• U.S.

Who Is Best Qualified to Run a School System?

6 minute read
Andrew J. Rotherham

What kind of credentials do you need to run a school district? Especially a really big one? Is a degree in education a better predictor of a superintendent’s success than, say, a track record of turning around distressed companies? These are hot questions in the education world right now. Last week, on Nov. 10, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg surprised everyone (including the senior leaders of his city’s school system) by tapping publishing executive Cathleen Black to be the city’s new school chancellor. In doing so, Bloomberg set in motion an arcane deliberation process. Because Black has not spent three years working in public schools — in fact, her only leadership experience in education consists of serving on an advisory board for a charter school in Harlem — and because she also lacks the requisite 60 hours of graduate-school credits, she will need a waiver from the state in order to take charge of the city’s 1,700 schools, 80,000 teachers and more than a million students.

It’s understandable why some teachers and education advocates are objecting so vociferously to the idea of an outsider running such a massive system (though it should be noted that if the new chancellor pledged to undo the current reform efforts, many of these same people wouldn’t care if Bloomberg had just hired Carrot Top as his new schools chief). If you’ve never worked in a school before, critics wonder, how can you oversee so many of them? But precisely because the New York City district is so gargantuan, its chancellor needs a skill set far different from that of the average principal or teacher; the school system’s annual budget of more than $21 billion exceeds the gross domestic product of nearly half the world’s countries. Let me be clear, however, on two things: At this point, there’s no way to tell if Black will be an effective leader of New York’s megadistrict. And what is lost in all the speculation about her is how outmoded — and counterproductive — American education’s approach to credentials is in the first place.

(See what makes a school great.)

After World War II, reformers saw credentials as a way to create prestige and respect for educators. An elaborate state-based and now quasi-national credentialing regime sprang up as a result. New York’s rules about who can lead a school district are not unusual. Today’s educators are obsessed with education degrees and credentials, regardless of the evidence about how useful they are in creating effective teachers or leaders.

Numerous studies as well as data from multiple states make clear that aside from people with absolutely no training at all, there is no appreciable difference in the classroom effectiveness of teachers entering the field through traditional and those entering via alternative routes. Despite the fetishizing of credentials, past classroom performance of teachers is actually the best predictor of future performance. Yet not only do most teachers still complete elaborate multiyear training, but also, the ones who choose more efficient routes — and thus do not have the “right” credentials — are barred from seeking jobs in most places.

(Read “Teachers’ $500 Billion (and Growing) Pension Problem.”)

This week, in what could serve as a catalyst for reform, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, the body that accredits teacher-preparation programs, released a report (from a commission that I served on) calling for sweeping changes to how teachers are trained, including a greater focus on actual classroom experience over education-school courses. The report, which went so far as to call today’s teacher-prep system “broken,” could put a dent in this notoriously hidebound and outcomes-averse field. Right now, very few states even look at the classroom effectiveness of teachers produced by various state-approved preparation programs.

The record of school leaders who enter education from other fields is mixed. But the same is obviously true of school leaders from within education — these jobs require a blend of managerial, political and leadership skills, and not just anyone can succeed in these roles. However, as with teaching, there is no evidence that school leadership-preparation programs or the elaborate credentialing requirements for school leaders have any impact on quality.

(See pictures of homeschoolers.)

In a 2005 report, former Columbia University Teachers College dean Arthur Levine cataloged the problems with leadership-preparation programs and called for a thorough overhaul. The report’s chapters included “An Irrelevant Curriculum,” “Low Admission and Graduation Standards,” “Inadequate Clinical Instruction,” “Inappropriate Degrees” and “Poor Research.” Despite leading large and successful for-profit and nonprofit ventures, Black lacks the experience to address them.

One popular source of executive talent for school districts is the armed services. Yet in my admittedly unscientific sample of about a dozen former military leaders, their success or failure seems to have less to do with the rank they attained than what they actually did in the service. For instance, those who implemented big changes or captained a new kind of ship seemed to have an easier go of it than those who oversaw already established processes.

Whether Cathie Black can transfer her considerable talent for change management to the New York City schools remains to be seen, but she’s probably as safe a bet as other leaders at that level — education insiders or not. And in such a complicated human-driven organization, no credential lessens the risk in a high-stakes leadership role.

It is, of course, worth noting that outgoing chancellor Joel Klein needed the same waiver Black does when he arrived in New York in 2002. And despite the controversy attendant to the kind of broad reforms he has undertaken, you’d be hard-pressed to find an objective analyst who doesn’t think the city’s schools are markedly better than a decade ago — not only in terms of student outcomes but in basic operational and management issues as well. Meanwhile, like highly paid migrant workers, some of the big names in education merely move from one lousy school system to the next, leaving little improvement in their wake. At this level, leadership can’t be boiled down to obvious boxes to check.

That’s why questioning education’s relentless focus on certifications is not the same as arguing that anyone can teach or lead a school. Though education is frequently compared to medicine, it is in fact more akin to journalism or business (or policy analysis), in which a blend of credentials and past performance informs high-stakes hiring decisions. That’s imperfect too, but a better fit for an industry like education than today’s slavish devotion to credentials.

Andrew J. Rotherham, who writes the blog Eduwonk, is a co-founder of and partner at Bellwether Education, a nonprofit working to improve educational outcomes for low-income students. School of Thought, his education column for TIME.com, appears every Thursday.

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