Can a New Schools Chancellor Fix Education Reform's Image Problem?

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Dennis Walcott, Michelle Rhee, Cathie Black Dennis Walcott, Michelle Rhee, Cathie Black (Spencer Platt/Getty Images, Iris Harris/U.S. Department of Commerce, Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

First Michelle Rhee. Now Cathie Black.

These two school chiefs have unceremoniously left their respective posts in the last six months. They represent distinct wings of the school reform movement that's raised the ire of teachers unions, parents and some education policy experts — but there's one thing their tenures shared: terrible PR.

Michelle Rhee is part of the generation of upstart reformers taking on the education establishment. She got her start in education in Teach for America ("I sucked," she's said of her early years), and then founded a nonprofit to recruit new blood into the system called The New Teacher Project.

During her turbulent years as leader of Washington, D.C., schools, she famously offered teachers six-figure salaries to give up tenure and unapologetically talked about firing bad teachers. Her style alienated parents and stoked racial tensions in the district.

She resigned her post last October after her boss, former Mayor Adrien Fenty, lost in a Democratic primary. Rhee said she  "absolutely" felt guilty for his defeat. (She's moved on to lead her own education lobby effort, Students First.)

Cathie Black represented the other face of the popular school reform effort – the corporate technocrat. These are the business school grads, charter school benefactors and technology developers looking to infuse traditional school districts with a new, results-oriented culture.

It was in this spirit that Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed Black to head city schools. He called the magazine magnate a "superstar manager"  and declared that there was "virtually nobody who knows more about the needs of the 21st Century workforce." Black's critics thought otherwise, pointing to her lack of education experience and private school roots as proof that she didn't have the chops for the job.

Whether it was her unfamiliarity with education policy, her awkward exchanges with students or her willingness to strike back to an unfriendly crowd, Black didn't connect. With a 17-percent approval rating and high-ranking education officials fleeing, Black and the mayor "agreed the story had become about her and it should be about the students," he said, and she was out after four months.

NYU education professor Diane Ravich, who served in the George H. W. Bush’s Education Department, said the Black debacle could push back against the trend of bringing in private-sector managers to remake school districts.

"It's simply a mistake of the kind of corporate business model to think that people are interchangeable cogs," said Ravitch, who has been critical of Bloomberg’s education agenda. "She simply didn't know the language, didn't know the issues and was not qualified for the job."

Enter Dennis Walcott.

Without the stridency of Rhee or the discomfort of Black, he will test whether better relationships will lead to better politics as he takes charge of Bloomberg’'s education redesign.

On the larger aims of the national push from the technocrat-reformer coalition – weakening teacher tenure laws and introducing merit pay, closing failing schools and expanding charters and emphasizing measurable test score gains to close America's persistent achievement gap – the new chancellor said he will stay the course set by his predecessors Joel Klein and Black.

"I'm a believer in what we do. I'm a believer in reform," Walcott said during the press conference in which he was named chancellor.

The stylistic break from his predecessors — and the mayor who appointed him — was clear.

Walcott called himself "just a guy from Queens" who went to public school and started his career teaching kindergarten. He said he's visited hundreds of schools, "held the hands of students and talked with the moms and dads." His call-and-response with students at City Hall felt warm and natural, where Black had come off as stilted and uncomfortable.

That rapport has won praise from city education critics in the past.

"Dennis is known for listening and being able to navigate very choppy waters,'' Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, told The New York Times when Walcott joined the Bloomberg administration nine years ago. ''He also has a real understanding of the challenges of the school system, something I can't say about some of his predecessors in City Hall.'' 

Bloomberg-boosters are hoping that will help build support for continuing the mayor's ambitious education strategy.

"He's particularly skilled as a voice to the public, and parents and community groups," Klein's chief accountability officer and Columbia professor Jim Liebman told WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show. He called that an important quality "to get the message out to the public about the really good things that are happening right now that have not been as clear to people as they should be."

Michelle Rhee herself sees a useful ally in Walcott: "He is uniquely qualified to connect with students, teachers and parents," she said in a statement. "He has proven himself committed to the bold reforms New York's schools and students deserve."

And it might just work, said Joe Flood, a journalist who’s written about the numbers-driven technocrat’s effect on city governance.

If Walcott is sincere, he said, and "they're trying to combine the centralized decision-making and number-heavy approach with a little more outreach to communities to educators, to people with on the ground knowledge, that’s the way this sort of approach can work."

But Ravitch isn't convinced.

"I wish that he would say that because of his deep experience that he understands that so much of the mayor's approach has not worked," she said, pointing to data suggesting that Bloomberg’s achievements gains have been less impressive than earlier reports indicated. "But I guess it would be impolitic for him to say that given that he’s the mayor’s choice."


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Comments [13]

Doreen Mathis from

"Doreen Mathis
I AM Angry and WANT MY WORDS TO BE HEARD! by Doreen Mathis
Teachers are not baby sitters. We did not go to College to baby sit . We went to teach your children. We are not respect by any government group any parents any corporation. You want teaches to work longer hours so you will not have to deal with your children at all. Why did you have for Tax purposes.We are sick and tire when...

Sep. 14 2012 11:07 AM
Doreen Hopkins from P.S.111 Seton Falls ele. Bx,Ny

P.S.111 Seton Falls staff member received a letter in his mail at his job. Accusing him and him wife of many things. This letter was not written by my husband nor I. It is so funny how teachers have the time along with the principal Ms. Ava Fullenweider to discuss a letter that someone put in his mail box but don't have time to teach your own students that need help. poor professionalize. Mrs. Ava Fullenweider stood in a meeting and accused two people for writing this letter and never asked if we did or did not. Is the cancer finally getting to your head is you need to leave your position! I do hope you find the persons or person that wrote that letter.

Jan. 27 2012 05:40 PM
Doreen Mathis Hopkins from Bronx, New York

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Comments [10]
Doreen Mathis Hopkins from bronx

I understand you are working on reforming the school system. If so P.S.111
3740 Baychester ave Bronx, New York 10466 needs to be investigated. When you are an excellent teacher and a hard working person.
NO one should have to take abuse from their
SUPERVISORS. nor hear their name go around the roomer mill. Which they have slander my husband all around his working place. When principals has a hatred for some one on the staff they should not be principals. If a Principal and Asst Principal can not write they should not be adminstrators. You need to look into this school. Ms. Ava Fullenweider tells the teachers don't give the students any sweets then she buys cup cakes for every student and parents. Its all right that she does it but nobody else can do it. She suffer with cancer for her second time. Is her mind working right. Tell me!

Jun. 27 2011 07:32 PM
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Jun. 27 2011 07:48 PM
Doreen Mathis Hopkins from bronx

I understand you are working on reforming the school system. If so P.S.111
3740 Baychester ave Bronx, New York 10466 needs to be investigated. When you are a excellent teacher and hard working.
NO should have to take abuse from their
SUPERVISORS. nor hear their name go around the room mill. Which they have slander my husband all around his working place. When principals have a hatred for some one ion the staff they should not be principals. If a Principal and Asst Principal can not write they should not be adminstrators. You need to look into this school. Ms. Ava Fullenweider tells the teacher don't give the students any sweet then she buys cup cakes for every student and parents. Its alright that she does it but no boby else can be kind.

Jun. 27 2011 07:32 PM

Due to America's policy of No Child Disciplined, throwing money at this problem won't help and that includes throwing money at teachers.

Apr. 08 2011 01:16 PM
MikeInBrklyn from Clinton Hill

All this talk about reform means nothing if in the end the result is the same bureaucratic mess that are boards of education throughout this country.

America's education system need to model itself along the lines of (oddly enough) Bloomberg and Google, where creative ideas are championed in order to realize the maximum potential of teachers and staff. In companies like those mentioned, people are given the support needed to succeed.

Instead of vilifying the teachers, the American educational system needs restructuring to more away from an old paradigm that clearly no longer works to effectively educate the country's children.

Apr. 08 2011 10:31 AM
dee from New Jersey

Someone who chose a private school for her children may have insight into what works.

Apr. 08 2011 10:31 AM
rickevans033050 from 10473

Rhee and Black. Apples and oranges comparison. Rhee had long term an interest in education and actually got off to a good start. Then she became her own worst enemy by making teacher tenure and union busting the issue. She actually had a tenure as chancellor.

Black's a joke with no interest in education and shocking poor peoples skills.

Apr. 08 2011 08:11 AM

Dennis Walcott may be more qualified (if you call only two years as a teacher and a master's degree qualified), but listening to him yesterday it was clear that he is just another sycophantic Bloomberg yes-man.

Apr. 08 2011 05:45 AM
George Korin from Greenpoint, Brooklyn

Yes, the public school system needs to be reformed. All the talk has been about charter schools, charter schools, charter schools....
Why has no one looked at the successful public schools, such as PS 31, PS 34 for example. Let's invest in those schools and use them as a model for how the public school system can work, instead of trying to completely reinvent the wheel.

Apr. 07 2011 11:55 PM
Shadeed Ahmad from New York City

You can't fool the parents, educators and general public when it comes to what's best for children's education. That should be written in stone and carried in every New York City mayor's pocket. A tattoo on their foreheads wouldn't hurt either.

Apr. 07 2011 08:14 PM
Michael Smith from Manhattan, upper west side

Black, Walcott -- doesn't matter who the face is, the schools chancellor is going to be Bloomberg. There's no sign that Iron Mike's Napoleonic, corporate mentality has changed just because he's had to fire another flunky.

Apr. 07 2011 07:53 PM
Spoooon from Brooklyn

It's not an image problem.

It is just bad policy.

Apr. 07 2011 07:08 PM

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