OPINION: For New York City’s next schools chancellor, four questions and a lesson from Finland

Public consultation and accountability wanted

May 12, 2014 - New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina speaks at a public school in Queens, accompanied by Mayor Mayor Bill de Blasio. Farina recently announced her retirement.

May 12, 2014 – New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, accompanied by Mayor Bill de Blasio, speaks at a public school in Queens. Fariña recently announced her retirement.

My 10-year-old child attends the Earth School, an inspiring, world-class, under-resourced public school in New York City. Half of the school’s students are black or Latino, and half receive free or reduced-price lunches. Some 70 percent of the school’s families opt their children out of the state’s standardized testing.

In the summer, my child also attends a teacher-training lab school that is part of a public university in Finland, a nation ranked No. 1 in childhood education in the world by both UNICEF and the World Economic Forum. Like other high-performing education nations such as Singapore and Canada, and unlike American education in the Bush-Obama-Trump eras, Finland’s schools are driven not by standardized testing, but by teacher professionalism and collaboration, tests and assessments designed by classroom teachers, and equity of school resources and funding.

Mayor Bill de Blasio is searching for a new chancellor of the New York City school system, the largest public school system in the U.S. and one of the largest, most influential and most racially and economically segregated systems in the world.

Despite his 2012 campaign pledge to involve the public in the selection process through a “serious, serious public screening” of candidates because “we need a chancellor who is presented to the public, not just forced down our throat,” the mayor is conducting the search in a shroud of total secrecy.

This is a mistake. It should be an open, public search, and the mayor should be consulting with a wide range of parents, teachers and students. The mayor and schools chancellor are servants of the people. We pay their salaries and they work for us. This is a critical hiring decision, and we should be consulted in the process.

Related: How Finland broke every rule — and created a top school system

As a New York City public school parent, I have four job-interview questions for schools chancellor candidates, the kind of questions and follow-ups that should be answered in depth, and in public, before a hiring decision is made:

1) Will you fight to desegregate our outrageously segregated school system? Generations of racial segregation, political mismanagement, neglect and educational privilege have crippled our schools, not our heroic New York City teachers. Specifically, how will you fight for desegregation?

2) Will you opt New York City out of the unnecessary and colossally time-and-money-wasting mass standardized testing of children — and put classroom teachers in charge of teaching and testing? If not, why not? If you are in favor of school management based on standardized testing, what evidence can you provide that it has benefited New York City children in any way?

3) Will you fight to equitably and fully fund our public schools? My child’s school, for example, receives only 87 percent of its “fair student funding” formula, and a number of other schools are similarly shortchanged, especially those with many poor and minority students. How is this fair and, specifically, how will you fix it?

4) Will you fight to guarantee all our children these minimum educational requirements: a rich curriculum designed by childhood educators, fully qualified classroom teachers, optimal class sizes, child support services when necessary, daily physical education, at least 30 to 60 minutes of supervised unstructured recess per day, the freedom to fail and learn from failure as a pathway to success, and a school life based on love, respect and encouragement, not stress, overwork and fear? If not, why not?

Related: We’d be better at math if the U.S. borrowed these four ideas for training teachers from Finland, Japan and China

To select candidates for the job, Mayor de Blasio should heed the recent call of the parent leaders of the Citywide and Community Education Councils for him to look for these qualifications:

  • An educator with experience teaching in classrooms and serving as a school leader. Someone who does not need a waiver of the required certification.
  • Experience managing or working in an administrative position in a large school district with diverse students and families.
  • A track record in collaborating with parent leaders in the development of policies, initiatives and programs.
  • An innovator who can work the bureaucracy to find creative solutions.
  • An ability to use resources efficiently, equitably and creatively to maximize benefits for students.
  • Demonstrated commitment to, and a good track record working with, students with disabilities and English language learners.
  • A commitment to traditional public schools and to fighting the privatization of our schools.
  • Motivation to tackle challenging issues, including school segregation, charter school accountability and transparency, and to support our highest-need schools.

The mayor and his new chancellor have the power to inspire the world with our public schools.

New York City children, parents and taxpayers deserve nothing less.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

William Doyle is a New York writer and TV producer, a Fulbright Scholar, a 2017 Rockefeller Foundation Resident Fellow, and a Scholar in Residence at the University of Eastern Finland.


William Doyle

William Doyle is a 2015-2016 Fulbright Scholar and New York Times bestselling author from New York City on the faculty of the University of Eastern… See Archive

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