Job Experience and New York City Public Schools

The Times takes on Cathie Black's appointment, with an online debate that really isn't. Most of the participants are, at best, puzzled by the move. There's one rather vague defense of her appointment made by Marcus Winters:

A modern school leader's job is to look at a system, identify what works and what doesn't, and attempt to improve outcomes. Classroom experience may help, but it is certainly not a prerequisite for success. In fact, a schools chief with an outsider's perspective may be more willing to consider reforms that break from the status quo. New York City's outgoing chancellor, Joel Klein, is proof positive that a degree from a college of education is not required to successfully run a school system. 

Promising policies have begun to take root in our public schools despite strong opposition from those with education backgrounds; policies that impose greater accountability for failure, reward success, increase parental choices and open the teaching profession to those who have not graduated from an education college hold substantial promise for improving student proficiency. These policies are generally championed by "outsiders."

This is a really squishy argument that strikes me as more of an attack on the education system, than a defense of Cathie Black. It begins by saying classroom experience "is certainly not a prerequisite." Needing proof for the claim, it cites Joel Klein, but--given that Joel Klein actually did have classroom experience--changes the claim to "a degree from a college of education is not required."

It's also not clear to me that the policies Winters is pushing--whatever you think of them--are "generally championed by outsiders." Whatever you think of Michelle Rhee, she's worked in education for most of her professional life. Whatever you think of Geoffrey Canada, he has Master's in education from Harvard. Whatever you think of Andres Alonzo, he taught special education in Newark, and worked in the administration in New York. To the degree that any of these folks are outsiders, it really isn't comparable to Black.

As usual, some thoughts from Cynic are instructive here:

Assessing Klein's tenure is complicated. (Randi Weingarten's take - that he was a smart guy who failed to win over parents or teachers - is probably about right.) I take issue with any number of his ideas and initiatives. But one thing I have never, for a moment, doubted is the depth of his commitment to public education. He grew up in public housing in Queens, and went through the school system. "I owe my teachers and this city's schools more than I can ever repay," he said after his appointment. 

He went to college in the city, then went to Washington. His first job was at a nonprofit advocating for the rights of the mentally ill and disabled. He combined his lucrative career in law with continued pro bono work on those issues, right up to joining the Clinton White House as a Deputy Counsel, and then moving to Justice to head up antitrust. He's observed that "there is no higher calling than public service and I am so fortunate to have had that opportunity. In this great nation, for all its flaws, a person's opportunities are truly limitless and the obligation to give back is absolutely critical."  

It takes, of course, more than sincerity and commitment to succeed. But they're probably essential prerequisites. Cathie Black has somehow managed to get to the sixty-seventh year of her life without ever once having held a position of public service. (She did spend five years at the helm of the Newspaper Association of America, a nonprofit trade group that ain't exactly the Mental Health Law Project.) She's one of fifty trustees at Notre Dame, and on the National Leadership Board of the Harlem Village Academies - a donors group distinct from the trustees, with no actual role in governance. 

There's no indication, on her resume, that education has ever been a preoccupation or particular interest. She wrote an entire book - a memoir cum self-improvement manual - and only raises education to point out that passionate teachers leave a more lasting impression, and so people entering business should devote themselves to things about which they are passionate. She attended parochial schools herself, and has sent her children on to private schools. This hardly sets Black apart from a legion of other successful corporate executives. But that's the point. Klein, despite his brief stop at Bertelsmann, blended public service with private-sector success throughout his career. Black has not. 
There's a law on the books in New York State that requires superintendents to have at least three years classroom teaching experience, and to have completed graduate work in education. I'm no fan of the law, but I do support the underlying notion that superintendents ought to be qualified for the jobs they hold. The State Education Commissioner can grant a waiver, for "exceptionally qualified persons" whose "exceptional training and experience are the substantial equivalent," of those credentials. Klein got such a waiver. So did Harold Levy before him. And there's a strong case to be made for the principle of mayoral control, and for the right of mayors to appoint who they want. It's likely that Bloomberg had private assurances that a waiver could be obtained before he made the appointment public. But in this case, I can see no reason why such a waiver should be granted. 

Black has no "exceptional training and experience" - she's a publishing executive. In New York City, they're a dime a dozen. She is, if anything, exceptionally unqualified for her new job. Which is not to say she would necessarily be bad at it. It sometimes happens that people enter an entirely new realm or discipline, and find that their past successes translate well. But that's a gamble, not a guarantee. 

It shouldn't be hard for Mayor Bloomberg to find himself a corporate executive, if that's who he insists on having, who has a passionate and longstanding commitment to public service and education. Who has past exposure to the key controversies. Who has actually thought about some of the key challenges. Just as the senate occasionally rejects unqualified nominees, without jeopardizing the principle of presidential control of the executive, I think that the Education Commissioner can safely reject this unqualified nominee, without challenging mayoral control of education. Let's find someone who really wants the job - that ought to be the minimal qualification for holding it.

I rarely find a narrative of "respect" useful, but there's something that feels really dismissive about this move. It's long been said that the new reformers deeply underestimate the complexity of the challenge facing educators. A mayor with near total control of the schools, importing a magazine publisher, with no significant previous exposure to public education, to run the largest school system in the country is a good way to bolster that critique.

I do not say this as a writer, so much as I say it as parent. My son is in fifth grade in New York city public school. This is a critical year because we're looking at middle schools--some of them private. My heart is with the public school system that helped make me. But this is the kind of ill-considered decision that sets you wondering. I can't, for the life of me, see how Cathie Black could be the best, most qualified, person to run the school system. As Cynic said, she may succeed spectacularly--but it's a gamble. A gamble made on the account of children.