Brooklyn native Carmen Fariña became chancellor of the New York City Department of Education in January 2014, after nearly 50 years working and earning accolades throughout the city in such positions as teacher, principal, district superintendent, and deputy chancellor for teaching and learning. Her district, the largest in the United States, serves 1.1 million students in more than 1,800 schools. Among the priorities she has emphasized since assuming her position are collaboration, trust, and accountability in the education system, and “rigorous Common Core–based standards to raise student achievement.” Early in her term she has been lauded for her role in overseeing the expansion of prekindergarten for all four-year-olds and creating a new department to support English-language learners. More recently, her department gained attention this spring when it entered a three-year agreement (beginning next school year) with Amazon to provide digital textbooks and other digital content to New York City schools via a private marketplace.
How do the use of e-books and the technology surrounding them align with your goals for N.Y.C. public schools? What are the benefits of working with Amazon in this area?
As a lifelong educator and someone who’s been in New York City public schools for 50 years, I’ve learned that the way we make the best decisions is listening to our teachers, administrators, and school communities—what do they need, and how can we support them? For years, our schools have expressed concerns around not having enough space for textbooks, books being lost or physically decaying, difficulties exchanging book licenses with other classrooms and schools, as well as the fact that it’s been tough for them to compare book options and prices. Many science and social studies teachers also want access to the broad range of primary resources that are available as e-content. That’s where the Amazon contract—the new e-book marketplace—comes in. We hear from our schools that they’re excited about this new option, and we look forward to many of them taking advantage of it.
The other piece that’s very exciting about the new e-marketplace is that we were able to bring Amazon and the National Federation of the Blind to the table for an agreement that will improve e-book accessibility for the blind and visually impaired nationwide. I’m committed to meeting the needs of all our learners, and this is a real step forward.
Do you see a move away from print materials and books in the classroom?
Not necessarily. First and foremost, our focus is always on strengthening instruction. The e-book and e-content marketplace means that all New York City schools will have the ability to harness new technologies in this way, but we realize every school is different and has different needs. Some may transition more toward using e-content; others may continue to rely heavily on print materials and books. The most important thing for us is giving schools the option, and then providing the support they need to really take advantage of it.
What are your thoughts on the importance of providing technology experiences for students?
It’s incredibly important. You have to remember that today’s students are digital natives, so if we’re not taking advantage of their natural interest and familiarity with technology, we’re missing a really big opportunity. And when we think about what you need to succeed in college and careers in today’s world, it’s imperative that our kids understand technology and how to create and solve problems with it. We also need our math and science majors in college, and the people who work in the technology industry, to look more like the broader population—more women, and more African-Americans and Latinos—and we have to start that work early.
One of the initiatives that’s part of our agenda to increase equity and excellence across our public schools is Computer Science for All. We’re going to bring computer science to every elementary, middle, and high school by 2025. I had the pleasure [on June 1] of announcing the progress we’ve made at an elementary school where students were learning new vocabulary and concepts like conditionals and loops on and off the computer; over 200 schools have already signed for new computer science next school year.
Where do STEM and STEAM fit into the big picture of N.Y.C. schools’ use of technology?
STEM and STEAM are the way of the future; we’re laser-focused on increasing equity and excellence in these fields. Not only are we investing heavily in STEM, but we’re changing the way we teach it in our schools. Last year, we published a new STEM framework for schools, a document to guide them in integrating STEM concepts and hands-on learning across multiple disciplines, and engaging families, businesses, and colleges and universities in this work. And we’ve invested in new STEM professional development. Through our STEM Institute—which we also started last year—well over 1,000 teachers have attended intensive workshops around cutting-edge STEM subjects and strategies, from the science of cooking to engineering and robotics for early elementary grades, and brought that work back to their schools.
Our amazing New York City public school teachers attend these sessions during their spring and summer breaks; they know that high-quality STEM education makes a difference in preparing our students for college and careers in the 21st century, and they’re putting in the work to make it a reality.
What do the N.Y.C. schools do to encourage summer reading for students?
Two of my priorities as chancellor are promoting a love of reading among our students, and preventing summer learning loss. Through our N.Y.C. Reads 365 initiative—which we announced last fall—we’ve created new, age-appropriate, high-interest reading lists from pre-K to 12 and have worked to get those titles into schools, libraries, and community-based organizations. We see our parents as partners, and so we’ve engaged them around this work and highlighted the new lists and the importance of reading through parent-teacher conferences, our website, and parent communications.
We’re also excited to roll out a new Summer in the City approach to summer school this year. We’re expanding to reach 150,000 students, with new curricula, college-level and STEM-focused enrichment, and visits to New York City cultural institutions.