Does Cathleen Black Have What it Takes to Run the New York City School System?

It’s official; Mayor Bloomberg has appointed media-mogul Cathleen Black as chancellor of the New York public school system. Apparently the mayoral takeover of the public schools is also a corporate takeover. With Cathleen Black as commander in chief, Bloomberg is enlisting his multi-millionaire cronies in full-scale coup d’ etat on the public education system.

Perhaps I sound a bit dramatic. It’s just that Black’s nomination has left me feeling wary. The new chancellor attended Roman Catholic schools and sent her children to elite private academies. Black has never stepped foot in a school as a teacher or administrator.

I’m briefly reminded here of a conversation I once had with a parent activist and leader of a Chicago-based advocacy group. This parent reflected, “you know, the politicians, the mayor, the alderman—they all send their kids to private schools. I’ve never once met one that that sent their kid to a CPS school. They can’t really understand the problems in our schools because they haven’t spent any time there.”

Personally, I agree with the words of this parent. After working as a teacher in an inner-city high school I might be a bit biased—but I feel like experience counts for something. As Chancellor of the largest public school system in the country, Ms. Black will be making decisions that affect the life-outcomes of millions of poor and working-class children. How is it possible that Ms. Black will possess the necessary empathy, understanding, and passion to make the right choices for these students? Can Ms. Black descend from her penthouse apartment and build rapport with principals in Harlem or parents in the South Bronx?

I’m worried that for Ms. Black the students of the New York public school system will merely be a series of numbers, statistics and dollar signs. When you are looking at numbers in columns—and not thinking about the real kids sitting in classrooms—it is easy to slash budgets or try out experimental policies without really weighing the consequences. I think New York Times columnist Bob Herbert summarized my uneasiness the best his column yesterday titled “Winning the Class War”. Herbert writes:

“Ms. Black will be peering across an almost unbridgeable gap between her and the largely poor and working-class parents and students she will be expected to serve. Worse, Mr. Bloomberg, heralding Ms. Black as a “superstar manager,” has made it clear that because of budget shortfalls she will be focused on managing cutbacks to the school system. So here we have the billionaire and the millionaire telling the poor and the struggling — the little people — that they will just have to make do with less.”

I’m nervous about the parallels being drawn here between managing a business and running a school system. Mr. Blooming argued that Ms. Black’s managing expertise and experience serving customers have prepared her to lead the school system and to work with parents and children.

Schools are not businesses. Preparing students to be thoughtful, well-rounded and productive citizens—despite the formidable obstacles presented by poverty is a much more complicated enterprise than making a profit. Student achievement is harder to measure than annual revenue. Not to mention, there is a lot more at stake when educating millions of New York children than there is selling magazines. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t see how being a successful business manager is any indication of how one might perform as a school chancellor.

Bloomberg’s bad appointment certainly reveals the downside of a Mayoral takeover of schools. In Chicago, the story is similar. When Arne Duncan was appointed the Secretary of Education by Obama, Mayor Daley appointed Huberman a former cop and a long trusted employee in the Mayor’s office as the Chicago Public School’s CEO. Like, Black, Huberman had no experience in education but was a part of the Mayor’s inner-circle.

Perhaps it’s natural that Mayors looking to consolidate power will place trusted cronies in top positions. However, this strategy does not put kids first. I believe that effective administrators are as important as effective teachers. If we want to make our public school systems better, way may want to re-think an arrangement that gives our Mayor (one individual—inevitably guided by his own self-interest) the unchecked power to choose educational leaders.

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