Cathleen Black and the Management of Education


Mayor Bloomberg has named Cathleen Black, a “superstar manager” with a background in magazine publishing, to be Chancellor of New York City’s public school system. The dispute about her qualifications has unfortunately gone astray, and the New York Times, the four “prominent management experts” it consulted, and the state’s education commissioner, have not helped to clarify the real issue involved.  The experts, according to the Times, cited the examples of “corporate chieftains who hopscotched successfully from industry to industry” as relevant examples for what Ms. Black was being asked to do, citing as examples executives who went from making food and cigarettes to making computer equipment. The acknowledge some differences in management issues between the public and private sector – different stakeholders, differences in “culture,” but generally holding her “skill set” might be up to the job. But they ignore the central issue.

Private industry and public education have different purposes. The goal of private industry is to produce profit.  Whether the means to it is making cigarettes or computers, the bottom line is the same. The product sought is not the quality of the cigarette or the computers, but the size of the profit. Thus there is a common experience involved, a common task: the production of profit, and that is largely transferable from one industry to another. But profit is not the goal of public education. As Thomas Freedman points out in the same issue of the Times, there are major disputes in education as to whether the goal is the transfer of knowledge as measured by testing or the nurturing of a critical intelligence, to oversimplify a complex heavily debated issue. Ms. Black’s abilities in producing a bottom line profit in no matter how many different industries does not help here.

It is unfortunate that the Times saw fit only to ask management experts to comment on Ms. Black’s qualifications, implicitly seeing the issue as one of management competence, rather than educational competence. The management experts might at least have raised an important issue in most discussions of good management: clarity on what the goals of the enterprise being managed basically are. They did not; too bad. But should not educational experts of equivalent prominence have been asked to comment as well?

David Steiner, the state Commissioner of Education, did not help either in apparently interpreting the state statute requiring education experience and credentials to be satisfied if a second-ranking employee of the education department that does have such qualifications is appointed to serve under her.  That is exactly backwards. Ms. Black’s management expertise is indeed important in education as well as in industry, to make sure the goals of the enterprise are efficiently pursued. But that addresses the means, not the ends. The top position must provide leadership that is clear on the ends, the goals of the enterprise; having someone else in charge of managing the efficiency of the way those goals are pursued is fine, but that is secondary to the main task. Steiner might have suggested to the Mayor that Ms. Black might make an excellent second in command, under a leader with the kind of education background the state statute envisages at the top.

Peter Marcuse

[Responding to “Experts See a Tough Road for Schools Chief Nomineee” by Alison Leigh Cowan, New York Times, New York Times Nov 28, 2010, p. Metropolitan Section, p. 9.]

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