This past Thursday, I was sitting in the AP study hall section that I monitor, quietly grading papers, when one of the seniors ran into the room and announced, ?Hey, the chancellor resigned.?
I looked up warily; April Fool?s Day is apparently a week-long celebration in our school, and I?d been getting regularly ?punked? (as the students put it when they walked off with my stapler, or hid my copy of the book we were reading) for several days in a row. ?What? Are you sure?? I asked.
?Yeah. That guy. He resigned.?
?The current chancellor?s not a guy?it?s a woman. Cathie Black. Are you saying she resigned??
He looked confused, and then became interested in something another student was doing. I went back to my papers, thinking he must have misunderstood something. But, a period later, the news was all over the hallway. ?See? I told you!? the same student said, when I taught him for seventh period AP English.
I asked my students what they knew about Cathie Black. The few who were able to tell me that she ?runs the schools? [in New York City] also informed me that she was ?that rich lady.? Most couldn?t elaborate on what her role was, other than one student who offered that the she would have been responsible for canceling school on snow days.
I found the students? lack of clarity about her role to be an appropriate assessment of Cathie Black?s tenure as chancellor. When she was picked by Bloomberg last November, I?like many other teachers?felt as though I?d been slapped in the face. It wasn?t only that no one in the board of education?least of all the teachers?had been consulted on this appointment; we teachers have long been used to having no voice in our own governance. Rather, it offended me that someone who had no education experience whatsoever, in teaching or administration, would be chosen to lead the troubled system in which I work. Black hadn?t been through public school and had sent her own children to a boarding school in Connecticut. I couldn?t imagine she?d ever been in one of our classrooms. How could she know anything about what it was to work or study in these schools?
As an NYC teacher, I would never have the audacity to walk into the headquarters of a completely different industry?say, magazine publishing?than the one in which I?d worked all my life and assume that I could take the helm (and I wouldn?t have been invited to do so). I couldn?t imagine what remedy our chancellor could possibly offer to the litany of problems plaguing education in our fair city.
Bloomberg had an answer of course. Black?s strong business background and managerial skills would carry her through. And this is precisely what made so many teachers angry: the idea that the problems faced by students and teachers on a day-to-day basis were entirely managerial or budgetary, and not related to high poverty rates, school violence, lack of educational resources, overcrowding in classrooms, inconsistent parental involvement, and poor academic climates in students? homes. We assumed that, whenever Cathie Black realized she had no ability to affect change in the vast majority of these areas, she?d resort to blaming everyone?s favorite scapegoat: teachers.
To the extent that any of these problems could be ameliorated by the chancellor?s actions, I saw no improvement during the short time that Cathie Black was in office. Rather, Black?s most notable appearance was an embarrassment both for her and for the Bloomberg camp: in a January meeting on overcrowding in schools, Black proposed to parents in a low-income area (who had long complained about the scarcity of seats) that they should utilize more birth control. ?It could really help us all out a lot,? she quipped. Perhaps if Black had been popular before, she could have apologized and proceeded onward, business as usual. But with Black already mistrusted due to her ?outsider status? in the world of education and the world of the urban poor, the remark served only to distance her further from her constituent students, parents, and teachers. The incident clearly had a sobering effect on Black herself; there was nary a peep from her in the subsequent couple of months before her resignation.
Looking back on the incident, and on the whole of her brief term, I can?t deny feeling some sympathy for Black. There was no way she couldn?t have failed; as far as I can tell, she knew next to nothing about public school operations or reform, and Bloomberg?s assertion that a business background would serve just as well as one in education proved patently incorrect. But more significantly, the court of public opinion (and I include myself in this grouping) had judged her?not inaccurately, as it turned out, but perhaps with undue harshness?from the moment she was announced as Joel Klein?s successor. I can?t imagine how difficult it must have been for her to go to work each morning, knowing that her every move was being scrutinized, and that most of her constituents were just waiting for her to fall flat on her face. Were I in her shoes, I?d have found the situation terrifying.
But the most lasting legacy of Cathie Black?s brief foray into education isn?t just the reminder of how wrongheaded it is to apply a business model to education; it?s also the demonstration of how important it is for the chancellor to have a deep understanding of the day-to-day problems facing students, teachers, and parents in low-income, high-needs schools. Only someone with a ?desk-eye view? can win the confidence and support of these constituents, and?in the wording of the original job description for the position of chancellor (from the job posting that Joel Klein ultimately filled in 2002)??act in a position of public trust.?