Mayor Bill de Blasio took control of New York City’s school system, the nation’s largest, four years ago, denouncing the aggressive, data-driven approach to school improvement that his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, had used with considerable success. Mr. de Blasio’s schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña — who recently announced her retirement — shared his vague agenda.
The mayor has not yet appointed her successor. And the proven school managers whose accomplishments make them appealing candidates will be hesitant to accept the post in the absence of a clear, compelling mayoral vision and backing for forceful action on behalf of students.
The mayor has described his mission over the next four years as promoting equity and excellence, but those goals remain largely out of reach, even as test scores have inched up and graduation rates have risen. In fact, the city needs to move more urgently on three fronts: ending profound racial segregation; closing failing schools while opening better ones; and finding more effective ways to train good teachers, retain the best teachers and move the worst ones out of the system.
New York City has trained an entire generation of highly capable school administrators. Some would be excellent candidates for the top job.
One of them is Shael Polakow-Suransky, president of Bank Street College of Education. Early in his career, he worked as a teacher and then as a principal in New York City. He served in several positions at the city’s Department of Education, including as senior deputy chancellor, overseeing teaching and learning across the school system during a time of real transformation.
Another is Jaime Aquino, who once worked as a local superintendent in the city and went on to do distinguished work in the Denver school system. He is now chief program officer for New Leaders for New Schools, a nonprofit focused on developing principals.
Paymon Rouhanifard, the superintendent of the Camden City School District in New Jersey since 2013, was also trained in New York City. In Camden, which was seen as one of the most troubled school systems in the country, Mr. Rouhanifard has improved graduation rates and lowered suspension rates. He has shown a tireless enthusiasm for the job and appears to be having a dramatic impact on public attitudes in Camden toward education.
John White, who has served as the Louisiana state superintendent of education since 2012, is another highly competent manager who formerly worked for the New York City Department of Education. In Louisiana, he has vigorously pushed reforms on curriculum and teacher preparation. In 2015, the state’s fourth graders showed the most growth in the country in the reading test of the federally backed National Assessment of Educational Progress, and the second-most in the math test. Graduation rates have risen under his stewardship, and many more students have completed high school with early college credits.
Among the candidates without roots in New York that Mr. de Blasio should consider is Kaya Henderson, who garnered a national reputation for leadership in the once beleaguered district of Washington, D.C., before stepping down in 2016. Over her six years at the helm, she strengthened academic offerings, created more confidence in the city schools, and engineered a personnel evaluation system that rewards highly competent teachers and steers the lowest performers out the door. An independent 2016 study found that this system had a significant impact on student learning.
While Ms. Henderson was reprimanded by a city ethics board after leaving office for giving preferential treatment to powerful people who wanted to place children in preferred schools and was censured for seeking donations for a nonprofit that supports public education, she did an outstanding job in the district.
John B. King Jr., a career educator who served as education secretary in the Obama administration and who is now president of the nonprofit advocacy group the Education Trust, would also be a good fit for New York. Mr. King became a lightning rod — particularly for the teachers union — while serving as New York State’s education commissioner, but he has never wavered in his commitment to higher standards for all children.
Mayor de Blasio has many strong candidates from which to choose, but none of them would be likely to consider New York unless the mayor commits himself to a vigorous system of reforms — especially those that focus on low-performing schools — and gives the new chancellor the latitude and support to pursue them.
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