What every schools chief should know

New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg is under attack for nominating the chairwoman of Hearst Magazines to be the next New York City Schools Chancellor.  The New York education establishment and its political patrons are outraged that someone with no background in education might run the city’s schools.  Bloomberg counters that management skills are the most important qualification for the job, given the size and complexity of the New York system.

The only reason why previous exposure to the education world might in fact be a useful credential for a schools chief is as a vaccine against the multiple idiocies of that world.  Business leaders have shown a depressing tendency to lap up the latest edu-fads, whether the need to teach “critical thinking skills” in the 1980s or the efficacy of smart boards in the 2000s (former Los Angeles mayor and developer Richard Riordan, for example, is pushing those boondoggles through his education foundation).

The following is just a brief list of ed-school nostrums that the ideal inoculated chancellor or principal would laugh out of his jurisdiction:

–Students should teach themselves in small groups; the teacher is just a facilitator.
–Students should create their own knowledge, not have it stuffed into them by books and a ruthlessly demanding teacher. 
–“Building community” is an important aspect of education. 
–Memorization and drilling are bad; project learning is good.
–Tests are bad; portfolios are good.
–Teaching grammar is stultifying; students should just absorb it through vibrant talk and journal writing.
–The amount of money spent on education is directly, rather than inversely, correlated to student learning.
–Technology can correct for apathetic students and listless teachers. 
–Mathematics should be hands-on and concrete, not abstract.
Of course, plenty of chancellors have emerged from close exposure to schools with the full battery of ed-school myths still lodged firmly in their heads.  U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is promising to investigate American schools for “disciplinary profiling”—i.e., for disciplining black and Hispanic students at higher rates than whites.  Duncan headed the Chicago school system during the 2000s.  Anyone who was observing the Chicago schools with even just one eye open could see that disproportionate black student violence is real.  The idea that graduates of what is likely the most left-wing educational institution in the country—teachers ed schools—suddenly become red-necked bigots once they start teaching in or managing schools is preposterous.  To the contrary, black students are undoubtedly being under-disciplined, not over-disciplined, compared to their rates of classroom violence and disruption.   And yet Duncan has apparently emerged from his hands-on Chicago experience with all the deceptions of ed school ideology intact.  The results of Duncan’s terrifying federal initiative will be an even greater reluctance to remove trouble-makers from the classroom, destroying the last hopes of even remotely committed students for an education. 

The main argument against an exclusively private sector background for a schools chancellor, in my view, is that it may dovetail with the simplistic conservative view of education as just another market.  The conservative fetish of vouchers grows out of this understanding, which ignores the central importance of pedagogy and curriculum in determining student learning.  Process is less important in education than content, but conservative education reformers have focused blindly on process for the last two decades.  (The voucher fetish is also too Pollyannaish about the “all children can learn” bromide, greatly underestimating the challenges that teachers face from the breakdown of the family.)

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9 Responses to What every schools chief should know

  1. panglos says:

    What of blue collar skills?

    We are hiring trade school welders and mechanics for $45k/year and that beats engineering grads by 10%.

  2. CONSVLTVS says:

    I had always assumed the conservative argument for vouchers was a cover for the real agenda: Put as many kids as possible in religious schools (or home schools) where they can pray. So, I never took the “‘all children can learn’ bromide” as more than rhetoric.

    You are absolutely right that the family breakdown impedes education. The other big impediments include television (but we’ve known that forever) and politically orthodox pedagogy. One recent model is to “frame” teacher intervention as either “discipline” or “therapy.” The therapeutic frame is supposed to be better because it finds ways of understanding badly behaved children rather than punishing them. Fair enough in some cases, and real classroom tyrants stifle learning too. But they’re also rare these days, and we’ve gone way too far toward permissiveness. For these “therapeutic” frame teachers, ejecting a problem student is somehow a failure on the part of the teacher. This view is a perfect example of a viral meme. A shame it’s taken hold with so many in Edutopia.

  3. John says:

    Heather, fantastic article. This should be mailed to everyone in education.

    The main reason why I support vouchers is not because it would improve education as a whole (although it would); it is to separate the good students from the bad ones. Smart students shouldn’t be in the same class as dumb ones, and well behaved students shouldn’t be in the same class as badly behaved ones. Vouchers would open the door to selective schools and remove the chains from a lot of good kids. Of course, the left would yell “Inequality!”, to which I would reply, “Damn right”.

  4. Christopher says:

    “To the contrary, black students are undoubtedly being under-disciplined, not over-disciplined, compared to their rates of classroom violence and disruption.”

    Source for this or did you pull this out of your you know what? This is more of an ASSUMPTION than FACTUAL

  5. Listas says:

    These methods you list here, should be used by every school in the world, if they can’t afford for technologic devices, they should use these basic and efficient methods of teaching, as children and specially young people are not easy to teach, so the teachers have to catch their attentions. Congratulations, I liked yous post very much, and I agree with you that these methods are what every schools chief should know.

  6. Susan says:

    It seems to me that the deciding factor in how Black runs the schools will be her politics (I have no idea what they are; a quick reading of a few articles about her didn’t provide that information)rather than her lack of a background as an “educator” and her experience as a publishing exec. If she’s a liberal, she’ll go with liberal solutions. If she’s a conservative, she’ll try to promote conservative solutions. I say “try to promote” because I doubt she’ll have much luck doing so.

    Most people in publishing, whether it’s newspapers and magazines or books, tend to be fairly liberal to very liberal.

  7. RandyB says:

    This is the kind of article that attracted me to this site. I’d describe HMcD’s list as a bunch of faith-based positions rooted in nothing but wishful thinking.

    Can one of you with more background here than I have point me to any articles along the lines of “What secular liberals accept on (their own brand of) faith”?

  8. Susan says:

    The really interesting thing about Heather’s list is that everything on it is far, far easier to do than actually teach someone something.

  9. John says:

    Look at the data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study (ECLS), the largest collection of data on young school children. Those data clearly show black/white differences in behavior in Kindergarten. So, even with data available, Duncan and his liberal allies, just like the professors in schools of education across the country, will continue to ignore them in favor of their ideology. Sadly, the kids who are harmed the most will be those who need the most discipline and self-control.

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