Roving thoughts and provocations

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The Education of Lord Bloomberg

Mark Lennihan/AP Photo
Cathie Black speaking with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg during a groundbreaking ceremony in New York on April 6. She resigned as Schools Chancellor the following day.

April 7, 2011 was a day that should be remembered as one of the strangest in the history of the public schools of New York City and New York State. On that day, by coincidence (or not), the Chancellor of the New York City schools, Cathleen Black, and the State Commissioner of Education, David Steiner, both resigned. Black was replaced by longtime city official Dennis Walcott; a successor for Steiner, who will leave by August, has not been named. Hopefully, there will be a national search. Black’s tenure of three months was certainly the shortest ever in the history of the city’s schools. For his part, Steiner lasted less than two years in a job in which his predecessors typically persisted for a decade. The reasons for Black’s sudden departure are obvious; we will have to wait a bit longer to get the inside story about Steiner’s equally abrupt exit, though his handling of Black’s appointment may have undermined him.

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced last November that he had selected publishing executive Black to be chancellor of the school system, he described her as a “superstar manager,” just the person needed to oversee a sprawling organization that enrolls 1.1 million children. Critics were immediately outraged that there had been no public search for a successor to Chancellor Joel Klein, and even more upset that Ms. Black met none of the legal requirements for the job. State law is very specific in describing the experience, education, and certification necessary to become a superintendent. Black had never taught, never worked in a public school, never been a principal, held no degrees in education, and obviously did not have a superintendent’s certificate. But the law did permit a waiver for a candidate whose unusual experience was equivalent to the legal requirements, and Mayor Bloomberg dismissed the criticisms of Black. The business community, reliable allies of the mayor, issued a statement of support, asserting that “You would be hard-pressed to find a more qualified and more capable candidate than Cathie Black.” Black also won the endorsement of Gloria Steinem, Oprah, Michelle Rhee, and other luminaries.

But parent groups organized rallies and threatened lawsuits, trying to block her appointment. The mayor, still unmoved, went through the obligatory step of appealing for a waiver, which State Commissioner David Steiner had the power to grant. This was not a simple matter, given the sustained and noisy opposition to Black, and the widely held perception that the mayor had selected someone who was a social friend, a member of the city’s moneyed elite lacking any experience in education. Parent groups felt that the mayor was sticking his thumb in their eyes by choosing yet another chancellor who would disregard their views and favor charter schools over those attended by 97 percent of the city’s children.

Shortly after Black was nominated last fall, Commissioner Steiner, to protect himself, convened an eight member advisory panel of seasoned educators to help him make the decision. Critics complained that the process was rigged because some members of Steiner’s committee had worked for the mayor’s Department of Education, and others represented institutions that held large contracts with the Department or the city. But no matter how extensive their debts to the mayor, four members of the panel voted in a secret ballot to deny the waiver and only two offered unconditional support. If Steiner had accepted his panel’s fig leaf, he would have saved everyone—himself, Black, and Mayor Bloomberg—a lot of future embarrassment. But instead he did what, one assumes, Mayor Bloomberg and his close ally, Regents’ Chancellor Merryl Tisch, expected him to do—he crafted a compromise: Black could have the waiver if she agreed to have an experienced deputy. Well, that was an easy out, because of course she would be surrounded by a gaggle of deputies with many years of service in the school system. There was never a chance that she might hire someone to advise her who knew as little as she did about education and the politics of the school system.

Thus, on November 29, Steiner granted Black the waiver, and she embarked on three terrible months in which she made gaffe after gaffe—as when she jested at a community meeting that the solution to school overcrowding was birth control—was jeered at public meetings, and ridiculed in the press. Insiders at the usually tight-lipped Department of Education told the New York Times that Black failed to master the basic issues or the details of the budget despite “intensive tutorial sessions that began on the day of her appointment and, according to advisers, never really ended.”

Two people are particularly responsible for this mess. One was Mayor Bloomberg, who selected someone he liked and admired but who was not in the least qualified for the job, neither by experience nor by temperament. Mayoral control of the schools—one of Bloomberg’s early accomplishments in City Hall—has brought out some of the mayor’s worst traits, and he tends to act as though the schools belong to him as an extension of his personal household and that he rules as lord of the manor, a lord whose decisions are never to be questioned.

For her part, Cathie Black made a foolish decision by accepting the mayor’s offer. She must have known that she would be way out of her league, moving into an arena where she didn’t even know the language. Having enjoyed decades of success in corporate America, she surely did not expect that she would become the butt of jokes. But she displayed inexplicable naivete by accepting a job in which she had no chance of succeeding. In fairness, Joel Klein was not much more qualified than she was (having attended New York City public schools and having taught for six months is not sufficient qualification for becoming the city’s chancellor), but he had almost six months to immerse himself in the issues, from the day he was appointed in August 2002 until the mayor announced his program in January 2003. Cathie Black was thrown into the fray with very little time to learn the ropes. As she put it, “It was like having to learn Russian in a weekend—and then give speeches in Russian and speak Russian in budget committee and City Council meetings.”

The Bloomberg administration worried about what she might say in public—whether she might go off-script or toss off a sarcastic jibe; her handlers kept aides (usually her successor, then-Deputy Mayor Walcott) close at hand to answer questions for her. Bloomberg maintained the facade of complete confidence in Black right up to the release of polls showing that her public approval rating was at 17 percent (under the circumstances, one wonders who were those 17 percent approving of her hapless performance on the job). Even more disconcerting to the mayor, apparently, was that only 27 percent approved of his own handling of the schools. Since the Mayor has boasted for years of his education accomplishments, this must have been an augury that he could not ignore. Once he realized that Black’s ineptitude was pummeling his already suffering poll numbers, her fate was sealed.

The mayor quickly chose a new chancellor—Dennis Walcott—as he had previously chosen Joel Klein and Cathleen Black: without a transparent public process and without a national search. It was his decision to make, and his alone. No public consultation was considered necessary. Dennis Walcott is an amiable and politically astute man who has been at the mayor’s side since 2002. He was head of the Urban League for several years. Unlike Black, he knows the political terrain and the players and will not embarrass the mayor with inappropriate comments. He will say the right things at the right time and perhaps help nudge the mayor’s poll numbers up.

But again, for the third time, the mayor has chosen someone who needs a waiver because he lacks the credentials stipulated in state law. Many years ago, Walcott taught kindergarten in a daycare center for eighteen months, but he has no experience as a school leader, and holds no supervisory certification. Although parents are again mobilizing to oppose Walcott’s nomination, he seems sure to get a waiver as Klein and Black did, and he will be better prepared than either. The bar was dropped so low to get a waiver for Black that no one could ever be denied one in the future unless he or she had a criminal record.

The lessons of this fiasco are clear: being a successful business executive is no guarantee that one can become a successful school leader. These are different worlds, which require different skills and training. To have a chance of success running one of the country’s largest school systems, one needs a deep understanding of federal and state education policies, of curriculum and assessment, of teaching and learning, and of what teachers and schools need. This is why the state sets requirements for the job of school superintendent, to assure that those who get the job are minimally qualified.

Who is chancellor, however, is the least of the problems facing New York’s schools. The biggest problem is the policies that Bloomberg has launched over the past nine years. Despite his iron control, the city still has large numbers of struggling schools, and three-quarters of its high school graduates who go to community college require remedial work in basic skills. This year, for the first time in memory, not a single New York City student was a winner in the prestigious Intel science competition. Bloomberg’s Department of Education has focused intently on raising test scores as the goal of education, and for a time the scores seemed to be going through the roof. But last June, the State Education Department revealed that the state scores were wildly inflated, and the city’s scores fell back almost to where they were when Bloomberg took control in 2002. Some gains have been made on the federal tests of reading and math, but the gains have been no greater than in other cities. The educational “miracle” of which the mayor boasted never happened. (The debunking of the higher test scores may have hastened the departure of Joel Klein, who took a job with Rupert Murdoch, selling educational technology.) The mayor has never acknowledged the collapse of the “miracle” and speaks instead of building on nine years of dramatic improvement.

Bloomberg’s decision to replace the old Board of Education with a Department of Education controlled only by himself has alienated parents. The debates at the old Board seemed cumbersome, but they were actually just an expression of democratic politics—an arena in which policies are discussed before they are imposed, where officials listen to citizens’ concerns. Rather than maintaining stability, as the mayor promised, Joel Klein repeatedly reorganized the Department during the past nine years. School closings have become commonplace, and schools with long and established histories have been shuttered, replaced by scores of small schools and privately managed charter schools, all in the name of introducing a free-market approach to public education. Creative destruction is now the rule, not stability. The Department treats schools like stores that can be easily closed and opened with a new name, rather than vital public institutions that need help and should be improved.

New leadership should offer the promise of a fresh start. Dennis Walcott will certainly improve the tone of school debates. He is wise enough to know that he must repair the Mayor’s frayed relationships with parent groups and classroom teachers. But having been one of the Mayor’s closest aides, he is unlikely to change any of the destructive policies that have torn apart the city’s school system without offering any clear vision for its future.

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