School & District Management

Incoming NYC Chancellor’s Education Views a ‘Question Mark’

By Christina A. Samuels — November 11, 2010 5 min read
Outgoing New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, left, speaks as his successor Cathleen P. Black looks on during a news conference Wednesday announcing the change in leadership.
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Educators hoping to glean hints of the management style of media executive Cathleen P. Black, named Tuesday to lead the 1.1 million-student New York City schools, might turn to her best-selling management book, Basic Black, published three years ago.

In the book, subtitled The Essential Guide for Getting Ahead at Work (and in Life), Ms. Black offers workplace tips for women, laced with anecdotes from her own life—as an advertising manager for Ms. magazine, the publisher and president of USA Today, and the president of Hearst Magazines, which publishes Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire, Esquire, and other titles.

Most of the advice has no tie to education until midway through the book, when she writes about finding “authenticity” in one’s work. Ms. Black, 66, said that her least-favorite teachers “seemed to be on automatic pilot, teaching out of a sense of duty rather than joy, and just counting the months and years until retirement. Those teachers lacked authenticity in their work, which wasn’t fair to their students or themselves.” Ms. Black attended Catholic schools on the South Side of Chicago, and graduated from Trinity College, now Trinity Washington University, in Washington, D.C.

Those hints about how Ms. Black feels about education may be all that watchers of the New York City schools have to go on for the time being. Though Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg praised Ms. Black’s management acumen during a press conference announcing his surprise selection of her to succeed Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, all of that work has been in the field of publishing. The mayor’s office provided a biography of Ms. Black’s public service and philanthropic efforts, including a current stint on the leadership board of a group of New York City charter schools, but she joined that body only earlier this year, a schools spokesman confirmed.

But Mr. Bloomberg said Ms. Black, as chancellor, would be surrounded by deputies who are aware of the educational issues facing the school district, which has an annual budget of $23 billion.

“We knew we needed a dynamic leader who has a deep understanding of the skills our children need to graduate from high school, ready to succeed in college or career,” Mr. Bloomberg said at the Nov. 9 press conference.

First Woman

Others are reserving judgment on Mr. Bloomberg’s choice, who must be granted a waiver by the New York state education department before taking the position because she does not have a master’s degree, professional certificate as a school district leader, and teaching experience. If approved, she would be the first woman chancellor of the New York City district.

Ms. Black “is a big question mark for a lot of people,” said Pedro A. Noguera, a professor at New York University and the executive director of the University’s Metropolitan Center for Urban Education. While Mr. Noguera said that Ms. Black doesn’t necessarily need teaching credentials to do a good job as chancellor, his concern is that “only one man makes this choice. These are public schools—they should be accountable to the public.”

A state law enacted in 2002 gave the mayor control of the New York City schools, including the power to name the chancellor. (“N.Y.C. Mayor Gains Control Over Schools,” June 19, 2002.)

Ms. Black’s current position is as the chairman of the board of Hearst Magazines, a division of the Hearst Corp. Until earlier this year, she served as the president, leading a team of 2,000 employees who produced 14 magazines. In comparison, the New York district has about 135,000 employees.

Under Ms. Black’s leadership, Hearst had several successful magazine launches, including O, the Oprah Magazine. Frank A. Bennack Jr., the vice chairman and chief executive officer of Hearst Corp., offered praise for her tenure, saying in a memo to staff that her departure from the company was coming sooner than expected, but that he was “keenly aware of her willingness to take on new and significant challenges.”

Ms. Black was also the first woman publisher of a weekly consumer magazine, New York. In 1983, she joined USA Today, where she was president, then publisher for eight years.

During the press conference announcing her selection, Ms. Black said her son, Duffy, and daughter, Alison, attended private school in Connecticut. Earlier this year, Ms. Black joined the Harlem Village Academies’ national leadership board, an advisory panel to that charter school group.

‘Smart and Sophisticated’

Members of the national leadership board act in an advisory capacity to the chief executive officer of the charter school network, and provide financial support and creative contributions, including volunteering at the academies, but have no operational or governing authority, said Kate Brashares, a spokesman for the academies.

In an e-mail, Deborah Kenny, the founder and CEO of the Harlem Village Academies, said: “Cathie is an incredibly smart and sophisticated leader with decades of experience managing large, complex organizations. What she brings to the table is her vast leadership experience, and nothing is more important to the success of a school than quality leadership. She cares deeply about improving public education.”

Kym Yancey, the project director for a documentary movie featuring inspirational stories from top female corporate executives, said that Ms. Black was generous with her time when she was interviewed in 2007. Mr. Yancey, the head of The Glow Project, which created the film, said he remembered her sharing a story of her time as an advertising manager for Ms. magazine. An executive she was trying to interest in the magazine spat with disdain on some of the reader surveys she was trying to show him, she said in the movie.

Ms. Black “just talked about the things she went through, the rejection she would go through, and how to persevere through that,” he said.

Ms. Black has also served for almost 20 years as trustee of the University of Notre Dame. Dick Notebaert, the chairman of the board of trustees, said that Ms. Black’s efforts benefited the university beyond a focus on the communications field.

“She’s a person who listens; as a trustee, she provides very good input, and she’s able to find common cause for the success of the institution,” he said. “For her to do this speaks to her commitment and willingness to give back to the community.”

Though Ms. Black will come to the New York district without direct experience in education, that doesn’t make her unusual among superintendents of large urban districts, said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, in Washington. Previous superintendents across the country have included former military officers, local and state government officials, and municipal budget and finance directors.

“The challenges are exactly the same no matter where they come from,” Mr. Casserly said.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 2010 edition of Education Week

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