THE BLOG
11/12/2010 05:13 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Changing of the Guard: One MBA to Another

Few could be more shocked by Mayor Michael Bloomberg's appointment of Cathleen Black as new school chancellor than New York City teachers. Upon hearing the news, I halfway expected leaders of the union to charge down Fifth Avenue, Paul Revere style, proclaiming "The business women are coming! The business women are coming!" At least we would have been warned.

This changing of the guard left those with a stake in the school system both perplexed and angry. Within 24 hours of Black's appointment, my inbox had flooded with e-mail blasts urging educators to petition the waiver which will allow her to serve as chancellor. The primary concern? She has no professional experience in education.

To be fair, Black boasts some impressive credentials. She's proven herself a managerial machine, having successfully run both Hearst Magazines and USA Today. Fortune Magazine even cited her among the "50 Most Powerful Women in Business." But, when it comes to qualifications directly related to education, her resume leaves something to desire. You have to ask yourself, "Was there really no one within the behemoth of a system that is NYC's public schools who was more qualified for this job?"

Many educators view Black's appointment as a perpetuation of the trend to manage large school systems via a business model. This tactic is met with contention because corporate objectives are starkly different than those of the public education sector; businesses want to make money, schools want to develop children into productive, well-rounded citizens. When schools are run like businesses, children are viewed as products, not people. Teachers are encouraged to place a heavy emphasis on quantitative data use, such as test scores, to evaluate the needs students. For purposes of accountability, they find themselves attending incessant meetings and producing endless documentation, all of which is centered around this hard data.

Here's the thing: the needs of children are far more complex than what can be ascertained through statistics and figures. I can learn more about a student through one meaningful conversation than I can a whole binder of item analyzed assessments. Is it more valuable to know that a student struggles with the quadratic formula or that they are dealing with the loss of a relative? Both are important, but when we [teachers] are too busy attending meetings and analyzing numbers, we miss opportunities to acquire the most insightful data of all.

It is unlikely that a complete outsider will truly understand what goes on in a school. A person who's never stood at the helm of classroom cannot possibly comprehend how insanely wild children become after lunch. And an outsider may not grasp the transient importance of Justin Beiber's haircut, Twilight's Edward vs. Jacob saga or dressing up for Spirit Week. As a teacher, however, I pride myself on these inane tidbits of knowledge because they connect me to my clientele.

The best administrators and school board personnel have spent time in the classroom and understand what it means to teach. They know the horror accompanied by an utter breakdown of classroom management. They get the challenge of teaching reading (it's harder than one might think). They are empathetic towards the student who, for reasons beyond anyone's control, just cannot stay in their seat. They might even share in our fear of chronic kidney problems from "holding it" for hours on end. And while their job is to push teachers to get the best from our students, they are able to do so in realistic and supportive ways.

Remember when a post-retirement Michael Jordan decided to take on baseball? While his athletic prowess may have resulted in six NBA championships, it certainly didn't give him the advantage in America's favorite pastime. As such, an exemplary corporate resume does not give one carte blanche for any upper management position. Does Cathie Black have an arsenal of strategies to engage struggling readers? Maybe, but she's never had to try them out. Does she know that children who act out in class are often doing so because they are overwhelmed by the content? Doubtful; business executives generally abstain from outlandish behavior during meetings. While she has the managerial skills to develop media companies into a corporate giants, but children and schools are a different story.

In big city bureaucracies, the cronyism that sustains control for those in power is no new phenomenon. I am, however, compelled to believe that something as precious as education has immunity to such ploys. You want to hire old corporate pals to oversee the Metropolitan Transit Authority? Fine, I can handle frustrating delays on my subway commute. But our children's education? That's a non-negotiable. They get one shot and they absolutely deserve the best.