74 Interview: NYC Schools Chief Richard Carranza Talks Integration, Smart Parents, Renewal Schools, and Quality Assurance Across 1,800 Schools

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza join students, families, and educators from across the city for the first day of the 2018-19 school year at PS 377 in Ozone Park, Queens, on Sept. 5, 2018. (Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

See previous 74 interviews: Sen Cory Booker talks about the success of Newark’s school reforms, civil rights activist Dr. Howard Fuller talks equity in education, Harvard professor Karen Mapp talks family engagement, former U.S. Department of Education secretary John King talks the Trump administration, and more. The full archive is right here.

Richard Carranza believes many of the rules governing public education in New York City no longer work. What should help students often harms them instead.

The new leader of the nation’s largest district dived into Wednesday’s start-of-school-year festivities by taking a pre-dawn selfie with bus drivers and discussing gun ownership with Bronx AP history students. Differences between the schools on his first-day itinerary pointed to what he described a few days earlier, in an interview with The 74, as his foremost challenge: fixing the way “systems all work in conjunction” to recreate uneven playing fields between affluent and low-income students.

Carranza said he will target the systems that sort students, beginning with zip-code-based enrollment and gifted and talented testing through middle school admissions and the high school application process.

In a stunning coup, his advocacy of desegregation has quickly transformed the conversation about improving schools. This comes just a few months after his retweet of a video showing white parents opposing integration sent an electric shock into the low-energy diversity agenda of his predecessor, Carmen Fariña, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has backed his new chancellor’s high-profile efforts.

The system needs to reflect “the students that we have right now,” Carranza told The 74. “Not the students we used to have, not the ones we could have had or should have had.”

The chancellor ranged beyond integration to other persistent challenges, including the city’s signature Renewal schools turnaround plan, which critics see as unimpressive; outreach to parents (“I’ve never been cursed at with such informed, well-articulated arguments in my career”), and the need for quality assurance in instruction and teacher training across a system so large that the 62 schools he visited in the spring account for just 1/30th of the district’s total.

The 74 sat down with Carranza last week at his refreshingly chilly ground-floor office at the Department of Education’s Tweed Courthouse headquarters for a 30-minute session that was more handshake than deep conversation. Formerly superintendent in Houston and San Francisco, he spoke easily and in the idiom common to many high-level education managers: a mash-up of business school jargon with civil rights urgency.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The 74: Every urban district struggles to provide equitable opportunities, but each district faces different problems. What is the problem in New York?

Carranza: [I’m] still trying to get my hands wrapped around the full extent of that, but I’d say there’s three areas that we need to work on in New York. One of them is the decentralized, in some cases laissez-faire, approach to curriculum, instruction, professional development in a large system like New York, with the added complexity of the diversity in New York City and the students that we serve, almost 70 percent [of whom] are black or Latino students.

The second issue I think is really, really important is that we have some systemic barriers for the very kids that I just mentioned. Kids in poverty, students with disabilities, we have systemic barriers that prohibit kids from truly being integrated into the whole system. We have a series of screens, we have gifted and talented programs that I think we could make better across the city.

So, all of these kinds of systems all work in conjunction to not providing necessarily the best environment for all students to be successful.

And then I think thirdly is, the legislature still owes us, the school system, $4 billion. That funding could be incredibly powerful at the school site level. [A series of New York courts found that the state hasn’t sent sufficient funds for the city to provide an adequate education. The $4 billion includes money New York City spent to make up the difference.]

The cornerstone around all of this is really having a much more cohesive approach to teaching and learning, and professional development. In my 30-second elevator speech, that’s what I would say the challenges are in New York City.

How does that differ, if it does, from San Francisco or Houston or Clark County [where Carranza served as a top official]?

They’re very similar. I think the differences here in New York City are, obviously, the size and the complexity.

Even in the short time that I’ve been here, as I’ve traveled to every one of the boroughs, every borough has its own particular nature. You have to have a very localized approach, but you also have to have a large, big-system thinking approach as well.

It’s been the same kind of challenges that I saw in Las Vegas [Clark County], I saw in San Francisco, I saw in Houston. You also had things that seem to be like motherhood and apple pie, like who is for choice? Everybody is for choice, but [districts] don’t necessarily, truly, give people choice. If you have a series of specialized programs, where you put that program is going to affect who gets choice to that program by the sheer virtue of who can afford to travel to that program, or who’s already in the neighborhood for that program. Who do you give priority to for that program? Who do you not give priority to for the program?

What I will say is … New York City, more than anywhere I’ve ever worked, truly does have some really smart and passionate people.

Are you talking about citizens of New York City or the department?

Both. Let me put it this way. When I’ve been in schools and I’ve walked schools, I’ve seen some of the most innovative principals, and their frustration is, ‘How do I get somebody to listen to what I’m doing? I’m showing some success, give me some help.’ Or, ‘I don’t want anyone to know what I’m doing because I don’t want anybody to stop me or to mess it up.’

[As for] parents, I’ve never been cursed at with such informed, well-articulated arguments in my career.

Then I would say thirdly, the elected officials in the city of New York, more than anywhere I’ve ever worked, really put their money where their mouth is.

Where is your thinking now about the constraints that you face, both in the system and, maybe, external to the system?

Depends how you define constraints. Some of the challenges I’ve already mentioned: systems of screens, single-test admissions to some of the specialized schools, the lack of integration of our schools and the systemic barriers to making that happen. I think that as a chancellor you have to be transparent, and you have to be honest about them, you know, when you come in.

It’s all about systems. At my level, it’s about systems. The current systems that we have in place are producing the results that we get.

I don’t think anybody in New York City wants a school system that is segregated. I truly don’t believe that’s what people want. My approach is, how do we create systems, and then how do we create the structures, and then how do we create the procedures to get the results that we want? The only way you can start doing that is by being really clear about what the challenges are.

Gifted and talented programs and specialized schools were, at least sotto voce, designed to keep white families in the system back in the ’70s. The high school admissions process allowed students to enroll outside their zip code, but it turns out you need a lot of social capital to do that process well. How do you design a system in which there aren’t losers? Is that possible?

I think that the only way to design or redesign systems is to actually bring the stakeholders who are impacted to the table. And I think you’re absolutely right when you talk about what is the intent of the system that’s been created. I give you already tons of credit because you’re the first person that I sat with and had a conversation that’s acknowledged the special high schools, gifted and talented, were a mechanism to keep white middle-class families from abandoning the public school system.

And it worked.

And it worked.

New York isn’t Cleveland or Detroit.

Absolutely. But New York of the ’70s or the ’80s is not the New York of 2018, so I think we, as an organic system, have to continue to evolve based on the context. And I think that in some cases, the structures and the systems that are not working to serve the needs of the students — not the students we used to have, not the ones we could have had or should have had — the students that we have right now.

What’s the role of parents in your system?

I think fundamentally the role of the parent is to be master teacher to their children. So there are things that schools can do and there are things that schools can’t do. I think the role of the school system is to be the partner of the parent in helping them do their part.

That being said, it’s also important to recognize that not all parents are similarly situated. And we have parents that are dealing with homelessness, we have parents that are dealing with unemployment. Perhaps drug addiction, incarceration, etc. Domestic violence. Our role needs to be to create the conditions at school where children can actually come and feel safe, supported, with the ultimate goal that they can learn.

You phrase it nicely, “parents aren’t similarly situated.” Does putting more of a burden on parents further disadvantage kids?

What I’ve noticed in my career, not only as a teacher but as a principal and in any other position, is that the true empowerment of parents is really rooted in knowledge. Information. And by that I mean, the parent that has been the most privileged in the system, anywhere I’ve worked — and I use privilege in a good way — the parent that knows how to advocate for their child, the parent that knows who to talk to, the parent that knows how the system works. If I don’t get the right answer from the teacher, I know who to go to.

Have you seen that happen?

Oh yeah, absolutely. But it doesn’t happen by happenstance.

We took seventh- and eighth-grade students in middle schools in the Bronx, all of them Latino. We took their English language arts, math, science, and social studies scores. We ended up with a ranking. The kids that were in the top, we invited those parents and their students to an information session.

That evening was conducted entirely in Spanish … We talked to them about what the specialized schools are. Every specialized school is represented. What is the process for getting into a specialized school, if that’s what you want? What is the test going to ask you to do? Here’s where you can get free tutoring for that test. This is a timeline in which you should be thinking about it. All in Spanish.

I heard from so many of those Spanish-speaking parents who said, “I’ve never had this kind of information.”

What’s your theory of action for turning around struggling schools? [In an early interview, Carranza suggested the $600 million Renewal school initiative lacked a “theory of action.”]

So, the theory of action is pretty straightforward. If you’re clear about the mechanisms that you’re impacting in a school, if you’re clear about what you’re supervising and building capacity for, if you’re clear about the resource allocation that’s used strategically around the things you’ve identified, you will get school turnaround. That’s a theory of action.

Now what does that mean? There are six buckets you have to look at. Not in isolation, not one on year one, two the next year. All six simultaneously.

The principal of the school has to be capacitated to do the work of turnaround: it means they have to be well-versed in data; they have to use data strategically, not punitively; and they have to be good at communicating a vision. It would be helpful if they’d done that work before, but that’s not necessarily relevant all the time.

Number two, who are your teachers? So I don’t necessarily buy into what I call a myth that the most experienced teacher is the best teacher for every turnaround school. But who you have in front of kids is really important, and then how you support them is really, really important. What’s the professional development you’re doing, what’s the coaching that’s happening simultaneously in those schools, how are you using data to track instruction?

The third thing is the curriculum. One of the biggest disconnects I’ve seen in schools that are not performing well academically is that the curriculum is disconnected from the state standards. I’m not saying that it should be rote or it should be out of a basal, but what I am saying is that what you’re doing every day should be tightly aligned to the state standards.

I thought we’d crossed that bridge.

Well you would think. Doesn’t always happen. And remember, I said at the beginning, in a decentralized system like New York City, where you have 1,800 schools, there’s been a stated focus on decentralization for a long time. It’s not bad, but I believe in, not autonomy, but bounded autonomy. You have to have, I think, a way of putting up guard rails. If you’re doing really, really well, I’m going to stay out of your way.

But if you’re not doing well, guess what? We’re going to have some guidance for you. Leadership, teachers, curriculum, structures. How is their day being used? What is the pull-in, push-out look like? How are you looking at students that are performing [below] what they’re supposed to be performing and how are you intervening with those students?

Fifth thing, you have to have social-emotional learning, community schools, all of those supports that I talked about. I think it’s a good thing that community schools have been used as part of the strategy. I don’t think it’s only a turnaround school strategy, but it’s important because in my experience a school that has not performed well academically is never in a wealthy or middle-class neighborhood.

And then the sixth thing, what I’ve already talked about, is parent empowerment. How are you creating an empowered parent base?

I assume [Renewal] schools and the program were already doing all these things, or trying to?

My analysis is that in some shape or form it was articulated that way. But the evidence was such that perhaps the implementation wasn’t as tight as we would have hoped.

You’re opening 13 charters. What do you say to critics who argue charters take money from the system?

When kids leave our system and the funding goes elsewhere, money leaves our system. You can’t deny that. My thing is, I think we need to be focused on doing better at what we do. And in some of the neighborhoods where we’ve seen a proliferation of charter schools, I think we can do a better job. That’s what we’re focused on doing in building a product that the community says, “Hey, I want to go there.”

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