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Phil Weinberg

Phil Weinberg

Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

What NYC’s departing instructional guru learned overseeing the nation’s largest school system

For almost all of Phil Weinberg’s decades-long career in the city’s education department, he was a much-beloved educator at the High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology.

But after nearly three decades there, including 13 years as principal, Weinberg was plucked from his post to resurrect the teaching and learning division in 2014, overseeing instruction citywide.

The pace of change took some adjusting to. “I think it took me some time to learn this, but it’s very important to recognize that the massive size of our school system means that change doesn’t happen quickly,” he recently told Chalkbeat.

Weinberg officially stepped down from that job last week, capping off his 35-year career in the city’s public school system. Weinberg oversaw curriculum, teacher development, college preparation efforts, and managed some of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s biggest priorities, including making computer-science classes available to all students by 2025.

On his final day, Weinberg spoke with Chalkbeat about what he learned, his philosophy for managing instruction across more than 1,500 schools, a resurgence in the debate about whether schools are teaching reading correctly, and what he thinks of recent criticism of Chancellor Richard Carranza’s implicit bias training. 

Weinberg plans to stay in education; his next role will be as the head of the Writing Revolution, an organization that helps educators emphasize writing mechanics instead of relying too heavily on free-form writing exercises. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve been at the department of education for 35 years and in your outgoing letter you said you’d been considering leaving for a little while. What sparked the move now?

So I’ve been thinking about it for some time. I knew at the end of this year it would be 35 years, and if I was going to get a chance to do something else, I’d have to do it sometime soon. 

I’m really proud of the work of the division in so many different ways and feel like one of the best things someone who has the privilege of being a leader can do is to be able to turn over work while it’s functioning and give other folks a chance to make it better. And I was lucky to get a very exciting opportunity at the Writing Revolution whose work I respect deeply, and so it seemed like the right time.

Are there specific examples of ways in which your experience running a single school changed the approach you took to the system-level work?

I had always been impressed with the amount of information New York City was collecting about the work that was being done in schools, [but] was nervous that we were using it as a way of creating summative reports that really ended a conversation with a letter grade.

Phil Weinberg teaching Shakespeare’s Macbeth to seniors at Telly in 1990

Phil Weinberg teaching Shakespeare’s Macbeth to seniors at Telly in 1990

NYC Department of Education

What I thought was more useful for me as a school leader would have been information that opens up to questions around what better or different might look like. And I was very grateful that early on we were able to move our data systems toward being about ways schools could query themselves to do better work, rather than ways we could identify by some oftentimes random choices in data, what were “good” and “not good” schools.

How well do you think the system is currently set up or not set up to drive instructional change, and how does that fit in with the chancellor’s priorities right now?

I think we drive instructional change by continuing to pay attention to what we know is working and continuing to ask ourselves what isn’t working and why. I think it took me some time to learn this, but it’s very important to recognize that the massive size of our school system means that change doesn’t happen quickly.

But it means we have a massive opportunity to learn with and from each other. And so we have encouraged collaboration across our schools: principal to principal, school to school, the ways in which we’ve created opportunities to learn both from our data [and] from each other. Specifically I think of ways in which we’re helping new principals get on their feet by having our experienced principals work with them and provide them with the kind of mentorship that’s necessary to do what I imagine is the most important and the most difficult job of the school system. I think those are the ways in which we improve the school system writ large.

Obviously this is a huge system of schools, and different schools have different needs — what are the important things that the central DOE can do to support schools, including the one you ran for years and years?

I think running the New York City school system requires the leaders to do a really delicate dance between defining overall goals for the system and encouraging schools to make sure they meet the individual needs of their school communities. And I’ve always been proud since I was a principal of the ways in which we’ve invested in strong leaders to make key and critical choices for their school communities and have asked our strongest leaders to be able to justify those choices and to explain why they’ve done them.

I think that real accountability is about explaining why you’ve made a choice not about whether your choice was right or wrong — but being able to determine why and to be willing to investigate whether you are correct and then adjust as you move forward. We lead the learning of 1.1 million young people every day and if we’re not learners ourselves, we’re not doing as good a job as we should be. 

It sounds to me the theory you’re describing is it shouldn’t be up to Tweed to say, ‘Here are the best ways of running a school, and we want to make sure that you’re doing that.’ It’s, ‘let us help identify places where this is working really well and facilitate schools sharing that knowledge with each other.’

I think that’s where we have to start. We’re talking in the end about human beings, and sometimes there may be disagreements about what good looks like, and that’s when it gets sticky. I don’t know of a system where there isn’t a person who has to make a call sometimes, but I think the goal of central has to be not making the call for schools but facilitating schools to make the best choices for their students. After 35 years I’m not naive enough to think that everyone will always make the best choice and that everyone will always agree it was the best choice.

That philosophy — have there been any changes to it under the new chancellor?

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a change relative to the decision-making of our principals under the new chancellor.

In the last year, the public discussion of the science of reading has really deepened, and one takeaway has been that a lot of schools and teachers might not be following the best practices in terms of how kids actually learn to read. I’m curious what you’ve made of that dialogue, and whether the city’s approach to reading instruction has changed at all because of it?

So the part that’s been exciting for me has been that we’ve been engaged in discussions about research and science around reading. And I think that speaks tremendously of the community of New York City educators who are willing to have a public argument around what might be best for students. I think that as we elevate that conversation and make sure we learn about the best research being done for our students, we will end up having disagreements. But I was really excited to see that we really are having disagreements, and we are talking about how practice can improve.

Do you see that discussion resulting in instructional changes or curriculum changes?
I think that it’s clearly resulting in curricular changes at some schools, and I think that the way our system works is that as those prove to be effective, it will prove to be effective at more schools.

When you say some schools are changing, what are they changing to, and what are they moving away from?

The work that we have begun around culturally responsive and sustaining pedagogy has been the biggest systemwide change that we’re seeing right now. And schools are good-heartedly and with great love embracing questions around how we meet our students where they are so that we can be the best teachers we possibly can be for the young folks who enter our rooms each day.

I was wondering whether you thought there was a trend toward more phonics instruction — I don’t know if you’re seeing anything systemwide that you would characterize as a trend in one direction or another?

While change is happening, we’re not able to track exactly what schools are doing. Today, I can’t tell you how many schools moved toward phonemic awareness as their first goal in reading instruction. But I think what we will know in a year or two is how many schools have changed practice, and what that has meant and how they are influencing their friends and colleagues and neighbor schools to change their practices.

That seems like it must be a big challenge to not always know exactly what is happening in schools in terms of curriculum, and I’m wondering how you navigated that as someone who was ultimately responsible for what was happening in every classroom?

The easiest way to describe how to navigate it is the same tension I had as a principal. There were 80 wonderful teachers who I got to work with at Telecommunications every day. And I was not in 80 classrooms every day, even though I felt like that should have been what I was doing all the time. But it wasn’t possible. Instead, I think what we do is we build the conditions by which people query each other, work together, ask questions, and especially elevate what’s working. 

The best work I ever saw in schools at our school and other schools was work where people brought to a table, ‘Here’s what I did today, here’s why I thought it worked, and for the bravest and the best of us, here’s why it didn’t work.’ When adults lead the learning of other adults, that’s how we grow. I think we do that on a similar level in our best superintendencies. I think we do that in formal and informal networks that schools have created over time.

Do you feel like there’s any unfinished business that you hope your successor picks up and makes more progress on?

I think we want to work more closely and more deeply with our university partners to make sure that the folks who enter our classrooms for the first time each year — the many, many thousands of people who start teaching in New York City each year — are better prepared to know the job well. I think this is not a New York City question; this is a national question around how the training of teachers, how the development and learning of new teachers, can be strengthened and be based more deeply on the realities of teaching in our school system.

Chancellor Carranza has made this big push for expanded implicit bias training and thinking about equity, and there’s been a lot of backlash to it. I’ve wondered what you’ve made of that as someone who’s been part of the system for so long?

I think that our desire to be learners about the city we live in, the students we teach, and ourselves is a great thing and I think the job of the school system is to know that we’ve begun this conversation around implicit bias and to ask ourselves what it means for how we teach our students and what it means for us to do better over time.

Have you seen a controversy like this one in your time at the education department — does this remind you of a debate that’s happened before or does it seem new to you?

Balanced literacy comes to mind when I was a new principal. In many ways, although it seems silly to me, the Common Core state standards became a flashpoint for argument and led Chalkbeat stories oftentimes. I think every couple of years there is something, as we’ve pushed to make a change. The tension between development and evaluation, I think, has been a constant, quiet, underlying controversy that has been part of the education landscape for as long as I’ve been part of it.

In your final few hours as an education department employee — what is on your calendar?

I am going to catch up with some of the folks I’ve been lucky enough to work with for the past couple years and just let them know how grateful I’ve been. I feel like I’ve been doing that for about two days now — don’t want you to think I haven’t been working as well. But it’s been a long career, and I’ve had the great good fortune to work alongside people who impress me every day and I am hoping to have a chance to say that to them.