On Managing Expectations

In New York City there has been a certain amount of pushback to Mayor Michael Bloomberg's appointment of a magazine executive to run the largest school system in the country. She is being rolled out and heralded as a manager with "almost 40 years of experience," but as far as anyone can tell, her only education experience has been tackling the issue of childhood obesity.

The move toward unorthodox approaches in education probably started with the A Nation at Risk report in 1983. Since then districts and communities have been experimenting with innovations like vouchers and school charters (both initially cost-cutting moves championed by conservatives) and leadership roles filled by those from outside the field of education. With the latter, it used to be that you'd have to be someone really big and exciting — a military general or something like that (John Stanford in Seattle, for example, and others in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.this Times Room For Debate post and the associated entries is a pretty interesting back and forth about the issue).

The Mayor's pick is a creep toward a candidate who is just a good manager. This Post article features a quote from the candidate that has been typical of the message that the mayor and his supporters (what few there are in this case) have been repeating:

"The mayor has been very clear about the fact that he really wanted a strong and effective manager, and I've had almost 40 years of experience with that," said Black, 66, head of Hearst Magazines. "I will be the next chancellor."

So we go from inspirational big-time organizational leaders to the head of a magazine company. I don't think this would have happened in the 1990s when school systems were in need of "outsiders" with "fresh eyes."

It seems silly to keep asking this, since it's something that nearly everyone in New York City — with the notable exception of the obsequious Observer editorial board — has been asking for a week now, but can you think of another entity that would replace its leader with someone from outside the industry with no experience whatsoever? Seriously — I might be spacing on an example right now, but in any "results-oriented" entity, it seems that the person in charge needs some time to get up to speed. No wait, I guess I've seen some examples in some movies about the British royal family. Wasn't Queen Victoria like this? Oh yeah, Jen had this on the other night.

The Observer editorial board had an interesting argument that went like this:

It would be refreshing to hear somebody other than the mayor acknowledge the sacrifices that Ms. Black will make in the name of public service.

Setting aside the self-congratulation inherent in the setup there, you get the sense that people — maybe even "the elites"! — treat public service as some kind of Adopt-a-Highway clean-up day. You also get the sense that the editorial boards in New York treat public policy debates as a form of debate club, where if you write eloquently enough and dredge up enough half-baked supporting arguments, you'll do what you need to do to push forward grand ideas. The piece focused mostly on how Joel Klein, the previous chancellor, had a supposed lack of educational experience and that turned out just fine, so Q.E.D. It reminds me of the incurious manner in which the city's editorial boards supported the mayor's third term, and smacks of talking points in the same way.

It's absurd on the face of it to think that someone without a background in education can be an educational leader, but that's where we are today. And it's not just administration — for years now people believe that if you have enough energy and pluck, it's possible to be an effective teacher. Maybe, but you still need to understand the basic tenets of pedagogy, and it's not good enough anymore to rely on your own imperfect memory of what it's like to be in a classroom. That's not to say that a lot of education classes aren't bullshit, but it seems a little harsh to get rid of training altogether.

There's a demeaning subtext to that argument, by the way; by saying that all training and most experience is bullshit, you're implying that any relatively smart monkey could do the job. It would certainly fit the mayor's temperament to think that.

Then again, maybe there's a story behind the story. Smart people are always trying to divine meaning behind inscrutable decisions; that's the legacy of contrarianism at work. Maybe it's more satisfying to know that our leaders are devious and cunning than they are capricious and dimwitted.

Posted: November 17th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: For Reals No For Serious | Tags: , , , , ,

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