Real leaders for schools

Non-educators' skills and energy can easily outweigh their lack of experience

December 02, 2010|By Kalman R. Hettleman

New York mayor and multi-billionaire Michael R. Bloomberg usually gets what he wants. And so, while the nation is watching and "Waiting for Superman" to save our public schools, he thinks he's found a Superwoman to do the job in the Big Apple.

Apparently, few people agree. His appointment of Catherine P. Black, a media mogul without any experience in education, as CEO of the school system has outraged the education establishment, and public opinion in New York is strongly opposed.

For educators, the appointment is a double dose of horrid school reform medicine. First, it stretches the limits of the trend toward the hiring of non-educators as superintendents (or CEOs, as they are being rebranded). Second, in their view, it shows the dangers of replacing community-oriented school boards with mayoral control.

Mr. Bloomberg did not have unbridled authority to select Ms. Black. Because she did not meet the New York state statutory license requirements for superintendents, the state education commissioner had to grant a waiver. The commissioner publicly vacillated, then appointed an advisory panel. Four panel members voted "no," two "yes," and two asked for possible resubmission. (The panel included Baltimore schools CEO Andrés A. Alonso, a former top deputy in the New York school system, but the voting was not made public.)

A compromise was struck. Ms. Black was approved after Mr. Bloomberg agreed to appoint a respected, traditional educator as second in command with — at least on paper — near-autonomy over teaching and learning.

As I see it, Mighty Mike got what he wanted, and that's good news. Some observers say the new chief academic officer (CAO), as the second-in-command is known, will be a figurehead. But that isn't what the Bloomberg/Black team needs. Chief academic officers are the norm in Baltimore and elsewhere. No CEO of the gigantic New York City school system has the time to implement the nuts and bolts of pedagogy. And Bloomberg/Black can always fire a CAO who doesn't measure up.

True, Ms. Black is still an iffy choice. She was barely vetted even by city hall or education insiders. She hasn't spoken publicly about her vision or plans. Superwoman could turn out to be an imposter.

But that's almost beside the point, at least to advocates of mayoral control like me. As I spelled out in my book, "It's the Classroom, Stupid," mayors can sometimes be scoundrels, and school boards (like Baltimore's) can sometimes be gems. But on balance, school boards have been ineffectual, and mayors are more politically accountable, more likely to challenge the entrenched education establishment, and more adept at providing political cover for change-agent CEOs.

Mr. Bloomberg and his nontraditional schools CEO Joel I. Klein, who recently resigned, are prime examples. New schools have opened, failing schools closed. Test scores, though debatable, have risen. The graduation rate is up. A progressive contract with the teachers union was won. Most of all, the old culture of excuses has given way to high expectations and systemwide shake-ups.

Sound familiar? Much of Mr. Alonso's game plan in Baltimore followed his experience under Bloomberg/Klein. In fact, over the past decade, Mr. Bloomberg — who attended the Johns Hopkins University, and whose name adorns Hopkins' School of Public Health — blazed the trail for urban school reform nationally. He raised the standard for other mayors, notably Adrian M. Fenty in D.C., who appointed uber-reformer (and never-before school administrator) Michelle Rhee as superintendent.

And Mr. Klein, Mr. Bloomberg's handpicked CEO, has joined the growing honor roll of nontraditional superintendents who, on average, have far outperformed superintendents who are career educators. Others include Arne Duncan in Chicago (now U.S. secretary of education), Alan D. Bersin in San Diego, Roy Romer in Los Angeles, Michael Bennett in Denver, and Paul G. Vallas in Chicago, Philadelphia and now New Orleans.

These leaders, recruited from business, finance, law and the military, bring managerial skills — the ability to challenge the status quo, to make tough decisions, to negotiate breakthrough contracts, and to mobilize stakeholders — that outweigh their lack of education experience. Moreover, most education administrators as a profession lack the nature (disposition) and nurture (training) to be strong chief executives. Dedicated classroom teachers, like students, have been the victims of these adminstrators' managerial shortcomings.

No mayor or nontraditional (or traditional) superintendent has so far been able to leap a system to super-heights. And no urban school system is making more progress than Baltimore's under the conventionally licensed Mr. Alonso. But nationwide, the Bloombergs and the Kleins have raised the bar for reform. Even against the odds, I wouldn't bet against Mr. Bloomberg's faith in Ms. Black.

Kalman R. Hettleman, a former member of the Baltimore school board and former state human resources secretary, is the author of the book "It's the Classroom, Stupid: A Plan to Save America's Schoolchildren." His e-mail is khettleman@comcast.net.

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