12/01/2010 04:32 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Educational Experience is Paramount

The recent appointment of Cathleen Black to the chancellorship of the New York Public Schools -- the nation's largest school system -- has brought to the forefront the question of who is qualified to lead our schools. Ms. Black has almost no experience with public schools. She didn't send her to children to one. She didn't attend one, and she's had no experience as a teacher or educational administrator.

Yet, Eli Broad recently wrote an editorial on this site supporting Black's appointment. Mr. Broad writes,

Our experience shows that it is not necessary that superintendents themselves have backgrounds in education. A great education leader can learn the operations side, and a great business leader can learn the education side. But the most important thing is to get the best manager possible -- with a track record like Cathie Black -- in place while the opportunity exists.

Mr. Broad built his fortune in real estate and founded a training program for education leaders, The Broad Superintendents Training Academy whose mission is "to transform urban school districts into effective public enterprises." Mr. Broad argues that any good manager, from the military or from business, can run a school or school system: the "education side" can be learned on the job.

I agree with Mr. Broad in that we absolutely need good managers to run our school districts. But more critically we need leaders who understand the world of teachers, principals, and students. As a former teacher in public schools, my daily experiences working in urban and suburban schools was essential to my educational career as a school leader and in my work in school reform. What I learned in public schools I could not have learned in any other way, not by reading about education, by visiting schools, or by shadowing students and teachers (all things I hope Ms. Black will at least do in her new position). I needed to feel what it truly meant to wake up and teach every day.

This is what I learned from teaching in public schools:

1. Teaching is hard work and it is tiring. If you strive to be a great teacher, if you spend time with students after school, if you participate in extra curricular activities, if you work every day to plan and teach the best classes possible, then at the end of the week, you will no doubt find yourself exhausted. On Friday night, you'll need nothing more than to go home and go to sleep. You might be able to take Saturday off, but by Sunday you'll be planning and reading student papers for much of the day. My father, a career public school teacher, told me, "Teaching is not a sprint. It's a marathon. Learn to pace yourself so that you can be effective over the long haul." I believe as a nation, we have little understanding of how hard our good teachers work. The media might have us believe teachers go home every day at 2:30 p.m. and take the summers off. I've never worked so hard in my life as when I taught in public schools, and I have the utmost admiration for my colleagues who have dedicated their lives to teaching.

2. Collaboration is essential for effective teaching. It was my good fortune, to teach at two schools that placed collaboration among teachers and administrators at the heart of our work. We taught together, we learned from each other, we shared our best ideas. I can't imagine teaching any other way. Certainly we get energy from our students, but we need to work with other educators to improve what we do and to make the school environment one that is enjoyable and productive. Clearly collaboration costs more, but without it, it is nearly impossible to grow our teaching practice, analyze the work of our students, and in general improve our schools.

3. Fewer students allows for deeper learning. The average class load for a high school teacher in the United States is about 115 students. If we ask for all of our students to write an essay, and if we take only 10 minutes to read and offer feedback to each, we spend almost 20 hours responding to our students' work (so much for not working on Saturday!) For our nation's youth to improve their level of literacy, they need to read and write extensively, and as teachers we need to find the time to adequately support their efforts. It is possible to teach 115 students how to do better on a standardized test, but for real improvement we need to know our students and have the time to meet with them to help them to become better readers, writers, and thinkers.

4. Standardized tests are a narrow measure of our students' learning. Most of the standardized tests we are giving across the nation do not measure the habits of mind that are necessary for college and work. It's much easier to give students a test that is a series of bubbles corrected by computer than to ask them to read, write, solve problems and express themselves in substantive ways. As teachers, we want our students to understand the meanings beneath the surface of texts; we want them to be able to express themselves succinctly in an interview or in a college course; and we want them to be able to write a well-crafted narrative about an experience in their lives, the kind of narratives that are essential in college admission applications. Our standardized tests fail to reflect our students' learning in all its complexity and depth, yet it's the fastest and easiest way for a manager to evaluate the supposed success of a school. Even when test scores rise, as David Berliner points out, they may not at all represent increased learning.

Will managers from the business sector truly understand these day-to-day challenges that our teachers face? Will they institute policies that help teachers and students engage in meaningful work in classrooms, or will they look at the bottom-line: increasing class sizes, decreasing time for collaboration and planning, and instituting more "systems of accountability" by placing a greater emphasis on standardized test scores? Without truly understanding what it means to work and learn in a public school, their words and their policies will ring false, and they will potentially be doing our teachers and students a great injustice.