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Dangerous Precedent for Superintendent Certification

The controversy surrounding the appointment of Cathleen Black to be the new chancellor of New York City schools despite her failure to meet the stipulated requirements for the job has been so well covered by the media by now that little more can be said. But like so many contentious issues in education, the fallout is not limited to the immediate venue.

On the first day that Black assumed her duties of the nation's largest school district, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced that he intends to try to convince the state board of education to jettison education experience as a prerequisite for school district superintendents. Like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who argued that a background in education is not necessary for success in running schools, Christie maintains that managerial and administrative experience is far more important, even though it was obtained in business or the military.

As I've written often before, I don't agree. The experience of other districts that have widened their net to bring in non-educators serves as evidence: Arne Duncan and Ron Huberman in Chicago, Alan Bursin in San Diego, and Adm. David Brewer in Los Angeles. These men knew next to nothing about public schools, despite their distinguished backgrounds in other fields, and their lackluster performance proved it.

In the case of New Jersey, however, there is a particular irony. It was the first state to seize control of failing public schools. In 1989, it took over schools in Jersey City. In 1991, it repeated the process in Paterson, and in 1995 it did the same in Newark. No sooner, however, did Trenton get into the business of running the three districts than it wanted to get out. Managing hundreds of teachers and thousands of students turned out to be far more than what strategists anticipated. But the final straw was student achievement. Despite some small gains in test scores, schools that were failing before the takeover continued to do so after.

Christie and his supporters will undoubtedly argue that the anemic results of Trenton's takeover of the three districts was the result of putting them in the hands of educrats, rather than in the hands of savvy managers. They will use this assertion to bolster their case for bringing in non-educators in the future. (Christie was also in the news recently in connection with Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million five-year donation to the Newark schools ("What Newark Schools Need," The Nation).

In sharp contrast, California voters in November wisely chose Tom Torlakson, a former science and world history teacher, to be the new state superintendent of public instruction. They did so in the belief that only someone who has actually taught in public schools possesses an understanding of what teachers need to do their job. Torlakson is expected to form partnerships with professional educators, lawmakers and non-profit foundations.

I flatly reject the claim that only those outside of education possess the wherewithal to improve educational quality for students because they are not tied to the status quo. But I'm open to evidence that will prove me wrong.

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