Willingham: Why Black deserves a chance to run NYC schools
By Daniel Willingham
There is plenty of criticism in the blogosphere of Cathie Black’s appointment as chancellor of the New York City school system. Much of it centers on Black’s lack of background in education.
The never-an-administrator concern seems to have some merit. It just doesn’t seem plausible that being a “good manager” in one industry--in Black’s case, publishing--will transfer to the “industry” of educating kids.
From a cognitive perspective, one would expect that some of these high-level skills would transfer. Among novices, thinking skills tend to cling the to specific subject matter studied. But experts are better able to apply thinking skills acquired in one domain to another.
For example, highly experienced historians are able to produce expert analysis and interpretation of documents, even with limited knowledge of the historical era from which they came.
In Black’s case, the sticking point is that the conditions under which such putative skills--leadership, consensus building, information gathering, decision making, and the like--are executed may be quite different.
She’s accustomed to a business setting, not a big city bureaucracy. And if the proof of the pudding is in the eating, hiring outsiders to run school systems has produced some pretty tasteless puddings.
At the same time, it is well to bear in mind that hiring someone who has had stunning success in educational administration doesn’t always work out so well.
In contrast, one might express concern not for Black’s inexperience as an educational administrator, but for her inexperience as a teacher.
The job of classroom teacher and of chancellor are so dissimilar that teaching experience hardly seems a prerequisite for the duties of the job. Rather, this complaint reflects a guess at Black’s perspective and values.
Someone who has been a teacher, the thinking goes, will understand and appreciate a teacher’s perspective.
(At this point in the discussion advocates for this position dismiss as an aberration Michelle Rhee’s experience as a teacher and the perspective that resulted.)
Understanding teachers’ perspectives is doubtless an important part of the job, but I wonder how much classroom experience contributes to it.
Sure, some classroom experience might help, but you could also imagine it actually getting in the way. Everyone has met an administrator who thinks that his particular experience is what teaching is like for everyone, and dismisses teachers’ perspectives because he thinks he already knows everything he needs to about classrooms.
And I know plenty of professors in schools of education who, a couple of decades ago, taught for a few years. Not all are in touch with current classroom concerns.
Understanding and actually attending to teachers’ perspectives on New York City classrooms in 2010 is probably mostly a matter of listening, and of valuing what teachers have to say.
The job of chancellor demands expertise in so many domains--curriculum, pedagogy, labor relations, state, city and local politics, economics--that no one could hope to have expertise in even a fraction of them.
What matters is who Black listens to, and the extent to which she is able to ferret out the right information amidst the many interest groups seeking to influence her.
Will Cathie Black bring a factory-line mentality to the education of kids? Will she listen to teachers? Will she listen to her new second-in-command Shael Polakow-Suransky, reportedly picked by New York State Education Commissioner David Steiner to ensure some education experience in her office?
I haven’t the slightest idea, and I don’t think anyone but her closest friends and associates can hazard an above-chance guess.
Black’s outsider status makes her appointment feel risky. But unless Mayor Michael Bloomberg located and appointed someone who had demonstrably improved another big city school district and who wanted the New York City job (find me a few hen’s teeth while you’re it), any appointment would have represented a risk of one sort or another.
Give her a chance, and watch what she does.
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| November 29, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
Categories: Guest Bloggers | Tags: cathie black, cathleen black, daniel willingham, educational leadership, new york city schools, new york city schools chancellor, nyc schools, nyc schools chancellor
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