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New NYC Chancellor Has No Ed Background

New NYC Chancellor Has No Ed Background

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (c.) speaks while outgoing schools chancellor Joel Klein (l.) and the new chancellor Cathie Black look on during a news conference at City Hall in New York, Tuesday. Seth Wenig/AP

Victor Lana

Why Cathie Black is Good for NYC Public Schools

Here in New York City the buzz about Cathie Black becoming the new Schools Chancellor is still hot. The big story is that Ms. Black has spent her career as an executive for Hearst Magazines and has no education background. While that may get some people crazy, I think it is very good news for the educators and the 1.1 million NYC Public School students.  

When Joel Klein resigned, you could hear the sigh of relief in every faculty room in the city (even in non-public schools). Mr. Klein fancied himself a reformer, but his goal was to in any way possible break the power of the teacher’s unions. Now many may see this as a good thing, but the problem is that the teachers are the front line soldiers in the daily education battle, and if you lose them you lose the war.  

Mr. Klein also was part of the bigger problem that has plagued New York City and State for years: the over reliance on test scores and using those scores as a gauge of teacher competence. By taking a firm stand on these issues with no seeming flexibility, he was in a situation about as desirable as Custer during his famous “last stand” at the Little Bighorn.  

There is no educator in this state – or I’d say even in this country – who feels we should be teaching to a test (and I mean any test). Tests, especially standardized ones, are fallible instruments that gauge a one-time performance. When parents used to come into my office and complain that their straight-A students “failed” a state test, I couldn’t help but think about the fact that there was something wrong with the big picture.  

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Here in New York City part of what was wrong with the “big” picture was not just Mr. Klein, but a succession of leaders who saw testing numbers as their gravy train, without any consideration of the meat and potatoes that should have been going along with it. Klein rightly wanted to improve instruction, but he went about it the wrong way: tying test scores to teacher competency and as a way to eradicate tenured teachers and tenure in general.  

Now along comes Ms. Black, and the proverbial breath of fresh air should be wafting down the hallways of city schools. She has no connections to the “machine” that has run what was once the finest public school system in the country into an iceberg bigger than the one that hit the Titanic. If you don’t think our public schools are sinking, why then did Klein continue to cite under performing schools and want to put them on the chopping block? Because he wanted to close those schools, get rid of the personnel in them, and open less costly to operate charter schools in their place. This had nothing to do with improving student life but more with increasing his control and victory over the unions.  

We have to give enormous credit to Mayor Michael Bloomberg for this bold and yet very sensible choice. To answer those critics who complain about Black’s lack of educational background, Bloomberg said, “Our problem is making sure that an organization with a $23 billion budget and 135,000 employees is able to function.” As a very successful business person himself, Bloomberg understands that the old ship doesn’t need to be saved but rather sunk to the bottom of the sea, and he also knows that the new model needs to be twice as seaworthy but with more than enough lifeboats to accommodate its 1.1 million passengers.  

I appreciate that Mr. Bloomberg has chosen Ms. Black because I think a woman who has been so successful in business should be in charge of these schools. Ms. Black most certainly can use her wealth of experience from the Hearst Corporation to try to right the wrongs without persecuting those teachers who have been keeping the ship going despite captains who didn’t know their starboard side from a poop deck.  

Ms. Black seems more than up for this assignment, and her fresh attitude and outlook has to be a beacon of hope to teachers, parents, and students. She was extremely poised during the press conference when her appointment was announced; conversely, the departing Mr. Klein seemed more like a deer in the headlights. He slinks off, if not with his tail between his legs, most definitely as a person who didn’t get the job done.  

I would hope that Ms. Black comes in and appreciates the people who are working for her. As an administrator, I have always said that besides the students the teachers are the most important people in my school. Part of that is respecting their professionalism and working to make them even better at what they do with meaningful professional development.  

Klein was viewed as someone who wanted to break the teachers and their union at all costs, but we have to believe that Bloomberg brought in Black to make amends, to give the teachers what they need and deserve, and in that way she will be returning more meaningful instruction to the classrooms without sacrificing educators because of poor student scores on extremely questionable exams.  

During the press conference Ms. Black said,  “I have no illusions about this being an easy next three years.” That kind of honesty is refreshing, and I am hoping she is going to turn the prevailing "That’s not the way we do things around here" attitude into “We will do whatever needs to be done for students to achieve.” She has the experience, the talent, and the moxie to get the job done, and that is why I believe her appointment as chancellor is very good news for New York City schools and the students they serve.

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