The rogue nominee for schools chancellor is something of a new tradition among big city mayors. Los Angeles has most recently had David Brewer, more known for his naval achievements than those in education, although he did run the Navy’s education and training program. In choosing Michelle Rhee, DC Mayor Adrian Fenty didn’t go outside the world of education, but he certainly abandoned any tradition of promoting from within the education establishment in favor of someone who appeared to represent major change.
Even Mayor Bloomburg has done it before: Joel Klein, the former chancellor, came not from education but from the Justice Department. His initial appointment met with much skepticism, but he’s largely regarded as having at least moved things in the right direction: He succeeded in his goal of promoting innovative charter schools but was unable to fully create a system of teacher accountability or do away with the union’s bias toward rewarding teacher seniority rather than achievement. What urban dwellers, or at least their mayors, seem to want is a new-broom-take-charge type, a “world class manager” as Mayor Bloomberg called his most recent nominee for the job, Cathie Black. Someone who can just take this whole dysfunctional system and apply some good, sound common sense and business knowledge and fix it right up. Chicago even renamed its superintendent the “CEO of the CPS” (Chicago Public Schools). It sounds like someone who’s going to get things done.
But as Slate ‘s John Dickerson said of the presidency, running a school system is not as easy as it looks. “Quick and definitive decision making, crystal-clear goal setting and an all-surpassing attention to the bottom line” can get you only so far in a world where the bottom line is remarkably unclear. Does a succcessful school district produce kids who test well? On what tests? Do they end up in college, and if so, what of those for whom college isn’t the best choice? Do its teachers test well, and again, on what tests? Are students happy? Are parents? Are taxpayers? The unions, contracts, regulations, and internal boards that appear inefficient sprang not from a desire to gum up the educational works but earlier attempts to fix earlier problems. They’re not easy to get around, and in some cases they shouldn’t be.
If the Department of Education grants the waiver (of a requirement that chancellors have significant experience in education; Joel Klein needed it, too) that Black will need in order to become chancellor of schools, New York will get another set of fresh eyes on a perennial problem. Black will be rewarded with New York City’s worst job, with an impatient constituency and a public that believes change should be obvious, quick, and easy in an arena where it’s anything but.
Photograph of Cathy Black by Anthony Behar/Getty Images.