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Jury Nullification

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s selection of Hearst Magazines chairman Cathie Black as chancellor of the New York City public schools has hastened a crisis over how to assess expertise in a complex educational system. Does Black have the expertise necessary to assume leadership of a school system with a budget of $23 billion, 135,000 employees, and 1.1 million students? The mayor certainly thinks so. He has described the job as being able to “solve complex problems in the face of controversy, motivate staff, communicate with and bring together diverse constituents, manage labor relations, use data in decision making, and sustain a culture of change and excellence.” Black’s experience in publishing, he has argued, has demonstrated her bold vision, capacity to make tough financial decisions, skills in negotiation and building support among constituents, and knowledge of state and federal laws. In the eyes of the mayor, these skills — none specific to the field of public education — constitute the expertise required to do the job.

The state of New York has a different conception of the expertise needed to be a school district superintendent. State law specifies that to obtain a professional school district leader certification, school district leaders (i.e., superintendents) must have completed a School District Leader program authorized by the state; accumulated a minimum of 60 semester hours in graduate courses approved by the state commissioner of education; and have at least three years of teaching experience. The certification also includes a full-time, 15-week clinical component of school-building leadership experience or its equivalent, and requires passing two written School District Leader assessments.

The content of the School District Leader assessments provides some purchase on the kinds of expertise that the state views as necessary to successful practice. The standards expressed in these assessments include applying knowledge of skills for engaging building leaders, board members, community members, parents/guardians, students and school staff in an ongoing dialogue regarding core values, goals, policies, practices and achievements; demonstrating knowledge of the New York State Code of Ethics for Educators and the role of values and ethics in district leadership; demonstrating knowledge of factors to consider in comprehensive, long-range planning, including the importance of involving all key stakeholders in planning processes; analyzing concepts, principles and best-practice applications of developmental and learning theories, curriculum development, instructional delivery, and classroom organization and practices with regard to the diverse needs of all students (e.g., special-education students, English-language learners, gifted and talented students); analyzing strategies for developing staff capability through the supervision and evaluation of teachers and building leaders, effective staff assignments, and systems of mentoring, support, and development; and demonstrating knowledge of processes of collective bargaining and contract management that support and extend the educational vision, to name just a few.

If the various requirements of the School District Leader certification are indicators of the expertise that New York state requires of school superintendents, and Cathie Black has not met those requirements, how are we to judge if she has the requisite expertise? Mayor Bloomberg sought a waiver to the requirements, which provides an alternative route to the credential. State regulations allow the state commissioner of education to issue a professional certification to exceptionally qualified individuals “whose exceptional training and experience are the substantial equivalent of such requirements and qualify such persons for duties of a superintendent of schools.” State Commissioner David Steiner convened a screening committee of eight education professionals to advise him on whether to grant the waiver. To the surprise of many, the screening committee did not recommend granting a waiver to Black. Four of the eight members voted no; two voted yes; and two voted “not now.”

In inviting the screening committee to consider the option “not now,” Commissioner Steiner paved the way for the education version of “jury nullification.” Jury nullification is the term used to describe when a jury reaches a verdict that is contrary to the facts in evidence, typically because of a belief that the law is immoral or improperly applied to a defendant. Cathie Black is not, of course, on trial, although many may feel that she is, by virtue of the high-handed way in which she was selected from Mayor Bloomberg’s mental Rolodex to be chancellor without any signs of a search. Steiner has now brokered a compromise in which an insider to the New York City public school system, Shael Suransky-Polakow, will be appointed Senior Deputy Chancellor and Chief Academic Officer. Press reports indicate that with this proviso, Steiner is now prepared to grant the waiver to Black.

I describe this as a form of jury nullification because Commissioner Steiner’s willingness to grant Cathie Black the professional certification needed to be appointed school superintendent is based on criteria other than those specified by the state’s education code. Steiner has already determined that, on the merits of her application, Black was not qualified for the position. In suggesting that Black would be acceptable if accompanied by a chief academic officer, he is saying, as have Mayor Bloomberg, Chester E. Finn, Jr., and others, that the rules should be ignored, mainly because New York City is a special case.

In my view, Commissioner Steiner’s decision should be independent of the context of New York City. The state’s requirements for school district leaders do not state that there’s one set of rules for New York City, because it’s so big and complicated, and another set of rules for the 700 other districts in the state. If the state wanted to create a different set of qualifications for the New York City schools chancellor, it could have done so.

It has not.

Therefore, it’s hard to see how Steiner should take account of the exceptionality of New York City’s educational system. He has found a political solution that further undermines the view held by most professional educators — and, I dare say, the overwhelming majority of school superintendents in New York state — that there is a body of expertise they apply to their daily work that cannot be picked up overnight.

In the long run, trying to assess the expertise necessary to be a school district leader without taking local context into account may be shortsighted. The compromise brokered by Steiner proposes that Black’s lack of experience in public schooling can be offset by the fact that she will be joined by a chief academic officer, and there will be others in the new chancellor’s “cabinet” who have specialized knowledge of educational issues in general and the New York City school system in particular. And if we take seriously the shift in leadership studies from “great man” theories that emphasize the distinctive charisma and personality traits of individuals in positions of formal authority to a view that focuses on the interactions among leaders, followers, resources and context, we’d want to pay close attention to these features in assessing the qualifications of Cathie Black to lead the New York City schools.

But doing so raises some tough questions. Once we acknowledge the notion that expertise is distributed among individuals in a setting, why would we rely on credentials that emphasize individual accomplishment? Why would we seek to isolate the contributions of individual teachers to students’ learning when teaching is an activity distributed among the educators in a particular school? Why would we even assess students’ learning via methods that preclude students from using tools in concert with other students? If, as Mayor Bloomberg has asserted, Cathie Black’s appointment is justified because she’ll be learning in concert with others, why don’t schools assess students’ preparedness to do just this? In the spirit of the season, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

This post also appears at Eye on Education, Aaron Pallas’s Hechinger Report column.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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