Chancellor Farina’s Departure

Jan 3, 2018 by

According to the Big Bang theory, when the universe was created, matter was dispersed unimaginable distances within billionths of a second. Parlay that knowledge into an appreciation of New York City’s education bureaucracy and you will have a generous estimate of the time lapse between the moment that schools Chancellor Carmen Farina’s announced departure takes effect, accompanied by celebratory lamentation, and the instant her legacy will breach the walls of eternal forgetfulness and dissipate from memory.

She was, granted, a vast improvement over her immediate predecessor, Klein, Black and Walcott, who were detritus from the Bloomberg administration. But they were such abominations, that any successor who did not undertake with gusto the complete ruination of our public schools as they did, shines by comparison.

Her sweet grandmotherly countenance, copious credentials, half-century of time-served, and professed but imperfectly thought-through and applied egalitarian principles, did not aggravate the existing system and she did not create her own brand of harmfulness.  She deserves credit for that.

She was a stellar mediocrity, which may be all we can realistically hope for, given that schools chancellors are politicians, first, foremost and at the end of the day.

There was no way that she could have been anything more, because nobody will remain long on the job, or be appointed in the first place, unless they are a consummate politician. That sometimes requires suppression of finer instincts and the triumph of servility.

Farina has courage and integrity and so does the mayor, but they are both involuntary victims of a political system that has meddled more with education than with any other aspect of government administration.

Nobody can be chancellor without being a politician and nobody can be a really good politician as long as they’re a politician.

Carmen Farina has been the driving force of some praiseworthy initiatives, such as universal preK. Her heart is in the right place. But the level of  student mastery in all subject area continues the precipitous drop of recent decades. I’d bet that the average per-millennial 7th grader would score higher on a general knowledge test than most high school seniors ( and in many cases, their school administrators) today.  But this neither began under her “watch” nor did she arrest it.

However, under Farina ,the student disciplinary code has been enfeebled, the notion of student and parental accountability reduced to a mockery and she hawked a bogus teacher evaluation scheme.  On the ledger of educational issues, she scored  reasonably well on balance, but although her performance may not have yielded any ground, neither did it gain much in the quest for literacy.

It’s a good thing that she has advanced social justice consciousness,not only because it makes students better citizens, but because it also enables true learning. But schools need also to be laboratories for the inculcation of hard and real knowledge. Exponentially under Farina they have become hothouses for tricky euphemisms like “restorative justice” and “credit recovery” and some superior but also some dubious adventures in “professional development.”

The DOE may not fudge statistics, as has been alleged regarding classification of crimes by the police department, but there have been some artful cover-ups and manipulations of perception, such as in suspension and graduation rates.

The system is overburdened by many thousands of highly-paid administrators with entry-level expertise and grandiose self-images. Their salaries would be far better invested in direct instructional services. The quality of supervisors is, on the whole, far below the par of even a generation ago, but of course that erosion predates Farina.  Still it flourished and burgeoned under her very eyes.

Although Carmen Farina is far more pro-teacher than any prior chancellor of this millennium, she sides not customarily but unfailingly with abusive supervisors in any clash with their subordinates. She will give any supervisory almost unlimited benefit of the doubt , even sometimes when investigations lead to potential allegations of criminality. Only after the supervisor’s widely publicized and protested wrongdoing has proven awkward to senior management and encroached on their “comfort zone” will the resulting bad optics lead to action.

These are my personal observations, perhaps those of a “lone wolf” and I don’t speak for anyone else.

The mayor has indicated that he would like, in effect, to clone Chancellor Farina. Clearly she has a great deal of support among a wide variety of impressive people with a stake in public education.

Let’s hope, however, that the next chancellor will be a current teacher plucked straight from the classroom who will be cut loose from some of the political shackles that historically go with the job and thereby  be insulated from the harsh political winds that chill not mere bones in winter but our children’s prospects for a commendable future.

Ron Isaac

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