learn outside traditional classroom time. That’s why extended time after the school day is crucial, particularly in neighborhoods where students have few opportunities to engage in enrichment activities.
 
As you may know, we are in the process of expanding our after-school programs to ensure that students who need the extra guidance and support receive it. These programs are currently in 239 middle schools; our goal is for every middle school grade to have free after-school programming.
 
Students will benefit from lessons aligned to what they’re learning in school, including literacy and math support, but they will also get to participate in art, dance and recreational activities. They’ll be having fun, but gaining skills that will help them in applying to our audition high schools. 
 
As Mayor de Blasio has said, “this is not a boutique effort” for only a few kids or a few schools. This is system-wide, historic change.
 
Since my first day on the job, I have been meeting with every possible constituent you can imagine. I am now in the process of doing a five-borough meet and greet with teachers. They are eager to have their voices heard; I already have boxes of index cards full of their questions and concerns. I am so committed to visiting schools every week. Up to now, I have been to almost 30 schools, and in every one of them, I have found something that should be replicated and shared with others.
 
I highlight these schools in my monthly newsletter, “Principal Notes,” which is another way to communicate to the field my expectations and aspirations. The newsletter also encourages principals to send me suggestions and open a dialogue.
 
Nothing epitomizes my commitment to collaboration better than our Learning Partners Program, which we launched on Monday. This is a really exciting initiative that is bringing schools together to share strong practices. The idea is simple: principals and their staff will be more effective if they are able to share ideas, visit other schools, and learn from their peers.
 
So far, we have seven host schools and 14 partner schools, across all five boroughs and all grade levels. Next year, the program will nearly quadruple. 
 
As a lifelong educator, this has truly been a personal dream of mine: to encourage, through an innovative initiative, system-wide collaboration and disseminate best-practices across the entire district. It’s now coming into fruition. 
 
It may seem like a basic change—because it is. Solutions to complex problems are often just that – simple. But this pilot will have wide ramifications, because whether you know it or not, schools in the past have been—through competition with one another—discouraged from working together. 
 
Best practice sharing is all the more important as we transition to the Common Core, an important and paradigmatic instructional shift. The standards will help kids think, write, argue, and articulate complex ideas in a way that they haven’t in the past. They are what will help our students compete in the future. Our challenge right now is to ensure that teachers have more training and the materials they need to fully prepare their students to meet the Common Core standards. 
 
After all, we are part of a global market and our students need to be able to participate in a workforce that demands the ability to articulate, think, and produce. 
 
But rote memorization and excessive test prep won’t get us there. It has to end. That’s why we are taking a fresh look at high-stakes exams. On Wednesday, we took a first step in that direction. Starting this year, for the first time in a decade, we will not base promotion decisions for students in grades 3-8 solely on exam results. We were the only district in the state—the only one—to base promotion decisions from one grade to the next largely on test scores. 
 
So, going forward, teachers and principals will instead be empowered to make that determination based on a more comprehensive, authentic review of their students’ classroom work. That doesn’t mean test scores won’t be used - it just shifts our emphasis from a single exam result to the whole child. This is, simply, a common-sense approach. It is not lowering our standards but individualizing our assessment and instruction. 
 
We are also mitigating tension around something sacred to all New Yorkers: space. It’s a valuable, but sometimes divisive commodity. About 540 of our 1,200 buildings have schools that share it through co-locations, and it can be difficult. Challenges can arise. Relationships can be tested. 
 
Our new rapid response “Campus Squad”—made up of Education Department veterans across various divisions—have already started to troubleshoot problems large and small in co-located buildings. Whether a programmatic challenge or a facilities issue, I am deploying experienced staff to these buildings to problem-solve. The answers are often right there, and our Campus Squad can help our schools pinpoint them. 
 
Again, complex problems can have amazingly simple solutions. Take the four principals who share a building on the Thomas Jefferson High School campus in Brooklyn. The Campus Squad went in to try to resolve conflicts around the sharing of resources. After some discussion, two principals agreed to coordinate their bell schedules, and were able to address issues with their shared computer lab and technology. Problem solved. The best part is that the principals valued the support and advice. 
 
In addition to our Campus Squad, we have launched new working groups to engage our partners and tackle solutions to our space challenges. In partnership with Deputy Mayor Richard Buery, we have formed a space sharing working group to identify ways to alleviate overcrowding, foster positive outcomes in future co-locations, and develop partnerships that leverage the City’s space and resources in a constructive way. 
 
Along the same lines, the Department’s “Blue Book,” our assessment of capacity and space utilization within each building, has sometimes caused controversy. Parents have clamored for changes in its calculations—and that’s why we have established a Blue Book Working Group. Comprised of parents, community leaders, and educators, we’re engaging stakeholders to engender the changes they seek. 
 
Space-sharing has often been distorted as an us-versus-them battle, particularly between district and charter schools. We seek progress by getting out of headquarters, inside schools, and to the bottom of problems. Because we need all our children to succeed. It doesn’t matter if they go a traditional public school, a charter school, a religious school, an independent school—they all will shape the future of New York. And we will work with all of them to get it right. 
 
We are rebuilding. We have laid a solid foundation in our first 100 days, but children need more than a floor beneath their feet. They need a structure that can weather any storm. And that is what we are creating going foward.
 
We are starting to take a fresh look at school accountability, focusing on how best to communicate a school’s quality. Accountability has been an important catchphrase in the past, a term synonymous with “reform.” 
 
But accountability transcends ideological lines. No one has ever said accountability should erode. What’s been clear is that it can and should be more thoughtful—and more thought-through. Accountability must occur in a way that’s conducive to achieving results, because you don’t reach historic heights for kids when morale in our system has plummeted to all-time lows. 
 
We want all stakeholders—principals, teachers, parents—to receive meaningful information regarding a school’s successes and its growth areas. 
 
In the coming months, we will work to integrate qualitative and quantitative measures into a single report for families and communities.
 
I don’t believe a single test score encapsulates a student, and I don’t believe a single—often arbitrary—letter grade encapsulates an entire school. The evidence? More than 75 elementary and middle schools last year received a C, D, or F on their Progress Reports, but actually scored above the citywide average in proficiency on State ELA and math tests. 
 
We will explore new ways to meaningfully convey school quality information in a clear, transparent manner without oversimplifying or arbitrarily labeling schools. 
 
Progress is often dependent on how we communicate, and I don’t believe we can expect positive results from our schools if we suggest they can’t be achieved. 
 
That means ushering in a new era of support. We must support struggling schools. No struggling student can succeed without support from a teacher, and no struggling school can improve without support from us. 
 
Schools are complex places, with many moving parts. In some, they move perfectly in sync. In others, they don’t. But looking solely at data might not ever reveal where the fix existed, and often, there is a simple solution. That’s why we want to support struggling schools - because the answer lies in the room. That’s why instituting new strategies to help struggling schools is going to be a major priority going forward. 
 
We are looking to partner K-12 public schools with universities across the five boroughs. We’re currently considering over a dozen partner schools to make this a reality. Each institution of higher education will be initially paired with six to eight local K-12 schools within close proximity, particularly those in underserved communities. 
 
We have also asked universities to become more proactive in training teachers for bilingual dual language certification. As a former bilingual student, I am committed to increasing these programs. Anyone who speaks a second language understands the richness it brings to your life and the enriched job opportunities it offers. As a country, we have been severely behind in encouraging students to learn a second language, and I am totally committed to bringing us in line with the rest of the world.
 
High-level training is critical, but I also know that great teachers can’t be their best if class sizes are too large. Educators can’t reach their potential if they teach too many students at once. To ease the burden on educators, we will work to reduce class size. 
 
But I know that often, the deepest learning happens outside a school building. Academics are not the only part of a child’s education, so we are forming unique relationships with cultural and science institutions. Our partnership with Urban Advantage at the American Museum of Natural History, which certifies science teachers, is a prototype that I would like to see replicated at other institutions. This was one of my proudest legacies as Deputy Chancellor.
 
Another example we are implementing is a museum after-school program, in which seventh graders will be exposed to programs that emphasize American history. They’ll learn in small groups under the instruction of a trained docent.
 
We want to bring experts in the field into our classrooms, and take our classrooms out into the field.
 
These are the types of programs that will help level the playing field. 
 
To be truly successful, we need to tackle something we don’t frequently talk about: summer learning loss, which accounts for two-thirds of the achievement gap in reading by 9th grade. 
 
Students from low-income backgrounds are likely to slide two months back in reading every summer, while affluent students enjoy overall growth. To tackle this challenge, this summer we will be expanding NYC Summer Quest - our pilot summer enrichment programs that are designed to support students through fun, engaging, comprehensive activities. We currently have 11 programs in the Bronx, and this summer we are aiming to double that number. With up to 11 more programs serving middle school students, Summer Quest will reach up to 2,800 kids. Summer learning must become a scalable and sustainable strategy for improving student outcomes. 
 
But we cannot forget students who need our support most, those with disabilities. And we’re working with schools to develop innovative ways to help them learn. District 75, for example, is working with Alderbaran, a robotics company based in France, to explore how robots might improve teaching and learning for students on the autism spectrum. This is just the kind of innovative approach that we will be developing to lift all of our children up.
 
We are also renaming the Division of Students with Disabilities and English Language Learners. It will become the Division of Specialized Instruction and Student Support, which more accurately reflects our commitment to make sure children with special needs, ELLs, and those who are teaching them, get the tailored support they need. 
 
When I was a superintendent, every elementary school that I worked with had a non-mandated speech teacher working to identify issues early on. I believe that speech teachers do make a difference in early childhood and in lessening IEP referrals. 
 
We are also looking at innovative ways to support English Language Learners. For instance, by working with guidance counselors to deepen their understanding of the tools ELLs need to become college and career ready. We’re also developing a STEM, science, technology, engineering, and math initiative specifically for ELL students to leverage their bilingual skills and expand their opportunities. This is just the kind of focused approach to helping students who have extra needs. 
 
A school culture in which students feel safe, valued, and respected is critical to our success. That includes rethinking how we respond to student misconduct. An over-reliance on suspension is not the answer. I have worked to change the tone towards our schools, and now I will try to improve the tone within them. 
 
I believe that we need more supportive approaches to student discipline, and we’re developing them; for example, by helping schools embrace and deepen their work around social emotional learning, and building a positive school culture and climate. By embedding the social emotional competencies into the curriculum. And by engaging the whole community in solutions. 
 
I have been inspired by the work of one particular network that is focusing on studying ways to “suspend suspensions,” and has brought some great minds to the table around this topic.
 
We will succeed because everyone in this room and beyond is part of the solution. 
 
We will expand the room to the entire city, because there is no one in the city who would not benefit from a successful school system. 
 
We need to create a welcoming and nurturing school system in which every student, every teacher, and every principal is heard and supported. A system in which excellence is expected, and the entire community comes together to make that happen. 
 
So, today, I want to enlist your expertise and commitment to our public school students. I speak to you as my partners in this effort.
 
You are teachers and principals representing public, charter, parochial, and independent schools. You are policymakers. You are chief executives. You are parents. You are grandparents. You are New Yorkers. We are all interdependent on one another.
 
Each of you has something to offer. Each of you can help New York City become a world-class educational system.
 
There’s an old African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
 
The answer is, indeed, in the room. Today, you are part of the answer, and with your partnership, we will get to where we need to go.
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