December 5, 2010
Cathleen Black, Hearst Corporation
300 West 57th Street
New York, NY 10019
Dear Ms. Black:
You don’t know me. That’s ok. My name is Wendy, and I am a fellow New Yorker, a former NYC public school teacher, and someone who cares a lot about how students are educated. I, of course, know who you are. In the past few weeks, since Mayor Bloomberg nominated you to be the next Chancellor of the largest public school system in the country, the New York Times and other media outlets have certainly been forthcoming about your lack of qualifications. Yes, you, a woman on the Forbes list of “Top 100” most successful women, the author of a best selling book on how to be accomplished in business while maintaining a quality home life, a leader in Hearst publishing—your qualifications to be the Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education are called suspect.
Now, the state education commissioner did just grant you a waiver, allowing you to run the city schools even though you have no teaching credentials so long as your first act in said office is to appoint a chief deputy with expertise and experience who will supervise instruction (Otterman, 2010a). Some bumps remain in the road though. A parent of children attending New York City public schools just filed a lawsuit against the State for granting your waiver (Otterman, 2010b).
I am sure you are aware of these events; they might even be causing you some stress. You may, quite rightly, be wondering why I am writing to you. I have questions! When I first heard of your appointment by Mayor Bloomberg, I was repulsed. I am sure you can imagine the thoughts that crossed my mind: “what does this woman know about teaching? about children? about public schools? about education?” Seriously, have you ever even read Dewey? I doubt it!
But then, I began to wonder why you, an educated and successful woman, would leave the empire you created to run a school system that can be at best described as a “hot mess” and at worst an injustice warranting activism tactics reminiscent of the Civil Rights Era (my vote goes to the latter). As much as I care about our youth, the City, and education, there is no way I would ever attempt to run the Department of Education. Something motivated you to say “yes,” when Bloomberg called. I wanted to find out what before I made a final judgment, so I did the only responsible thing—I googled you.
Delightfully, I found your commencement address to Hamilton College’s Class of 2009. In your speech, you talked about the great benefits of a liberal education (I won’t lie, that immediately cracked the Cathleen Black ice shield around my heart). You told the graduates that a liberal arts education teaches inquiry, an invaluable skill. I agree…and so I kept listening. You then talked about how it takes “intellectual courage” to change the world, and you demanded the graduating class of 2009 position themselves as agents of change (Black, 2009). Ms. Black, I’ll call you Cathy since the press does, you told the kids, ok young adults, that they need to be “innovators, initiators and instigators,” if they are going to meet the “generational mandate” of bringing about social change (Black, 2009). Wow! At this point, I almost like you. Can it be the case that you want to be NYC’s Chancellor because you care? Is it possible that you, a business woman, might actually care about education and that you may desire to bring about change for the better? I don’t know—time will tell. But in that time, a lot hangs in the balance—far more than how many countries you can peddle Cosmo and Cosmo Girl in.
When we talk about heading up the NYC public school system, we are talking about the education of millions of children. Will they learn to read? Will they get to do hands-on-science experiments in well-equipped labs? Will math be investigative and engaging for them, or will test-inspired fear lead to drill and kill? Will parents and family be welcomed and included in the education of their children? Will students’ home cultures and languages be built into the curriculum, or will the curriculum be built in opposition to them? Will schools serve as community centers? Will the voice of students be heard and taken into account when you start making change? Will our youth be prepared for a liberal arts education like the one your daughter received at Hamilton? Again, I don’t know the answers. But, I know that you and your new chief deputy will be immediately confronted with hard decisions.
I have two words of advice. Firstly, start with caring. Get to know the students, the parents, the community leaders, the teachers, and the administrators. In your speech to the graduates of the Class of 2009, you talked about the importance of caring and having heart. You will need both to do good for the children and young adults of New York City. Make no mistake, being the Chancellor is not about running a multi-million dollar system, it is about doing good and doing what is right for and with the families of New York City. As a fellow Catholic, I encourage you to see and live the ethical imperative to provide justice to students too long under-served and devalued.
Secondly, listen to the experts who may want to help you. Pedro Noguera, professor of education at NYU and a leader in the field when it comes to justice and education, has a lot to say about you. In nearly every New York Times article about you, he is quoted. Listen. Reach out to him and other education experts—like Michelle Fine at CUNY. You might not know a lot about education right now, but you are a smart woman and have a little over a month. Yes, you have to get to know the ropes of the bureaucracy you are about to take over. But, you really need to learn the ropes of what it means to be a student in the NYC school system—not just at P.S. 6 or at Cardoza—hop on the 5 and take it up to the Bronx. Walk around. Talk to people. Get in the schools. Ask the kids what their experiences are like. Ask the teachers what they need. Ask the administrators what kind of relationship they are forging with the community—then check with the parents to see if their needs are being met!
Finally, be prepared to fight over charter schools and the teachers’ union contracts. It’s inevitable. But that inevitability cannot mean that either of those issues get to inhale the bulk of your time or that they get to set the agenda. Remember that ethical imperative we talked about—work to create just schools. If you do that, no one will be able to characterize you as unqualified.
Cathy, I am placing my faith in you. Millions of children and their families are placing their hope for a future they can build on in you. Our City is placing its need for an able and just public in you. That’s a big job. You think you can do it; I hope you can. Just remember what being the Chancellor is really about.
Yours in solidarity,
Black, C. (2009). Hamilton College Commencement Address. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OOUCqIyLglI
Otterman, S. (2010a, November 29). With Deal, Bloomberg’s Pick Wins Helm of Schools. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/30/nyregion/30waiver.html?ref=education
Otterman, S. (2010b, December 3). Parent Sues to Block School’s Chief. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/04/nyregion/04black.html?ref=education