Shaking Off Critics, Schools Chancellor Cathie Black Gets Down to Business

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Schools Chancellor Cathie Black Schools Chancellor Cathie Black (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)

It's been almost three months since Cathie Black took over as Chancellor of the New York City public schools. Since then, the former publishing executive has had a crash course in education and politics. She's been sharply scrutinized for several gaffes. And only 17 percent of city voters approved of her, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll. Yet, Black is going about her business attending meetings and visiting schools.

Recently, she headed to World Journalism Prep in Auburndale, Queens. Black was invited by principal Cynthia Schneider, and she toured several classes at the journalism-themed, 6th- through 12th-grade school of 560 students.

Anyone who's ever been a student knows what it's like when an important visitor is ushered into the classroom: Backs go straighter. Eyes look up. Everyone is on their best behavior.

In a seventh grade science class, students obeyed the assistant principal and shouted "Hi" as Black strode into the room. The kids were studying plate tectonics and Black at first seemed a little unsure about how to connect.

"What are you trying to do with it?" she asked a boy.

"Trying to answer these questions," he said.

Black didn't ask about plate tectonics. She didn’t mention the earthquake in Japan. Instead, at this high-performing school, she brought up one of her favorite subjects.

"Everybody going to go to college?"

"Yes," the students responded in unison.

"Do we think a lot about that here?" Black asked them.

"Yes," they shouted.

Cathie Black in a science class at WJPS (Stephen Nessen/WNYC).

Black’s next stop was the student publications room. She sat down by a computer terminal and talked with a girl who was editing an opinion column. The chancellor, a former publishing executive, wanted to know if the editor was thinking about her audience. "Who's going to be reading it?" she asked.

The editor, Shazia Rahaman, is a senior. When Black questioned her about her graduation plans, Rahaman said she’ll be attending York College in Queens this fall.

"Do you know what you might want to major in?" asked Black. "Probably English, maybe, or journalism?"

"Minor in journalism but definitely major in English," said Rahaman.

Black told her that she was also an English major in college: "If anything, having writing skills no matter what area you go into is really, really valuable," she said.

Black said conversations like these aren't just about small talk. The city's on-time graduation rate has risen to around 60 percent. Yet, she notes, the state believes fewer than half of those students are ready for college based on their test scores.

"When I get up in the morning, that's what I think about: what are we going to do to prepare our kids more effectively for college? What are we going to do to move the curriculum to the system? What are we going to do with teacher effectiveness, teacher evaluations, having the best teachers in every single class?" she said.

Teacher effectiveness and college-readiness are among the buzz words in education reform these days, from Washington, D.C., to Albany. And Black uses them often. On the way back to Manhattan, the Chancellor describes how she starts her days.

"I skim the newspapers, I get into this car around 7:30, 7:45," said Black, who lives on the Upper East Side. "It takes me about 20 minutes to get down to the office. I do my Blackberry, check in what's happening and then I am full-tilt the entire day starting from 8:30 until whenever it ends."

Black has had some especially long days lately. In her second month, a panel controlled by the mayor voted to phase-out more than 20 low-performing schools. When Black attended the public hearings she was booed. Education activists, along with some teachers, parents and students, chanted “Save our schools" and "Black is wack." At one of the hearings, Black briefly let her annoyance show.

"I cannot speak if you are shouting," she said, taking the microphone. When audience members responded with a sarcastic "Awww," she dished it right back with an "Aww" of her own.

Black also made a now-notorious joke about birth control being the answer to over-crowded schools during a meeting with parents in Lower Manhattan.

The chancellor said she's made a few "dumb blunders," but that she doesn't take any of the criticism personally.

"I am obviously fully in support of democracy. ... I think that civility has taken a back seat," she said, referring to the nation's general mood.

On her end, Black said the department of education can do more to reach out to parents. She and her team spared two schools that were going to be closed after hearing more community feedback. Black visits schools every week and said she's impressed.

"The huge percentage of our teachers are really passionate, committed, dedicated professionals," she said, "but we need to make sure that for those who aren't, they shouldn’t be in the system."

Overall, Black said her impression of the city schools is positive: "I must admit I have not been angry or frustrated in any school I've been into and I guess I’ve been into, give or take, around three or four dozen. Forty-something."

Is there anything she's seen that made her frustrated?

"I mean, it sounds silly, but occasionally I’ll see a principal walk by some, like, crunched up piece of paper," she said. "Ninety-nine percent of the time they lean down and pick it up. For me it’s about leadership at the top."

Black said she knows when that leadership works by looking around a school and seeing whether the principal knows his or her students, and if the teachers appear engaged.

Black's own leadership style is still emerging. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he appointed her because of her management skills. But reporters have really only seen her in action at a few school visits and public hearings.

Insiders say she's a good listener who asks lots of questions. Some principals, though, complain that unlike her Blackberry-obsessed predecessor, Joel Klein, she doesn’t always answer her emails. The chancellor said she tries. But with almost 1,700 schools, she also likes to delegate. 

"It's hard. But I don't have people on Blackberries in our meetings," she said. "That's a change. I think if we can focus on the subject at hand then the meeting will be shorter, and we'll be up and we'll be out of there."

Black being interviewed by WJPS's student run television program (Stephen Nessen/ WNYC).

On policy issues, Black has clearly aligned herself with those reformers who believe unions need to make it easier to fire bad teachers. She said teacher quality is more important than class size. And she agrees with those who say you can fix the schools without waiting to fix poverty.

"I visited a transfer school," she said. "And these kids have come from really difficult circumstances in most cases. And as we went around the table that day, I was struck with the comments from them that in their neighborhood cutting ... cutting in their neighborhood was cool.

"And as they went around the table, each of them said they had found a new family," she said. "So in some situations I think it’s far more complex and it’s difficult. But when you can find like people that are not going to get dragged down by their really difficult neighborhoods, they’re going to find a mentor. They’re going to spend time with a teacher. They’re going to be that flower in the field that just blooms."

Some teachers and principals have complained that it's difficult to bloom under the shadow of standardized tests. Black's own children attended private schools, which typically put much less value on testing. When asked if she thinks there's too much testing in the public schools, she said no – as long as there's a rigorous curriculum.

"It's not only about filling out some little bubble," she said. "It is about can the student write.

She goes on to describe a visit to a school where she saw juniors and seniors writing a research paper: "And it just popped in my head, I said, 'How long is the research paper?' They said five pages. And I was thinking, 'Hmmm.' Didn’t seem to me — now length doesn’t necessarily mean rigor — but it didn’t seem to me as though that was something that would be thought of as a significant research paper."

Which gets us back to the chancellor’s main goal: improving the graduation rate, and ensuring that more students are ready for college or work. Black concedes not all students are bound for college and that just getting through high school is difficult for many. She's been meeting lately with parents of children with disabilities. Black also knows the budget is looking grim, with the mayor planning to layoff teachers. Still, she hopes to make her own mark.

"I want to be remembered for educational reform," she said. "That our children graduated well prepared for college, that they’re going to have a better shot at life, that teachers felt valued, that they were the most effective teachers in the classroom and that our parents felt that had a role in their children’s education."

But morale is low among teachers and many parents still doubt whether an outsider like Black is qualified to lead the schools. For Black to succeed, she’ll have to prove she can do more than manage a big bureaucracy. She’ll also have to connect with its people.

Black posing with an art class at WJPS (Stephen Nessen/ WNYC)


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Comments [18]

T from NYC

It drives me crazy how every single word and action can be turned around and misconstrued as indicative of one's ability to do their job. No, the schools are not in great shape at the moment, but this is not Cathie Black's fault. This is her challenge ahead. The fact that she pointed out a principal's failure to pick up a piece of paper is not nitpicking, it's an attention to detail and a reflection of their focus on the environment they've created for their students. Also unnecessary? The finger pointing and comments about the Yankee payroll, elitism, rich getting richer, etc. There’s a lot of money out there, and it would amazing if a large chunk of it was dedicated to our students, but it’s not the only problem the school system faces. Constantly focusing on those points is just an avoidance tactic to distract everyone from the other biggest hindrance the school system faces - the inability to get rid of completely incompetent teachers.

To quote a recent school system documentary, it really is amazing how the injustices toward our children are so easily overlooked to keep the peace between the adults. We need to own up to the fact that unqualified, underperforming teachers that cannot be removed are more of a detriment to our students than a Chancellor encouraging them to go to college (the horror!) ever will be. There are lines out the door of brilliant, hardworking yet unemployed teachers who might just be the ones who change your child’s life, but it’s virtually impossible to get them in the door to replace a teacher who should have been removed years ago. In every other segment of society, if you fail at your job, you are removed from it. When your job is educating children, you would think that responsibility would carry MORE weight, not less. Get some perspective people.

Apr. 04 2011 04:14 PM

if a teacher made a joke about birth control and overcrowded schools the incident would be investigated by the DOE and she would be fined!

Apr. 03 2011 06:22 PM

I find it highly disturbing that this Chancellor focuses primarily on the amount of our students going to college but doesn't seem to bat an eye at all the tax breaks given to people of her socio-economic status that directly affect not only class size at the elementary level but the scholarship/grant availability for students who are- TRYING TO GO TO COLLEGE TO OVERCOME THE MANY OBSTACLES IN THEIR WAY!
Ms. Black- wake up and attempt to understand the reality my students are faced with. Maybe you can talk to your mentor Bloomy and ask the Yankees to pay tax es so my students can go to college. Perhaps you can donate a portion of your 3.3 Million severance package to a college fund for our students... or at least pay as much tax as I do... What a joke.

Apr. 02 2011 09:54 PM
r from Flushing

Black's comment on how horrible it is for a Principal to "walk by some crushed up piece of paper on the floor" is absurd. Principals
should not micro-manage to that degree. The janitors are there to sweep, GOOD LORD!!! What a bunch of morons...

Apr. 02 2011 06:56 PM
Scott from Brooklyn

It cracks me up that The DOE has a lin to this page as if this profile shows Chancellor Balck in some kind of good light- her performance DEFIINES mediocre! The "everyone going to college" mantra that one hears around the charter school system is soooo very "lame" and soo tired. She does not have the proverbial "F***ing clue. Great work DOE.!P.S. I'm working in a public school.

Apr. 01 2011 10:38 PM
NS from Queens

There are not enough trade or manufacturing jobs for all the young people who don't want or "need" to go to college. Who hasn't heard of people waiting in line for days to get an application for an apprenticeship? Plumbers and electricians still need to know how to read. Kids who "are not college material" will be competing against college grads for a so-called "trade" job - guess who will get the job?

Mar. 31 2011 09:49 PM

unfortunately, there isnt a chance for a better life for the majority of people , when the rich get away with hoarding most of the money. With their hugh bonuses they also succeed in making our cost of living much higher, neccesitiating one or more jobs per adult in the family. Those bonuses raise the price of real estate and its trickle down high pricing.Then, who can live without struggle unless they r in the very high echelon, reserved for the privileged few and their cronies.Forget minimum wage being raised, forget govt jobs, forget job security for the rest of us. The rich will find that our country is not immune to having a revolution, so they should beware. Obama hasnt helped, nor has Biden.

Mar. 31 2011 05:09 PM
estelle from Brooklyn

Cathie Black talked about teacher effectiveness. NYC teachers meet with up to 170 students a day. How can even the best English teacher with 170 papers to mark, many from students with poor writing skills and little parental help, possibly do a good job? Class size matters! To say otherwise is dishonest. I'll bet Ms. Black's children weren't taught by teachers with the NYC class load.

Mar. 31 2011 04:10 PM
Mrs. Levine from NYC


This is all about window dressing and being politically correct. I agree with the comments of "barry b". Everyone's on their best behavior, and it's a photo shoot opportunity, much like candidates kissing babies on the campaign trail.

But it's not showing what's really going on in school.

Even the transfer schools are pushing college for everyone, including those unfortunates who are functionally illiterate! Even in a transfer school (see mention in the article above; my spouse teaches at one) it is political suicide for any teacher to recommend that a student consider a trade school, a union apprenticeship, or the military -- all highly respectable alternatives in our society, and often the key to turning around the life of a student who was not "college material" during high school.

The emperor is still wearing no clothes! Until he's willing to admit that, we're going nowhere fast in this society, and going broke sending money to our delusional "leaders," to boot!

Mar. 31 2011 11:07 AM
NP from Flushing

What LG in Auburndale failed to mention was that WJPS is an "A" High School...check your facts----we know your agenda!

Mar. 31 2011 10:49 AM
LG from Auburndale

What the article failed to mention was that in the same building that Ms. Black was in, there is a neighborhood middle school I.S. 25 that is doing wonderful work and anelementary school for the handicapped, P.S. 233, that is doing amazing work, that she completely ignored. WJPS is a grant based school that received a C on its last report card. IS 25 received a B. Ms. Black is a true embarasment.

Mar. 31 2011 10:23 AM
molly from New york city

How exactly is Ms. Black getting down to business? It's disconcerting to hear this story on wnyc the day I attended a rally at city hall with other parents/kids to protest proposed cuts to public schools. NO mention of this protest anywhere on wnyc! Yet Cathie Black -- who's been conspicuously absent and quiet on these crucial cuts this week -- gets this piece on public radio?

Mar. 31 2011 09:25 AM

Civility has indeed taken a backseat in our society. All the Ms. Blacks out there need to go into a less than college bound journalism class and make just one statement, "Write this down," and then check every student's work. When a 13 year old student refuses and tells her, "Go f*** yourself," I would be interested to observe her interventions, how much time it took to implement them, their effectiveness, and the number of students that required those interventions. Finally, administer the state criteria referenced test and watch her scratch her head as she ponders why the scores are so low when she has worked so hard. What's the answer? Make schools free and appropriate, but not mandatory. If the student can not display the manners required in a Denny's restaurant, have them leave and try again next semester. The problem never was a classroom of doe-eyed students saying, "Teach me." Most teachers are skilled enough to do that. The problem is the inordinate amount of time teachers spend with a small percentage of students shedding crocodile tears that say, "Feed me, motivate me, entertain me, parent me, and above all, just try to make me, soon as I walk through this metal detector!" And darling, I'm not just talking about inner city schools.

Mar. 31 2011 08:50 AM
lcbk from brooklyn

jfm from New York beat me to it, pointing out that Cathie Black doesn't know where to use a comma or a semicolon. English teachers across the city let out another disheartened sigh. Interestingly, the transcript of this report (above) leaves out her spoken "comma." Were the editors embarrassed for her? She is an embarrassment, and she is dangerous.

Mar. 31 2011 07:34 AM
C from NYC from NYC

Obviously the only thing Ms. Black knows about are "grin and grips". She has absolutely no idea who our students are or their needs.
This is just another representation of the Mayor's contempt of the teachers and their collective abilities. Not all students NEED to go to College and some would be better served by learning a trade. Ms. Black needs to move out of her elitist comfort zone and get real. She does not have a clue. Thanks, Mike!

Mar. 31 2011 07:16 AM

Cathie, if everyone goes to college, then what will happen to trade schools? Does that mean that my plumber needs a degree to fix my toilet; would an electrician need a degree, too? What about my mechanic? Are you saying that trade schools (vocational schools) should be abolished because college is the only readiness each child to prepare for in school? What about our special needs students who graduate with an IEP diploma? Should they be pushed into college? These students successfully finished high school at their own readiness level but your push for college would be detrimental to their emotional state.

Mar. 31 2011 06:10 AM
Lori from NYC

I listened to the story about Ms. Black on the way home from school. Although I leave the house an hour earlier than Ms. Black and also work for the Department of Education, I have no limo and the bus driver is my chauffeur. Mayor Bloomberg assured us that his choice for chancellor was best because she knew exactly what skills our students needed in the 21st century yet the best advice Ms. Black could offer the graduating senior is that writing skills are very, very important. With all the problems facing the school system and its principals, Ms. Black is most frustrated by the fact that one percent of the time the principal didn't pick up a piece of crumbled paper.from the floor. Is it any wonder that her approval rating is less than
17 per cent?

Mar. 30 2011 07:50 PM
jfm from New York

Cathie Black said on the air:
"I am obviously fully in support of democracy ...(comma) ... I think that civility has taken a back seat."

Why does our education commissioner not know that the punctuation mark for the middle of that sentence is a semicolon? She is connecting two independent clauses with a comma? She even made a point of saying the word "comma". Each time she opens her mouth, she manages to make the case that she is not the right person for this job.

I am embarrassed that she is our commissioner.

Mar. 30 2011 06:04 PM

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