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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 11/29/2010

Willingham: Why Black deserves a chance to run NYC schools

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?”

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.

The stunning success stories have a way of later unravelling, as Arne Duncan’s success in Chicago seems to have done. And remember Rod Paige’s “Texas miracle?”

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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By Valerie Strauss  | 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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Willingham is right. No singular set of credentials or experience can guarantee success in a leadership position like NYC schools chancellor. The "education credentials" argument is a surrogate for public hostility toward Bloomberg's heavy-handed governance style and lack of consultation on the appointment.

In fact, long before "education credentials" were in vogue, the best preparation for teachers and school leaders was a solid liberal arts education. Cathie Black was an English major at Trinity (where I am now president) back in the day when there were no Education majors --- the future teachers all majored in the liberal disciplines, especially English and History. Generations of teachers from liberal arts colleges were highly successful long before anyone thought to demand specific licensing.

At Trinity, we still urge students to get a sound liberal arts platform first, before going on to get their education credentials, which were simply not available to students when Cathie was enrolled here.

Yes, today, we do expect teachers to earn their certification and even to complete master's degrees (despite Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's recent remarks), but we also believe that great educators can have a broader background. One size does not fit all.

As for the difference in experience between working in a private company and a complex public system like the NYC schools, as Willingham points out the ultimate leadership skills are the ability to listen, recruit and retain talent to do the specific work, and persuade the people affected to participate in strategies that lead to improvement. The ability to motivate teams to work collaboratively toward the goal is a very tough job, but not one that is exclusive to public or private life.

The fact that Cathie Black is weathering the storm well is a tribute to her fortitude. Her real test will come in her ability to close the credibility gap that has blown wide open as a result of the style of her appointment, more than her credentials. She definitely has the broad experience and keen intellectual talent to provide creative and bold leadership.

Posted by: TrinityPresident | November 29, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

Without disagreeing about Ms. Black's integrity and character, (I do not know her personally and thus can not comment), I do not believe she is qualified under NY State Law, including as the waiver is currently proposed in the media.

No educational or business management theory can get around that.

By the way - It's not just the "bloggers" that are opposed to Ms. Black's appointment. New York City and State officials, not to mention parents and NYC citizens are openly against her taking over as Chancellor.

Posted by: GalBklyn | November 29, 2010 12:54 PM | Report abuse

Would we really want a general running battlegrounds in Afghanistan who has never been in the trenches? Of course he/she is not going to be an expert in all areas - munitions, security, communications,foreign policy issues, etc. BUT (and I do come from a military family)if I were one of those soldiers fighting under extreme conditions, I would want a leader who has real clues as to what I am dealing with.

It's not that an intelligent manager with a good liberal arts background can't grasp a picture and see some of what needs to be done- EVENTUALLY. But in a crisis situation, and our inner city schools, as well as impoverished rural schools and schools in states like Arizona with the worst budget crises need a "general" who can grasp the issues quickly, understand the complexities and history of teaching and have an idea of who to tap to bring solutions.

Additionally, the history of the outsider managers in Education has been one of very brief commitment; 3 years or so.....children deserve a leader who is in it for a longer haul and who does not have such a steep learning curve.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | November 29, 2010 1:09 PM | Report abuse

So why don't businesses hire superintendents as CEO's?

Posted by: jlp19 | November 29, 2010 1:36 PM | Report abuse

"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."

I disagree, the question I have is whether running a large corporation, such as Hearst (Newscorp before Newscorp), provides those skills at all. Most corporate executives, like Mayor Bloomberg, who appointed her, exist in small circles of like-minded people with similar life's experiences. Their skill at information-gathering and decision making is limited and insulated from error by money, or by being "too big to fail." Over the last 30 years America has seen an almost unprecedented growth in the incomes of the richest Americans, while the rest of the economy and society has gone to hell. Corporate America has done noting over the last 30 years to justify our trust in running anything. It is not Ms. Black's lack of educational credentials that should give one pause, but her enthusiastic, and uncritical accumulation of corporate experience, as revealed in her book, that I find worrisome.

Posted by: mcstowy | November 29, 2010 1:54 PM | Report abuse

jlp19 & mcstowy - love your comments

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | November 29, 2010 2:31 PM | Report abuse

I am a concerned parent; I do not see why C Black deserves a "chance" Successful and gifted Chancellors should be fostered and promoted. One would expect that a candidate should have critical educational management experience. This is a very important role that affects future of 1.1 million students; it is to big of a job to give a total outsider "a chance"; I do not think that Black ever expressed interest in public service and I doubt that she has any interest in future of those attending public schools. This appointment is wrong. We had to many experiments with our children in the past years. It does not appear that key problems of NY public education were resolved or will be resolved; It is a move to privatize and make public education less accessible. Bloomberg indeed made NY a city for privileged only.

Posted by: mm112 | November 29, 2010 2:35 PM | Report abuse

Willingham is wrong. It wasn't just about Ms. Black's lack of credentials, required by state law. It's also about the mayor's autocratic approach to running the schools and the failed process used in picking the chancellor. We need leaders who have a collaborative approach. Bloomberg failed, not only the community, but Ms. Black as well. Now she will be operating under a cloud regardless of people like Willingham who call for giving her a chance.

Posted by: MickeyK | November 29, 2010 2:35 PM | Report abuse

I've been slavish to Dr. Willingham, but he is WRONG on this one. Dr. Kotter of Harvard has written/researched extensively on how difficult it is for top CEO's to change industries. Domain knowledge and contacts developed over time matter greatly.

Ms. Black may succeed, but picking her is the equivalent of drawing for an inside straight in poker - a bad bet. Nothing personal.

Posted by: OrangeMath | November 29, 2010 4:23 PM | Report abuse

Prof. W. is right.

As for the person who asked why companies don't hire school supts., the answer is obvious: most (big-city) supts. have little success. CEOs often get canned or forced out if they are screwing things up. This does not happen enough, but it happens more than for school administrators doing poorly.

Posted by: axolotl | November 29, 2010 6:14 PM | Report abuse

@OrangeMath: really interesting and important, thanks. I want to look into this, but won't be able to for a couple of days at the earliest. . .if there are good data on this (from Kotter or others) that would make a big difference to my thinking. . . it would indicate, as you say, that there's good reason to think that the probability of success is actually pretty low.

Posted by: DanielTWillingham | November 29, 2010 6:29 PM | Report abuse

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