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Posted at 9:21 AM ET, 11/15/2010

NYC Chancellor Cathie Black, in her own words

By Valerie Strauss

In an effort to learn about Cathleen Black, the woman that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg chose to succeed Joel Klein as head of the city’s public schools, I turned to the book she wrote: “Basic Black: The Essential Guide for Getting Ahead at Work (and in Life.)

cathie black.jpg

Black was the surprise choice when Klein unexpectedly stepped down from running the country's largest public school system last week after eight years. Black, who had been running Hearst Magazines, has no professional educational experience and does not have the qualifications required by state law to take the job, so she will need to get a waiver to officially be named chancellor. She told The New York Post’s gossip columnist Cindy Adams that she was shocked when her friend the mayor offered the job:

“The offer came out of left field, and my stomach did a flip-flop. The opportunity made me feel fantastic. It’s a great thing when, at a certain stage in life, you can be able to deal up . . . not down."

Bloomberg gave his friend a gift. It remains to be seen what he did to New York City’s school kids. What Bloomberg did in choosing Black was again pick a non-educator to run the school system -- Klein had worked as an assistant U.S. attorney general and as counsel to the media giant Bertelsmann before running the schools -- apparently on the logic that people who understand how to run a business can shape up the school system.

The hiring of non-traditional chiefs of school systems is hardly new; in the past 15 years we’ve seen retired Army generals, businessmen and others appointed to run school districts. It turned out that, as a group, they were not the magic bullet to school system transformation.

As Jena McGregor, The Post’s blogger on leadership wrote:

"The argument for outside leaders is usually that they bring along no preconceived notions or set ways of thinking. People who have "world-class leadership" skills, as Black’s supporters claim, can put them to work anywhere. Skills like being a good listener and a strong consensus builder should translate from leading the boardroom to the classrooms. And there’s a precedent for her appointment: While Klein has hardly been an unqualified success--reports that test score improvements had been exaggerated by easier exams was a big hit to his record--he has earned respect from many for ending a teacher transfer policy, increasing graduation rates and implementing smaller schools.

"The advantage of the outside leader is an idea that’s particularly popular in business, where CEOs have nearly complete control to make changes. And so in Bloomberg’s administration, it’s little wonder the entrepreneur-turned-mayor is installing his second former media-industry leader in the job. But in the complex world of city politics, where leaders are often much more hamstrung by the competing demands of constituents, the set of leadership skills needed is not identical to the one in business.

"Black might succeed if she understands this and becomes a quick study in the complex issues that engulf the education-reform world. But simply putting to work her listening skills and consensus building talents is not likely to be enough."

In Black's book (I read the 2007 paperback edition), she uses stories, case studies and bits of advice to help the reader thrive in the business world -- getting a job or a promotion, handing interviews, and “making your life a grudge-free zone.”

She explains that she’s worked in the media business her entire career, starting as an advertising sales assistant at Holiday magazine and working her way up to president of Hearst Magazines. She was in charge of publications including O, the Oprah Winfrey Magazine; Esquire; and Cosmopolitan.

One piece of advice that she explains in some depth is this:

“Don’t be shy about using your contacts.”

That, in fact, is how she once got her job with a new magazine that film director Francis Ford Coppola was starting in California. She asked her friend George Hirsch to make the acquaintance, and in no time, she had the job. (She didn’t even have to work her contacts to get the chancellorship; her contact, the mayor, came to her!)

One interesting case study she writes about revolves around the advice, “Never surprise your boss.” It involves a trip she took with Al Neuharth, chairman and chief executive officer of the Gannett Company, during her first year running USA Today.

While in Kansas City, Black decided to bring some barbecue ribs onto the Gannett Gulfstream jet, which Neuharth famously had decked out in white leather and kept immaculate.

Neuharth stayed in his private cabin during the flight except once poked his head out to see Black and others chowing down on the BBQ. The next morning he called her and asked her to meet him that evening at a private dining club. He didn’t say why.

When they met, he said to her, “Who in God’s name had the idea of bringing those greasy, stinking barbecue ribs to mess up my airplane?”

She realized the only thing she could do was fess up and she learned, “Making your boss happy.”

This presumably means that she will want to make Bloomberg happy as she heads the schools, meaning that we will see more of the same during her tenure, because the mayor liked the Klein reform agenda, which included promoting charter schools, closing down troubled schools and using standardized test scores to assess schools and teachers.

As education historian Diane Ravitch has written, Klein and Bloomberg for years trumpeted their successes by pointing to rising standardized test scores (Bloomberg used the state scores to win re-election in 2005 and to bypass term limits and get re-elected for a third term in 2009).

But the New York State Education Department recently found the scores to be meaningless because the tests had become progressively easier to pass. Even scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress that Klein and Bloomberg pointed to were, as Ravitch said, "garden-variety" and nothing to write home about. It's not really surprising to see Klein leave after what amounted to a slam by the state Education Department.

Here is some more advice that Black dispenses in her book that, perhaps, will help you get to know her better:

*Dress for the occasion.
*If you’re the one being fired, try to take the news as calmly as you can.”
*When traveling with colleagues, stay at least a room apart.
*Make friends with the executive assistant.
*Don’t try to communicate through hints or double meanings.
*Give people a road map.
*Don’t exaggerate-- and never lie.
*Don’t pick a fight unless there is at least a 50 percent chance you can win.”
*Make your life a grudge-free zone.
*Take risks that are calculated, not crazy.
*It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.
*Blow the dust off the curtains.
*Assume nothing.
*Know the rules so you know which ones to break.
*The end game is the only game in town.

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By Valerie Strauss  | November 15, 2010; 9:21 AM ET
Categories:  Educational leadership  | Tags:  basic black, cathie black, cathleen black, educational leadership, joel klein, leadership, mayor bloomberg, naep, new york city schools, nyc schools, school leadership  
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Her book can be summed up in one sentence. "The only way to get ahead in America is to worship, unquestioningly, the corporate thieves." (See also: Rhee, Geithner, Summers and the U.S. Supreme Court.)

So let it be written, so let it be done.

Posted by: mcstowy | November 15, 2010 11:16 AM | Report abuse

"The hiring of non-traditional chiefs of school systems is hardly new; in the past 15 years we’ve seen retired Army generals, businessmen and others appointed to run school districts."

No Kidding. "Raymond Callahan's lively study exposes the alarming lengths to which school administrators went, particularly IN THE PERIOD FROM 1910 TO 1930, in SACRIFICING EDUCATIONAL GOALS to the demands of BUSINESS procedures. He suggests that even today the question still asked is: "How can we operate our schools?" Society has not yet learned to ask: "How can we provide an excellent education for our children?" - from Education and the Cult of Efficiency, first published in 1962

I wonder what Ms. Black could say on the following - without coaching or a consultant:

1. The significance of Plato's Allegory of 'The Cave'.

2. To whom is the following quote attributed and why: "Give me a child until he is (6,7) and I will show you the man......", or " he is mine forever".

3. Who started Kindergarten. Why?

4. What is behind the Homeschooling movement?

5. What are the pros and cons of mainstreaming/inclusion - what does U.S. law say about Special Education?

6. How do you handle the issue of gangs and their influence in high schools - in some cases middle schools?
(wait, wait - she has the answer to that one: tell the kids not to "pick a fight [with a gang] unless there is at least a 50% chance you can win".

7. Who were: Friedrich Froebel, John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Lawrence Cremin, Wassily Kandinksy(among many others), and what was their influence on Education?

8. What are some of the pertinent issues relating to the structure of Middle Schools - the pros and cons of keeping them separate from the Elementary and High Schools, attaching those years to Elementary and High School (K-8 & 9-12) or
groupings of the grades 5-8, 6-8, 7-9?

9. What is the importance of the American Public School system in maintaining our system of Democracy?

The above is hardly an exhaustive list of educational issues one would HOPE an educational leader would be aware of and actually have some real academic grounding in.

BUT, since one of Ms. Black's 'knowledgeable' contacts on the subject is Oprah, I guess that's enough.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | November 15, 2010 11:30 AM | Report abuse

PLMichaels: I love it!

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | November 15, 2010 2:38 PM | Report abuse

Personally, I would much prefer to see non-traditional chiefs of schools try teaching for for a year. I would like them to have the same conditions as the other classroom teachers.

Of course, this might not be so great for the students, but since the "end game is the only game in town," why not?

Posted by: celestun100 | November 15, 2010 3:27 PM | Report abuse

I would like to see Bloomberg in an inner city high school populated by gangs. He cant' fire the students like he can fire employees.

Posted by: jlp19 | November 15, 2010 5:30 PM | Report abuse


Nicely done. I especially like #1.

Posted by: DHume1 | November 15, 2010 6:20 PM | Report abuse

I love PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large list of questions for Cathy Black. Here is an equally scary thought to ponder.. how many of these questions could Arne Duncan answer?????

Posted by: teachermd | November 15, 2010 7:02 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the positive feedback from people here on my list of questions!

As most of the audience here can appreciate, I was able to generate this list because of the many smart, hardworking teachers who gave me the tools to become a member of a dedicated Education community.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | November 15, 2010 8:25 PM | Report abuse

Jenna McGregor notes that "Klein has hardly been an unqualified success." Judge his tenure as you will, but one thing you can say with certainty is that he is unqualified.

Posted by: bhorn1 | November 16, 2010 1:05 AM | Report abuse

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