The Big Lesson Of The Cathie Black Debacle?

That there isn’t one.  That’s the topic of my School of Thought column this week in TIME. I don’t know what was more dismaying, how badly the Black appointment turned out for New York or how the education world responded to it.

Mark Twain famously cautioned us to take from an experience only the wisdom that is in it and to stop there. That sensible admonition is routinely ignored in our overheated debate over education. The latest example? The reaction to last week’s firing of Cathie Black as New York City’s schools chancellor. Critics of education reform quickly rushed to declare it a verdict on the effort to improve schools overall, or at the very least, on non-traditional school superintendents — as though Black was the only one of that breed. You want nuance? Don’t look for it on this issue…

…So that’s the mundane reality here: The Mayor of New York made a bad decision for the schools — and to his credit owned up to it, and addressed it.

Around the education world, however, mundane realities fail to provide enough fuel for ideological fights…

Read the entire thing here.

30 Replies to “The Big Lesson Of The Cathie Black Debacle?”

  1. Plain and simple it is always a bad idea to appoint a school leader who has absolutely no education credentials or any real experience in the trenches. Is there any evidence out there that people who have little experience or credentials have run successful school systems?
    Even Denis Walcott has very, very limited experience as a teacher-The leaders at the helm of NYC policy seem to believe that all you need to know about school reform was learned in kindergarten.

  2. I was living in Seattle when John Stanford was appointed superintendent of the Seattle Public Schools in the late 1990s. He was a retired Major General with no experience in education and turned out to have been easily the best and most inspirational leader the Seattle Public Schools (and perhaps even the entire city of Seattle) has ever seen until his death from leukemia in 1998.

    Perhaps he is the exception that proves the rule. Or maybe a truly extraordinary leader like John Stanford can succeed anywhere. Also his background as a black man in the military rising up through the ranks over 3 decades was quite a bit different from the prima dona CEO types that seem to get appointed today. And his military experience probably set him up much better to manage a large diverse school district than leading a publishing firm would have.

  3. “The Mayor of New York made a bad decision for the schools — and to his credit owned up to it, and addressed it.”

    How do you figure that the mayor “addressed” his decision? Yes, in the strictest and narrowest sense of the phrase, he did “own up” to the fiasco, but once that was over with, he completely shut down follow-up questions or post-mortem analysis by repeatedly playing the ‘let’s move forward’ card.

    I’m merely a New York City public school parent, but I think there’s a pretty obvious “big lesson” here—the potential pitfalls of mayoral control without true accountability. With literally no consultation with the DOE and ignoring the recommendation of a panel of experts convened by the state’s education commissioner, the mayor installed a grossly underqualified person with no personal or professional experience in public education as the chancellor of a system with a $23 billion budget and more students than there are citizens, period, in 8 US states. How was he held to account? With a terse press conference, another lightning-fast, zero-consultation selection of Black’s replacement, and about 1000 more days in office. Is this not a problem, and something that other jurisdictions considering mayoral control might wish to hedge against?

  4. The first lesson I learned as a businessman was that you should work in a specific type of business before you buy that type of business. Not all businesses are the same and public education, it turns out, is very different from running a news paper. It was no surprise that Ms.Blacks tenure turned out to be a complete failure. The thinly disguised attempt to discredit public educators, by overlooking them for an important position, has fallen flat many times as do most decisions that are made on the basis of politics and not rational thought.

  5. Below are two quotes. The first is yours and the second is what actually happened. I don’t understand why you would write that “he owned up to the bad decision” when in fact he refuse to answer a single question about the decision. Please tell me that you didn’t read the transcript of the press conference and you simply didn’t know what actually transpired. If this was an intentional effort to mislead your readers it is despicable.

    “The Mayor of New York made a bad decision for the schools — and to his credit owned up to it, and addressed it.”

    “At the press conference, Bloomberg emphasized that he would not answer questions about Black’s brief time as Chancellor, and repeatedly said that it was important to look forward.”

  6. “The Mayor of New York made a bad decision for the schools — and to his credit owned up to it, and addressed it.”

    “At the press conference, Bloomberg emphasized that he would not answer questions about Black’s brief time as Chancellor, and repeatedly said that it was important to look forward.”

    That’s eduwonk for you.

    Make up whatever’s needed to support your point.

  7. Owned-by-someone-who-isn’t-a-billionaire:

    Why does the phrase “I take full responsibility for the fact that this has not worked out” not suggest that Bloomberg has owned up to a bad decision?

  8. @ Chris

    Your quote is as disingenuous as Rotherham’s article. Andrew’s article said that Bloomberg owned up to a bad decision AND ADDRESSED IT. I would say that by refusing to answer any questions on the topic of Cathie Black, Bloomberg refused to address the issue.

    Furthermore, he has not addressed the issue by conducting the same type of search for a chancellor which yielded Black – no search. There is quite a bit of hubris for Mayor Mike to think that he knows every qualified candidate for the Chancellor position and that he doesn’t need to conduct a search.

  9. Corruption:

    You didn’t answer my question. Here it is phrased another way:

    Doesn’t “owning up to [and addressing] a bad decision” mean publicly admitting that it’s one’s fault?

    That you are inferring differently what “addressing” implies doesn’t make what Andrew wrote incorrect (or disingenuous, or despicable, etc…).

  10. Sure Bloomberg owned up to his mistake of picking Cathie Black. He did not own up to the mistake of forgoing a genuine search for a qualified chancellor. He actually made that same mistake again.

    Bloomberg certainly did not address the mistake of picking Cathie Black as Andrew wrote. The implication that he did somehow address that decision is disingenuous.

  11. As I wrote, the professional education refrom crowd don’t let facts get in their way.

  12. Corruption:

    “Sure Bloomberg owned up to his mistake of picking Cathie Black.”

    Very good. Might it be possible that this was Andy’s point?

    Addressing a problem means working to resolve it, so I don’t know why that’s also irritating you. He addressed his bad decision by replacing Black. That he didn’t do it in the way you wanted him to doesn’t suggest bad faith here on anyone’s part.

    As an unofficial member of the “professional education refrom [sic] crowd”, I ask that you assume good faith until you can readily prove otherwise.

  13. “He addressed his bad decision by replacing Black.”

    Bloomberg also addressed his bad decision by refusing to address any questions related to Black. I guess you didn’t see the press conference.

    On a side note, do you think it is a mistake for a mayor to only consider people he knows for the chancellor position?

  14. A-billionaire-does-not-own-thee:

    You’re ignoring what I wrote above. The quotes you are comparing do not suggest bad faith. That Bloomberg didn’t answer questions at the press conference is irrelevant to his owning up and addressing the problem: that Black was a bad decision. If you want to go further and say that he didn’t address other problems, fine, but that’s not what Andy’s article was referencing. Going back to your original post, the two quotes are thus consistent.

  15. is your name supposed to be “Not Owned By a Billionaire” or “No Town Ed(ucated) By A Billionaire” ?

  16. @ Chris

    Consistent is the way a defense attorney might describe the quotes below, but not the way I think most people would describe them. We will have to agree to disagree that these quotes are consistent.

    “The Mayor of New York made a bad decision for the schools — and to his credit owned up to it, and addressed it.”

    “At the press conference, Bloomberg emphasized that he would not answer questions about Black’s brief time as Chancellor, and repeatedly said that it was important to look forward.”

    Moving past semantics, You still have yet to answer my question:

    “Do you think it is a mistake for a mayor to only consider people he knows for the chancellor position?”

  17. “Not owned” you are leaving out a big part of this (and of Andrew’s column): The part where Mayor Bloomberg said:

    “I take full responsibility for the fact that this has not worked out.”

    He also fired her.

    I think most people would call that addressing. A defense attorney might call that relevant.

  18. No-billionaires-here:

    It’s not just semantics. The quotes are entirely consistent if you consider the problem Andy was directly referencing (hiring Black). For there to be “disingenuous” inconsistencies, you have to assume Andy was referencing a different “bad decision” than what the whole article was about. Bloomberg addressed the bad decision by hiring someone else.

    You’re free to disagree that there were other bad decisions made here, but I don’t really care if you do. What I’m pointing out is that you’ve claimed bad faith but have zero evidence to support it. It’s not a great way to start off your tenure in the blogosphere (or, I guess, it’s a great way if you want to appeal to a certain subset of commenters)

  19. Bloomberg addressed the problem of Cathie Black, by conducting the type of search which yielded Cathie Black. I would not call that addressing the issue.

    Again, I think that I am the only one who saw the press conference. Bloomberg stonewalled reporters who asked him to address how he made the Black decision.

    When Andrew wrote, “The Mayor of New York made a bad decision for the schools — and to his credit owned up to it, and addressed it” he implies a very different scenario from what actually occurred both at the press conference and with the appointment of Walcott. You can’t address a mistake by 1) refusing to answer questions about it and 2) conducting the same pick-a-buddy search which produced Black.

    Disingenuous is defined as, “Not candid or sincere, typically by pretending that one knows less about something than one really does.”

    Yes, I believe Andrew knows that mayor’s search process was flawed. To pretend that Bloomberg addressed the Black mistake by firing black is then disingenuous.

    I guess the question for Andrew and perhaps for you is, Do you believe the mayor’s search process is flawed?

  20. Maybe-owned-by-a-millionaire-but-certainly-not-by-any-billionaires:

    Again, you are referencing a different problem (the “search which yielded Black”) than what Andy’s article references (choosing Black for chancellor). This fact renders your contemptuous attacks above moot.

    You don’t need to hold a press conference to address bad decisions. You just need to admit fault and fix them. Again, don’t care if you don’t like the search process. That wasn’t what was being referenced in Andy’s article.

    In other news, today I addressed a problem in my calculations by erasing a rogue zero. I didn’t field questions on the matter from my boss, though, so perhaps I didn’t really address the problem when I fixed it…

  21. Banana Slug,

    Perhaps the definition of disingenuous confused you. Leaving out information you know to be true is disingenuous.

    Andrew’s article was disingenuous because he knows the problem was not simply selecting Black as chancellor. He knows the Black problem stemmed from the larger problem of Mayor Mike’s selection process. Unlike your math errors, this information is pertinent and should have been included.

    Leaving this out of the article and exclaiming that the problem has been addressed is disingenuous or perhaps ignorant, but I will give Andrew credit in the intellectual department.

  22. Well its seems quite a heated argument has developed here. My take is employ someone who has been through the system not some ready made leader , as often someone without the background misses key factors because of their lack of inside workings of any institution

  23. Billionaires-not-R-us:

    That’s the whole point: you are referencing a problem that wasn’t addressed in the article. It doesn’t suggest bad faith when Andy writes about the mayor fixing his decision to hire Black rather than the process of selection used. It just might be possible that he and others don’t consider that process problematic.

    Fault him for not discussing whatever it is you wanted him to discuss (though realize you aren’t showing he is arguing in bad faith…), but stop pretending that addressing one problem, Black as chancellor, implicitly requires addressing a separate problem/”problem”, the process of choosing Black. That someone may disagree with you on the latter ought to be a springboard for discussion, not an opening to initiate this strange mud slinging.

  24. I think we all recognize, you included (I will take your silence on the issue as agreement) that the mayor’s search for school chancellor was flawed.

    Writing an article about how we can’t learn any lessons from Cathie Black’s selection is either dumb or disingenuous. Take your pick.

  25. Corruptionineducationreform(becausethey’reownedbybillionaires):

    My silence on the “issue” is because I don’t think it’s an issue, and because I’m much more curious as to why you maintain that this article is an example of bad faith argumentation. Much like your latest blogpost (“Education Deformer Look A Like [sic] Contest”), there’s little substance in your replies, so I think I’ve gathered all that I can here. Have a great weekend.

  26. But you always get the last word.

    To write an article saying that we should extrapolate no larger lesson other than the fact Black was the wrong pick is either disingenuous or dumb.

    After the Black problem, everyone recognized that the mayor’s selection process was flawed.

    There is no bad faith argumentation, the author of the article may have been ignorant. Originally I assumed this wasn’t the case, but after a lengthy debate with an eduwonk disciple, I am now considering stupidity a real possibility.

    *thanks for the spelling correction.

  27. “Not owned” did you actually read the column or are you so sure you know what Rotherham thinks you don’t have to?

    Second paragraph –

    There obviously is some blame in the whole Cathie Black episode. When New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg selected Black as chancellor, even insiders were baffled. But surely the mayor must have seen something in how Black had handled past roles that led him to think her a fit for this one. Overseeing a $23 billion enterprise does require management and strategy experience, which Black brought to the job. Now, with the benefit of hindsight (95 days to be exact,) it’s clear that whether he was cavalier in selecting Black or just misread her, Mayor Bloomberg blew this one. He said as much himself in the wake of Black’s departure, telling a news conference, “I take full responsibility for the fact that this has not worked out.”

    He sure is carrying water for Bloomberg there!

  28. So let me get this straight. There is “some blame” but we can’t learn any lessons from the Black episode. Stupidity is now tipping the scales.

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