You Have to Know Stuff: The Cathleen Black Edition

A few months ago, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg hired a new Chancellor of Schools, Cathleen Black. After 95 days on the job, she was dismissed. Black had been very successful in managing Hearst Magazines and had risen to the rank of president at Hearst. But all that managerial experience--and, no doubt, those critical thinking skills--still didn't prevent her from being hopelessly out of her depth:

Though Mr. Bloomberg chose Ms. Black for her management acumen, the education officials said she had become a feeble figure within the department, frequently sitting silently in high-level meetings and deferring to lower-level aides. Education officials used to a culture of kinetic innovation under her predecessor, Joel I. Klein, felt they were now in a holding pattern, without a real leader.

Ms. Black struggled to grasp the complexities of the city's budget process, despite intensive tutorial sessions that began on the day of her appointment and, according to advisers, never really stopped.

When her staff sought to prepare her for television interviews, through mock question-and-answer sessions, she tripped over basic facts and figures, including the process for deciding which schools to close.

Aides decided she was largely unfit for such high-profile appearances and all but ruled them out.

I'm sure Black was a very good media executive, but she didn't know anything about NYC government or educating children. Maybe if Black had decided to return to school and study either public policy or educational policy, or perhaps worked her way up the bureaucracy, she would have done well, but she didn't do any of those things. And was, therefore, unqualified for the job. (She also seemed to completely lack any political skills in a democratic political context: snarking about birth control to parents of an overcrowded school probably isn't the best response).

Regarding education, Valerie Strauss connects the dots:

There is no guarantee, of course, that such experience guarantees a great leader, any more than a degree in medicine guarantees someone will be a great doctor. But it's a good bet that education and experience make someone more likely to be successful than someone who walks into a job without them. That's why doctors run hospitals and U.S. presidents pick surgeon generals from the medical field. They invariably don't pick professional educators to be education secretaries, a reflection of how the teaching profession has long been viewed in this country....

The hiring of non-traditional school system chiefs has been popular in the past 15 years, during which we've seen retired Army generals, businessmen, lawyers and others tapped to run school districts because, supposedly, they have leadership ability. And mayoral control of public schools was hailed as the answer to ineffective and sometimes incompetent local school boards who engaged in petty fights, selected lousy district leaders and otherwise let the systems they were charged with watching go to hell.

But, mayoral control has proved to be hardly a panacea, not in New York York, nor in Cleveland, nor Chicago, to name a few places. Nor has the non-traditional superintendent been particularly successful. Because one former general made a good superintendent -- John Stanford in Seattle -- other districts foolishly got the idea that they could replicate his success by picking a military man. That's how Washington got Gen. Julius Becton back in the 1990s. That didn't go so well....

Perhaps the biggest lesson in the Black debacle is that improving urban education is not done with a single stroke, or with a single dynamic leader or a series of standardized tests. Educating anybody, especially students who live in poverty and often come to class with an array of obstacles to learning, is a complicated endeavor that remains as much art as science. Pretending otherwise will just make things worse.

Anthony Nichols, in a superb post about what ails big Pharma, makes a similar point:

Here's a positive suggestion: instead of using biotech as a model, I would suggest that pharma CEOs look to Hollywood for inspiration. The film industry long ago recognized that what is important is talent. No one can predict what will be a blockbuster (drug or movie), but Hollywood has at least recognized that movie-making is a talent-based industry. Perhaps today's pharma chiefs need to see themselves as latter-day studio heads--I'm sure they'd love that!--and come to the same conclusions. Define the vision, get and keep the right people, stop making it harder for talented people to do their jobs, give them the time and resources to be creative.

Somewhere along the way, a number of well-meaning people lost their way and began to see teachers as the enemy, instead of the solution. Teaching, rather than being seen as a very human and creative endeavor, according to 'reformers', became viewed as a production process to be managed. According to 'strategic management principles', various management theories and tools can be applied to any process--even though there's compelling evidence that's not the case.

It's critical thinking skills on steroids.

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Education is not like corporate management. One of the main differences has to do with an issue the military, particularly under the draft, has to deal with.

The basic concept comes down to the statement that 'there are no bad privates'. Essentially a low ranking soldier can't be blamed for anything. If they do something wrong it is a matter of insufficient or improper motivation, training or supervision. The recruits are the raw material and you can't blame the raw material for failure no matter how unrefined and imperfect it may be. It is the job of the system to refine the raw material and use what they are given to best effect, whatever that may require, to get the desired result.

Especially under the draft, when the doors are flung wide and entry standards largely dropped to get the required manpower, the military trainers tend to work toward aggregate unit functionality instead of working on perfecting each soldier individually. In most units you have a wide selection of mental, physical, emotional, and educational strengths and weaknesses. The key is to find a way to get each individual to at least meet the minimum standard in every category while simultaneously finding a position which can make use of their strengths. To make it happen in 12 to 16 weeks and to repeat this performance in an endless cycle until told to stop.

Education has the same basic issue. The education system doesn't get to pick and chose what students it takes in. And it doesn't get to select the desired result. It has to take what the district provides and do the best it can to get as close to the desired result as possible. And do it with both limited time and with limited resources.

It is also a system that cannot be stopped to retool or restructure. Come school days the teachers, their training, the lessons, buildings and materials all have to come together more or less correctly on day one and have to keep functioning no matter what happens. It is more like a household. It has to function on the first day and keep functioning.

Education, like boot camp, has to deal with low level concerns. Some recruits may need to be taught basic grooming like how to trim toenails correctly and brush their teeth. English may not be their first language. Recruits and students may come from cultures with different ideas of punctuality, diligence and dedication. It all has to be handled.

Corporate leaders, who are used to having control over both inputs and goals, who can exclude substandard materials, and focus narrowly on their core business have problems adapting to this.

This may be one of the reasons why people with military experience sometimes make good teachers and education administrators. There are important differences but not so many as between being a corporate executive and running a school system.

When I was in the Army National Guard, 1957-1963, I had to complete a course on military instruction (among others) to advance in rank. I think the present manual is Field Manual 7-0. Military instruction makes little use of lecture method, using demonstrations, student participation, etc. Military instruction is heavily supported in terms of technical assistance, production of teaching materials, etc., far beyond anything I have experienced as a university professor. But then, military instruction is important, often a matter of life and death. I think we missed a real opportunity by not having a program to prepare ex-drill sergeants to teach in failing schools.

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By Avser Bastian (not verified) on 09 Apr 2011 #permalink

Methinks someone has listened to a little too much Alex Jones. Another case of self-inflicted TBI. Sooo ... sad.

Interesting point about crossover between military and education. Some aspects of military DO help in the classroom, but the person still has to have the content knowledge as well, and that is not always the case with soldiers turned teachers.

It's interesting. My passion is the political and as such I got involved with a community group trying to re-open some schools. That was after I had gone out and done program reviews at a half dozen different schools around the state.

But even I know that limited experience would NEVER qualify me to be a Chancellor of Schools.

What I'm more curious about is how Bloomberg though that Black would be a good Chancellor? Come on, there had to be money or sex involved.