School & District Management Opinion

What Did We Learn From the Cathie Black Debacle?

By Diane Ravitch — April 19, 2011 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Dear Deborah,

What a pleasure to discover we were on the same plane to New Orleans for the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. It gave me a chance to wish you a happy birthday. When I spoke that evening, I asked everyone to congratulate you on your 80th. I told the audience that blogging with Deborah Meier had a big impact on my thinking, and I suggested you should blog with half a dozen other eminent conservative scholars. It will be hard work, but you can do it. That should keep you busy for the next 20 years, and I look forward to toasting your centennial!

In the best of times, education would not be newsworthy, but these are not the best of times. Every day brings bad news about a district closing down public schools or firing teachers or introducing testing for kindergartners. One hardly knows how to keep up with the accumulating attacks on teachers, principals, administrators, and public education.

The biggest recent news was the decision by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to replace city schools Chancellor Cathleen Black on April 7. She served only three months, which set a record for the shortest tenure ever in that position. The mayor immediately announced the selection of his trusted deputy mayor, Dennis Walcott, as chancellor. On the same day, New York State Commissioner of Education David Steiner announced his resignation after less than two years on the job. I wrote about these events in a blog for The New York Review of Books, so I won’t give the full history here.

There is a rich irony in these proceedings. For the past several months, the Mayor has been running a vigorous campaign against teacher seniority, now referred to as “LIFO,” or “Last In, First Out.” With the support of the city’s editorial boards, he has argued that experience does not matter when it comes to teaching. The fast ouster of Cathie Black suggests that Mayor Bloomberg is not entirely averse to the practice of LIFO. And when the mayor named Deputy Mayor Walcott, he pointed to Walcott’s long experience in the field of education as his chief qualification for this very important position.

When Black’s appointment was announced by the mayor, it received ecstatic reviews from the city’s top business leaders, who assured the public that Black had exactly the skills “essential to running any large organization, whether in the private, public, or nonprofit sector,” and that “you would be hard-pressed to find a more qualified and more capable candidate than Cathie Black.” Black received equally enthusiastic support from former Mayors Edward I. Koch, David N. Dinkins, and Rudy Giuliani, as well as from celebrities such as Gloria Steinem, Oprah, and Michelle Rhee.

What lessons were learned from this fiasco? (I hesitate to talk about “lessons learned” because these days no high-level education policymakers seem to give a second thought to evidence or logic or history).

It is now evident that Black did not have the skills essential to running the nation’s largest public school system. Mayor Bloomberg boasted that she was a “superstar manager” and she may well have been a superstar as the chief executive officer of Hearst Magazines. But we now know that success in business is no guarantee for success in education. When one enters the highest position in the education sector, one should have deep knowledge and experience of schools, children, curriculum and assessment, teaching and learning, the intricacies of federal and state legislation, and a host of other issues. One must be able to interact respectfully and knowledgeably with parents, staff, and the public. Unfortunately, Black had none of that knowledge and none of those skills. Public school parents felt especially affronted by the idea that their children’s fates were in the hands of someone so lacking in experience or qualification for the job.

Businesspeople seem to act on the assumption that if you are good at marketing and sales or accounting, you can transfer those skills to any product. Whether you are marketing soap or automobiles or computers or magazines doesn’t make any difference.

But if we learned anything from Cathie Black’s experience, it is that education is not interchangeable with business. Education is not a business. It is supposed to provide good education to all children, not to segment its market and compete with others in the marketplace. It operates on the principle of equality of educational opportunity, not a race to see who can sell the most or win the biggest market share and beat out the others.

Mayoral control was part of the problem in New York City. Mayor Bloomberg, as in the past, felt no need to have a transparent process or a national search. He didn’t see why the public or other elected officials should have a voice in his selection. The decision belonged only to him, and no one else’s views mattered, certainly not the views of parents. Yet U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan continues to push for mayoral control, the iron will of the mayor being absolute, even though it has done precious little for Cleveland or Chicago or, for that matter, New York City. Last June, the New York State Education Department admitted that the state scores were wildly inflated, and New York City’s much-publicized “miracle” evaporated. Subsequently, Mayor Bloomberg’s poll ratings started dropping, partly due to the city’s inept response to a major blizzard in December, but also because the public realized that there had been no educational miracle. In the latest poll, right before Cathie Black resigned, only 27 percent of the public approved the mayor’s handling of the public schools (Black’s approval rating was 17 percent). For a mayor who wanted education to be his legacy, this was a bitter pill indeed, and Black had to go.

So much of the current corporate reform agenda is built on principles borrowed from the business world. Competition is supposed to drive higher test scores. Test scores are the profits. Schools that can’t get higher test scores are failing and should be closed. Teachers whose students get higher scores should get bonuses. Teachers whose students don’t get higher scores should be fired. Public money should be handed over to private entrepreneurs, freed of onerous regulations imposed on regular public schools, so they can compete to get higher scores.

After almost a decade of No Child Left Behind, the media seems to accept that this is the way schools are supposed to work. They come and go, like shoe stores. Profits up, they are good. Profits down, they close.

So it made perfect sense, at least to Mayor Bloomberg, that a successful publishing executive could sell his program. After all, she opened and closed many magazines, why not do the same with schools? But it didn’t work. She didn’t know the language, the issues, the players, or anything about public education or child development or assessment or accountability or any of the political battles now raging.

Dennis Walcott, Black’s successor, won a waiver from the state education commissioner in the blink of an eye. Unlike Black, who had no experience or qualifications whatever, Walcott had spent 18 months teaching kindergarten in a daycare center many years ago. He had also run the local Urban League and served on the city’s now-abolished board of education. He will reach out to parents and calm them. He knows the issues and the language. He knows the legislators and the laws and the policies. And he will continue the mayor’s policies of closing public schools, placing charter schools into public school buildings, grading schools based on test scores, evaluating teachers by their students’ scores, demanding an end to seniority, and doing exactly what the mayor has been doing since 2002. And, like the mayor, he will continue to praise the city’s dramatic accomplishments, ignoring the embarrassing deflation of the city’s test-score miracle last June.

There ought to be a law: No boasting. Anyone who boasts about test-score gains should be immediately held in contempt in the court of public opinion. The best educators, like the best professionals in any field, are those who do their job well, without boasting, without a public relations staff, without a megaphone. I know I dream the impossible, but what else are dreams for?


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.