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War of the Wonks


(Photo credit Cathie Black and Mayor Bloomberg)

Update:  This afternoon NY Schools Commissioner David Steiner did grant Cathleen P. Black the necessary waiver to allow her to serve as the NY Public Schools Chancellor.

If we can believe the weekend news reports, today New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NY State Education Commissioner David Steiner will announce a “deal” in which Steiner will grant Cathleen P. Black (Trinity ’66) a waiver of required education credentials so that she can become the NY Public Schools Chancellor.   In this compromise, Black will have an “academic” deputy to satisfy concerns about her lack of education experience.

The notion of an academic deputy is hardly a “compromise” or anything revolutionary.  In fact, in universities, the chief academic officer (CAO) is almost always the #2 officer — we call that position the Provost or Vice President for Academic Affairs.   Many university presidents today, including me, did not come from traditional academic backgrounds.   Rather, boards of trustees have realized that the nature of the work of the CEO is quite different from the work required of the CAO — the president is responsible for overall strategy as well as management of labor and finances and external relations, while the academic chief is responsible for oversight of curricula and programs and faculty.   This division of leadership and labor in the standard academic model should also work in major school systems.

The “credentials controversy” is a fascinating window into the current wars over education reform in major cities.  Citizens exasperated with Mayor Bloomberg’s dictatorial style have attacked Black as a surrogate for Hizzoner, and in the process they have done a terrible disservice to Cathie Black, herself, as well as to the idea that a liberal arts education is, in fact, a very strong platform for leadership in the educational arena.   When Cathie took her English major at Trinity, we did not have Education as a major subject for undergrads, and the Master of Arts in Teaching was just beginning.   Yet, countless Trinity grads took their English and History and other liberal arts degrees out into the world of teaching and education, as well as into corporate life, and they prospered quite well in many different fields of work.  A liberal arts platform is the foundation for a broad range of professional pursuits, and many educators have proven quite successful without specific ‘education credentials.’

But this fight is ultimately not about Cathie or her English degree and corporate experience per se.  Rather, the battle is over competing views of K-12 education and strategies for reform of what all agree is a failed model.   The agreement stops at the acknowledgement of failure.  The war rages over who has the best solution, and who gets to control the schools.

This war is a field day for wonks — by definition, people who are deeply entrenched in the details of law and policy.  One group of wonks truly believes that the failures of K-12 education are a result of publicly-elected school boards, teachers educated in Schools of Education at universities, and a lack of enough testing.   This group favors strong mayoral control of schools, non-educator leaders, teachers trained just about anywhere BUT Schools of Education and teacher evaluation based solely on the results of “high-stakes” testing of children.

On the other side are the wonks who insist that only people who have gone through teacher education and licensure, and who have spent their entire careers in public schools in particular, have any business having anything to say about education reform.

Cathie Black’s career and reputation have been caught in the cross-fire.   Last week, as she was sliced ‘n’ diced and roasted and crucified on too many blogs and newspaper comments to mention — ostensibly because she is an English major not an Education wonk (but really because she’s Bloomberg’s choice) — no less an authority than Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that teachers should not get master’s degrees.  Duncan’s “Race to the Top” investment of billions in education reform is premised on abandoning traditional modes of teacher education and compensation.

It’s a pretty weird day when the U.S. Secretary of Education basically denounces the idea of advanced education for teachers.   Shouldn’t the nation’s teachers be among the best educated people in the country?  I certainly can agree that the model should be more flexible and open to more substantive preparation in the specific disciplines, not just in curriculum and methods.   But, still, the Secretary of Education surely must not be caught undermining the idea of high academic attainment.

It’s also a very frustrating to be trying to run a School of Education these days, what with the Secretary of Education denouncing the model itself, while the new crop of school leaders increasingly ignores graduates of teacher education programs in favor of more marginally-prepared teachers from programs like Teach for America or the New Teacher Quality Project.   Such programs certainly offer innovative ideas to supplement the teaching corps, but for the long-term future of the educational labor force, they are inadequate substitutes for advanced education for teachers.

Both sides of the Wonk Wars have some interesting points, but both are largely plain wrong.  They need to stop shouting at each other long enough to let some more reasonable voices be heard.

Mayors who want to retain control of schools and superintendents must have more open, collegial styles than what Bloomberg or outgoing DC Mayor Adrian Fenty have demonstrated.   The “my way or the highway” approach to school governance is simply unacceptable in a democracy, and ultimately, as Fenty learned the hard way, the citizens will have their say.

On the other hand, the ‘education establishment’ needs to accept the need for reform.   I do believe quite strongly that educators have done themselves a grave disservice by appearing to protect traditional labor models rather than getting ahead of the reform wave with new thinking.   Many of us will agree that assessing teachers based on testing is plain wrong, but what other assessment modes can we offer?

In the same vein, many of us agree that poverty and the social conditions of children and families really do matter in educational attainment — contrary to the wonkish view that these factors are irrelevant.   But we have to do more than to decry the opposition; we have to put into place more effective models of urban education to help even the most impoverished and at-risk children to become more successful.

The spectacle in New York City is a lose-lose proposition all the way around.   Cathie Black is smart enough and tough enough to make it work, but the controversy is an inauspicious start for her service as Chancellor.   She will need to call upon all of her leadership skills to bring together the many warring factions.

And everyone with a stake in improving education needs to agree that the Wonk Wars are a debilitating distraction from the real work of education reform.

See Valerie Strauss, What Tom Friedman Got Wrong About Schools

See Daniel Willingham, Why Black Deserves a Chance to Run NYC Schools

See TaNahisi Coats, the Atlantic, Cathleen Black to Lead NYC Schools

What is your opinion?  Leave a comment below…

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
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