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Bloomberg's Lousy Cathie Black Solution

Well, official word came Monday that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has stumbled into a truly ludicrous solution to the "who will succeed Joel Klein" question. He put forward publishing executive Cathie Black--without ever really explaining why her skills or experience equip her to run NYC's hyper-political $20 billion-a-year school system--only to get slammed by community backlash and doubts about her suitability.

State law required that Black, given her lack of credentials, get a waiver from New York State Commissioner David Steiner if she was to head the school system. Steiner used the opportunity to convene an advisory panel, which said Black wasn't up to snuff. Steiner offered Bloomberg a way out by suggesting Black could pass muster if paired with a number two with academic chops. So, Bloomberg created a position, Chief Academic Officer (CAO), to oversee curriculum and testing in the NYC Department of Ed (NYCDOE). He promptly named 38-year-old Shael Polakow-Suransky, a former principal of a Bronx high school and a top official at NYCDOE, as CAO.

We've seen this kind of dubious solution before, in public and private organizations. They hardly ever work, and I'm real curious to see how this plays out. When it comes to deciding how much to spend on curriculum or professional development, whose brief does that fall into? NYC's School of One is a nationally recognized phenomenon, but its central innovation deals with reimagining the middle school math curriculum--whose baby is it? If the Chancellor or the Mayor aren't happy with test results, will Polakow-Suransky have the autonomy to publicly release them on his own or to direct staff to use them as he sees fit--whatever Black's preferences? Responsibility for curriculum and testing pretty quickly gets into questions of teacher quality, evaluation, and assignment--does this mean that Polakow-Suransky will have a role there? If not, can he still be effective?

There's no evidence that Black knew Polakow-Suransky, wanted him as a deputy, or feels confident she can work with him. There's no evidence these two are on the same page or have a shared vision. And this shotgun marriage means it's hardly reasonable to hold either accountable for the decisions of the other, creating vast opportunities for conflict and blame-shifting.

Why Cathie Black would want the job on these terms is beyond me, and I'm surprised that Bloomberg would so casually jeopardize his K-12 legacy in the rush to resolve a short-term political problem. And, I'll tell you, I sure don't envy NYCDOE staffers or school leaders who have to wonder whether they'll be getting conflicting direction and, if so, what to do about it.

Is it inevitable that things will work out poorly? Of course not. This might all go swimmingly. But that's not the way to bet. And the whole point of structural reforms--like mayoral control or empowering nontraditional leaders--is to stack the odds in favor of coherence and breakthrough improvement. If anything, this does the opposite.

All of this brings to mind former Disney CEO Michael Eisner's new book on partnerships, Working Together: Why Great Partnerships Succeed. In it, Eisner describes how he and Frank Wells were offered the opportunity to serve as co-CEOs at Disney. Eisner, fearing a recipe for disaster, said he'd pass rather than accept the deal. In the end, Wells agreed to step aside and Eisner became CEO. If only the New York City schools showed as much regard for coherent leadership as one finds in Mickey's kingdom...

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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