Thursday, December 2, 2010

I come not to bury Cathie Black...well...ummm...maybe I do

Ms. Black's supporters have suggested there are many non-educational/non-pedagogical aspects to the Chancellor's responsibilities. Rhetoric and hyperbole aside, what does New York City need from the Chancellor of its public school system? Are there things that we can agree on? Truly evaluating her fitness for the position requires us all to consider what those might be.

  1. The Chancellor is a very public figure in New York City, just as superintendents and chancellors in other districts are. This means that the Chancellor must be adept at dealing with the public in various ways. S/he must be able to deal with being an object of scrutiny by the media, and at using the media effectively to communicate with the public, both to inform and to persuade. S/he really is the chief spokesman for the public schools, like it or not. S/he must also be adept at dealing with politics, through the various layers of elected and appointed officials who think that they should have some say on educational matters. We have community boards, individual city council members, the collective city council and the mayor himself. We have the Board of Regents, the Governor and our State Assembly and Senate. That is a lot of groups in which the public invests some level of responsibility (at the very least moral responsibility) for our schools.
  2. The Chancellor must run the largest school system in the country, an enormous bureaucracy with tens of thousands of employees, over a million "customers" to be served daily, and over 1500 branches. Its sheer size means that there are a surprisingly large array of kinds of services and departments that s/he must oversee.
  3. The Chancellor must continually prepare the system for declining revenues, and then manage the system once they have declined. There is nothing that s/he can do to reverse that decline, and the causes of that declining revenue happen also to pull in more "customers," without bringing in more revenue. Furthermore, there is no level or quality of service that will attract more revenue. In fact, delivering higher quality service will likely attract more customers -- again without attracting more revenue!!
  4. No one is satisfied with the quality of the service that the organization provides. There is universal agreement that we want the organization to do better, even if there is disagreement about the current level of quality or the ultimate causes of issues. We all want better schools, and the new Chancellor will be charged with delivering them. However, as noted above, increases in quality will NOT lead to more revenue, despite attracting more customers, and there will not be additional funds to pay for new programs.
  5. The Chancellor must lead a system that is responsible for educating EVERY child. There have been historical problems with meeting the needs of certain groups (i.e. special needs students, English language learners, minorities, the poor, (children of) immigrants), and the last decade has focused on uncovering the extent of those problems (e.g. with subgroup reporting of NCLB AYP scores). The next decade, no doubt, will be focused on addressing them.
  6. Though it appears that the federal government will be backing off the pressure it has applied to schools in recent years, the reauthorization of the ESEA (i.e. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, dubbed NCLB by President Bush) is said to focus on the bottom 5% of schools, a group that will consist primarily of those serving poor, urban and minority populations. Far more than 5% of the Chancellor's schools will be in that group, meaning that federally inspired pressures on schools will be far greater than anything than her predecessors had to deal with -- with just the exception of her most immediate predecessor.
  7. The Chancellor must deal with a largely unionized work force of professionals, but one that has been under severe public and political pressure to change long standing practices. Those changes will require changes to union contracts and to state law, if they are to go through. Perhaps uniquely, her 1500 branch managers -- many of whom manage over 100 workers -- are all unionized as well. Those branch managers -- the principals -- are as much a part of the system as the teachers, and the kind of improvement that people call for requires changes to their practices as well.
  8. There are calls for increasing the role of computer technology in education, especially from the reform crowd that Cathie Black might represent (i.e. that of the Bloomberg & Gates types). Be it the School of One, greater use of the Internet, distance learning, slate/tablet computing or anything else, many want new computer and communications technology to entirely transform schools, students' experiences and education itself.

Does the new Chancellor need to know about pedagogy or curriculum to deal with these basic challenges? It's not obvious to me that s/he does. Or rather, I do not think that this is an open and shut case. Perhaps s/he does not. But I happen to think that understanding the core work of the organization IS important. I happen to think that it is impossible to manage a system for improvement or excellence without knowing deeply about the product or service that organization provides.

But let us assume for a moment that s/he does not need to know about pedagogy or curriculum. Is Cathie Black otherwise prepared for the basic challenges of the job of New York City Schools Chancellor?

  1. Cathie Black has never worked in government or public service. She has run media outlets, rather than been the object of interest of so many media outlets. She has never been responsible to elected officials, let alone multiple layers of officials with overlapping jurisdictions. She has never had to sell the entire public on the appropriateness or quality of her organization's product or services.
  2. She has never run an organization even remotely as large and complex as the New York City Department of Education. By orders of magnitude, there are more employees, more branches and more kinds of issues to be dealt with.
  3. Cathie Black has always worked in the for profit sector. She could close down money-losing outlets or operations without having to serve their former customers (i.e. subscribers) in some other fashion. She has been able to justify money spent on new products or outlets with the greater return in increased revenue they would bring. One of her goals in the private sector was to increase revenue, something that would be entirely outside her control as Chancellor. She has absolutely no experience leading an organization in such a circumstance.
  4. I do not know enough about Hearst Magazines to be sure, but I have not read anything about Black leading a remarkable increase in the quality of its publications. Yes, she launched some very successful magazines, but did she actually improve the quality of any pre-existing titles? Is the overall quality of the journalism, the writing and/or the photography notably better than it was before she got there? Did US increase in journalistic quality during her tenure? Has the quality of her organizations' publications improved under her leadership?
  5. In the private sector, Black's organizations identified target markets in which they could be successful (i.e. make a profit). They could close down a publication, if they could not be successful with it -- without any obligation to provide a new and better title to meet its former readers' needs. She has never been morally and legally obliged to meet the needs of all potential customers. She has always been able to -- to at least some degree -- simply walk away from the most challenging problems her companies might face. I do not mean to imply that she did anything that was not right or appropriate for those organizations. However, she is entirely unprepared for the kind of challenge that she faces in leading an organization that must educate every student.
  6. Having worked in business since the Reagan era, Black has worked during a period of deregulation of private industry. Having worked in print publishing, her organizations have been subject to the extraordinary protections of the First Amendment. As we can see in her nomination process, there are serious state regulations that impact the Chancellor, in addition to the recently expanded federal role. She has absolutely no experience working in such an industry.
  7. Black euphemistically told the press, "I've had limited exposure to unions." There is no reason to believe that knows how to work with union leadership as a partner. She certainly has no clue as to how to work with a union to help it modernize and give it cover to challenge some of its own members.
  8. Clearly, the publication industry is in a state of flux -- one far greater than that of schools. Print might not be dying, but its dominance is long since over. The iPhone, other app phones, the Kindle, the Nook and iPad together present a serious new challenge to all newspapers and magazines -- even as they are still struggling with how to remain successful while the Internet provides alternatives that undermine print's basic business models. Hearst Magazines has not figured out how to use any of these new platforms, despite the fact that we are at least three years into this new mobile computing age. In fact, Hearst seems more focused on selling print subscriptions over the Internet than on figuring out how to be successful delivering content to customers over the Internet. Rather than embracing the Internet as a transformative force, her organization has marginalized it.

Clearly, even if the Chancellor does not need to know about pedagogy, curriculum, school or education, Ms. Black is entirely unprepared for the challenges she would face in that role. The issue with Ms. Black, therefore, is NOT her lack of educational sector experience or her lack of personal experience with public school. Rather, the issue is that Ms. Black is not otherwise qualified or prepared to New York City’s Department of Education, and No Chief Education Officer can make up for that.

Ms. Black's prior background and experience required her to seek a waiver of the legal requirements for qualification for the position. However, that waiver was only supposed to be granted if her experience had given her some substantial equivalent to those prerequisites. Overruling the advisory panel, State Education Commissioner David Steiner has granted her that waiver. I would like to know why. She clearly is unprepared for any aspect of the job.


  1. Thank you for bringing us back to the point. The argument never should have been that Black has no educational experience, but that she has no other obvious qualities or experience that would make up for it. I am utterly ashamed of the 28 or so "powerful women" who supported this nomination -- whether they intended it or not, they essentially made it sound like they supported Black ONLY because she is a woman! Mayor Bloomberg is an arrogant despot serving an illegal (by even his own words) third term. There is nothing about this that even remotely reeks of being for the public good.

  2. It's hard to argue with that. As an aside, I'd also add that a real chancellor needs to represent the interests of the children who attend public schools, rather than simply those of the mayor. Otherwise all you have is a puppet, a position for which indeed requires fewer qualifications.

    I'll never forget listening to NPR one morning, hearing Joel Klein bitterly condemn state budget cuts, and moments later comment, on city budget cuts, something like, oh well, no one likes cuts but you just have to deal with them. There was no doubt his priorities were not those of schoolchildren.