Wavering on the Waiver: Reservations about Cathleen Black

Unless you've been in a cave since last week, you know by now that Mayor Bloomberg named Cathleen Black, chairman of Hearst Magazines, to the position of Chancellor of NYC schools. And, if you were paying attention, you've noticed that Cathleen Black's résumé contains a glaring omission: an iota of educational experience over the course of her entire career. Thus, in order for Black to assume the position, she will need a waiver from the State Education Department. No problem, according to Bloomberg; Joel Klein, her would-be predecessor, received the waiver in 2002 after years working as a media executive, and Bloomberg is relying on Black's impressive "business acumen" to win over skeptics. Who better than a successful business leader to turn around a system in financial peril?

How about someone who's seen the inside of a public school classroom?

Black herself attended parochial schools; her own children attend private boarding schools in Connecticut. She has never taught. She has never been an administrator of a school, or worked in educational policy. In the past few days, she's been "immersing herself in issues of education," and making contacts with the likes of Michelle Rhee, whom she apparently sees as a useful person to have in her corner (despite Rhee's recent resignation from DC schools, and overwhelming criticism of her one-sided and myopic Manifesto.) Unfathomably, Bloomberg and Black seem to believe that a few days of research and some careful networking are all the credentials one needs for the job of running America's largest school system. I have a hard time imagining that if one of the veteran teachers or administrators with whom I work were to walk into a major magazine corporation and announce that she was qualified to take the helm -- based on having read some books about the publishing industry, naturally -- she wouldn't be laughed straight out of the office.

Black's proponents argue that leadership and business sense are what will save our schools. From the perspective of someone inside the classroom, that seems incredibly naive. Without question, financial woes are among the plagues on NYC schools, but the scope of the system's problems is broad and varied; simply managing our funds better isn't going to do the trick. Education can't be viewed as a business because students aren't inanimate products, and the intricacies of saving some media titan from collapse (as Ms. Black is reputed to have done for USA Today in the '80s) are completely different from those of making sure a city-wide cohort of eight graders has the basic literacy skills necessary to thrive in high school.

As someone who subscribes to a bottom-up model of improvement, in which top-level administrators and policy-makers will take the cues from what's happening in "real-time" inside the classroom and adjust accordingly (rather than, say, relying on one set of test scores as a single measure of student achievement), it is unfathomable to me how Black can be expected to ameliorate the problems of the system. She simply lacks the depth of knowledge and experience necessary to address the social, cultural, and economic issues evident to anyone who has actually set foot in the NYC schools as a student, teacher, or administrator. It is at the nexus of policy and curriculum that specific and meaningful changes -- ones that impact students' education directly -- can be made, and Black brings nothing to the table on either of these fronts.

From an educator's perspective, the eventuality of Black getting the waiver from the state is a particularly disheartening prospect. When it becomes apparent to her, and to the Bloomberg administration, that a business model doesn't magically fix the ills of the system, they'll revert to that time-honored tradition: placing the blame categorically on teachers. And particularly for someone who has, from the inception, felt that putting Cathleen Black at the helm was a mistake, it's going to be a bitter pill to swallow.