Will Learning Curve be a Problem for New Schools Chancellor?

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country we bring you the unmissable quotes from political conversations on WNYC. On today's Brian Lehrer ShowMichael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, offered his take on the next schools chancellor, Cathie Black.

Since Mayor Bloomberg tapped magazine executive Cathie Black to be the next chancellor of New York City's schools, reaction from the public has been mixed. The major sticking point for Black's detractors is her admitted lack of experience in education. In her introductory press conference on Tuesday, she acknowledged that the "learning curve" for her job would be steep, and she asked for patience from New Yorkers as she learns the ropes.

There are arguments for giving Black a chance, but teachers union head Michael Mulgrew says that students can't afford to wait for a new chancellor to get up to speed.

There are lot of issues out there and in schools every day teachers go into those classrooms and they have to do the job of helping those children. I understand there's a learning curve, and of course I would work with her because that’s the responsible thing to do. It's what we should all be doing on behalf of the children. But it's not like we have a lot of time.

Bloomberg had said that he wanted a "world-class manager" to head up the city's Department of Education. A look at Cathie Black's resume proves that she is certainly that. So why does a schools chancellor need education experience? According to Michael Mulgrew, it's about knowing what works in a classroom.

We felt that the educational strategy under [outgoing Chancellor Joel] Klein, making everything about education only about a standardized test score, was a disservice, and parents feel the same way, that their child is much more than a score. We've focused our curriculum all the way down into test prep, and the teachers and I have been very outspoken about how this is a problem. If [Klein] had more of an educational background, he would have realized that this is a mistake to make everything just about standardized test scores. That's why you have people apprehensive about another chancellor without an educational background.

Mulgrew found fault with Bloomberg's use of a certain analogy at Tuesday's press conference. He referred to the public schools as serving a "customer base," a statement some have criticized as conflating education with a product and students with consumers. Mulgrew took issue with that.

It makes it seem as if you can put a business model and put it on education. It's a horrendous analogy because there's so much more. These are students. They're not profit margins, circulation numbers—so much more goes into the nuance of education. We're trying to do something no other country on this planet is doing, which is to educate every single child to be ready for college or career by the time they're 18. That will lead us into a greater place in the future. As we're at this crossroads, the question is really, what is going to be the right mix that will allow us to fulfill that challenge. And if it means a combination of people with different skill sets, then I'm for it.

One caller named Greg brought up the other side of the argument, saying that he believed Black was qualified and that focusing on terms like "customers" and "patience" was splitting hairs.

The president of Singer sewing machines could be the president of Wrigley's chewing gum because of the skill set that comes with that. They're so far removed from the worker on the line, from the student, she's going to have four or five hundred people underneath her, so I don't think it matters. If you trust the system and the people between her and the student, they're going to bring her up to speed very quickly. The fact that said she's going to need patience isn't a reality, it's just a nice way of saying, "I'm ready and I'm willing to work."

Though Michael Mulgrew may not agree with everything in that statement, he was adamant that he still has not had a formal meeting with Cathie Black, that she could certainly do a fantastic job, and that it's too early for anyone (including him) to pass judgment.

People have skill sets that their jobs bring, so we can't just dismiss that. But at the same time, she has to demonstrate knowledge about what it's going to mean to move education...I haven't sat down with this woman, I haven't spoken to her. So for me to just predetermine ahead of time without speaking to her would really be irresponsible of me at this point.

Listen to the entire conversation on The Brian Lehrer Show.