Advice for Cathie Black

As the incoming Chancellor of New York City’s public school system, Cathleen Black has much to think about.  This post is her first foray into the world of education; indeed, the job may be her first contact with public school, having attended parochial schools and sent her children to independent schools.  She is taking over the largest school system in the country, a district where the dropout population, taken alone, is larger than any other district.  The sheer size of New York makes the post incredibly powerful, and for many reasons, Cathie Black is going to be under intense scrutiny in this position.

She should be ready for it.  Black led USA Today during its launch and for many successful years, she was the first female executive of a weekly magazine (New York), and she has been a faithful New Yorker since 1966.  She also led Hearst Magazines for a solid 15-year period; for whatever reason, rising to the top of the publishing world has propelled her into the world of education.  Mayor Mike Bloomberg, a former media executive himself, brought Black in upon word that Joel Klein would resign at the end of the year to join News Corp, working directly with Rupert Murdoch.  The choice of Black has been controversial, since she is not an educator and has never worked in the field, but it appears likely that she will be the next Chancellor.

Another thing Mrs. Black has yet to do is engage in any depth with education policy, though she promises to expand the number of charter schools and praised Klein’s tenure in very general terms.  As a newcomer to education and an outsider to the debates that have divided the education community in recent years (mostly between Idealocrats and union-aligned people), she has an opportunity to carve out the “Third Way” that Randi Weingarten has talked about.  Though Black comes from the corporate world, she really is a blank slate.

For this reason, I have a suggestion and a caution for Mrs. Black as she takes the reins of New York City’s schools.  There are a number of strategies for education reform that she will inherit; many of these focus broadly on accountability, standards and evaluation.  These have all employed the blunt instruments of test-and-drill, test-and-drill, and little else.  My recommendation, as a result, is very simple: cut back on heavy testing and test preparation.  Since too much emphasis has been placed on these test scores, teachers, principals and DoE officials all have motivation and an incentive to manipulate and exaggerate the results.

This may sound far-fetched, but it has been observed in practice many times.  The state made tests easier to pass for years running until 2010, when the bar was raised and the tests were made less predictable.  Scores plummeted when this happened.  The state and the city acted irresponsibly and against the public trust in pushing for easier, more predictable tests every year, and then when the expected increase in scores went public, the credit-claiming was almost deafening.  This is not unusual or even unexpected, but it is horrible and wrong.  See Sol Stern for more on the embarrassment regarding NYC test scores writ large.

Parents and students have a right to accurate data about learning and progress, and the city should give it to them straight.  That means less test prep, less emphasis on testing, and only occasional tests that are aligned with the NAEP assessment, regarded as the “gold-standard” of standardized tests.  The information parents and students really need about progress doesn’t come from tests today, and regardless of what kinds of tests are given, that information won’t ever come from a test.  Parents in particular need to know where their kids are struggling, where they excel, what they are most excited about, and, crucially, how they learn best.  This can only come from direct contact with teachers and instructors.

Tests will never tell the whole story, and more importantly, testing and test prep turns students off learning.  Things like art, music, physical education and the social sciences are cast aside when testing is the primary and in some cases exclusive focus of education.  This is morally objectionable and educationally problematic.  Standardized tests also assign merit to abilities and skills which, societally, we may not value so highly.  Memorization, rote learning and the ability to reproduce facts are things which, to many Americans, are skills with value that pales in comparison to critical thinking, creativity and the ability to write compellingly.

No matter which reforms Ms. Black decides to pursue, I hope she will reduce the emphasis on testing and instead concentrate on holistic assessment and encouraging things like critical thinking and creativity, values which are lacking in our schools but ought to be expanded.

Education in the 21st century is about adapting to new environments, being able to understand and form an opinion on complicated matters, and, most importantly, it is about finding the things which make you come alive.  I believe everyone has a niche, and education should help people figure out what they really care about. It is about alighting a love of learning. Testing assists none of these things.

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