I've been writing for a while now that I think we should call the new breed of school reformers idealocrats (as originally suggested by Gotham Schools). I've written before about why I think it's a great description for this particular school movement, but I don't think I've ever really put my finger on why exactly I like it so much. Until now. Let me back up for a moment.
You may have heard that Arne Duncan is the new Secretary of Education in the Obama administration. That left a vacancy at his old job running the Chicago public school system. So Mayor Richard Daley appointed a replacement with a strong background ... in transportation. That's right, Ron Huberman, the new head of the Chicago system, has a good reputation as an administrator from his time running CTA (which I'm guessing is the Chicago public transit system). In doing so, Daley just crowned himself as perhaps the idealocratest of them all.
(As a side note, I really like this quote from the head of the Chicago teachers' union. I can't tell whether it's supposed to be funny or sad. "We were hoping the mayor would appoint someone with a strong background in education since we face so many challenges as an urban district. However, we will work with whomever the mayor sends ...")
Here's what makes this such an idealocrat thing to do. It assumes that knowledge of teaching/learning/pedagogy is not needed to run an education system. You don't need any knowledge to do it. All you need is to be a strong administrator because that's where the system is broken. The idealocrats are trying to create the ideal bureaucracy with clear lines of authority and an obvious system for measuring success. It's all focused on the bureaucratic systems, not the classrooms.
Think about it. Can you tell me where Joel Klein stands on math education? Is he in favor of traditional approaches or does he like the more progressive number-sense pedagogy? What about Michelle Rhee? Is she a phonics or whole language person? I could guess on each of these, but I don't know for sure. But you can bet that I can tell you where they stand on teacher tenure and high-stakes testing as a means of boosting accountability.
I think that there's a lot that needs to be done to improve the systems that are in place to ensure that our schools are working well. In that, I think the idealocrats may be on to something. But I think that more important than what happens in the central offices is what happens in the classrooms. I have trouble seeing how we can expect educational amateurs (no matter how gifted they are at administrating) to lead us to positive change in the actual process of educating kids.