posted 2011-04-27 12:00:09

The Rise and Fall of Catherine Black

Ms. Blacks's brief tenure as Chancellor of Education / Seth Wenic/AP
Ms. Blacks's brief tenure as Chancellor of Education / Seth Wenic/AP
The Rise and Fall of Catherine Black

Irene Pappas

Staff Writer

It sounds pretty absurd, and yet something similar happened in New York City. When Joel Klein recently resigned as Chancellor of Education, Mayor Bloomberg appointed Catherine Black to take his place. Bloomberg held press conferences praising Black’s work and spoke about how she would improve our very troubled education system. Critics weren’t buying it, for one simple reason — she had no experience in the education field at all. I’m sorry, but how is that even possible?

Last time I checked, prior experience was an important factor when deciding whether or not to hire someone. How then can someone with ZERO experience be expected to come in and turn around a system that is already failing? Education is currently a hot topic and rightfully so. Schools are being shut down, students aren’t getting all the services they need, there’s a hiring freeze and more weight is being placed on the results of standardized tests. Clearly, anyone who replaced Mr. Klein would have their work cut out for them. The new chancellor would need lots of experience, patience, a sense of understanding and a positive attitude. I’m not sure that Catherine Black possessed any of these qualities.

There have been numerous instances in which Ms. Black has been flat out rude to parents, students and teachers. When she was booed at a school meeting (where the agenda included shutting down several schools) she simply rolled her eyes, showing complete lack of regard towards the members of the community. We’re New Yorkers, which means we aren’t afraid to speak our minds. If you’re inexperienced, you should acknowledge that and be able to handle critics who call you out. The truth of the matter is that you shouldn’t hold a position that you are not trained for. However, if you happen to be in a situation where you take a job that you’re not really equipped to handle, it would make sense to be open and receptive when suggestions are made.

I don’t doubt that Catherine Black accepted this job understanding the challenges and hurdles she would have to face. I just don’t think she realized how tough the public would be on her. Doesn’t she know that New Yorkers have very high expectations, especially about something as important as our children’s education? I’m sure she felt pressured to deliver, but she never showed us that. All we saw was a woman making insensitive jokes (e.g. using birth control to solve the city’s overcrowding in schools) who failed to appeal to the very people she was supposed to be helping. If a school is shut down, forcing students to double their commute time, it’s only natural that they (and their parents, of course) will be upset about it. Instead of comforting these people and reassuring them that that is the best solution for some very specific reasons, she’d tell them to quiet down.

No one said that this would be an easy job. Even someone with ample experience in the field would surely see that it is no walk in the park. And in all fairness, Black was expected to come in and completely turn around what many call a “failing education system,” which, let’s face it, can’t be done overnight. Sure, we want to see results.  But if we felt she was prepared for the job we might have been more forgiving. If she (dare I say) tried to explain and help the public understand what her plan was, perhaps she would have had a different fate.

On the bright side, Mayor Bloomberg was able to acknowledge that he had made a mistake nominating Black and he very quickly replaced her. Forgive me for not showing my enthusiasm just yet, but it sounds like our mayor is singing the same song with Dennis Walcott. Don’t get me wrong, we seem to at least be moving in the right direction, as Mr. Walcott has experience in the education field. I just don’t think we’ve really come to terms with how much needs to be done to improve New York City’s Public Schools.