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NYC Schools: Democratic Public Education, or Corporate Widget-Maker?

Mike Bloomberg's nomination of Cathie Black as schools chancellor is not only a bad personnel move. It is a symbol of a critical choice we are facing.
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Mike Bloomberg's nomination of Cathie Black as schools chancellor is not only a bad personnel move. It is a symbol of a critical choice we are facing: Are our public schools a place to educate well-rounded citizens for the New York City of tomorrow? Or are they the junior academy of corporate America, oriented around test-taking and the bottom line?

The selection of Ms. Black is, of course, a bad personnel move. I'd like to feel inspired by her substantial business success in the male-dominated world of publishing. But she's totally unqualified for this job, with no background in education, no track record of public service, and no commitment to public education (she herself went to parochial schools, and she sends her children to a private boarding school).

Mayor Bloomberg's secret "selection process" -- in which he apparently considered no other candidates, and never conducted a public search -- itself reeks of contempt for democracy. We post publicly for important jobs in order to insure a wide and diverse candidate pool, to get the best candidates, and to provide for transparency. As Alex Pareene wrote for Salon, "When a regular politician hires a completely unqualified friend for a government job, it's called cronyism." This is no different.

So I'm joining many of my colleagues in the City Council - and many other New Yorkers - in calling on the New York State Board of Regents to reject her candidacy. New York State law requires that all school superintendents must have at least three years of teaching experience and have done graduate work in school administration. The law allows the Regents to grant waivers for "exceptionally qualified persons" whose "exceptional training and experience are the substantial equivalent" of teaching certification. How anyone could make the argument that this applies to Cathie Black with a straight face, I'm not sure.

But this is not just about one person. It is about the vision of our public schools. Two other recent events make the point.

At a City Council hearing last month, Department of Education officials explained to us why it was "good news" that the testing standards - used to evaluate individual students, and give letter grades to schools - were recently adjusted upward by the State, with the result that many more students and schools are now concerned failing. This would help us identify students who need extra help. What they neglected to tell us was that they had received a waiver from the State, so they don't have to provide any of that extra help to these very kids. Do we care about helping kids succeed, or about the illusion of test-score-based accountability?

Then, earlier this month, we learned that the Mayor and Chancellor Klein wanted to make public the "grade" of every individual teacher in New York City, based solely on the test scores of the kids in their classrooms. As any principal will tell you, the "grades" that are spit out by computers using this test-scores-only model are essentially random, and bear almost no relationship to good teaching.

It is possible - and important - to do real evaluations of teachers (and principals). If you talk to the principals, teachers, and parents in a school, you know that there is generally a shared consensus on which teachers are great, which are pretty good, and which are bad. An evaluation system that considers not only test scores (though they should be used in part), but also observation by principals and experienced educators, and the feedback of other teachers and parents, is a far better way to improve teaching quality.

Even then, however, the right way to give feedback is through a private system, that offers support as well as evaluation, with positive and negative consequences. I am open to a system that makes it harder to get tenure, and easier for a principal to remove a bad teacher. But test-score-based public shaming is not the approach of a self-respecting democratic society.

The same is true for students, principals, and schools. Is it easier to have an approach to accountability based primarily around high-stakes testing, on the corporate model of a simple bottom line? Of course.

Is it harder to design and implement one that includes a wider range of factors - how kids become critical thinkers, creative writers and artists, well-rounded human beings, and democratic citizens who can work in teams? Much harder. And to do that for all our kids, and not be satisfied with deep inequalities along lines of race and class. A daunting challenge.

But that's the goal of public education that New York City should aspire to, roll up our sleeves and work for every day, and hold ourselves accountable to. To me, its why we have public schools in the first place.

And it would definitely require a different chancellor than Cathie Black.


Brad Lander is a New York City Councilmember from Brooklyn, and the co-chair of the Council's Progressive Caucus.