Open Letter: A Challenge To Ms. Black

Published on March 08, 2011, 11:07 am
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In a reprint in The New York Times of an interview with Cathleen Black – a former publishing executive and NYC’s new Schools Chancellor – Black was asked to compare the private sector to the public-school system.

“One of the advantages of having someone come in from the outside is that you see things with a fresh pair of eyes,” said the questioner. “What has struck you as something that would never fly in the business world?”

Black’s answer: “The ability to be totally committed to performance. And I want to be very supportive of performance of a teacher and the performance of students are very interlinked, and I want to work at how do we, you know, between teacher evaluations and their effectiveness.” The George W. Bush-like syntax of her response makes one wonder whether she received a waiver to become a magazine editor as she did to become Schools Chancellor.

Did she mean being totally committed to performance is not part of the business world? Or, that it is? Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and allow she meant in the private sector anything less than 100% commitment to performance won’t fly. Given the recent track record of American enterprise, one wonders about the credibility of that proposition, too.

Wasn’t Stan O’Neal, former head of Merill Lynch, given a golden parachute of $150 million after driving the firm off a cliff? Didn’t Lehman Brothers ex-chief Dick Fuld reveal having received millions in previously undisclosed pay around the time he was named Worst CEO Ever by Portfolio magazine? And wasn’t Ms. Black fired as President of Hearst Magazines?

She was not shown the door like most people who are canned. Instead, she was kicked upstairs to a newly created, do-nothing position of Chairman of the company. These are just a few examples of the disconnect between performance and reward among the business elite.

Ms. Black went on to say about teacher tenure: “It is kind of unimaginable for (her) to think that someone at 23 or 24 will be granted a job guarantee for life.” Well, she was wrong again. Tenure is not a guarantee of a job for life. It’s a protection against arbitrary dismissal by principals.

It seems that Ms. Black has a lot to learn about the way NYC public-schools work. It is time she began her education from the bottom up.

I challenge Ms. Black to spend two weeks teaching in an under-performing school. With a B.A. she has the qualifications to substitute teach. If she doesn’t meet the requirements, I am certain she could obtain a waiver.

I’m not talking about making cameo appearances in schools across the city. Nor is it about teaching in a specially selected classroom where students are chosen from “central casting.”

No! I mean teaching in a randomly assigned school in a randomly selected class, many of whose students are at risk of failure. Of course, the teachers and administrators at the school would know who she is. But the students wouldn’t have a clue; they would treat her as they would any teacher. And that’s the kind of treatment she needs to experience.

Let her plan her lessons. Let her address the needs not just of those students who want to learn, but especially the needs of those who are disruptive. Let her figure out how to deal with a child who rolls on the floor for hours at a time, day-in-day-out. Let her deal with the verbally and physically abusive students. Let her try to maintain her cool in the midst of almost constant chaos. Let her spend her preparatory periods at useless professional development meetings run by representatives of companies with huge contracts from the DOE. Let her break up fist fights among students. Let her do all these things and more – all by herself!

At best, she would gain a true perspective of what many of NYC’s 80,000 teachers go through daily. At worst, as she prepares for the literacy block of her teaching day, she might improve her syntax, and begin to make some sense.

Jonas Bronck is the pseudonym under which we publish and manage the content and operations of The Bronx Daily.™ | - the largest daily news publication in the borough of "the" Bronx with over 1.5 million annual readers. Publishing under the alias Jonas Bronck is our humble way of paying tribute to the person, whose name lives on in the name of our beloved borough.