Education in NYC: it’s business as usual

Mayor Bloomberg’s selection of a glossy magazine publisher as New York City school chancellor is bizarre, but not surprising.

Alex Standish

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New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recommendation of Cathie Black, chairperson of Hearst Magazines, as New York City school chancellor is ill-conceived, but it is also entirely consistent with his administration’s instrumentalist approach to education.

From Bloomberg’s perspective, it makes perfect sense to appoint a successful entrepreneur to run the school system. After all, under his mayorship, education in New York City has been treated as an extension of the economy rather than as an endeavour that needs to be protected from market forces. And Black is by no means the only business entrepreneur to have been given a position of responsibility for education. It’s just that Black, who runs a publishing company responsible for titles like Cosmogirl and the Oprah Magazine, is the one that New Yorkers decided to react against.

The selection of Black has been widely criticised because she lacks experience in the education system. Parents and teachers have rightly complained that leadership of the largest school system in the US should be provided by someone who knows something about education. Petitions against Black’s nomination have been signed by over 10,000 people. David Steiner, New York’s education commissioner, threatened not to grant the waiver needed to circumvent the state law regarding Black’s lack of educational experience. On Monday, a compromise deal was reached with Shael Polakow-Suransky, a former principal, being installed as the chief academic officer, or chaperone, to Black. Steiner agreed to sign the waiver for Black’s appointment to go ahead.

Appointing a publishing empire president who had never even visited a public school to run any school system, let alone one with 1.1million children of course seems bizarre. Yet it’s important to point out that the decision is indicative of just how much economic policy and business-thinking have replaced education policy.

Historically, the position of school chancellor has been filled by an education specialist, usually someone with management experience in the school sector, such as a former principal or superintendent. State law requires that the chancellor have educational experience and/or qualifications. However, Joel Klein, the current chancellor, is a lawyer who lacks the requisite educational background. In 2002, he was granted a waiver that allowed him to become chancellor. Today, Black’s recommendation is a continuation of a trend towards centralised control and the application of business practices to public education under Bloomberg’s watch.

In 2002, after being granted control of the school system by the state legislator, Bloomberg rapidly set about reorganising its administration. In order to assume direct control over schooling, he established the Department of Education, sidelining the Board of Education which previously oversaw the running of the city’s school. In the pursuit of their ‘educational’ reforms, Bloomberg and Klein have hired management consultants, business executives, lawyers and corporate restructuring companies. Business consultants were also used to train a new generation of principals versed in business management.

Together, Bloomberg and Klein have overseen eight years of reforms, applying market principles to the education system, which is now rife with buzzwords such as choice, competition, merit pay, performance measurement, target setting and accountability. Increasing the number of charter schools (most of which are backed by corporate philanthropists) has been a key part of their strategy. Privately run with public funds, charter schools can make their own rules with regard to management practices, including merit pay and preventing the unionisation of teachers. This is one way in which policymakers have sought to break current school practices backed by teaching unions.

Bloomberg’s and Klein’s approach to schooling reflects national policy and the reforms included in the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. This includes regular testing of basic literacy and mathematical skills. However, with direct control over the school system, Bloomberg has been able to go further than many other politicians, mandating specific reading and mathematics programmes and formulating how they should be taught. Diane Ravitch, a historian of education, has described at length how narrow testing to measure educational performance and other business management practices are undermining children’s education in American schools (see my review of The Death and Life of the Great American School System). In short, the effects include a narrowed curriculum, teaching geared towards passing tests, the erosion of school and teacher autonomy, the erosion of the public school ethos, and restricting community involvement in schools.

Overall, the application of a business model to schools reveals that America’s current political leaders do not understand the purpose of education. As Arne Duncan, secretary of education, explains in the current edition of Foreign Affairs: ‘Education, in short, is the new game changer driving economic growth’. Based on an obsession with a knowledge economy, the likes of Duncan mistakenly presume that education can save the economy. Certainly, education can help individuals to advance their careers – even if this is not the purpose of education – but it cannot change the laws of capital accumulation that govern the fall and rise of economies.

Duncan, Bloomberg and Klein are all guilty of politicising education. They are using education as a vehicle to demonstrate that they can make a difference when in fact they lack the intellectual and political capital to raise real educational standards. But most people are aware that demonstrating ‘progress’ in basic skills test and educating children are two entirely different things. And, as we now know, the improved test scores under Bloomberg and Klein were largely achieved through grade inflation.

A meaningful education policy that could genuinely lead to better educated children would be grounded in educational terms, not economic ones. It would value education as a broad, open-ended exploration of the world through subject disciplines that cannot be measured by testing basic skills. Such a policy would seek to strengthen the authority of teachers and principals, those who are trained to do the job, rather than undermine them through political interference.

That leaves us with the question as to why New Yorkers have reacted to Black’s recommendation when other appointments of non-educationalists to important posts have gone unchallenged. In part this may be because some people have started to wake up to the negative consequences of running a public school system on market principles. However, it is also clear that in many cases, the negative response to Black has less to do with her and more to do with Bloomberg’s administration. ‘Parents and others frustrated by Mr Klein’s and Mr Bloomberg’s approach do not see another non-educator from the upper crust as a relief; they see her as more of the same at best, and at worst, a slap in the face’, reported the New York Times. Many New Yorkers have had enough of Bloomberg’s uncompromising and authoritarian management style, especially now that it is evident that it has been without success.

While one could envisage someone without an education background managing a confident school system with strong educational leaders below them, this is clearly not the case in New York City today. A business executive is being positioned as the new chancellor precisely because the city lacks a vision which values education in its own terms.

Alex Standish is an assistant professor of geography at Western Connecticut State University and author of Global Perspectives in the Geography Curriculum: Reviewing the moral case for geography. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)

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