Friday, November 12, 2010

The Bloom Is Off The Rose

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's stewardship of his city's education system has taken a troubling turn. The resignation of New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein precipitated an incredibly secretive process to name his replacement -- Cathleen Black, chairwoman of Hearst Magazines (you know, Cosmo, Esquire, Oprah) and former publisher of that beacon of journalism, USA Today. Black has absolutely no education experience nor has she ever sent her children to public schools or herself attended public schools. In fact, Black is so unqualified for the job (she does not have three years teaching experience and did not complete graduate work in education) that a waiver from David Steiner, the state education commissioner, will be required in order for her to actually work as NYC Schools Chancellor. (A Wednesday New York Times editorial calls on Steiner to "thoroughly vet" Black "to determine if she is up to the job.") Of course, Klein himself needed such a waiver, although he came to the job having been educated in the city's schools and having been a teacher for a short period of time.

To me, the clear message that Bloomberg has sent to New York City educators and veterans of the New York City Department of Education -- and other potentially qualified candidates across the nation -- is that a complete outsider with no experience in education and no record of public service is preferable to any candidate with experience as a teacher or school administrator. The more galling fact is that no search was undertaken to fill the Chancellor vacancy. The New York Times reports that no one else was "seriously vetted or considered -- and few of the usual suspects ... were even consulted." It appears that Black was tapped to run New York City schools primarily because of her business experience and because she travels in the same social circles as the Mayor. As Black herself said, the job offer "came out of left field."

I'm not some corn-pone, but I'm just left shaking my head here. Is this really the best process to select the leader of the nation's largest school system? Would Black have risen to the top if a true search had been conducted? Is this the type of executive management that voters had in mind when they elected Bloomberg mayor?

Is the selection of someone like Black good or bad for education? Klein argued on NPR that it doesn't matter because she will be surrounded by "extraordinary lifetime career educators.... The problem with public education is it's not operated effectively. It's operated as a political organization." I imagine that it may be freeing in some sense to not be tied down by prevailing orthodoxies, but it is troubling to me to think of a leader of such a complicated system and enterprise lacking any frame of reference whatsoever, let alone any detailed knowledge.

Here are some other takes:

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