Q&A

Richard Carranza wants you to know he isn’t afraid to take a hard look at New York City’s school system

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza

When Richard Carranza was tapped to be the new chancellor of New York City schools, his predecessor beamed as he spelled out his philosophy for sparking change in schools.

His beliefs about making regular school visits, supporting struggling schools, and providing steady directives from the top of a massive bureaucracy all mirror policies that were championed by the retired chancellor, Carmen Fariña.

But in a Wednesday interview with Chalkbeat, Carranza began to make clear that his tenure will also feel different in some important ways. Though he may agree on the substance, he is already raising questions about whether every element of the current agenda has been implemented effectively.

The mayor’s high-profile Renewal turnaround program doesn’t have a clear enough “theory of action,” Carranza said — a pointed assessment of a program he is inheriting.

And despite his philosophical alignment with his predecessor, he is already taking a slightly different tack. Where Fariña famously said she favored stories over statistics and refrained from explicitly referencing school integration, Carranza talked about how data will help guide his decisions and has said the city’s entrenched segregation is unacceptable.

“I’m finding evidence that there’s really good work that’s happened already,” he said. “And I’m also finding evidence that not all of that has trickled down yet to the classroom.”

Here’s our interview, lightly edited for length and clarity.

You said you spent a lot of your first week in policy briefings and meeting your co-workers. I’m curious what you learned in that process that you didn’t know before taking the job.

There’s a lot of detail work that’s happening in the department of education that, as an external potential candidate for the chancellor, I wouldn’t be privy to. I was very aware of some of the big topics. Like everything you cover, I was able to find, thanks to you, a lot of coverage. But the next level of inquiry down — what’s the historical context from the department of education’s perspective, who’s been working on things, what has gone wrong — that whole other nitty-gritty side to the work that has been going on in the department, that’s what I have been diving into the last week, and then this week as well.

The previous administration operated under the theory that schools needed to be radically changed to address glaring inequities in the system. You have already pointed out that there are achievement gaps that need to be addressed here, but have also said that schools are in “very good shape.” Can you help us understand whether the system is in urgent need of change — or whether everything is basically on the right track as long as the city stays its course?

I think you can’t paint the continuum in such stark terms. There’s always room for improvement, and you have the most massive system in the United States in New York City. But what I do want people to understand is that, the sky isn’t falling. And when you think about what we do in public education in America — every student has a right to a free and public education in America. We take anybody, regardless of any characteristic. We take everybody. Not all nations across the world take everybody and educate everybody.

Because of that, we have some real opportunities here to do things that others perhaps don’t do. But we also have to understand that, because we take everyone, that we have challenges that students and families come to us with — particularly when they live in an urban environment. It’s stressful living in an urban environment. That’s why when we talk about social-emotional learning, trauma-informed instruction, it’s a real thing for us. Because there’s trauma living in an urban environment.

My philosophy is that the work of school improvement and building great schools, when you take everyone, is not sexy work. It’s not. It’s blue collar, roll-up-your-sleeves, pay attention to lots of things. But what is really, really provocative is when you can put those systems and structure in place and you get really accelerated outcomes for students and you’re developing and graduating students, that really is sexy.

So if the sky isn’t falling, then why do you and the mayor say there needs to be such a sense of urgency around making changes to the system?

Because we still have students in communities around the city that haven’t yet received the benefit of a great public education. It’s not like the entire system needs to completely be revamped.

I’ll give you an example, recently, with the NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress] scores and TUDA [Trial Urban District Assessment]. We know what the national headline was [scores were flat], we know about fourth-grade math in New York City [there was a 7-point decrease in the proportion of fourth graders considered proficient in compared with 2013].

But I’ll tell you what I’ve asked staff to do is: Give me some schools in our very school system that have all of those indicators with sub-groups that would make a traditionally very difficult academic road to hoe, and show me: Are there any schools that, even with those very characteristics, are just knocking it out of the park? I have a whole pageful of places.

So part of what we’re doing is, instead of going and buying a program, we’re going to those schools, we’re working with those principals, we’re talking to those teachers, we’re looking at how they’ve structured their math instruction. Because we want to capture those best practices and then we want to elevate those and make them a systemic way that we do the work that we do. Why? Because we have evidence right here in our own backyard that it’s working. That’s the kind of work that I’m talking about.

The mayor has set a goal of having every third-grader reading on grade level by 2026, and has begun placing literacy coaches to work with teachers in high-need districts. De Blasio recently said that you’d be ‘supercharging’ the education department’s early literacy efforts. What does that mean?

My perspective has been that, if you don’t have a systemic approach to the initiatives that have been articulated, then you’re not going to get deep implementation of any initiative. So what I’m trying to really wrap my head around is: What is the systemic, systems-approach that we’re using to make sure that our early literacy initiative is actually permeating to the classroom?

Any decision that I make, I always put two hats on: I put my teacher hat on, and I put my principal hat on. The reason I do that is that, one of the reasons I went into administration was because as a teacher, I kept saying to myself, ‘Who’s the bonehead who decided this? Because they have no idea what this is doing to me in the classroom.’ So I put my teacher hat on. And then I put my principal hat on, because I found myself as a principal saying, ‘Who’s the bonehead who decided this? They have no idea what the effect is on my campus.’

For example, in how you provide early literacy — so what is our philosophical basis for believing in literacy? Do we believe in a balanced literacy approach? Do we believe in direct instruction? Where does phonics play? Do we believe in Lucy Calkins [an approach from Teachers College at Columbia University that was favored by Fariña, and was created by one of her close educational allies]? There are all these questions that then define how you’re rolling out PD [professional development for teachers], how you’re implementing it as the school-site level.

And now, because we’re in the executive budget season, I’m looking at the budget that we’re proposing and saying, ‘Can I find a line item in the budget that speaks to the priorities that we’ve talked about?’

Embedded in your answer, were you suggesting that there isn’t necessarily one early literacy approach that the city is using, or there are multiple approaches in place and you’re trying to figure out what’s working?

I’m not saying this is the number, but if you have 30 different approaches as an example — this was the case in my previous school district — 30 different approaches to teaching early literacy, then how do you as organization support 30 different approaches? It makes it very difficult, if not impossible. Well, now multiply that times 75,000-plus teachers in our school system. Then how are we supporting teachers to build capacity to do whatever they’re doing around early literacy?

Now, I’m not Attila the Hun and I don’t believe that everyone should be lock step. But I do believe that there should be coherence. And a teacher who’s coming into the system should understand that if I log in to our portal, there are going to be certain resources that are going to be available to me, but I also know that there is a schedule of professional development that’s going to help to sharpen my skill set. That’s the kind of coherence that I’m talking about.

And I would also say that, as the mayor and I had our conversations about implementation, I was really, really specific with the mayor that my approach is always a systemic approach. That’s my role as a system leader.

Are you saying that because you feel like the approach hasn’t entirely cohered yet?

I’m finding evidence that there’s really good work that’s happened already in the department of ed. And I’m also finding evidence that not all of that has trickled down yet to the classroom — and there are other reasons for that, too. You have new teachers who come in, you have teachers who have moved. So what I want to be able to do is, in very short time, be able to come out and say, ‘Look, this is what I have found. This is the approach that we’re going to be using moving forward. And for a teacher in the classroom: this is what you can expect.’

Is there anything in particular that you think has happened, policy-wise, that hasn’t quite trickled down yet?

I’ll give you an example, Renewal schools… What’s our theory of action? I keep asking that question, and I get different answers. Now, they’re all great answers but my perspective is you should have one theory of action: If we do this, and we do this, and we believe in this, then we expect that. A theory of action that’s tight, cohesive, every Renewal school should know it — everybody who works with a Renewal school, every New Yorker should know it. If that’s our theory of action then, how are we aligning systems and structures to support that? That’s the kind of work that I’m talking about. But again, you can only do that once you’re in the system and able to ask those questions and get follow-up.

Renewal is probably one of the highest-profile programs that has launched in the last four years, but also among the most controversial. It’s cost almost $600 million so far and it’s been three-plus years — and results have been fairly mixed and it’s future is uncertain. How you plan to evaluate the program and determine what it’s future ought to be?

I would just challenge the notion of anybody who thinks our approach to supporting schools that have are historically underserved is going to go away. It’s not going to go away.

You mean Renewal in particular?

Well, whatever Renewal is. And the reason I phrase it that way is, again, absent a very concrete theory of action, and then a framework that’s very transparent about how we’re going to approach supporting these kinds of schools, then I think it makes it difficult for us to talk about, what really are the outcomes that we’re looking for? So that’s the work that we’re going to engage in very, very quickly right now.

That being said, there are some really good components of what the Renewal schools approach has been. I think it’s been very clearly articulated: We’re going to invest in resources. We’re going to give you some time. If, at the end of the time, there’s not improvement, you haven’t moved to the Rise cohort of schools, then there are some consequences that come. Because we can’t afford for students not to be served. I’m wanting to understand and trying to understand exactly how we’ve approached that conversation with Renewal schools.

That being said, components of the Renewal schools have been some of the work strands that I’ve had in some of the other systems that I’ve worked in. So I think it’s really important that you’re looking at principal leadership: the right leaders in the right schools in the right circumstances. I think it’s really important that you have teachers who want to be in that school with those students. And then, how we as a central administration support the work that’s happening in the Renewal schools.

There is this separate “community schools” program that has a lot of similar features as the Renewal schools. All Renewal schools are community schools. Chris Caruso, who runs the community schools program, has repeatedly said it’s not, by itself, a turnaround strategy. It’s just one of many components. Are you committing to having a program that is turnaround in nature, that is designed to take schools that the city has identified as low-performing?

Absolutely. I think you can’t have an urban school system where you’re not paying attention the schools that are not providing good academic outcomes for kids. That being said, community schools is a powerful strategy for providing equity for many schools that have real challenges — either because of the community that they live in, or the circumstances their students come from.

So I don’t disagree with Chris. I just think there’s a little more amplification to the fact that community schools is part of a strategy to empower schools and school communities to improve. But it also is just a good practice for any school community.

Do you think that strategy, infusing social services and having a nonprofit partner, will create academic gains? Or is that a necessary but not sufficient condition?

I think it’s an important part of creating academic gains. I think it’s an important part of creating conditions that students, from an equity lens, are able to meet the high bar that we’ve set.

Now, I want to be really clear, there’s not a direct cause and effect here. There seems to be in the nomenclature out in the community, that, well if you have a community school then you’re going to lead to academic improvement. Well, no. Because a community school doesn’t cause academic improvement.

A community school, in conjunction with a strong curriculum, in conjunction with strong wrap-around supports, in conjunction with the entire package, leads to creating conditions that schools can improve.

The Renewal program doesn’t have a permanent leader right now and I’m wondering whether you’re planning on naming someone, and if so, what the timeline might be?

I think you have to have somebody who owns any particular approach. So there will be somebody in that role and I can’t commit to a timeline only because I’m still getting to know folks.

In her final days as chancellor, Carmen Fariña somewhat famously said that she believes in stories over statistics as indicators of the system’s health and the impact of her policies. How important is data in guiding your policy choices?

I don’t think it’s an either-or, and I have a lot of respect for chancellor Fariña. I’ve been a big fan of hers for a very, very long time. I also value stories. I think it’s important because it gives you context. We ask teachers to differentiate in the classroom for different students. I think we also have to, at a systemic level, differentiate for communities based on context —  not lowering the bar, not having a different bar, but just understanding the context so that we can empower communities. So I think that’s why stories are really, really important.

But I also think that data is critically important. I’m looking at performance data. Now, is that the only guide that I’ll use to make decisions? Of course not. It’s the mixed-research method. You have your qualitative, and you have your quantitative.

Carmen Fariña felt that plans to address segregation needed to come “organically” from local communities. In Houston, you were willing to propose changes to the way students are admitted to magnet schools, which are segregated. What role or responsibility does the education department have in proposing solutions when it comes to segregation?

I think we have a role, in communication with our communities. And we have a role in communication with the broader New York community.

So when you have a school, a specialized school that has 10 African American students that are admitted, that’s a conversation we need to have. Now, keep in mind, there is state legislation that requires us to have a single test. But I think that’s a conversation we need to have about perhaps changing that law. Because students aren’t the sum total — I’ve said this very clearly — aren’t the sum total of one test. But how can we in a democracy, in a public school system, be OK with minimal numbers of students?

Is the solution completely in our realm? Probably not. I think there’s a broader conversation about gentrification in the city. There’s a broader conversation about where people choose to live and not to live in the city. There’s a number of citywide conversations New Yorkers need to have.

The conversation about segregation often focuses on race, but there is also intense academic segregation here: over half the students who took and passed the eighth-grade state math exam in 2015 wound up clustered in less than 8 percent of city high schools. The same was true for those who passed the English exam. Is that acceptable to you?

Of course not. That is not acceptable. And as I wrap my head around the data, those are conversations that I’m looking forward to having with my colleagues. And my colleagues are principals, and teachers, and superintendents, and deputy chancellors. I think we have to have a systemic conversation about that. But no one can say that’s OK.

You pushed back earlier on your comment that opting-out of state tests was an ‘extreme reaction’ and I’m just curious why you walked that back a little bit.

I don’t think I have. What I tried to do was clarify that. The conversation that we’ve had about testing and the opt-out movement, I think there’s room in New York City for a much more nuanced conversation.

The extremes of the conversation that I’ve heard are: One extreme says, we need to be data-driven. We need to have a metric for every single thing that happens in schools. We should be doing testing at regular intervals. We should have a lock-step curriculum. That’s an extreme. And then you have the other extreme that says: We should have no testing in schools. It should be an organic experience and that students should be, almost a montessori-like, writ-large, approach to school.

I think any extreme is not a fruitful conversation. I think we should have a nuanced conversation. What is the appropriate role for testing, number one. Number two: Are we testing too much? And what are the tests we have to do? Some are required by state law. Some are required by federal. And I would say, parents who want their children to go to college, those students are going to have to take the SAT, the ACT, unless their parents are independently wealthy and can just go wherever they want to go.

But even for admissions, students are going to have to take tests in the future. So I think there is an appropriate role for that conversation, but I just want to make sure that we are having a much more nuanced conversation about the issue, rather than just saying it’s either-or.

And I give a lot of credit, by the way, to the conversation that has happened around testing. Because of those conversations, the testing window is now shorter, there’s no time limits, New York teachers have a voice in developing what those questions are, so they’re aligned to what’s being taught. So I think there’s a lot of good things that have come from the conversation.

Is there anything we haven’t asked you about that you want us to know about?

I think that we’re going to look back to the issues that we talked about today and I think what you’re going to see is a consistency a year from now, two years from now, of what we’re looking at.

I’ll give you a good example: So in Houston I took a lot of bullets around really lifting that magnet conversation and calling it out, and saying, that from an equity perspective, some communities were not being served well. The Houston Chronicle just published a story, a whole report, where they are basically affirming what I was saying the whole time about the choice process.

So I’m not going to be so busy keeping my job that I’m not going to do my job. And I think that’s why I’m so excited about being able to be here with Mayor Bill de Blasio, because he philosophically feels the same way.

Compare and Contrast

Denver pays substitute teachers about $100 a day (when there’s no strike). Here’s how that stacks up.

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post
Substitute teacher Steven Mares, right, works with a student at Denver Green School in 2016. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Among the many reactions we’ve seen to Denver’s likely teacher strike, one standout has been surprise at how much the district pays substitute teachers.

During a strike, Denver Public Schools plans to pay substitutes twice the regular rate, or $212 a day. Some of our readers expressed surprise that people who step in to cover the classes of teachers who are absent would normally be paid just $106 a day.

That’s actually the low end of the substitute teacher pay scale in Denver. Retired teachers earn $123 a day, and any substitute who has worked 60 full days earns the title “super guest teacher” and is paid significantly more in subsequent days.

Still, since Denver teachers are preparing to strike over low pay, we thought it would be interesting to answer the question of whether Denver’s substitute teacher rate is unusually low. A sampling of other big-city rates shows that many districts do pay substitutes more, though usually not by all that much.

In some large districts, the regular rate can be close to Denver’s special strike rate. New York City guarantees substitutes $185.15 a day, while Los Angeles substitutes earn $191 a day — and that rate rises to $258 if the teacher stays in the same placement for more than 20 straight days. Boston substitutes earn $141 a day — a figure that doubles if they stay in one position for an extended period of time.

Other districts offer pay that’s more in line with Denver’s regular rate. Washington, D.C., pays substitute teachers $120 a day, noting on its website, “We are excited to offer some of the most competitive pay in the region.” Indianapolis began paying substitutes between $90 and $115 two years ago amid a broader overhaul to how schools are supplied with subs.

And some districts pay far less; the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union, says the low end of the range is $75 a day. One person who saw the news from Denver on Twitter wrote, “SOMEONE GETS PAID THAT MUCH TO SUB?????? My 75$ a day is aching.” She said she worked as a substitute teacher in rural Ohio.

Rates are often set in contracts between districts and their teachers unions. Many districts pay retired teachers more than others, and also have different rates for people who fill new roles daily and people who step into one role for an extended period of time. Substitutes must meet standards set by their states and districts and do not typically receive benefits.

In Colorado, unlike in some states, substitutes do not need to be licensed teachers or pursuing licensure. A college degree is not even required, although many districts do not usually hire substitutes who have not graduated from college.

People who work as substitute teachers are unlikely to relocate for higher pay, so the pay comparison that might best illuminate Denver’s chances of recruiting large numbers of substitute teachers during a strike is with nearby districts.

There, Denver’s regular rate appears to be on par with the market. The nearby Jefferson County and Douglas County districts each pay $100 a day, while Cherry Creek, an affluent district adjoining Denver, pays $90.

But far more than pay will influence how many teachers Denver is able to bring on to replace the thousands of educators who are expected to strike.

Denver already has low unemployment, so there aren’t many qualified people looking for daily work — at least not under normal circumstances, when the district has a hard time finding enough substitute teachers. The district is hoping that the tens of thousands of furloughed federal workers in Colorado who have gone without pay for weeks will step up to fill classrooms in the event of a strike, if the federal government is still shut down at that time.

People considering the short-term work would also have to be willing to cross the picket line. Already, some people who say they are Denver educators have condemned potential substitutes as scabs, willing to side with the district over its employees in the dispute over teacher pay.

That dynamic could potentially entice at least a few Coloradans into Denver’s classrooms. “If Denver public schools is looking for substitute teachers who are just educated generally and not specifically in education theory to help break the strike,” one person tweeted, “I could probably chip in a few hours.”

But the tension appears more likely to keep people who are approved to work in Denver classrooms away.

“As a sometimes substitute in Denver, I stand with the teachers,” one person tweeted. “I will not take jobs in DPS during the strike. The double pay rate is NOT worth the stain on my soul.”

“Money is tight. I’m qualified to be an emergency sub and I’d probably enjoy it,” tweeted another person who identifies herself as a nurse. “But I will put my time in on their line, not behind it.”

Moving

Tennessee’s next education chief starts in February. Here’s how she’s prepping.

Penny Schwinn soon will become Tennessee's education commissioner under Republican Gov. Bill Lee. She is leaving her job as chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe/ Getty Images)

Penny Schwinn is scheduled on Feb. 4 to take the reigns of Tennessee’s education department, where she’ll oversee 600 full-time employees and work on new Gov. Bill Lee’s agenda for public education.

Schwinn is now winding down her obligations in Texas, where as chief deputy commissioner over academics she has been responsible for the work of about 350 employees and half of the programs of the Texas Education Agency.

“As you would want with any public official, I want to make sure we have a really strong transition so that my team is taken care of and the work moves forward in Texas without massive disruption,” she said.

She plans to pack and move to Tennessee next week and expects her family to join her in the spring.

“My husband and I have a 6-year-old and 3-year-old at home, so we’re helping them through this transition and making sure they feel supported in our move,” she said of their two daughters, who eventually will attend public schools in Nashville.

Schwinn, 36, was the final cabinet appointment announced by Lee before the Republican governor took office over the weekend. She is a career educator who started in a Baltimore classroom with Teach For America, founded a charter school in her hometown of Sacramento, California, and has worked as a top state administrator in Delaware and Texas.

In an interview Wednesday with Chalkbeat, she described how she’s straddling two states and getting up to speed for her new job.

TNReady will be Job One, said Schwinn, who is poring over a recent audit of Tennessee’s problem-plagued testing program.

She plans to dig into details to prepare for testing that begins on April 15 under current vendor Questar. Simultaneously, she’ll scrutinize the state’s request for proposals outlining what Tennessee wants from its next testing company when the assessment program moves to a new contract next school year.

The request for proposals is expected to be released in the next few weeks.

“I’m going to be the person who is ultimately responsible for ensuring that the new vendor is incredibly strong for Tennessee students, so I want to see everything we’re requesting, ask questions, and make last-minute changes if that’s necessary,” she said.

Tennessee has struggled to deliver its own assessment cleanly since transitioning in 2016 to TNReady, which is aligned to new academic standards and was designed for most students to take online. Three straight years of problems either with online administration or scoring have dogged the state and seriously undermined its accountability work, putting everyone on edge with testing.

In hiring Schwinn, Lee touted her assessment work in two states, including cleaning up behind disruptions that marred testing in Texas soon after she arrived in 2016.

In Tennessee, Schwinn promises tight vendor management, whether it’s with Questar this school year or multiple companies that take over this fall.

“It’s incredibly important that we have accurate data about how our children are performing in Tennessee,” she said of TNReady. “This is my background both in Delaware and Texas in terms of assessment. It’s a good space for me to dig into the work and become an integral part of the team.”

In Texas, Schwinn came under fire for a $4.4 million no-bid award for a contract to collect special education data. A state audit released last September found that she failed to disclose having received professional development training from the person who eventually won a subcontract, which later was canceled at a cost of more than $2 million to the state, according to The Texas Tribune.

While Schwinn said she didn’t try to influence the contract, she told Chalkbeat that she and her department “learned a lot” through that experience, prompting an overhaul of the state’s procurement process.

“It’s important to have transparency when you’re a public official,” she said. “I believe strongly about that.”

As Tennessee’s education commissioner, it’s unlikely that she’ll serve on the evaluation committee that will choose its next testing company, but she plans to be “heavily involved” in the process as she works with programmatic, assessment, and technology experts.

“From a 30,000-foot view, commissioners typically aren’t on those selection panels. They’re able to ask questions and provide direction for the team,” she said.

Schwinn was in Nashville last week when Lee announced her hiring.

Until she is sworn in, interim Commissioner Lyle Ailshie is in charge, and he attended the governor’s first cabinet meeting on Tuesday.