Education Opinion

Get Real About School Chiefs

By Walt Gardner — January 01, 2014 1 min read
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Mayor Bill de Blasio’s appointment of Carmen Fariña as chancellor of the New York City school system, the largest in the nation, is attracting unusual attention (“The Inequality Contradiction,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 31). I wonder, however, if anyone can make a significant difference as the head of an urban school district.

I base that view on the evidence to date. The record of leaders into education from other fields or from within the field itself is mixed. Michelle Rhee taught before becoming chancellor of schools in the District of Columbia. After she left in 2010, the success that the media had bought into turned out to be a mirage. Admiral David Brewer was forced to resign as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District in 2009 when he was unable to deliver on his agenda.

Notice that both districts are largely composed of disadvantaged students. It’s in these districts that the ability of school chiefs is tested on a daily basis. Even the most talented and dedicated leaders find themselves trying to deal with what I believe are impossible challenges. It’s extremely rare to find those who can overcome the severe deficits that students bring to school through no fault of their own. Whatever success they may post one year, they are unable to sustain throughout their careers.

Reformers assert that the single greatest obstacle to upward economic mobility is the failure of inner-city public schools. But these schools are not Lourdes. They cannot perform miracles, regardless of teachers or administrators. Students are in school for only a small portion of their waking hours. The rest of the time is spent in their homes and neighborhoods.

So I wish Fariña well, but I think far too much is expected of her in light of the realities of the city she serves, despite what some say (“Bill de Blasio’s choosing Carmen Fariña as schools chancellor will revolutionize city’s schools,” New York Daily News, Dec. 31).

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.