In a city where politicians and some educators are obsessed with raising test scores, New York City’s new schools chancellor Carmen Fariña stood beside her new boss this week and used a word rarely mentioned in the heated rhetoric of reform: Joy.


Carmen Fariña, left, spoke at Brooklyn’s P.S. 15 earlier this month. Now, she is expected to be named chancellor under Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio. (Photo: Sarah Darville/Gotham Schools)

“Joy has been really been missing in the last few years,” the veteran educator said during a carefully orchestrated announcement of her appointment at the sprawling Brooklyn middle school where newly elected Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio sent his own children, a school she oversaw as a District 15 superintendent.

Here was a brand new tone, one that Charles Dickens’ notorious headmaster Thomas Gradgrind – he of “nothing but facts,’’ in the novel “Hard Times,’’ would most surely disapprove, even as cheers erupted throughout the city, sprinkled with a healthy dose of skepticism.

“It is a new day in New York City,’’ proclaimed education historian Diane Ravitch in her blog. “The era of punishing, blaming, and shaming professional educators is over.”

De Blasio said he chose Fariña to lead the nation’s largest school system over other candidates he had considered from across the U.S. because they agree on education issues – and because of her lengthy experience.

“Literally no one knows our school system better,’’ he said of Fariña, the first city chancellor since 1995 with actual education credentials.

Fariña pledged to increase teacher training and de-emphasize test preparation, adhering closely to an as-yet-to-be defined “progressive agenda’’ the new mayor has promised for the largely poor and minority school system of nearly 1.2 million children and 1,700 schools – a system beset by wide and persistent achievement gaps for black and Hispanic students and disagreement over how to close them.

Bill de Blasio. (Photo: Kevin Case)

For de Blasio, the choice of a trusted educator and insider who supports his vision will speed his quest to dial back on Bloomberg education reforms that emphasized data and accountability – reforms the outgoing mayor contends transformed and vastly improved the city schools, and ones that some – particularly advocates of charter schools -would rather not see dismantled.

Northeast Charter Schools Network President Bill Phillips expressed his concerns about de Blasio’s oft-noted charter school skepticism, stating, “If anything, charters and parental choices should be expanded as a way to give each child the opportunity to attend a great public school.”

Yet Fariña’s appointment has also created an outpouring of support and optimism, at a time when Bloomberg policies such as bestowing letter grades on schools and co-locating charter schools in cramped public school buildings have became increasingly unpopular with parents and teachers, who have long complained about having no input.

“She is the first progressive chancellor with a mayor who endorses her position,’’ said former Schools Chancellor Harold Levy, who served for 2½ years during the end of Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s term and the beginning of Bloomberg’s. “She is widely admired across the spectrum, and she’s focused on teaching rather than testing, on developing proficiency rather than closing schools.”

Fariña, a former teacher, principal, superintendent and deputy chancellor, pledges a more inclusive, collaborative culture, making it clear she intends a dramatic departure from Bloomberg’s policies. She is clearly no disciple of Dickens’ nothing-but-the facts Gradgrind: during Monday’s press conference, Fariña noted that facts are learned “maybe to take tests, but we learn thinking to get on in life.”

The remark raised an alarm bell for Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a supporter of Bloomberg’s agenda.

“This false dichotomy-facts vs. thinking-and the downplaying of the importance of knowledge-these are indications that she (Fariña) hasn’t read the past 30 years of cognitive science, which shows that kids-and poor kids especially-struggle to learn how to read because they lack the content knowledge…”

Fariña and de Blasio face many unanswered questions about exactly how much authority they will have to reverse policies set by the state and federal government, along with the Bloomberg policies they disdain. As Levy noted, a big unanswered question remains about upcoming collective bargaining agreements with the city’s United Federation of Teachers union – some 40 percent of the city’s work force. Teachers have been working without a contract since 2009 and have been upset over new evaluations that tie test scores to their ratings.

“The much-maligned standardized tests aren’t going anywhere,’’ predicted Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, a political action group that champions closing down failing schools and the creation of new “accountable’’ public schools, including charters. “The Bloomberg haters are going to have to settle for a change in style rather than major changes in substance. Rich kids will continue to have good public school options; poor kids will play the lottery.”

Clara Hemphill, the editor of Insideschools, an independent guide to city schools, called Fariña’s approach “a welcome one, and long overdue,” and described the new chancellor’s strategy of pairing the best schools with those that are struggling. Fariña created clusters of schools around common themes and encouraged principals and teachers to visit one another’s schools and share ideas, Hemphill wrote.

As principal of an Upper East Side elementary school, Fariña eliminated “tracking,” or grouping children by ability, substituted children’s literature for textbooks and emphasized teacher training, Hemphill noted.

Skepticism about Fariña is largely directed at just how much of de Blasio’s stated agenda she can actually accomplish. For example, Fariña will have the difficult task of helping convince lawmakers to tax income over $500,000 a year to fund all-day preschool and after school programs for adolescents. Others want to hear specific goals for raising graduation rates.

“Carmen has the credentials, she has the experience – but can she attract the leading education reformers in the country to work for her and can they put together a coherent and comprehensive plan to increase graduation rates and ratchet up what it means to be a graduate of the New York City public schools?’’ wondered Eric Nadelstern, a former deputy chancellor under Joel Klein. “The goal has to be to improve student performance at a level that has never been achieved. Anything less, and we are selling our students short.”

In the meantime, during Fari˜a’s honeymoon period, the word joy – one Ravitch noted has been “unheard in the past dozen years,’’ — has some resonance.

“Thank you,’’ tweeted American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, “4 bringing back love of learning to our public schools.”

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Liz Willen

Liz Willen is editor of The Hechinger Report and director of The Hechinger Institute.