Eye on the News

Sol Stern
Bloomberg’s Black Eye
The mayor picks another noneducator to run the city’s schools.
16 November 2010

As the news circulated around New York City last week that Joel Klein was resigning as schools chancellor and would be replaced by Hearst Magazines executive Cathleen Black, I was deluged with e-mails from friends and colleagues. All expressed surprise at Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s pick of the unknown Black: “Cathie who?” “Is Bloomberg serious?” The public reaction was best summarized by a New York Daily News front-page headline the morning after Bloomberg’s announcement: the single word HUH? in large type, followed by a subhead alluding to Black’s lack of education experience. By the end of the week, even New York Times reporters were poking fun at Bloomberg’s claim that his selection of Black was the result of a careful search for the best available candidate.

In truth, there’s no reason for anyone to be surprised by anything the mayor does on education policy, certainly not those influential New Yorkers who pressed the state legislature last year to reauthorize mayoral control of the schools entirely on Bloomberg’s terms. Backed by his allies in the media and business communities, Bloomberg laid down a take-it-or-leave-it challenge to the Albany legislators. It went something like this: With my superior understanding of business management, I am indispensable to continued progress in the schools. So forget about those outdated principles of checks and balances. They may apply to the national government, but I must have unfettered executive power over every aspect of school policy; otherwise, all the unprecedented gains made by our children as a result of my administration’s historic reforms will be endangered.

Wielding that argument, the Bloomberg public-relations juggernaut overwhelmed any potential opposition—even the teachers’ union got out of the way—and the state maintained an undiluted version of mayoral control. Those who urged exempting the mayor from any checks and balances last year can hardly object to the way he exercised his powers this year. Nor should anyone be shocked that Bloomberg believes he has the complete authority to appoint a new schools chancellor, even if—as in Black’s case—that decision was based not on a thorough search but on a seeming whim. According to Bloomberg biographer Joyce Purnick, “Cathie Black’s most persuasive credentials for the schools job seems to be a friendship with the mayor’s girlfriend, Diana Taylor, and membership in the same Upper East Side social orbit as Ms. Taylor and Bloomberg.”

On his weekly radio program, Bloomberg hit back at his critics, some of whom are urging state education commissioner David Steiner to deny Black the waiver she needs to serve as schools chancellor. (The waiver is required because Black lacks professional certification in education.) “It just goes to show they have no understanding of what the job is,” Bloomberg said. He defended Black as a “super manager,” magnificently qualified to run an organization with 130,000 employees and a $23 billion budget.

To give the mayor his due, this description of qualifications for the chancellor’s job is consistent with everything he has said since taking over the schools in 2002. Bloomberg always insisted that the managerial and entrepreneurial skills needed to run a successful private-sector company were perfectly applicable to the task of improving the schools. And that renders moot the question of whether Black needs to know anything about education and instruction. The national adulation that Bloomberg has received (some of it self-generated) for his “breakthrough” school reforms has obviously confirmed him in this fundamental belief.

Though significant doubts have now surfaced about the extent of academic gains made by the city’s students during the Bloomberg era, there is little question that Gotham has become the nation’s most visible example of what I have previously called the “incentivist” approach to education reform. For education incentivists, what matters most is efficient management, backed by a series of internal market interventions to maximize the productivity of the workforce (that is, teachers and principals), which will produce better results (higher test scores). The issues related to instruction don’t factor in the equation. Since Bloomberg clearly remains convinced that Klein, a chancellor without a background in education, oversaw eight years of achievement gains simply by creating the proper incentives, there’s no reason for him to believe that Black ought to know, say, the difference between phonics and whole language.

In sharp contrast to Bloomberg’s New York, Massachusetts has been the nation’s leading exemplar of what I have called the “instructionist” approach to education reform. Starting in the mid-1990s, a coalition of reformers pushed the state’s board of education to mandate rigorous curricula for all grades and created demanding tests linked to those curriculum standards. In its English Language Arts curriculum framework, the board even dared to say that reading instruction in the early grades should include systematic and explicit phonics. Guess which school system has produced greater and more meaningful academic achievement gains on the unimpeachable national NAEP tests?

Of course, the two approaches aren’t mutually exclusive. But New York has in recent years shown interest only in the incentivist approach, so it’s probably irrelevant whether Black manages to get her waiver or Bloomberg, embarrassed by opposition to his pick, is forced to come up with another incentivist candidate. Either way, don’t expect the next schools chancellor to try to figure out why our kids still can’t read.

Sol Stern is a contributing editor of City Journal, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and the author of Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice.

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