School & District Management

Media Leader Tapped to Head N.Y.C. Schools

By Christina A. Samuels — November 16, 2010 8 min read
Neither Joel I. Klein, the outgoing chancellor of New York City schools, nor Cathleen P. Black, his designated replacement, had extensive backgrounds in education when they were selected to head the nation's largest school system.
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When Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg sought a leader for the New York City schools in 2002, his outside-the-box choice was Joel I. Klein, a former assistant U.S. attorney general who had no experience as a school administrator.

Eight years later, in seeking a replacement for Mr. Klein, Mr. Bloomberg has tapped yet another person from outside education: publishing executive Cathleen P. Black.

Her selection last week as the chancellor of the nation’s largest school district appears to have surprised everyone beyond the mayor’s inner circle. But as a nontraditional appointee to head a large urban district, she fits a familiar—if debated—pattern.

Military officers, business leaders, finance gurus, and state politicians have been among the noneducators chosen to lead city districts in the past 10 to 15 years, said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. What remains to be seen, observers say, is whether Ms. Black is the right “nontraditional” choice for New York at this point in its school reform efforts.

Ms. Black currently is the chairman of the board of Hearst Magazines, a division of the Hearst Corp. that publishes titles such as Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire, and O, The Oprah Magazine. Until earlier this year, she served as the division’s president, leading a team of 2,000 employees. In comparison, the New York district has about 135,000 employees.

Mr. Klein, with Mayor Bloomberg’s backing, has drawn praise for dismantling what critics of the district viewed as old, ineffective systems, while instituting systems that put more power in the hands of principals. At the same time, he has encountered sharp criticism from some parents and education analysts who say that he has ignored community concerns and that he has stressed test performance as the overriding measure of educational success.

State Waiver Needed

As chancellor, Ms. Black would face lingering resentment of the approach to school reform the city has pursued since the state legislature gave the mayor control of the district in 2002. She would also oversee a $23 billion annual budget and negotiations with a teachers’ union that has gone a year without a new contract.

Nontraditional Superintendents

Cathleen P. Black, the media executive named to head New York City’s public schools, is one of a growing number of past and present superintendents who have come to their jobs with limited experience in education. Others include:

Ron Huberman, the chief executive officer of the Chicago public schools, was president of the Chicago Transit Authority before coming to the school system in early 2009. He plans to leave his education post later this month.

Mark Roosevelt, a former Massachusetts state lawmaker and managing director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, became superintendent of Pittsburgh’s public schools in 2005. He recently announced that he would be leaving the position.

Paul G. Vallas, the current superintendent of the Recovery School District in New Orleans, was a city budget director in Chicago before taking over that city’s school system in 1995. Between Chicago and New Orleans, he served as superintendent of Philadelphia’s public schools.

Joel I. Klein was legal counsel to Bertelsmann, an international media corporation, and served as an assistant attorney general in charge of the U.S. Department of Justice’s antitrust division before being selected to head the New York City school system in 2001. He resigned Nov. 9.

Michelle A. Rhee, a former District of Columbia schools chancellor, founded the nonprofit New Teacher Project but had not been a public school administrator before taking over Washington’s schools in 2007. She resigned that post last month.

Alan D. Bersin was the chief federal prosecutor in San Diego before being named to head that city’s school system in 1998. He left the district to become California’s secretary of education in 2005.

John C. Fryer was a retired U.S. Air Force major general before becoming superintendent of Florida’s Duval County schools in 1998. He stayed on the job seven years.

Roy R. Romer, Colorado’s former governor and a nationally prominent Democratic politician, served as superintendent of the Los Angeles school system from 2001 to 2006.

John Henry Stanford was a retired U.S. Army major general before becoming Seattle’s schools superintendent in 1995. He died in 1998.

Paula Dawning, a former vice president of global marketing for AT&T in Omaha, Neb., became superintendent of schools in Benton Harbor, Mich., in 2002. She was named Michigan’s superintendent of the year in 2006.

SOURCES: Education Week Library Director Kathryn Dorko, Library Intern Ruth Lincoln, and Assistant Managing Editor Debra Viadero

Local and national union leaders were measured in their reactions to her selection. Michael Mulgrew, the president of the local United Federation of Teachers, said that he did not know Ms. Black but looked forward to working with her. Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement that students need leaders who believe in collaboration with parents and teachers.

“I hope she is that kind of leader,” Ms. Weingarten added.

Although Ms. Black, 66, has worked with several philanthropic causes, her education connections are as a member of the leadership board of the Harlem Village Academies, a charter school group in New York that she joined earlier this year, and as a trustee of the University of Notre Dame for close to 20 years. Her two children attended private school.

Ms. Black’s selection must be approved by the state education department because of her lack of education administrator credentials. Such a waiver was granted for Mr. Klein and for his predecessor, former corporate lawyer Harold O. Levy, but a group of city residents is lobbying against a waiver for Ms. Black.

Mr. Casserly of the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, said the tenure of traditional and nontraditional superintendents appears about equal.

“The challenges are exactly the same, no matter where you come from,” he said. “In general, I’m of the belief that [nontraditional superintendents] bring fresh perspectives and new blood into the conversation. Having school leaders from backgrounds other than school administration, he said, “is what keeps us from stagnating.”

Ms. Black is the only top executive from a major corporation that Mr. Casserly could remember taking a top schools chief job.

She would also be the first woman chancellor of the 1.1 million-student district.

Robert S. Peterkin, the former director of the Urban Superintendents Program at Harvard University, said that, after Mr. Klein’s reform efforts, New York might have been better served by having a superintendent with a background in education.

“The time was right for someone who knows management, who has political skills, and who knows instruction,” Mr. Peterkin said. Arlene C. Ackerman, the superintendent in Philadelphia, and Andrés A. Alonso, the schools chief in Baltimore, demonstrate those qualities, he said.

“I would have thought there’d be a better transition plan,” added Mr. Peterkin, who is on the board of Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week.

The transition between Mr. Klein and Ms. Black is set to last several weeks. Ms. Black is expected to start around the end of the calendar year. Mr. Klein, a former counsel to Bertelsmann, the transnational media corporation, said he plans to join News Corp., the media company founded by Rupert Murdoch, as an executive vice president in charge of developing business strategies for the educational marketplace.

Klein’s Legacy

During Mr. Klein’s time as chancellor, the city has created close to 500 district-run and charter schools. The school system’s graduation rate has increased for eight years and stood at 63 percent as of 2009. Mr. Klein also instituted an accountability system centered on yearly progress reports that award letter grades to schools based on students’ academic achievement.

See Also

Examine “NYC Education Boss: The Tenure of Joel Klein,” an Education Week timeline of Cathleen Black’s predecessor.

At the same time, the state announced this year that the tests that the city was using for its accountability system were inflating scores. Correcting those scores had made the test gains over Mr. Klein’s tenure appear more moderate, but a study released last week suggests the rate of improvement for city schools was still faster than it was for other urban districts in the state.

From the perspective of his supporters, Mr. Klein is likely to leave behind an enduring legacy. “Because of him, New York has become a magnet for educational entrepreneurs,” said Michael J. Petrilli, the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington think tank. “He’s demonstrated a non-educator can make a lot of meaningful change in a big-city school district.”

But Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters, a parent-advocacy group in New York City, sees that legacy in a different light, describing it as a “difficult hole to dig out of” for Ms. Black.

“I’m very thrilled” Mr. Klein is leaving, Ms. Haimson said in a statement. “We suffered a long time under his leadership, if you want to call it that.” Mr. Klein ignored the wishes of parents, and the educational gains that the city promotes are illusory, she said.

So far, Ms. Black has granted no interviews to the media. During the Nov. 9 press conference held to announce her selection, she said that, “with the help of the eight deputies in the office, we will spend a good amount of time prepping me and making sure I understand all of the issues thoroughly. The change, the opportunity to make a difference, is really what has compelled me to want this position.”

Educators hoping to glean hints of her management style might turn to her best-selling management book, Basic Black: The Essential Guide for Getting Ahead at Work (and in Life), published three years ago.

Midway through the book, she writes about finding “authenticity” in one’s work. Ms. Black 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 grew up in Chicago, where she attended Roman Catholic schools, and she earned a degree from Trinity College in Washington, now Trinity Washington University. Among her other jobs, she has been the publisher of USA Today and New York magazine.

A ‘Question Mark’

While she has held major jobs in publishing, Ms. Black “is a big question mark for a lot of people,” said Pedro A. Noguera, a New York University professor and the executive director of the university’s Metropolitan Center for Urban Education. While Mr. Noguera said that Ms. Black doesn’t 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.”

Kenneth K. Wong, the director of the program in urban education policy at Brown University, said that the needs of complex urban school systems, however, often require a set of skills beyond what one can learn moving up solely through the school ranks.

“What we need is someone who is a leader, who can be aware of the diversity of needs and the diversity of resources they can leverage,” he said.

But Lance T. Izumi, the senior fellow in education studies at the Pacific Research Institute, in San Francisco, noted that Mr. Klein’s lack of educational knowledge early on led the district to adopt an ineffective reading program, which it eventually scrapped.

“As a leader, Klein looked at the big picture,” Mr. Izumi said. “But you still have to know enough to pick the right people around you.”

James Harvey, the executive director of the National Superintendents Roundtable, a discussion group, said that a study of nontraditional superintendents from 10 years ago shows that none unambiguously demonstrated more success than traditional superintendents achieve. But asking which type of superintendent is better overlooks the complexity of the challenges districts face, he said.

“The best superintendents, traditional or nontraditional, have a sense of understanding how any decision they make plays out through the system and right down into the classroom,” Mr. Harvey said.

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Coverage of leadership, human-capital development, extended and expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 2010 edition of Education Week as Media Leader Tapped to Head N.Y.C. Schools


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