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States Opinion

Cathie Black to Head NYC Schools: My Take

By Rick Hess — November 19, 2010 4 min read
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Mayor Michael Bloomberg has named former USA Today publisher and Hearst Magazines chief Cathie Black as the next chancellor of the New York City schools. The move prompted the predictable outrage among those who believe that only former teachers should lead schools or districts. Patrick Sullivan, a New York City Board of Education member, wrote to State Education Commissioner David Steiner, slamming Black for lacking teaching and administrative experience, academic credentials in education, public sector experience, and exposure to public schooling. Julie Cavanagh, a special ed. teacher in Brooklyn, said, “To not have an educator at the helm as the person who’s managing and implementing those policies, making those kinds of decisions, it’s very dangerous.” Henry Giroux argued that Black’s appointment represents an attack on “public education and its traditional role as a guardian of civic values, democratic politics, and public culture.” He explains, “Management divorced from leadership privatizes hope, de-skills teachers, treats students as consumers, and exhibits an utter disdain for any mode of knowledge that cannot be reduced to empirical forms of measurement.” Former Chancellor Rudy Crew opined, in more measured (if equally banal) terms, “The production cycle of a third-grader learning the skills of reading comprehension is quite different from that of a magazine.”

These concerns aren’t my concerns. I think schools and districts pose a diverse array of leadership challenges, and that leaders facing different challenges will require various skills. Sometimes, familiarity with K-12 is a huge asset. Other times, the experiences, worldview, and skills that come with that background may actually be a hindrance. I see experience in a school district, in school leadership, or in dealing with the public sector as important assets, which ought to be weighed alongside know-how in transforming and redesigning organizations, boosting cost-effectiveness, recruiting talented personnel, managing vendor relationships, and so forth. I think Joel Klein’s skills and experience—as a CEO, top-shelf lawyer, high-ranking Clinton administration official, and NYC product—made him a phenomenal fit for the job.

But, just as it’s naive and simple-minded to insist “you need to be an educator to lead schools,” it’s equally misguided to imagine that executives are interchangeable. The line offered up by Bloomberg and the usual “reform” crowd is that a business leader is needed to execute now that Klein’s got the reform agenda well underway. Okay, but why Black? It’s silly to suggest that a good CEO can pick up and successfully sidle into the executive suite of any other firm, just because they’ve got some kind of magical “business skills.” After all, the chancellor must wrestle with powerful public employee unions, be a savvy political operative, work with Albany, and be willing to wake up every day to public critiques and irate parents.

Ominously missing from the mayor’s office so far is any explanation of why Black—aside from being a generic business executive—is the right person for this particular job. The message seems to be that any respected CEO in the mayor’s Rolodex would be up to the task of handling tough budgets and building upon Klein’s efforts. I’d been wondering whether this impression was just the product of me being too far removed from NYC goings-on. But I spent yesterday in New York, had the opportunity to chat with a number of folks who are pretty sympathetic to Bloomberg and engaged in school reform, and found no one inclined to challenge that take.

Indeed, the mayor’s statement announcing Black was dismal on this score. In the big press release putting her name forward, the entire discussion of her particular skills, experiences, or expertise consisted of: “The Mayor selected Black to follow Klein as Chancellor because of her unique experience building on successes and leading teams to even greater achievements, including her stewardship of Hearst Magazines for the last decade and a half. Black is also widely credited with building USA Today into an unprecedented success in her eight years there, and broke through an important gender barrier in 1979 when she became the first publisher of a weekly consumer magazine, New York.” The release quoted Bloomberg saying, “Cathie Black is a superstar manager who has succeeded spectacularly in the private sector. She is brilliant, she is innovative, she is driven—and there is virtually nobody who knows more about the needs of the 21st century workforce for which we need to prepare our kids.”

None of that much reassured me. To make things worse, our intrepid friends at the Gotham Schools blog have noted: “In her memoir-cum-business advice guide, Basic Black, the chancellor appointee describes her skills as far more attuned to sales and marketing than financial analysis. While she likes the operational side of business, she writes, ‘Too much data and too many spreadsheets make my eyes glaze over.’” Again, not exactly the ideal testimonial from someone coming in to wrestle with budget cuts and execution.

Black might be terrific. I’ve never met her and know nothing about her. But nothing that’s been said on her behalf thus far reassures me that she’s right for the job or demonstrates that Bloomberg thought carefully about why she was the right choice for this crucial post. Fortunately, there’s much time until she takes the helm and both Black and Bloomberg would be well-advised to use the next six weeks to make the case that she’s a promising pick—and not just a CEO looking for a new challenge.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.