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

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)