black's basics

"Superstar manager" Black arrives with short education resume

Cathie Black published an advice book for women in business in 2007.
Cathie Black published an advice book for women in business in 2007.

The next New York City Schools Chancellor surpasses Joel Klein in at least one regard: the amount of mystery surrounding her views on education.

While Klein had graduated from the city school system and taught math to sixth-graders before being appointed chancellor, Cathleen Black’s experience appears to be limited to a less than year-long stint on a charter school advisory board.

But in appointing Black, Mayor Michael Bloomberg may have been looking for someone who will steer a calm and steady course forward, rather than someone to bring bold new ideas for education reform.

When he announced Black’s appointment this afternoon, Bloomberg trumpeted her track record of “building on successes and leading teams to even greater achievements.” And Black vowed this afternoon to build on the work that Klein has rolled out over the past eight years.

Black, 66, is a formidable figure in the publishing industry. Before going to Hearst in 1995, she had worked as the publisher of both New York Magazine and USA Today,  as well as the head of the Newspaper Association of America.

She has very little experience in public service or in public education. Her two children both attended private boarding schools, and she attended parochial school as a child on Chicago’s South Side.

A book she published in 2007, “Basic Black,” summarized the principles she followed to become a leader, from the importance of choosing battles carefully to her belief that one should “lead with affection – but don’t call it that at the office.”

At the press conference this afternoon, Black was warm but direct, speaking in short, to-the-point sentences that contrasted Klein’s more passionate, meandering style. “I have no illusions about this being an easy next three years — quite the opposite,” she said.

Black oversaw periods of both rapid growth and financial challenges during her 15-year tenure at Hearst. Last year, when Crain’s New York named her the 16th most powerful woman in New York, the magazine noted that the company’s ad sales plummeted 24 percent during the first half of 2009. But during the same year, Black oversaw the company’s most successful magazine launch in nearly a decade, of the Food Network Magazine.

Black was also known for avoiding some of the internal tumult and turnover that has plagued other top magazine publishers, said a media reporter who covered Hearst. She has kept a low public profile and has described her managerial approach as non-confrontational.

“She looks you straight in the eye, she’s tough, she’s demanding, she works very hard, she’s a motivator, she’s highly respected, she’s very articulate, she has supreme confidence about who she is and what she represents,” said Edward Lewis, the co-founder of Essence magazine and chairman of Harlem Village Academies’s board.

Black joined the Academies’ national leadership advisory board earlier this year after making several visits to the schools. Lewis introduced her to the schools’s founder, Deborah Kenny, and later Black watched a presentation Kenny gave on education at Allen & Company’s 2008 Sun Valley Conference.

“She was just immediately passionate. I mean, immediately: How can I help?” Kenny said in an interview today. “Just immediately engaged and interested and passionate about education reform.”

Bloomberg argued today that Black’s experience as a top-tier manager will prepare her for the challenges of overseeing the city’s largest agency. Still, the number of people Black supervises will skyrocket from 2,000 at Hearst to more than 135,000 teachers and agency staff.

Black will also be the first woman chancellor of the city’s schools in the history of the system.

“It’s really good to have a woman running that place,” said a DOE source. “That is a silver lining. The boy’s club will get a bit of an awakening.”

One of the most important relationships Black will have to build will be with the city teachers union. Bloomberg boasted today that United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew was the first education official Black met.

But that meeting wasn’t planned, nor did the teachers union president know he was meeting the future chancellor, Mulgrew said today. The two met as Black was leaving a meeting with the mayor and Mulgrew was arriving, Mulgrew said, and Bloomberg introduced Black as the head of Hearst Magazines, not as a future colleague.

Mulgrew said that he planned to prioritize discussing the city’s over-reliance on standardized tests and developing more early interventions for struggling schools with the new chancellor.

“When I met her, I thought she was very nice and I’m looking forward to working with her,” Mulgrew said. “When someone is new you have to be optimistic. You can’t go in with any preconceived notions and that’s the only way I am going into this.”

At the mayor’s announcement today, Black acknowledged that she has had “limited experience” working with unions and that it would take time for her to learn the ins and outs of the city’s labyrinthine public school system.

“What I ask for is your patience as I get up to speed on all of the issues facing K-12 education today,” Black said. “What I can promise is that I will listen to your concerns, your interests and your expectations. In turn, I ask the same of you.”

Because she isn’t certified as a school district leader, Black will need a waiver from State Education Commissioner David Steiner before officially taking the chancellor job. A spokesman for the state education department said today that the commissioner had not yet received the mayor’s formal request for the waiver.

It’s not clear when Black will officially begin her duties. Hearst’s Chief Executive Officer Frank Bennack, Jr., told his employees today that the company is coordinating Black’s exact departure date with the city but expected it to be before the end of the year. Bloomberg said this afternoon that Klein would likely stay on through the first of the year to ease the transition.

weekend update

How the education world is reacting to racist violence in Charlottesville — and to Trump’s muted response

PHOTO: Andrew Dallos/Flickr
A rally against hate in Tarrytown, New York, responds to the violence in Charlottesville.

For educators across the country, this weekend’s eruption of racism and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, offered yet another painful opportunity to communicate their values to families, colleagues, and community members.

Many decried the white supremacists who convened in the college town and clashed with protesters who had come to oppose their message. Some used social media to outline ideas about how to turn the distressing news into a teaching moment.

And others took issue with President Donald Trump’s statement criticizing violence “on many sides,” largely interpreted as an unwillingness to condemn white supremacists.

One leading education official, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, followed Trump’s approach, criticizing what happened but not placing blame on anyone in particular:

DeVos’s two most recent predecessors were unequivocal, both about what unfolded in Charlottesville and whom to blame:

Leaders of the nation’s two largest teachers unions responded directly to Trump:

The American Federation of Teachers, Weingarten’s union, is supporting vigils across the country Sunday night organized by chapters of Indivisible, a coalition that emerged to resist the Trump administration. The union also promoted resources from Share My Lesson, its lesson-plan site, that deal with civil rights and related issues.

“As educators, we will continue to fulfill our responsibility to make sure our students feel safe and protected and valued for who they are,” Weingarten said in a statement with other AFT officials.

Local education officials took stands as well, often emotionally. Here’s what the superintendent in Memphis, which is engaged in the same debate about whether Confederate memorials should continue to stand that drew white supremacists to Charlottesville, said on Twitter:

Teachers in Hopson’s district return for the second week of classes on Monday. They’ve helped students process difficult moments before, such as a spate of police killings of black men in 2016; here’s advice they shared then and advice that teachers across the country offered up.

We want to hear from educators who are tackling this tough moment in their classrooms. Share your experiences and ideas here or in the form below. 

Betsy DeVos

‘Underperformer,’ ‘bully,’ and a ‘mermaid with legs’: NYMag story slams Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: New York Magazine
A drawing of DeVos commissioned by an 8-year-old starts the New York Magazine article.

A new article detailing Betsy DeVos’s first six months as U.S. education secretary concludes that she’s “a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.”

That’s just one of several brutal critiques of DeVos’s leadership and effectiveness in the New York Magazine story, by Lisa Miller, who has previously covered efforts to overhaul high schools, New York City’s pre-kindergarten push, and the apocalypse. Here are some highlights:

  • Bipartisan befuddlement: The story summarizes the left’s well known opposition to DeVos’s school choice agenda. But her political allies also say she’s making unnecessary mistakes: “Most mystifying to those invested in her success is why DeVos hasn’t found herself some better help.”
  • A friend’s defense: DeVos is “muzzled” by the Trump administration, said her friend and frequent defender Kevin Chavous, a school choice activist.
  • The department reacts: “More often than not press statements are being written by career staff,” a spokesperson told Miller, rejecting claims that politics are trumping policy concerns.
  • D.C. colleagues speak: “When you talk to her, it’s a blank stare,” said Charles Doolittle, who quit the Department of Education in June. A current education department employee says: “It’s not clear that the secretary is making decisions or really capable of understanding the elements of a good decision.”
  • Kids critique: The magazine commissioned six portraits of DeVos drawn by grade-schoolers.
  • Special Olympics flip-flop: DeVos started out saying she was proud to partner with the athletics competition for people with disabilities — and quickly turned to defending a budget that cuts the program’s funding.
  • In conclusion: DeVos is an underperformer,” a “bully” and “ineffective,” Miller found based on her reporting.

Updated (July 31, 2017): A U.S. Education Department spokesperson responded to our request for comment, calling the New York Magazine story “nothing more than a hit piece.” Said Liz Hill: “The magazine clearly displayed its agenda by writing a story based on largely disputed claims and then leaving out of the article the many voices of those who are excited by the Secretary’s leadership and determination to improve education in America.”