Mayor Bloomberg, Cathleen Black and the New York Schools

By Stanley Aronowitz
This week has been a nightmare for education. New York’s Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced  that the city would layoff 10,000 employees, many of them teachers. Former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates urged school superintendents to reward teachers for performance rather than seniority. In these days of statistical madness, performance standards mean student scores. As governors all over the country prepared to impose draconian cuts in state budgets, those cuts will impact mainly schools. Class size will soar and teacher pay may be reduced, thereby forcing some teachers to seek second jobs. More children will fall by the wayside.

Meanwhile Mayor Bloomberg announced Cathleen P. Black, the chair of Hearst publications group as his choice for a new schools’ chancellor to replace Chancellor Joel I. Klein. Ms. Black has no experience as an educator; has never taught in any schools; and has refused to divulge her ideas about education. Ms. Black is a perfect fit. Like her predecessor Joel Klein who seems to have spent two nanoseconds in a classroom, she brings to the job extensive private-sector management acumen that translates into devotion to the bottom line-profits. However much she fronts her feminist credentials now, once upon a time she was an advertising manager for Ms. Magazine, and provoked a staff rebellion for her high-handedness. In short, her signal achievement was to be among the few women who rose to the top of the media industry, displaying a talent for trampling underlings and making a lot of money.

Like Bloomberg himself and a growing army of elected officials and schools’ chiefs, not coming from public service has become a major qualification for running governments and public schools. According to the received wisdom, educators are unqualified precisely because they bear heavy responsibility for school failure and should not be rewarded.

But what is success? The novelist Philip Roth, referring to baseball, once remarked ironically that fans are urged not to watch the ballgame, but instead to keep their eyes on the scoreboard, where statistics are regularly posted. Educational leaders today do not pay attention to what goes on in the classroom, nor to family, economic and social influences that determine whether a child learns or not. Modern leaders are oriented to statistical results alone, whereby teachers are judged exclusively by student tests scores — whether or not students take away any permanent learning — is exactly what the New York City Department of Education has done for 1300 of its 1500 schools. 200 schools are partially exempt from the City’s mandated curriculum, but kids are still required to do well on tests. Schools that fail to measure up are closed; principals are fired or transferred; and teachers are removed from the classroom.

The record since the schools became a Mayoral agency eight years ago is dubious, at best.  The Mayor and his Schools’ Chancellor continually trumpeted their achievements, until recent study showed widespread irregularities in grading, as well as severely dumbed-down tests. Showing no remorse, education leaders continued to claim success, even as the chorus of criticism from parents, teachers and academics grew louder. What Bloomberg has on his side is a national trend, including the Obama administration’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who takes his cues from former President Bush’s underfunded “No Child Left Behind” legislation that was passed with Republican and Democratic support. But instead of effecting real curricular reform to benefit students, the Mayor and his Chancellor have already used the economic crisis with its deleterious impact on state and local budgets, as an excuse for failing to reduce class size or paying more individual attention to student needs – hiring teachers and reforming  curriculum, for example.

Progressive educators have for years argued that although evaluation is important, high-stakes standardized tests are detrimental to education. These educators have developed alternative methods for measuring  student progress, which emphasize reading and writing, art and music. They cite a wealth of education research, as well as developmental psychology studies, showing that learning derives from the freedom to explore one’s own capacities. School authorities have ignored such proposals, except at the margins. Real education, as opposed to authoritarian schooling, consists in giving students more room to explore the world around them and to use their imaginations. Academic learning, progressive educators insist, should be integrated into a program that uses the City’s vast resources as a classroom, and does not eliminate art and music in the service of profitable technologies, whose educational value remains unproved. If these  progressive ideas prevailed, teachers would be empowered to employ their own imaginations and skills, rather than be forcibly submitted to the hell of standardized testing.

Cathleen Black must obtain a waiver from the New York State Education Department because she does not have a superintendent’s license or any other education credential. But she is likely to do the Mayor’s bidding: school the kids, whether they learn anything of value or not; keep the hallways free of ruckus; and get rid of the student and teacher trouble-makers. Some City Council members have called on New York State to delay approval of Ms. Black until the Council holds hearings. Other Council members, as well as the teachers’ union and educational activists, condemn the appointment outright because Black is not an educator. More to the political point, the Mayor would not have nominated Ms. Black unless she shared his political, much less his educational, views.

Finally, Cathleen Black’s background does not necessarily disqualify her. Her educational views, which she has refused thus far to disclose may disqualify her. Any waiver should follow, not precede, disclosure.

Stanley Aronowtiz is a Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Urban Education at the City University of New York Graduate Center, where he is also the director of the Center for the Study of Culture, Technology and Work.  He has written or edited twenty-five books including, “Against Schooling: For an Education that Matters” and “The Knowledge Factory.” For additional information visit Stanley Aronowitz.

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