NYC Chancellor’s Outsider Status Is an Advantage

Published January 3, 2011

“Experience,” Oscar Wilde observed, “is simply the name we give our mistakes.” I was reminded of Wilde’s maxim while watching the recent Cathleen Black drama play out in New York City.

Black, the chairwoman of Hearst Magazines, tapped by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to be the city’s public schools chancellor, has no experience in education apart from serving on the board of a charter school. Thus, according to United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, Black has “no qualifications to be the chancellor of the New York City school system.”

Education establishment figures such as Mulgrew are the same people who think University of Chicago economist Gary Becker shouldn’t be allowed to teach an Intro to Economics course in a public school without a teaching certificate. His Nobel Prize in the field just isn’t good enough.

Predecessor Championed Reform
Mulgrew opposed the New York State Education Commissioner’s decision to grant to Black a special waiver in order to take office. “I would be appalled if a teacher was named the head of the Fire Department of New York City,” Mulgrew told NBC in explanation of his opposition.

Mulgrew’s point seems to be if someone lacks specific experience in education, she cannot have an opinion about the subject, much less manage an organization.

Joel Klein, the former NYC schools chancellor, was a lawyer in private practice, an antitrust attorney for the Clinton Justice Department, and the CEO of media giant Bertelsmann before he took the job in 2002. Klein’s tenure was marked by expansion of charter schools and myriad efforts to improve teacher accountability. Klein became a national school reform leader.

Even his most ardent critics begrudgingly acknowledge Klein’s efforts to bring reform.

“Joel was a great intellect and did not suffer fools,” American Federation of Teachers boss Randi Weingarten told the New York Times, while suggesting Klein did not do enough to win support from educators and politicians for his reforms. What she really means, of course, is Klein did not pander to the status quo enough to her liking. But Klein was up to the job even though he had not spent his life as an educator.

‘A Different World’
Klein lacked direct experience, but he had the ability to do the job. Sometimes experience and capacity complement each other nicely; sometimes they don’t. But the latter is more important than the former.

Evidently, the New York Times can’t tell the difference. “Leader from Different World Visits Classrooms,” read the headline on a story chronicling Black’s first visit to a New York City public school as the schools chancellor designee. (Her first official day on the job was January 3).

She’s from a “different world,” the Times story suggests, because Black hasn’t previously visited a lot of NYC public schools and her children didn’t go to public school. By that standard, teacher union favorites such as the Obamas, the Gores, and the Clintons are also from that other world.

In fact, Black has put together an impressive record of accomplishment. A decade ago, Fortune magazine named her one of the “30 Most Powerful Women in American Business” and Crain’s New York Business named her one of the city’s “100 Most Influential Business Leaders.” Black understands the skills needed to succeed in managing a multimillion-dollar business will be useful to competently oversee 1,600 schools with 1.1 million students, 136,000 employees, and a $21 billion budget.

Truth is, it’s Mulgrew and his ilk that operate in “a different world. “

Mulgrew and the teacher unions trivialize Black’s experience as compared to an educator from within the system because they want someone they can control. The unions are looking for the same leadership on the management side as they have on their side—go-along, get-along types with a wealth of experience doing things the way they’ve always been done, regardless of outcomes.

‘Different World’ of Private Enterprise
Chris Liddell left Microsoft in the beginning of 2010 to become the Chief Financial Officer of General Motors. He’s likely to become the automaker’s CEO in the foreseeable future.

The GM Board selected Liddell because they desired his expertise in fleshing out corporate strategies to aid the massive restructuring the company is undertaking.

Liddell has no experience in the automotive industry (and he didn’t have any technology industry experience before getting the gig at Microsoft). But as one industry analyst observed, “GM’s board is not asking [Liddell] to design a car or manufacture one.”

Similarly, Cathleen Black is not being asked to teach trigonometry to 1.1 million New York school children.

Like Liddell, she has a massive restructuring job to do. And she’ll find out, if she doesn’t know already, there are limitations to the application of business principles to the public sector. Improving student performance won’t come simply by implementing Six Sigma at the central office.

Reason for Hope
Will Black make an excellent chancellor? It’s impossible to say. But the manufactured debate over her “experience” is folly.

Reformers have every reason to be optimistic she will build on Klein’s work. She should pursue tenure reform and make teachers’ performance evaluations public. And she could be instrumental in extending school choice beyond charter schools.

Black clearly has the capacity to be an effective chancellor and the skills required to move structural reforms forward. What we’ll find out is whether she has the political courage to do so.

Dan Proft ([email protected]) is a host and featured political commentator on WLS radio in Chicago.