Timothy A. Hacsi: Stop Waiting for a Savior





[Timothy A. Hacsi, an assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, is the author of “Children as Pawns: The Politics of Educational Reform.”]

DID Cathleen P. Black, the former publishing executive who was removed last week after just three months as New York City’s schools chancellor, fail because she lacked a background in education?

In this respect, she has had quite a bit of company over the decades. In 1996, Washington hired a former three-star Army general, Julius W. Becton Jr., to take over its low-performing schools; he left, exhausted, after less than two years. For most of the last decade, the Los Angeles Unified School District was run by non-educators: a former governor of Colorado, Roy Romer, and then a retired vice admiral, David L. Brewer III. They got mixed reviews. Raj Manhas, who had a background in banking and utilities, ran Seattle’s schools from 2003 to 2007, balancing the budget but facing fierce opposition over his plans to close schools.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who had hired Ms. Black without public discussion, quickly replaced her with a deputy mayor steeped in education policy. But the real issue is not the superintendent’s or chancellor’s background, but the excessive emphasis that politicians, educators and parents place on the notion of leadership rather than on empirical evidence about what improves education.

Even as the specific fixes advocated for schools have changed, the role of school-district leaders has gotten greater attention — and the selection process has become more political....

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