The XX Factor

Cathie Black, NYC Schools Chancellor, Barely In Before She’s Out

This Sunday’s upcoming NYT Magazine piece on ” The Fragile Success of School Reform in the Bronx ,” focused on PS 223 and its charismatic principal, Ramon Gonzalez, appears, at first glance, to present a dramatic contrast with the rapid end to Cathie Black’s tenure as NYC schools chancellor and the current furor over suggestions of fraudulent test scores during Michelle Rhee’s tenure as chancellor of the D.C. schools . Do school reforms “work,” or don’t they? Rhee and former NYC schools chancellor Joel Klein instituted similar plans: decreasing the effects of teacher tenure on teacher placement and giving schools more control over budgets, hiring, and curriculum. Black had just a  17 percent approval rating as she attempted to carry on Klein’s policies, and now Mayor Bloomberg has already urged his controversial choice for chancellor (Black was a magazine executive with no educational experience) to step down.

But Black’s ouster, as well as the ongoing controversy surrounding Rhee, says less about “school reform” than it does about our collective need for short-term proof of success. It’s one thing to make changes in internal school bureaucracy that you hope will allow for more innovation and better results, and another entirely to demand those results immediately, as Rhee, Klein and, by extension, Black, did. In their enthusiasm for adopting methods that promote success in business environments, they also sought to reward schools and sometimes teachers for performance, most easily measured by test scores. That’s a controversial position in itself, and the allegations of fraud that have become attached to testing threaten to taint the entire reform process. Certainly Gene Lyons, writing for Salon , lumps every one of those policies together, arguing that “the myth that schools are best run like businesses [has been] emphatically demolished.”

But “school reforms” don’t come in a one-size-fits-all package. Some reforms seem to be helping some schools, and others do not. Writer Jonathan Mahler notes that middle-school principal Gonzales can avoid hiring teachers he doesn’t want on his team, set his own school hours (with a union-required vote from his teachers), create his school’s curriculum and allocate the school’s spending. Those are good things. But effectively punishing consistent improvement (three years of “As” on school report cards disqualify PS 223 from requesting additional funds earmarked for failing schools) and allowing the creation of charter schools that may skim off a neighborhood’s most motivated students make his work more difficult, even while those same policies may motivate those “failing schools” or allow for providing those motivated students a better education than they’d get in a traditional school.

We want all-or-nothing success from schools chancellors and school reform, and when we get, instead, messy and inconsistent results, we blame from both bottom-up, demonizing teachers and unions, and top-down. But neither the inconsistent results of the changes in school bureaucracies nor the issues with rewarding tests scores demolish the idea that applying some business principles, like giving actual principals more control over how their individual schools are run, may be a way to replace failing schools with more successful models in some areas. What they do demolish is the idea that we can draw any conclusions from nearly any type of school reform from a few years, or even a decade, of effort.

The most difficult thing about school reform is that the goals of public schooling are never short term. At best, short term goals-better student retention, higher test scores-are meant to reflect movement towards the real target: turning children into productive, contributing adults who can function independently in our society. We won’t be able to evaluate the effect of various school reforms, or the efforts of Ramon Gonzales, towards that goal until Gonzales’ hair is grey and he’s greeting a second or third generation of students in 223’s halls.

It’s not clear yet what led to the end of Cathie Black’s time as school chancellor. But if she had real plans for additional reform, she certainly didn’t get time to either implement or evaluate them. The real key to giving Gonzales, and others like him, a chance at success isn’t finding new ways to measure what he’s doing right now, but giving him and the programs he’s been able to create with his new freedoms time to create a future.

Photograph of Cathie Black by Michael Nagle/Getty Images.