David C. Banks made his first major speech as schools chancellor Wednesday, stating that – despite the best efforts of educators – the New York City public school system remains deeply dysfunctional.
As he began speaking, the teleprompter appeared to glitch, which he said was an apt metaphor.
“This is our $38 billion bureaucracy,” Banks said. “We spend $38 billion every single year to get the outcomes that 65% of Black and brown children never achieve proficiency.”
Banks added that there are 120,000 fewer students in the public schools than there were five years ago, saying families “are voting with their feet.” (School enrollment is now at 938,000, 6.4% lower than the mostly pre-pandemic 2019-2020 school year.)
“That is an indictment of the work we have done,” he said.
Faced with technical problems, Banks said he would “speak from the heart.” He elaborated on some themes he articulated back in December after Mayor Eric Adams announced his appointment. But this was the first time the new chancellor outlined his agenda since taking over during the height of the Omicron surge in January.
Some educators described those early weeks as the most chaotic of their careers, and said they were offended by Adams and Banks’ failure to recognize the challenges they were facing on the ground.
In his speech, Banks thanked educators for their hard work during that time, and said keeping schools open was the right move. He said his goal now was both to steer schools back towards a sense of normalcy while simultaneously upending the status-quo. To get there, he presented a plan with four “pillars.”
He said he wants to “reimagine the student experience” with more relevant and engaging coursework – by offering early college credit, job-focused career technical education, civics and financial literacy. Schools should also zero in on literacy through phonics-based instruction and universal dyslexia screenings, he said.
He called for elevating and scaling successful programs, noting that charter schools have done “an amazing job” touting their strengths. And he said schools should prioritize student “wellness” by enhancing school security, improving nutrition and expanding exposure to the world outside school walls.
To streamline the bureaucracy, Banks announced he is eliminating the executive superintendent role that former Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza created because the role hadn’t added sufficient value. Instead, he promised to empower superintendents to make decisions when they are interfacing with teachers and families.
In a joint statement on Wednesday night, Council Speaker Adrienne E. Adams and Education Committee Chair Rita Joseph threw support behind the schools chancellor and said they hoped to work more closely with him and the administration to make the DOE less bureaucratic.
"We were encouraged to see more attention directed to closing the digital divide, serving nutritious and healthy meals to students, and expanding civic education and career and technical education," the statement said. "The Council looks forward to reviewing these proposals and learning more details about how the chancellor and DOE plan to achieve the goals they outlined today. New York City is the largest school system in the country, and we strongly believe that this reform will put us on track to be not only the biggest but the best school system in the country."
Strengthening relationships with families, to make them “true partners,” was the chancellor's final pillar.
Perhaps because of the teleprompter problems, Banks’ speech did not include as many details as his prepared remarks, including on controversial topics like school security and gifted programs.
The chancellor said the administration is working to increase the number of school safety agents, starting with a new class graduating in a few weeks, despite many students’ and lawmakers’ vocal calls to reduce or even eliminate those positions.
He also referred to an expansion of gifted programs in every school, although he did not offer details on how that would work.
And he said he would be convening a task force to look at how to improve and expand virtual learning.
“Going forward, we should always be able to provide high quality, real-time remote learning whenever we need to,” Banks said, adding that students who thrived virtually should be able to take some classes online.
“I didn’t come here to play at being chancellor,” he said in closing. “I came here to make a real difference. …I ask that you all join me in making this happen.”