Lessons from Gotham for Education Reformers

12/06/2010 04:07 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A deal was struck last week in what threatened to become a stare-down between two highly respected reform leaders. Mayor Bloomberg, reform icon of mayoral control of school districts found himself at odds with David Steiner, a commissioner who has done more to clean up New York City's schools in his short tenure than any of his predecessors in recent memory. As the dust settles on this battle of wills, it offers an important lesson for reformers.

The New York Times offered a glimpse into the gravity of Steiner's decision-making on whether to permit Cathie Black to becoming schools chancellor, despite her lack of an education credential. That portrayal is a lesson in itself about how a leader should consider something that will impact so many children.

Too much of the conversation among reformers about the mayor's surprise appointment of a publishing executive for the city's top schools post has focused on defending his hard-won right to appoint whom he pleased. As reformers defended the mayor on that issue, we overlooked some of the ways this tussle may have hurt the effort toward improving New York's schools or in the larger case for reform.

For example, transparency is a word reformers use often when we call for public reporting of achievement data or teacher performance information, sunshine on union contracts, and accessible district and state budgets. It's much harder to win those fights if we don't operate with equal transparency about our own organizations, agendas, and intentions. And we lose credibility for our positions if we don't hold our friends to the same standards we apply to foes.

I am not weighing in on the side of a more transparent (aka politicized) selection process. The law gives Bloomberg the authority to make the decision and he made it. But it does not unburden him of the most fundamental job of any leader: building confidence for one's agenda. That should have meant selling his (or in this case, his appointee's) vision for change as he made his announcement about why she's the right person for the job. He didn't. According to a recent poll of New York voters, that has now undercut his appointee significantly; almost half of the city's voters disapprove of the Black appointment.

Defending the mayor's pick with arguments that credentials shouldn't matter also misses a fundamental point. And here I'm not weighing in on the side of traditional credentials: I've seen plenty of great non-educators effectively lead everything from charter management organizations to large urban districts. But the lack of education credentials is not a self-evident qualification for such a tough job either. What was it about this particular business leader that made sense for this particular job? The announcement of Black was an opportunity to influence that broader debate by talking about the essential skills for such a post and why, for this job, nontraditional makes sense. Bloomberg could have used this occasion to illustrate why American's system of credentialing educational leaders needs retooling. He didn't make that case either. Now the same polls shows that two-thirds of New York voters say they believe education experience matters more than management experience for this post.

The basic questions Black and Bloomberg might have answered in this process are things about which any reformer should have a point of view. What does Black (or the mayor) believe about the capabilities of the people currently teaching in and leading NYC schools? Does she subscribe to a "get the bureaucracy off their back" philosophy that assumes educators essentially know what to do, but cumbersome government procedures prevent them from doing it? Is she more of the mind that tighter institutional goals and measures are needed to focus educators on expected results? What about instructional resources? As a publisher, she could at least have talked about the role that books or other emerging technologies should play in effective schools. As a business leader, she surely could have spoken to how large systems best foster the flexibility-for-quality compact that should define the city's many charter schools.

Black's selection has been publicly debated for almost a month now, yet the public has little insight into her thinking on questions such as these. This appointment was an opportunity to build support for her views and for the importance of improving the nation's largest school district. The announcement could have furthered an ongoing narrative in a campaign for school reform. It could have told a story about why improving schools matters in today's economy and what skills are needed in the top job. In doing so, it could have demonstrated why mayoral control makes sense, especially for the nation's largest urban districts. None of that happened and the polls now show a public hardening against another reform mayor and his appointee.

The debate has already shifted to discussing whether Bloomberg won or lost this round. He won, clearly, his pick will get her waiver. But while he won the fight, he lost the argument. And this appointment became a much larger fight than it should have been. Black is obviously a capable woman and will likely rise to this challenge. But now her new job comes with an additional burden: earning back a measure of public confidence she might not have lost if the mayor has taken more care in communicating why he is so confidence in her skills.

Reformers often face the same set of choices. We will often find ourselves well-positioned to win a round without the extra effort of building support for our actions. Sometimes that tactic makes sense and sometimes leadership requires us to brush past polls and other indicators of public mood to do the right thing. But consistently ignoring public sentiment is not a viable long-term strategy; we can win a few rounds this way, but the changes we secure won't be lasting. Ignoring the public's mood for too long risks losing the opportunity to lead.

The larger point is, we should never want to "win" major changes in our system of public schools without also earning the confidence of parents and the broader public. If that statement doesn't make sense, perhaps Waiting for "Superman" requires another viewing, if only to remind us of how much it matters to a family to be able to believe in its public schools. We should want to nurture that kind of hope; we should want those parents to believe in reform -- and to vote accordingly.