Experience necessary?

The outcry over Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed appointment of Cathleen Black to head the New York City public schools may have taken his administration by surprise, but perhaps it should have been expected. The controversy over Black is not just about her, or New York City. The choice of Black highlights an issue that is at the heart of some of the most furious debates in education these days:

Have educators had their chance to fix things but left the public schools so broken that they need an infusion of new perspectives and ideas from outsiders?

Or are the reformers from business and law backgrounds (like Black, Joel Klein and the hedge funders who support charter schools) a group of neophytes whose lack of experience in education is potentially damaging to the children they’re trying to help?

This fight has been simmering, and often boiling over, for the past decade as reformers in the mold of Klein and Michelle Rhee (who was criticized for a slim teaching resume when she took over the D.C. public schools) have expanded their role in education. And it goes much deeper than who should run school bureaucracies.

This question underlies the battle over teacher pay: Should teachers be paid for their years of experience, or should the seniority system be scrapped and teachers paid based on their performance?

And how we should recruit teachers in the first place: Should we rely mainly on the traditional routes to a teaching job through education schools? Or draw more heavily from nontraditional routes, including recruiting high-achieving students straight from college, in the case of Teach for America, and successful professionals, in the case of programs like the Teaching Fellows? What about principals?

Black is an extreme example. She has never taught, and she attended private schools and sent her children to them, too. Thus the particularly angry showdown in this case. But it’s certainly not a new fight.

POSTED BY ON November 23, 2010