When New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg handed the reins of the New York City school reform effort to Cathleen Black last year, Dropout Nation was rather agnostic about it. American public education is in dire needs of outsiders and new thinking to spur reform and end nearly two centuries of mediocrity and practices that have done little for kids or for anyone else. At the same time, corporate experience alone won’t help anyone deal with the perilous path of running an urban school district. If superintendents homegrown in education (think Clifford Janney or even Jean-Claude Brizard) struggle to make it past three years — and dealing with teachers unions, hostile central office bureaucracies and school boards in the thrall of National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers locals — then outsiders will also struggle.
A few months later, Black is out of the job of running the nation’s biggest experiment in school reform, replaced by Dennis Walcott, Bloomberg’s deputy mayor for education and a former nonprofit executive. Expect the usual cackles from the Diane Ravitch crowd (who never wanted Black or her predecessor, Joel Klein), and some excuse-making from reformers. But there isn’t all that much to say except that sometimes the wrong person is in the wrong job. This doesn’t weaken the need for reform or for outside thinking. Nor does it bolster any arguments about the value of experience in education. It does, however, remind folks to be a little humble about the challenges of reforming American public education, that it is as much a political battle (including battling perceptions that the ship is sinking and losing talent) as it is one about overhauling instruction, curriculum and operations. And once again, makes one consider whether the traditional district model of education is workable.