Can a New Schools Chancellor Fix Education Reform's Image Problem?

First Michelle Rhee. Now Cathie Black.

These two school chiefs have unceremoniously left their respective posts in the last six months. They represent distinct wings of the school reform movement that's raised the ire of teachers unions, parents and some education policy experts — but there's one thing their tenures shared: terrible PR.

Michelle Rhee is part of the generation of upstart reformers taking on the education establishment. She got her start in education in Teach for America ("I sucked," she's said of her early years), and then founded a nonprofit to recruit new blood into the system called The New Teacher Project.

During her turbulent years as leader of Washington, D.C., schools, she famously offered teachers six-figure salaries to give up tenure and unapologetically talked about firing bad teachers. Her style alienated parents and stoked racial tensions in the district.

She resigned her post last October after her boss, former Mayor Adrien Fenty, lost in a Democratic primary. Rhee said she  "absolutely" felt guilty for his defeat. (She's moved on to lead her own education lobby effort, Students First.)

Cathie Black represented the other face of the popular school reform effort – the corporate technocrat. These are the business school grads, charter school benefactors and technology developers looking to infuse traditional school districts with a new, results-oriented culture.

It was in this spirit that Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed Black to head city schools. He called the magazine magnate a "superstar manager"  and declared that there was "virtually nobody who knows more about the needs of the 21st Century workforce." Black's critics thought otherwise, pointing to her lack of education experience and private school roots as proof that she didn't have the chops for the job.

Whether it was her unfamiliarity with education policy, her awkward exchanges with students or her willingness to strike back to an unfriendly crowd, Black didn't connect. With a 17-percent approval rating and high-ranking education officials fleeing, Black and the mayor "agreed the story had become about her and it should be about the students," he said, and she was out after four months.

NYU education professor Diane Ravich, who served in the George H. W. Bush’s Education Department, said the Black debacle could push back against the trend of bringing in private-sector managers to remake school districts.

"It's simply a mistake of the kind of corporate business model to think that people are interchangeable cogs," said Ravitch, who has been critical of Bloomberg’s education agenda. "She simply didn't know the language, didn't know the issues and was not qualified for the job."

Enter Dennis Walcott.

Without the stridency of Rhee or the discomfort of Black, he will test whether better relationships will lead to better politics as he takes charge of Bloomberg’'s education redesign.

On the larger aims of the national push from the technocrat-reformer coalition – weakening teacher tenure laws and introducing merit pay, closing failing schools and expanding charters and emphasizing measurable test score gains to close America's persistent achievement gap – the new chancellor said he will stay the course set by his predecessors Joel Klein and Black.

"I'm a believer in what we do. I'm a believer in reform," Walcott said during the press conference in which he was named chancellor.

The stylistic break from his predecessors — and the mayor who appointed him — was clear.

Walcott called himself "just a guy from Queens" who went to public school and started his career teaching kindergarten. He said he's visited hundreds of schools, "held the hands of students and talked with the moms and dads." His call-and-response with students at City Hall felt warm and natural, where Black had come off as stilted and uncomfortable.

That rapport has won praise from city education critics in the past.

"Dennis is known for listening and being able to navigate very choppy waters,'' Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, told The New York Times when Walcott joined the Bloomberg administration nine years ago. ''He also has a real understanding of the challenges of the school system, something I can't say about some of his predecessors in City Hall.'' 

Bloomberg-boosters are hoping that will help build support for continuing the mayor's ambitious education strategy.

"He's particularly skilled as a voice to the public, and parents and community groups," Klein's chief accountability officer and Columbia professor Jim Liebman told WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show. He called that an important quality "to get the message out to the public about the really good things that are happening right now that have not been as clear to people as they should be."

Michelle Rhee herself sees a useful ally in Walcott: "He is uniquely qualified to connect with students, teachers and parents," she said in a statement. "He has proven himself committed to the bold reforms New York's schools and students deserve."

And it might just work, said Joe Flood, a journalist who’s written about the numbers-driven technocrat’s effect on city governance.

If Walcott is sincere, he said, and "they're trying to combine the centralized decision-making and number-heavy approach with a little more outreach to communities to educators, to people with on the ground knowledge, that’s the way this sort of approach can work."

But Ravitch isn't convinced.

"I wish that he would say that because of his deep experience that he understands that so much of the mayor's approach has not worked," she said, pointing to data suggesting that Bloomberg’s achievements gains have been less impressive than earlier reports indicated. "But I guess it would be impolitic for him to say that given that he’s the mayor’s choice."