Speaking at a recent middle school graduation, New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said, “We’re going to move the agenda to serve our students, and people that have been very comfortable for a very long time doing absolutely nothing for the children that they’re supposed to serve are going to feel uncomfortable.” Talk like this is cheap, and Carranza’s approach—mandatory anti-bias training and charges that the opposition is racist—is deflection. He’s covering up his lack of a programmatic approach to school improvement and the mayor’s abandonment of any meaningful school accountability.
Quality is distributed inequitably within New York’s school system, but not because of deep-seated racial bias among employees. Rather, it is the outcome of specific policies and programs that could be changed if the political will existed to do so. For 40 years, each of Carranza’s predecessors pursued policies that they believed would improve educational outcomes for the city’s low-income minority children. Some were successful, others less so, but all were dedicated to educational equity. Carranza speaks constantly of his experience as a minority, as though he were the first to hold the chancellor’s job in New York—but two-thirds of his predecessors dating back to 1978 were minorities, too.
Carranza does differ from them in one significant way: he has yet to articulate an approach to identifying the policies and people that stand in the way of meaningful school improvement. A generation ago, then-mayor Ed Koch’s first chancellor, Frank Macchiarola, centered his efforts around affirmations that “all children can learn,” and that “it is the responsibility of the public-school system to promote learning and equality for all children.” These statements, made in 1978, stood in direct conflict with the consensus among policymakers and social scientists that schools have little effect on student outcomes, relative to a student’s family background.
The notion that the school system could be responsible for student outcomes has not been popular among many rank-and-file educators. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the rights of students to quality schooling conflicted with the prerogatives of those who worked in the school system. For much of that time, school-reform efforts revolved around identifying low-performing schools and remediating them. Most of these efforts fell short, but the late-nineties Chancellor’s District Initiative, established by Rudy Crew and sustained by his successor Harold Levy, is now seen as a highwater mark of school-improvement endeavors. In contrast, the most recent attempt at remediating low-performing schools—Mayor de Blasio’s Renewal Schools effort—was an expensive and poorly designed disaster.
Michael Bloomberg’s schools chancellors—Joel Klein, Dennis Walcott, and (briefly) Cathy Black—moved beyond remediation, instead closing low-performing schools and replacing them with a portfolio of smaller district and charter schools. This policy made some educators and the teachers’ union uncomfortable. For the first time, adults in the schools—not just the students—would feel the consequences of low performance. Many schools closed, and many more new schools opened, a disruptive process that left some teachers displaced.
But Bloomberg’s policies worked. Today, the city schools perform at or near the statewide average, and high school graduation rates are much higher. Charter schools have been a tremendous success for black and Hispanic youngsters in communities formerly devoid of meaningful educational options.
Carranza’s patron, Bill de Blasio, made an insightful political calculus in his run for the mayoralty, observing that despite Bloomberg’s documented success in education, the stresses caused by school closures had begun to wear on local communities. He ran against Bloomberg’s legacy, and won. Once in office, he set about dismantling the Bloomberg educational program: no more grading of schools, no more school closures or new school creation, and a dramatic reduction in support for charter schools. He boosted spending, agreeing to two generous teachers’ contracts, the full cost of which has yet to be realized. But the dynamism of the previous 12 years was gone, along with support for the creation of better schools for the city’s poor communities.
Into this long, complicated history comes Richard Carranza to tell us that the root of the problem is “inherent bias” within the school system. This appeal to racial resentment is cynical and misguided. The city needs to empower dedicated teachers and community partners in the creation of new schools—both district-run and charter—to replace failing schools. The chancellor and mayor could use the goodwill they have built up with the teachers’ union to negotiate a fair and efficient way to ease low-performing teachers out of the system, instead of expecting ill-equipped schools to accommodate them. And rather than trying to reallocate seats in the system’s high-performing schools, the chancellor should identify schools doing a good job and invest the necessary resources to make them even stronger.
These actions would cause, again, disruption—and they would certainly make some people uncomfortable. Chancellor Carranza says that he has no problem causing discomfort in the cause of improving schools. If he means it, he should sharpen his aim, drop the cheap talk, and dig in for the hard work of identifying failure and building success.
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