A narcissistic approach to education reform
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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| 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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