Bill de Blasio's progressive politics have already rattled those who are reluctant to let go of the two-cities model for New York City that de Blasio lamented during his campaign for mayor. And the mayor-elect is, impressively, bringing a much-needed counter-revolution to New York's educational system. He's rejecting the idea that schools should be run like a business. And he's starting by appointing as schools chancellor someone who has actually been in a classroom.
That shouldn't be shocking, but in an era when schoolchildren are tested like new products and schools and teachers are ranked like stock prices and profit levels, it's refreshing that de Blasio wants to have schools run by someone who understands what they are really for. And the function of an education system is not to train children for a specific job market or to close schools whose main failing is serving poor students. It's to educate people.
After his predecessors' series of business-focused chancellors with no classroom experience, de Blasio has appointed Carmen Farina to run the city's schools. She was a teacher, a principal and a deputy chancellor. Unlike the executive types (and the mayors who appointed them) who treated the educational system like a business, Farina has the background to understand what students and teachers need. And what they need is not more testing, ranking or the closing of so-called "failing" schools championed by outgoing mayor Michael Bloomberg.
The business model for schools has always been misguided and nonsensical. It's a community service, not a consumer product. Teachers are working with living things with their own series of strengths and troubles. They're not fixing a washer-dryer. And yet, when students don't do well, it is the teachers who are blamed, labeled "ineffective" and faced with the loss of their jobs.
There are bad teachers out there, just as there are bad actors in any field. But in what other field is someone held accountable for the performance of another person who may or may not take professional advice? If a doctor tells a patient to stop smoking and the patient refuses and dies of lung cancer, the doctor is not sanctioned. Absent other signs of incompetence, why should a teacher be blamed for the poor performance of a student? And why should that student's performance be assessed by a relentless series of tests? The emphasis on standardized tests has taken the joy and creativity out of teaching, and does little to help students. All it does it provide a tidy profit for the people selling the tests to school districts.
The biggest indicator of student performance is income. Kids from poor families tend to struggle more and drop out more commonly. But fixing the problem of poverty is a much more daunting task – and one that undermines the school-as-business model. It's so much easier to blame teachers or schools.
De Blasio seems to understand what's really the problem here, talking about the "two cities" New York has become – that of the very wealthy, and that of the low-income and middle-class people who can't even afford to live in the borough in which they work. "We cannot continue to be a city where educational opportunity is predetermined by ZIP code," de Blasio has said of the schools system. Appointing Farina is an encouraging start.