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Choosing School Chancellors the Wrong Way

The appointment of Cathleen Black to be chancellor of the nation's largest school district should come as no surprise to followers of the reform movement. Despite her lack of education experience (except for sitting on the board of the Harlem Village Academy but not yet having attended a meeting), Mayor Michael Bloomberg chose her to replace the departing Joel Klein, who moves on to become an executive vice president at News Corp.

The trend of going outside the educational community to run troubled school districts will be applauded by those frustrated and angry at the pace of school improvement. They will argue that it is precisely what is called for. After all, they will claim that what works in business, the military or the law will work in schools. If nothing else, these outsiders will shake things up. If reformers are right, then Black, who was chairwoman of Hearst Magazines where she was highly regarded, is a solid choice for chancellor.

There still remains the formality of Black getting a waiver from New York State Education Commissioner David Steiner because of a law that went into effect in 1970 requiring all school chiefs to have at least a master's degree and professional certificate in educational leadership, in addition to three years' experience in schools. But Steiner is expected to defer to Bloomberg's request, making Black the new chancellor.

Nevertheless, as I've often written before, education is unique. Teachers are not motivated by the same factors that shape the behavior of workers in other fields. As a result, choosing chancellors or superintendents who do not understand the teaching profession because of their lack of classroom experience is likely to be counterproductive. A quick review of other large districts explains why I remain skeptical.

In October 2006, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second largest, hired Navy Vice Adm. David Brewer as superintendent. It did so in the belief that the qualities making for a successful career in the military would make for success in education. But a scathing 115-page report by Evergreen Solutions issued in April 2007 concluded that the district with 78,000 employees, 700,000 students and an $11-billion annual budget at the time was inefficient and ineffective. Brewer resigned in early 2009.

The San Diego Unified School District appointed former U.S. Atty. Alan Bersin to run its schools from 1998 to 2005. But he resigned when it became obvious that his leadership was not up to expectations. Prior to Joel Klein, New York City's 1,500 schools were headed by Harold Levy, a former Citibank executive. He too was found lacking in the necessary skills to lead the 1.1 million-student district. And in 1995, Chicago hired Paul Vallas, a former legislative staff member and budget manager for the city. He balanced the school district budget, but test scores dropped, leading Mayor Richard Daley to push him out.

This list of failures does not always mean that appointing school chiefs with zero or few educational credentials is doomed. Bringing in those with a fresh perspective and knowledge of running large organizations sometimes can be beneficial. But it's vital to remember that teachers work best under leaders who have a deep appreciation of the difficult work they do. No matter what outsiders say, it's hard to believe that most of them possess that quality.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check 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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