The Future of Education: advice for Cathy Black

Dr. Ravitch, Research Professor of Education, New York University, delivered the Carol Gresser Forum Lecture on November 22 at St. John’s University with some advice for Cathleen Black. Cathy Black is the New York city Chancellor-elect of the city’s 1.1 million-student school system, the largest in the nation. Ms. Black brings to the position not a background in education, but that of a top publishing executive contributing to what Dr. Ravitch identified as a movement to de-professionalize education in the U.S. The movement may relate to a trend that begun in the 1990s when the same industrial-era management tactics began seeping into the nonprofit sector. Hence in education there was the appointment of Ms. Blacks’ predecessor, Joel Kline, who brought business management techniques to New York city schools. (Similar techniques played out in Washington DC as superintendent Michele Rhee downsized teachers and closed schools.) In the 1990s, nonprofits such as museums with governance structures resembling universities, bought onboard former corporate CEOs to positions once held by academics, scientists or curators bringing business practices that compromised the institution’s values. The professional staff that balked at these corporate practices was let go gravely depleting the institution’s knowledge capital. The recent appointments of curators to executive directors at two large art museums in New York may signal that the trend is reversing, at least in museums if not in the educational arena. In the meantime, Ms. Black would do well to heed the wisdom in the advice proffered by Dr. Ravitch:

1. Listen beyond your inner circle. Pay attention to the diverse stakeholders you serve besides students such as their parents, grandparents and guardians. Schools are community centers; don’t close them. Instead, strengthen them.

2. Draw on your rich experience beyond your publishing career. You, too, were once a student. Do carry forth the mission of the nuns of Notre Dame who were your first teachers and saw in you more than test scores. Take time to reflect on the way they nurtured your development as a whole human being, as a child of God.

3. Do acknowledge the” Charter School Myth.” Charter schools serve only 3% of New York’s children. The other 94% are in public schools. Refer to the Stanford Credo Study which found a large attrition rate at charter schools and that charter schools do not out-perform public schools in any category. For example, look at the example of one charter school in DC that made the claim of 96% of graduates going to college. However, be aware also that at this particular charter school the graduating class started with 140 students in the 7th grade and that by the time they reached 12th grade only 34 graduated. More accurately, 96% of the 34 graduates attended college.

4. Contrary to the claim that the documentary film “Waiting for Superman” put forth, that poverty is just an excuse, be sure of this about resources: resources do not matter if you have them.

5.Check the data before you embrace it and keep at the forefront “The Blueberry Story.” Public schools accept all the berries: the small ones, the bruised ones and even that are even a little on the greenish side. Charter schools are more selective and if it is not working that can toss the fish back in the pond. One of the earliest classes at the Harlem Charter School was dismissed for under achievement.

Note: This talk was delivered before the school board’s recommendation that Ms. Black have access to a veteran education official, Shael Polakow-Suransky, the chief accountability officer as her second in command.

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