Chancellor CEO

Alg_cathie_black A couple of weeks ago, Mayor Bloomberg nominated Cathie Black as Chancellor of New York City schools. Her nomination was immediately controversial, because Black has no experience as a teacher or even as a superintendent. Previously, she was the  USA Today publisher and Hearst Magazines chief. In order to take the position, a special waver had to be granted, because she does not possess teaching certification.

Can someone with no background in education run a school system? Is managing a school system no different than managing a company that produces widgets? Is it better to bring in an outsider who doesn't have any political alliances and isn't invested in preserving the status quo? Can someone make reasonable education policy, if they've never actually taught eigth graders how to write an essay?

The battlelines are forming. Parents are circulating a petition. Rick Hess lists the pros and the cons of this nomination.

13 thoughts on “Chancellor CEO

  1. On the one hand, I think it is great to get someone from outside to run a big school system. On the other hand, when you’re talking about someone who published newspaper written at a third grade reading level, the jokes pretty much write themselves.

  2. I think the main problem with these “outsiders” is that they tend to be particularly vulnerable to fads (for example, Bill Gates). You want the top person to be a bit jaded by having seen several waves of reform ripple by. This shouldn’t be their first rodeo.

  3. “You want the top person to be a bit jaded by having seen several waves of reform ripple by. This shouldn’t be their first rodeo. ”
    I think this is the same as acknowledging the value of expertise. You want people to know the history, the pitfalls, acknowledge that this is actually a hard problem. The problem with outsiders like Gates (and Broad and Black and Klein) is that they’re susceptible to fads because they come in thinking that there’s a magic bullet solution that no one’s ever thought of before. I think successful entrepreneurs are especially susceptible, because, after all, that’s what they did to make billions.
    The good thing about outsiders is that they’re not jaded and haven’t been locked into thinking inside the box. Especially good outsiders might be able to learn the expertise they lack, if they have some humility. I bear some hopes that this will be true for the Gates folks, who do seem susceptible to evidence that contradicts their original ideology. A good outsider shouldn’t ignore the insiders, though, because they may have useful expertise, and they’re not all locked in boxes.
    I have no idea where Black fits, and don’t care enough to join any battle lines. I thought Klein was OK.

  4. “…they’re susceptible to fads because they come in thinking that there’s a magic bullet solution that no one’s ever thought of before.”
    Right.
    “The good thing about outsiders is that they’re not jaded and haven’t been locked into thinking inside the box. Especially good outsiders might be able to learn the expertise they lack, if they have some humility. I bear some hopes that this will be true for the Gates folks, who do seem susceptible to evidence that contradicts their original ideology.”
    Unfortunately, that was only after spending a whole bunch of money. But at least it was their money.
    I agree that expertise is fantastic, but I think that it is not equally available in all fields. In the upper regions of education policy, it can be particularly scarce. (There’s an unfortunate problem here in that if somebody is a fantastic, well-respected teacher, why would they ever want to leave the classroom in order to make policy or be an administrator?) The winds of fads blow very fiercely in education, perhaps because practitioners are aware that what they are doing isn’t working…yet. There’s a perpetual search for a panacea, ideally one that involves technology for big kids and lots of glue and poster board for the little kids, and group work for everybody.

  5. “There’s an unfortunate problem here in that if somebody is a fantastic, well-respected teacher, why would they ever want to leave the classroom in order to make policy or be an administrator?”
    Making policy or being an administrator is/can be a different kind of teaching. A former colleague of mine, who used to be a CFO at a major NYC publishing house, once came to talk to my class about the importance of writing and communication, even in financial careers. He explained that successful people teach and motivate others to adopt their policies/ideas.
    I don’t know what kind of impact he made on my students, but what he said had a huge effect on me. I think that’s why I prefer not to teach English majors and instead prefer the kind of general studies work I do now.

  6. “He explained that successful people teach and motivate others to adopt their policies/ideas.”
    There’s a lot to that (Dave Ramsey always urges his listeners to find financial professionals “with the heart of a teacher,” rather than somebody who just takes your money and does stuff with it). However, the principal’s office may be particularly attractive to people who find teaching uncongenial.

  7. It is often the case that, immediately before an “Outsider” is brought in, there have been a series of “Insiders” who have failed to solve the problem. In that situation, the argument is already superfluous. If the right choice was an Insider, we wouldn’t need to take the drastic step of choosing an Outsider.
    By that point, whether or not Black succeeds or fails is irrelevant. The realistic threat of an Outsider is often the best prompt to the Insiders doing the job.

  8. Hess gets it completely right. If you come into the system thinking that it is your success as a businessperson that qualifies you, you might as well give up now. But some businesspeople (and some military leaders, and some people who have run non-profits, and even some academics) are brilliant leaders and managers who are sensitive enough that schools are just quite different from other businesses. And Wendy’s right, lots of these people are, precisely, successful educators. The standard pipeline into ed administration is not a healthy one — the wrong people are attracted, aand even the right people are inculcated into a very rigid and unhealthy culture. And still, some school principals and some superintendents who came through the standard route are just terrific. Being able to discern which is which, well, who knows whether Bloomberg has that ability?

  9. Did her children attend public school at any time in their school careers?
    I would venture to say her appointment shows that Bloomberg does not trust any of the education people involved in the N.Y. schools.
    Amy P, I have not noticed any correlation between experience in administrators and resistance to fads in education. As a matter of fact, my husband and I have a family belief that superintendents work their way up the ladder through adept use of the fads to raise their profile. Remember, to land those cushy jobs on state and national-level education groups, one needs to win awards as a “leader.” No one hands those awards out to someone who ran a tight ship and cut the budget. (Unless, of course, they managed to cut the budget by shipping the jobs to India via “online education.”)

  10. “Amy P, I have not noticed any correlation between experience in administrators and resistance to fads in education. As a matter of fact, my husband and I have a family belief that superintendents work their way up the ladder through adept use of the fads to raise their profile.”
    That sounds right about use of fads. However, is it true that superintendents are experienced teachers, or just experienced in the educational system? Isn’t the faddishness of superintendents an example of my point that the further you get from the classroom, the more unmoored from reality your thinking tends to be? Also, are you familiar with the “Bungee Boss” concept from Dilbert? I think superintendents (who often have very short stays in school systems) are classic Bungee Bosses. Here’s a quick video illustration:

    “Hi, I’m your new boss. Quick, let’s change everything before I get reassigned! Oops! Too late! Goodbye!”
    I think principals ought to teach (at least a little bit) like they do in some other countries. Even aside from having a class of their own (which might be impractical), it would be educational for everybody if a principal substituted at least a little bit, once a week or once a month.

  11. In private schools, many heads of school teach. That’s a different setting, though.
    The “bungee boss” thing seems appropriate for public education. The typical length of service for a superintendent is, what, five years? And urban superintendents have shorter terms? I looked this up once, but don’t have the energy today to hunt it down.
    We seem to want to have one person in charge of any organization. And yet, I’d think the burdens of running a small town district would not be comparable to the burdens of running an enormous district. By the time anyone garners enough experience, she’s ready for retirement. We’ve had some spectacular flameouts from superintendents who came to education from other fields, so I’m not automatically in favor or against either approach. I think the general emphasis on adminstrators beginning as teachers tends to tilt the field towards obsequious types who don’t challenge the status quo.
    How much experience does Ms. Black have in dealing with unions?

  12. Here’s a 2008 article on turnover among urban superintendents:
    http://www.usatoday.com/news/education/2008-09-28-superintendent_N.htm
    “ST. LOUIS ā€” St. Louis is looking for its eighth school superintendent since 2003. Kansas City is on its 25th superintendent in 39 years.
    “Despite good salaries and plenty of perks, a recent study found that the average urban superintendent nationwide stays on the job only about three years ā€” which educators say isn’t enough time to enact meaningful, long-lasting reform.”

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