WHEN NEW York City mayor Michael Bloomberg named a successor to Joel Klein as chancellor of the New York school system, there was, to say the least, more than the usual interest in the change of leadership of that high-profile job. Cathleen P. Black, chairwoman of Hearst Magazines, had no educational credentials and therefore needed a waiver from the state education commissioner, David M. Steiner. Klein had also required a waiver, although he had briefly taught math at a local high school and, unlike the private-school graduate Black, had been educated in the city’s school system. Bloomberg’s choice surprised many members of the mayor’s own staff, who had not been consulted or even had advance notice of the appointment.
The choice raised at least two questions in the minds of the public and pundits and should raise a third: Why select someone who has no experience in education and cannot meet even the barest state requirements? Why would anyone think such an appointment could work? And what does this action tell us about public education in this country?
First, some historical background. When Bloomberg took office in 2002, after promising on the campaign trail to reform the school system, he inherited a decentralized structure with thirty-two local community school districts and a seven-member Board of Education—only two appointed by the mayor—which chose a superintendent of schools. After his election the state legislature centralized the school system under the mayor; it became the new Department of Education. Bloomberg then named Klein as chancellor. Joe Nocera, in his weekly New York Times column “Talking Business,” wrote that Bloomberg “could not have cared less” that Klein lacked the needed credentials. “Joel had all the qualifications,” Bloomberg told Nocera. “He knows how to attract good people, motivating them and making them accountable. You can always find someone to do the technical stuff.”
Bloomberg also dissolved the old Board of Education and established a new thirteen-member Panel for Educational Policy with eight members appointed by the mayor and five by the borough presidents. In January 2004, when Bloomberg encountered opposition to his plan to end social promotion, he summarily fired two of his own appointees, and one of the borough presidents fired his representative. The actions might have been called a coup in another country. The plan passed, and Bloomberg was quoted as saying, “Mayoral control means mayoral control, thank you very much. They are my representatives and they are going to vote for the things I believe in.” A rough translation: I am the boss and they work for me.
FOR BLOOMBERG, who made his billions supplying financial news and whose company now publishes Bloomberg Businesweek, Cathie Black was someone whose background and experience were similar to his own: both were heads of organizations that collected, packaged, and sold what may broadly be called “information,” or what in this digital age is labeled “content.” Bloomberg values “accountability,” and so, apparently, does Black, who, according to a Times story about her career, “replaced editors and publishers who did not make their numbers.” Given their professional careers, it is not too far-fetched to think that both perceive school curricula as merely another variety of content along with reality programs, sitcoms, and cop shows.
This suspicion receives some support from the official letter Bloomberg wrote to Commissioner Steiner requesting the waiver for Black, which compared the duties of the school chancellor with Black’s business experience. He noted that the chancellor was the “chief executive officer of the school system” who must manage “a $23 billion budget and a work force of 135,000 people…manage labor relations [and] use data in decision making.” Her “broad range of experience and success in business as well as her demonstrated…versatility, leadership and management skills…amply qualify her to be Chancellor of the New York City schools.” Bloomberg also noted that she has “deep experience seeking out the opinions of customers, and incorporating their thoughts and ideas into the organization’s work.” A keyword here is “customers”: the rhetoric of the marketplace is used to describe parents and their children. Indeed, it is how well Black has met the demands of the marketplace that draws Bloomberg’s admiration: “At Hearst, Ms. Black oversaw reductions in force, reorganizations, and closure of unprofitable magazines…”
In the midst of a growing public controversy, the argument did not impress Steiner, who refused to grant the waiver and convened a panel to advise him on the matter; it too disapproved of a waiver. The mayor and Steiner, after days of negotiations, finally reached a deal: the mayor would “create a new position of chief academic officer who would oversee curriculum and testing” and function as Black’s second-in-command. It was unclear exactly how much authority he or she would exercise, but the CAO would report to Black, who, the Times report noted, “is accustomed to setting the agenda in the rough-and–tumble world of corporate culture.”
The new appointee, Shael Polakow-Suransky, started his career as a mathematics teacher and rose to a high-level executive position under Klein: at the time of his new appointment he was the chief accountability officer of the Department of Education in charge of using student performance data to grade schools A-through-F, which is the basis for granting teacher bonuses and identifying schools to be closed. A brief Times profile noted that “one thing seems certain: [he] will continue the same kind of data-driven reform embraced by Joel I. Klein.” To be fair, he also promised to create better assessment tests that, for example, include essays and class projects.
The appointment of Polakow-Suransky (“someone to do the technical stuff”) answers the question of how the waiver problem was finally solved and points to an explanation of Black’s appointment. She was chosen because she had no educational experience. Since the mayor was interested in finding a nimble, data-driven cost-cutter and a proven manager, appointing an educator with the necessary educational credentials would almost inevitably have meant a future conflict. Black was the perfect candidate: someone with the experience Bloomberg valued and no professional commitments that would make it difficult for her to unquestionably embrace his education agenda.
Three months later, Black was surprised to be summoned to a meeting with Bloomberg where he requested her resignation, saying, “This is not working out.”
THERE IS a curious symmetry to Black’s short career as a public servant: it begins and ends with the same question, Why?
One kind of answer stressed her lack of leadership within the Department of Education: she lost the support and confidence of top officials. In her three months on the job, four deputy chancellors resigned. Despite Bloomberg’s praise of her management skills, she was unable to cope with nitty-gritty work such as dealing with the intricacies of the budget process and decisions on school closings. A related answer emphasized a political dimension. Most of her public meetings with parents and community groups were highly publicized disasters; she had a public approval rating of 17 percent at a time when Bloomberg’s own ratings were steadily falling. Her failures were adding to his growing unpopularity. Firing Black was an attempt to cut his losses, but it raises the second question of why he thought the appointment would work out in the first place.*(It should be noted that Black’s successor, Dennis M. Walcott, a deputy mayor, also needed a waiver, although he has more formal educational credentials than Black and has been a teacher himself. While he will more ably cope with the political demands of the job, he has promised to pursue the same educational agenda that Black was supposed to execute.)
Bloomberg’s praise of Black is a prime example of a conventional business assumption that anyone who is a proven success in running a large corporation has the experience to run any other complex organization, whether business or non-business. Thus Bloomberg in his waiver letter: “She has the knowledge and experience to make data-driven decisions and expand important Department of Education technology initiatives…” At another level, the letter reads as a projected form of self-appraisal: “I could reach out and be elected as mayor and Black, in the same line of business, can successfully reach out to the public.”
This line of thinking ignores the differences between education and the economy considered as social institutions, and so leads us to the third question of how many political elites view public education. There are differences between the values, norms, and ends sought in the behavior and the social structures we think of as “education” and the values, norms, and ends governing economic enterprises. The resignation of the four deputy chancellors was no accident; there was no way their professional expectations of leadership could be met by someone shaped by another institutional culture. Although there is an overlap in the values and ends of different institutions—families and schools obviously share some ends—there must be some degree of independence among the institutions of a society. In a capitalist economy, for example, the market must be the primary mechanism for setting prices rather than government fiat, and in a democracy academic freedom at all levels must be a principal norm if education is not to become indoctrination. From this perspective, the necessary independence of education is always at risk from the power of the state on one hand and powerful economic interests on the other.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the United States today. Bloomberg’s appointment of Black is merely one local instance of attempts to dominate school systems by economic and political forces. From Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s notorious attack on teacher unions and teacher tenure to New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s threat to pursue the same goal, we see the political pressures on education. Nor is the federal government innocent of the same attempts. In order for New York State to win money in Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s “Race to the Top,” the state had to double the number of charter schools—often nonunion—it allowed that student performance on standardized tests be part of teacher evaluations. And, as Joanne Barkan’s “Got Dough” details, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, and the Walton Foundation, all financed by billions of private dollars, have the same “market-based goal for overhauling public education.”
The real problem, then, that public education faces today is not teachers and their unions—the favorite scapegoats—but the powerful political and economic forces that threaten the necessary independence of education in a democratic society.
Murray Hausknecht writes frequently for Dissent.
Image: Cathie Black and Joel Klein (Gothamschools/Flickr cc/2010)