Thursday, April 7, 2011

Former Chancellor Black Gets a Hands-On Lesson About Educator Retention

In her New York 1 Interview earlier this year, the inexperienced, and now former, education chancellor Cathie Black had no empathy for educators who leave our system in droves.  Now that she’s one of them, perhaps, she’s learned an important lesson about those whose footsteps she is following in. Black clearly hadn’t done her homework last January before responding to New York 1 Reporter Errol Louis who asked if she was concerned about the appalling attrition rate of teachers in New York City where about 25% of leave within 3 years and that percentage doubles at the 5 year mark.

In an ever so cavalier response Black said this.
Teaching is a hard job. We want the ones who are committed. We want the ones who make a difference. We want the ones who want to work hard and really change the lives of these young people. They’re there on a mission. So, you know, some are going to leave.
It didn’t matter (or wasn’t worth investigating or even pondering) why these teachers left. To Black it was because they weren’t committed, didn’t want to work hard and  had no interest in changing the lives of young people. I thought of all the passionate, committed teachers like the one I recently wrote about here, who want to make a difference, but quit because they aren't able.  Perhaps if Cathie Black put in her time as her staff is required to do she would have understood that our teacher retention issue isn’t the result of weeding out the uncommitted teachers who have no interest in making a difference.  Rather those who leave are often our most qualified, like New York teacher of the year, John Taylor Gatto, who declared in his resignation published in the Wall Street Journal that he was no longer willing to hurt children.

The fact is that most teachers report they leave because of the lack of support, resources and dismal working conditions to which they are subjected (Alliance for Excellent Education). These teachers see no hope for change. Sadly, the best and brightest teachers are often the first to leave. (National Center for Education Statistics). What are left in many cases according to the Teacher Pathways Project Research Paper are the less-qualified teachers who are more likely to stay at a school than teachers with higher qualifications, “especially if they teach in low-achieving schools.”

Hopefully as she walks out the door today, the embattled Black will realize that the decision to leave the system is not as black & white as she once thought.  Now that her mission is over, and she joins the ranks of NYCs fallen educators, I wonder if she labels herself as someone wasn't committed, didn't want to want to make a difference and didn't care to change the lives of young people. 

You can visit the full interview complete with additional blunders and patronizing comments toward educators here.
Black explains why NYC schools are better off without those who resign.


  1. Good points all, Lisa. I was reminded today of how in independent schools it's a given that every new Head of School, even if they already are in education, all seem to sign up (or the schools signs them up) for the NAIS (Nat'l Assn. of Indep. Schools) week long boot camp. Everyone expects that in such an important leadership role that getting educated about what is needed is job one, and this happens with a cohort of others. Why wasn't there at least an attempt at something similar?

  2. Lisa, let me first say how much I enjoy your blog. I think you're right on with the concept that things are not usually black or white. Do you know what I don't think we ever spend enough time discussing, though? How hard it must be to be the Chancellor of Education in NYC! We are quick to point out the faults of people who dedicate time to take on a near impossible challenge. Did Cathie Black have a chance? I worry that we take so much pleasure when a controversial leader goes away. Do we know how we would react to that job?

  3. I left teaching in NYC (although not teaching in general) because the DOE screwed up and "forgot" to renew my visa. Seriously it was a paperwork glitch. They asked me if I wanted a new visa, starting in October instead of September.

    I decided that taking a class that hadn't had a teacher after a month wasn't a smart move, so I moved to London and taught there instead.

    There are lots of reasons why teachers leave a particular area, and lack of support is chief among them in my opinion.

  4. @Pamela Livingston, I don't know why there was no belief there was any preparation needed for a job in this field, but I have to say, if going to boot camp for one week is what we think it takes, then that option should be afforded to teachers as well. Additionally, they shouldn't have to pay the tens of thousands of dollars required to get their license. It seems an injustice to make a a much more difficult and expensive requirement for lower level employees than is necessary for their boss.

  5. @Patrick, I appreciate the kudos. I don't, however, agree with your concern. I don't think we discuss how hard various jobs are when those taking the position are qualified. It only a conversation when the person at the helm does not have the experience to do what is required of them. This woman accepted a position for which she had no experience or credentials and then she had the audacity to criticize those teachers who left the job. When their is no experience or credentials, the job is hard. When you're the right person for the job, that ceases to be the conversation.

  6. I don't want to belabor it, because essentially, I agree with you, but who gets to decide who the right person is for the job? Certainly we all know plenty of people who have spent their lives in education, but could not run the district. I just think sometimes it is wasted energy to attack back. At what point do we defend the profession by being better professionals? Did anyone try to educate her about what it really is like to be a teacher? I think it all worked out as the mayor decided to cut his losses, but what if she had been allowed to stay for 10 years? I hope the lesson has been learned here and that we won't get another non-educator in positions like this, but I doubt it. Next time, it would be interesting to see a group not bite back. In my very humble opinion, it isn't particularly becoming to the professionals we know do such incredibly hard and nuanced jobs every day.