2010-12-17 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

You’ve Got To Know The Territory
Commentary By Howard Schwach

Cathie Black started touring schools the day after the State Education Department granted her a waiver to become our next chancellor, despite the fact neither she nor her kids ever stepped foot in a public school building.

She looked startled at what she was seeing, as if she were in an alien environment. That’s because she was.

Those of you who read this space on a regular basis know how I feel about the “pure manager” myth, which holds that a good manager can manage anything, even a business he or she knows nothing about. That myth has been pushed by the MBA mills and by millionaire business people, but everybody else knows that the myth is just that – a story made up to justify doing what should not be done.

A couple of cautionary tales from my own pantheon of stupidity.

From 1970 to 1979 I wrote and edited school publications and workbooks for American Education Publications (owned and run by Wesleyan University in Connecticut) and its successor, Xerox Education Publications.

AEP was the publisher of Weekly Reader, one of the most successful school publications in history. When I got to the company in 1970, the total Weekly Reader subscriptions ran to about 12.5 million. The company was run by Elaine Wonsavage, a former teacher and administrator, and staffed mostly with ex-teachers such as myself. New publications were being brought on line every year, nurtured by people who had actually taught special and elementary education, secondary school English and science.

The company flourished, and it was making so much money that the feds came along and warned that the university could lose its tax exempt status because of the massive earnings of its publishing business.

Wesleyan cut a deal with Xerox. For a large chunk of Xerox stock, the copier company got control of one of the top school publishers in the nation.

Xerox quickly moved to put its own imprint on the company, which was changed on day one from AEP to XEP.

Top managers from the machine division were brought in and editors were hired from failed newspapers rather than from schools.

Within four years, the circulation of Weekly Reader fell to 2.5 million and many of the newly-minted publications started in the final years of AEP were scrapped as not being cost-effective, at least by Xerox standards.

Some of the drop was due to the economy and cuts in school funding, but most was due to the stupidity of the managers, who knew lots about machines, but nothing about either publishing or education.

For example, a decision was made to save money by taking the staples out of the multi-page upper grade Weekly Reader editions. Those teachers who were still on board warned the managers that taking the staples out of the papers would make the paper less useful to teachers because the magazines were given out by students or passed around, and the pages would get separated in that process. The managers laughed, but thousands of teachers cancelled their subscriptions, asking that the staples be reinstated. The pure managers who were successful in the machine division, a business they knew inside and out, were abject failures at educational publishing, an area in which they were completely in the dark. Eventually, XEP went broke and it was sold to a college textbook publisher and then to Scholastic, which is now the largest school periodical publisher in the nation.

Another example.

When I first began teaching in 1965 after my discharge from the U.S. Navy, I was assigned to JHS 198 in Arverne. While I enjoyed teaching, I didn’t want to be so close to home in my first assignment as a substitute, so I asked for a transfer and wound up at JHS 296 in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

As a new teacher, there was little chance that I would teach my chosen subject, social studies, so I wound up teaching science in a mostly-veteran, experienced department. One of the units in the seventh grade Biology curriculum was the movement of blood around the body.

I was teaching a lesson one day when a deputation from the parent’s association came visiting to take a look at the school’s new teachers. I had several kids in the back doing jumping jacks and several others just sitting at their desks, reading quietly. The lesson I had devised called for the kids to measure and record their pulse rates after exercise and at rest to come to the conclusion that the blood moved faster around the body with activity.

The parents, however, not being educators, had no idea what they were seeing. When they got out into the hallway, they demanded that I be fired because I could not handle the students. After all, a bunch of them were jumping around in the back of the room, obviously out of control.

The assistant principal who was escorting them knew exactly what the lesson was all about and assured them that there was an educational purpose, explaining to them about the movement of blood around the body.

Had the AP not known that was going on, I might well have been fired on the spot.

You’ve got to know the territory.

What has this to do with Cathie Black? Not only does she not know the territory at all, she seems to have a great disdain for those who do.

Last week she told The Daily News editorial board that she is still not sure that she would ever send her kids to public school. That is like the publisher of the New York Post saying she never reads the paper.

Black should go back to the publishing world, a world that she obviously knows well, and somebody who knows about education – who has been a longtime teacher, a successful principal and a district supervisor should take over the public school system – somebody who knows the territory.

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