Walter Rhett

The New York State of Education

In Education, Perlo on November 24, 2010 at 12:52 pm
An Ansel Adams photograph of biology students at the Manazar Relocation Center, CA, 1943.

An Ansel Adams photograph of biology students at the Manazar Relocation Center, CA, 1943.

Education–the public education of 1.1 million school students who are predominately black, latino, and international, with a few native whites–across five boroughs of New York should bring sobering reflection and detailed thinking.

Instead, disappointedly, I find short cuts, straw arguments, logical fallacies in the comparisons of experience, and blame shifting as the principal reasons the Mayor cites for his choice of New York City’s School Chancellor.

To wit: Ms. Cathie Black, by all accounts, is a good manager. As a good manager, she should know her limits and capacities, evaluate her expertise, and decide if she is a good fit for the job requirements of New York City’s school chancellor.

Yes, the head of schools has to deal with the all mighty union, but acceptability to the union does not, prima facie, imply lousy results for the system–nor does union opposition automatically imply a greater badge of success. Standing up to the unions is a straw argument keyed on by the public and only one aspect of the job. Mrs. Black must ask herself: do I have the experience and nuanced skills required for negotiating with union officials? Can I master the myraid of details about benefits, discipline, duties in the labor agreement? This is vastly different from her experience in publishing, where employees work at will, there is little long term and capital planning, and it’s mainly important to know the sense of the popular pulse.

Washington, DC Elementary School Reading Corner, 1943.
Washington, DC Elementary School Reading Corner, 1943.

The direct impact of the job is on the one million students who are the next generation of workers and leaders in the city. I suggest the main criteria of focus should be Ms. Black’s likelihood of improving the reasoning and knowledge skills of the city’s students, not her toughness, endorsement, or absence of one by one union.

Education is one of the most complex and important enterprises within a community. Its leaders usually have an advanced degree (Mrs. Black only has a Bachelor of Arts degree), an administrative certificate, internships, extensive in-service training, national participation in conferences citing the pros and cons of best practices, the ability to identify cutting edge trends, the ability to translate pedagogy into budget numbers, experience with student learning styles and cultural practices, and knowledge of the psychological development of children. Add in a discipline system that has to pass federal scrutiny, strategies to involve parents, along with broad medical issues and a variety of special needs, and the human relations skills of managing and motivating large groups and creating accountability. Modern education is a complex, serious, legal-bound, theory-based, parent-influenced, politically-driven enterprise. Is even the most successful business leader equipped for this task?

Ansel Adams Photograph of a Dress-making Class, CA. 1943.
Ansel Adams Photograph of a Dress-making Class, CA. 1943.

To those who say “give her a chance,” I think its a fair and honest question to ask: why? Given the criteria of the expected role of the schools chief, what are Mrs. Black’s strengths and weaknesses? Can she identify the best curriculum trends? Will she know if someone is blowing educational smoke? What are her experiences with testing? How well does she work in arenas where she has limited knowledge and experience? How do her skills in business translate to leadership in personnel and curriculum, both critical areas? Can or will she be manipulated by experts and consultants? With whom is likely to clash? And most importantly, what is her educational vision for the nation’s largest urban system?

People who come through the ranks of education do so because they burn with passion and are driven to keep going through the hard times, They are determined to make things better, and to avoid repeating the mistakes in their institutional memory. As they climb, their exposure to educational practices gives them ideas of what works, what can be tinkered and adjusted, what needs to be abandoned.
I have a sister-in-law who is a high ranking curriculum official in an large Ohio city. Her day is impacted by everything from gang fights to resistance to longer class periods to changing state standards and data collectiing and federal reporting, and she works 14 hour days, putting in appearances at school events and meetings most evenings.

New York City's Benjamin Franklin High School, 1943.

Mrs. Black comes in with none of that experience. A simple comparison might suffice to reflect on her potential competence: given her corporate success and track record of achievement in business, would readers be willing to let her run the fire department? Or be placed in charge of the police? Coach the Jets? Does education have a specialized core of knowledge and skills that improves administrative performance? Should she be appointed as the person to led the education of New York City’s children?

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