Education Opinion

Business and Education Don’t Mix

By Walt Gardner — April 11, 2011 2 min read
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The abrupt resignation of Cathleen Black as chancellor of New York City schools after only 95 days on the job serves as a cautionary tale for taxpayers. I’m not talking about Black’s flagrant lack of educational experience, which has been extensively covered by the media. Instead, I’m talking about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s arrogant handling of the matter, which is emblematic of an even larger issue.

From the time Bloomberg took office, he made education reform one of the pillars of his administration. He believed that business practices would transform the nation’s largest school system. As a result, he ignored advice and acted in secrecy, as if the school district were just another corporation that he headed. This approach allowed him to move quickly without having to build a consensus. But common sense should have told him that pushing to get Black appointed was going to be the final straw. Managing the Hearst Corporation, with 2,000 employees is not preparation for managing 1,600 schools serving 1.1 million students.

Beyond the Black fiasco, what should be apparent is that public schools are not public corporations. The former can’t be operated like the latter. Bloomberg thought differently. He was always accustomed to getting his way. This was obvious when New York State Education Commissioner David Steiner easily caved in to Bloomberg’s insistence that he waive the requirements for New York City chancellor so that Black could take her post. (Hours after Black quit, Steiner announced his plan to resign by the end of the year. He denied any connection between his decision and Black’s departure, calling it a “bizarre coincidence.”)

Bloomberg’s autocratic attitude is frequently on display in the corporate world, where bosses bark and subordinates jump. But it doesn’t work in education, particularly in public schools. Teachers do not respond to the same practices because education is a different culture. A wise leader understands the distinction. During my 28-year career teaching at the same high school, I worked under six principals. One was a former brigadier general in the Marines. He was very effective because he recognized that what works in the military does not work in schools. He never gave an order to teachers. Instead, he enlisted their cooperation. The adjustment must have been difficult for him, but he never showed it.

Reformers, however, still don’t get it. They continue to insist that the business model hasn’t been given a fair chance. In their mind, it’s too soon to draw any valid conclusions. They’re deluded, but don’t try telling them that.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.