Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Klein Out, Black In. Does She Know How To Teach the 3 R's?

By Henry J. Stern

November 10, 2010

Mayor Bloomberg has appointed a new Schools Chancellor to take the place of Joel Klein, who resigned suddenly after eight years to take a senior position with News Corporation, where he will work for Rupert Murdoch. The new Chancellor, subject to approval by the State Education Commissioner, is Cathie Black, chairwoman of Hearst Magazines.

Ms. Black has no experience in educating children, but in today's world there is some doubt as to whether that is a liability, an asset, or irrelevant. One would imagine that if one were seeking to fill the most important school superintendency in the United States, some person could be found who was both a brilliant manager and had some experience in public or private education. The appointment was not required to have been announced within minutes of the news of Joel Klein's resignation to enter the field of publishing.

The new Chancellor will take office in the old Tweed courthouse, at 52 Chambers Street, where Mayor Bloomberg moved the staff of the Department of Education prior to selling its castle at 110 Livingston Street, which is now a condominium.

She can fill her staff with professionals, with degrees and technical qualifications, but how will she know which ones to believe? She has an extremely difficult task to perform, and we certainly wish that she is able to do it well. The bottom line here, however, will no longer be corporate profits, but children educated and prepared to succeed in the competitive world we are experiencing today.

Perhaps, with the current state of knowledge, no one has a clear picture of how to teach children to read and write the way their parents learned. In that case, Ms. Black will be an interesting diversion. It will take up to a year for her to learn her way around, but her managerial skills have been demonstrated in the private sector, and she should be a quick study as she settles down in Tweed.

Her success will depend on the strength, competence and different views of the people around her. We will watch carefully as she makes her choices. One thing that is clear is that there is mayoral control of the schools, at least at the top. Ms. Black does not come from a political club, but neither does she come from a schoolhouse. She is a high flyer in the executive suite, and her success is amplified by her gender and the bias she may have had to overcome.

What we will learn in the next years is whether her managerial abilities are transferable from the boardroom to the classroom. If they are, so much the better. But it is also possible that her personal skills, great as they probably are, may be unable to transform a system with over a million pupils, well over a hundred thousand teachers, and many more thousands of other employees.

The problem may not be in management systems or employee development. They just might not be prescribing the best way to teach. Schools of education are known not to attract the best students. Often what they learn is psycho-babble, with a heavy dose of political correctness and laced with deconstructionism. For one person to have a significant impact on a confused and divided culture would require great strength, character and judgment. It would also help to know something about education.

Mayor Bloomberg is likely to be de facto Chancellor, just as Mayor Giuliani was his own Police Commissioner, no matter who held the title. Bloomberg has made history by appointing the first woman chancellor, just as President Clinton appointed the first woman secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, and President Bush the younger appointed the first black man, Colin Powell, and the first black woman, Condoleezza Rice. Did these precedent-shattering selections bring about world peace? Well, they didn't bring about war, except when the President wanted it, in which case it began. The point is that symbols, striking as they may be, often do not affect the course of history. So it is likely to be in this case.

If I were State Education Commissioner David Steiner, I would spend time talking to Cathie Black and exploring her attitude and rationale for taking the job. Twenty-seven years ago one of Steiner's predecessors, Gordon Ambach, blundered badly by rejecting a waiver for Robert F. Wagner, Jr., the ablest public servant of his generation. Whether he made that decision because Mayor Koch had previously called him "pigheaded" on another issue, or whether he was channeling the Executive Chamber, has never been determined.

Waivers were granted by another Commissioner, Richard Mills, however, for Harold Levy (named by the Board of Education over Mayor Giuliani's strong objections) and Joel Klein (named by Mayor Bloomberg). It is likely that the mayor has already secured consent for Ms. Black's waiver, but if not, her membership in the corporate, managerial and financial elite should squelch any doubters. Also, there is no real evidence that anyone with paper credentials in education would be any better at dealing with the enormous challenges that Ms. Black is likely to face.

We do not denigrate her; she must have been good to achieve the success she has enjoyed. General Eisenhower had no civilian experience, and he turned out to be a reasonably good President. The job she faces is in some ways more difficult than his; so far, despite the press releases and selective statistics, no one really knows how to do it. Good luck, Ms. Black. You will need it.

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