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27th April

First Published in The New York Sun, April 27, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

The resignation of Carmen Fariña as deputy chancellor for teaching and learning comes as no surprise to city education insiders. Rumors have been swirling for weeks that she was leaving her post, having risen as far as she could in the Department of Education hierarchy. It has been clear in recent months that the direction of the department has drifted away from changes in pedagogy and more toward restructuring and new management techniques.

Those close to Ms. Fariña have suggested that she initially took the job with an understanding that Chancellor Joel Klein would be moving on during Mayor Bloomberg’s second term and that she would be able to end her long career in the city schools as chancellor. This, apparently, is not in the cards. Mr. Klein appears to be here for the duration, while Ms. Fariña is thought not to be a favorite of the mayor. Because she is comfortably beyond retirement age, she may make more in pension benefits than she would get in her job.
The question is whether her departure will mark a change in the city’s “progressive” instructional approach, which has come under fire from traditionalists such as the Manhattan Institute’s Sol Stern, educational historian Diane Ravitch, and even the president of the United Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten.
Significantly, the department’s executive director for curriculum, instruction, and professional development, Laura Kotch, is also leaving her post, at the end of the school year. In the realm of pedagogy, Ms. Kotch shares Ms. Fariña’s “progressive” views. Both
educators have long favored reading instruction via the “whole language” methodology and constructivist or “fuzzy” mathematics programs.

Ms. Kotch served as Ms. Fariña’s deputy both during the period that Ms. Fariña was superintendent of District 15 in Brooklyn and when she was named as regional superintendent of Region 8.When Ms. Fariña was named to succeed Diana Lam, she brought Ms. Kotch with her to the Tweed Courthouse.

I have speculated that it was Ms. Kotch who was responsible for Ms. Lam’s disastrous choice of “Month-by-Month Phonics.” This deceptively named program has been criticized as being a way that school districts can pay lip service to phonics instruction, while continuing their whole language or balanced literacy teaching methods. Phonics instruction is mandated by the federal government’s Reading First initiative, a prerequisite for receiving federal funds. And, despite warnings from critics such as Ms. Ravitch, the city’s balanced literacy program and Month-By-Month Phonics were indeed rejected by the feds in 2004, an embarrassment for the mayor and Mr. Klein.

Ms. Kotch first brought Month-by-Month Phonics to District 10 in the Bronx, where she was director of literacy initiatives before joining Ms. Fariña. This was done to appease a new school board elected there in 1999, which was looking to restore phonics instruction and banish whole language. The gambit worked, and the same tactic apparently also fooled Mayor Bloomberg, who campaigned for control of the schools promising a “back-to-basics” approach.

Both Ms. Fariña and Ms. Kotch have a long relationship with Lucy Calkins, the Columbia University Teachers College professor who is the moving force behind the whole language and constructivist educational program adopted by Ms. Lam. It was no surprise that this approach has expanded under Ms. Fariña.

I certainly won’t miss Ms. Fariña, or Ms. Kotch, or their very extreme educational ideology ideas that I strongly disagree with.

Ms. Fariña’s successor, Andres Alonso, is the educational equivalent of John Roberts or Samuel Alito, the Supreme Court justices who were nominated in large measure for their lack of a paper trail that could tip off their ideology.

Mr. Alonso is even more of a mystery man. Nobody knows what he stands for in terms of reading instruction or math instruction. He has served as Ms. Fariña’s chief of staff, a position he first assumed under Ms. Lam. Presumably, he couldn’t survive unless he shared at least some of their ideology. Mr. Alonso is a graduate of Harvard University’s Urban Superintendent’s program, but has never served as a principal — considered the most important pedagogical experience needed to run a school system. His teaching experience is limited to 11 years as a special education teacher in New Jersey.

Significantly, Mr.Alonso is also an attorney, the profession he practiced before making the career change to teaching in 1987. This puts him in a similar position to Mr. Klein, an attorney of note, and the many attorneys and MBAs that Mr. Klein has brought to positions of power in the Department of Education.

My hope is that Mr.Alonso will come in with no predetermined educational agenda, and relax the rigid instructional mandates of his predecessor. I wish him well, but I have to convey some healthy skepticism.
On another matter I have no reservations. I am delighted that my former New York Sun colleague, Julia Levy, has assumed the top communications post at Tweed. She may be too young to have yet paid her dues, but I am sure that I and the others covering the city education beat will begin collection proceedings with no delay.

© 2006 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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