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Posted at 11:27 AM ET, 11/12/2010

A narcissistic approach to education reform

By Valerie Strauss

This post was written by Mark Phillips, professor emeritus of secondary education at San Francisco State University and author of a monthly column on education for the Marin Independent Journal.

By Mark Phillips

I haven’t read any Kafka in recent years, but I don’t really need to. I just pick up the newspaper or turn on CNN and catch up with the latest in the worlds of politics and education.

The other day it was a scene in New York City with Mayor Michael Bloomberg announcing Joel Klein’s departure as chancellor of the city’s public schools and the appointment of Hearst Magazine Chairman Cathleen Black as his successor. As I listened, the soundtrack from The Twilight Zone emerged from my distant memory. The narrative was out of touch with reality.

“It’s a chance to change the world,” said Bloomberg. Does he really believe that?

“She’s been there and done it,” he said of Black, who has no serious professional background in public education. Apparently he thinks anyone who can help oversee Popular Mechanics magazine can reform the largest public school system in the country.

The soundtrack music kept getting louder.

“There’s virtually no one who knows more about the skills our children will need to succeed in the 21st century economy,” concluded Bloomberg.

In the world in which most of us live, there are hundreds, even thousands, of experts in the field of education who know more than Cathie Black about the skills kids need. Even I do.

If these changes affected only New York, we could just leave it to the teachers and parents of New York to respond. But this is symptomatic of a widespread pathology that turns a certain breed of education reformer -- those who insist that business principles will save public education -- into heroes, and it is being fueled by many in the media, “Waiting for Superman” director Davis Guggenheim and others.

There is a form of craziness infecting the world of education reform today. Repeating the same behavior over and over again even if it fails and expecting a different result is nutty. And what too many reformers keep doing is moving ahead without input from teachers and parents.

Bloomberg’s appointment of Black is another example of appointment without consultation -- and more. Michelle Rhee resigned as D.C. schools chancellor truly believing that her scorched earth policy was successful, despite evidence that it wasn’t.

If you don’t agree with a diagnosis of cultural insanity, consider a diagnosis of narcissism at the top levels of education reform.

Narcissists inflate a sense of their own importance and capabilities.

Bloomberg, Rhee, and Klein all have talked about their role in education reform in terms that seem to go beyond the concrete realities of the job, or, as Bloomberg revealingly stated, engaged in a chance to change the world. In reality it would be terrific if the new New York chancellor could just manage her budget, the one area where she appears to have some competency, and perhaps assist some principals, teachers, and parents to effectively change some schools.

Guggenheim’s film, which transforms Rhee into a hero, will not, as he hopes, change American education either. Aroused interest rarely translates to change without a well thought out strategy that includes all the players. In this case too, the backlash probably equals the positive responses.

Businesses don’t hire chief executives who don’t understand business. Why shouldn’t we insist that our education leaders understand education?

Klein, Rhee, Black -- none of them were given the job of running a school system because they had the knowledge base needed to fully understand the complexities of public education. Picture what it would be like if Meg Whitman was brought in to oversee the reform of medical practices for the city of New York. Would Bloomberg note that this would determine patient survival rates for years to come?

Edward Pajak, professor and chair of the Department of Teacher Development and Leadership at Johns Hopkins University, writes in a forthcoming article in Teachers College Record that a narcissistic education policy style “denies the true learning needs of students; dis-empowers classroom teachers and schools by undermining trust in self and others; and reproduces narcissistic dynamics within the culture.”

It is imperative that education leaders today include teachers, principals and parents in their decision-making, but leaders such as Rhee actually took pride in making her own choices without their input.

Every time I hear the phrase “the skills our children need for the 21st century,” I think of the lines from Lord Byron: “If I laugh at any mortal thing, ‘tis that I may not weep.”

The “21st century skills” phrase, now a cliché, is out of a dark comic script, divorced from the potpourri of what kids really need to both survive and thrive.

But why don't we care as much about the 21st century skills educational leaders need, including a firm knowledge base of public education, the ability to engage in participatory decision making, and an understanding of how to build trust with teachers and parents?

It's past time that we did.

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By Valerie Strauss  | November 12, 2010; 11:27 AM ET
Categories:  Educational leadership, Guest Bloggers, Mark Phillips, School turnarounds/reform  | Tags:  21st century skills, bloggers, cathie black, cathleen black, hearst mgazines, joel klein, klein legacy, mark phillips, meg whitman, michael bloomberg, michelle rhee, narcissism, new york city chancellor, new york city schools, nyc schools, popular mechanics, the twilight zone  
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I love the whole article - so many good points stated clearly. In reference to the excerpt below:

"Every time I hear the phrase 'the skills our children need for the 21st century,' I think of the lines from Lord Byron: 'If I laugh at any mortal thing, ‘tis that I may not weep.' "

The word 'mortal' is key - what so many would-be reformers are forgetting when they focus on the '21st century skills' mantra, is that children and adolescents are still human beings.....they are still mortal....they are also NEW mortals, born into a rapidly growing technological world that would ignore their human needs.

The professional educators know that you cannot ignore the humanity of young people in the pursuit of excellence in their education.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | November 12, 2010 11:44 AM | Report abuse

Everything in the educational "reform" movement makes sense when you realize it's not about children or learning, but about profits. Just as corporate types have made fortunes from the private "higher education" offered to mainly young adults of color, now those same people are going after K-12 money. But parents and other citizens are catching on and before long, I believe most citizens will do what DC people did: throw the bums out.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | November 12, 2010 11:54 AM | Report abuse

This piece is a bit of light in a very dark time for those of us who hang out with throw-away teens (or any children) all day. The line, 'Why don't we care as much about the 21st century skills educational leaders need,' is especially cogent. I'd like to see it become the battle cry for a reform movement of its own. For example, where are the standardized tests which ed reformers have to take before they qualify to offer opinions? And why have we educators been silent on this?

Anyone interested?

Posted by: kidswarrior | November 12, 2010 1:18 PM | Report abuse

I am not completely opposed with appointed a business executive to run a school system, as much of the running of a school system has little to do with education and more to do with financials, employee relations and political wrangling. The key to success from that person is to hire a education expert who can manage education policy and really be the subject matter expert on the day to day education of the kids. Any good CEO builds a team of experts who know how to drive a vision to the employees. Now if the CEO comes in and tries to run the show only her way without building those experts and getting input from the line level workers will fail, just ask Michelle Rhee.

Posted by: welangIII | November 12, 2010 1:30 PM | Report abuse

If you check the blogs, I think you'll find that someone referred to Rhee as a narcissist at her first public appearance. Right on target. LRT is also right on the money. The "reformers'" goal is to turn all of education into the Kaplan Higher Ed. model: Divert lots of private money to private profit in exchange for an over-priced but inferior education. The students lose, the taxpayers lose, the teachers lose and the economy suffers, but the corporate profiteers make lots of money on their backs. Only in America.

Posted by: mcstowy | November 12, 2010 1:54 PM | Report abuse

So, how can we/do we stop all this? What can parents, teachers and students do now rather than later to break the impasse they are in?
Join Uniting 4 Kids:

Also, help this group of moms in Colorado get back the 30 minutes a week of creative learning time that was eliminated from elementary schools. This "informal" petition should already have generated hundreds of signatures!

Posted by: gpadvocate | November 12, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse


At this time in history superintendents are in the position of both being business people and educational leaders. It's a lot to ask out of one person, but that is how it is right now.

Posted by: jlp19 | November 12, 2010 3:55 PM | Report abuse

All of the anti-change teachers want to block and impede ed reform by claiming you have to be a teacher to understand ed. Ridiculous and arrogant view, as it dismisses kids, parents, and anyone else who tunes in on the schools.

Meanwhile, more than a few "educators" deliver crappy classroom work and get paid too much for what they do, while also believing they are entitled to job security and big pensions.

Good teachers will shoulder some responsibility and look coldly at the professors, PhD administrators and all the others who have drunk at the ed and research trough for decades and produced tools/strategems/paradigms/Ravitchisms that have led to the wonderful state of public education today. The unions deserve a lot of credit too, yeah.

Well done to one and all.

Posted by: axolotl | November 12, 2010 4:29 PM | Report abuse

I agree jlp19 which is why if you select a business person to be the superintendent and that person surrounds themselves with good, well qualified subordinates who the superintendent entrusts/enables to do their job, it can be a success. Too often though the superintendent turns out to be a narcissist who doesn't listen to anyone else. In the business world we call people like Michelle Rhee transactional leaders, what a school system needs is a transformational leader who is able to pull together the many diverse needs/desires/requirements of the multiple players and focus them on a common goal. The NFL is the best example of that. The NFLPA and the league have worked together as partners for many years and achieved great success for everyone. Ms. Rhee never developed that sort of coalition thus was doomed to fail from the start. We have the same type superintendent here where I live and despite some early success she has managed to alienate more and more people until it is clear she will no longer be effective.

Posted by: welangIII | November 12, 2010 4:36 PM | Report abuse


In a way you are exactly like what you criticize teachers of: full of gaseous hot air and expecting something for nothing. You failed to do your research for 1bnthrdntht. You did not deliver.

Words of advise: Examine yourself before you condemn "more than a few 'educators'" to the education tough because you are slopping from the idiot and charlatan bucket.

Posted by: DHume1 | November 12, 2010 5:23 PM | Report abuse

Ever since I started teaching in the 1960s educators have campaigned for equal resources for all children: health care, preschool, fully qualified teachers, support personnel, etc. However, powerful forces have been trying and largely succeeding in maintaining the status quo, which I define as good schools and fully qualified teachers for middle-class, white kids, and inexperienced "emergency" teachers for the poor kids. Now, in the midst of this recession, the corporate types are even going after tax money that should go directly to the classroom. Of course, this is only happening in schools that serve mainly poor children of color.

Thanks for the website, gpadvocate. Yes, it's time for citizens to unite to bring positive change to education. We should be done with the status quo. At the very least, every child should have a fully qualified teacher in the classroom. It's time to say goodbye to "waivers" and "emergency" credentials.

Today I was thinking about how "reformers" are even looking for ways to reduce teachers' pensions.

There is much talk about teachers' pensions, but little about the pensions of other government workers, such as councilmembers, police officers, firefighters and so forth. Why would this be? If you thought "women" you'd be right. Public school teachers are mainly women and many of them are mild-mannered, non-aggressive types who would rather do anything but fight. Is this the reason for the present scapegoating? Do the "reformers" know they'd never get very far with the firefighters or police officers?

Anyway my guess is that relief for teachers will come from the general public just as it did for DC teachers. A 2010 Gallup poll showed that 78% of parents of schoolchildren and 71% of the general public have trust and confidence in teachers. That, and not "the unions" is the source of the political clout that teachers enjoy.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | November 12, 2010 5:43 PM | Report abuse

Linda, I am generally on the side of teachers, and I wouldn't argue for a minute that sexism and racism and ageism aren't at play here, but I do think you're overlooking some simple math, which is that as near as I can tell, obligations to teachers far outweigh any other public sector profession.

Per the LBS, there are 3.2 million teachers and about a half million school administrators. There are about 330,000 paid firefighters (the overwhelming majority of firefighters are volunteer). There are about a million police officers. The number of teachers nationwide has increased 50% since 1980, and it certainly doesn't appear as if our children have gotten 50% smarter.

And I would take the survey numbers with a big grain of salt. We all want to think we are making the best choices for our children, and as a result I don't know that a lot of people are going to answer that question without bias.

Posted by: District10 | November 12, 2010 9:06 PM | Report abuse

Axoloti--Can you please stop with the "big pension" crap? Not all teacher pensions are created equal. In MD, teachers earn about 35% of their final salary as their retirement income after 30 years plus. I'd hardly call that a "big pension." But then union/teacher bashers seem to make up their own facts.

Posted by: musiclady | November 12, 2010 9:07 PM | Report abuse

David Dhume1: name-calling truly becomes and defines you. Professorial bloviation is your method. Layoff is yo legitimate concern.

musiclady: context was the Nation's Capital, not your wealthy state. Further, on the order of 15 percent of Americans get a "pension" of the type we are talking about. More Americans ask: why sacrifice for public employees' retirement when they cannot, and do not think they have to, show some positive results? That's the height of arrogance and taxpayer abuse, not to mention jeopardizing the futures of kids.

The performance issues, of course, apply to some, not all, teachers. Certainly not you, madame.

Posted by: axolotl | November 12, 2010 10:15 PM | Report abuse

This is a such an insightful article! When I heard about Black's sudden appointment and looked up her credentials... it didn't surprise me but it did scare me... in what direction is democracy heading in this nation? Bloomberg is enormously wealthy and is strategizing to privatize public education "come hell or high water". It struck me that he is using war strategy. One of the first things "taken out" during warfare is the "enemy's" ability to communicate. This is exactly Bloomberg's strategy is... think about it... between backing the film, "Waiting For Superman" (including strategic timing of its release), Klein's suddent departure from the NYC DOE to take a position with Rupert Murdoch dealing with the business of education, hiring a media mogul with no education experience to take over the largest urban public school system, all the scathing articles in Newsweek and Time magazines... and icing on the cake... having Oprah Winfrey very selectively interview supposed education reformers on national tv. Can megamillionaires really be allowed to overtake whatever they so desire to overtake? What ever happened to checks and balances? These are scary times. Education is the current focus point. What next?

Posted by: teachermd | November 12, 2010 11:26 PM | Report abuse

Citizens across the country are waking up to the fact that the "Emperor has no clothes." Thanks for this excellent article that exposes yet another facet of what is wrong with the current so-called reform efforts. By-the-way, the status quo IS a narrowed curriculum, drill and test, accountability at all costs, and disdain for professional input. We have been at this for bout 25 years and it is not getting better for our kids, it is getting worse. Time to get off the train and move on to something better, an education that broadens each child's horizons and one which returns control of a child's education to the local level.

To find a citizen group near you working to bring this about, go to

Posted by: rvaliant | November 13, 2010 8:44 AM | Report abuse

teachermd has put it all in a nutshell - emphasis on NUT - and then, "...These are scary times...."

"...and icing on the cake... having Oprah Winfrey very selectively interview supposed education reformers on national tv. Can megamillionaires really be allowed to overtake whatever they so desire to overtake? What ever happened to checks and balances? These are scary times. Education is the current focus point. What next?"

I was also outraged at Oprah's carefully staged presentation of "reformers" - not one Education professor, teacher or researcher among them - Oprah has tremendous influence with the public, especially a public that reads little or does more than skim the surface on complex issues.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | November 13, 2010 12:36 PM | Report abuse

PLMichaels -- yes, Oprah, by accounts, seems as you describe. And she wisely caters to the common man and woman, some of whom are parents of children trapped in lousy schools.

Professors and ed. "experts" don't sell well to her audience, and thus they don't appear. But realistically, which one of the profs and experts appears to be have come up with something that really works big time? Names don't come to mind, even to the profs and experts themselves. For obvious reasons. And they keep honing the diagnosis but go lite on the solutions. That's why there a vast gap persists between the brimming trough of ed research dollars and measurable improvements in the schools.

Posted by: axolotl | November 13, 2010 8:13 PM | Report abuse

Is it possible that our entire approach to educational reform is misdirected? What if our educational challenges are only partly related to inadequate schooling? If so, then any remedy which focuses exclusively (or mostly) on school improvement will be inadequate, regardless of whether those remedies originate from non-educators who apply business principals or educators who apply teaching principals.

The following article might be of interest:
"5 Steps to Better Education in America (and why all of them will be rejected)"

Posted by: CounterRhythms | November 14, 2010 8:23 AM | Report abuse

CounterRhythms hits the reality... partially...Is it possible that our entire approach to educational reform is misdirected?

I think Bloomberg, Gates, Broad, etc... view public education as the next profitable business frontier and are all too happy to ignore the REAL factors that impact public school education... these factors fly in the face of the business world as they are rooted in the social ills of society. Students who are still learning English (and yes it takes about 7 years to have mastery of the language) are going to have difficulty, students who live in crowded apartments and have no place to study are going to have difficulty in school because they can't focus on studies at home. Children are often babysitting children as their own parents hold down several jobs to pay the rent and put food on the table and are going to have difficulty in school because their concentration is elsewhere - often on adult responsibilities. Some children don't get adequate nutrition and come to school hungry and can't focus on studies. The school food certainly doesn't assist them or their teachers (look at how much sugar is in strawberry or chocolate milk they drink at part of the school breakfasts). Some students stay up into the wee hours of the morning because they have to go to the laundromat with Mom (this is the only time she can get this done). They come to school sleepy. How good is their concentration? Other students have not had dental exams or need eyeglasses or have troubled home lives so they don't feel good. Are they focused on studies just because the school bell rings? The list goes on and on. How about vocabulary??? A child from a middle class home with educated parents has a much wider vocabulary base which proves essential at school. They can make a lot more inferences based on a wider scope of vocabulary. So, are teachers really supposed to overcome all of the adverse social factors impacting a student's success in the classroom? Who are we kidding? Why do we let Gate's, Winfrey, Bloomberg, Rhee and the likes get away with blaming teachers or making teachers soley responsible for whether or not a child receives a proper education? Maybe the business world should focus on solving these social ills!!! Finland is always mentioned as a role model for education. Well, let's look at the social aspects of society and how this impacts education. The business model does not want to look at this and herein lies the problem.

Posted by: teachermd | November 14, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse

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