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: , , , , ,

Rock The Vote! Then Turn Over And Go To Sleep . . .

I've never not voted, but this year I came very close. I changed my mind when a helpful man robocalling on behalf of one party or other explained that "the stakes have never been higher" in this election. I know, it's crazy, but the stakes just get higher and higher and higher.

Higher than they were in 2008. Higher than they were in 2006. Higher than even 2004!

Maybe not higher than in 2000, though — I remember a lot of people who felt comfortable throwing votes away; in the interest of equal time for differing points of view, I'll include that link, but I still don't see how you can look at 97,000 votes and believe that 543 of those people wouldn't have voted for Gore . . . good to see that Nader supporters continue to double down ten years after the fact.

Speaking of Palm Beach County, we finally — finally! — got updated voting machines in New York City. This happening only — only! — eight years after Congress passed the Help America Vote Act. I knew this day would come — I just didn't expect it to happen so soon.

I had a hard time caring about this election. True, it never matters how I vote — which is true for nearly every election I've voted in in this state — but in past elections there was at least the thrill of the big clunky old school voting machine, with the cool chunk-chunk lever and the little twisty knobs. You know which ones:

Voting Booth, Election Day, Robert F. Wagner, Jr. School (P.S. 78), 48-09 Center Boulevard, Hunters Point, Long Island City, Queens, November 4, 2008

Ballot, Voting Booth, Robert F. Wagner, Jr. School (P.S. 78), 48-09 Center Boulevard, Hunters Point, Long Island City, Queens, November 2, 2004

The "new" "more accurate" ballots took all that fun away, and gave me flashbacks of those twice-yearly standardized tests they'd give us in school — those dopey exams that until Bush were mostly used by real estate agents to prove that you're buying in a "good" school district. It only took about ten grades, but eventually it sunk in that it really really really didn't matter how well you did on the tests, so I stopped reading the questions at all: No Child Left Behind, indeed! (I changed my tune when my own student teaching coincided with one of the statewide standardized testing days: "You guys should care because they'll look at these exams and think that you're all uneducable and then your diploma will be worth even less!" I still think the best thing to do is to make those exams part of a student's grade, but I guess that's "teaching to the test," which is a whole other issue . . .)

Ballot, Election Day, Robert F. Wagner, Jr. School (P.S. 78), 48-09 Center Boulevard, Hunters Point, Long Island City, Queens, November 2, 2010

Which is to say, when I saw that bubble sheet to fill in, I subconsciously reverted to my high school senior self and treated the thing as another useless standardized exam.

Fortunately, all of the parties had these neat logos next to their names, which certainly helped my decision process:

Ballot, Election Day, Robert F. Wagner, Jr. School (P.S. 78), 48-09 Center Boulevard, Hunters Point, Long Island City, Queens, November 2, 2010

Stars — hey, I like stars! Oh, and the Statue of Liberty's torch — cool, too! Some sort of odd sunflower . . . sunflowers!

Maybe I'm not the most orthodox voter. I think local elections are more important than Presidential elections, for example. This doesn't bode well when it comes to voting in New York City, since there are very few meaningful general elections at the local level.

My current best bad reason to vote is based on how a candidate will look on one of those American Experience shows they produce for PBS — Lyndon Johnson? You had me at "tragic figure"!

I also have "rules" about how I vote, which get refined and supplemented every election cycle. First rule: Never trust anyone who is running for office, because running for office is an inherently weird thing to do, and those who end up running for public office tend to be the type of person that you wouldn't want to have over for dinner, much less give money to or reserve any amount of mental space for. You can argue exceptions to this rule, but they are exceptions. I question anyone who has the "desire" to be a "public servant," and even if those who run for public office start from a point of "serving the public" in their own minds, at the very least I think it's important to make it clear — for myself — that they're doing it for weird hubris-related reasons. That's not to say that they aren't decent people, or they don't legitimately believe that they're doing the right thing, or that they can't make "tough decisions" but rather that there's something that is driving them that most of us don't have.

OK, so now that that's out of the way, here's my second rule: Given that running for office is an inherently weird thing to do, only trust people who have been in office. I refer to this as my Jed Bartlet rule, because I know from watching several seasons of West Wing that being President is one of the most difficult jobs on the planet, and only those who have been the President know just how difficult it is to be President. Circular logic, I understand, but it makes sense for Presidential elections when there are two bad options and one is running for reelection. This doesn't apply to non-executive positions, and for some reason I don't connect it to local executive offices — I just don't see congestion pricing as important an issue as Qumari terrorism.

In 2008 I started to develop an idea about Senators versus Representatives. Over time I began to have a deeper appreciation for Representatives. For one, a Representative is much more interesting than a Senator because Representatives have a much harder job actually "representing" geographically compact constituencies. Senators, on the other hand, get to grandstand on Meet The Press. And then somehow they have more cachet, and get to run for President. John Edwards was the worst example of this, and he often comes to mind when I think of the biggest problems with people who run for office. A friend thinks that instead of fighting the idea of the aristocratic, disengaged Senator we should actually own it and give them the ceremonial power to only appear on Sunday morning political shows. I think he has a point.

So anyway, this year I developed a third rule: Being Attorney General should not confer any particular advantage for a candidate, and in fact should be seen as a demerit. This isn't because being Attorney General is not important but rather because being Attorney General is one of the easier ways to look like a "good guy" while avoiding all the downside of an executive role. Eliot Spitzer perfected this by going after all manner of low-hanging fruit as Attorney General and parlayed all that good press into a role as Governor, where he promptly ran the steamroller into the ground. Andrew Cuomo continued the pattern. In local politics, I have adapted this rule to include Public Advocate — which is actually an even worse scenario, since it's got all the "good guy" appeal without any of the work that an Attorney General has to do.

All of which is to say, this election for governor was especially difficult for me. On the one hand you have an attorney general — and a party machine that successfully convinced the incumbent not to run again (read: forced him out). On the other hand you have a rich dude with a giant ego. I kicked around a couple of ideas for how to deal with this predicament, including not voting altogether, but then I got some e-mails addressed to the bridgeandtunnelclub.com account with subject headings along the lines of "Get the Facts about Warren Redlich and Sex with Children." I took this as a brilliant ploy by political genius Roger Stone to get people to vote for Redlich. I always thought that Stone had such a nice phone voice, so I figured that this Redlich person might be a good option for governor.

The only problem was that Warren Redlich is a libertarian. I mean, libertarians are great for stuff like, I don't know, law blogs or something, but to actually think one could be governor? It's nutty!

I've actually talked to a real live libertarian once — it was a hoot! No matter how hard I tried, she refused to back down from legalizing crack, reinstituting Civil War-era commutation fees or even the abolishing the Civil Rights Act (to be fair, I can't quite remember what I grilled her about, but it was probably the ten-thousandth time she'd been asked, "No, really, even heroin?!" and her cheerfully explaining for the ten-thousandth time "Yes, even heroin!").

So I thought it all over as I leaned over my voting "booth." The idea of having a libertarian governor of New York State almost makes voting for a libertarian worth it — although I've often thought that there is a real libertarian streak in New York City, I can't think of a place less suited to libertarianism than Albany. But as far as my vote went, this could have been the least bad of the four options. It was very tempting . . .

Then there was the issue of the term limits, which I'll be honest was probably the main reason for my voting malaise. The less said about Michael Bloomberg's egregious hijacking of the democratic process back in 2008-09 the better. The best reason to vote to change term limits back to two (after voting for it twice already) was to make Bloomberg look like a big jerk.

What I didn't expect was the charter revision commission writing the question so that council members who were elected in 2009 would be "grandfathered in" under the current rule, because they were "under the impression" they would be able to serve three terms. What, that's not "fair"? How "fair" was it for the Council to vote on their own term limits in the first place? Clyde Haberman called this the "incumbent-protection provision".

I was wondering if anyone on the Council would have the balls to make this argument. I found one:

"I think it's unfair what the mayor did period and now that he got what he wanted he doesn't care about anyone else," said Councilmember Jumaane Williams, who started his first term in January. "I would be very upset if I was elected on one belief and one rule structure and that rule structure is just changed."

Ultimately, the best reason to vote for the term limits de-extension was to ensure that the Council could never again alter its own term limit rules. Frankly, I'm surprised that they could in the first place. I thought most places had rules that legislators couldn't vote for their own benefit — pay raises, for example, usually don't take effect until the following term. In fact, City Council members can give themselves a pay raise, too (as bad as they've acted these last couple of years, I actually forgot about that awesome fact). Un-fucking-believable. No, really.

So here's a new rule, sort of the reverse of the Jed Bartlet rule above: No more voting for anyone who has ever been (or ever has or has had any aspirations to be) a New York City Council member. Sorry, Charles Barron — I had so much hope for you — though rules are rules and these days that's all I have left . . .

Posted: November 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Andy Rooney | Tags: , , , , , , , ,