The recent controversy over New York City School Chancellor-designate Cathie Black has brought to mind the age-old question about what constitutes an effective leader: one with remarkable managerial skills or professional expertise? In this case, Black, a highly touted media executive as head of magazine publisher Hearst, has plenty of the former, and none of the latter in education. Mayor Bloomberg, who personally selected her defended the choice, saying that the school chancellor is responsible for an institution with a $23 billion budget and 135,000 employees.
In fact, her biggest stated priority is to manage the upcoming budget cuts; this would include reforming the current structure of laying off teachers by seniority and eliminating the absent teacher reserve pools (when released instructors are unable to find positions yet maintain their salary). No doubt that the New York City Department of Education needs to be managed well.
On the other hand, a chancellor’s job requires deft understanding of the education process and a strong grasp of what makes effective learning. This requires an in-depth understanding of the intimacies of public schools, including the dynamics of teachers and students, teachers and parents, and teachers and administrators. Experience with children, including their psychology and behavior, is crucial to optimizing their learning. A strong understanding of diverse populations is also beneficial.
My previous post on the general formula for good leadership calls for equal parts wisdom, benevolence, and integrity. Black appears to have excellent managerial experience and will surely streamline the bloated DOE. The question most people seem to have is whether her lack of public education experience will lead to missteps in policy reform that directly affect students? So while she has wisdom in one area (management), she lacks it in another (education). Outgoing School Chancellor Joel Klein was in a similar position, and he had critics and advocates. Time will tell.