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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