Don't Look For Lessons in the Story of Cathie Black

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Cathleen Black, the new chancellor of the New York City school system, tours PS 262, January 3, 2011, Brooklyn, New York.

Mark Twain famously cautioned us to take from an experience only the wisdom that is in it and to stop there. That sensible admonition is routinely ignored in our overheated debate over education. The latest example? The reaction to last week's firing of Cathie Black as New York City's schools chancellor. Critics of education reform quickly rushed to declare it a verdict on the effort to improve schools overall, or at the very least, on non-traditional school superintendents — as though Black was the only one of that breed. You want nuance? Don't look for it on this issue.

There obviously is some blame in the whole Cathie Black episode. When New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg selected Black as chancellor, even insiders were baffled. But surely the mayor must have seen something in how Black had handled past roles that led him to think her a fit for this one. Overseeing a $23 billion enterprise does require management and strategy experience, which Black brought to the job. Now, with the benefit of hindsight (95 days to be exact,) it's clear that whether he was cavalier in selecting Black or just misread her, Mayor Bloomberg blew this one. He said as much himself in the wake of Black's departure, telling a news conference, "I take full responsibility for the fact that this has not worked out."

City education officials are not authorized to speak on the record, but if even a percentage of the off-the-record stories about Black's vanity and sadly comical detachment from the students' experience and day-to-day aspects of the job are true, it was a phenomenally ill-considered choice. In her only interview since leaving office, with Fortune, Black raised the serious issue of what role gender played in all this — before pivoting to complaints about unflattering pictures of herself in the media.

So that's the mundane reality here: The Mayor of New York made a bad decision for the schools — and to his credit owned up to it, and addressed it.

Around the education world, however, mundane realities fail to provide enough fuel for ideological fights. On the New York Times "Room for Debate" blog, for instance, The Century Foundation's Richard Kahlenberg wrote that the Black episode should put to rest the idea "that non-educators with strong management skills should be brought in to fix the "mess" that educators have made; and that the rigor of private sector experience will inevitably trump the skills of those toiling in the public sector." Even that strawman apparently wasn't sweeping enough for Rudy Crew, a former Chancellor of New York City, who derided the "anyone can do it mentality" among school reformers. Good talking points but for one problem — no one actually argues that 'anyone can do it' or that private sector experience is inherently or always more valuable than a public sector background.

Instead, the argument for non-traditional school system leaders is merely that a wider variety of people than just traditionally certified school superintendents can succeed. There are plenty of examples illustrating this — including Black's two immediate predecessors Harold Levy and Joel Klein. But even setting Black aside, there are plenty of flameouts, too. Failures are hardly rare among traditionally prepared superintendents either. It's an intense job that requires management and political ability as well as a bit of luck.

Why? Because school systems are complicated. Managing them involves running transportation, large food services programs, and human resources operations as well as navigating tough public finance and public policy issues — and that's all before the even more complex work of teaching and instruction. Then there are the treacherous school board, teachers union, and community politics that trip up many more superintendents.

All of this seems to have quickly done in Cathie Black, and that's why what transpired in New York over the past few months is embarrassing for Mayor Bloomberg. But make no mistake: Black won't be the last school system leader to struggle in one of these roles, regardless of their preparation and background — and that's what should sober us. The effort to turn this one instance into some sort of general referendum on non-traditional leadership shows how divorced our strident national education conversation is from the challenges of actually improving our schools.

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.