Who should lead our school systems?

A significant portion of the articles on the education page of the New York Times website in recent weeks have covered the controversy surrounding Mayor Bloomberg’s choice of publishing executive Cathleen Black to follow Joel Klein as the Chancellor of New York City Public Schools. The major issue, of course, is that Ms. Black doesn’t have any experience in education.

Michelle Rhee received similar criticism as Chancellor of DCPS; many faulted her for having only three years of teaching experience.

I can definitely understand how, at first glance, both Rhee and Black are problematic and illogical choices. I always assumed that superintendent-types had worked their way up from teacher to principal to central office administration to superintendent. That is probably the case more often than not, but like traditional teacher preparation programs vs. alternatives like Teach For America, the fact that a practice is the norm does not necessarily make it the best.

Many newer educators will tell you that schools would function better if they were run like businesses. The District of Columbia’s original submission for Race to the Top included a proposal for a joint MBA and administrative certification program that would train school leaders from the perspectives of both business and education, and that idea really resonated with me. It’s really not a huge paradigm shift to think of individual schools as businesses: both involve accountability, customer service, management and development of talent, and strategic planning.

When I think of business (and from my perspective as someone now working in the private sector), a few things immediately come to mind: professionalism, efficiency, and persistence. “Professionalism” encompasses both the behavior and treatment of employees; based on my experience as a teacher, both these areas are quite lacking in struggling schools. “Efficiency” is about getting things done on time and with a high quality of output; it can also include respect for the time of others; enough said about why this relates to education. “Persistence” for me incorporates an element of creativity in problem-solving as well as a dogged determination to keep going until there’s a solution. Too many teachers and leaders are willing to give up too quickly or lack the creativity needed to approach problems from new, courageous angles.

These three elements matter just as much in education as they do in business, and you don’t have to develop them in a school in order to apply them effectively in education. To me, the major benefit of bringing in people with little to no experience in schools is that they will immediately question most of what they see going on. “Why are we doing things this way? It would make much more sense to…” It’s clear from the lack of progress made in school improvement over the last few decades (despite very persuasive calls to action like A Nation At Risk) that we need to start thinking outside the box, and that might mean looking beyond school systems to find leaders who can make sweeping changes.

Does that mean I think Cathleen Black should definitely be the Chancellor of NYCPS? Not necessarily; I don’t know anything about her other than her previous job. Nor do I think we should purposely look for people with zero educational experience to take on something as important as reforming a large school system. I take real offense whenever anyone without public school classroom experience voices an opinion on education reform – if you haven’t been there, you don’t have the perspective needed to form a legitimate opinion. But I don’t think that Cathleen Black is set up for failure just because she wasn’t a teacher or principal. Running a school system involves much more than the basics of instruction, and as confirmed by the deal that is allowing Ms. Black to take the position, she’ll have a Chief Academic Officer and a whole army of other people with classroom experience to inform her decisions.

Ironically, I’m going to quote something DC mayor-elect Vince Gray said during a town hall meeting before the primary: “education reform can’t be just about one person”. Although I resent his use of that more as an attack on Michelle Rhee than as a doctrine for leadership, I think he has a good point. Reform requires teamwork, and the best teams bring together people with different perspectives and ideas. For too long, the world of education has been isolated and ignored because of the stigma in our culture against teachers and our poorest students. The time has come for us to open up the arena to new talent, and Joel Klein for one has proven that someone without an education background can achieve great things for kids. I look forward to seeing what Cathleen Black can accomplish.

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About educationescritora

I'm a former high school Spanish teacher and central office employee. I believe that excellent public education will be a catalyst for positive social change in our country and that we cannot wait any longer to deliver the teachers, knowledge, and skills that our students need.
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