In a Q&A with Chalkbeat, David Banks talks about remote learning, reading instruction, school segregation, and more.
Incoming Chancellor David Banks signaled on Monday that New York City may once again offer a remote option to students as coronavirus cases are on the rise.
“In listening to parents, it’s really important, I think, to provide some level of a remote option,” Banks said in an interview with Chalkbeat. “Of course, the most important thing is for kids to be back in school, we get that. But I think what’s also critically important is that we recognize that some parents are still fearful, legitimately, about the pandemic — about our ability to keep their kids safe.”
Banks, who will not officially assume the role of chancellor until January, said he’s not yet sure if such an option will be made available this school year.
Spinning up remote learning in the middle of a school year would represent a major victory for parents who have been lobbying Mayor Bill de Blasio for such an option for months. Some have kept their children at home in defiance of city rules that require in-person attendance.
But it would also be a massive logistical undertaking that would raise questions about whether instruction for in-person students would suffer as a result, as teachers’ time may be diverted toward fully remote learners. It’s unclear such a shift could be pulled off without significant disruption in the middle of a school year.
Banks’ comments came during a wide-ranging interview with Chalkbeat that touched on several key issues.
He indicated many elementary schools need to overhaul the way they teach reading. He may use an influx of funding to help address gaps in special education services. And he’s “not a big believer” in selective-admissions policies that often sort students according to their grades and test scores. (Banks has said elsewhere that he is in favor of expanding gifted programming and specialized high schools, however, programs that are screened generally enroll few Black or Latino students.)
Banks, who previously helped launch Eagle Academy, a small network of public schools geared toward boys of color, also spoke about what strategies from those schools he’d like to scale up systemwide.
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
In your opening speech, you said that it’s a ‘betrayal’ that 65% of students of color aren’t considered proficient in reading or math, and that big changes are needed. What concrete changes do you think could improve those numbers?
First of all, I think that it is a betrayal. I think our fundamental approach to how we’re teaching is flawed.
So let me give you one example, which I think is the basis of what we’re going to be looking at as we come into Tweed [the education department’s headquarters]. A lot of our schools across New York City are teaching at the earliest grades through a balanced literacy approach. And I think there’s growing research that’s been talking about the fact that balanced literacy has not really worked, and particularly for Black and brown kids.
The phonetic approach to teaching of reading is something that I think has been missing. I think it’s a part of the reason why so many of our kids right out of the gate find themselves behind. They’re not learning to read early enough so that they can then read to learn and so everything we do is we’re spending a lot of time playing catch up. Our system needs to absolutely ensure that all the kids can read. That should be the fundamental premise of the department of education. If we fail in that, shame on us.
How would you actually realize that shift? Schools have a lot of autonomy over the curriculum they choose — would you require that they choose a specific alternative?
Not locked in on that just yet. I’m just giving you a big picture thinking here. A lot of these things are going to be addressed in the coming weeks as we get there, and I’m able to do a full-on agency review. And we’ll figure out the best path forward. And these are things that the families have said to us, and not even just what I’m telling you I think is the problem.
Both you and the mayor-elect have indicated that you’re interested in replicating schools that are doing good work. But opening schools, especially as enrollment is declining in the city’s traditional public schools, could lead to closures. Is that something that you’re considering?
Yeah, there’ll be a combination of things. What the mayor-elect said was, we want to scale excellence. So that does not necessarily mean we’re going to continue to open up lots of new schools. We’ll open up more schools as appropriate and as the demographics in the population would indicate is appropriate.
But when we say, ‘scale excellence,’ let me tell you what I mean. If the Bedford Academy, as the mayor-elect referenced, is a great school and doing great work, there are going to be moments when we’re going to try to actually open up another Bedford. But more importantly, we’re going to try to find: What’s that formula that Bedford is using that is working? And how do you train other schools in how to do that?
Dan Weisberg is going to be your top deputy. During his time in the Bloomberg administration, he tried to make it easier to push weak teachers out of the classroom. Is that something that you’re planning to pursue?
Not necessarily. Listen, we want strong teachers in our system. I am more focused on trying to help our teachers to get better. That’s going to be the big focus.
Whenever you have teachers that are just not up to the job, even after the level of support that you should provide them happens, then, of course, we don’t want teachers in there that are just wholly ineffective. But I do believe that our teachers and our schools can get better. Far too often, our teachers are told to get better, and we don’t expose them to what excellence really looks like. That is going to be a framework that I work from, which is to show those other schools that are struggling — expose them to great teachers and great practices that are happening in other schools.
Now, listen, after you do that, and you try to coach them and everything else, if it still doesn’t work, then we’ve got to do what we have to do to ensure that our kids have great teachers.
Control over hiring and firing is obviously important to lots of school leaders and I’m wondering how much control you think principals should have over how they run their schools?
I was a principal for 11 years. I was the founding principal of two different schools in New York. And I believe deeply in a level of autonomy for principals and schools. But it’s what I call ‘earned autonomy.’ And that means we’ll have a set of metrics that are designed so that schools are clear about the kinds of things that we think are important for them to achieve. And if they’re able to achieve those, they’ll be given a bit more autonomy and flexibility to make decisions at the local level. That’s where I come from; that’s what I believe in.
What metrics would you use to hold schools accountable? What do you think are the right ways of thinking about that?
Don’t know just yet. I’ve got some thoughts that I don’t really want to share just yet.
To what extent do you think schools should be allowed to screen students for admission on the basis of test scores, grades and other academic qualifications?
I’m not a big believer in a lot of screens. Screening in certain situations is maybe a good thing — we got some schools where you’ve got to audition and demonstrate a level of talent. But I think screens have been used, in many ways, to be discriminatory and keep other kids out of the school. And that I do not support and so we’ll be looking at all those things and figuring out the best path forward.
One of the most consequential decisions on your plate is how to spend billions of dollars of one-time federal relief money. And there’s also going to be likely a permanent increase in state funding, which will not just be a one-time infusion. There are lots of ways you could spend that: You could make sure every school has access to air conditioning, you could reduce class sizes. Do you have a high-level sense of what you might want to prioritize?
Well, high level, there’s a lot of stuff to fix. Special education has been a real problem, and I hear it from everybody. Our ability to deliver on services and increase access for kids with special needs is something that is critically important. And we really want to make sure that we’re working on that. Early childhood education — really leaning in and providing the proper investments for for kids to get off to a great start. Hugely important.
A big thing that I can tell you that is really going to be a North Star for us is about what we see as bold futures career pathways to the world of work, increasing investments in career and technical education, you’ll hear us talk about that over and over and over again, that’s where we’re going.
The whole goal here is to prepare kids to be able to be college and workforce ready. A lot of times we talk about college readiness, but we don’t talk about workforce readiness for kids to have the skills to be able to come out and get good paying jobs as they graduate from high school, even if they decide to go to college. So we’ll be creating a whole body of work around that.
The DOE already has some of that going on, but not at the level that we’re talking about. We want to engage with every corporation around New York City who will either adopt schools [or] provide internships for kids — kids have got to see what the real world actually looks like that we say we’re preparing them for.
I’d also like to ask you a little bit about the pandemic. We’re currently seeing a significant uptick in COVID cases reported by New York City schools. I’m wondering if you’re considering any tweaks to the DOE’s health and safety rules, or even whether you think parents should have a remote option at this point?
Once I got named, [I] started to get some briefings — we have [a] COVID briefing today. We’re going to be taking direction from the public health officials in terms of what we can and can’t do.
But I would tell you that in listening to parents, it’s really important, I think, to provide some level of a remote option. And it says to parents that you believe in them, you’re listening, you’re paying attention. And it’s not every student. Of course, the most important thing is for kids to be back in school, we get that. But I think what’s also critically important is that we recognize that some parents are still fearful, legitimately, about the pandemic, about our ability to keep their kids safe. And so they’re taking a cautious approach. And others found that during the pandemic their child did very well with a remote option. And so I’m saying, why does it have to be one size that fits all? I think that we can, in fact, provide and should provide a remote option.
Now beyond the remote option, I believe that we should be using technology to enhance the educational experience, even if there were no pandemic. Who said that all the kids should have to come to school every single day and sit in rows for 45 minutes from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.? That’s the way we’ve been doing it for the last hundred years. We’re saying let’s look at a new normal, let’s create some new opportunities to do things a little bit differently. And so we want to be open to all possibilities. And those best ideas come from teachers, parents, principals, and the kids themselves, who will give us the best ideas for the path forward.
So I don’t want to blow past something you just said, which I think a lot of current parents are going to be really interested in learning more about. Should they have an expectation that this school year there will be some kind of remote option for them?
Well, the timing on it, I couldn’t tell you. But I’m certainly open to that, yes.
Going forward, you expect there to be a remote option of some kind for families?
Of some kind? Yes.
In your mind, would that be a full-time arrangement? You could do remote school full- time if you had concerns about the pandemic — or is that sort of a more permanent thing?
I don’t want to be on record just yet on that, Alex.
I’ve got to get good intel on all of it — how it’s framed. Is there a cadre of teachers across the city who are just on full assignment as remote teachers? I don’t know just yet. There are various possibilities to do this. So many folks since I have been named have reached out to say we got great ideas and would love to meet with you. That’s what I want to do; I want to meet. I’m simply saying I am open to all of it and then the best answers will come in the coming days and weeks.
As you know, New York City is among the most segregated school systems in America. And in response to being asked about that, you said you’re not downplaying integration as an important issue, but that you’d be focused on making sure that there are high-quality schools available for everyone. Some integration advocates would say integration is a strategy for creating high-quality schools, so I’m wondering how you would respond to that line of argument.
Listen, I went to integrated schools. And so nobody has to convince me about the value of those integrated schools. We’re looking at districts like [Brooklyn’s] District 15, what they’ve been doing. We’re looking very closely at that — perhaps try to expand that.
But again, I think the integration of the school system, as a notion, is an important one. But it is something that also does take time and it is kind of oftentimes very politically fraught, right? What does that mean, when we’re trying to integrate schools? Generally, when you’re integrating schools we’re talking about Black and brown kids — how many of them have an opportunity to go into whiter districts. [Integration] of schools very rarely means white kids going into Black and brown districts, right? So that’s part of the political challenge that we face.
Now, that being said, I think it is important, but I do also recognize that what is critically important is creating more of these quality schools. The reason why so many kids, particularly Black and brown kids, are trying to even go to integrated schools is because those schools generally have the resources and activities and programs that everybody’s looking for. They’ve got great after-school programs, and music, and band, and art, great teachers. That’s what people are looking for.
But integrated schools where kids of varying backgrounds can be together — that is also how you build an educational experience, and I get it. So we’re gonna be looking to do everything we can in that regard. And again, I hate to sound like a broken record, but a lot more of the thinking around this is to come. I’m just getting here.
Michael Bloomberg is planning to spend millions of dollars in an effort to increase the number of charter schools in New York City, but there’s currently a cap on the number that can open that has been met. Do you plan on going to Albany to try to convince the legislature that there should be more charter schools in New York City?
I think the Mayor-elect Eric Adams will be the person that really speaks on that issue. And he and I will be aligned on that. That is to be determined. Eric has been supportive of charters. I have been supportive of charters. I think anything that provides opportunities for kids and families that is good ought to be continued and supported. We will see what happens with respect to the politics of lifting the charter cap. So no stated position on that just yet.
Are there any approaches from Eagle Academy schools that you would want to take systemwide?
The biggest thing about Eagle is that the Eagle Academy has done a great job around helping kids to ultimately believe in themselves. We’ve exposed them to a level of the teaching of history where they understand that they stand on the shoulders of people who fought, bled, died, sacrificed for this country. And that they ought to be proud of who they are as young people. You’d be shocked how many young people don’t know that, have no sense of pride about who they are. And it’s like they become new people when they get exposed to that kind of history.
Number two, bringing in mentors from around the community: lawyers, doctors, bankers, artists. That’s something that we think we can scale.You may not be able to bring in a one-on-one mentor for every single student for all 1.1 million kids. But every school has a group of kids that if you can help those kids, you would help lift the entire school. You can ask any principal and they’ll tell you, ‘I’ve got 10 kids right now, we struggle with them every day.’ Well, if you gave those kids mentors who are properly trained — we’ve seen it, it makes a huge difference. So that’s something you can scale all across the system.
How we have engaged parents: There are very few schools that engage parents at the level that Eagle Academy has. And I will tell you that it’ll be one of the pillars of our administration moving forward.
[Another is] the college work that we do. It’s not enough to talk to kids about college and careers, you’ve got to expose them so that they can see it for themselves. That’s how you create the ah-ha moments. Telling a young man or young woman to go to college is one thing. Taking them to visit colleges, having young people who go to college come and speak to them, who grew up in the same neighborhoods that they did — those are the things that get the kids’ attention, and makes them really believe that it’s possible for them.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.