Everyone wants to think her job is challenging, but Carmen Fariña’s is close to impossible: She is the chancellor of New York City’s Department of Education. There are 1.1 million students in the five boroughs, which is more than the population of all but nine American cities. There are 1,800 schools in New York; Chicago has 500. Brooklyn Technical High School has more students (5,500) than Princeton does undergraduates (5,200).
The budget for the department Fariña manages is $27.6 billion, which exceeds the gross domestic product of El Salvador. There are 76,000 teachers in New York City, five times as many as in all of Idaho. The quantity of No. 2 pencils used each year is unknown but, most likely, vast enough to fell several forests.
The woman who presides over this pedagogical enormity is a 73-year-old abuela (as The New York Timesonce called her) from Brooklyn who has been in public education for the entirety of her four-decade-long professional life. Nearly three years ago, Fariña was appointed to the chancellorship by the newly elected mayor, Bill de Blasio, a selection that surprised some who had hoped for a more radical break with the past. De Blasio, after all, is a self-styled progressive who promised “transcendent” change, surrounding himself with youthful advisers minted in the Barack Obama mold. Fariña, meanwhile, was coaxed out of retirement.
De Blasio is now more than halfway through his term, as is Fariña. Neither is especially popular. The mayor is facing several investigations into his fundraising activities, which have left him testy and New Yorkers exasperated; only 42 percent of voters in a July poll approved of the job he is doing. Fariña’s approval rating, according to a May poll, is an even-more-dreary 29 percent. Some are wondering if she’s doing enough to improve schools, or if she seeks merely to placate the powerful teachers union while stopping the charter school movement. Others believe the school reform movement has been a disaster that only veterans like Fariña can fix.
Since New York is the national bellwether for education reform, Fariña’s smallest decisions attract scrutiny. Her biggest often invite fury. Some see her as a defender of teachers, others as the pawn of teachers unions. Is she merely a supporter of big public schools, of the sort that used to anchor a neighborhood, or does she harbor a visceral antipathy toward charter schools, which often swoop in when bigger schools fail? Is she resistant to evaluating teachers and testing students or just suspicious of how easily data can be misunderstood and misused?
These are questions that matter not only to P.S. 75 in the Bronx but also to an elementary school in Tulsa and a high school in Seattle. Much like the New York City Police Department, the New York City Department of Education often instructs the rest of the country in how to do things—and, sometimes, how not to do them.
Fariña’s answers to the above questions have been starkly different from those proffered by her predecessor, Joel Klein, a potent symbol of a school reform movement pumped full of money by philanthropic foundations and altruistic hedge-funders. With the blessing of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Klein embraced teacher evaluations and standardized exams, spurned unions and built charter schools. The efforts of Klein and like-minded reformers were chronicled in the 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman, which demonized traditional public schools as snake pits of union cronyism and chronic failure.
Superman never showed up. Federal programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top left plenty of children well below the summit, while teacher evaluations and standardized tests remain fraught, imperfect measures of teaching and learning. “It’s hard to see any good news for reformers,” says Diane Ravitch, a New York University professor who is a vociferous supporter of traditional public schools. As The U.S. Education Reform Movement Has Stalled: