THE BLOG
12/01/2010 04:31 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Hubris v. Parochialism

I'm at best a casual observer of the New York City public school system. The complexities of the politics surrounding any big issue in the Big Apple are daunting. But I've watched with detached interest over the years as the team of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and schools Chancellor Joel Klein have made controversial and Herculean attempts to yank that behemoth out of a deep ditch.

Matters have gotten more interesting over the past couple of weeks, with Klein's announcement that he is moving into a senior position at News Corp. Bloomberg immediately settled on a successor to the high-energy, abrasive Klein.

And whom did he choose? Publishing executive Cathie Black, she of purportedly amazing managerial skills and zero public education experience.

Reaction to Black's appointment from the usual suspects was predictable. Schools aren't businesses and kids aren't widgets. How dare the mayor have the temerity to appoint a business person to a position that requires a different set of skills than running a business!

I find these arguments tiresome. After all, how many career educators have done a bang-up job turning around an urban school system? The answer would be none. Education is not some mysterious priesthood where only initiates know the deep secrets to unlocking success. In fact no one does; or if once we knew, we have collectively forgotten.

Still, I have to side with the naysayers this time, albeit not for their reasons.

The always iconoclastic Rick Hess said it better than I could in his Rick Hess Straight Up blog on Education Week's website. So let me quote Hess and then give my own spin on some of his points.

"I think schools and districts pose a diverse array of leadership challenges, and that leaders facing different challenges will require various skills. Sometimes, familiarity with K-12 is a huge asset. Other times, the experiences, worldview, and skills that come with that background may actually be a hindrance. I see experience in a school district, in school leadership, or in dealing with the public sector as important assets, which ought to be weighed alongside know-how in transforming and redesigning organizations, boosting cost-effectiveness, recruiting talented personnel, managing vendor relationships, and so forth. I think Joel Klein's skills and experience -- as a CEO, top-shelf lawyer, high-ranking Clinton administration official, and NYC product - -made him a phenomenal fit for the job.

"But, just as it's naive and simple-minded to insist "you need to be an educator to lead schools," it's equally misguided to imagine that executives are interchangeable."

The problem with Black, Hess and others argue, isn't her lack of education background. It is her apparently complete lack of interest in public education, and total lack of track record even volunteering in a public school.

Has Bloomberg become so infatuated with his mostly adulatory press clippings that he believes he can pluck any successful corporate executive, stick them in one of the globe's most challenging jobs and expect them to succeed, just because he was the one to anoint them?

That's called hubris. And those of us who have even skimmed the Greek myths know where that leads.

Hess concludes:

"To make things worse, our intrepid friends at the Gotham Schools blog have noted: "In her memoir-cum-business advice guide, Basic Black, the chancellor appointee describes her skills as far more attuned to sales and marketing than financial analysis. While she likes the operational side of business, she writes, 'Too much data and too many spreadsheets make my eyes glaze over.' " Again, not exactly the ideal testimonial from someone coming in to wrestle with budget cuts and execution.

"Black might be terrific. I've never met her and know nothing about her. But nothing that's been said on her behalf thus far reassures me that she's right for the job or demonstrates that Bloomberg thought carefully about why she was the right choice for this crucial post. Fortunately, there's much time until she takes the helm and both Black and Bloomberg would be well-advised to use the next six weeks to make the case that she's a promising pick -- and not just a CEO looking for a new challenge."

New York State Education Commissioner David M. Steiner may have pulled Bloomberg's fat from the fire by insisting that the mayor appoint a career educator to serve as Black's chief deputy. But that alone does not guarantee success.

And please, don't let Bloomberg's concession (and he's not known to make many) to Steiner embolden his edu-critics. The argument that only educators can run education institutions is narrow-minded and parochial, and isn't germane to the Bloomberg-Black issue.

But it is emblematic of an ongoing annoyance on the education debate, locally and nationally.

Perhaps I am overly sensitive because I have worked in education policy for 15 years but have never taught or worked in a K-12 public school. But there is a wrongheaded mindset among certain educators and teachers' associations that only people who have walked in their shoes have a legitimate point of view about education issues.

So please, let's dispense with the following bromides:
  1. You have to be an educator to be a legitimate candidate for superintendent or education commissioner.
  2. You have to have been a teacher or principal to speak knowledgeably on education issues. I honor teachers for their deep knowledge and classroom experience, which is invaluable. It does not, however, give them a monopoly on wisdom and virtue.
  3. You are "anti-teacher" if you view any of the positions staked out by unions as retrograde and counter to the best interests of public education in this country. (If this were true, then I would be able to name a lot of teachers who are anti-teacher).

In exchange, I pledge to stop reverting to the three most annoying bromides readers identify as endemic to this space and to the world of education reform. Please let me know your top three. Top vote-getters will be banished from this blog.