Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Billionaire Blunders: Appointing Education Chiefs Who Know Little about Public Schools

Anyone remember Cathy Black? Don’t think so. In 2011, Michael Bloomberg, billionaire and New York City Mayor appointed the 66 year-old head of the Hearst magazine chain–a “superstar manager,” he said–to head the 1.1 million student district. Neither having the requisite three years of teaching experience or a master’s degree or professional degree in administering schools, the state commissioner waived these requirements in order for Black to become Chancellor.*

The uproar that followed over a choosing a Chancellor who knew little about public schools–her children were educated in private schools–led to Bloomberg firing Black 95 days after she took office (see here and here).

Then there is Betsy DeVos, billionaire President Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education. Raised in a wealthy family–her father was an auto parts manufacturer in Michigan–she attended private Christian schools, married into the Amway fortune, sent her children to Christian private schools, and became a philanthropist and fervent advocate for vouchers and for-profit charter schools in Detroit and the state of Michigan. She has had no experience as a manager of a large organization (see here and here; for more positive views of DeVos, see here here, and here)

The recent Senate hearings where she was cuddled by the Republican majority of Senate and grilled by the minority Democrats revealed a great deal about DeVos’s thinking about public schools and the direction that federal monies and regulations should move. A zealous advocate for school choice in Michigan through vouchers and for-profit charter schools, she sees more parental choice as the direction for the U.S. Department of Education. Rapid-fire questions from Democrats on the Senate Committee revealed the following (see here and here)

*lack of knowledge that it is federal law protecting the rights of disabled children and youth and it cannot be left to the states to enforce, as she said.

*lack of knowledge of the difference between tests showing student proficiency and tests showing student growth over time.

*refusal to say that while public schools should be held to account for student outcomes, charter and voucher-accepting schools should not be held to the same standard.

Uninformed as DeVos is about education policy aimed at 50 million public school  children and youth in the U.S. and inexperienced as she is in managing anything beyond a family foundation, DeVos was approved in a Republican controlled Committe, in a party-line 12-11 vote. Her endorsement from the split Senate committee will gain the full Senate’s approval where Republicans have a majority. DeVos will become the next U.S. Secretary of Education.

Unlike Mayor Bloomberg’s recognition that he erred in appointing Cathy Black as Chancellor in 2011, imagining President Donald Trump withdrawing the nomination is, well, unimaginable.

Critics claim that both President Trump and Secretary DeVos will press hard for expansion of vouchers and for-profit charters with federal dollars. And that as Frederick Hess says may well be the kiss of death for a bottom-up movement of more parental choice in schools especially in rural and urban poverty areas (home schooling, vouchers, and charters). Perhaps.

Nonetheless, here we have two billionaires who made decisions that were (and are) mistakes. They made bad judgments. Being a billionaire does not protect you from blundering.

Of course, mistakes are essential to learning. Such blunders can lead to corrections that lead to success. None of us is free of error. Here is what basketball super star Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls had to say about learning from mistakes.

I have taken more than 9000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games. Twenty six times I have been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I have failed over and over again in my life; and that is why I succeed.

One billionaire corrected his mistake. The other billionaire won’t.


*Bloomberg had appointed a non-educator, Joel Klein in 2002. Both the Mayor and new chancellor shared a similar agenda. Klein had gone through the New York City schools and had managerial experience in the U.S. Department of Justice.

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-ed pieces, scholarly articles and books on classroom teaching, history of school reform, how policy gets translated into practice, and teacher and student use of technologies in K-12...