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Top official says recent department turnover not a sign of problems

Deputy Chancellor Phil Weinberg insisted Monday that a string of resignations by top-level officials he appointed does not indicate trouble in his office, after he was asked about the departures during a public-radio interview.

Brian Lehrer, host of the daily call-in news show on WNYC, mentioned the recent Chalkbeat story on the resignations and asked whether they were a sign that “something’s not working.” Weinberg said the turnover does not reflect turmoil in his office and said that many staffers remain who are doing “fantastic work.”

“As we make change, we’re moving forward and things are actually going very, very well,” said Weinberg, who heads the education department’s teaching and learning division, a key office that Chancellor Carmen Fariña re-established early in her tenure.

Weinberg announced three new departures last week, meaning that five of the seven top officials he chose in January to lead his division are leaving. He also said that several offices will be consolidated as part of a second reorganization of the division, as officials in charge of teacher evaluation and accountability depart.

Weinberg was a call-in guest during a segment of the show about technology education with Michael Preston, the senior director of digital learning in the department’s Office of Postsecondary Readiness.

Weinberg and Preston pointed to a few initiatives launched under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg that the new administration has promised to expand. Those include computer-science training courses for teachers, a pilot program in a small group of schools where students learn about computer programming and robotics, and the creation of new technology-focused high schools where students can earn two-year college degrees.

Fariña has spoken often about the importance of innovation in schools. But amid her department’s focus on improving the quality of teaching and carrying out the mayor’s ambitious pre-kindergarten and after-school expansions, it has been unclear whether technology instruction will be one of her administration’s priorities.

Weinberg did not discuss the relative importance of technology to other department initiatives on Monday. He did, however, emphasize that technology-infused instruction gives students an edge in the modern job market and helps them meet the new Common Core standards.

“Coding speaks to the Common Core because it’s about logical thinking,” he said. “To code is to think logically.”

The pair also acknowledged some of the challenges they face as they try to embed technology more deeply in schools.

When a caller said the wireless Internet network at her children’s Manhattan middle school crashes when too many students try to log in at once, Weinberg said that increasing schools’ Internet capacity is a “massive undertaking,” but added that it’s “actually proceeded very well.” (Another caller said that when students are able to access the Internet at school, teachers sometimes struggle to monitor their online activity.)

Preston also noted that few teachers in the school system are qualified to teach computer science, which he attributed partly to a lack of such training at education schools. The department’s response has been to train teachers in computer science regardless of their background, Preston said, noting that a software-engineering pilot program includes as many history as math teachers.

“I think we need to understand better how to do this and to build a pipeline” of tech-savvy teachers, Preston said.

Below is audio from the segment on the Brian Lehrer show:

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