Our Fetishization of Upper Management Is Killing Public Education

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11/11/2010 2:58 PM |

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Alex Pareene wrote a great piece about our new Completely Unqualified Schools Chancellor yesterday: “corporatism masquerading as benevolent rule by our wisest technocrats… Only the sort of lucky billionaire convinced of the moral superiority of the financially successful would assume that a random executive with no education experience could manage the New York city public schools better than someone who… you know, has experience managing public schools.” And this was before today’s Times took a look at the selection process, in which it was revealed that Bloomberg knows our new Completely Unqualified Schools Chancellor from attending the same private fundraisers in Park Avenue apartments, and hired her in secret.

Now, what sort of corporate expertise will wealthy and well-connected publishing executive Cathleen Black bring to New York City’s public schools? The infinite sagacity to go along with corporate conventional wisdom and throw public money at 100 more privately run charter schools.

(Meanwhile on the private-sector public-private-partnership carousel, Joel Klein, our previous Completely Unqualified Schools Chancellor, has taken a new job, “developing business strategies for the emerging educational marketplace” at Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp.)

In response to the charter-school-porn documentary Waiting for “Superman”, the education scholar Diane Ravitch just wrote a great, thorough New York Review of Books essay on “The Myth of Charter Schools,” in which she noted that, despite the Bloomberg circle’s near-religious faith in the intellectual and managerial superiority of the private sector (and the admitted success of a few largely unreplicable charter models), “there are twice as many failing charters as there are successful ones.”

She also cites studies demonstrating that the relative wealth or poverty of a student’s background has far more bearing on his or her academic success than the quality of his or her teachers, which is something to keep in mind even as the bad teachers continue to be far more visible to a parent than large-scale economic factors. (And even as that one life-altering inspirational teacher is far more visible to a student.)

There’s this notion, promulgated in everything from discussions of the auto industry to pensions to education, that unions are the single biggest drag on efficiency in both government and business, and that public education could be fixed, if we could just get the bad teachers out of the way and trust in the innovative strategies of the managerial class (it’s a belief, like the corporate charter-school movement, that all problems are a result of the improper implementation of top-down principles).

If only it were easier to fire bad teachers!, the thinking goes (bad teachers being identified by their relative inability to teach to a test for which, incidentally, the school district is also paying tutors brought in by the Kaplan wing of the Washington Post Company, a market which Rupert Murdoch now apparently wants in on). This line of thinking is bolstered, of course, by true tales of how hard it is to fire bad teachers, and just how bad they are. (The Post loves stories just like these. And parents love to get outraged by them.)

A friend of mine is a lawyer for the city, whose job it is to litigate the hearings in which we, the taxpayers, try to fire incompetent and/or dangerous tenured public-school teachers. He assures me that they are well worth firing, and I don’t doubt it for a minute.

There’s a sense that the UFT, like the UAW, has gone too far in looking out for its own. There has long been that sense about the unions that represent more lucrative professions. Discussing Major League Baseball’s Player’s Union pioneer Marvin Miller recently, Malcolm Gladwell noted the progression from big stars working second jobs in the winter while their bosses got fat, to the current state of stardom, in his typical ain’t-it-cool moralizing voice: “The problem with the new order is greed—the assumption that Talent deserves whatever it can extort.”

No, Malcolm, the problem with the new order is the same as the problem with the old order, which Marvin Miller told you he explained to the players decades ago: “‘Labor relations in this country are adversarial.'” Denied any decision-making capacity, what’s a union to do look out for its own? (Especially given the pervasive myth that its own are exactly the problem.)

But he did say, “in this country.” Not everywhere. Labor and management do have at least one common interest: the continued prosperity of the business—or the education of children—whether through conservatism or, yes, “innovation.”

But as long as the people in charge continue to bring in publishing executives to say that the problem with education is educators, then no, I don’t see that holistic cooperative outcome as any more than utopian.