Last week, New York City schools chancellor Carmen Fariña demanded that dozens of the City’s lowest-performing schools adopt and implement a widely criticized literacy curriculum with which she has long been associated. It was just the latest in a string of decisions based not on empirical evidence, but on the chancellor’s personal preferences.
In November, the city unveiled its School Renewal Program, a $150 million plan to turn 94 chronically low-performing schools into “community schools.” A concept paper inviting community-based organizations to partner with the DOE noted that the approach “is based on a growing body of evidence” showing that “an integrated focus” on academics, health and social services, and other community supports are “critical to improving student success.” What body of evidence? The paper doesn’t say—not even in a footnote—perhaps because the evidence is scant to nonexistent.
The Renewal initiative is modeled on a similar program in Cincinnati, but as the New York Times noted in a 2013 analysis, “what has gone largely unsaid is that many of Cincinnati’s community schools are still in dire academic straits despite millions of dollars in investment and years of reform efforts.” It gets worse. Last week, Chalkbeat’s Patrick Wall reported that elementary and middle school principals of Renewal schools have been ordered to use a literacy program created by Lucy Calkins, founder of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project—and to send their “best and brightest” teachers for training there. Fariña considers Calkins her mentor, and Calkins wrote the foreword to A School Leader’s Guide to Excellence, a 2008 book coauthored by Fariña.
Calkins’s approach is controversial and had fallen out of favor with Fariña’s former boss, Bloomberg-era schools chancellor Joel Klein. In 2007, Klein authorized a DOE pilot of curricula from E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation (for which I have worked) in ten low-income schools. A subsequent three-year DOE study showed clear advantages for Core Knowledge over demographically matched comparison schools on nearly all literacy measures among students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Fariña dismissed the study as too small. Fair enough. But someone charged with overseeing the education of 1.1 million children might at least be curious about such intriguing results. Fariña has shown no interest in further research. She likes what she likes.
Fariña brought in Calkins’s group to lead a citywide Common Core literacy training despite complaints that her approach was fundamentally at odds with the standards. That prompted Dan Willingham, a University of Virginia cognitive scientist, to observe, “Rarely does a policymaker as much as say, ‘Screw the data, I’m doing what I want.’” But doing what she wants, not acting on evidence, seems to be Fariña’s default setting. In October, she announced that she was replacing 15 of the city’s 42 school superintendents. “To be a successful superintendent, you need extensive experience as an instructional leader and a proven record of success,” she said. Yet the New York Post pointed out that seven of the chancellor’s new hires had led schools that received poor ratings on the city’s school progress report cards, or that scored below city averages on state exams.
Fariña’s public comments also reflect her tendency not to let facts trouble her views. In November, she suggested that some charters get kids to leave the school ahead of state tests, so that their scores don’t drag down the average. The head of the New York City Charter Center, James Merriman, noted that Farina could prove or disprove the allegation easily by authorizing release of enrollment and discharge data for both charter and district schools. Merriman challenged Fariña “to instruct the DOE to do so promptly.” It never happened, and Fariña never withdrew the comment.
No one will mistake New York’s mayor for a fan of charters, choice, and reform, but it’s hard to paint Bill de Blasio as data-averse. As a city councilman and public advocate, he advocated better data collection and analysis from the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). As mayor, he chose for his police chief William Bratton, whose data-driven approach to policing has been emulated nationwide. By contrast, Fariña’s relationship with data occasionally borders on contempt. Responding to the poor showing of Cincinnati’s community schools, Fariña called their results “pretty good”—a statement that’s not only hard to support with evidence, but that also suggests complacency about academic achievement in some of the city’s most hard-pressed schools.
Nowhere is Fariña’s tendency to favor pet programs more apparent than in her insistence on pushing Calkins’s methods on the city’s new community schools. Chalkbeat reports that the city is paying Teachers College $500,000 for Calkins’s writing materials, which will be used by 65 Renewal schools. And in her previous positions as a principal, district superintendent, and deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, Fariña long championed Calkins’s work. The relationship has been extremely lucrative for Calkins and Teachers College: the DOE spent $6 million on her training and materials in 2010-2011 alone, according to the Hechinger Report. Now Farina is again imposing her mentor on schools, even though the DOE itself declined to recommend Calkins curriculum when it recommended literacy curricula to city schools in 2013.
It’s remarkable that the Calkins/Fariña relationship has not come under closer scrutiny—or that no one has pushed the schools chancellor to explain how she makes decisions that materially affect the educations of so many children.