11/29/2010 04:33 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

State Ed Commissioner Caves to Pressure from the Billionaire Boys Club

In an attempt to "compromise" and satisfy everyone, State Education Commissioner David M. Steiner appears to have satisfied no one. Cathie Black may now have the waiver needed to get the job of New York City schools chancellor, but Mayor Bloomberg has suffered his worst political embarrassment since his dream of a west side football stadium was vaporized by the State Legislature. He will not forgive or forget.

After it appeared last week that Ms. Black might not obtain the waiver she needed to win the job, Mr. Steiner seemed once again the shining knight, fighting for high standards and educational professionalism. Since he caved to the Bloomberg pressure, critics of the Black appointment are becoming more cynical.

The education "reform" movement, so much in vogue, loves Ms. Black. To them, the less you know about education, the better.

So we hail as saviors the young people who devote perhaps two or three years to Teach for America, and condemn those more ordinary folk who are prepared to devote their entire careers to teaching as mere "slackers" with lifetime tenure. Never mind that even the brightest young teacher cannot reach his or her stride in this challenging profession until they have generally much more time on the job than most of the TFA kids rack up before they depart for their "real" careers.

The amateur teachers aren't the only ones in our schools who may be wet behind the ears.
The word "principal" comes from the term "principal teacher," acknowledging respect for the experience as well as the skill of the practitioner.

But in the world of "reform" it is becoming increasingly common to see principals appointed to run schools who have never taught, or who have had only minimal classroom experience.

On occasion, an exceptional individual may shine, but many (and the children in the care) are doomed by their inexperience. Respect is the grease that makes the good school successful. When a struggling teacher needs help, say in classroom management, he or she wants advice from that "principal teacher," not a clueless neophyte.

Much has been made of Diane Ravitch's evolution into the most vocal critic of the current "reform" orthodoxy. But as far back as 2003, she refused to sign on to the report "Better Leaders for America's Schools: A Manifesto," challenging its conclusion that non-educators could serve as principals or even superintendents.

The co-sponsor of that report was the Broad Foundation, one of the epicenters of what Dr. Ravitch calls the "Billionaire Boys Club" in her best-selling book The Death and Life of the Great American School System. These well-meaning philanthropists are so sure that they can transfer their success in business to education that they are willing to bet your children's lives on it.

Are they winning the bet?

They point to Joel Klein in New York, Ms. Black's predecessor who has led the New York system for eight years, certainly enough time to take ownership and responsibility.

But here's the truth. The recent recalibration of state test scores reveal that the "historic gains" boasted of when Mayor Bloomberg was reelected last year, have all but disappeared.

This despite having increased the education budget from $13 to $22 billion annually, increasing the number of teachers in the system by nearly 5,000 even as student population declined by some 60,000. Yet class sizes haven't decreased. So much for the management legerdemain of the businessmen turned school chiefs.

And what of Chicago, where U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan held sway for so long before selling his brand of reform snake oil on the national stage?

Violence plagued schools that make New York's look like Nirvana and, according to the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, claims of increases in the Windy City's test score results are nothing more than, well, a lot of wind. See a pattern here?

Shael Polokow-Suransky is New York's deputy chancellor for performance and accountability. As part of the Steiner compromise he will serve as Ms. Black's top deputy. His current job makes him nothing more than a spinmeister for an administration eager to make the image seem much better than the reality. And, he is a graduate of the Broad Foundation's Superintendent's Academy. So from the mayor's perspective he is the perfect man to watch his and Ms. Black's backs.

At least Mr. Klein came to his job with some impressive non-education government experience. Ms. Black has none. Mr. Klein attended New York City public schools, and taught here for a short time. Ms. Black visited her kids at their Connecticut boarding school.

As a social friend of Mayor Bloomberg, Ms. Black is a recipient of what my friend Richard Lipsky (from New York's Neighborhood Retail Alliance) calls "patricianage," giving jobs to the rich, famous and well connected. As Mr. Lipsky points out, "the Bloombergistas idea of diversity is to hire someone from Goldman Sachs if there's no one from Lehman Brothers readily available."

Ironically, Ms. Black seems just right for the post of president or chair of an independent citizen board, like the one we had before the mayor took over (which is looking better and better as time goes on). But chancellor? We will continue to see disastrous results that don't become truly apparent until our "graduates" fail in college.