Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Color Me Black: Public Education's Twilight Zone

Monday, on the New York Review of Books blog, Diane Ravitch explained why being the chancellor of New York City schools should be for people with experience in education:

"To have a chance of success running one of the country's largest school systems, one needs a deep understanding of federal and state education policies, of curriculum and assessment, of teaching and learning, and of what teachers and schools need."

Many professional educators would prefer to understand a world in which someone with no knowledge of education can be appointed to run to largest school system in the country as more akin to the Twilight Zone than reality.


The more I've thought about the appointment of Cathie Black, the more I've wondered why Bloomberg appointed her in the first place. Yes - it seems clear Bloomberg and the corporate reform movement think far away from a place where a commitment to justice rather than politics and money prevails. Yes - Bloomberg seems to be totally out of touch with the reality most New Yorkers live with. Yes - Bloomberg thinks managerial skills are all you really need to run the DOE. Yes - we're seeing the experience-doesn't-matter argument dominate education policy from top to bottom.

But still, I don't think he's stupid.

Word in the hallway is that Black spent most of her time on a tight leash. She often responded to tough questions only after another DOE spokesperson spoke first. The New York Times she reported received ongoing intensive tutorial sessions on budget issues. Even Black talked about how difficult it was to learn everything she would have needed to know to be an effective chancellor.

Why didn't Bloomberg choose someone with credentials who would be equally willing to implement his policies. Lord knows there are plenty of those people running around. Wouldn't it have been less of a headache? Or even Dennis Walcott from the beginning? It seems to be widely agreed that he's a far better choice than Cathie Black was. He did teach kindergarten for eighteen months...

But then Ravitch wrote something that struck me:

"The bar was dropped so low to get a waiver for Black that no one could ever be denied one in the future unless he or she had a criminal record."

That bar wasn't a New York City bar, either. Oprah, Gloria Steinem, Michelle Rhee - they all came out in support of the Cathie Black nomination. It was a national conversation, and it set a national precedent.

From the chancellor's position to teacher's, corporate reform advocates are working very, very hard to demonstrate the disdain they hold for professional educators. In that way, they seem to be making progress. Dennis Walcott, despite being an equally unacceptable candidate for students and parents, looks like their savior in comparison to Cathie Black.

And, thus, in that context, something that should seem like the Twilight Zone gives way to a reality we resign ourselves to work with, if not accept entirely.

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