new to tweed

New York City’s new chief academic officer has a plan: give teachers resources that work for every single student

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

Two very different teaching experiences inside the same Manhattan school shaped Linda Chen’s career.

When she joined P.S. 163 as a teacher in the city’s sought-after gifted and talented program, Chen found training opportunities that challenged her to improve her craft and the materials she needed to engage her students.

Things changed after she transferred to a general education classroom in the same Upper West Side school, only to find much larger class sizes and fewer resources.

Linda Chen

“I saw equity challenges under one roof that I knew needed to change,” Chen said in an interview with Chalkbeat. “I knew I wanted to do something about that.”

After rising to become a principal here, Chen spent the next decade crisscrossing the country, filling top education roles in urban districts including Baltimore and Boston. When school starts Wednesday, Chen will return to New York City to serve as the new chief academic officer.

In Chen, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza has likely found an ally in his push for more diverse schools. Her approach may feel familiar in other ways, too. Colleagues say Chen cares deeply about helping teachers become better at their jobs — something former Chancellor Carmen Fariña put at the center of school improvement.   

Carranza created the chief academic officer position shortly into his five-month tenure here, saying the massive bureaucracy he inherited has struggled to collaborate in ways that make sense inside schools. The role brings together overlapping departments that touch the classroom in vital ways under the same leadership.

“I had great, hard-working people,” he told Chalkbeat in a recent interview. “But rarely did they work across each other’s silo.”

The last time New York City had a chief academic officer, it was forced to. In 2010, the city struck a deal with state officials: In exchange for approving Cathie Black, a schools chancellor who had no experience in education, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg agreed to appoint a chief academic officer as second in command. Black stepped down after 95 days.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio was elected, he tapped Carmen Fariña to lead the city’s schools. With more than 50 years of experience in the system, Fariña did away with the position. Before she retired this winter, Fariña served as chief executive and top educator, with a cabinet of 22 people reporting to her.

When Carranza came on board this spring, he found an “unwieldy” leadership structure. In schools, that could play out in frustrating ways. Principals and teachers complained about fuzzy lines of responsibility and support systems that were far removed from what teachers really needed.

Mike Magee, the head of Chiefs for Change — an education advocacy group — said that it’s increasingly common for school leaders to rely on a chief academic officer to steer the important work that happens in classrooms. Having someone dedicated to curriculum development and training frees up the chancellor to focus on systems issues, he said — something Fariña was often criticized for neglecting.

“The chief role in a school district, the superintendent role, is a role where you have a wide variety of responsibilities,” he said. “To have a leader on your team who can have a laser-like focus on not just the academic side of the work but on curriculum,” is a smart move.

Starting in 1997, Chen taught in New York City for about three years before joining the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, founded by the influential Columbia professor Lucy Calkins. Chen went on to become principal of P.S. 165 in Manhattan, a dual language school that she said also served a sizable number of students with special needs.

While there, some parents protested Chen’s decision to discipline a well-liked assistant principal. But Calkins said Chen was better known for encouraging active lessons with plenty of opportunities for students to talk and for spending time in classrooms “helping teachers study their kids.”

Chen left New York for Philadelphia in 2008, where she rose to become an assistant superintendent. From there she headed to Boston, where she made sure teacher evaluations and curriculum were aligned with new learning standards, and then to Baltimore, where she was chief academic officer.

The former head of schools there, Greg Thornton, said Chen ushered in new, formative assessments to give teachers more information about what their students really knew, and she was focused on boosting student engagement through the materials that were used in the classroom.

“Student engagement was her really big thing,” Thornton said. “We had kids who were disengaged, and you can’t win that way.”

Chen also helped champion a new way of supporting principals in struggling schools, though some complained it curbed the freedom of school leaders to make decisions. She served only two or three years in each of her roles, though that’s not unusual in the often politically fraught world of education.

Chen thinks things will work out differently in New York City.

“In this case is you have a mayor who has a clear agenda… You have a chancellor coming in  the middle of this who is completely aligned,” she said. “So you can move forward.”

In her portfolio as chief academic officer: the Division of Teaching and Learning, which coordinates teacher training and is responsible for curriculum; the department that oversees special education; and the department that serves students who are learning English as a new language.

It will be up to Chen to make sure all those offices work together to support students and teachers. That may mean that experts in teaching students with disabilities or limited English skills work side-by-side with curriculum gurus to create classroom materials that cater to students’ different needs, but also challenge them. The departments she oversees then might work together to coordinate training, making sure teachers know how to use the new materials well.

“There has been collaboration, but it has been somewhat informal and not structured in a way with the full intent for access,” she said. “I would love for [teachers] to be able to see that there is something in the resources we provide for every one of their students.”

For Chen, that means recognizing the “cultural needs” of students. Integration advocates have pushed the city to focus more on culturally relevant education practices, calling for classroom materials that include representations of different students and also reflect a diversity of viewpoints. In a system that is 70 percent black and Hispanic students, advocates say this is key to engaging students and even boosting academic achievement.

Chen said she looks at the work of culturally relevant education in two ways: Providing classroom materials that are inclusive of all students, and working with adults to recognize inequities in the school system.

“We can create materials and put them in teachers’ hands, but if we don’t attend to their needs and their development in this mindset, then they won’t thrive,” Chen said.

Former colleagues say diversity is an issue that Chen championed in her previous roles. Maria Pitre-Martin, who worked with Chen at the Philadelphia public school district, said it was front-and-center whenever making decisions about classroom materials.

“That was always part of the criteria, and it was pretty much a nonnegotiable, making sure that we had culturally relevant material in front of our students,” ” said Pitre-Martin, who is now a deputy state superintendent for North Carolina.

Chen will also have to coordinate the way the city trains and supports its educators, something the department has sometimes struggled to get right. Teachers in New York City have said the training they’re offered often cuts into their time in the classroom and feels disconnected from their needs.

It’s a notorious issue across the education field. In Jerry Jordan’s more than 30 years as an educator, the head of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers said he has suffered through plenty of useless training sessions. But he said Chen was known for bucking that trend, and delivering relevant professional development in her time in the Philadelphia public school district.

“People learned from it,” Jordan said. “There are times when you attend a professional development session and you say, ‘I just wasted two hours.’”

Reinventing school

What’s next for the Laurene Powell Jobs-funded effort to rethink American high schools

Tom Hanks and James Corden during XQ's TV special, "Super School Live."

A star-studded television special broadcast on major networks last year had a simple message: high schools haven’t changed in 100 years, but they need to — and fast.

It was backed by the nonprofit XQ Institute, which has awarded $130 million to 19 schools trying new approaches, like using virtual reality or creating a school within a museum. As those schools get off the ground, XQ has begun to deploy another strategy: trying to influence local policy.

Last week, XQ published a report encouraging state leaders to push for innovation on their own, including a set of recommendations for things like graduation requirements, teacher training, and innovation funds. Another guide, this one focused on convincing school board members to prioritize high school reform, is on the way.

It’s a notable new tack for the organization, which is affiliated with Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective. (Chalkbeat is funded by the Emerson Collective through the Silicon Valley Community Fund.) And it’s one with a reasonable shot at influencing policy, thanks both to XQ’s generous funding and to the fact that innovation appeals to education advocates of many stripes.

But XQ is also sure to face familiar challenges in realizing its goal of dramatically reshaping schools: convincing policymakers that their strategy is the right one and addressing foundational issues like school funding that can stand in the way.

“Typically what systems do is they exempt innovative schools from the traditional policies and practices of the district, but all that guarantees is that they’ll remain a minority among a majority of traditional schools,” said Warren Simmons, who was involved in the Annenberg Challenge, a philanthropic effort to improve schools in the 1990s.

19 schools, broader ambitions

A few of XQ’s schools opened their doors for the first time this year, including Crosstown High in Memphis, which promises to have students focus their learning on projects. Schools like that, XQ argues, will help students get ready for a changing world.

“To prepare for the future of work, we need to set a clear agenda to prepare the future workforce — and that agenda ties directly to our schools,” Russlynn Ali, the XQ CEO and a former Obama administration official, wrote in the report’s introduction.

To address this, XQ recommends several policies. One is to “communicate the urgency” of overhauling the high school experience. Others are more specific, such as having states offer competitive grants to spur school innovation, as XQ did, and provide additional autonomy to district schools, as has been done in Colorado.

XQ also wants more students to progress through classes based on measurements of their skills, not a set number of semesters or “seat time.” It’s an approach that has a lot of overlap with technology-based “personalized learning,” which is backed by other major funders including the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. (CZI is a supporter of Chalkbeat.)

Meanwhile, XQ suggests states require that the courses necessary for earning a high school degree mirror those required to apply to a state public university system.

Together, the policies are meant to make high school more engaging and prepare students more directly for college and work.

The initiative’s ideas have garnered support from ideologically diverse sources. The Betsy DeVos-led U.S. Department of Education hosted a summit late last year that featured some of the same schools that won XQ grants and also called for leaders to rethink schools. (DeVos’s schedule indicates that she met with Ali and Powell Jobs in July 2017.)

An image from XQ’s recent report.

XQ itself has also drawn praise from American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. “America’s students need their high schools to be places where everyone can gain the skills they need to be ready for college, apprenticeships or other career paths — and for the rest of their lives,” she said in a statement. “The XQ report is a thorough blueprint for how states and school districts can help public schools achieve this.” (A spokesperson for AFT did not respond to an inquiry regarding whether the union has received funding from XQ or Emerson.)

Carmel Martin, a managing director at the Emerson Collective and an author of the XQ report, said that the organization sent the report to governors and she recently spoke to education staffers at the National Governors Association conference.

“We’re sharing [our research and experiences] with policymakers across the political spectrum,” she said. “We stand ready to help them move forward with these policy recommendations.”

The organization has also published a number of resources, including online guides to the science of learning and student engagement, as well as kits for people interested in running for local school boards. XQ says it provides ongoing support to the schools it’s funding, including through a five-day seminar this summer.

In addition to the $130 million those 19 schools have been pledged, a 2016 tax form shows XQ spent over $38 million building public awareness of its work that year, including a nationwide bus tour. (XQ says the tour hit 66 cities and included 68 student roundtables.) It spent an additional $5 million to run the award competition. The organization declined to offer additional spending figures.

If you build it, will they come (and will it work)?

Will it all be enough to spur action, and if so, how successful will those changes be?

That depends on several factors, including whether XQ can convince policymakers that reforming high schools is the right way to prepare for the “future of work.” That idea, that the economy is rapidly changing while schools have lagged behind, is the centerpiece of its latest pitch to state leaders. (As Chalkbeat has reported, there’s mixed evidence on just how fast the economy is changing and the claim that schools haven’t changed in 100 years.)

Those policymakers will also have to contend with the fact that a number of those policies have been tried elsewhere and faced setbacks.

In 2012, for instance, Maine passed a law creating a competency-based high school diploma. Students were to graduate based on whether they demonstrated proficiency in given areas, not based on how many classes they passed. It’s the sort of approach XQ says it favors, but earlier this year, Maine repealed the model before it was ever fully implemented. “I think this program is just set up with every opportunity in the world to put in the minimal amount of work,” one parent said.

Other XQ policies, like expanding career and technical education, have a longer track record and solid research base. Some, like improving teacher preparation and their ongoing training, have widespread support, though educators have long wrestled over how best to do it.

Another question is whether XQ will be able to use their 19 schools as proof points. XQ says it is already seeing results, pointing to D.C.’s Washington Leadership Academy, a charter school that won an XQ grant. That school has expanded the number of city students, particularly black students, taking computer science, XQ said, and posted strong test scores.

Michele Cahill, XQ’s managing director of education, said the schools would be judged in a variety of ways, including a suite of SAT tests that all of the schools have agreed to take. XQ is also working on guides for evaluating its schools in partnership with the external research group CREDO, and says it will publicly report on those results in the future.

Simmons said one challenge of the approach is that simply creating a handful of successful schools doesn’t mean their approaches will catch on. “That viral theory of action has failed time and time again,” he said.

And Megan Tompkins-Stange, a professor who studies education philanthropy at the University of Michigan, noted the challenge of expanding on success. “It’s very difficult to scale up local innovation with quality and consistency across a very large number of sites,” she said.

Cahill of XQ said creating a movement won’t be easy, but it can be done, in part through inspiring people.

“We believe broad change of this magnitude requires a cultural shift, [so] we’ve made it a part of our wheelhouse, investing our time, attention and resources not just in creating proof points at the school, district and state levels but also in the effort to win hearts and minds,” she said.

Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said past efforts similar to XQ’s have been “remarkably unsuccessful.”

But, Hess said, “The fact that it’s historically been incredibly hard to do in a sustainable way doesn’t mean you can’t do it.”

awards season

For the first time in two decades, New York’s Teacher of the Year hails from New York City — and West Africa

PHOTO: New York State Education Department
Bronx International High School teacher Alhassan Susso, center, is New York State's 2019 Teacher of the Year.

An immigrant from West Africa who teaches social studies to immigrant students in the Bronx is New York State’s newest Teacher of the Year.

Alhassan Susso, who works at International Community High School in Mott Haven, received the award Tuesday, becoming the first New York City teacher to do so since 1998.

As the state’s Teacher of the Year, Susso will travel the state to work with local educators — and will represent New York in the national competition at a time when federal authorities are aggressively seeking to limit immigration.

A decorated teacher with significant vision impairment since childhood, Susso came to New York from Gambia at 16 and had a rocky experience at his upstate high school, which he chronicled in an autobiography he published in 2016. Assuming that he would struggle academically because he was an immigrant, even though English is the official language of Gambia, his teachers assigned him to a remedial reading class. There, he found a compassionate teacher who was attentive to the diverse needs of her students, who came from all over the world.

Now, Susso is playing that role at his school. International Community High School, part of the Internationals Network for new immigrants, has a special program for students who did not receive a formal education before coming to the United States.

“Alhassan Susso exemplifies the dedication and passion of our 79,000 New York City teachers,” city Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said in a statement. “Using the obstacles he’s overcome and lessons he’s learned in his own life, Alhassan has changed the trajectory of students’ lives and helped them pursue their dreams.”

New York City teachers make up nearly 40 percent of the state’s teaching force but have won the Teacher of the Year honor only six times since 1965, the last in 1998. This year’s winner had a strong chance of ending the two-decade shutout: Two of the three finalists teach in the Bronx. In addition to Susso, Frederick Douglass Academy III chemistry teacher William Green was up for the award.