The shocking news of the evening is that Joel Klein has stepped down as chancellor of NYC's schools (and accepted a job with News Corp.) and been replaced by former magazine exec Cathleen Black. I knew nothing about Cathleen Black before a few hours ago, and have no idea whether she'll be a good leader for NYC's schools or not, so I'll leave the guessing to others.
But what I found most interesting about this is that she (a.) has no background in education and (b.) is described by the NY Times as someone who "earned a reputation in publishing as a tough-minded chief executive who never left her employees guessing what she wanted".
It's almost cliche at this point to hire a superintendent who is both an outsider and "tough". I have no idea whether she'll still be described as "tough-minded" in years to come, so we'll have to wait and see on that one, but the absence of an educational background is worth more examination.
On the one hand, it's easy to see why somebody from the business world is attractive to a mayor or board of ed. If your goal is to transform the school system as fast as possible, you want somebody who will come in and get the job done without much of a fuss. And given that the vast majority of educational leaders have extensive backgrounds in education and that our system still has many problems, it would be easy to dismiss such a background as unnecessary.
And I don't think that such a view would be entirely without merit. Ed. Schools probably catch more flak than they deserve, but it's pretty clear that many of them don't offer very high-quality or practical programs. And there's a certain amount of value in bringing in somebody that hasn't been a part of the system -- there's an Icelandic expression that's relevant here: "the eye of the outsider is sharp".
At the same time, there's no reason that an outsider couldn't be somebody with experience outside of NYC instead of just outside of schools. Having the negotiating skills or steely resolve necessary to stare down the union may or may not produce positive results, but it's also possible that experience as a teacher might more readily convince the union's constituents that new chief wants to work with them instead of against them.
All in all, I can't think of another field in which expertise or experience is treated with less regard than it is in education -- probably largely because virtually every resident of this country spent a good portion of their lives attending school.
Of course, if this trend continues, at some point in the future we'll read about some rebel mayor deciding to pursue the outside-the-box strategy of hiring somebody with a lot of educational experience to serve as superintendent since none of the business whizzes have yet found the magic cure-all for schools.
update: The NY Times has a forum on whether a district leader needs to have a background in education to succeed. The arguments largely mirror those outlined above. Clara Hemphill asks “would the mayor have named a publishing executive as head of the Department of Health?” Richard Kahlenberg points out that a background as a teacher might make a leader more readily accepted by the rank-and-file. And Marcus Winters and Neil McCluskey of the conservative Manhattan and Cato Institutes argue that an outsider perspective can more readily advance new ideas, especially since the old ideas that education folk have been trying have yet to cure all that ails our schools.