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Search to Fill One of Education’s Biggest Jobs Begins as New York City Chief Steps Down

A 2016 portrait of New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

—Victoria Will for Education Week-File

Carmen Fariña, the chancellor of New York City Schools, announced Thursday that she would be resigning in 2018, leaving behind a school system fundamentally changed from where it stood when her tenure began four years ago.

Fariña, 74, plans to leave her job as head of the 1.1 million-student school system, the largest in the country, prior to the end of the school year.

“I took the job with a firm belief in excellence for every student, in the dignity and joyfulness of the teaching profession, and in the importance of trusting relationships where collaboration is the driving force,” Fariña wrote in a letter to staff Thursday. “These are the beliefs that I have built over five decades as a New York City educator, and they have been at the heart of the work we have done together for the past four years.”

A nationwide search for her successor is already underway, with plans to hire a successor within months, said Mayor Bill de Blasio. Under state law, the city’s mayor controls the schools.

Who de Blasio has in mind for his next chancellor isn’t yet clear, but school leadership experts say the job requires a hard-to-find combination of someone with credibility as an educator and the acumen to navigate the rough-and-tumble politics of New York City.

The job “warrants a top-caliber administrator with a reputation of success and familiarity with the complexities of running a system of that size, not the least of which is the ability to communicate with the public,” said Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of the AASA, the School Superintendents Association. “You have the parents, you have the unions, you have the businesses, and of course, you have the politics.”

Fariña played a key role in the establishment of de Blasio’s prekindergarten-for-all program, which he considers his signature education victory. That program now enrolls about 70,000 children.

Graduation rates and test scores also improved under Fariña’s watch. The graduation rate has increased more than 6 percentage points since 2013; on New York state tests, math scores have increased 8 percent and English language arts scores 14 percent during that same period. But critics have raised doubts about those gains amid concerns about watered-down standards.

Fariña, a veteran educator who spent her entire career in New York’s school system, also ended the district policy of using only test scores to make decisions about promoting students to the next grade, started programs that allowed teachers and principals to collaborate regionally on teaching strategies, and created a senior-level position to oversee English-language learners.

Supporters say that the chancellor, a former teacher, principal, and deputy chancellor in the district, has set a new tone for the New York City school system in which parents are seen as assets and morale among teachers is on the rise after years of acrimonious relations between former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the United Federation of Teachers. The city and the union agreed to a new teachers’ contract in 2014, her first year on the job. The previous pact had expired in 2009.

Fariña and de Blasio sought a clean break from the signature school policies of Bloomberg, who during his tenure, selected two non-educators to lead the school system.

“She has been able to achieve things that non-educators wouldn’t,” de Blasio said Thursday.

Under de Blasio, Fariña sought to address issues ranging from racial and socioeconomic segregation to solutions for struggling schools. Rather than closing and replacing academically struggling schools, a hallmark of the Bloomberg era, Fariña created the Renewal Schools initiative, which provided additional support to about 80 schools. Results of that work have so far been mixed; some schools have improved, while others are now slated for closure.

The mayor said on Thursday that he plans to hire an educator as Fariña’s successor, a person who will continue to carry out an already-established school improvement plan.

Some critics question that decision.

“Mayor de Blasio needs a chancellor who will check his ideological impulses and steer him towards the evidence of what works,” said Jenny Sedlis, the executive director of StudentsFirstNY, the state chapter of the K-12 advocacy group founded by Michelle Rhee, the hard-charging former chancellor of the District of Columbia school system. “The next chancellor must deliver work rule concessions in the teachers’ contract, end the failed Renewal School program, work with urgency to open new schools, take a different approach to teacher quality, and support charter schools.”

Fariña retired in 2013, but, months later, the newly elected de Blasio persuaded her to take the top position at the department.

One of the more controversial issues she’s faced involves the city’s so-called absent-teacher reserve, a pool of teachers without permanent teaching positions who remain on salary. Fariña initially promised that she wouldn’t assign teachers from the pool to classrooms. Some teachers in the absent reserve have received low ratings for their job performance or have been disciplined for other infractions. But by 2017, the financial pressures of the pool, at about $150 million a year, had caused the district to rethink that policy. It began placing teachers again this fall, with advocates claiming that the teachers were more likely be placed in schools with large numbers of black and Latino students.

Mayor de Blasio did not set a timeline for selecting her successor and said the search for his next school chief will be discreet.

“This is not a decision you [make] with a public ballot,” he said.

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